The Collected Poems of C.S. Lewis
Lewis, C.S. The Collected Poems of C.S. Lewis. Ed. Walter Hooper. London: Fount Publications [HarperCollins Publishers], 1994. 263 pp. ISBN 0-00-627833-7.
Reviewed by Nancy-Lou Patterson
[This review originally appeared as “Athens, Troy, Jerusalem” in Mythlore 20.4 (#78) (1995): 60.]
The latest product of the Editor’s ceaseless industry, this volume includes the entire contents of Lewis’s Poems (1964), Spirits in Bondage (1919), and A Miscelleny of additional poems (copyrighted 1986 and 1994) of which (as was the case with the first edition of the works in the 1964 volume), many have been published before but not collected, and some appear in print for the first time. And will, of course, be welcome to readers of Lewis, whether they have already managed to acquire Poems or Spirits in Bondage or not. In addition to the poems, there are not only Hooper’s original introduction to Poems (1964) but a new Introduction by him, discussing the contents of all three sections including the Miscellany, and—deliciously sharp-tongued—an “Introductory Letter” (1963) by Lewis himself, which was, Hooper says, to have accompanied “a volume to be called Young King Cole, and Other Pieces” (xvi).
Readers may recall that Lewis also wrote four long poems, of which only the first was published in his lifetime: Dymer (1926), Launcelot, the Nameless Isle, and The Queen of Drum. The four were published with a Preface by the editor Walter Hooper, as Narrative Poems (1969), and this has been published again as a companion volume without apparent revisions under the same title, in the same format and date as The Collected Poems of C.S, Lewis, that is, in 1994. Whether we will eventually see more poems by Lewis previously published but not yet collected, or not yet published, only Walter Hooper knows, but I suspect that if there are any out there we will!
Now, to the Poems (1994). Lewis scholars, including Joe R. Christopher, have discussed Lewis’s poetry to very useful effect, and I won’t presume to improve upon their efforts. He was a good poet, if not a great one, and he knew it. In his witty (if fundamentally defensive) “Introductory Letter,” Lewis writes, “It is of course just possible that some one critic who reads this … may be concerned not at all with me as a person or a type and degree of my failure or success” (xxi). A daunting challenge, and one I haven’t the hubris to undertake, except to say that all the poems, including those in the Miscellany, are competent. Many are memorable (ditto), And some are wonderful, But few, at least for me, reach the level of Lewis’s greatest prose, where in line after line, wonder flashes through mind and body, coursing along the veins like lightening.
I will quote, in spite of this, some lines that have afforded this stab of wonder to me. From the Poems, I would select (among others, of course), “A Confession,” which concludes:
…peacocks, honey, the Great Wall, Aldeberan,
Silver weirs, new-cut grass, wave on the beach, hard gem,
The shape of horse and woman; Athens, Troy Jerusalem. (15)
From Spirits in Bondage, I would chose these lines from “Death in Battle”:
a Country of Dreams!
Beyond the tide of the ocean, hidden and sunk away,
Out of the sound of battles, near to the end of day,
Full of dim woods and streams, (223)
And from the Miscellany, the astonishing “Findlay Avenue” (circa 1950), which expresses, more personally than in anything Lewis ever wrote elsewhere, that odd combination of sensitivity toward, and separation from, women, despite his close, almost life-long contact with them, that Lewis only finally overcame in his late marriage which was, though he did not know it when he wrote this poem, soon to befall him:
What do they do? Their families have all gone hence,
Grow up. The whole long avenue exhales the sense
Of absent husbands, housework done, uncounted hours …
… it seems to me
Almost an eerie rashness to possess a wife
And house that go with living with their different life
For ever inaccessible to us, all day; (251-52)
Hooper sensitively closes this volume with the next and last poem, the Epitaph Lewis composed for, and caused to be carved upon, the tombstone of Helen Joy Davidman Lewis. This edition, despite its rash of typos, serves a very useful function, in making Lewis’s poetry available to readers in the 1990s, and it certainly recommended.