On the 50th anniversary of C.S. Lewis’s death, a consideration of his poetry


Like eyes of one long dead the empty windows stare
And I fear to cross the garden, I fear to linger there…

from the poem “Alexandrines” by C.S. Lewis

 

C.S. Lewis fan trivia includes the factoid that he died on the same day as President John F. Kennedy and author Aldous Huxley.

But 50th anniversaries tend to be big deals, and on this anniversary, while new documentaries honor JFK, Lewis is receiving a quieter yet substantial honor.

Lewis’s “devotion to [poetry] will be honored this month with the unveiling of a monument at the Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, 50 years after his death,” writes Laura C. Mallonee in “The Imaginative Man,” written for PoetryFoundation.org.

Despite being best-known for The Chronicles of Narnia and Mere Christianity — as well as maybe The Screwtape Letters — Lewis really, really wanted to be a poet.

In recent years, that biographical factoid received serious scholarly study from Don W. King, who wrote C.S. Lewis, Poet: The Legacy of His Poetic Impulse — a project that spurred a study of Lewis’s more-successful poet friend, Ruth Pitter.

In this brief post, I’ll say Lewis’s poetry is interesting for two principle reasons — although for a thorough examination of his poetry, see King’s C.S. Lewis, Poet.

First, Lewis wrote his poetry with an ear tuned to meter. For example, his poem “Alexandrines” is a collection of 13 of the lines for which the poem is named. An alexandrine is a 12-syllable iambic line.

Second, Lewis’s immersion in ancient mythology influenced many of his poems. See, for example, “Vitrea Circe,” which is about the Circe of Homeric legend.

Also see “The Satyr,” which follows a satyr “Through the meadows, through the valleys” where “all the faerie kin he rallies.”

Certainly questions of why Lewis has no intellectual and aesthetic heirs today — especially among the Christians who desperately want someone to pick up the Narnian mantle — can be answered with attention to his history and development as a person.

Lewis was saturated in English poetry and ancient verse, in languages living and dead, in stories historical and mythological.

I suspect many Christian writers who have tried to imitate Lewis jumped the gun and hopped directly into allegories of the Gospels, but Lewis never would have written a book entitled Mere Allegory.

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