I am a taker-on of big projects. You read this blog, you know that. If I’m going to take something on, I don’t want to just taste it; I want the complete experience. It’s an illness, really. Planning such projects is sometimes a stress outlet, which results in some embarrassingly large spreadsheets and some absolutely untenable plans. But sometimes I try them anyway.
I’ve started a new one. It’s ridiculous, and I’m not going to finish it. Ready to laugh at me?
Here’s what happened: I was reading this fabulous book on the Inklings.
Click for link to amazon page.
Like so many Christians over the last three quarters of a century, I have a serious love affair with the work of Lewis and Tolkein. My perspective is largely theological, biblical, psychological, and historical: they stand at this corner of history at which the whole world changed, and both in their lives and works recast the Christian worldview, in a way both quite at home within the modern psyche and at odds with the modern mainstream.
Reading this book was an absolutely delicious dive into their minds. What happened next can only be described as an enormous fit of envy. The Zaleskis had obviously gotten to comb through the entire works of these four writers and others, to say nothing of extended secondary sources…. and they had a bibliography at the back.
And then. I discovered that this chap has already put together a chronological reading list of everything C. S. Lewis has ever written.
Now, I was warned. A professor friend, who will probably read this, gently warned me that not everyone is worth reading in their whole entirety. I’m sure he is right. But I’m afraid I was already hooked by the time he got to me.
TL;DR: Whatever I read/play/watch, it makes more difference in my life if I reflect on it. This is my blog, where I do as I please, so I’ll inflict these reflections on you.
I acquired the first two volumes last fall.
Naomi’s half-finished Christmas present “Phoebette” looks on, naked and unashamed. Her favorite poem from Spirits in Bondage was probably “The Ass,” #27, a vaguely pantheistic and probably fictional account of meeting a donkey in a field.
Since then, here and there, in dribs and drabs, I’ve been reading letters. On the left you see the first volume of The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis. There are a few childhood letters, then into his teens, increasingly interspersed with entries from the volume on the right: The Collected Poems of C. S. Lewis. I got this very recent edition sent to me from England (though it was published in Ohio), and it appears to be the most complete. It includes Spirits in Bondage, Dymer, and everything from the shorter volumes of poetry that have been published in bits and bobs over the years.
To date, I’ve read 435 pages of letters, taking me through 1919, the end of World War I, and Lewis’s 2oth birthday. And last week, I read Spirits in Bondage. That’s what I want to talk about.
Reading early Lewis is, at first, uncomfortable. Is it fair to this man to let not only his works, but also his life, be such a subject of examination and critical public evaluation? The answer to that is probably “no,” and the fact that we do is surely in itself topic worthy of much ink-spillage. I hope he forgives me when we meet in paradise. But, once you get into it, peering into his mind is so ruddy interesting that you forget you don’t really have a right to be in his business.
The letters themselves are mostly not that interesting. They are mostly him cataloguing of the insane number of books he is reading, geeking out about book bindings, and prevaricating and placating his anxious father. But, especially in his conversations with his friend Arthur Greeves, the glimpses come with increasing frequency of his inner thoughts. His vocabulary and descriptive power are incredible for so young a person. He has the power to paint an evocative picture in a few effortless lines. These leave me in awe, and inspire me to attempt the same.
Most interesting to me are the even rarer glimpses of the progress of his ideas. He couldn’t get into his deepest convictions with his father, and when talking to the relatively uneducated Arthur, he comes off as obnoxiously superior. But the ideas are there all the same.
The theoretical discussions and the evocative descriptions go hand in hand, or rather, reveal themselves as flip sides of a coin he hadn’t integrated yet. I understand now, in his descriptions and in his passionate love of fantastical literature, what it means that he was a romantic. I’m not sure I can describe it very well, but I’ll try: at this point, it’s this fierce love of beauty, of mist, of romance, of nature. But it’s a love that is also intrinsically separated from what it beholds. It’s as much about the experience of beholding as about the thing beheld. I’ve read a little about this in books about romantic literature, and my own observations are filtered through Lewis’s later work, The Four Loves.
But here, young Lewis only has the raw desire, the joy and the pursuit of joy. And, romanticism being what it is, it seems to include within itself a profound and unbridgeable cutoff between the lover and the thing loved. So at the same time, we have Lewis the atheist – in love with magic and beauty, and so frustrated at being cutoff from it that he decides it can’t be real.
This is what comes through to me so powerfully in Spirits in Bondage: A Cycle of Lyrics, Lewis’s first published work. It consists of 40 poems, written between 1915 and 1919. I read them first in the order they were written, alongside reading through the letters, then I read them again in the order he arranged. (In case you haven’t noticed, the point is to do this in the most neurotic way possible.)
Reading them in the order written was revelatory. One small observation, for example, is that poems describing nature seemed often to be written in opposite season: poems about misery and cold written in summer, or about the romance of summer written at Christmas. This reinforces my understanding of romanticism being cut off from the thing itself. But what surprised me still more was how many of his poems from before the war spoke of melancholy, long sufferings, endless grief, etc. If I read them all thinking they were from 1919, I’d interpret them all through his war experiences, but basically, he was a melancholic teenager. He’d been through some bad stuff, and I would be the last person to discount teenage sadness. Still, I had to accept that some of the poems I liked a great deal were profoundly adolescent.
