‘Arch-natural Psalms’: The Poetry of The Great Divorce (Guest Post by David Llewellyn Dodds)

great-divorce5I am excited to present this intriguing study of The Great Divorce by David Llewellyn Dodds. I think David started working this out in the conversation section of a previous blog! As the ideas were coming together, I encouraged him to publish his thoughts on A Pilgrim in Narnia. As you may know, we are committed here to a recovery of The Great Divorce. Sometimes passed over, it is a hidden gem. It will, we hope, but a C.S. Lewis Cinderella Story of books. 

David Llewellyn Dodds is a scholar and writer whose academic work plays at the intersections between Charles Williams, poetry, and Arthurian literature. In this short academic paper, David is working out an idea about the “Psalms” in The Great Divorce. He gives chapter numbers instead of page numbers so you can follow along, and it will be provocative for those who know the book well. 

pilgrims regress cs lewis fountIn Lewis’s first published prose fiction, The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933), the dream-vision is characterized in the last two books by poems amidst the prose. Perhaps not dissimilarly, in the later part of The Great Divorce (chs. 11, 13) the dreaming Lewis hears two songs, which, on closer inspection prove to be adaptations of two psalms. Not versifications, as have been common since the Reformation, and produced by such poets as Wyatt, the Sidneys, Herbert, and Milton, but a sort of prose poems like the chantable Coverdale translations of the Psalter published in The Book of Common Prayer (which Lewis later called “in beauty, in poetry, […] beyond all […] I know” – shortly before accepting an invitation to help revise them).  Indeed, the adaptations observe their orthographic conventions of capitals beginning the verses and colons subdividing them.

Who sings them? The answer for the second (an adaptation of Psalm 91:3-7, 11-13, 16) is easiest: “Bright Spirits” – presumably the “bright Spirits, not the Spirits of men,” who led Sarah Smith’s procession (ch. 12). However, since the second of the “Bright People” whom Lewis ever heard speak he  called a “Spirit” (ch. 5), it is conceivable that they, or both angels and humans together, are meant. There is a similar ambiguity when he hears “their singing” at that first appearance of her procession (the details of which music Lewis cannot remember).

cs lewis the great divorce awesome coverWho sings the first adaptation (of Psalm 110:1-4) is harder to answer. It follows the only dialogue between an Angel and a Ghost. But Lewis says, “It was the voice of that earth, those woods and those waters” and then glosses this, “The Nature or Arch-nature of that land rejoiced […]. It sang”.

This recalls an earlier event, of speech rather than song, and one-sided admonition and invitation rather than dialogue. Then, Lewis “knew that the waterfall itself was speaking” to Ikey, and next saw “that it was also a bright angel, who stood, like one crucified” – and it speaks of “the very leaves and the blades of grass” delighting to teach (ch. 6).

Is the “Nature or Arch-nature”, then, angelic, as that “Water-Giant” (ch. 7) was?

The earlier scene also proves a foil of that with Sarah Smith. Ikey is the second Ghost to talk with Lewis (ch. 2) and one of the Ghosts treated at greatest length. When Lewis sees him again (ch. 6) he is trying to put into practice his earlier plan to “come back with some real commodities” and so “be a public benefactor”.  Ikey had said he was “not going this trip for my health” and didn’t “think it would suit me up there.” Lewis learns that what he calls Ikey’s apple-bearing “via dolorosa to the bus” is a fruitless one when the angel tells Ikey, “You cannot take it back. There is no room for it in Hell.” The scene could be a working out of Mr. Vane’s brief confession in MacDonald’s Lilith (1895) “to an altogether foolish dream of opening a commerce in gems between the two worlds – happily impossible”, and, not unlike Ikey, he had similarly vain aspirations “for the development of a noble state” (ch. 34).

based on Great Divorce LewisThe striking description of the angel standing “like one crucified” seems reminiscent of a vision of which Chesterton, for example, gives a vivid account in his Saint Francis of Assisi (1923), saying  he saw ”a vast winged being like a seraph spread out like a cross”, and noting, “St. Bonaventure distinctly says that St. Francis doubted how a seraph could be crucified, since those awful and ancient principalities were without the infirmity of the Passion.”  In any case, the “Water-Giant”, like One crucified, as unfallen creature, obediently, freely “poured himself perpetually down” – something the penitent, like Sarah, can also do, while the impenitent, like Ikey, cannot yet do so, “not even the best and noblest” (ch. 11).

