Saturday, December 4, 2010

C.S. Lewis and the perils of poetry

All C.S. Lewis ever wanted to be was a great poet, and when he realized that he never would be, he resigned himself to producing marvelous prose. As a hopeful young poet myself, I find his longing poignant and frightening. How he must has slaved at that unreadable epic of his... but all the industry in the world won't get you the muse or the duende.

Is it too psychologizing and unfair to assume that his poetic failures had something to do with his hatred of Eliot? For years, the two men nursed a dark dislike for each other; only gradually did they lower their defenses and discover how much they had in common. It is clear to me, though, that Lewis's total scorn for modern poetry didn't do his own poetry any favors. Beyond even that, he was apparently impatient with even the most traditional sorts of poetic apprenticeship. In other words, he just didn't think like a poet; in some ways, he was too intelligent. There's a certain amount of stupidity that goes into good poetry.

The following "confession" was meant to be satirical, but as you will see, it is Dame Irony's revenge:

A Confession

I am so coarse, the things the poets see
Are obstinately invisible to me.
For twenty years I’ve stared my level best
To see if evening -- any evening -- would suggest
A patient etherized upon a table;
In vain. I simply wasn’t able.
To me each evening looked far more
Like the departure from a silent, yet a crowded, shore
Of a ship whose freight was everything, leaving behind
Gracefully, finally, without farewells, marooned mankind.

Red dawn behind a hedgerow in the east
Never, for me, resembled in the least
A chilblain on a cocktail-shaker’s nose;
Waterfalls don’t remind me of torn underclothes,
Nor glaciers of tin-cans. I’ve never known
The moon look like a hump-backed crone–
Rather, a prodigy, even now
Not naturalized, a riddle glaring from the Cyclops’ brow
Of the cold world, reminding me on what a place
I crawl and cling, a planet with no bulwarks, out in space.

Never the white sun of the wintriest day
Struck me as un crachat d’estaminet.
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, new-cut grass, wave on the beach, hard gem,
The shapes of horse and woman, Athens, Troy, Jerusalem.

I think most people who like this poem like it for the catalog at the end, with its nouns as bright as enameled roundels on a medieval chalice. But sadly, Lewis spends the preceding stanzas playing laborious Salieri to modernism's scabrous Mozarts. He was normally a perceptive critic, and it shouldn't have taken him twenty years to admit that the sun could rest on the horizon like a sick man after the doctor has "put him in the dark of ether." Couldn't he translate the Latin occidens? Eliot was certainly subject to the "stock response" of west-evening-death; he just expressed it in it a fresh way. To which Lewis seems to reply: "Don't get fresh with me, kid. I know what a sunset looks like." How he could bear to re-read that laboured, dissipated simile of the ship "whose freight was everything" leaving mankind forever? Forever? Everything? Three modifiers for "leaving behind"? Parturient montes, nascetur ridiculus mus.

The chilblain on the cocktail shaker's nose is at least funny as parody, and the rhythm of "Waterfalls don’t remind me of torn underclothes" is jolly; but in this stanza he falls victim to the main hazard of trying to parody surrealism: he dredges up images that are actually rather apt and satisfying. Waterfalls will now remind me of torn underclothes because of you, my dear Lewis. If the hokiest poetaster can say "scarf of mist" or "bridal-veil falls," surely a comparison to ragged cloth shouldn't stump even poetic beginners. As for the moon as a "hump-backed crone," one wonders again where Professor Lewis's Latin was when he was writing this, as gibbus (a "gibbous moon") is Latin for "hump." (I would be shocked if he slammed Virgil for personifying Mount Atlas as an old grey-bearded giant.) The metaphor he offers instead, the eye of the Cyclops, seems much more shocking. And again, the whole counter-image is a depressing, long-winded retreat from the pungent images that we are meant to laugh at. The moon is a "prodigy," which isn't an image at all. A prodigy is merely something extraordinary or ominous, and it summons no clear visual image whatsoever. Not content with this vagueness, Lewis changes "prodigy" to "riddle." Then comes the Cyclops' eye, "glaring from the Cyclops’ brow / Of the cold world," and I want to break something because HOW can the cold world be the brow of the Cyclops? If the cold world is earth, there is no freaking way that our round planet can be the moon's eye-socket. If the cold world is the moon, there's no way it can be both eye and brow. If the cold world is Space...

