Looking Back to Eden: The Poetry of C. S. Lewis

By Luci Shaw*

Most of us know of C. S. Lewis the apologist, the essayist, the Oxford and Cambridge don, the writer of the Chronicles of Narnia. And rightly so. We recognize book titles like The Screwtape LettersMere Christianity, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. And we hear of C. S. Lewis Societies in North America and abroad, and recognize the substantial contribution Lewis has made to culture, both sacred and secular, in the last century.

Tonight I want to introduce you to another Lewis, the Lewis who wrote poems, who condensed much of his seminal thinking into poetry. It’s my belief that Lewis’s Poems (Harcourt Brace) open up new windows into his thinking and his very active imagination.

I’ll start by reading a few paragraphs from Lewis’s novel, Till We Have Faces, a re-telling of the Cupid and Psyche myth that hints at this author’s own preoccupation with poetry as a vital way to view life and open up human experience to the transcendent.

(Read pp. 8-9 TWHF) Orual, Queen of Glome, the heroine of the tale, is retelling a bed-time story-song she used to hear as a child from the Fox, the royal family’s tutor. She recalls how the Fox “deepened and lilted his voice and told how Aphrodite (Greek goddess of love and beauty) once fell in love with the prince Anchises while he kept his father’s sheep on the slopes of a mountain called Ida. And as she came down the grassy slopes towards his shepherd’s hut, lions and lynxes and bears and all sorts of beasts came about her, fawning like dogs, and all went from her again in pairs to the delights of love. But Aphrodite dimmed her glory and made herself like a mortal woman and came to Anchises and beguiled him and they went up together into his bed.” Here Orual pauses and says: “I think the Fox meant to end here, but the song now had him in its grip, and he went on to tell what followed; how Anchises woke from sleep and saw Aphrodite standing in the door of the hut, not now like a mortal but with the glory. So he knew he had lain with a goddess, and he covered his eyes and shrieked, ‘Kill me at once.’

“’Not that this ever really happened,’ the Fox said in haste. ‘It’s only lies of poets child, Not in accordance with nature.’” …Orual goes on, ‘It was always like that with the Fox; he was ashamed of loving poetry, (‘All folly, child’) and I had to work much at my reading and writing and what he called philosophy in order to get a poem out of him. But thus, little by little, he taught me many…The real lilt came into his voice and the real brightness into his eyes when we were off into Take me to the apple-laden land, or The moon’s gone down, but/ Alone I lie.[i]

Even the Fox, the supreme rationalist, Lewis’s personification of logic and philosophic principle, could be aroused and stirred by the romanticism and emotion of poetry. And, reading between the lines, we suspect that Lewis is hinting, in this narrative, at his own true love, the poetic direction of his own heart.

It seems as if, for both the Fox and his creator, Lewis, a prosaic statement reflecting duty, reason, good sense, intelligence, and even wit, was not enough. In presenting only half the story; it even displays a kind of falsehood. What was needed for “true Truth,” in Lewis’s phrase, was the “seasoning” of poetry—the heights and depths of feeling, delight, tenderness, melancholy, conflict and resolution, colors and details and shadows and light, to bring an abstract principle to life and flesh it out in our imaginations.

We have all experienced the sense that intelligence and practicality alone are unsatisfactory, inadequate. No matter how forceful an expository sermon is, or an academic lecture, our ears prick up when a story is introduced to turn it three-dimensional, presenting the idea in living color and texture. Somehow, rational, propositional prose alone has a flatness to which only imagination and metaphor can add the interest of peaks and valleys. The monochromatic quality of scholarly lecture cries out for illustration. It’s much like our impulse to whistle or sing when mere speaking cannot express our exhilaration, or the urge to dance and skip when walking is too staid a pace for our exuberance. In his book An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis tells us: “To regard a poem as primarily philosophical is ‘an outrage to the thing the poet has made for us.’”[ii]

Until the last few decades, very few people were aware that Lewis wrote poetry. With the exception of the two youthful volumes that appeared in 1919, during his lifetime his poems had appeared only in his allegorical The Pilgrim’s Regressand a handful of periodicals such as The SpectatorThe Oxford Magazine, Time and Tide, and Punch. He wrote under the transparent pseudonym of Clive Hamilton (his first name and his mother’s maiden name of Hamilton) or Nat Whilk (which means, in Anglo-Saxon, “I know not whom.”)  But in 1964, after his death, Lewis’s poems were collected, edited and published by Walter Hooper, who added a fine and instructive Preface to the volume.

