The Distant Voice in C. S. Lewis' Poems

It is perhaps obvious that C. S. Lewis' popularity as a writer rest squarely on a prose style that is clear, lucid, and engaging. Lewis' attractive prose is not limited to one or two genres, but instead is apparent in his literary criticism as well as his children stories, in his devotional works as well as his science fiction, in his apologetics as well as his letters. It is a commonplace, then, to underscore the enormous success his prose brought him. Yet ironically Lewis began his publishing career as a poet with Spirits in Bondage (1919), a volume of interesting if youthful poems, and followed this with Dymer (1926), a long narrative poem in rhyme royal. In fact, throughout his life Lewis continued to write poetry; some poems were included in prose works like The Pilgrim's Regress, the Narnian series, and the space trilogy, and others were published independently in magazines, journals, and newspapers. Most of these poems were collected by Walter Hooper and published in 1964 as Poems.

Although Spirits in Bondage and Dymer merit further study, Poems, according to Tom Howard, "the best­­the glorious best­­of Lewis" (30), is of special interest here because these poems offer an insight into an aspect of Lewis' work that is infrequently seen in his prose and may be potentially disturbing to the Lewisophile. On the one hand, there are a number of striking features about this collection that will delight rather than disturb: its heavy emphasis upon pagan and Christian allusion, its sense of play, its anti­modernistic bias, and its range of subject. However, on the other hand, these poems also reveal a voice not often heard in Lewis' prose; that is, a distant voice­­uncertain, unsure, and ambivalent toward matters of life and meaning­­surfaces in Poems that challenges a too facile understanding of Lewis. The focus of this study, therefore, will be twofold: 1) to identify the specific poems where this distant voice is heard, and 2) to identify the specific characteristics of this voice.

In approaching the task of identifying which poems contain the distant voice, it is necessary first to review what Walter Hooper says in the "Preface" to Poems about his editing and ordering of this volume. Hooper notes that Lewis had himself been collecting poems over the years for a volume to be called Young King Cole and Other Pieces. In addition to a number of already published poems, many of the poems found among Lewis papers were handwritten, undated, and unfinished. Thus, when Hooper began the task of editing Lewis' poems, he followed his "judgement as to what should be printed." He found poems "scribbled on scraps of paper or in the flyleaves of books." Others were in notebooks "at least as old as the poems in The Pilgrim's Regress," and almost all were untitled. As a consequence, Hooper chose "to arrange the poems more or less topically rather than attempt a chronological ordering" (vii).

Clearly Hooper faced a challenging job as editor, and his decision to organize the book topically is justified. However, without undue quibbling, a better approach to a study of the distant voice is to attempt to view these poems in chronological sequence whenever possible. Such an approach offers evidence of the lifelong presence of this voice in Lewis' poetry. At the same time, we must be cautious, as Hooper warns, of "attempting to date [Lewis'] poems on internal evidence "since to do so might lead to "what Lewis himself called the 'Personal Heresy': reading a man's works as autobiography" (viii).

Specifically, then, which poems in this volume contain the distant voice? For purposes of discussion, we can divide them into two groups:

Dated poems:

  • "Caught" (1933)
  • "Scanzons" (1933)
  • "To a Friend" (Oct. 1942)
  • "The Salamander" (June 1945)
  • "To Charles Williams" (Aug. 1945)
  • "A Confession" (Dec. 1954)

Undated poems:

  • "Lines Written in a Copy of Milton's Works"
  • "Joys That Sting"
  • "As the Ruin Falls"

Although the presence of the distant voice is "louder" in some of these poems than in others, each is distinctly different from other poems in the volume because of the distant voice.

We are now ready to distinguish two particular characteristics of the distant voice by referring directly to the poems listed above. The first is a view of the human condition that is deeply melancholic and at times even nihilistic; in addition, there is spiritual scepticism and doubt as to the benevolent nature of God. The second is one that focuses on personal isolation, most often expressed through terminated friendships. Of course not every poem incorporates both characteristics, but at least one so dominates that the distant voice is distinctly heard. Representative poems where the distant voice is heard through religious scepticism and a deep melancholy for the human condition include "Caught" (1933), "The Salamander" (June 1945), "To Charles Williams" (Aug. 1945), and "A Confession" (Dec. 1954). In "Caught" (Poems, 115), first published in The Pilgrim's Regress, we find a persona who is struggling to come to grips with a fierce omnipotence, much as a dog would strain at the leash of an unyielding master. The poem begins with the persona noting that he feels like a person trapped in a burning desert bathed by unrelenting, suffocating light and heat. God, like the sun, is the "inevitable Eye" that confines a desert traveller in smothering tents and "hammers the rocks with light." He is an unyielding, unrelenting, uncompromising force. In desperation the persona longs for:

one cool breath in seven
One air from northern climes
The changing and the castle­clouded heaven
Of my old Pagan times.

