ON 22 NOVEMBER this year, C.
S. Lewis will be honoured with a plaque in Poets' Corner in
Westminster Abbey. This accolade is for poetry only, but takes into
account the wonderful range and power of Lewis's writing, from the
wise satire of The Screwtape Letters to the brilliant
scholarship of The Allegory of Love; from the
rich poetic prose of Perelandra to the enduring magic of
Nevertheless, Lewis might
have enjoyed this accolade more than the many others heaped on him;
for his first ambition was to be a poet; and, I would argue,
poetry, in its deepest sense, is at the core of his best work.
But what was his achievement
in the realm of poetry itself, and how would we rate it now?
First, we need to make clear
the range and extent of Lewis's writing in verse, since it is the
least known aspect of his work. Lewis wrote poetry, both lyric and
narrative, throughout his life. The two volumes published in his
lifetime were Spirits in Bondage, and the long narrative
Many of his lyrics were
published in journals, often under pseudonyms. The lyrics were
finally collected, and published posthumously in 1964.
Narrative Poems was published in in 1969, and The
Collected Poems of C. S. Lewis (both edited by Walter
Hooper) appeared in 1994.
Like his contemporaries
Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, and indeed like his future
friend J. R. R. Tolkien, Lewis was a young officer who began
service on the Western Front in 1917, and his first volume of
poetry, Spirits in Bondage, deals directly and indirectly
with that experience. "French Nocturne (Monchy-le-Preux)" is a good
pale, green moon is riding overhead.
The jaws of a sacked village, stark and grim;
Out on the ridge have swallowed up the sun,
And in one angry streak his blood has run
To left and right along the horizon dim.
ALTHOUGH "horizon dim" is an
awkward syntactic inversion too redolent of Victorian "poeticism",
the rest of this verse is strikingly modern. "Nocturne" ends on an
entirely bleak note: the moon, so long the symbol of hope or beauty
for poets, is just "a stone".
Unfortunately, both of his
two early books of verse were regarded as failures, and he gave up
hope of making his name as a poet. Fortunately, he did not give up
writing poetry entirely, and it is on the strength of some of his
later poems that his long-term reputation as a poet will rest.
At its best, his poetry
offers a subtle, imaginative counter-voice to the occasionally
hectoring tone he can adopt in his polemical apologetics. So, for
example, in "The Apologist's Evening Prayer" he writes:
my proofs of Thy divinity,
Thou, who wouldst give no sign, deliver me.
are but coins. Let me not trust, instead
Of Thee, their thin-worn image of Thy head.
Sometimes, his poetry moves
between concern with the issues of our day, such as our destruction
of the environment, and a tone of elegiac, almost visionary beauty.
Like these lines from "The Future of Forestry":
the legend of the age of trees
Feel, when the last tree falls in England?. . .
"What was Autumn? They never taught us."
Then, told by teachers how once from mould
Came growing creatures of lower nature
Able to live and die, though neither
Beast nor man, and around them wreathing
Excellent clothing, breathing sunlight . . .
So shall a homeless time, though dimly
Catch from afar (for soul is watchfull)
A sight of tree-delighted Eden.
THE poetry also reveals a
depth, extraordinary self-knowledge, and humility in Lewis's inner
life that may not be apparent to readers of his prose. Most telling
of all are the clutch of beautiful poems inspired by his marriage
to Joy Davidman, and by the agony of losing her to cancer. In one
sonnet, "As the Ruin Falls", he notes how easily we become
self-contained, and circle back on ourselves: ". . .
self-imprisoned, always end where I begin".
Then the sonnet turns as he
realises, just as his wife is dying, that this extraordinary woman
is taking him out of himself at last:
. . .
everything you are was making
My heart into a bridge by which I might get back
From exile, and grow man. And now the bridge is breaking.
I bless you as the ruin falls. The pains
You give me are more precious than all other gains.
If what we ask of poets is
this combination of unflinching honesty and lucid, memorable
expression, then Lewis certainly deserves his place in Poets'
The Revd Dr Malcolm
Guite is a poet, and Chaplain of Girton College, Cambridge. His
poetry collection The Singing Bowl is published by
Canterbury Press at £10.99 (Church Times Bookshop £9.90).
He is taking part in the C. S. Lewis Symposium at Westminster
Abbey on 21 November; details at www.westminsterabbey.org.
on 29 November, in Belfast.
mother, Flora, dies of cancer in August. In September, aged ten,
sent to Wynyard School, Watford, which he later described as
to prep school Cherbourg House, close to Malvern College, where
older brother Warren ("Warnie") is a pupil.
private study with W. T. Kirkpatrick, "The Great Knock", in Great
George MacDonald's Phantastes, which "baptised his
up a place at University College, Oxford. Joins Officer Cadet
Battalion, and meets Paddy Moore. Commissioned as 2nd Liuetenant,
3rd Battalion, Somerset Light Infantry, and joins the British front
line in Arras.
Wounded in battle at Riaz du Virage. Repatriated for convalescence.
Paddy Moore is killed in battle.
Resumes his studies at Oxford. Spirits in Bondage is
Receives a First in Honour Moderations.
in with Janie King Moore and her daughter, Maureen (having promised
her son Paddy that he would take care of her).
Receives a First in Greats.
Receives a First in English Language and Literature.
Becomes a philosophy tutor at University College.
Elected a Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford.
Dymer is published.
Becomes a theist.
Moore, Lewis, and Warren jointly buy The Kilns.
Confesses himself a Christian.
Convenes the "Inklings". The Pilgrim's Regress is
The Allegory of Love is published.
Out of the Silent Planet is published.
four live talks on BBC radio.
five more live talks on radio. Screwtape Letters is
published. Gives eight more radio talks.
Perelandra and The Abolition of Man are
seven pre-recorded radio talks.
That Hideous Strength and The Great Divorce are
Awarded honorary Doctorate of Divinity by the University of St
Miracles is published. He appears on the cover of
Elizabeth Anscombe (later Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge)
publicly attacks Lewis's argument in Miracles. He is
elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is published.
Prince Caspian is published. Mrs Moore dies.
Joy Davidman Gresham for the first time. Mere Christianity
and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader are published.
The Silver Chair is published.
Accepts the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at
Cambridge University. English Literature in the 16th Century,
Excluding Drama is published.
in term-time at Magdalene College, Cambridge, during the week, and
at The Kilns, in Oxford, at weekends. Elected an Honorary Fellow of
Magdalen College, Oxford, and Fellow of the British Academy.
The Horse and his Boy is published.
The Last Battle and Till We Have Faces are
published. Marries Joy Davidman in a civil ceremony in April. In
December, they have a bedside marriage at Churchill Hospital (where
Davidman is being treated for cancer), conducted by a Church of
Reflection on the Psalms is published. With his wife in
remission, the couple spend a holiday in Ireland.
Davidman's cancer returns. The couple spend a holiday in Greece.
She dies on 13 July at the age of 45. The Four Loves is
published. He writes A Grief Observed.
Diagnosed with enlarged prostate.
1963 On 22 November, Lewis dies at The Kilns,
one week before his 65th birthday.