The Earliest Lewis
Published a few months after the end of the Great War in the wake of the vogue for “soldier poets”, this slim verse cycle (a prologue and 40 short poems) was C. S. Lewis' first book. Sales were meager, and it was never reprinted during the author's lifetime.
The poet was not yet 21, and his world view was dominated by two principles: rage-filled atheism (“I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry with God for not existing. I was equally angry with Him for creating a world.”) and romantic longing (in the words of the prologue, ”Sing about the Hidden Country fresh and full of quiet green/ Sailing over seas uncharted to a port that none has seen”). In the long run, these proved incompatible. In 1919 they still lived side by side. Through the first 21 poems of the cycle (“The Prison House”), the former predominates. In the second half (“Hesitation” and “The Escape”), an occult-tinged search for a spiritual world that may or may not actually exist offers release from bondage, climaxing in the finale “Death in Battle [xl]”:
Open the gates for me,
Open the gates of the peaceful castle, rosy in the West,
In the sweet dim Isle of Apples over the wide sea's breast,
Open the gates for me!
Sorely pressed have I been
And driven and hurt beyond bearing this summer day,
But the heat and the pain together suddenly fell away,
All’s cool and green.
But a moment agone,
Amongst men cursing in fight and toiling, blinded I fought,
But the labor passed on a summer even as a passing thought,
And now - alone!
Ah, to be ever alone,
In flowery valleys among the mountains and silent wastes untrod,
In the dewy upland places, in the garden of God,
This would atone!
I shall not see
The brutal, crowded faces around me that in their toil have grown
Into the faces of devils - yea, even as my own -
When I find thee,
O Country of my Dreams!
Beyond the tide of the ocean, hidden and sunk away,
Out of the sound of battles, near to the end of day,
Full of dim woods and streams.
“Death in Battle” is distinctly the highlight, as well as the conclusion, of the cycle. The beginning is also good, a bleak, powerful “Satan Speaks [i]”: “I am Nature, the Mighty Mother,/ I am the law: ye have none other.” In between are striking lines (“And here he builds a nebula, and there he slays a sun” (“Ode for New Year's Day [viii]”)) but also many collections of images that fail to cohere (the two poems entitled “Night” [ix and xxix]) and much bald exposition that gains nothing from being set in verse (“Dungeon Grates [xv]”, an apparent attempt to spell out the “philosophy” underlying Richard Lovelace's “To Althea, From Prison”).
Often talent and imagination overcome technical faults. Although “The Star Bath [xxxvi]” is almost as badly overloaded as the two “Nights”, its image of a primeval cleansing of the heavens clings to the reader's memory. “Irish Nocturne [v]”, where the fog of industrial pollution symbolizes modern spiritual lethargy, has its clumsy moments but also these closing lines:
For I know that the colourless skies
And the blurred horizons breed
Lonely desire and many words and brooding and never a deed.
Scattered also here and there are fantasy vignettes that relieve the heaviness of their companions and look forward to the “pictures in my head” that gave rise to Lewis' best work. “Spooks [vi]” tells of a ghost lingering at his sweetheart's door, “The Witch [xiv]” of an enchantress' flight through the woods, “How He Saw Angus the God [xxxiii]” of a Celtic epiphany.
If Lewis had written nothing else, this volume would not have kept his name alive. Few but Lewis completists are likely to buy it, but that few will, I think, find it more readable and interesting than they anticipated.
N. B. Walter Hooper's 1994 edition of Lewis' Poems, published only in Great Britain, includes Spirits in Bondage. Earlier editions did not.