As I hinted last month, I have been reading and rereading C.S. Lewis’ Dymer. Lewis only kept a journal during his early Oxford years, 1922-1927. The diary’s posthumous title, All My Road Before Me, is taken from the first stanza of Dymer:
You stranger, long before your glance can light
Upon these words, time will have washed away
The moment when I first took pen to write,
With all my road before me—yet today,
Here, if at all, we meet; the unfashioned clay
Ready to both our hands; both hushed to see
That which is nowhere yet come forth and be.
Lewis first took pen to write Dymer during Christmas holidays of 1916, working first in prose after he had set aside The Quest of Bleheris. He got far enough along in the story that he was within three chapters of finishing, but we have nothing left of the manuscript. Sometime in 1918, he began a Dymer poem, that he soon abandoned. Time passed, however, and the story came back to him. In the second entry of his diary, 1 Apr 1922, Lewis writes:
A beautiful spring day. D [Mrs. Moore] busy cutting oranges for marmalade. I sat in my own bedroom by an open window in bright sunshine and started a poem on Dymer in rhyme royal.
I don’t know whether the poem inspired the journal or if journaling reminded him of his correspondence with Arthur Greeves, which was like a teenage journal where he tested out his poetry and prose. In either case, Dymer is the subject of much of the journal, first mentioned in the second entry and last mentioned in the fourth-last entry, 26 Feb 1927, where he mentions some admirers of Dymer. In this period Lewis wrote and rewrote, testing it with his closest friends before submitting Dymer for publication in 1925.
Finally, after much worry and work and after an initial rejection by Lewis’ own publisher, Dymer was published by J.M. Dent on 18 Sep 1926.
Alister McGrath writes of the period before the joyous news of publication, when Lewis was working as a philosophy tutor in 1924-25:
Lewis now had a job, even if it failed to satisfy his deepest longings. Lewis was obliged to teach philosophy, when he really wanted to be a poet. Dymer was the passion of his life, and the basis of his potential reputation. As things had worked out, Lewis was a frustrated poet who was obliged to teach philosophy to earn a living.
Lewis’ dreams, however, did not come true. Dymer was kindly reviewed but seldom purchased. If it was not for Lewis’ later career the poem would be entirely forgotten. Reading through All My Road Before Me shows the intense stress and financial worry for Lewis in this period and the great relief he feels in getting a five-year fellowship with Magdalen College in English. It also shows the life—and ultimate death—of Lewis’ dream of being the known poet of Dymer.
Dymer is an overlooked poem partly because it is extremely difficult to understand. David Downing calls it “obscure and artistically undistinguished.” Chad Walsh calls it a failure as a whole, while A.N. Wilson suggests that only the most dedicated Lewis enthusiasts “can ever have bothered to press on with Dymer.”
It is not all negative, however. Without praise for the poetic wholeness of the piece, Don King considers Dymer Lewis’ “most important poem,” while Downing admits that “it gives powerful evidence of how far Lewis had moved” along a spiritual path during his first years at Oxford. Dymer is, Joel Heck claims, a “reflection of Lewis himself” in the period, providing an important conversation point for the effect of Lewis’ conversion, such that Monika Hilder’s analysis that Dymer represents the “classical male who rejects the spiritual female,” an approach that lacks the inversive nature of Lewis’ later work.
Idiosyncratic and problematic, Dymer nevertheless makes for provocative reading, with heights of poetic loveliness and a philosophical vision that strikes the reader with barrenness and rugged hope—even if precise meaning isn’t very clear. I find myself coming back to this poem frequently, and it has become an important piece of the 1920s C.S. Lewis of my mind’s invention.
But, what if I have been pronouncing “Dymer” wrong all this time?
After five years of avoiding the book, I decided to reread Alister McGrath’s biography of Lewis. I am listening to it as an audiobook this time, and Robin Sachs pronounces Dymer as “Deemer.” It has shattered my vision of the entire piece. All along, I have been pronouncing Dymer as “Daimer,” so that “Dym” rhymes with “rhyme.” McGrath’s bio of Lewis is one of the last things that Sachs read in a long career of acting. Who am I to question someone who studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art? More than anything, Robin Sachs had a recurring role on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Clearly, I must be wrong. After all, Robin Sachs is British. How could he be wrong?
And, yet… I’m hesitant to let go of my pronunciation. After all, Daimer might not be Deemer, but might be Dimmer, so the “y” has a sound like “hypocrite,” or Doomer, so that the “y” is like the Greek upsilon as pronounced in some circles (though I find this one unconvincing).
So, dear friends, how am I to pronounce the name of the hapless revolutionary, Dymer? Can someone from the Buffyverse be wrong? Is it Doomer, Dimmer, Deemer, or Daimer?
 See C.S. Lewis’ 28 Jan 1917 letter to Arthur Greeves.
 See C.S. Lewis’ 2 Dec 1918 letter to Arthur Greeves.
 Alister E. McGrath, C.S. Lewis: A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet (Carol Streams, IL: Tyndale, 2013), 109.
 David C. Downing, The Most Reluctant Convert: C.S. Lewis’s Journey to Faith (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 118.
 Chad Walsh, The Literary Legacy of C.S. Lewis (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979), 46.
 A.N. Wilson, C.S. Lewis: A Biography (London: HarperCollins Publishers), ch. 9.
