Making the Poor Best of Dull Things: C. S. Lewis as Poet
Dr. Don W. King — Department of English (Montreat College)
Although C. S. Lewis is best known as a prose writer for his clear, lucid literary criticism, Christian apologetics and imaginative Ransom and Narnia stories, he actually began his publishing career as a poet. His first two published works were volumes of poetry, Spirits in Bondage (1919) and Dymer (1926), under the pseudonym of Clive Hamilton (using his own first name and his mother's maiden name). In addition, he wrote many other poems that were later collected by Walter Hooper and published as Poems (1964); Hooper also published Narrative Poems in 1969, a volume that reprints Dymer as well as three other narrative poems. In spite of this, Lewis never achieved acclaim as a poet. While Thomas Howard calls Poems "the best-the glorious best-of Lewis" (30), other critics view his poetry less favorably. Chad Walsh refers to Lewis as "the almost poet" (35), and Dabney Hart believes that Lewis "will never have a major place in the canon of . . . poets" (128). Charles Huttar agrees and says that Lewis as a poet is a "minor figure" and "barring a revolution in taste, he will never be accorded a higher position" (86).
With the exception of George Sayer's brilliant "C. S. Lewis's Dymer" published in 1980 (SEVEN: An Anglo-American Literary Review. Vol. 1), scholars have paid scant regard to Lewis as a poet until recent years. In 1986 Patrick Murphy's "C. S. Lewis's 'Dymer': Once More with Hesitation" appeared in the Bulletin of the New York C. S. Lewis Society and was an attempt to rehabilitate Dymer. A special issue of Studies in the Literary Imagination (Fall 1989) contains two essays on Lewis' poetry: Joe Christopher's "C. S. Lewis, Love Poet" and my "The Distant Voice in C. S. Lewis' Poems." In 1991 W. W. Robson, a Lewis colleague and friend, published an article, "The Poetry of C. S. Lewis," in which he reevaluates his own earlier negative view of Lewis' poetry, arguing that in some of Lewis' poems he "touches greatness" (437). In the same year Huttar's essay on Lewis' poetics, "A Lifelong Love Affair with Language: C. S. Lewis' Poetry," appeared in Word and Story in C. S. Lewis. Most recently in 1992, Luci Shaw has celebrated Lewis' poetic "ability to see and probe reality and express it in vivid and illuminating metaphors" (3).
Despite this increasing attention, there has yet to be published a comprehensive study examining the role Lewis' aspirations to become known as a poet played in his life. In "A Confession" (1954) Lewis ironically invites such a study when he sets himself at odds with modern poets: "I am so coarse, the things the poets see / Are obstinately invisible to me." After citing a number of metaphors from modern poets he finds indecipherable, he says:
I'm 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, newcut grass, wave on the beach, hard gem,
The shapes of horse and woman, Athens, Troy, Jerusalem.
Tongue in cheek, Lewis apologizes for finding in stock responses and dull things his poetic frame of reference.1 Readers interested in Lewis should become aware of the important role that poetry, particularly older and traditional poetic forms, had in shaping his life as a writer. Accordingly, this paper argues it is now time for a booklength study focusing upon not so much Lewis' poetry as Lewis as poet. The goal here is rather modest: to establish clearly Lewis' early and obsessive desire to be known as a significant poet. Also, the conclusion will briefly suggest ways that a better understanding of Lewis' aspirations as a poet provide the basis for new critical insights into his work as a prose writer.
Though Lewis alludes to his early love of poetry in Surprised by Joy, few have taken the time to trace the implications of this love as he moved from boyhood to young adult. Lewis' letters (particularly to his childhood and lifelong friend Arthur Greeves) and diary entries provide ample evidence of both his early enthusiasm for the poetry he was reading, and his almost frantic desire to achieve acclaim as a poet; furthermore, in them we see his attempt to establish his own theory of poetry, something he pursued throughout his life via a number of different forums.
