In an October 2012 blog, “A Tribute to a Mentor,” I told the story of C.S. Lewis’ great teacher, William Kirkpatrick. He was called “The Great Knock” by the Lewis family, and he absolutely transformed C.S. Lewis’ way of thinking. Without “Kirk,” Lewis may never have found his place in the academy or learned to follow the evidence where it leads in matters of logic and philosophy.
As I noted before, an entire chapter of his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, is dedicated to Kirkpatrick’s influence. It tells the humorous story of their first meeting where Lewis was stripped of intellectual prejudices and the process of rebuilding his young mind began. It was exactly the antidote Lewis needed to the poison of academic mediocrity and social terror that had been his education up until that time.
The Great Knock was an analytical thinker. “If ever a man came near to being a purely logical entity, that man was Kirk.” The “either-or” style of Lewis’ argumentation we see in his apologetical works, and ultimately in the character of Screwtape, is certainly formed in those years he spent with Kirk. When one of his opponents were defeated in conversation and retreated with a “Well, you have your opinion…,” The Great Knock would respond, “Good heavens! I have no opinions on any subject whatsoever.” Lewis loved it, and found his teenage atheism augmented by Kirk’s rationalism. As far as Lewis was concerned, Kirk’s logic had only one gap:
I have said that he was almost wholly logical; but not quite. He had been a Presbyterian and was now an Atheist. He spent Sunday, as he spent most of his time on weekdays, working in his garden. But one curious trait from his Presbyterian youth survived. He always, on Sundays, gardened in a different, and slightly more respectable, suit. An Ulster Scot may come to disbelieve in God, but not to wear his weekday clothes on the Sabbath (Chapter IX: The Great Knock).
These were formative times—1914-1917—and Lewis was being prepared intellectually in his teen years by a man who excelled academically, who absolutely loved classical literature, and who saw in Lewis the makings of a great mind. In 1921, not long after Lewis had gone to war and then excelled at Oxford, Kirkpatrick passed away. Lewis wrote a tribute of the man to his father:
It is however no sentiment, but plainest fact to say that I at least owe to him in the intellectual sphere as much as one human being can owe another. That he enabled me to win a scholarship is the least that he did for me. It was an atmosphere of unrelenting clearness and rigid honesty of thought that one breathed from living with him–and this I shall be the better for as long as I live.
Lewis himself would say that it was Kirk’s logical and atheistic tutelage that eventually led him to convert to Christianity. It is with no little humour, I presume, that it is the character of Mother Kirk that carries him through to conversion in his allegorical conversion narrative, The Pilgrim’s Regress—“Kirk” being not only Kirkpatrick’s nickname, but the Scottish name for the church. A further tribute come in the character Digory Kirke in The Magician’s Nephew and The Last Battle, so we see him in the elusive figure of the Professor in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (see the original blog for a great Kirkian quotation).
Perhaps Lewis goes too far making his atheistic mentor a believer within his fictional worlds, but he was invested in finding some form of tribute for Kirk. I shouldn’t be surprised, then, to find a poem C.S. Lewis wrote in tribute to The Great Knock.
I don’t know much about C.S. Lewis’ poetry, but two figures seem to me to be the most important in this area. Chad Walsh was an early Lewis biographer and in 1979 wrote The Literary Legacy of C.S. Lewis. Don King is a professor at Montreat College and has worked in Lewis’ poetry for a generation. I was reading his essay, “Glints of Light: The Unpublished Short Poetry of C. S. Lewis” (in SEVEN: An Anglo-American Literary Review 15 (1998): 73-96), which includes a number of Lewis’ poems that are nowhere else published. One of them is a tribute to “Old Kirk,” “father Time himself,” his “third and greatest teacher.” We don’t have the entire poem, but here is the fragment from King’s essay:
Old Kirk, like father Time himself, was coming after,
With clouds of cheap tobacco smoke, with claps of laughter,
My third and greatest teacher who of old had taught
My father; then my brother; and now I was brought
A solitary pupil where he lived alone
With few books and no friends, and in his garden, sown
Up to the gates with green utilitarian kale,
Laboured all day, a tall, gnarled shape, hirsute and hale
As Charon: crude antiquity: a leathery, lean
Northeaster of a man whose seventy years had seen,
Unflinching, many hopes destroyed. He drew his blood
From the brave, bitter Presbyterian race who stood
For Calvin to the gallow’s foot. But Kirk allowed
No God in the world, nor spirit in man. He did not shroud
That unbelief in pious frauds, as teachers love.
He thought the reverence owed to boys was Truth. He drove
With lance in rest and loud Have-at-thee on the foe,
Hammer of priests and kings, true lineage of Rousseau
Hume and Voltaire. And all the enlightenment’s gay din
Of onset rang about his veteran ears, and in
And out of season (Covenanter still) he preached
The word of death.
But mark this well: his daring reached
Never so far as to forbid each seventh day
A Presbyterian shift of suits from rusty grey
To rusty black. He gardened differently clad
On Sundays. Such peculiar praise the Mighty had
One day in seven from this redoubtable, whose boast
Of reason meant to shake the Throne. On the iron coast
Of such a man, with noise of yeasty waves, the young
Spring-swellings of my uncorrected mind were flung
So often that even now I see him as he spoke
Fling up his arm, and hear him from the cloud of smoke
Break in. “I hear you well enough. Stop there! I hear!
Have you read this—and that—and the other?–Hah! I fear
You’ve got no facts. Give me the FACTS!” Repeated shame
Silenced my babbling: months wore on, and I became
Aware how the discourse of men (what none before
Of all my teachers showed me), asks for something more
Than lungs and lips. Across my landscape, like the dawn,
Some image of the sovranty [sic] of truth was drawn,
And how to have believed an unproved thing by will
Pollutes the mind’s virginity; how reasons kill
Beloved supposals: day makes dry lesser lights,
And mountain air is med’cinal. Oh Attic nights
And rigour of debate! Shrewd blows. Parry and thrust.
No quarter. And above us like a battle dust
Fine particles of poets and philosophers
Went flying in the midnight room. I had my spurs
Of intellectual knighthood in that bannered field
From Kirk’s strong hand. He first hung on my maiden shield
Who now is dead, and died without hope, like a beast.
Let tongue and pen betray me if I break the least
Of the oaths he then administered, the glittering laws
Of battle; blameless champion of a pitiful cause.
(originally in Lewis Papers, IV, 64-65)
I agree with King that we see:
In these fifty four lines Lewis presents a vivid picture of Kirkpatrick, immortalized as “The Great Knock” in SJ. In the poetic fragment Lewis describes Kirkpatrick with both wit and respect. For example, on the one hand, he says Kirkpatrick was like “father Time himself” trailing “clouds of cheap tobacco smoke” and planting a garden “with green utilitarian kale.” On the other hand, he notes the old man was a Charon-like figure, and he follows this with a wonderfully evocative metaphor that is perhaps the best in the whole poem: “[He was] a leathery, lean / Northeaster of a man.”
There are some very strong images there. And we also see how closely this poem matches the chapter in Surprised by Joy. Clearly Lewis had a fixed image of The Great Knock in his mind as he moves on in the poem to speak of Kirk’s belief and teaching practice–his atheism and pedagogy are bound up in one:
“He thought the reverence owed to boys was Truth”
The ambivalence of the the imagery in the last lines–“dead … without hope,” “like a beast,” “betray,” “break”–make me wonder if Lewis knew the danger of his tribute, of the believer lifting a glass–and setting pen to paper–in honour of the great skeptic. I will let the reader decide.