Lewis was brought up, as a British schoolboy, on the classical poets. The scansion of Latin and Greek lyrics would have constituted a major part of his literary education. He would have been all too familiar with alcaics and ascelpiads and hendecasyllabics, and with the formal metrics of poets such as  Pindar, Ovid, Aeschylus, Euripides, Homer, and Lucretius. His own natural sense for rhythms and words and his growing aesthetic sense came into play early in life, and he quite naturally aspired, from his teens and into his early 30s, to become a poet, a great poet.

His early writings were, however, wooden, derivative and uneven in quality. Spirits in Bondage, published in 1919, when he was 20, was characterized by idealism and a veritable cascade of literary and mythological allusions without one well-developed or truly imaginative theme. His longer poems, now re-published under the title Narrative Poems, also edited by Hooper, consisted of “Dymer,” “Launcelot,” “The Nameless Isle,” and “The Queen of Drum.” In view of his later conversion to Christianity, it is interesting to note, with critic and poet Chad Walsh, that: “In these poems written by a young atheist, God is remarkably alive.” Just as Christian Milton wrote as though strings of pagan deities actually existed, so young pagan Lewis allowed God into his verse. Of particular interest is the development, in The Queen of Drum, of the character of the Archbishop. In the poem this prelate had, for fifteen years or more, closed his eyes to the court’s corruption. But challenged by the Queen he confesses his true belief and ends the story as a Christian martyr:

  • I yet believe (if such a word
  • On these soiled lips be not absurd)
  • That from the place beyond all ken
  • One only Word has come to men,
  • And was incarnate and had hands
  • And feet and walked in earthly lands
  • And died, and rose. And nothing more
  • Will come or ever came before
  • With certainty…
  • –Go, learn your catechism and creed.
  • Mark what I say, not how I live,
  • And for myself—may God forgive.[iii]

Lewis’s theology was, at this stage, decidedly unsystematic and his poetry wooden. He had, as yet, no compelling focus for his vision, and though he was in thrall, from time to time, to sehnsucht, a longing for the numinous, a yearning for the transcendent, he vacillated between conflicting philosophical stances. These early poetic efforts received little critical notice and it is perhaps this lack of acclaim which nudged Lewis to turn to prose—academic essay, apologetics, philosophy, allegory, fiction, letters, and literary criticism—the genres for which he is celebrated today. He became very much the private poet, one who would willingly share his verses with intimate friends, colleagues, and correspondents, but whose desire for recognition as a poet had been thwarted, probably by his lack of public success. His imaginative impulse never faded, but it seems as if these shorter poems were written in the cracks of his life, as it were, between the preparation of his major literary works and his professorial duties as a don at Oxford and then at Cambridge.

Lewis’s conversion to theism in 1929, and to full-fledged Christian belief in 1931, solved more than just a spiritual/philosophical dilemma. It brought into three-dimensional focus his esthetic sense. After the yearnings of his early life and his search for an elusive Joy (one of the themes in The Pilgrim’s Regress), the Joy that found him and filled his vision is the Joy that informs and transforms his later poems.