When we begin to examine these sources, we find that he especially enjoyed reading the Iliad, Malory's "Morte D'Arthur", Spenser's The Faerie Queen, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Milton's "Comus" and Paradise Lost, Shelley's "Prometheus Unbound", Wordsworth's "The Prelude", and the poetry of Tennyson, Morris, Arnold, and Yeats (whom he twice met). For instance, about reading aloud in Greek the Iliad, Lewis writes to Greeves on September 26, 1914: "Those fine, simple, euphonious lines, as they roll on with a roar like that of the ocean, strike a chord in one's mind that no modern literature approaches" (They Stand Together, hereafter TST, 50). Hearing and reading poetry aloud was always an important principle as he writes to his brother eighteen years later: "By the way I most fully agree with you about 'the lips being invited to share the banquet' in poetry, and always 'mouth' it while I read . . . I look upon this 'mouthing' as an infallible mark of the man who really likes poetry" (April 8, 1932; Letters of C. S. Lewis, hereafter LL, 152).
Of the "Morte D'Arthur" he notes "it has opened up a new world to me" (January 26, 1915, TST 63). However, the greatest early influence is Milton. Lewis tells Greeves that "Comus" is "an absolute dream of delight" (September 27, 1916; TST 130) and that "it is agreed to be one of the most perfect things in English poetry" (August 4, 1917; TST 198). His praise of Paradise Lost is more frequent and sustained. For instance, he writes Greeves after reading the first two books of Paradise Lost that "[I] really love Milton every time I come back to him" (February 7, 1917; TST 165). A month later he adds: "I have finished 'Paradise Lost' again, enjoying it even more than before . . . In Milton is everything you get everywhere else, only better. He is as voluptuous as Keats, as romantic as Morris, as grand as Wagner, as weird as Poe, and a better lover of nature than even the Brontes" (March 6, 1917; TST 176).
In reading of Lewis' early delight in poetry, one is struck by the depth of his enthusiasm; his passion for poetry was visceral, and it fed and nourished his aesthetic taste. Letter after letter communicates his love of literature, music, and art, but especially poetry. He consumed it greedily and his appetite was perhaps never sated, although in a telling letter to his brother on August 2, 1928, he does admit that the thrill of discovering a great new poem in English is over:
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 Queen, the Prelude, Paradise Lost, The Ring and the Book, the Earthly Paradise, and a few others-because there aren't anymore . . . In that sense I may be said to have come to the end of English poetry-as you may be said to have come to the end of a wood, not when you have actually walked every inch of it, but when you have walked about in it enough to know where all the boundaries are and to feel the end near even when you can't see it; when there is no longer any hope (as there was in the first few days) that the next turn of the path might bring you to an unsuspected lake or cave or clearing on the edge of a new valley (LL, 129).
Clearly there is in this letter sadness and a longing for the old thrill of discovering a new poem; Lewis' tone here recalls Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey": "That time is past, / And all its aching joys are now no more, / And all its dizzy raptures."
Lewis' deep affection for the poetry he was reading was a certain stimulus for his own aspirations as a poet. Once again, his letters and diary entries are filled with these longings. To Greeves he frequently writes about the poems he is writing and sending to him for criticism. Such poems include "Loki Bound," "Faeries Must Be in the Woods," "Medea," "The Quest of Bleheris," and others that later appear in his Spirits in Bondage. In one long letter of October 6, 1914, Lewis outlines his plan for "Loki Bound" to be patterned after a Greek tragedy, and even offers to collaborate with Greeves to turn it into an opera (TST 5053). In another letter he talks about his bedtime routine: "I write up my diary for the day, and then turning to the other end of the book devote myself to poetry, either new stuff or polishing the old" (October 12, 1915; TST 85). Although several other letters refer to his "Loki," a whole series were written regarding his efforts to write "The Quest of Bleheris." Apparently Lewis struggled throughout as he composed this poem. He writes that "I think Bleheris has killed my muse-always a sickly child. At any rate my verse, both in quality and quantity for the last three weeks is deplorable" (June 6, 1916; TST 107), and adds later that he regrets he "began Bleheris in the old style [as opposed to a modern style]: I see now that though it is harder to work some effects in modern English, yet on the whole my way of writing is a sort of jargon" (July 4, 1916; TST 118). Eventually he records the death of Bleheris: "As to Bleheris, he is dead and I shan't trouble his grave" (October 12, 1916; TST 136).
