After my Monday post about C.S. Lewis’ diary entry 90 years ago, a reader asked why I didn’t just go the distance and include a letter from 100 years ago. While I’m as much a fan of centenary celebrations as the next chap, 100 years ago Lewis was 15 and was not writing letters nearly as much as he did when he became a popular author. And he wrote no diary that has survived the passage of time–or at least none that has emerged. So there was no entry 100 years ago last Monday.
But there is a letter for 100 years ago today, Oct 26th. He was 15, and writing to his father from Malvern, his boarding school. Lewis describes the soul-destroying horrors of Malvern in Surprised by Joy, but in his letters home he seemed to put a good face on it. In a previous letter, postmarked Oct 19, 1913, he includes a poem he wrote, which had won the award for his year and was granted honour in the school:
“’Carpe Diem’” after Horace’‘
In the metre of “Locksley Hall”’ (Tennyson)
When, in haughty exultation, thou durst laugh in
Or when thou hast sunk down weary, trampled in
The ceaseless race,
Dellius, think on this I pray thee–but the
Twinkling of an eye,
May endure thy pain or pleasure; for thou knowest
Thou shalt die,
Whether on some breeze-kissed upland, with a
Flask of mellow wine,
Thou hast all the world forgotten, stretched be-
Neath the friendly pine,
Or, in foolish toil consuming all the springtime
Of thy life,
Thou hast worked for useless silver and endured
The bitter strife:
Still unchanged thy doom remaineth. Thou art
Set towards thy goal,
Out into the empty breezes soon shall flicker
Forth thy soul,Here then by the plashing streamlet fill the
Tinkling glass I pray
Bring the short lived rosy garlands, and be
In his Oct 26th letter to Papy, he references the poem, which is rewarded with some money that Lewis needed for some project at school. He hated school sports, yet speaks fondly of what appears–from an educational, organizational standpoint–to be an absolute failure of a field trip. Almost precisely the opposite of what he writes in his autobiography, Lewis describes a typical schoolmate as being not nearly as tough as he appears. Having lost his own mother, he seems to show some empathy for a classmate, Stone, who five years later died in battle in WWI. In this letter, Stone’s mother has died; I don’t know when else Lewis speaks of another fellow’s mother’s death.
My dear P.,
I hope it did not seem that my act of sending you the poem was meant for a ‘draw’, which it was not. All the same, thanks very much for the P.O. which has restored ‘the firm’ to its pristine health and prosperity.
Anderson, one of the people in our study, has just received a huge crate of pictures from home which will enable us to sell some of our older pictures and raise capital. I had not been able to see about the extra copies of the Cherbourg magazine, as I have not yet been up to see Tubbs. I think however that I am going up today, when I shall be able to transact all my business.
On Thursday we had our field day and it was really a great affair. We started for the place, which is quite near Malvern about an hours march, at ten o’clock. W’s [his brother, Warren’s] friend Captain Tassell was in great form, mounted on a steed of which he was obviously terrified. Of course no one knew in the least what was meant to be happening, but we all dashed about, lying down and firing at intervals: on the whole it was very enjoyable.
You ask me what type of person one meets at Malvern: I will tell you. The average Malvernian may be, in fact usually is, a very good fellow in reality, but he always does his best to make himself out as bad as possible. Never believe his own account of his thoughts, deeds, or ideals. It is always far worse than the truth. Beyond this very childish and thoroughly British foible, there are very few faults in him. When you break through the shell of foolish affectation, you find him an honest kind hearted manly enough sort of fellow. At least that is how six weeks acquaintance of him strikes me. To use for once the phrase you have condemned, ‘I may be wrong’. But I think not.
Yesterday there was a lecture in the Gym by that man Kearton who came to the Hippodrome last holidays. I must confess that I thought him very poor indeed. So we did not miss much by leaving that ‘popular house of entertainment’ alone.
The mother of Stone, one of our House Pres., has died this week and he has consequently gone home. It is a very nasty business.
Thanks for sharing this insight into the young Lewis. Sadly, in most relationships children become guarded in what they can really discuss with their parents. Open, honest communication is a prize to be pursued with vigor and, when experienced, celebrated with joy.
It is a strange thing, this need for secrets. His Papy did end up figuring it out–Lewis got sick and stayed home and eventually the tutor, the Great Knock, was called. But the letters make Whyvern seem like tart pie.
Thank you for the poem! Reflections on mortality — that’s common to a lot of 15 year olds. But his use of language and enjoyment of the meter from Tennyson is above the common. (Though I suspect many of your readers were attempting similar verse at that age.)
I certainly wasn’t!