All right, I feel better now that I've taken a box-cutter to the sofa.

The impression you get from this poem is that C.S. Lewis could not deal with metaphors or similes, which would be a grave defect in an admirer of Homer, or of pretty much any poet, ancient or modern. That would be a false impression. It is lovely to turn to his prose and breathe in the subtle wood notes of a description like this one from That Hideous Strength:

Perhaps the winter morning sunlight affected him all the more because he had never been taught to regard it as specially beautiful and it therefore worked on his senses without interference. The earth and sky had the look of things recently washed. The brown fields looked as if they would be good to eat, and those in grass set off the curves of the little hills as close clipped hair sets of the body of a horse. The sky looked further away than usual, but also clearer, so that the long slender streaks of cloud (dark slate colour against the pale blue) had edges as clear as if they were cut out of cardboard. Every little copse was black and bristling as a hairbrush, and when the car stopped in Cure Hardy itself the silence that followed the turning off of the engine was filled with the noise of rooks that seemed to be calling "Wake! Wake!"

When I first read that perfect, homely simile, "every little copse was black and bristling as a hairbrush," and almost tripped over the numinous cry of the rooks, which whisks you up to the sublimity that a lesser writer would have labored in magenta and cerulean to induce, I was thrilled and shivery. Notice that he doesn't say that the trees were like virgin pillars in the green halls of Diana. He says they resemble a hairbrush. He also says that the clouds are like cardboard, which doesn't seem so distant from those tin-can glaciers. I want to revise my earlier assessment of the poem: it's not that he thinks the modernist images are weird, it's that he thinks they're ignoble. His prose, however, seems to quietly resolve this anxiety.

What gets to me the most about Lewis's poetry, and most suggests that his efforts in verse were more careless than he knew, is the sheer sloppiness of the prosody. A.N. Wilson mentions the terrible enjambments and unscannable lines that mar Dymer, that still-born epic; and "A Confession" launches itself in iambic pentameter, absorbs Eliot own pentameter line, and then collapses into tetrameter: "In VAIN. I SIMply WASn't ABle." Or maybe there is a rest after "vain"? But the next line is definitely tetrameter: "To me each evening looked far more." The stanza concludes with a baggy alexandrine that looks like "The Wreck of the Deutschland" in cargo pants. But wait... was this supposed to be a return to iambic pentameter?

LIKE the dePARTure from a SIlent, yet a CROWded, SHORE

Or maybe another tetrameter?

Like the dePARTure from a SIlent, yet a CROWded, SHORE

I would be very surprised if any two people scanned this poem in the same way. It's obvious to me that Lewis's mind got way ahead of his iambs, and you can see him powering through their little hurtles with more haste than grace. I've seen this tendency in every poem of his I've read. (Count the stresses in that last sentence: Lewis would have had no qualms about sticking it willy-nilly into a poem!) If he had something to say, he was usually better off working it into a book or article; but he craved the megaphone of verse. The poems betray their prose fervors:

On a Vulgar Error

No. It's an impudent falsehood. Men did not
Invariably think the newer way Prosaic
mad, inelegant, or what not.

Was the first pointed arch esteemed a blot
Upon the church? Did anybody say How
modern and how ugly? They did not.

Plate-armour, or windows glazed, or verse fire-hot
With rhymes from France, or spices from Cathay,
Were these at first a horror? They were not.

If, then, our present arts, laws, houses, food
All set us hankering after yesterday,
Need this be only an archaising mood?

Why, any man whose purse has been let blood
By sharpers, when he finds all drained away
Must compare how he stands with how he stood.

If a quack doctor's breezy ineptitude
Has cost me a leg, must I forget straightway
All that I can't do now, all that I could?

So, when our guides unanimously decry
The backward glance, I think we can guess why.

This seems a mere appendix to some essay on modernity. There is not much here that would not be more convincing in prose.