If angels and “the bright people” can truly attempt benefaction as someone like Ikey cannot, there are still limits to what they can do. Exactly echoing the words of “the Water-Giant”, MacDonald tells Lewis, of Sarah, “There’s not room for her”: like the apple, “She couldn’t fit into Hell.”  “Only the Greatest of all can make Himself small enough to enter Hell.”

C.S. LewisHere we meet two points about the psalms and their adaptations. Years later, in Reflections on the Psalms, Lewis discusses the likelihood of both of these psalms being understood in the New Testament not only as Messianic but as Christological in the sense of applying to Jesus as Messiah because that is how Jesus Himself understood them (chs. 11-12). The adapted Psalm 91 verses apply to Sarah because, as she says (ch. 12), she is “in Love Himself” and so “not lonely” – indeed, “The Happy Trinity is her home” – and in Christ in the Trinity she is “Strong, not weak.” She “will not stub her toes” as Ikey or even Lewis are still likely to do. And she could as well say to them as to Frank, “You shall be the same. Come and see.”

Behind Ikey’s aspirations to be a “benefactor” is fear: in the expectation “It will be dark presently” and “they come out when it’s dark”. These are hints of the devils so present in Screwtape, and seemingly so absent here. In Christ in the Psalms (2000), Patrick Henry Reardon, in discussing Psalm 91 (Septuagint and Vulgate 90), notes “the sustained persuasion that this psalm has to do with divine protection from satanic attack”.  And the adaptation in lines 4-6 seems to draw upon the Greek and Latin rather than simply, say, Coverdale, where he has “sickness” and they ‘daimoniou’/’daemonio’ and Douay-Rheims “devil”, while he and Douay-Rheims share “terror by [or “of the”] night”. (Lewis in fact named St. Jerome and Coverdale together in his praise of psalm translators “in beauty, in poetry, […] beyond all whom I know.”)


But it does so in a surprising way. Line 4 begins, “Bogeys will not scare her in the dark”.1  The 1929 Concise Oxford Dictionary notes ‘Bogy’/’Bogey’ as quoted only since 1840, and gives as range of meaning “The devil; goblin (nursery, the b. man); bugbear”, cross-referencing “Bogle” (“Phantom, goblin; bugbear; scarecrow”) which is said to have been introduced from “Scotch writers”. In this one word, the devil(s) can be at once taken seriously as enemy, and seriously scorned into place as foolish to near inanity. Almost The Screwtape Letters distilled to a noun.

As Sarah has spoken to Frank (though somehow bifurcated, or shrunken to the Dwarf while projecting – and succumbing to – the persona of the Tragedian), so hers is a psalm-adaptation of external relations, whether dangers averted, the company of creatures, or even the interrelations with the Persons of “The Happy Trinity” in her response to what Lewis elsewhere calls “the arch-natural appeal of the tenderest and closest personal relation that can be imagined” (Studies in Words (1967 ed. 2), p. 33).

The encounter and psalm-adaptation which precede hers are distinctly different in various particulars. Neither talking lizard nor mute stallion have human appearance, yet Ghost and Lizard converse with each other (as Dwarf and Tragedian do not), though the Ghost also says killing the Lizard would “tear me in pieces.” They seem to appear distinct, being in relation to each other, while also being one. And what sings is – or, sing in the plural, are – “The Nature or Arch-nature”, but not seen as at once “waterfall” and “also a bright angel” or any variety of such. And it “rejoiced to have been once more ridden, and therefore consummated, in the person [!] of the horse.”

cs lewis the great divorce 1st edWhere in Psalm 110 in exegesis within the New Testament “my Lord” is both David’s descendant and his Lord, Jesus, and “The Lord” is His Father, in this adaptation, “The Master” is (or includes) Jesus, and “our master” is perhaps the “new-made man” become rider, perhaps, too, each and all humans (potentially) such. (Interestingly, while the first “Lord” represents the Tetragrammaton in the Hebrew text, “master” is the preferred rendering of the second (l’adoni) in some Jewish translations.) To the psalm’s “Sion”, corresponds this song’s “the very Place” – surely translating the Hebrew Name of God, ‘HaMakom’, and so also corresponding to the psalm’s “The Lord” in three of these four verses. Behind the whole adaptation might well be seen the seventh in the second series of MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons (1886), “Abba, Father!”, with a text from Romans 8:15, and especially its attention to the passage from verses 18 to 25 of the same chapter.

