Poems by C. S. Lewis; edited by Walter Hooper, reviewed by Mike Foster.
Perhaps none of G.K. Chesterton’s cheerleaders were more influential than C.S. Lewis, who championed Chesterton fluently and frequently throughout his career as a literary critic, fantasy novelist, and Christian apologist.
Surprised by Joy, Lewis’ intellectual autobiography, describes how his first encounter with Chesterton’s essays in 1918, when he was 19 in army hospital in France, conquered him despite “my pessimism, my atheism, and my hatred of sentiment.”
In 1996, George Sayer, author of the best Lewis biography, Jack, told me that Lewis “admired Chesterton immensely and often spoke of him. He owed a great deal to Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man. He thought there was some great poetry.”
Unsurprisingly, then, the cadences and content of the verse in this collection, published in 1964, a year after Lewis’ death, sometimes evoke the rhythms and rationales of the Bard of Beaconsfield, especially the poems in “A Backward Glance,” the second section.
The sarcastic “Evolutionary Hymn,” “Prelude to Space,” and “Science-Fiction Cradlesong” (“From prison, in a prison, we fly; There’s no way into the sky.”) manifest mistrust of modernism. Lewis upbraids sex-obsessed biographers and critics in “Odora Canum Vis”:
As those who’ve seen no lions must revere
A bull for Pan’s fortissimo, or those
Who never tasted wine will value beer
Too highly, so the smut-hound, since he knows
Neither God, hunger, thought, nor battle, must
Of course hold disproportioned views on lust.
Less curmudgeonly and more creative is “The Future of Forestry,” which begins:
How will the legend of the age of trees,
Feel, when the last tree falls in England?
When the concrete spreads and the town conquers
The country’s heart; when contraceptive
Tarmac’s laid where farm has faded,
Tramline flows where slept a hamlet,
And shop-fronts, blazing without a stop from
Dover to Wrath, have glazed us over?
Simplest tales will then bewilder
The questioning children, ‘What was a chestnut?
Say what it means to climb a Beanstalk.
Tell me, grandfather, what an elm is.
What was Autumn? They never taught us.’
Later poems have a sharp sadness, a penitential pain, like “Joys That Sting” or “Relapse”:
Out of the wound we pluck
The shrapnel. Thorns we squeeze
Out of the hand. Even poison forth we suck
And after pain have ease.
But images that grow
Within the soul have life
Like cancer and, often cut, live on below,
The deepest of the knife.
The dozen charming lines of “The Nativity” have Lewis seeing himself in the beasts witnessing Christ’s birth:
Among the sheep (I like a sheep have strayed)
I watch the manger where my Lord is laid;
Oh that my baa-ing nature would win thence
Some wooly innocence!
At book’s end, Lewis’ poetry scales heights and plumbs depths that suggest his experience of the surprising love and sad loss of Joy Davidman Lewis, his late-life wife. “Love’s As Warm As Tears,” “Five Sonnets,” “The Apologist’s Evening Prayer,” and “After Prayers, Lie Cold” have a soft stoicism that brightens, rather than dims, the heartbreak they chronicle.
The seventeen fragmentary “Epigrams And Epitaphs” that comprise this volume’s last five pages are candles flickering in the de profundis darkness:
She was beautifully, delicately made
So small, so unafraid
Till the bomb came.
Bombs are the same,
Beautifully, delicately made.
No, the world will not break,
Time will not stop.
Do not for the dregs mistake
The first bitter drop
When first the collar galls
Tired horses know
Stable’s not near. Still falls
The whip. There’s far to go.
These bereft final poems may be Lewis’ best.
As with love and grace, with poetry, it’s far, far better late than never.