C.S. Lewis is most known for being the creator of Narnia; after that, he is very well known for his religious non fiction (books like Mere Christianity) and fiction (including The Great Divorce and The Screwtape Letters). But few today are familiar with his poetry–which I think is a shame, as I believe him to be one of the better poets in the English language.
Unfortunately for the legacy of his poetry, Lewis wrote in traditional English meter in the 20th century, when the literary world around him was loudly and adamantly rejecting that tradition in favor of “free verse.” To the free verse literary crowd–and this was the crowd that came to dominate the universities and literary journals–poetry like that which Lewis wrote was archaic, backward-looking, and irrelevant. Verse libre (supposedly) explored new forms; but Lewis was committed to old ones. Modern verse sought new and startling images; Lewis preferred classical images and stock emotional responses. Forward-looking verse portrayed modernity, and individualism, and glorious self-expression; Lewis took little interest in modernity (recognizing it as a temporal fashion), and wrote in a pride-less way. And so his poetry was of no interest to the new literary community. Lewis was a relic of the past, and his poetry was ignored.
Had C.S. Lewis lived a little later, he might have been part of the New Formalist movement (which itself was criticized at its inception as “yuppie” poetry for arch-conservatives). Had he lived earlier, he may well have been hailed as a significant poet–and at the very least he would have some space devoted to him in poetry anthologies. But living when he did, and writing as he did, so out of step with the literary world around him, he remains largely unrecognized. Today’s anthologies of 20th century verse are full of 20th century poetry; and Lewis’s poetry just doesn’t fit.
Of course Lewis knew his poetry did not fit the tastes of the new world; but he could not and would not conform to the new values. For they made no sense to him, as he once explained:
I am so course, the thing the poets see
Remain obstinately invisible to me.
For 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.
Well, Mr. Lewis, I for one feel the same way.
And this was one thing that Lewis aimed for–to connect with other human beings through common emotional experiences, which he believed were to some extent not only learned but practiced through community. Thus in contrast to his modern contemporaries, Lewis believed that poets did well to take advantage of stock emotional responses, and affirm those which built up the character of humankind. This style of writing placed him comfortably within tradition and community discourse going all the way back through the Medieval period (he was a professor of Medieval literature, by the way)–and removed him quite completely from his contemporaries, for whom the term “Medieval” could only be pejorative.
But if you are reading this blog, you probably have at least some taste for the older literary forms; and so I recommend to you the work of C.S. Lewis. Unfortunately for this blog, his work is a little too recent: it falls under copyright law, as opposed to being in the public domain with the writers of the further past. I can quote a bit here and there under fair use; but I shall have to get permission from whoever owns the copyright before I start posting it.
But you can find it in bookstores. So go, check out some of his lyrics, including “Five Sonnets” (a sonnet cycle on death and grief), “The Landing” (a mythical depiction of our longing), and “The Turning of the Tide” (a nativity poem, which invokes cosmic mythology to celebrate the magnificence of that event). (Word of advice, though: you must be comfortable with poetic enjambment to read that last one–or the sonnet cycle.) Or if you just want some light verse, enjoy his “Narnian Suite,” which is an excellent example of sound-play in metrical verse. Meanwhile in addition to his lyric poetry, we also have a few narrative poems he wrote; one of these is even in the old accentual-alliterative style rather than the accentual-syllabic (I warned you was Medieval).
Lewis’s poetry has greatly influenced my own (which you may note if you’ve read both). If you’ve read some of his poetry, leave a comment below about what you think of it. Or, go read some first, and come back and leave a comment. I’d like to see him celebrated for this a least bit more than he’s been hitherto.