It is difficult to read these lines and not consider Lewis' professed affection for "northerness," in terms of both its religious and metaphorical influences on his youth and young adulthood. Regardless, these lines suggest a powerful longing for freedom from the "heat" of God's eye; he is ready to retreat from the demands of an unyielding God toward the comfortable fastness of his pagan days. Such an option, however, is denied him:

But you have seized all in your rage
Of Oneness. Round about
Beating my wings, all ways, within your cage,
I flutter, but not out.

Here God is pictured as possessive, angry, and intent on His unanimity. At the same time the persona pictures himself as a bird trapped in a cage, straining earnestly to wing his way out, but to no avail.

This poem leaves us with two distinct impressions. The first, of course, is of a "convert" who yearns for his pre­conversion days where, rightly or wrongly, he believes life held more freedom, more satisfaction. Indeed, the tone of this poem is very similar to George Herbert's "The Collar" where the persona advises himself to:

leave thy cold dispute
Of what is fit and not. Forsake thy cage,
Thy ropes of sands,
Which petty thoughts have made.

As in Herbert's poem, the persona is frustrated ("beating my wings") yet thwarted ("I flutter, but not out"). The second impression is that God is an all­encompassing, smothering, demanding entity, uncompromising in His jealous possession of a follower. Such a God seizes "all in [His] rage / Of Oneness." These impressions combine to highlight the distant voice in "Caught" that regards with suspicion the value of religious faith and the benevolent character of God.

A related but slightly different emphasis on the distant voice occurs in "The Salamander" (72­73) where we find a profoundly melancholic view regarding the value of human life. The poem opens with the persona sitting before a fire, staring into:

blue waves
Of shuddering heat that r[i]se and f[a]ll,
And blazing ships and blinding caves,
Canyons and streets and hills of hell.

However, this all too familiar atmosphere is suddenly changed when "amidst it all / I saw a living creature crawl." From this point on the salamander speaks directly to the persona about what he "sees" outside the fire; his melancholic reflections are compared to similar ones men make since he looks with "sad eyes . . . as men [look] out upon the skies."

Gazing into the dark room, the salamander says "this is the end," the place "where all life dies," the universe of "blank silence, distances untold / Of unimaginable cold." The lights from the room he can see only dimly, since they:

Are but reflections cast from here,
There is no other fire but this.
This speck of life, this fading spark
Enisled amid the boundless dark.

The creature intimates, therefore, that the real world, the world of meaning is found only within the fire; outside there is isolation, barreness, and cold emptiness. He can only see what is physically in front of him, so the only world he is willing to accept is one that is tangible; that there could be one in the invisible or spiritual realm beyond his fiery world is unthinkable. And, of course, by implication mankind has a similar mind set; rather than face boldly the prospect of another dimension, we, like the salamander, deny anything we cannot perceive as a part of the material world about us.

He ends with a nihilistic credo, one suggesting that values are hollow:

'Blind Nature's measureless rebuke
To all we value, I received
Long since (though wishes bait the hook
With tales our ancestors believed)
And now can face with fearless eye
Negation's final sovereignty.'

Yet he confronts such nihilism courageously since he faces "with fearless eye, / Negation's final sovereignty." The salamander's affirmation of nihilism implies, if we make the invited comparison between the salamander and the human condition, that men need to make a similar discovery and affirmation about their own existence; that is, life may be without meaning, yet man's task is to face that reality courageously. The distant voice in this poem contrasts dramatically with the confident, buoyant voice of so much of Lewis' prose.

The melancholic nature of the distant voice continues in "To Charles Williams" (105). This poem records the shock of losing a friend and how it throws one's mistaken view of the human condition into a tailspin:

I can't see the old contours. It's a larger world
Than I once thought it. I wince, caught in the bleak
air that blows on the ridge.
Is it the first sting of the great winter, the world­
waning? Or the cold of spring?

