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Unsung lyrics recollected

15 November 2013

C. S. Lewis is about to be celebrated in Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey, but his poetic gifts have been underplayed, says Malcolm Guite


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 Narnia.

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 poem Dymer.

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 example.

The 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:

From all my proofs of Thy divinity,
Thou, who wouldst give no sign, deliver me.

Thoughts 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":

How will 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.

For this 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' Corner.

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.


1898 Born on 29 November, in Belfast.

1908 His mother, Flora, dies of cancer in August. In September, aged ten, sent to Wynyard School, Watford, which he later described as "Belsen".

1911 Sent to prep school Cherbourg House, close to Malvern College, where older brother Warren ("Warnie") is a pupil.

1913 Enters Malvern College.

1914 Starts private study with W. T. Kirkpatrick, "The Great Knock", in Great Bookham, Surrey.

1916 Reads George MacDonald's Phantastes, which "baptised his imagination".

1917 Takes 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.

1918 Wounded in battle at Riaz du Virage. Repatriated for convalescence. Paddy Moore is killed in battle.

1919 Resumes his studies at Oxford. Spirits in Bondage is published.

1920 Receives a First in Honour Moderations.

1921 Moves in with Janie King Moore and her daughter, Maureen (having promised her son Paddy that he would take care of her).

1922 Receives a First in Greats.

1923 Receives a First in English Language and Literature.

1924 Becomes a philosophy tutor at University College.

1925 Elected a Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford.

1926 Dymer is published.

1929 Becomes a theist.

1930 Mrs Moore, Lewis, and Warren jointly buy The Kilns.

1931 Confesses himself a Christian.

1933 Convenes the "Inklings". The Pilgrim's Regress is published.

1936 The Allegory of Love is published.

1938 Out of the Silent Planet is published.

1941 Gives four live talks on BBC radio.

1942 Gives five more live talks on radio. Screwtape Letters is published. Gives eight more radio talks.

1943 Perelandra and The Abolition of Man are published.

1944 Gives seven pre-recorded radio talks.

1945 That Hideous Strength and The Great Divorce are published.

1946 Awarded honorary Doctorate of Divinity by the University of St Andrews.

1947 Miracles is published. He appears on the cover of Time magazine.

1948 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.

1950 The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is published.

1951 Prince Caspian is published. Mrs Moore dies.

1952 Meets Joy Davidman Gresham for the first time. Mere Christianity and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader are published.

1953 The Silver Chair is published.

1954 Accepts the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University. English Literature in the 16th Century, Excluding Drama is published.

1955 Lives 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.

1956 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 England priest.

1958 A Reflection on the Psalms is published. With his wife in remission, the couple spend a holiday in Ireland.

1960 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.

1961 Diagnosed with enlarged prostate.

1963 On 22 November, Lewis dies at The Kilns, one week before his 65th birthday.

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