In 1926, at the height of modernism’s golden age, a young C.S. Lewis and a few of his friends decided to play a literary prank. As told in Alister McGrath’s clear-eyed biography, they wrote a spoof of T.S. Eliot’s poetry and submitted it for publication at The Criterion, where Eliot was editor. “My soul is a windowless façade,” the poem began, and went on to ruminate over the Marquis de Sade, upholstered pink furniture, and mint juleps. If the older poet took the bait and published the poem, Lewis, who was then 27 years old and a fellow at Magdalene College, would use the event “for the advancement of literature and the punishment of quackery.” If not, it might prove there was something more to modernist poetry than he thought.
But Eliot never answered Lewis’s letter, and looking back on the ruse now is like watching a mouse brazenly challenge a cat. Eliot was then at the pinnacle of his career, having already published Prufrock and Other Observations (1917) and The Waste Land (1922); the younger Lewis’s literary future was still nebulous. Eliot has been called the most important poet of the 20th century; few today are aware that Lewis, the mastermind behind The Chronicles of Narnia, wrote poetry at all. But poetry was his first love, and his devotion to the form will be officially honored this month with the unveiling of a monument at the Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, 50 years after his death.
Why was Lewis’s poetry forgotten? It is not so much that he fell out of fashion as a poet as that he openly spurned the fashions of his day. Amid the tide of modernism, Lewis’s narrative and lyrical poetry addressed an already dwindling audience. “I am conscious of a partly pathological hostility to what is fashionable,” he wrote in 1940. But while his poetry might have been overlooked, it was the generative force of his writing life, an idle wheel that enabled him to write the powerful prose for which he is remembered.
It was in the wake of tragedy that Lewis first encountered poetry in 1908. He was nine years old, and his mother was dying of cancer. One day, as she lay in a sick room, “Jack”—a nickname he adopted after a car killed the family dog, Jacksie—was roaming the family’s Belfast home when his eyes fell on one of his father’s books. He opened it to read from a translation of Tegner’s Drapa by Longfellow:
I heard a voice that cried
Balder the Beautiful
Is dead, is dead!
These strange lines pierced a deep nerve. In his 1955 autobiography, Surprised by Joy, which takes its title from Wordsworth’s 1815 poem, Lewis regarded that moment as seminal in his young life; the sensation that entered him was a fleeting joy of “sickening intensity” that he would seek in poetry from then on. His self became divided between an external persona and a “secret, imaginative life” that concerned itself primarily with joy, a self-perpetuating desire that “makes nonsense of our common distinction between having and wanting. There, to have is to want and to want is to have.”
Just two weeks after his mother died, Jack was packed off to a series of bleak boarding schools in England, where these “stabs of Joy” became all the more crucial. Through readings of Robert Browning, William Morris, Percy Shelley, George MacDonald, Wordsworth, and Norse and Greek mythology, Jack escaped the grim world into which he had been cast, and he worked diligently at composing his own narrative verse. He was especially inspired by Homer’s Iliad, enthusing to a friend in 1914, “Those fine, simple, euphonious lines … strike a chord in one’s mind that no modern literature approaches.” His poetic self—what he called “the imaginative man”—had been hatched.
If Romantic poetry and myth occupied one hemisphere of his mind, the other was quickly giving way to a rationalism that, in his view, threatened their legitimacy. “Nearly all that I loved I believed to be imaginary, nearly all that I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless,” he explained in Surprised by Joy. By 1916, the church-raised Lewis would write:
Come let us curse our Master ere we die,For all our hopes in endless ruin lieThe good is dead. Let us curse God most High.
The poem is one of several angst-ridden rhymes drafted in a notebook he self-deprecatingly entitled Metrical Meditations of a Cod. Many of them appeared in his poetic debut, Spirits in Bondage (1919),which also included poems he wrote during the war. He had been accepted to Oxford’s University College in December, 1916, but the following April he enlisted in the army. In the fall, he was sent to the front in France. Among the poems he composed in the trenches was “Death in Battle,” his first publication outside a school journal when it appeared in February 1919. It ran in Reveille, a small magazine geared toward disabled veterans whose other contributors included Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves. Though he wrote little else about these grim experiences, it seems probable that the harrowing sights the 20-year-old saw goaded his anger against an absent God—a tempest that rages throughout Spirits in Bondage.
