As I've mentioned, 1963 was a big year for author deaths: Robert Frost, Sylvia Plath, and, on the day John F Kennedy died, C.S. Lewis. Frost is one of my favourite poets. Plath I like, and I think if we'd known each other we could have been friends. But Lewis, for me, is on a shelf of his own. How do you describe a writer you've known since before you could read? Whose voice narrated your childhood and who furnished your imagination from his own? I'm loth to sound like one of those mad, starry-eyed Lewisites who run societies and newsletters and colleges in his honour (wouldn't he have hated that?), which is why I don't talk about him much in these pages. But I'd be lying if I said he hadn't influenced and shaped me more than any other writer I've ever read. The fiftieth anniversary of his death falls this November. Between now and then I would like to use the occasion to write about him, and try to say something of what he has meant to me. In particular, I'd like to draw attention to his poetry, which seems largely unknown and underrated. Today, then, a poem I've had humming in my head these last few days. Not his best or my favourite, but lovely. Lewis's life seemed so full of hardship and sacrifice and forebearance, it's nice to think of him having one unreasonably good day.
All day I have been tossed and whirled in a preposterous happiness:
Was it an elf in the blood? or a bird in the brain? or even part
Of the cloudily crested, fifty-league-long, loud uplifted wave
Of a journeying angel’s transit roaring over and through my heart?
My garden’s spoiled, my holidays are cancelled, the omens harden;
The plann’d and unplann’d miseries deepen; the knots draw tight.
Reason kept telling me all day my mood was out of season.
It was, too. In the dark ahead the breakers only are white.
Yet I –I could have kissed the very scullery taps. The colour of
My day was like a peacock’s chest. In at each sense there stole
Ripplings and dewy sprinkles of delight that with them drew
Fine threads of memory through the vibrant thickness of the soul.
As though there were transparent earths and luminous trees should grow there,
And shining roots worked visibly far down below one’s feet,
So everything, the tick of the clock, the cock crowing in the yard
Probing my soil, woke diverse buried hearts of mine to beat,
Recalling either adolescent heights and the inaccessible
Longings and ice-sharp joys that shook my body and turned me pale,
Or humbler pleasures, chuckling as it were in the ear, mumbling
Of glee, as kindly animals talk in a children’s tale.
Who knows if ever it will come again, now the day closes?
No-one can give me, or take away, that key. All depends
On the elf, the bird, or the angel. I doubt if the angel himself
Is free to choose when sudden heaven in man begins or ends.