The poet Elizabeth Jennings reviews a book of reminiscences about C. S. Lewis, whom she heard lecture when a student at St Anne’s college. The book, Light on C. S. Lewis, included contributions from Owen Barfield, Stella Gibbons, Austin Farrer, Kathleen Raine, and Neville Coghill, but not J. R. R. Tolkien. Jennings — whose New Selected Poems was recently published — does not admire Lewis’s poetry.
The Catholic Herald profiled her in 1992. She died in 2001.
The full review can be read here. It appeared in the 10 December 1965 issue.
I am probably one of the last of the generation which sat in the Hall of Magdalen College, Oxford, and listened entranced to the lectures of the late C. S. Lewis. Known by most of us as a tantalising religious apologist (a true “devil’s advocate”) and also as a great literary critic — he valued literature, and poetry in particular, beyond anything that could ever be said about it — he was possibly at first sight something of a disappointment.
For one thing he looked so utterly unlike what one had expected: large, red-faced, beefy, possessed with a rotund and booming voice, he seemed remote from his own delicate, probing and always sensitive writing. Soon, however, one realised that the surprising appearance of the man did not matter at all. What mattered was his enthusiasm for literature, his desire to impart and share this enthusiasm, his great learning, and his compassion both for the ignorance and the innocence of the very young.
The Final C. S. Lewis
C. S. Lewis was at this time also a frequent familiar of the Socratic Club, a religiophilosophic society which met every Monday night of term to discuss ideas. Obviously, a society such as this tended to become the podium, or even soap-box, of the exhibitionistic and of all thinkers-aloud.
At all times C. S. Lewis was clear, witty, deferential, and kind. But he was also final, in that after he had clarified, with the utmost humility, the ideas of the most stupid members, nobody seemed to wish to talk any more nonsense. For the fact is that where C. S. Lewis was only wisdom and justice could prevail.
Mr. Neville Coghill makes some highly interesting statements, such as “His conversion to Christianity seems to have come about largely by thinking”, and “Genius is formidable and so is goodness; he had both”.
Kathleen Raine, that fine poet, has something further to add. She writes: “Doubtless he would have agreed with Dom Bede Griffiths that the function of art is ‘to evoke the divine presence’. One cannot take seriously literary discussion with those who believe less.”
C. S. Lewis the poet is not a very familiar figure, even to those of us who know his other work well. What goes without saying is the extreme care and craftmanship of C. S. Lewis’s verse. Here, one feels, is a man at ease not only among the classics but among most of the greatest literary forms of moire modern times.
But — and one says this reluctantly — C. S. Lewis’s technical skill far outstripped his themes and subject-matter. He seems so seldom to have found either a subject which could dominate him completely, or a way of stating old truths in a new, alive manner.
The general effect of his poetry is, then, that of exquisitely turned moulds into which rather uninteresting fluid has been poured. This may sound a harsh judgment, but C. S. Lewis is the last person who would have been grateful for that bleak charity which we call being “kind” to a dead man’s work.
He always knew himself very well, as he shows in these lines front a pastiche of John Donne: From all my lame defeats and oh! much more
From all the victories that I seemed to score:
From cleverness shot forth on Thy behalf
At which, while angels weep, the audience laugh;
From all my proofs of Thy divinity Thou,
who wouldst give no sign, deliver me.