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Poetic Justice for CS Lewis

By Alister McGrath for The Daily Telegraph

On Sunday it was announced that a memorial to the poet, literary scholar and novelist CS Lewis (1898-1963) is to be placed in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey, London, next November, 50 years after his death.

He joins a select group of poets, playwrights and writers to have been buried or commemorated there, including Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare. I would argue that Lewis certainly merits inclusion among these greats of English literature.

Born in Belfast, he hoped to become an “Irish voice” in poetry, with W B Yeats as his model.

Yet little came of this aspiration. His first slender volume of verse, Spirits in Bondage (1919), was published under the pseudonym Clive Hamilton. Hamilton was his mother’s maiden name. Many of these poems were written while he served as a junior officer in the trenches of northern France during the First World War.

The early poems are a powerful witness to Lewis’s early atheism, railing against an absent and uncaring God who failed to halt the slaughter the author saw around him. But he never achieved recognition as a “war poet”, like Rupert Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon, who are also commemorated in Poets’ Corner.

Not only did he fail to secure recognition for his war poetry, he was not acclaimed as a poet of any kind, as the lack of interest in his second volume of verse – Dymer (1926) – made painfully clear.

He went on to secure his reputation, rather, as a literary critic at Oxford and Cambridge, offering important assessments of the poetry of others, especially Edmund Spenser and John Milton.

He excelled at this task. His work on Milton drew attention to an aspect of his poetry that had been neglected – how it sounded to its readers. Lewis became acutely sensitive to the rhythm of the English language, whether poetry or prose. He never used a typewriter, explaining that the clattering of its keys destroyed his “sense of rhythm”.

For Lewis, a fountain pen enabled its user to be attuned to the melody of language.

In the end, the poetic vision that Lewis never quite managed to actualise in his verse was found instead in his prose. Here we find one of the keys to his success as a writer – his ability to meld simplicity and elegance in a way few could manage, connecting with his audience without losing elegance of expression. If you could not express something in simple language, Lewis later declared, it was because you had failed to understand it yourself.

With his Chronicles of Narnia , especially The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950), Lewis created a whole new world that has captured the imagination of many a generation of young readers.

The noble lion Aslan, lord of the mysterious world of Narnia, has become one of the most familiar Christ-figures in English literature. Lewis died on the day President John F Kennedy was assassinated.

In a speech at Amherst College four weeks before his death, honouring the great American poet Robert Frost, Kennedy said: “We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.”

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