Barely a week after arriving at the Western Front in France in November 1917, Second Lieutenant C. S. Lewis found himself under enemy fire. Nothing could have prepared him for the wretched realities of trench warfare. With the sound of guns all about him, he wrote a poem, “French Nocturne,” as cynical and bereft of hope as anything produced by anti-war poets such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen:
What call have I to dream of anything?
I am a wolf. Back to the world again,
And speech of fellow-brutes that once were men
Our throats can bark for slaughter: cannot sing.
More like it would follow, as Lewis and his battalion, the Somerset Light Infantry, spent Christmas and the New Year under intense enemy assault. In 1919 Lewis published a collection of his wartime poetry under the title “Spirits in Bondage,” a line from Milton’s Paradise Lost. His book of poems was republished last year, the first reprinting in decades, with an insightful introduction by Karen Swallow Prior.
Readers who admire Lewis for his Christian apologetics or his children’s series, The Chronicles of Narnia, may be stunned to discover his dark outlook as a young man. Yet this book arrives at an opportune time: a season of deep anxiety and trauma as millions struggle with the ravaging effects of a global pandemic. Lewis reminds us that poetry has a unique power to communicate the grief and rage instigated by seemingly meaningless suffering. At the same time, there is something else—a stab of joy and longing—that suggests a deeper truth beyond the walls of this world.
In The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell observed that many of the young British soldiers of Lewis’s generation were literary men whose minds were saturated with medieval and Victorian tales of adventure and heroism. Romantic novels such as William Morris’s The Well at the World’s End, published in 1896, were staples of their imaginative world. “There was hardly a literate man who fought between 1914 and 1918 who hadn’t read it, and been powerfully excited by it in his youth,” Fussell explained. Lewis was among them: “I have been reading again ‘The Well at the World’s End,’” he wrote to his friend Arthur Greeves in November 1915, “and it has completely ravished me.”
As common as this outlook may have been among English schoolboys, more ubiquitous, and more significant, was the cultural presumption of progress. Technological advances at the turn of the century, from the invention of the tractor to the first talking motion picture, seemed to portend progress in every realm of human endeavor. The social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer, required reading in the academy, fed the notion that Western civilization was marching inexorably forward—that humanity itself was maturing, advancing, evolving toward perfection. “I grew up believing in this Myth,” Lewis wrote much later, “and I have felt—I still feel—its almost perfect grandeur. . . . It is one of the most moving and satisfying world dramas which have ever been imagined.”
Yet the march of progress took an unexpected turn—into the industrial slaughterhouse of the First World War. In “Ode for New Year’s Day,” Lewis describes a catastrophic reversal of human fortunes:
Thrice happy, O Despoina, were the men who were alive
In the great age and the golden age when still the cycle ran
On upward curve and easily, for them both maid and man
And beast and tree and spirit in the green earth could thrive.
But now one age is ending, and God calls home the stars
And looses the wheel of the ages and sends it spinning back
Amid the death of nations, and points a downward track,
And madness is come over us and great and little wars.
Thus, World War I, preceded by an attachment to romantic and utopian illusions, produced a generation of authors utterly disillusioned with the ideals of Western civilization. Honor, patriotism, courage, valor, virtue, faith: None of these ideas seemed comprehensible amid the mortars and machine guns that terminated the lives of millions of men in their prime.
Lewis felt the sorrows of war deeply and personally. In April 1918 he was seriously wounded by a mortar shell that obliterated his beloved sergeant, Harry Ayers, who was standing nearby. Lewis wrote a letter to his father from his hospital bed in Bristol, England: “I could sit down and cry over the whole business. . . . Nearly all my friends in the Battalion are gone.”
It was in the months that followed, while Lewis was recovering from his injuries, that his collection of poems took shape. He had largely abandoned his Anglican faith in his teens; the war seemed to solidify his doubts. In a letter to Arthur Greeves he explained that his poetry was “mainly strung around the idea . . . that nature is wholly diabolical and malevolent and that God, if He exists, is outside of and in opposition to the cosmic arrangement.”
The poem “In Prison” expresses a “bitter wrath” against a “hopeless life” caught up forever “in a circling path.” In “Satan Speaks,” God is portrayed as a cosmic sadist, indifferent to humankind with its “loathing for the life that I have given / A haunted, twisted soul for ever riven.” In “De Profundis,” the echoes of Milton’s portrait of Satan—“It is better to reign in hell than serve in heaven”—are unmistakable:
Come let us curse our Master ere we die,
For all our hopes in endless ruin lie.
The good is dead. Let us curse God most high . . .
Yet I will not bow down to thee nor love thee,
For looking in my own heart I can prove thee,
And now this frail, bruised being is above thee.
Despite the misery of man’s bondage to a life that appears futile, the poet never quite abandons hope: The intense longing for a faraway country, a place of beauty and noble purpose, is never extinguished. In “World’s Desire,” the poet seeks after “the sacred court, hidden high upon the mountains,” where “lovely folk” are found “breathing in another air, drinking of a purer fountain,” where “there’s a place for you and me.”
Lewis had arrived at Oxford University in 1917 to study English literature, but his plans were interrupted by the war, a turn of events he deeply resented. Nevertheless, the beauty of the city, the love of learning, the community of minds on a quest for truth—all of this kept alive the suspicion that materialism could not account for the human condition. In “Oxford,” the poet frankly admits:
We are not wholly brute. To us remains
A clean, sweet city lulled by ancient streams,
A place of visions and of loosening chains,
A refuge of the elect, a tower of dreams.
When Spirits in Bondage was published in 1919, Lewis had just returned to Oxford to complete his degree. Although thrilled to have his poetry in print, he was anxious about how his father, an observant Anglican, would receive it. In a letter to Lewis’s brother, Albert Lewis took a philosophical view, predicting that “if Oxford does not spoil him, . . . he may write something that men would not willingly let die.”
Indeed, nearly 60 years after his passing, Clive Staples Lewis seems to have found a permanent place in the literary world. His children’s books have sold over 100 million copies and been translated into dozens of languages. Virtually everything he produced—poems, essays, novels, fantasy, satire, science fiction, literary criticism—is still in print. And, yet, apart from his early poetry, nearly all of it bears the mark of a man who shook off the chains of disbelief: the Christian pilgrim who, after much struggle, finally discovered “the sacred court, hidden high upon the mountains.”
This piece originally appeared in The National Review