In the Introduction to George MacDonald: An Anthology, Lewis speaks of his first discovery of MacDonald’s novel Phantastes, and of the celebrated change it made in his life: “I knew that I had crossed a great frontier…What it actually did to me was to convert, even to baptise…my imagination…The quality which had enchanted me in [MacDonald’s] imaginative works turned out to be the quality of the real universe, the divine, magical, terrifying and ecstatic reality in which we all live.”[iv]

Thomas Howard, in The Achievement of C. S. Lewis, writes: “It is not that poetry or the poetic imagination uncovers some arcane significance in things that a cloddish scientific analysis cannot hope to see: rather…the poetic imagination wants to speak with a language that charts how we mortals see these phenomena, the thing implicit in the poetry all along being that there is perhaps no truer way to speak of the phenomena…”[v] It is my firm belief that in his later poetry Lewis found a medium so closely attuned to his own spirit, to his own way of seeing things, that it enabled him to speak truly of any phenomenon that caught the attention of his “baptized imagination.”

In the years that followed, Lewis wrote constantly, often alternating between prose and verse, seemingly pulled in both directions as he struggled to attach words to ideas. Though both Till We Have Faces and Surprised by Joy started out as poems, one ended up as a novel and the other as prose autobiography. As his prose works began to awaken an increasingly avid and eager audience, his creative energies were increasingly devoted to writing the more than forty volumes in various prose forms for which he has become so widely known and popular.

But Lewis continued to write poems. Sixteen of these first appeared in The Pilgrim’s Regress,published in 1933. It is fascinating to watch how, as this allegorical narrative develops, Lewis finds it more and more necessary to speak in poetry. At the book’s beginning poems appear rarely, every fifty pages or so. The pace quickens, and by the book’s end one or two poems appear on nearly every page. For Lewis the thrust of metaphor seems to deal a more telling blow than the most lucid narrative prose. One such poem on prayer ends with the lines, “Take not, O Lord, our literal sense, but in thy great,/Unbroken speech our halting metaphor translate.”[vi]

Lewis’s mastery of the balance between the form and content of poetry grew with the years. As he himself observed, in his Preface to Paradise Lost, “The man who writes a good love sonnet needs not only to be enamored of a woman but also to be enamored of the sonnet.”[vii] He was a poet, in the original sense of the word, a “maker,” a writer who could quite consistently tap a deep and brilliant imagination and shape his images into stanzas that waken our own imaginative response. As Chad Walsh, one of his early critics, puts it, he had “many things going for him”—the discipline of the craft, a storehouse of allusions gathered from his omnivorous reading, a writer who wrestled with questions that matter, that resonate with us all. Ruth Pitter, the first woman poet to have won the Queen’s medal for poetry, and a friend of Lewis, said that “he had a great stock of the makings of a poet: strong visual memory, strong recollections of childhood, desperately strong yearning for lost Paradise and hoped-for Heaven: not least a strong primitive intuition of the diabolical…In fact his whole life was oriented and motivated by an almost uniquely-persisting child’s sense of glory and of nightmare. The adult events were received into a medium still as pliable as wax, wide open to the glory, and equally vulnerable, with a man’s strength to feel it all, and a great scholar’s and writer’s skills to express and interpret.”[viii] Added to that were his wit, or quickness of fancy and an appreciation of the ludicrous, as well as his perception of the correspondences that link natural phenomena and spiritual and eternal truths.

But C. S. Lewis—a great poet? Perhaps we should ask, first of all, what we expect of a great poet.

First, we are on the alert for the appearance and reappearance of themes which will speak to the imagination of any age. Give Lewis five stars, on a scale of five to one, for that. As Walsh said, he deals with “life, death, meaning, emptiness, God, Satan, love—towards which great poetry gravitates.”[ix]

Then we hope to see those primal themes tied down to earth with the concrete detail that exhibits an understanding of the lives and daily concerns of humanity, and is expressed in vivid visual and sensuous images. Lewis scores high here, too. In “On Being Human” he describes the nature of an angel’s penetrating intelligence and contrasts it with that of human beings:

(Read, “On Being Human”)

Notice the recurring instances of what Lewis himself called, in another poem, ”the tether and pang of the particular.”

