Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Spirits in Bondage by Clive Hamilton (CS Lewis)

One of the many slim volumes of poetry that emerged from WWI is of lasting interest to us, for it was written by CS Lewis under a pseudonym and was his first published work. It appeared in 1919, twelve years before his conversion, and is a fascinating glimpse at the mind of the man who would later capitulate to Tolkien and Dyson on that memorable night when they persuaded him to believe that there really was magic in the world.

For a long time I have known why Lewis converted from angry atheism to passionate Christianity. Although he was angry at God, he would read old myths and long with a fierce desire that they were true. His problem was that, as an atheist in a material universe, he could not believe that anything so wonderful could be true, and he desperately wanted it to be. Again and again in Spirits in Bondage, he cries out for those sweet, stirring old stories, only to recollect that they were lies:

Is it good to tell old tales of Troynovant
Or praises of dead heroes, tried and sage,
Or sing the queens of unforgotten age,
Brynhild and Maeve and virgin Bradamant?

[…]

All these were rosy visions of the night,
The loveliness and wisdom feigned of old.
But now we wake. The East is pale and cold,
No hope is in the dawn, and no delight.


Or in another of his poems:

Roland is dead, Cuchulain's crest is low,
The battered war-gear wastes and turns to rust,
And Helen's eyes and Iseult's lips are dust
And dust the shoulders and the breasts of snow.

The faerie people from our woods are gone,
No Dryads have I found in all our trees,
No Triton blows his horn about our seas
And Arthur sleeps far hence in Avalon.


Another of the things that pained him was this: in the medieval cosmology, the stars and planets were living things, angels or gods, with distinct and gracious personalities that breathed out influence onto the earth. As an atheist, Lewis was forced to believe that the stars really were only flaming balls of gas, sterile and unromantic. In “In Prison” he sings:

I lost my way in the pale starlight
And saw our planet, far and small,
Through endless depths of nothing fall
A lonely pin-prick spark of light,
Upon the wide, enfolding night,
With leagues on leagues of stars above it,
And powdered dust of stars below—
Dead things that neither hate nor love it
Not even their own loveliness can know,
Being but cosmic dust and dead.


Spirits in Bondage is a curiously frank picture of a man who wishes there was really goodness and beauty and benevolence in the universe, did not find it in the religion of his childhood, and has now reacted into an atheism that he hates, for it too prevents him from believing in the kindly and poetic supernatural. It is wonderful that his questions were so neatly answered by Tolkien and Dyson, who alone could have shown him that supernatural, mythic beauty is at the heart of the faith. Balder the beautiful may never have lived, and may never have died, but as a reflection of Christ, he had meaning. The music of the spheres might have been a medieval superstition...or it might not. Perhaps the stars do sing!

But here Lewis is lost and confused, and his second “Satan Speaks” poem, which begins “I am the Lord your God” seems to depict the gnostic universe, where the harsh and unforgiving God of the Bible sinned against the Prime Mover, the true “God”, by making a material world in which to imprison humanity. Like many atheists, Lewis remains obsessed with a terrifying God:

I fear to cross the garden, I fear to linger there,
For in that house I know a little, silent room
Where Someone's always waiting, waiting in the gloom
To draw me with an evil eye, and hold me fast—
Yet thither doom will drive me and He will win at last.


In the third section of the collection, entitled, “Escape”, Lewis dreams of escaping his materialistic prison into the world he longed for. This is close to the Gnostic doctrine of escape from the evil material universe, but not quite. It is not matter qua matter that Lewis rebels against: it is materialism, which says that there is nothing beyond matter. Curiously, this section is less angry at God and “Song” is actually reverent:

Atoms dead could never thus
Stir the human heart of us
Unless the beauty that we see
The veil of endless beauty be,
Filled full of spirits that have trod
Far hence along the heavenly sod
And see the bright footprints of God.


Spirits in Bondage is a haunting, occasionally cliched collection of poetry by a young man still idealistic despite the War, torn between reason and desire. Read in the light of Lewis's eventual conversion and theology, it's also surprisingly prescient—it's all here in embryo form.

Gutenberg etext
Librivox recording

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