C.S. Lewis the Poet

Many of us desire to write. And yet, we often consider ourselves “failed” writers because the novel buried within us is never published. Print on Demand technology has addressed this to a degree . . . but the fact remains that few of us are destined to receive accolades for our work.

And that, simply, is life. We cannot all be “successful,” especially as the world defines the concept.

It is good to have family and friends who remind us of what does truly make us precious, especially if we are enslaved by our passion to write, and discouraged by the meager fruits of our efforts.

In the writers group in which I participate, we enjoy that sort of supportive “family.” While we encourage everyone to refine their skills, expand their horizons and pursue their dreams . . . we are also realistic in our expectations. One of the most important things we can do for novice writers, in my humble opinion, is to help them discover the particular fields in which their literary labors will be most effective.

For example, many writers compose memoirs that prove invaluable to family members. When these stories capture the flavor of a bypast locale, their value extends to others who are interested in that beloved community. Likewise, I’ve known people whose gift for writing was most radiant in terms of letters. Their personal correspondence was glorious. Like radiant gems carved to perfection for each of the individual persons to whom they were addressed. In past eras, such correspondence was highly esteemed. Gifted writers such as these owe no apology for not writing best-selling fiction.

Still, we often judge ourselves by our failures, rather than our successes.

C.S. Lewis was no different. He was quite successful as a writer, and was certainly in high demand as a professor and adviser at Oxford and Cambridge. He received international praise for his work, and yet he was despondent about at least one aspect of his writing.

Lewis had longed from his adolescence to become a respected poet. This was partly due to the age in which he was reared. Poetry was viewed as the most cultured and elegant form of writing. Much more so than is true today. (Although I assume today’s poets still regard Euterpe, pictured above, as the most wondrous of Greece’s Muses. Her domain was Music and Poetry.)

Lewis’ poetry did not receive much critical praise. We’ll consider the subject more in the future, but for now suffice it to say that this fact caused him much grief. Walter Hooper, Lewis’ secretary writes in his C.S. Lewis: Companion & Guide: “The most noticeable effect of Lewis’ conversion [to Christianity] was the death of his old ambition as a poet and the emergence of a man never thereafter at a loss for the right words.”

Lewis still wrote poetry, of course, but he no longer sought his identity in it. The following love poem, inspired by his deep affection for his wife Joy, is quite powerful. As they faced her illnesses and death, I believe his words reach heights rarely attained by many a poet laureate.

As the Ruin Falls by C. S. Lewis

All this is flashy rhetoric about loving you.

I never had a selfless thought since I was born.

I am mercenary and self-seeking through and through:

I want God, you, all friends, merely to serve my turn.

Peace, re-assurance, pleasure, are the goals I seek,

I cannot crawl one inch outside my proper skin:

I talk of love—a scholar’s parrot may talk Greek—

But, self-imprisoned, always end where I begin.

Only that now you have taught me (but how late) my lack.

I see the chasm. And everything you are was making

My heart into a bridge by which I might get back

From exile, and grow man. And now the bridge is breaking.

For this I bless you as the ruin falls. The pains

You give me are more precious than all other gains.

If you find this poem moving, it is well worth taking a moment to listen to Phil Keaggy’s musical treatment of Lewis’ lyrics.

21 thoughts on “C.S. Lewis the Poet

  1. This rhetoric moves the soul of all of us who pen words. The poem–wondrous truth wrapped in simplicity. My favorite.
    As one who can better express through letter, I appreciate your attention to this. I know many mourn the so-called lost art of letter writing but it is not lost–merely rewrapped in electronic form. However, there is something that cannot replace well-formed words by written hand.

  2. Funny about respect /public opinions about the value of letter writing and poetry in different eras. I, too, have known some amazing letter writers who never considered a skilled writer at all – it was simple a skill adults were expected to have ( but some were so much better at it!)
    Poetry best words in best order. The difficulty of writing poetry scares writers.
    Thanks for sharing the poem

  3. Gorgeous post. I’m a big fan of Lewis’ correspondence and novels, but didn’t know about his old ambitions. Thanks for sharing! I look forward to reading more!

  4. I really enjoyed this post. As a writer, I continue to struggle to accept the type and degree of success the Lord wants for me. This post was gentle – thank you. You handled all kinds of success stories so well, and that is really helpful. Plus, I appreciated reading this poem of Lewis to Joy – my first time reading it. Apparently, the Lord ordained Lewis’s success as a poet also.

  5. I’ve been listening to Phil Keaggy’s music since 1972. His treatment of Lewis’ poem is humbling and amazing. Great post.

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  7. The illusion of success keeps many from developing their craft. I know I struggle with my desire to sit down to write and wake up a year later with a theme park built for one of my characters. I’m glad Lewis was blessed to transcend his thorn and produced such wonderful work. My favorite line: “I talk of love—a scholar’s parrot may talk Greek—” Thanks for posting!

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