A Cheeky Poem about Talking Beasts by C.S. Lewis

AR561H Punch Magazine 22 May  1944 For Editorial Use Only. Image shot 2008. Exact date unknown.

The casual reader of C.S. Lewis might be surprised to know that much of his published poetry found its way into Punch, a British weekly that was known for its spicy humour and saucy cartoons. Part of the reason Lewis subscribed to Punch was out of protest. The poetry of T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, and their ilk had “become such a horror that the real thing now mainly survives in verse not intended to be fully serious–e. g. there is more real poetry in Punch now than in the high brow periodicals” (July 20th, 1940 letter). I think Lewis turned to Punch during WWII because it was a relief from the “podder of poetry” all around him, as well as a lightening of the darkness of war.

But I think–and this might be controversial–that Lewis connected with Punch because, shockingly, he was a funny guy. Not funny as in uproarious laughter, sideways jokes, or the quick snap! in a conversation. He may have been all those things in the pub, but they don’t come across in his writing. The kind of humour that comes out in his books is incongruity–the upside-downness of a mind who thought the world funny–or at least worth laughing at. C.S. Lewis was a satirist–subtle, but part of that great tradition.

screwtape01Most obviously, The Screwtape Letters turns everything on its head–not just satire, but inverted satire. Narnia is funny too, in voice, but also in the way that things turn in on themselves: the incongruity of the lamppost in the woods, the faun being afraid of the human and not the other way round, and Mrs. Beaver tidying up her den before it is ransacked by the Queen’s secret service. This is just The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, but you see it all through the books. Is there anything more upside down, for humans anyway, than the title, The Horse and His Boy?

Despite the fact of his protest vote against modern poetry, I think Lewis put in to Punch because he had that Punch-style upside down view of life. His books on apologetics and spiritual formation are not important because they are either the most philosophical or the most practical. We read them because they are witty, urbane, and fresh–well-written and poignant approaches that seem new even though they are very old. That is the incongruity that is at the base of all good humour.

Pauline Baynes snowy wood faun lucyIn 1947, Lewis wrote to his best friend, Arthur Greeves. He tagged this on in a postscript:

Do you read Punch. The poems signed N. W. wh. sometimes appear there are by me. This is a secret (Jan 5th, 1947 letter).

As the 1950s went on, Lewis published more frequently in more prominent print, like The Times Literary Supplement, The Cambridge Review, and The Oxford Magazine. Lewis kept up his dirty little secret of writing for Punch until 1954, sending in upside-down poems when they popped into his brain.

One of these, titled “impertinence,” is a clearly Narnian poem. It declares Lewis’ allegiance to the imagination, suggesting you couldn’t pry the stories of sentient animals out of his cold, dead hands. The point isn’t their realness; the point is their power. It is clearly an absurd perspective, which is obviously the point.

All the world’s wiseacres in arms against them
Shan’t detach my heart for a single moment
From the man-like beasts of the earthy stories–
Badger or Moly.

Rat the oarsman, neat Mrs. Tiggy Winkle,
Benjamin, pert Nutkin, or (ages older)
Henryson’s shrill Mouse, or the Mice the Frogs once
Fought with in Homer.

Not that I’m so craz’d as to think the creatures
Do behave that way, nor at all deluded
By some half-false sweetness of early childhood
Sharply remembered.

Look again. Look well at the beasts, the true ones.
Can’t you see?…cool primness of cats, or coney’s
Half indignant stare of amazement, mouse’s
Twinkling adroitness,

Tipsy bear’s rotundity, toad’s complacence…
Why! they all cry out to be used as symbols,
Masks for Man, cartoons, parodies by Nature
Formed to reveal us

Each to each, not fiercely but in her gentlest
Vein of household laughter. And if the love so
Raised–it will, no doubt–splashes over on the
Actual archtypes,

Who’s the worse for that? Marry, gup! Begone, you
Fusty kill-joys, new Manichaeans! Here’s a
Health to Toad Hall, here’s to the Beaver doing
Sums with the Butcher!

