A stone for a lover, not for a poet.

At the dedication of a memorial (pictured here) to CS Lewis in Poets’ Corner yesterday, the Westminster Abbey choir sang one of his poems, “Love’s as Warm as Tears” (to a setting by Paul Mealor, who wrote the music for Ubi Caritas at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in 2011).

Lewis was not a great poet, if a more accomplished one than Adam Fox, whose memorial is visible across the south transept. Lewis had plotted to have Fox, a clerical fellow of Magdalen, elected Professor of Poetry in 1938, even though the candidate himself was well aware of his limitations as a poet or academic. (He admired Plato and wrote a long poem called Old King Coel, published by the Oxford University Press.)

The success of Lewis’s scheme probably lost him any professorship at Oxford, but he was turning in any case against academic politics (as reflected in his novel That Hideous Strength). His neglect by Oxford at least led to his appointment to a chair at Cambridge, which in turn made him write The Discarded Image, his most powerful vehicle for an alternative world view. So much for consequences.

As for Lewis’s poetry, much of it dates from before he embraced Christianity, and in it can be found resentment against the slaughter of the First World War, and, beyond that, against the putative maker of the universe.

Adherence to Christianity may be no requirement for a memorial in the Abbey, but Lewis is generally regarded as a strong Christian apologist. Why? Not, I think for some of his straightforward works in defence of the Christian position. The Problem of Pain is a weak book on a subject that interested him too much and which even mars his Reflections on the Psalms (despite the book’s convincing defence of the Psalms as poetry). Few would turn to Miracles, either, and be satisfied.

No, readers not already in his fan club find themselves most moved in mind by his imaginative writing, such as The Screwtape Letters, from an older to a younger devil, as read on Radio Four this week, or more so by his seven children’s books about Narnia. Lewis saw them as a kind of myth-making, like his friend Tolkien’s tales.

But there is also a certain amount of allegory. (Aslan stands for Christ, no doubt, or, if one may say it without disrespect, he is what the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity would be like if he had become incarnate as a talking lion). Tolkien hated allegory; Lewis read Medieval and Renaissance allegory by the yard for pleasure.

Rowan Williams, who preached yesterday, observed that Lewis (in unlikely alliance with Orwell) knew that you couldn’t trust someone who did terrible things to language. It is indeed the reality of his language that makes Lewis’s style so readable, and his character as an author so likeable. But was he a saint?

He is commemorated by the Episcopal Church (Anglicans in the United States) in its calendar of Holy Women, Holy Men. So are Florence Nightingale, John Calvin and Pope John XIII.

What, then, did Lewis know of love? More than you might think from his scholarly tome The Allegory of Love or his philosophical The Four Loves.

The Abbey was filled yesterday with the rich, English-accented voice of Lewis, from the only surviving BBC recording of his broadcasts. Don’t go to Christ, he said, for the sake of developing a fuller personality. “Look for yourself and you will get only hatred, loneliness, despair and ruin.” The true person will only emerge “if you’re looking for something else”.

This search is not comfortably passive. Love, his poem says, brings the sap of spring, whispering “Dare!” and saying: “Ease, safety, rest,/ Are good; not best.”

(Christopher Howse)
Daily Telegraph (22-Nov-2013)

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