Sunday, August 10, 2014

Hermione in the House of Paulina by CS Lewis

Re-reading and reviewing George MacDonald's book The Wise Woman last week called to mind a wonderful, evocative poem from CS Lewis--a great fan of his--which for all the world appears to be about the Wise Woman herself and her mysterious house. More ostensibly, the poem seems to have been inspired by Shakespeare's play The Winter's Tale. (Spoilers ahead! If you want to miss them, skip straight to the poem.) In this play a king, driven mad by jealousy, puts his wife Hermione on trial for adultery. The ordeal causes her to collapse, and Paulina, the wife of the king's councillor Antigonus, reports her death. At the end of the play, sixteen years later, with Hermione vindicated and the king repentant, Paulina invites the king to her secluded house in order to view a statue of the departed queen. When they arrive at the house, the king and his men are convinced that this is a statue--then they speak of how lifelike it appears--then it steps down and is Hermione herself.

Scholars have debated for years over whether the explanation of this plotline is meant to be magical or mundane. Did Hermione actually die, and was brought back to life? Or was Paulina fibbing, and did she only go into hiding for sixteen years? The play contains evidence for both viewpoints, but I believe Shakespeare left the question intentionally vague. Whichever view you take, CS Lewis' poem provides his own theory to explain the play, one that falls somewhere between fantasy and realism and squarely into mythopoeia:

Hermione in the House of Paulina

How soft it rains, how nourishingly soft and green
Has grown the dark humility of this low house
Where sunrise never enters, where I have not seen
The moon by night nor heard the footfall of a mouse,
Nor looked on any face but yours
Nor changed my posture in my place of rest
For fifteen years--oh how this quiet cures
My pain and sucks the burning from my breast.

It sucked out all the poison of my will and drew
All hot rebellion from me, all desire to break
The silence you commanded me. . . . Nothing to do,
Nothing to fear or wish for, not a choice to make,
Only to be; to hear no more Cock-crowing duty calling me to rise,
But slowly thus to ripen laid in store
In this dim nursery near your watching eyes.

Pardon, great spirit, whose tall shape like a golden tower
Stands over me or seems upon slow wings to move,
Coloring with life my paleness, with returning power,
By sober ministrations of severest love;
Pardon, that when you brought me here,
Still drowned in bitter passion, drugged with life,
I did not know . . . pardon, I thought you were
Paulina, old Antigonus' young wife.


Anonymous said...

I have never read The Wise Woman but this is a beautiful poem by C.S. Lewis. I've recently been on a C.S. Lewis binge. Thanks for sharing.

Suzannah said...

It is beautiful, and I think it's even better after you understand its connection to The Winter's Tale, which didn't immediately occur to me!


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