C.S. Lewis, “Impenitence,” published first in the July 1953 of Punch, then later in Poems and Collected Poems, both edted by Walter Hooper.

On Wednesday I am putting a suggestion forward about what was the 1st Narnian chronicle, based on the kinds of things Lewis was reading and writing at the time.

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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23 Responses to A Cheeky Poem about Talking Beasts by C.S. Lewis

  1. Who knew? I loved this. My church mouse, Mrs. Middlejoy, especially enjoyed the reference to “mouse’s twinkling adroitness.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hanna says:

    I can’t really comment on Eliot’s work, but I never thought Auden was as bad as all that. True, he wrote a lot of free verse, but I never thought that he used that form where he didn’t believe it was absolutely necessary.

    I had heard before that Lewis published poems in Punch, but I didn’t really know what that was until I read this. Seems a little odd for a literary giant like him to be writing things for a humor magazine, but given what you said about his upside-down view of the world, it makes perfect sense. 🙂


    • I think Punch is sort of like a British precursor to Mad or the Onion, or a combination of the two. Punch is a great Aunt rather than a mother, but it is intriguing that Lewis landed there.
      I suppose he wasn’t a poetic giant, though. Auden and Eliot were. I linked in the blog where I had recently posted two short poems, one of Eliot and one of Auden, which I particularly liked. To be honest, Lewis never got modern poetry, and didn’t get what Eliot was doing. Near the end they were friends, but I don’t know that Lewis ever enjoyed even the greatest bits of Eliot.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. L.A. Smith says:

    Interesting! It really amazes me how much he wrote. Honestly, I have a hard time getting ONE book done, never mind all the scholarly articles, books, poems, etc etc that Lewis and writers like him did. Mind you, I often think if I had someone to do all the cooking and cleaning for ME I’d have a lot more time to write as well…..

    Liked by 1 person

    • He is terrifyingly prolific, and wrote the most when he was the busiest, with one or two exceptions.
      But, he was 30 before he completed much (other than poetry), and 40 before he found his voice. There’s hope!


  4. mitchteemley says:

    Some nice insights here. Thank you! From a long-time devotee of all things “Jack.”

    Liked by 1 person

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  6. jubilare says:

    “His books on apologetics and spiritual formation are not important because they are either the most philosophical or the most practical. We read them because they are witty, urbane, and fresh–well-written and poignant approaches that seem new even though they are very old. That is the incongruity that is at the base of all good humour.” This is so delightfully true!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I’ve just started the third, 1975 ed. of a fascinating book by one of Lewis’s fellow Punch contributors, E.S. Turner: Boys Will Be Boys, first published in 1948 (ed. 2, 1957) and a very interesting book to read in the background of Lewis’s Experiment in Criticism and in the context of Williams. Lewis, and Tolkien’s approaches to writing prose fiction,- whether any of them knew Turner’s book or not. Its subject is popular fiction, later especially aimed at the young, beginning with “popular low-priced magazines” and “the publishers of penny parts – to be known all too soon as ‘penny dreadfuls’ ” in the early 19th century and going on al the way to the rise of Marvel Comics. The “Preface” has a lovely epigram from Chesterton with which Lewis would certainly agree as far as he himself was concerned, “”Literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have no evidence that Lewis knew of Turner or his work, but it is still possible. Lewis like Penny Dreadfuls, methinks.
      It is a nice quote, isn’t it?

      Liked by 1 person

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        I heard someone say (if I’ve got it right) – I can’t remember for certain who (the late Professor Karl Leyser?) – that while he was invigilating examinations in the Schools, Lewis would sometimes have something of the ‘Penny Dreadful’ sort before him (I think, or suppose, that he could easily drop and resume as he kept his eyes peeled), and that he made some remark or other in response to a question about it, with respect to a kind of constant, omnivorous relish or hunger for story.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I can believe it. People are still reading dime store novels on flights from London to Beijing.
          I suspect, though, that as often as not Lewis had in his coat pocket cheap Everyman editions, which would include pop lit (as well as older books). Just a guess though.


  8. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Interesting to compare this with what he says about Animal Farm in his “George Orwell” article of a year-and-a-half later.


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