The old comfortable thought that human life has meaning is challenged by death, and a new, disturbing possibility thrusts itself upon the persona. Indeed, the knowledge that life is fragile causes him to "wince, caught in the bleak air that blows on the ridge," and question whether or not such a loss is just the tip of the iceberg ("the first sting of the great winter"). Although he allows that he may be over­reacting ("Or the cold of spring?"), he never answers the question in the context of the poem, and we are left with the impression that the loss of a friend challenges our well­worn self­reassurances about life as having ultimate meaning and purpose.

"A Confession" (1), ostensibly about Lewis' dissatisfaction with modern British poetry, also uses the distant voice to underscore man's essentially melancholic situation. For instance, he attacks T. S. Eliot's imagery in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock":

For twenty years I've stared my level best
To see if evening­­any evening­­would suggest
A patient etherized upon a table;
In vain. I simply wasn't able.

In his own description of the evening, Lewis uses a metaphor recalling Greek and Latin allusions:

To me each evening looked far more
Like the departure from a silent, yet crowded, shore
Of a ship whose freight was everything, leaving behind,
Gracefully, finally, without farewells, marooned mankind.

Recalling a scene from Dante's Inferno, Lewis suggest here that mankind is essentially isolated and alone, without a guide, without a Virgil to assist him in his wanderings; we are "marooned mankind." Later he rejects contemporary descriptions of the moon, preferring his own that calls it a "prodigy . . . a riddle glaring from the Cyclops' brow," and a reminder "on what a place / I crawl and cling, a planet with no bulwarks." The phrase "a planet with no bulwarks" speaks of Lewis' melancholic awareness of the human condition as isolated and without moorings and recalls Joseph Conrad's note in a letter: "Most of my life has been spent between sky and water and now I live so alone that often I fancy myself clinging stupidly to a derelict planet abandoned by its precious crew" (Conrad, 370).

The second characteristic of the distant voice is a sense of personal isolation, primarily as a result of terminated friendships. "Scazons" (118; like "Caught" first published in PP) provides early evidence of this aspect of the distant voice, as the poem's persona recalls how an event of the day had triggered his sense of isolation: "Walking to­day by a cottage I shed tears / When I remembered how once I had walked there / With my friends who are mortal and dead." In "To a Friend" (104­05) the persona contrasts how his friend's death will serve as "rich soil" for the birth of ideas, while his own life, haunted by fears that [gnaw] at me for myself," will be as sterile as

the unresponding Moon.
Her gaping valleys have no soil,
Her needle­pointed hills are bare;
Water, poured on those rocks, would boil,
And day lasts long, and long despair.

And in the end of "To Charles Williams" we see the persona ask: "Of whom now can I ask guidance? With what friend concerning your death / Is it worth while to exchange thoughts unless­­oh unless it were you?" The poignant ending of this poem testifies to the depth of Lewis' affection for Williams (see in addition Lewis' tribute to Williams in the "Preface" to A Preface to Paradise Lost) and, along with the other passages above, communicates a powerful sense of personal isolation.

Several of the undated poems also focus on the loss of friendship and the ensuing grief and regret that follow. Perhaps the fullest example of how personal isolation as a result of lost friendship is a significant aspect of the distant voice occurs in "Lines Written in a Copy of Milton's Works" (83). The poem begins with the persona noting how natural creatures blithely carry on in harmony with one another: "Alas, the happy beasts at pasture play / All, all alike; all of one mind are they." Not only are the animals in harmony, but also they easily change companions and are blessed with disinterested friendship: "None loves a special friend beyond the rest." Indeed, even if a sparrow loses a friend to a bird of prey or to a hunter's arrow, "with a new friend next day, content, he wings his flight."

The persona then contrasts this Wordsworthian view of the relationship between the beasts with the more dissonant relationships between human beings. Man, the persona suggests, cannot unthinkingly and casually find the easy friend since he "in his fellows finds / (Hard fate) discordant souls and alien minds!" Actually, in the effort to find even one close friend, "one heart amidst a thousand like his own," he will encounter a good deal of difficulty. And, ironically, even if he does eventually find such a friend, it will only be temporary:

Or if, at last relenting, fate shall send
In answer to his prayer, the authentic friend,
Him in some unsuspected hour, some day
He never dreaded, Death will snatch away
And leave behind a loss that time can ne'er allay.

Once bereft of that friend, he is left without a companion to "charm to rest each eating care," to share "the secrets of my bosom," or to "while away with delight / Of his discourse the livelong winter night."