When the Psalm 110 adaptation has been sung, Lewis, responding to the question “Do ye understand all this”, speaks of “everything […] that is in us”, and MacDonald stresses the need of every thing to be “killed”, to submit “to death”, quoting from 1 Corinthians 15:44, and insisting that Lewis ask, “if the risen body even of an appetite is as grand a horse as ye saw, what would the risen body of  maternal love or friendship be?” – and so preparing for the appearance of Sarah as the foil of Pam (and of the flirtatious Ghost) as well as of Ikey.

the great divorce usThe details of these songs of “new-made” people (in relation to the whole of themselves, and to the rest of creation, and especially to the Angels, as well as to their Creator) – of what we might call these ‘Arch-natural psalms’ (though what exactly that could mean, is not the least of the questions) – in comparison to their sources, invite and reward more attention than can be given here: both where they stay close to their source-psalms, and the success, or otherwise, of their exuberance and humour where they do not. But I might note, as parting suggestions for further brooding, the modernity and historical and imaginative sweep of the second, with its bullets, germs, clear glass, rattlesnakes, knights, and dinosaurs, and the challenge of what the first may entertain about Angels and “Arch-nature”.2

1Compare  – and contrast – Dymer (1926), III, 27, “A bogy will not scare me” in its context (and note, too, the “Bogies” and “bogy” of VII, 12 and 31 in their context). I assume the use of “Bogeys” in the song goes beyond the sense “Ghosts, plain and simple: mere bogies” (ch. 9), while including it.

2Arend Smilde has kindly drawn my attention to Lewis’s letter of 10 December 1958 to Corbin Scott Carnell: “I think I took over the expression Arch-Nature [in The Great Divorce] because it was C.W.’s own. The implication is, I suppose, the Platonic one & that the Real is not ganz anderes but the archetype of the Phenomenal.”

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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37 Responses to ‘Arch-natural Psalms’: The Poetry of The Great Divorce (Guest Post by David Llewellyn Dodds)

  1. sdorman2014 says:

    i was glad to see this. a bit hard for me to follow sitting at the screen, because of its formal academic standard, but it helped me think a bit more on the book. this post gave me a slant also on reciprocal qualities found in JRRT’s lothlorien, and brought up the “bogy” man in recall of grendel’s home.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thanks! I’d be interested to hear more of your thoughts about Lothlorien and about Grendel, if you had a mind (and the time) to share any of them!

    I have not yet read Tolkien’s edition of Beowulf, but was struck by his use of “bogies” in a passage Tom Hillman quotes from the appendix to his essay, Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics (1936), here:


    Liked by 2 people

    • sdorman2014 says:

      thank you so much! i apologize. i have only a little bit in answer and hope to get back to you on it early next week.

      Liked by 1 person

    • sdorman2014 says:

      Sorry to take so long getting back. Again, thank you for asking!

      I also have not read the Tolkien Beowulf but audited a course a couple years back in which we read the Chickering, and I listened repeatedly to the 19th century Francis Barton Gummere translation, read also a couple others (abridgments I think). But like I said it was two years ago and I don’t remember much… oh, I did listen again recently in preparation for a Mythgard Academy guest lecture. But in spite of all this, I’ve nothing much to add to what I have said above, that in just reading your entry here I was struck by the word bogy/bogey, and wondered how it might have originated.

      The specific qualities of beauty and light plus a certain regretful or elegiac feeling comes over me in reading this part of The Great Divorce and the Lothlórien experience in LotR. Since I’m old now (and so also don’t recall much offhand about the Beowulf enough to answer your question), I think aging may be the cause of my late experience with these texts. Gimli expresses it well, for my purpose, when he talks of his experience with the Lady of Lothlórien, and then turns aside the comfort in Legolas’ proffered consolation.

      “Tell me, Legolas, why did I come on this quest? Little did I know where the chief peril lay! Truly Elrond spoke, saying that we could not foresee what we might meet upon our road. Torment in the dark was a danger that I feared, and it did not hold me back. But I would not have come, had I known the danger of light and joy. Now I have taken my worst wound in this parting, even if I were to go this night straight to the Dark Lord. Alas for Gimli son of Glóin!”

