C.S. Lewis died on the very day that John Kennedy was assassinated, November 22, 1963, so his passing went largely unmarked in the press. But thirty-five years later Lewis devotees met in New York to commemorate what would have been his 100th birthday. If anything, the reputation of Lewis is on the rise, but this has been true ever since 1963. His career provides rich grounds for meditating on the ironies of ambition.
From an early age, Lewis longed to be a poet. His first book of verse was published shortly after his service in World War I. It was well received, and he seemed to be on his way. But he placed his greatest hope in a book length epic called Dymer. He spent years on it. It is awful. Lewis’s exquisite aesthetic sense seems to have deserted him in his own work. Consider the following line: “He whom I bow to only knows to whom I bow.” The reader cannot resist an emendation. “Only he to whom I bow knows to whom I bow.”
Lewis had the bad luck to live when Pound and Eliot dominated the poetic landscape. Their modernism irked him and much of his criticism of them rings true, if one can abstract from the whiff of sour grapes that clings to it.
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table.
. . .
The simile is of course ridiculous and yet it inhabits the mind and keeps on echoing there. Readers my age are constantly surprised to find a line of Eliot’s on their tongue. He informed our youth. Recently, in Aspen, I found myself saying aloud, “In the mountains, there you feel free.” I would go to the wall for most of Lewis’s theories about poetry, but give me Eliot’s poetry any day.
It is salutary to think of Lewis as a failed poet, because his real success as a writer rose from the ashes of his defeat. George Sayer, in his recent life of Lewis, suggests that it was when Lewis let ambition go and ceased trying to force his literary fortune that he found the line that has brought him immortality. The change coincided with the return of his religious faith. The talks that became Mere Christianity must have seemed the very antithesis of what he had hoped to do with his talents. The Problem of Pain and Miracles find Lewis addressing as straightforwardly as he can objections to the faith. But with The Screwtape Letters Lewis produced a work of genius, sui generis, as readable now as when it issued from his pen. The reader came to see that Lewis had an uncanny insight into the human soul.
The space trilogy, Perelandra, Out of the Silent Planet, and That Hideous Strength, is an acquired taste, but there is unanimity on the Narnia Chronicles. They will be read as long as there are children and former children.
Millions of copies of Lewis’s light literature and popular theology have been sold and the appetite for them continues unabated. He had an academic career as well, and medievalists marvel at his scholarship. Even here, as in Experiment in Criticism and The Discarded Image, he was able to strike a seemingly lighter note that turned out to be far more resonant than at first it seemed.
My personal favorites are Lewis’s inaugural lecture when he became professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge: De descriptione temporum and The Abolition of Man. Lewis knew that something drastic had happened between his childhood and that of his students. The West had passed from Christianity to what afflicts us now. Lewis captured the essence of this post-Christian world in The Abolition of Man, presciently seeing that what philosophers rather primly call the fact/value dichotomy would separate man from the world and eventually from himself. Long before Alasdaire Maclntyre noted that “Emotivism” had become our default moral theory—a value judgment is an expression of feeling and has no grounds in what is being evaluated— Lewis found it lurking already in school books for kids.
If Eliot is right, a poet must assimilate a tradition even as he alters and adds to it. Perhaps Lewis had too keen an ear for the great poetry of the past to pick up the traditional notes in a modern poetry that transforms them with a new vision. Oddly, there were deep affinities between Lewis and Eliot. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and The Wasteland are also, in their way, letters from hell. What is more, Eliot knew as well as Lewis what the remedy was. Both men fell in love at an advanced age with somewhat younger women. I am not sure of the significance of that. Maybe it was meant to prove they were human.