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.
Most 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.
In 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
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
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
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.