Third, a great poet will continue over a life-time, to develop as an artist. With maturity should come depth, confidence, strength, profound insight, an unselfconscious authority, and consistency without monotony, all of which Lewis’s later poems exhibited.

Fourth, we expect quantity as well as quality, a body of work growing to significant proportions over the years. And here we pause, for Lewis’ poetic works in print comprise only three volumes, of which only the last seems destined to stand on its own merits.

Fifth, a great poet must be, in some sense, a pioneer, working close to the cutting edge of innovation, attempting the original, the untried, the experimental, the stylistic branching out. But when we look at the well-known poets of Lewis’s time, Auden, Eliot, Spender, MacNiece, Graves, Frost, Pound, Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Roethke, we see that Lewis was moving in another direction. Where Eliot used strikingly obverse, clinical, often “ugly” imagery and personae to set his scene and people his stage, Lewis, the romantic, chose traditional images already rich with archetypal associations. In the poem “A Confession” he gently mocks Eliot’s famous line about a sunset like “a patient etherized upon a table.” Lewis even concocts some of his own existential images, perhaps to show that he could

  • Red dawn behind a hedgerow in the east
  • Never, for me, resembled in the least
  • A chilblain on a cocktail-shaker’s nose;
  • Waterfalls don’t remind me of torn underclothes,
  • Nor glaciers of tin-cans. I’ve never known
  • The moon look like a hump-backed crone—
  • Never the white sun of the wintriest day
  • Struck me as un crachat d’estaminet.
  • Instead, he admits he is—
  • Like that odd man Wordsworth knew, to whom
  • A primrose was a yellow primrose, one whose doom
  • Keeps him forever in the list of dunces,
  • Compelled to live on stock responses,
  • Making the poor best that I can
  • Of dull things…peacocks, honey, the Great Wall, Aldebaran,
  • Silver weirs, new-cut grass, wave on the beach, hard gem,
  • The shapes of horse and woman, Athens, Troy, Jerusalem.[x]

Lewis country is, in the words of Thomas Howard, “the country hinted at and guessed at and dreamed of and longed for in all tales of joy and merriment and homecoming and reunion and harmony. Arcadia and the Garden of the Hesperides and the land of the Hyperboreans and Narnia…are like ‘good dreams.’ To be sure, often the shafts of light from the real Country fall on the ‘jungle of filth and imbecility’ that is, alas, our imagination…so that you get chaos and lechery and perfidy romping through the stories. But back of it all shimmers the dream of primeval and everlasting bliss, and the aching desire for that bliss.”[xi]

Though discouraged by the mechanistic mindset and trajectory of the burgeoning modern technology and scientific enterprise of his day (What would he think of ours?) nihilism and despair found no voice in Lewis. As a traditionalist, he seemed to be facing directly away from the vision of other poets of his time. He says things like this: “If a quack doctor’s breezy ineptitude/Has cost me a leg, must I forget straightway/All that I can’t do now? All that I could?/So, when our guides unanimously decry/The backward glance, I think we can guess why.”[xii]

More than anyone else, Clyde S. Kilby, my academic mentor at Wheaton College, was responsible for introducing C. S. Lewis to American audiences. As Kilby has said, “Lewis thinks we shall have a truer image of humanity if we view ourselves beset by the dim memory of a lost Eden, than as ‘on his way upward from an evolutionary ancestry.’” Kilby continues, “Lewis’s objections to what he called ‘chronological snobbery,’ modern runaway commercialism, humanicidal adjustedness and triviality are all here. He sees the world full of machinery and movement, but in fact limping towards a condition of thinness and abstraction.”[xiii] “The very/play of mind, I think, is birth-controlled today,” was how Lewis put it. Sheldon Vanauken called Lewis the “Unfashionable Poet,” and so would I.