Take “In Praise of Solid People,” Poem 24. He begins almost describing hobbits: “Thank God that there are solid folk / Who water flowers and roll the lawn, / and sit and sew and talk and smoke, / and snore all through the summer dawn.” It’s adorable, though it quickly gets patronizing, and one doubts if he has ever really gotten to know an ordinary farmer in his life. He’s not yet mature enough to inquire deeply into the desires and frets of someone deeply different from himself. I can forgive that. But then the tone shifts suddenly, and he’s talking about how he values such people (or, really, the idea of them) because he’s been “thro’ weariness and strife.” He’s seventeen. The rest of the poem is about an existential moment he had by the fire, a magnificent glimpse of the faerie, that then subsides to leave him in a dull ordinary world he hasn’t yet learned to appreciate. “And still no nearer to the Light, / And still no further from myself, / Alone and lost in clinging night / – (The clock’s still ticking on the shelf).” He envies those whom he thinks “are not fretted by desire,” because he doesn’t know what to do with his desire. He’ll figure it out, but good grief, how much 30-year-old me still identifies with those desires, with the longings for beauty, and the struggle to connect with and love actual ordinary people. It means a lot to me, in the end, to connect with this side of his journey, and hope that I can follow where he’s going – in the unfolding, to have my heart transformed the way my mind already has been by his later works. That’s what draws me on, anyway.
So, at once, he longs for there to be magic, to be faerie, but at times he seems profoundly angry that they do not exist. It seems to be that cutoff that drives his atheism, fed by sometimes downright postmodern-sounding rubbish about the beauty we behold not really existing except in our minds. There’s probably some Plato in there, but I have never had tolerance for such faff, even when I was quite adolescent myself. I am happy to believe the couch I am sitting in does really exist, thank you.
However, he soon starts to grow in this regard. “Our Daily Bread,” Poem 32, was written while he convalesced after being injured by a shell blast, around when he turned 20. He understands that “There have been men who sank down into Hell / in some suburban street, / And some there are that in their daily walks / have met archangels fresh from sight of God, / or watched how in their beans and cabbage-stalks / Long files of fairie trod.” This appears to me to be a turn toward integration of the unearthly and the earthly, towards being able to see glory in the mundane, and not always trying to see past it. A slight turn, perhaps, but significant – just being brothers-in-arms with men of all different sorts must have been broadening and grounding, even though what they went through was so horrible.
Reading the book in the order arranged shows a different picture, as one follows a cycle of ideas composed in 1919 rather than snapshots of poetic imagination out of particular moments in his life.
The most fascinating moment for me was theological. By lining up a few poems, he gave a portrait of God and Satan as he saw them at that time. It’s quite Manichean, as far as I can tell: Satan is the creator of matter, defined by his strength in “De Profundis” (#12). He is the evil master in that poem, whom defiant Lewis refuses to bow down to. Then in the next poem, “Satan Speaks,” putting words in this “Master’s” mouth, he is a God who seems reluctant to bring misery on man, who refuses to love his world. It’s a fascinating bit of imagination. At the same time, both poems speak of another God who is good and joyful, but is very far away.
Still incomplete, “Phoebitsy” likes “The Road” (#34), a musical love poem to the hills of County Down.
These were both probably written in Spring of 1918, which was when he received his wound. There is no information I can find whether he was in the trenches or in hospital when these two were written. Regardless, I’m sure it was a dark time. Others from this period are incredibly evocative of that war-misery, like this one, which I will quote in its entirety:
Long leagues on either hand the trenches spread
And all is still; now even this gross line
Drinks in the frosty silences divine,
The pale, green moon is riding overhead.
The jaws of a sacked village, stark and grim,
Out on the ridge have swallowed up the sun,
And in one angry streak his blood has run
To left and right along the horizon dim.
There comes a buzzing plane: and now, it seems
Flies straight into the moon. Lo! Where he steers
Across the pallid globe and surely nears
In that white land some harbour of dear dreams!
False, mocking fancy! Once I too could dream,
Who now can only see with vulgar eye
That he’s no nearer to the moon than I
And she’s a stone that catches the sun’s beam.
What call have I to dream of anything?
I am a wolf. Back to the world again,
And speech of fellow-brutes that once were men
Our throats can bark for slaughter: cannot sing.
So he is starting to believe in some kind of divine power. But the one that seems nearest is the evil one, associated with the material world, and defined by strength. In that context? Yep, makes sense. But the moments of hope are there too. The portrait of his famous “Joy” in “Dungeon Grates” (#15), from the same period. A just, caring God is an idea he can accept exists, but as too distant to make a difference in his life yet.
Should you read it? Um, well, here’s where I have to throw in, I am really not an experienced reader of poetry as poetry. It was an excellent exercise for me to really read some poetry slowly, as I usually don’t have the patience, and often struggle to connect with poetry. Others have told me Spirits in Bondage is not very good, and it is certainly adolescent, but I don’t mind that too much. I thought it was fascinating, a prelude of many things to come. As poems? Some of them really grabbed me; some were more just biographically interesting; a few were completely forgettable. You can decide for yourself; it’s quite short, and free on Kindle (though Dr. King’s extensive notes help with all the classical references). But yes, if I want to really learn to read poetry, I should pick up George Herbert, or one of the numberless firmament of writers that Lewis himself enjoys.
That’s where I am so far. Now it’s 1919, he’s back in Oxford, has started studying in earnest, is waiting for Spirits in Bondage to go to press, and doesn’t have time for composition. I’ll check back in in 1926, when he publishes Dymer, has loads more friends, and is much closer to finding faith.
If you’ve made it this far, I congratulate you. So what about you? Do you love Lewis? What are your favorites (aside from Narnia, obvs). Have you tried getting into his pre-Christian head? What other poetry do you wish I were reading?
Hooper, Walter, ed. The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume 1: Family Letters 1905-1931. Harper Collins, San Francisco: 2004.
King, Don W., ed. The Collected Poems of C. S. Lewis: A Critical Edition. Kent State University Press: Kent, OH: 2015.
(Aw yeah, still remember bibliographic style. Don’t shatter my dreams if I messed it up.)