Yet he never found acclaim as a war poet. Published just four years after Eliot’s now-iconic poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, appeared in Poetry, Lewis’s first collection was rooted in an exacting craft of meter and rhyme that had already become outmoded. Though it won him a flurry of attention at Oxford—where he returned as a student after the war—interest quickly faded. “Indeed the current literary set is one I could not afford to live in anyway,” he reassured himself, since “their tastes run rather to modernism….”
From a 21st-century vantage point, it is easy to view Lewis as simply a reactionary, rejecting what was new without attempting to understand it. Yet his aversion to the moderns was born out of love for Homer, Milton, Spenser, Shelley, and Yeats—writers considered challenging for contemporary readers. He genuinely feared that modernists were “unmaking language” and was zealous to defend a millennia-old tradition of rhyme, meter, and myth that filled his life with meaning. By isolating himself from the moderns, he fulfilled Shelley’s image of the poet as a nightingale, “who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds.”
Lewis soldiered on, even while expressing in his diary mounting anxieties about writing. When the London Mercury rejected a few poems in April 1922, he spent a restless night pondering whether he would be forced to give up poetry. On February 9, 1923, he was again kept awake by “gloomy thoughts” of failure—“one of those moments when one is afraid one may not be a great man after all.”
But it was Lewis’s instinct to kick against the goads. He had long been working on a narrative poem called Dymer and finally managed to publish it in September 1926—just months after his fruitless hoax on Eliot. An epic written in Chaucer’s rhyme royal, the poem—which McGrath calls the passion of Lewis’s life—was an aesthetic and ideological reflection of all the Belfast-born writer had come to be. Dymer investigated the temptations of fantasy, following the path of a young man who escapes a totalitarian reality to indulge in a dream world that kills him. But it too was a critical failure. After reading Dymer, an acquaintance told Lewis, “The metrical level is good, the vocabulary is large: but Poetry—not a line.”
Even as he floundered, Lewis continued critiquing Eliot and his ilk. In 1928, he wrote to his brother, “There is no longer any chance of discovering a long poem in English which will turn out to be just what I want and which can be added to the Faerie Queene, the Prelude, Paradise Lost, the Ring and the Book, The Earthly Paradise and a few others – because there aren’t any more.” By 1931 he had become an earnest Christian who believed art and literature should be “the handmaids of religious or at least moral truth,” a view that made him even less inclined to regard the modernists affectionately—or they him. (When Eliot himself converted in 1927, Virginia Woolf called him “dead to us all from this day forward.”)
Despite their newfound common ground, Lewis dubbed Eliot’s The Waste Land “infernal” in a 1935 letter, and in 1939 lamented, “I am more and more convinced that there is no future for poetry.” His scathing poem “The Country of the Blind,” penned decades later in 1951, describes moderns as having “blind mouths” incapable of understanding what words mean. In a letter written two years later to Joy Davidman, whom he would eventually marry, he pondered, “Twenty years ago I felt no doubt that I should live to see it all break up and great literature return; but here I am, losing teeth and hair, and still no break in the clouds.”
It is only in his 1954 poem “A Confession”—which lifts a line from Eliot’s own Prufrock—that Lewis wryly expressed his resignation as a poet long out of step with his time. Describing himself as “that odd man Wordsworth knew, to whom / A primrose was a yellow primrose,” he wrote,
I am so coarse, the things the poets seeAre obstinately invisible to me.For twenty years I've stared my level bestTo see if evening—any evening—would suggestA patient etherized upon a table;In vain. I simply wasn't able.To me each evening looked far moreLike the departure from a silent, yet a crowded, shoreOf a ship whose freight was everything, leaving behindGracefully, finally, without farewells, marooned mankind.