Finally, in our list of the attributes of a great poet, there must be a magic at work, for, as Calvin Linton has said, “one cannot really explain how authentic poems work, for they work by magic, producing effects surpassing their visible means.” A poem’s unique magic is like human life; dissect the body and it is gone. It will not yield its essence to ruthless analysis. Lewis’s imagination spoke the unspeakable and revealed the invisible. Walter Hooper affirms: “His wonderful imagination is the guiding thread…Everything he touched had his kind of magic about it. His poetry, like his prose, is teeming with ideas and the good fruits of humor, wit, common sense, and scholarship.”[xiv]

Though Lewis’s poetic output was limited, we see by hindsight how important it is, when set against the rest of his work. Good poetry being what it is—the concentration of an idea or image to its essence, the crystallization in words of imagination and experience, the marriage of music and metaphor, a paring away of the non-essential so that every word and phrase has weight and carries significance, with the meaning of the whole being hinted at in the part, these poems are not only evocative in themselves; they help us in our comprehension of the larger Lewis oevre. As we read the poems after studying and relishing his other works, we will see his world with a clearer vision, being reminded in a score of vivid ways that this is what Lewis believed about myth, or modern technology, or progressive education, and that is how he perceived pain and love and bereavement, hell and heaven, the nature of God.

As we read this poetry we feel surprise and delight at the reappearance of such familiar friends as talking animals, monopods, dwarves, unicorns, dragons, (Wormwood, of The Screwtape Letters, if he can be called a friend), angels, elves, space-travelers, giants, a phoenix, and mythical places such as Tellus, Numinor, Atlantis, the Utter East, as well as the personae of literary and mythological history. Names like Homer, Milton, Circe, Pindar, Paracelsus, Jove, Pan, Demeter, the Cyclops, the North Wind, Hermione, Heracles, Pallas Athene, Psyche, Lilith—all of them shine on the pages. And you will be re-introduced to Chirico, Coleridge, Scott, Marvell, Wordsworth, Charles Williams, Beatrix Potter, and Kenneth Grahame.

Biblical characters also abound—Adam, Noah and his sons, Solomon, Sennacherib, Stephen, Lazarus. And the people of the Bible are heard in conversation with the mythic ones: Adam listens to the drums of the dwarves; Noah encounters a unicorn. The all seem to mingle in the same imaginary world of the Lewis mind.

The way to understand and enter this poet’s work is not just by way of the mind, however (although he exercises our mental faculties to the limit), but by way of the heart and the imagination. A poem may fail to come to life even though it fulfills all the objective criteria for poetry. But if it moves us and illuminates us and wakes in us that peculiar pang of recognition that comes with vision, perhaps we can say that it succeeds. Perhaps, after hearing and experiencing the power of Lewis’s poetry you will join me, facing Eden, listening to him say, in Tom Howard’s words, “Ahoy! Over this way! You’re headed in the wrong direction. Here’s a whole world you have forgotten!”[xv]

[i] C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1956)  8-9.

[ii] Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961)  82.

[iii] Lewis, “The Queen of Drum, in Narrative Poems (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1969) 163.

[iv]  Lewis, Introduction to George MacDonald: An Anthology (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1946) 20-21.

[v]  Thomas T. Howard, The Achievement of C. S. Lewis (Wheaton: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1980) 57.

[vi] Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1933)  145.

[vii] Lewis, Preface to Paradise Lost (London: Oxford University Press, 1942)  3.

[viii] Ruth Pitter, memo, 29 Sept. 1948, in The Literary Legacy of C. S. Lewis (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979)  57.

[ix] Chad Walsh, The Literary Legacy of C. S. Lewis (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979)  57.

[x] C. S. Lewis, “On Being Human,” in Poems (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1964)  34.

[xi] Howard, 45.

[xii] Lewis, “On a Vulgar Error,” in Poems.

[xiii] Clyde S. Kilby, Book Review, The New York Times, 23 Jan. 1966, 34-34.

[xiv] Walter Hooper, Preface, in Poems (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1964).

[xv] Howard, 29.

*Luci Shaw is a poet and author of many books including Water My Soul: Cultivating the Interior Life. She is also the poetry editor for Radix and Crux magazines. This article is based on her presentation at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, April 10, 2000.