It may be time to reassess C S Lewis as a poet. Critics, biographers, and like people who have made it their business to criticise and biographise Lewis' life and works have tended to sideline his poetry. But all criticisms and biographies of Lewis seem to me to be limiting and reductive: it is as if they were mistaking the lamp-post Lucy finds in Narnia when she goes through the cupboard for the whole of Narnia. Many people tend to look at Lewis as the writer of the Narnia books, and write and talk as if his whole life led up to and fell away from that point. Others might curmudge at Lewis' curmudgeonliness, and his dislike of writers who were his contemporary. Or they might take issue with his conservatism; in particular, Lewis' Christianity for many is an issue in a way that it is not when they look at the writings of authors in the nineteenth century or before.
But Lewis himself admitted to many of his personal foibles, and many of his vices turn out to be virtues in disguise. He was private, and said that he wanted to 'be left alone'; he was easily moved to rage or contempt by poetry he disliked; he was credulous, though awareness of his own credulity was turned to good use in many of his critical essays - he was no more sparing of himself than he was of others. Reading his critics, you nevertheless get the impression that they took his vices for granted and refused to see his many virtues.
Lewis had for many years the ambition to be known as a poet, and maybe that ambition never left him. I have just been leafing through a volume of his poems, collected by his friend and secretary Walter Hooper, many having been originally written on the backs of scraps of paper, and others scattered through his novels. Another smaller volume might be collected of goodly Lewis poetry by a judicious editor, able and willing to sort through his scraps of juvenilia and the earlier published volumes of narrative poetry. I know of at least one short lyric amongst Lewis' best that is not included here:
We were talking of dragons, Tolkien and I
In a Berkshire bar. The big workman
Who had sat silent and sucked his pipe
All the evening, from his empty mug
With gleaming eye, glanced towards us;
'I seen 'em myself,' he said fiercely.
Many of the characteristic elements of Lewis' style appear here: the celebration of friendship in the context of a traditional English environment (a 'Berkshire bar'); the conscious imitation of alliterative verse; the improvised feel; the framing, folk-style narrative; and the paradoxical presence of the supernatural - which the poem makes both imminent and distant.
There are certainly a number of poems in this volume of Lewis poetry that take up the theme of the supernatural. Lewis seems to have had a somewhat eccentric view that poetry should be written about things like dragons - which, if you looked with an unjaundiced eye at the efforts of Shakespeare onwards, may seem unjustified. But it is true that there are certain monster stories, some of which are at the centre of literature: this has been the case since before Homer wrote about Odysseus and the Cyclops. Lewis - unlike, perhaps, some of the fantasy and science fiction authors who have written since his time - was fully aware of these traditions, and was able to turn the supernatural themes and monster stories into a fully-worked out romantic system for his poetry. So in the monologue The Dragon Speaks, his 'old, lugubrious dragon' is able to deadpan 'Often I wish I had not eaten my wife', a wonderful line where supernatural, melancholy, and satire blend together.
In other poems Lewis writes about unicorns before the Flood, Grecian, Norse, and Roman Gods, the Salamander living in his fire grate at home -
I stared into the fire; blue waves
Of shuddering heat that rose and fell,
And blazing ships and blinding caves,
Canyons and streets and hills of hell;
Then presently amidst it all
I saw a living creature crawl.
- and angels and devils. Often this love of the supernatural is aided and abetted by an affection for nonsense and burlesque. In The Last of the Wine, he ennobles the act of drinking wine by comparing himself and friends to 'A man to have come from Atlantis eastwards sailing... To Europe he comes from Lemuria'. This traveller has a phial hung on his neck, 'Holding the last of a golden cordial, subtle and sweet.' Here several mythologies are wilfully mixed up; it's as if the poem is a series of drunken images - a drinking song, in fact, for his Oxfordian friends.
Lewis' humour, seen in these poems, is characteristically generous and warm-hearted; he felt, perhaps partly due to his reading of Chesterton, that humour should be affectionate, that it should ennoble, that comedy was in some way as holy as tragedy. The poem Young King Cole is an excellent example of this: it's an obvious example of a comic reversal of a well-known theme - the nursery rhyme 'Old King Cole'. But whereas other poets might have satirised the nursery rhyme style, or used the nursery rhyme style to satirise an enemy - Lewis transforms the nursery rhyme into an extended lyric:
By enemies surrounded,
All venomously minded
Against him, to hound him
To death, there lived a king
Who was great and merry-hearted,
He ate and drank and sported,
When his wounds smarted
He would dance and sing.