After the death of Bleheris, Lewis appears to have devoted himself to writing the lyrics that are later published in Spirits in Bondage. Perhaps he decided to take a break from the narrative poetry he longed to produce, although he did begin work on a prose version of Dymer during this same time. Also, because he was involved in officer training at the time, he may have found it easier to focus on short lyrics than on longer, more sustained pieces. He tells Greeves that "I am in a strangely productive mood at present and spend my few moments of spare time in scribbling verse. When my four months course in the cadet battalion is at an end . . . I propose to get together all the stuff I have perpetrated and see if any kind publisher would like to take it" (June 10, 1917; TST 192). In spite of the fact that Macmillan rejects his collection, Lewis does not seem dejected and writes to Greeves that "I am determined not to lose heart until I have tried all the houses I can hear of. I am sending it off to Heinneman next" (August 7, 1918; TST 227).
Happily, Heinneman accepted his work less than a month later, and his letters begin to show his increasing ambition to achieve acclaim as a poet. For example, he writes his father: "This little success gives me a pleasure which is perhaps childish, and yet akin to greater things" (September 9, 1918; LL 45). To Greeves he says: "You can imagine how pleased I am, and how eagerly I now look at all Heinneman's books and wonder what mine will be like" (September 12, 1918; TST 230). Several weeks later he gives his father a qualified evaluation of the poems: "I am not claiming that they are good poems-you know the schoolboys' definition-'prose is when the lines go on to the end of the page; poetry is when they don't'" (October 3, 1918; Warren Lewis' unpublished "C. S. Lewis: A Biography," 73). When asked by John Galsworthy for permission to publish one of the poems from Spirits in Bondage in a war poetry anthology, Lewis wrote his father that "I naturally consented because it is pleasant laudari laudato viro" (October 27, 1918; LL 46). He tells Greeves later when recalling his first meeting with the publisher: "You will understand well how pleasant it was to walk in under a doorway . . . feeling I had some right to be there" (November 2, 1918; TST 237).
Now a published poet and enjoying the first taste of fame, however modest (most reviews of Spirits in Bondage were favorable), Lewis continued his poetic development as additional letters reveal. In a series of letters to Leo Baker, Lewis reflects upon the role and function of poetry. In September 1920, he writes Baker and thanks him for his theory of poetry: "The most valuable part of it, and the part which shd. be insisted on is that 'a poet who is only a poet is not the greatest poet': the assumption that a great poem must have nothing in it but poetry has 'worked like madness in the brain' of too many of us" ("To Leo Kingsley Baker," 0092; hereafter LB). A poet, Lewis suggests, cannot afford to be only a poet; he must be involved in the lives of men and women. In addition, Lewis intimates how his longing to achieve acclaim as a poet interferes with the actual making of poetry; that is, as he has worked to write great poetry the focus has been on him, not on the poetry, thus injuring the very poetry he is striving so heartily to produce. Such critical selfassessment foreshadows an even more penetrating episode several years later; this also may be compared to Lewis' lifelong search for joy, and his repeated realization that when he seeks joy he never finds it. Instead, it must occur spontaneously.
Later in the same letter Lewis attempts to describe the peculiar function of poetry as compared to other arts:
What we want to find is-that which is proper to poetry alone: what is the method by which poetry and no other art [emphasis Lewis] performs the duties shared with all art? Doubtless you would answer that in the same way as I wd. [sic] & come to a definition something like this: 'Poetry is the art of utilizing the informal or irrational values of words to express that which can only be symbolized by their informal or conventional meanings.' These values include chiefly sound & association: also of course their-'group'-sounds or rhthms [sic] which are above and beyond their individual sounds: here is the meaning & justification of metre. Hence the value of the test 'could this be said as well in prose?': if the answer is in the affirmative the poem is condemned (LB, 0093).
Here Lewis reflects too much a workman's view of how poetry happens. That is, he implies that the poet uses language in a particularly structured and precise way to produce a desired emotional effect. While this view links him in a way with the ancient poets he so admired (for example, the shared emphasis on sound and metre), in another important way it suggests a profound difference. For Homer and Virgil poetry was the natural medium of expression; Odysseus and Aeneas live on not because of poetry but because of their characters and the narratives associated with them. Lewis, who want to imitate them, lacks an Odysseus or Aeneas. Consequently, he focuses too much effort on the practice of poetry rather than on the creation of a story, whether original or borrowed.
