A Naked Tree: Love sonnets to C. S. Lewis and other poems
Don W. King, editor
Church Times Bookshop £18 (Use code CT611)
JOY DAVIDMAN came from an Eastern European Jewish family who had ceased to practise their faith, and was brought up as an atheist. She was active politically as a Communist. Then, as a result of a powerful experience, she became a Christian, and wrote to C. S. Lewis seeking answers to some of her questions.
It seems that even at this stage, without meeting him, she had begun to fall in love with him. She came to England, planning to see him, and then a little later came again with her two boys for a long visit. According to one of them, she had come with one specific intention “to seduce C. S. Lewis”, a view that Alister McGrath believes to have been accurate. She succeeded. As we know, Lewis fell heavily in love with her, and they had a passionate but short-lived marriage before her death from cancer.
In 2010, scores of previously unpublished poems by Joy were found, including many love sonnets written to Lewis. It seems that she was a much more prolific and considerable writer than had previously been realised. Don King has arranged her poems in chronological order, with a special section at the end for the 45 love sonnets to Lewis, a helpful introduction, and an explanation of the different verse forms she used.
She clearly had great facility as a poet. In this collection, she uses five English verse forms, in addition to some French ones. Indeed, in one of her poems she acknowledges that she probably had too great a facility. Using these set forms, the poems are accessible and easy on the ear. They are the opposite of the impersonality that Eliot admired; for they are highly personal and confessional, almost reading at times like a diary.
They reinforce the impression Joy had made on all who knew her in England, that she was highly intelligent, literary, amusing, and passionate. It is easy to see how, uninhibited in her use of barrack-room language and frank about her physical lust for Lewis, she both attracted him and made him desperate to keep her at bay.
It is, above all, this latter side of Lewis that these poems reveal: his kindness when she wants only his love, and his inhibition and guardedness when she is desperate for his touch.
“The monstrous glaciers of your innocence / are more than I can climb,” begins one poem, cleverly echoing John Donne as it continues: “O my Antartica, my new-found land / of woman killing frost.”
Her persisting love eventually broke down his barriers, and Lewis found himself surprised in a new way. As he wrote after her death in his moving memoir, A Grief Observed, originally published anonymously, “For those few years H and I feasted on love; every mode of it. . . No cranny of heart or body remained unsatisfied.”
It is good to have these poems in print, showing us Joy as very much a person in her own right and not just as an adjunct to Lewis.
The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford, and an Honorary Professor of Theology at King’s College, London.