      Perhaps Tolkien had something like this in mind when he was writing Smith of Wootton Major.

      In a Beowulf connection, and I’d be surprised if scholars have not noted this before, the Lady Galadriel, at the sole feast they enjoyed with her and her Lord, she takes and fills up the mead cup and gives first to Celeborn, and then goes round to each of the fellowship with it — as does the Queen of Hrothgar in the hall to each guest, including Beowulf.

      I now find Lewis’s outskirts of Heaven (the bright spirits, the voice of wood and water), and Tolkien’s Lothlórien, similarly evocative and haunting reading experiences, as I did not in my youth. (Example, singing and personification at waterfalls in both.) At that time I was excited, elevated in my marveling over these enchanted places (enchanting me). I’ve read the stories at various points in my life and they seem possessed of new affect each time. Can we have such beautiful passages without the spawning of elegiac regret in later life?

      Liked by 1 person

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Thank you! This calls for some thought – after a first ‘thank you’! I am largely elegaic-minded and have been since my youth, and (if it is not a rash word) Tolkien seems so, too – but in my strong sense of Lothlórien and the elegaic, I have not readily thought of Gimli’s experience. Again, while I am very aware of Lewis’s attention to Sehnsucht, The Great Divorce has not presented itself to me in this context. So, I shall, gratefully, try to think about this. (Lines from Tennyson’s “Tears, Idle Tears” come swimming up in my memory, I think in Vaughan Williams’s setting. Looking the text up – I cannot immediately find a recording of RVW – I am surprised to see “Fresh as the first beam glittering on a sail, / That brings our friends up from the underworld” – not among the lines that came to mind, and curious to read, in the context of The Great Divorce… a wandering tangent? “They are all gone into the world of light! / And I alone sit ling’ring here” – Henry Vaughan partly emerges and is further reread next. But does “Their very memory […] fair and bright,” Tennyson’s, or dreamer-Lewis’s, or “my sad thoughts […] clear”?)

        Liked by 1 person

        • sdorman2014 says:

          ‘But does “Their very memory […] fair and bright,” Tennyson’s, or dreamer-Lewis’s, or “my sad thoughts […] clear”?)’

          thank you! they did clear, i think, for gimli … after he picked up and continued on the quest.

          (apology for lowercase owing to hand/wrist numbness, repetitive stress and carpel tunnel syndrome)

          Liked by 1 person

          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Yes, as far as I can remember they did for Gimli. What imaginations are Tolkien’s of the Elves, and the Dwarves, and these interactions between Gimli and Elves, especially Galadriel and Legolas!

            I don’t know if you have read Charles Williams’s The Greater Trumps or not, but, stimulated by Sørina Higgins’s recent post about it, I am rereading it, and am struck by how the perspective of one main character, Henry Lee, at one point of the story (ch. 7) – and for a long time thereafter, for that matter – about the changing world as displayed by a table full of mysterious dancing figures, bears comparison with what Tolkien’s Elves and Dwarves know about their existence in Middle-earth. And by how another character, Sybil Coningsby, looking at the same ‘model’, uniquely sees more. She knows guilt, and sorrow, and suffering, but seemingly not the elegaic. (Whereas it might almost be fair to say that her slightly younger brother – of around my age! – knows little else.)

            Liked by 2 people

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  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    An interesting Chesterton quotation with “bogey”, thanks to Hanna at Book Geeks Anonymous, from “The Red Angel” in Tremendous Trifles:

    Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.


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  6. sdorman2014 says:

    do you know if CSL had read Forster’s “Celestial Omnibus” (first publication 1911)?


    • He read “Howard’s End.” Other than that, he called Forster the silliest of the humanists and a “high-minded old twaddler.” Lewis says, “I’m disappointed, though, to find that E. M. Forster (whose novels I enjoy) is such an ass.” He also wondered if Forster should get a Nobel.


      • sdorman2014 says:

        friend, it looks like there’s something on this Celestial Omnibus connection in a mythlore 79 article by Douglas Loney (info from google books). in an index it’s described as “a debt.” (haven’t read the article but recently read the story and thought then of this TGD thread.)