This may explain why at about this time Lewis turned his attention to a verse version of Dymer. Having finished an earlier prose version in 1917, from 1920 to 1926 Lewis pursued a poetic version with intensity and deliberate single mindedness; his diary, All My Road Before Me: The Diary of C. S. Lewis 1922-1927 (hereafter DCSL), contains over seventy-five direct references to this effort. In these entries he recounts an almost daily obsession with both his progress on the poem and his ambition to achieve fame as a poet. A study of the diary shows that he completed initial drafts of the first two cantos by the end of June 1922; Canto III by the end of July 1922; Canto IV by the end of August 1922; Cantos V and VI by the end of June 1923; and Cantos VII, VIII, and IX by midApril 1924. Of course during this process he would go back and forth between one canto and another, revising here and there as he saw the need. Often he was assisted in this process by the friendly but honest criticism of colleagues, including Leo Baker, Owen Barfield, Alfred HamiltonJenkin, Cecil Harwood, Rodney Pasley, and Arthur Greeves. He completed a final version in the summer of 1925.
At times he writes about his struggles. For instance, early on he notes that "I am very dispirited about my work at present . . . I have leaned much too much on the idea of being able to write poetry and if this is a frost I shall be rather stranded" (April, 15, 1922; DCSL 2021). Three months later he is rewriting Canto IV, "with which I am finding great difficulties" (July 30, 1922; DCSL 77). Eighteen months later he is at his most dissatisfied: "[I am] discontent with the whole plan of "Dymer": it seems 'full of sound and fury, signifying nothing'" (Jan. 6, 1924; DCSL 281). When revising the proofs just prior to publication, Lewis shares a feeling that many writers have as they look over the product of all their labors: "I never liked it less. I felt no mortal could get any notion of what the devil it was all about. I am afraid this sort of stuff is very much hit or miss, yet I think it is my only line" (July 6, 1926; DCSL 422).
Yet more often than not, he is at least upbeat if not jubilant about his progress. Many entries include comments such as "made some progress," "pleased myself fairly well," "felt fairly satisfied," "pleased myself with it," and "with considerable satisfaction." After several months of work, he writes: "After supper I worked on Dymer, bringing it to the end of the storm. I was so transported with what I considered my success that I became insolent and said to myself that it was the voice of a god" (Sept. 30, 1922; DCSL 111). A week later he adds: "I read the whole thing through and felt fairly satisfied with the general movement of the story" (Oct. 9, 1922; DCSL 115). The following summer, after Harwood praises his most recent efforts, Lewis says Harwood "covered me with enough praise to satisfy the vainest of men" (July 8, 1923; DCSL 255).
However, the greatest insight into Lewis' aspirations as a poet is found in an enclosure to a letter he wrote to Greeves on August 18, 1930, in which he is attempting to encourage his friend who has just experienced a critical rejection of a writing project. In the letter, Lewis, who by this time is nearing conversion to Christ, openly admits his belief that because achieving success as a poet had become for him a kind of idol, God had to kill the idol. He writes: "From the age of sixteen onwards I had one single ambition, from which I never wavered, in the prosecution of which I spent every ounce I could, on wh[ich] I really deliberately staked my whole contentment . . . Suffering of the sort that you are now feeling is my special subject, my profession, my long suit, the thing I claim to be an expert in" (TST 378379). Lewis goes on to counsel Greeves that perhaps God is dealing kindly with them now (foreshadowing his own later phrase, a severe mercy) by denying their desires for literary fame because it will save them from the disappointment and despair attendant to those who briefly flame up with literary fame and then flicker quickly and fade quietly into oblivion.
