A Look at Lewis’s Poetry
C.S. Lewis’s poetry is probably the least well-known part of his output. It is also probably the least liked part. People complain that Lewis had a tin ear as a poet. He didn’t give us verse that sings. It’s too full of knots. So they say.
I disagree. Or rather, I agree that it has many knots, but I think the knots are interesting, even beautiful. In my view, Lewis’s poetry contains some of his best work and ought to be more widely appreciated.
There is a great deal that could be said about both the form and the content of Lewis’s verse, but I want to focus on neither the form nor the content. Rather, let us look at the way that form and content are often inextricably bound to each other. What Lewis says is interdependent with how he says it.
There are many poems where we can see this interdependence between form and content, but in this brief article there is space to study only one example. It’s called ‘Le Roi S’Amuse’ (‘The King Amuses Himself’), a poem about God creating the universe.
Here, Lewis imagines God as Jove, drawing on the medieval convention of disguising Christianity under pagan forms. ‘Paganism,’ Lewis wrote in one of his academic books, ‘is the religion of poetry, through which the author can express, at any moment, just so much or so little of his real religion as his art requires.’
One particular thing about this poem that needs to be recognised, if we are to enjoy it fully, is the way Lewis ingeniously plays with complex sound effects.
He said that he was ‘interested in phonetic patterns: consonances, assonances, internal or inbedded rhymes, and all that.’ It’s quite easy to read ‘Le Roi S’Amuse’ – and indeed many of Lewis’s similarly structured poems – without recognising the careful way in which he chooses words so that they subtly chime with one another. But the chiming and the subtlety of that chiming are part of the total effect that he is aiming to achieve.
Here, then, is ‘Le Roi S’Amuse’:
On woven mazes
Of patterned movement as the atoms whirled.
His glance turned
Into dancing, burning
Colour-gods who rushed upon that sullen world,
Waking, re-making, exalting it anew –
Silver and purple, shrill-voiced yellow, turgid crimson, and virgin blue.
And aching splendour of the naked rocks.
Where his gaze smote,
To mount like thistledown in countless flocks,
Fruit-loving, root-loving gods, cool and green
Of feathery grasses, heather and orchard, pollen’d lily, the olive and the bean.
Lightning, his laughter into brightness broke.
From every dint
Where the severed splinters
Had scattered a Sylvan or a Satyr woke;
Ounces came pouncing, dragon-people flew,
There was spirited stallion, squirrel unrespectful, clanging raven and kangaroo.
The hoving tide of
Ocean trembled at the motion of his breath.
The sigh turned
Into white, eternal,
Radiant Aphrodite unafraid of death;
A fragrance, a vagrant unrest on earth she flung,
There was favouring and fondling and bravery and building
and chuckling music and suckling of the young.
He strove and wrought at
A thousand clarities; from his brows sprang
With earnest mien
The cold armour on her shoulders rang.
Our sires at the fires of her lucid eyes began
To speak in symbols, to seek out causes, to name the creatures; they became Man.
World and Man
Unfurled their banner –
It was gay Behemoth on a sable field.
In flesh, the ennobled
Spirits carousing in their myriads reeled;
There was frolic and holiday. Jove laughed to see
The abyss empeopled, his bliss imparted, the throng that was his and no longer he.
The content of the poem is obvious: God creates a teeming, vivid, colourful universe, lovingly purposed at every level, from atoms whirling in minuscule patterns all the way up to rational spirits ‘carousing’ before their creator.
But what is the form of the poem? We can’t examine every stanza, but since every stanza is built to the same scheme we need look at just one. Let’s look at the last one.
The stanza has eight lines. The end-rhymes are A, A, B, C, C, B, D, D. ‘Man’ rhymes with the ‘ban-’ of ‘banner’; ‘field’ rhymes three lines later with ‘reeled’; the ‘robe-’ of ‘robed’ rhymes with the ‘ennob-’ of ‘ennobled’; and ‘see’ rhymes with ‘he’.
So far so (relatively) simple! But if we then pay attention to the internal rhymes, we see that the scheme Lewis has set himself is in fact far more complicated. The full scheme for each stanza is actually: A, B, A, B, C, C, D, E, F, E, F, G, G, D, H, H, I, J, J, K, K, I.
This, as far as I know, is the knottiest rhyme scheme that Lewis ever attempted. I’ve written out the pattern as follows:
Line 1: A, B (‘World’, ‘Man’)
Line 2: A, B (‘Unfurled’, ‘ban-’)
Line 3: C, C, D (‘gay Be-’, ‘sab-’, ‘field’)
Line 4: E, F (‘fresh’, ‘robe-’)
Line 5: E, F (‘flesh’, ‘ennob-’)
Line 6: G, G, D (‘Spir-’, ‘myr-’, ‘reeled’)
Line 7: H, H, I (‘frol-’, ‘hol-’, ‘see’)
Line 8: J, J, K, K, I (‘abyss’, ‘bliss’, ‘throng’, ‘long-’, ‘he’)
That’s nine different rhymes used, in total, 22 times per stanza, – a mind-bogglingly tightly-knit lattice. Well might Lewis write of ‘woven mazes’! The complexity of the form helps convey the complexity of the world being described. Form and content are united.
Lewis was deeply concerned to make form and content inseparable in his verse (see, for example, the letter he wrote to his fellow poet, Ruth Pitter on 24 July 1946). ‘Le Roi S’Amuse’ is a good example of his achieving that aim.
One last thing. I have mentioned how Lewis as an expert in medieval literature uses the medieval convention of figuring God under a pagan name (Jove). That is not the only medieval aspect to this poem. Its complexity is another such feature. ‘Intricacy,’ Lewis wrote, ‘is a mark of the medieval mind.’ Poets such as Chaucer and Dante and Langland love to present us, he said, with ‘something that cannot be taken in at a glance, something that at first looks planless though all is planned. Everything leads to everything else, but by very intricate paths.’
Lewis’s own practice of intricate patterning is a major aspect of his poetry, – and, indeed, of his fiction too. It reflects not only his knowledge and love of medieval literature but also his belief that the real universe is a fantastically complex work of divine artistry. Every single thing in the cosmos, Lewis believed, has been made both for its own sake and for the sake of every other thing. The independent purposes of each creature cannot be untied from their interdependent purposes. In Letters to Malcolm, his book on prayer, Lewis writes this about God’s creation: ‘The great work of art was made for the sake of all it does and is, down to the curve of every wave and the flight of every insect.’
Dr. Michael Ward is a minister in the Church of England and the author of Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis (Oxford University Press, 2008). He is the co-editor of Heresies and How to Avoid Them: Why it Matters What Christians Believe (SPCK/Hendrickson, 2007) and of the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to C.S. Lewis. His website is www.planetnarnia.com
Visit Michael’s website at www.planetnarnia.com.