        • Thanks for the note on this. I wish Mythlore was archived in a way that I could get at without significant cost!
          I don’t know the Omnibus or Forster, really. There is so much to catch in that half of the century!


          • sdorman2014 says:

            yes! they are volunteer and so much might even yet be digitized.

            your plate already overflows, i know. 🙂 so forgive my taking up time, and no need to respond. this is off your CSL topic, so is just in passing… i’m not a total forster fan but do like some of his lectures, and some if not all qualities of his work. especially i like /the machine stops/. its setting a bit like that of owen barfield’s /night operation/. here’s a c&p from forster’s lectures, a quotation on the prophetic novel–what i think he’s getting at is prophetic /qualities/:

            “With prophecy in the narrow sense of foretelling the future we have no concern, and we have not much concern with it as an appeal for righteousness. What will interest us today—what we must respond to, for interest now becomes an inappropriate word—is an accent in the novelist’s voice, an accent for which the flutes and saxophones of fantasy may have prepared us. His theme is the universe, or something universal, but he is not necessarily going to say anything about the universe; he proposes to sing, and the strangeness of song arising in the halls of fiction is bound to give us a shock. How will song combine with the furniture of common sense? we shall ask ourselves, and shall have to answer “not too well”: the singer does not always have room for his gestures, the tables and chairs get broken, and the novel through which bardic influence has passed often has a wrecked air, like a drawing-room after an earthquake or a children’s party.”


            • I’ve downloaded a copy of the Machine Stops and the Omnibus–I will definitely want to get to them. I wish I had more time to read.
              ” How will song combine with the furniture of common sense?”–a great question for our multimedia generation.

              Liked by 1 person

          • Janet Brennan Croft says:

            Just ran across this blog post now while looking for something else — much of Mythlore IS now available online at https://dc.swosu.edu/mythlore/!


  7. sdorman2014 says:

    for audio, there are four versions of the first at librivox, and the omnibus is there also.

    Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Late to this conversation, but at some point I had independently also got wondering about ‘The Celestial Omnibus’, and thereafter added Hawthorne’s ‘The Celestial Railway’ to this pondering… (Lewis has nice things to say about Hawthorne, but I don’t recall positive evidence that he knew this story). If no debts or interplay be certain, they certainly make very interesting comparative reading, these three!

      Liked by 1 person

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  15. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    While looking in the Internet Archive for the Revised Psalter which Lewis and Eliot worked on (alas, without success), I just encountered this – new to me, but perhaps familiar to Lewis?:


    It would be interesting to see how his Psalm adaptations might chant to the notation here provided…

    Liked by 1 person

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  17. Lori Morrison says:

    I absolutely love this! Pilgrim’s Regress poems have stopped my heart beating for their exquisite beauty! And the Psalm 91 adaptation is one I desperately need for my life is one where my excess of pity has been so manipulated! I’m so trying t o learn to see like Sara in this Psalm! Please tell me about other precious truths you share!


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      I just revisited today for the first time in ages (wondering about setting these adaptations to Anglican Chant – with the Lewis Estate’s permission for use in a live service). Like Brenton, I go on admiring Lewis’s poetry – and recently (thanks to Fr. Aidan Kimel’s 7 May post, “Lords Coeval with Creation” at his afkimel.wordpress) I met with a poem I did not know – which has apparently been set to music and sung in a service!:


      With respect to Charles Williams, Sørina Higgins kindly allowed me to contribute two guest posts on Arthurian poems of his where there seem to be liturgical Psalm elements:



      Offline, I have also published a couple papers including attention to Tolkien and liturgy in essay collections published by the Dutch Tolkien Society…


      • Thanks for sharing this, David. Just a note that it landed in moderation because of the multiple links, but I approved it right away.
        Is “liturgical use” considered “fair use” when using an artist’s work?


        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          That’s what I guessed would happen – but it seemed the handiest way to go, and you are always on your toes! I don’t know about “fair use” in such cases – I asked the Estate, but I’d better look up and reread the correspondence…(!) I suspect permission to sing but not record is why I cannot find a recording of Peter Relph’s setting on his website, or the Magdalene Chapel YouTube channel, or anywhere else online – though I see his Facebook page listed “Final evensong of the academic year next week: another chance to hear ‘Lords Coeval With Creation” on 11 July 2016.

          Liked by 1 person

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