It is the enclosure, however, that is most penetrating. Written as a part of his diary on March 6, 1926, Lewis is brutally honest in analyzing his feelings when Dymer is rejected by Heinneman (it was later published by Dent in 1926). As he analyzes his reactions to the rejection, he posits five reasons for why he is so disturbed, including the fact that Heinneman had already published Spirits in Bondage, he had hoped to make a profit, the desire for personal fame, the desire for the poem itself to achieve a place in literary history, and the desire that his poem though not himself should gain acclaim and thus validate his poetic ability. In a process reminiscent of his logical parry and thrust apologetic technique, he at first discounts each motive. But as he probes deeper, he finally admits that he does desire fame as a poet: "I desire that my value as a poet should be acknowledged by others" (TST 383).
To this he adds that his desire has two aspects: the desire for proof to himself that he is a poet and the desire that his poethood be acknowledged by the world even if he remains anonymous. What follows is one of Lewis' longest passages of selfanalysis:
As far as I can see both these are manifestations of the single desire for what may be called mental or spiritual rank. I have flattered myself with the idea of being among my own people when I was reading the poets and it is unpleasing to have to stand down and take my place in the crowd . . . The completion of the poem, Coghill's praise of it, and the sending off to a publishers (after so many years) threw me back into a tumult of selflove that I thought I had escaped . . . Worst of all I have used the belief in such secret preeminence as a compensation for things that wearied or humiliated me in real life . . . The cure of this disease is not easy to find . . . I was free from it at times when writing Dymer. Then I was interested in the object, not in my own privileged position of seer of the object. But whenever I stopped writing or thought of publication or showed the MS. to friends I contemplated not that of which I had been writing, but my writing about it: I passed from looking at the macrocosm to looking at a little historical event inside the "Me" (383384).
Lewis goes on to say the only way to cure this disease is to look away from self to the greater world so that thoughts of self will fade. What is so striking here is his brutal selfassessment. He confesses baldly that his desire for fame as a poet is nothing less than spiritual pride. Equally, he notes that poetry per se, even his poetry, has not been nearly as interesting to him in this process as he has been. Additionally, we see that his hopes for literary fame as a poet have been a kind of sop for other disappointments. Indeed, he is clearly embarrassed by the recognition that his desire to be a poet has veiled an intense selfabsorption.
Although this diary entry is certainly a watershed in the life of Lewis the poet, it does not mark the end of his desire for fame as a poet. Instead, it provides Lewis with a moment in time on several occasions later in life (witness the letter to Greeves where this enclosure is found) when his thirst for fame as a poet or more broadly as a writer is tempered by the realization that such a desire is an unhealthy exaltation of self. After 1926 references to his efforts at writing poetry drop off substantially in his letters and diary entries as a direct result of his being elected a fellow of Magdalen College; that Lewis feared his time for poetry would be limited by such a turn of events is prefigured in a diary entry from Feb. 29, 1924: "I saw that it [a Trinity College fellowship] would mean pretty full work and that I might become submerged and poetry crushed out" (DCSL 293).
We know, of course, that he continued to write poetry as his pieces appeared regularly in newspapers, literary magazines, and scholarly journals. In letters to other friends he records his continuing impulse to write poetry. At times he is very confident of his ability as a poet; he writes to Owen Barfield: "I have written about 100 lines of a long poem in my type of Alexandrine. It is going to make the Prelude [by Wordsworth] (let alone the Tower [by Barfield]) look silly" (March 16, 1932; "To Owen Barfield"; hereafter OB). Less than two months later he confesses about the same poem to Barfield: "I send . . . the opening of the poem. I am not satisfied with any part I have yet written and the design is ludricrously ambitious. But I feel it will be several years anyway before I give up" (May 6, 1932; OB). His discouragement about poetry in general appears pronounced when he writes Barfield seven years later: "I am more and more convinced that there is no future for poetry" (February 8, 1939; OB).
Lewis' debate with E. M. W. Tillyard published as The Personal Heresy (1939) offers another indication of the primacy of poetry in Lewis' life. Although this debate does not explicitly reveal Lewis' passion to be known as a poet, it clearly demonstrates how seriously he considers the necessity for right thinking about the nature of poetry and in particular the role of the poet. In keeping with his traditional view of poetry and the significance of classical models, Lewis rejects modern poetry's emphasis on the poet's personality or character; this he calls the personal heresy. Instead, he argues "that when we read poetry as poetry should be read, we have before us no representation which claims to be the poet, and frequently no representation of a man, a character, or a personality at all" [Lewis emphasis] (The Personal Heresy 4; hereafter PH). Citing his as an "objective or impersonal theory of poetry," he admits that this notion "finds its easiest application in the drama and epic" (8); given Lewis' consistent early efforts at epic or narrative poetry, this point of view is not surprising. Furthermore, it is not difficult to posit that the personal heresy almost certainly germinates in part from the journal enclosure quoted above; Lewis' powerful indictment of how he had been concerned with his personality when writing poetry provides the basis for his critical distaste for poetry that focuses on the poet.