It seems inevitable that Lewis’s contrarianism would lead him to become a critic. Throughout the nearly three decades he spent as an Oxford don—during which he became a close friend of J.R.R. Tolkien, who encouraged him as he funneled his love of verse into works of fiction—and later years as a professor at Cambridge, he focused much of his energy on the late Middle Ages. In his 1944 essay “On the Reading of Old Books,” Lewis condemned what he saw as the chronological snobbery of his day and argued for an “intimate knowledge of the past”:
Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.
Today, his perceptive critical studies remain highly regarded. The Allegory of Love (1936) revived scholarly interest in medieval narratives such as Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. A Preface to “Paradise Lost” (1942) is still one of the most valued introductions to the poem. “His work on Milton drew attention to an aspect of his poetry that had been neglected—how it sounded to its readers,” McGrath writes. “Lewis became acutely sensitive to the rhythm of the English language, whether poetry or prose. He never used a typewriter, explaining that the clattering of its keys destroyed his ‘sense of rhythm.’”
It was not through poetry but prose that Lewis finally found his audience, though it’s doubtful his prose would have been as powerful without his sharp poetic and critical instinct. The scholar Don W. King points to the writer’s “rich lyrical passages, vivid description; striking similes, metaphors and analogies; careful diction; and concern for the sound of words” in works ranging from science fiction to literary criticism. Alister McGrath observes, “Here we find one of the keys to his success as a writer—his ability to express complex ideas in simple language, connecting with his audience without losing elegance of expression.” The Chronicles of Narnia series is not easily forgotten by those who read it. The series has sold more than 100 million copies and has been translated into more than 40 languages.
It’s unsurprising that many of his later books—including Perelandra (1943), Surprised by Joy (1955), and Till We Have Faces (1956)—had early origins in verse. The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933) not only began as a poem but also included several lyrical pieces within the narrative. Among these, “Because of Endless Pride” is a graceful rumination on the narcissism with which Lewis struggled as a writer. In the throes of vanity, the narrator is nearly dying of want when his eye catches a form in the mirror—
Who made the glass, whose lightMakes dark, whose fairMakes foul, my shadowy form reflected thereThat self-Love, brought to bedof Love may die and bearHer sweet son in despair.
Lewis never stopped writing poetry. He would write more than 200 lyrical poems, 81 of which were published before his death in 1963. Among the most touching of these are those written for his wife, Joy Davidman, whom he married late in life while she, like his mother, was dying of cancer. “All this is flashy rhetoric about loving you”—he admits in “As the Ruins Fall”—“I never had a selfless thought since I was born.” After her death, he mourned his loss in “Joys That Sting”:
To take the old walks alone, or not at all,To order one pint where I ordered two,To think of, and then not make, the smallTime-honoured joke (senseless to all but you);
Critics have since held varying views of Lewis’s poetry. He has been called “big enough to be worth laughing at” by the novelist Kingsley Amis, who also wrote that Lewis was someone he respected highly. Chad Walsh dubbed him an “almost poet,” and Charles Huttar called him a “minor” one. W.W. Robson has written that in some of Lewis’s poems he “touches greatness.” After a selection of his verse was published in 2002, the New York Times Book Review described his poems as taking “an important place in the Lewis canon,” while Thomas Howard gushed, “This is the best—the glorious best—of Lewis. For here, with the gemlike beauty and hardness that poetry alone can achieve, are his ideas about the nature of things that lay behind his writings."
In a letter addressed to the Milton Society of America, who honored him in 1954, Lewis offered hindsight on his own relationship to poetry:
The imaginative man in me is older, more continuously operative, and in that sense more basic than either the religious writer or the critic. It was he who made me first attempt (with little success) to be a poet. It was he who, in response to the poetry of others, made me a critic, and in defense of that response, sometimes a critical controversialist…. And it was of course he who has brought me, in the last few years, to write the series of Narnian stories for children….
Lewis’s poetry never came close to securing him the towering reputation of a titan such as Eliot, but he used his disappointments to begin anew, channeling his poetic sensibilities into prose works that enlarge the imaginations of all who read them. That he will now be honored in the same sacred space as Milton, Spenser, and—yes—even Eliot seems a fitting tribute—far greater than Lewis ever dreamed.