Jack the Poet’s Wicked Heart
This post originally published on The Bottle and Cricket.
C.S. Lewis loved poetry. In his late teens he had great ambitions of becoming a poet. This desire grew after he published Spirits in Bondage in 1919. Perhaps his initial love of poetry came from his father Albert, who was an amateur yet soulful poet. No doubt that this love was fed as Lewis immersed himself in classic literature. It’s not clear if Lewis had high pretensions about his poetry or not. When Lewis published his long narrative poem Dymer in 1926 it was not met with much positive review, except from a few close friends. Years later Lewis confessed with ironic disappointment (alluding to T.S. Eliot’s favorite image) that…
I am so coarse, the things 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.
Nevertheless, Lewis continued to write poetry. While Lewis never published a book of verse during his lifetime, some of his poetry appeared scattered throughout his prose. In 1964, the year after Lewis died, Walter Hooper collected, edited, and published a collection of his poems from scraps, letters, and miscellaneous works. In this collection is a short poem titled As the Ruin Falls. In this poem Lewis illustrates the painful and necessary beauty of introspection.
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.
Lewis echos the prophet Jeremiah, who reveals his own grief when proclaiming that “my heart is sick within me.” It seems that in this particular poem Lewis took his own advice, which can be found in English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, “look in thy heart and write is good counsel for poets.” This is not only good advice for poets, but also for all who desire to live a wise and contemplative life.
Lewis’ poetry may have never captured the attention of literary critics, but it was honest and beautiful in its own right.