Now, you should never turn your back on Lewis. Like the sea, he is capable of lifting a freak wave and knocking you out. I would be grateful ever to write something so good as this:

The True Nature of Gnomes

Paracelsus somewhere in his writings tells us
A gnome moves through earth like an arrow in the air,
At home like a fish within the seamless, foamless
Liberty of the water that yields to it everywhere.

Beguiled with pictures, I fancied in my childhood
Subterranean rivers beside glimmering wharfs,
Hammers upon anvils, pattering and yammering,
Torches and tunnels, the cities of the dwarfs;

But in perfect blackness underneath the surface,
In a silence unbroken till the planet cracks,
Their sinewy bodies through the dense continuum
Move without resistance and leave no tracks.

Gravel, marl, blue clay--all's one to travel in;
Only one obstacle can impede a gnome--
A cave or a mine-shaft. Not their very bravest
Would venture across it for a short cut home.

There is the unbridgeable. To a gnome the air is
utter vacuity. If he thrust out his face
Into a cavern, his face would break in splinters,
Bursting as a man would burst in interstellar space.

With toiling lungs a gnome can breath the soil in,
Rocks are like a headwind, stiff against his chest,
Chief 'midst his pleasures is the quiet leaf mould,
Like air in meadowy valleys when the wind's at rest.

Like silvan freshness are the lodes of silver,
Cold, clammy, fog-like are the leaden veins
Those of gold are prodigally sweet like roses,
Gems stab coolly like the small spring rains.

(first published in Punch, October 14, 1946)


Enbrethiliel said...


I hadn't known that about Lewis and Eliot.

I did have a professor who believed that the White Witch from The Chronicles of Narnia was based on Elizabeth Anscombe.

Oh, what a poor comment to leave after your insightful analysis! =( But I've read only one of Lewis' poems and can remember just that it was about joy. A Confession reminds me, strangely enough, of Dover Beach. And of course I have nothing but 80s pop culture associations when it comes to the line, "Red dawn behind a hedgerow in the east"! The last line is my favourite . . . but only because it reminds me of G.K. Chesterton, whom I still like, in spite of myself.

But oh, I could never be flippant about The True Nature of Gnomes. That one took my breath away!

Paul Stilwell said...

Insightful analysis indeed!

As an on-the-other-hand counter, I wonder about the unreadability of much of - though not *all* of - Eliot's prose. Of course, he wrote prose very well, and I guess some of his essays are classics, but I would say that, generally speaking, as Lewis wasn't "at home" in poetry but in prose, I would say Eliot was not in his own in prose - if not to same degree that Lewis failed in poetry, then again, at least generally. I find his critical essays very false and hopelessly "anglicanized" in tone - in fact, downright constipated.

Maybe part of Lewis' failure as a poet had to do with never getting beyond wanting to write great poetry, whereas Eliot came to discover the "purification of the dialect of the tribe".

Paul Stilwell said...

Of course, you already address that last part of my comment:

"...but all the industry in the world won't get you the muse or the duende."

Meredith said...

Enbrethiliel: Elizabeth Anscombe as the White Witch? I hope your professor was joking!

Paul: Eliot's tone is indeed anglophile to the point where some of his essays sound like episodes of "Look Around You." Take a sentence like this: "So long as this island remains an island (and we are no nearer the Continent than were Arnold's contemporaries) the work of Arnold will be important; it is still a bridge across the Channel, and it will always have been good sense." I believe this is known as trying too hard. In spite of this, I find them very readable. Some of his judgments are bizarre (Hamlet was a dramatic failure?) but he tends to make points that you can apply to other works of art.

Quite frankly, I wonder if Eliot was really at home in poetry, either! Unease and distaste mediated just about everything for him at times.

Enbrethiliel said...


Ha! Someone else asked him whether he was, and he emphatically stated that he wasn't! His reasoning is that Lewis never got over Anscombe besting him in a public debate (or discussion, whatever) and obliging him to rewrite something he had already published in a book. I can't fish out all my old lecture notes at the moment, but . . .

Well, if you don't mind reading a zombie blog, here is a five-year-old post from my undead archives:

Scroll down for the whole story.

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