The last stanza begins with an emphasis upon the persona's sense of isolation: "Alone I walk the fields and plains, alone / The dark vales with dense branches overgrown." In his solitude he feels confined and aimless. In addition, the imagery of the last two lines of the poem indicate an overwhelming sense of estrangement: "Here, as day fades, I wait, and all around / I hear the rain that falls with sullen sound." The cold dampness of the fading day suggests a pathetic fallacy, especially as the rain falls with "sullen sound."

Although the focus so far has been on lost friendship or phileo, two final poems may be concerned with lost eros. The first poem, "As the Ruin Falls" (109­10), is actually about the anticipated loss of eros. In the poem the persona rebukes himself with bitter honesty:

All this is flashy rhetoric about loving you.
I never had a selfless thought since I was born.
I am mercenary and self­seeking through and through:
I want God, you, all friends, merely to serve my turn.

His self­confession about his egocentricity continues as he admits that he "cannot crawl one inch outside my proper skin"; he talks of love, he says, but he recognizes that his has not been a giving love: "self­imprisoned, ~I| always end where I begin."

The other person, the beloved, has taught the persona by example both what loving means (giving) and how miserable his ability to love has been: "Only that now you have taught me (but how late) my lack." But there is an added dimension; the beloved appears to be leaving him, whether because of circumstance or death we cannot be sure:

My heart into a bridge by which I might get back
From exile, and grow man. And now the bridge is breaking.

To the beloved he credits his own faltering steps toward a love that is giving; indeed, the beloved has given him the capacity to be less selfish (she has made his heart a bridge) and less isolated (she has helped to end his "exile, and grow man"). His comment that the bridge is now breaking almost certainly refers to his anticipated loss of her. And so he blesses her : "For this I bless you as the ruin falls. The pains / You give me are more precious than all other gains."

"Joys That Sting" (108) is almost certainly a melancholic reverie about a terminated erotic friendship. Here the persona is saddened:

To take the old walks alone, or not at all,
To order one pint where I ordered two,
To think of, and then not to make, the small
Time­honoured joke (senseless all but to you).

That he now only orders "one pint where I ordered two" strongly suggests an erotic if not marital connection since two male friends would probably have ordered separately; on the other hand, a husband would normally order for his wife.2 He goes on to underscore his estrangement and comments that his life is now little more than show:

To laugh (oh, one'll laugh), to talk upon
Themes that we talked upon when you were there,
To make some poor pretence of going on,
Be kind to one's old friends, and seem to care,
While no one (O God) through the years will say
The simplest, common word in just your way.

The grief this poem expresses over the loss of the beloved is both simple and profound: "it is the joys once shared that have the stings." It is possible that "As the Ruin Falls" was written to or for Joy Davidman during her illness and "Joys That Sting" was written after her death as Lewis mourned her; in fact, the tone of the poem is very close to A Grief Observed. Regardless, the unwelcomed termination of friendship, be it phileo or eros, is a central focus in many of poems that employ personal isolation as a characteristic of the distant voice.

Other than A Grief Observed the distant voice occurs rarely in Lewis' prose. However, because poetry tends to be a more personal and private medium than prose, this is not surprising. Of course, the appearance of the distant voice in Poems argues against those who claim that A Grief Observed rings somehow hollow or is proof that his wife's death brought a sudden loss of faith.4 Undeniably Lewis went through a crisis of faith as a result of Joy Davidman's death, but as the poems noted above suggest, doubt about the nature of God and man's meaning were not new to him. He had already wrestled with many of the issues that her death made more concrete, though obviously he had not been tested experientially. Consequently, the confidence so many of his readers were familiar with deserted him as he agonized over Joy's death.

Lewis' use of the distant voice in these selections from Poems is not frequent when viewed in the context of the entire volume; nonetheless, its appearance is noteworthy since it reveals he was not always the confident defender of the faith that his prose apologetics would suggest. That he may have had doubts and questions about God and human meaning does not undermine the value of his apologetics; indeed, to realize that he did struggle with matters of faith makes his apologetics all that more effective and compelling. Were we to think that Lewis was shielded from the questions that all men have, that he simply shed them like water off a duck's back, would make his apologetics too facile, untested by the hard knocks of everyday life. Lewis, as the distant voice in Poems illustrates, probably would have agreed with Tennyson: "There lives more faith in honest doubt, / Believe me, than in half the creeds."