Lewis doesn't exactly explain why 'Old King Cole was a merry old soul', but he does invent a history for him. You are not required to willingly suspend your disbelief about 'Old King Cole' here; rather, Lewis treats this King Cole as if he believes in him - and you are required simply to believe in Lewis' belief.
Clarity is the essence of this poetry. So much so, that when he uses a word like 'obscure', you know that it has an exact and precise meaning that is being deployed: Lewis does not convey obscurity or confusion with confusingly obscure writing (a fault which he probably would have deplored in modernist poetry.) The poems are sensual and emotional, but Lewis writes about senses and emotions with as much simplicity as he would a syllogism or mathematical formula. He frequently uses primary colours -
soft and green
burden of gold
turgid crimson, and virgin blue
Basic words - adjectives, verbs, and nouns - are frequently terse and monosyllabic, but the verse does not feel contrived:
Long had we crept
Pity hides in the wood,
The years and tides,
The earth, the bare moon,
Death and birth
Imagery is often traditional, but it is deployed economically and effectively:
A girl with bright hair
What rosy horizon
By the same token, Lewis' style is extraordinarily conservative and words which seem archaic or out of date can often be used. But even this criticism should have an important caveat: Lewis was conservative because he had come to learn something of the value and meaning of tradition, and he was able to write honestly and creatively within verse styles that seemed to others moribund. He shared this capacity with a few other modern poets - Auden, most notably - and it is probably one of the minor tragedies of the age that Lewis and Auden never met. (In his poem 'A Thanksgiving', Auden paid tribute to Lewis and Charles Williams).
And at any rate, it is difficult now to fairly criticise Lewis for using archaic diction: you can criticise a contemporary for doing that, perhaps, but to speak as a twenty-first century critic about a mid-twentieth century writer for using terminology and poetic syntax popular in the eighteenth century seems to make about as much sense as a Victorian poet criticising an Augustan poet for imitating Shakespearean poetry. There have always been modernising poets who have made even what is contemporary and new seem old; and there have always been conservative poets who have revived the old and made it seem fresh and new. This is what Lewis, at his best, does. In The Meteorite, one of his most effective descriptive poems, we see lines like this:
Thus easily can Earth digest
A cinder of sidereal fire,
And make the translunary guest
Thus native to an English shire.
What better than Enlightenment verse forms and diction - the language of an age of science discovery - to render modern, science-fictional concepts understandable?
Perhaps Lewis did not engage fairly with other poets and failed to react honestly to the challenges of modernism. (It is one thing to consciously react as a conservative; it is quite another to do so as a reactionary.) The opening poem to this volume, A Confession, sets out his anti-modernist creed fairly, and in terms that are moderately amusing:
For twenty years I've stared my level best
To see if evening - any evening - would suggest
A patient etherized upon a table;
In vain. I simply wasn't able.
I've puzzled myself over that simile by T S Eliot, and don't particularly like it either. But I presume that it was this 'huh' response that Eliot probably wanted - his simile was deliberately random. Lewis picks up on this deliberate randomness, and makes fun of it: 'Red dawn behind a hedgerow in the east/Never for me, resembled in the last/A chilblain on a cocktail-shaker's nose;/Waterfalls don't remind me of torn underclothes,/Nor glaciers of tin-cans.'
But if Eliot's point was to satirise the contrived, arbitrary nature of poetic similes by making up an extremely contrived, arbitrary simile, isn't it rather disingenuous to satirise Eliot's satire in the same satirical manner? Isn't that like making fun of Lewis Carroll's nonsense by writing nonsense in the style of Lewis Carroll? Isn't it, in fact, an unconscious homage? Lewis compares himself to
that odd man Wordsworth knew, to whom
A primrose was a yellow primrose
But anybody who is aware of Lewis' substantial capacity for rhetoric and satire will know that this just isn't true. His words and poems are, in some way, not his own; they have unintended meanings and speak to us with a conviction and truth that he was never fully aware of. His short and simple poem Prayer comes closest in divining this:
Master, they say that when I seem
To be in speech with you,
Since you make no replies, it's all a dream -
One talker aping two.
They are half right, but not as they
Imagine; rather, I
Seek in myself the things I meant to say,
And lo! the wells are dry.
Then, seeing me empty, you forsake
The Listener's role, and through
My dead lips breathe and into utterance wake
The thoughts I never knew.
And thus you neither need reply
Nor can; thus, while we seem
Two talking, thou art One forever, and I
No dreamer, but thy dream.
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