Yet he does not totally dismiss the significance of the poet's personality; instead, he articulates effectively how it is that a poet's personality may come into our approach to a poem:
[However, when reading a poet], let it be granted that I do approach the poet; at least I do it by sharing his consciousness, not by studying it. I look with his eyes, not at him . . . The poet is not a man who asks me to look at him; he is a man who says "look at that" and points; the more I follow the pointing of his finger the less I can possibly see of him (11).
Later he adds that while looking to where the poet points, "I must make of him not a spectacle but a pair of spectacles . . . I must enjoy [emphasis Lewis] him and not contemplate him" (12). In his An Experiment in Criticism (1961) Lewis makes a similar point: "[Literature is valuable] not only nor chiefly in order to see what [the authors] are like but [because] . . . we see what they see [and] occupy, for a while, their seat in the great theatre, [and] use their spectacles and be made free of whatever insights, joys, terrors, wonders or merriment those spectacles reveal" (139). For Lewis poetry is not a private matter, but instead a public one: "[In a poem] it is absolutely essential that each word should suggest not what is private and personal to the poet but what is public, common, impersonal, objective" (19).
Lewis' view of the role of the poet has of course been under attack since the great Romantic poets, and Wordsworth's claim that poets write about "both what they half create, / And what they perceive." As Lewis sees it, the elevation of the poet's personality has led to "Poetolatry" and "the cult of poetry" displaying "religious characteristics" (65). When Lewis turns to a theory of poetry, he sounds very much like he did in his early letters:
Poetry [is] a skill or trained habit of using all the extralogical elements of language-rhythm, vowelmusic, onomatopoeia, associations, and what not-to convey the concrete reality of experiences (108) . . . [A poem is] a composition which communicates more of the concrete and qualitative than our usual utterances do. A poet is a man who produces such compositions more often and more successfully than the rest of us. (109)
Lewis' view suggests that a poet is primarily a workman using the tools of language to reflect on the universal concerns-love, death, meaning-of all men and women. Because the poet is more gifted in the use of language, he can speak poignantly to those common human concerns. However, the poet as a person should be no more worthy of our interest than a plumber; the poet simply articulates more effectively the same basic concerns he shares with the plumber. Toward the end of The Personal Heresy Lewis says there are only two questions to ask about a poem: "Firstly, whether it is interesting, enjoyable, attractive, and secondly, whether this enjoyment wears well and helps or hinders you towards all the other things you would like to enjoy, or do, or be" (119120). It is this pragmatic view of poetry's value that Lewis consistently supports, and, at the same time, may be what keeps him from achieving acclaim himself as a poet. That is, it may be that Lewis' workmanlike efforts to write poetry, to make himself into a poet, inevitably thwarted his poetic sensibilities in verse. Lewis may be the model case illustrating the dictum that poets are born not made.
Even so, Lewis' public discussion with Tillyard complements his continued private correspondence. To Ruth Pitter, an accomplished poet, Lewis writes and praises her recent poems: "In most of these poems I am enamoured of metrical subtleties-not as a game: the truth is I often lust after a metre as a man might lust after a woman" (August, 10 1946; "To Ruth Pitter" hereafter RP). In a letter to Rhona Bodle he reflects on the way poetry helps make language concrete: "But in reality it is just the clearest, the most concrete, and most indubitable realities which escape language: not because they [Lewis emphasis] are vague but because language is . . . Poetry I take to be the continual effort to bring language back to the actual" (June 24, 1949; "To Rhona Bodle"). We also have Joy Davidman's 1953 evaluation of Lewis' poetry in a letter to Chad Walsh where she takes issue with Walsh's estimate of Lewis as a poor poet:
By the way, I also read a lot of Jack's poetry and I think you are wrong about it. It's quite new and strange and unfashionable, a complete break with the modern conventions of intellectual and bloodless verse, and for that reason rather difficult to appraise it; but I thought a lot of it was damn good. Technically it's amazing. He's used old forms and given them an entirely new twist. (He liked my poetry too-so there!) But you and I will never see eye to eye on verse (cited in And God Came In 8889).
