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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

08 December 2023

Malcolm Guite reflects on six incarnations of C. S. Lewis, on the anniversary of his birth

I WRITE this on the 125th anniversary of the day when C. S. Lewis was born, in Belfast. Although I can number the years since his birth, I could scarcely enumerate the many things that I’ve learned from him, and the many ways in which he has shaped my mind, and kindled and enriched my imagination. And, if I were to begin such an enumeration of all I have received from him, I would have to ask first: “Of which C. S. Lewis am I thinking?” For he excelled and left a legacy in so many different fields and genres.

My first encounter was, of course, with Lewis the children’s author, when, with growing wonder and delight, I followed Lucy through the Wardrobe door into Narnia, and found that world, and all its adventures, enlarged my soul and became permanent possessions of my mind. Indeed, when I re-read all seven Chronicles in the summer of 1979, the summer that preceded my return to faith, I found that, in the intervening years, the books had grown and deepened, and the great golden Lion at the heart of that magical kingdom had words to speak to me in my own world.

But, before that return to Narnia, I encountered my second Lewis: the brilliant literary critic, the author of A Preface to “Paradise Lost”, The Allegory of Love, and Rehabilitations. If I loved and understood Milton at far greater depth than ever before, if I delighted in Spenser, if I was able to defend Shelley from the sneers of T. S. Eliot, then I had Professor Lewis to thank.

And when, after a Narnian baptism of the imagination, I came in a spirit of rational inquiry to ask myself whether the claims of Christianity, which I had dismissed as a teenager, might actually hold water, after all, along came the third Lewis: the apologist, the author of Mere Christianity and Miracles. I found him asking hard questions, proposing objections to the faith which even in my most ardent atheism had never occurred to me as lines of attack, and then calmly, clearly, and often with great wit and wry humour, answering each of these objections.

One of my own points of difficulty with Christianity was, of course, that all its doctrines and documents were formulated before we discovered the vast size of the cosmos, and the possibility of life on other planets, before we entered the space age. But then I encountered my fourth Lewis: the speculative novelist, the science-fiction writer, whose tales of voyages of Mars and Venus asked and explored the very questions on which I was brooding.

But, as I reflect on Lewis’s legacy and give thanks for his life today, it is the fifth Lewis whom I find closest of all, encouraging and inspiring me in me in my age as much as he did in my youth; and that fifth Lewis is, naturally, Lewis the poet. In an age that eschewed rhyme and metre, he deployed both brilliantly. In the age of the lyric, he dared to write narrative verse, and, anticipating eco-poetry by several decades, asked a question that seems more prescient than ever:

How will the legend of the age of trees

Feel, when the last tree falls in England?

Indeed, in that poem, “The Future of Forestry”, he imagines our children’s grandchildren saying:

Tell me, grandfather, what an elm is.
What was Autumn? They never taught us.

Perhaps that is really a sixth Lewis: Lewis the prophet for our times.

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