During a dry period, he writes to Pitter: "It is a long time since I turned a verse. One aches a little, doesn't one? I should like to be 'with poem' again" (March 19, 1955; RP). What all these letters and diary entries show is the degree to which writing poetry and being a poet were fundamental to the way Lewis saw himself. Though he may have had to suppress his desire to be known as a poet, he certainly longed to be a good one.
What does Lewis' view of himself as a poet matter? How is it related to his work as a prose writer? What critical insights into his prose can we gain? Clearly the answers to the questions require more space than I have here, so let me offer at least some suggestions intended to provoke additionally critical study. The fact that Lewis saw himself early in life primarily as a poet, notwithstanding his later admissions that he failed, begs that we take a new approach in our understanding of his prose, both his nonfiction and fiction, though especially the latter. That is, first I suggest critical exploration of Lewis' prose from the perspective of his being a frustrated poet. Jerry Daniel points the way here when he notes that Lewis has "the soul of a poet . . . [and] all works were 'poetry' to him in the sense that the 'feel' or 'taste' was primary" (9, 11). I believe critical exploration needs to push further into this area. For instance, who can deny the poetic power of Lewis' prose in Perelandra? A scholarly examination of Lewis' prose poetry throughout the Ransom trilogy is mandated with a particular emphasis upon how his prose "works" like poetry.
Second, I suggest intense critical inquiry into the rhythm and cadence of his prose as reflecting his deeply-felt poetic sensibility. Although some work has been done on his use of metaphor, I believe we need to focus specifically on how Lewis' use of metaphor is often motivated by poetic rather than rhetorical principles. For example, I would argue that works such as Mere Christianity and The Problem of Pain are inspired at least partially by poetic sensibilities. In addition, we should examine Lewis' prose imagery as inspired by his deeply felt poetic imagination.
Third, I suggest that Lewis' early (and, as he later judges them to be, unhealthy) aspirations to achieve literary acclaim as a poet inform our understanding of why it is that the danger of spiritual pride surfaces so often in his writings. From Rabadash to Orual, from Screwtape to the damned in The Great Divorce, from Weston to Mark Studdock, Lewis examines the subtle yet powerful way in which humans are prone to this sin. Can it be that he writes so convincingly of it because he knows so well its pull? These suggestions, of course, only touch the surface of where I believe a critical perspective that sees Lewis' prose through the lens of his poetic aspirations may lead. Additional scholarly work in this area will yield a rich harvest and help propel Lewis studies further in the direction of his accomplishments as an artist, as a crafter of words, as a writer per se. Such study will not stand in opposition to his apologetics or polemics but will instead complement and enlarge our understanding and appreciation of them and his prose in general.
In a letter Lewis wrote in 1954 to the Milton Society of America, he thanks them for bestowing upon him an honor:
[In all my books] there is a guiding thread. The imaginative man in me is older, more continuously operative, and 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 defence of that response, sometimes a critical controversialist. It was he who after my conversion led me to embody my religious belief in symbolical or mythopeic [sic] forms, ranging from Screwtape to a kind of theologised science fiction. And it was of course he who has brought me, in the last few years, to write the series of Narnian stories for children (LL 260).
This imaginative man, whom I believe we may call Lewis' poetic sensibility, bears much critical scrutiny. As his letters and diary entries demonstrate, he longed early in life to walk with Homer, Virgil, and the other ancient poets he so admired. To this end he devoted much of his early literary life and was forever marked by the experience. Though he never achieved the kind of acclaim he desired as a poet, he achieved an even greater acclaim for his prose. Perhaps by "making the poor best of dull things" in his prose, Lewis inadvertently realized his poetic aspirations. The world is undoubtedly richer because this would-be poet found expression for his poetic sensibilities in prose.