 Don W. King, “Dymer,” in The C.S. Lewis Readers’ Encyclopedia (ed. Jeffrey D. Schultz and John G. West, Jr.; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998),144 (144-6).
 Downing, Most Reluctant Convert, 118.
 Joel D. Heck, From Atheism to Christianity: The Story of C.S. Lewis (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2017), 124.
 Monika B. Hilder, Surprised by the Feminine: A Rereading of C.S. Lewis and Gender (Studies in Twentieth-Century British Literature 12; New York: Peter Lang, 2013), 36. We will consider Hilder’s argument more fully in chapter six.
Would his dashed hopes of being a poet have opened the way to his rich output?
I would also pronounce Dymer as Daimer, so looked it up and found this site, also calling it ‘Daimer’: https://www.names.org/n/dymer/about#pronunciation.
This site https://encyclopedia.thefreedictionary.com/dymer usually gives pronunciations but not of Dymer – it does show a first edition of the Dent publication though with lots of info.
So I might be on the right path!
Hannah, yes, I think when Lewis put away his dreams he was able to fulfill them, but not on his own terms.
I’d also think it was Daimer. Interesting to read about Lewis’ poetry!
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Dimer gets my vote.
And why complicate it with the “ai” when a long “i” would have sufficed? Just wondering what the reasoning for the grammar choice was, behind the scenes as it were.
I’m not sure what you mean here. “ai” is the dipthong for a long “i” as in “aisle”, so we get a sound like “time” or “bite.” You are right (if I’m understanding–and I might not be!) that Dimer would do that (as in Dime+er), I just wanted to be clear.
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Gotcha. And you are correct in your understanding.
I was taught that a single vowel, followed by a single consonant with an “e” after the consonant was always long (except for the exceptions! 🙂 ), hence my not understanding why you used a different rule to explain the sound.
I got it! I could have gone that direction.
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For what it’s worth, I have always pronounced the y in Dymer as a long i. I published two notes on _Dymer_ ages ago, but Don W. King didn’t think much of them (probably correctly) in his _C. S. Lewis, Poet_. One of these years…
I haven’t launched into the debate, I’m afraid. I was looking at a note the other day on 3 views of faerie in “Queen of Drum.” Was that you Joe?
Are you up for a smile? I hope you take this in a nice way. I occasionally post about resources on facebook, looking for research on X or Y. I commented to one of my students that I should just ask you since you write about everything (over a career)! So I’m not surprised you dug into Dymer.
I’ve never heard anything but a long-i (as in the American ten-cent coin) pronunciation by any English/British or North American speaker, as far as I recall – I also cannot remember ever encountering any discussion about where he ‘got’ the name or what he ‘meant’ by it (or, if I have, I’ve sadly quite forgotten!). I can’t find any word beginning delta-upsilon-rho, in the first Greek dictionary I’ve checked. And, if I turn to the 1929 COD, I find ‘dynamic’ with a macron over the ‘y’, which I take to be the equivalent of a long-i sound, and ‘dys-‘ – and the three words following it (‘dysentery’, ”dyslogistic’, and ‘dyspepsia’) – with a breve over the ‘y’, which I take to be the equivalent of a short-i sound: interestingly, ‘dynast’, ‘dynastic’, and ‘dynastically’ have a breve above a macron above the ‘y’, which I take to mean the ‘y’ may have either a short- or long-i sound (‘dynasty’, by contrast, has only a breve above the ‘y’: no U.S.-style ‘díe-nuhsty’ pronunciation even acknowledged as secondary, here!). If one compares English place names, I note this 1947 news film pronounces the place-name ‘Dymchurch’ with a short-i sound:
(I can’t find anything comparable for ‘Dymock Woods’ – but Australian ‘Dymocks’ has a short-i sound.)
The only indications I can quickly find for the pronunciation of St. Dymphna’s first syllable give it a short-i sound.
Of course Lewis’s friend Dyson has a long-i sound in his first syllable (if that comparison is worth anything).
Thinking aloud, might Lewis derive ‘Dymer’ from ‘dysmoros’ (which the first Greek dictionary I checked defined as ‘having an unlucky fate’) – or would he have found that a monstrous thing to do? In any case, I can’t help thinking if he wanted a short-i sound, he would have doubled the ‘m’.
It strikes me as unlikely he would pronounce the ‘y’ as ‘ee’.
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This was the coolest dy-essay I have ever seen! I should have thought of Dyson! Like the beautifully designed but locally-disconnected vacuum cleaner.
I don’t think I’d heard of the Dyson vacuum cleaners, but, wow, they look amazing (to me, ‘classic science fictional’)! Do Canadians hoover with Dysons, as various inhabitants of the UK and Eire apparently do? (Or does the ominous-sounding “locally-disconnected” indicate that happy possibility is precluded?)
I have not caught up with all the Dymer composition history sources you handily set out, here, so I don’t know if it had so distinct a dystopian character from the start – but I’d like to know about its place among dystopian works, as published, and its appreciation as such (especially, where long poems are concerned!).
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Canadians don’t hoover, we “vacuum”! But Dyson is sort of the guys vacuum, cool enough to make us hit the dust.
I think it is really a bit sci fi. I’d honestly love a space age kitchen, like 1920s space age.
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I am a Brit and I have always pronounced it long-i Daimer (as in aisle) in my head, with no particular justification apart from, it sounds right. Deemer sounds most unlikely.
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It suddenly occurs to me that while scansion might not help confirm this (since I suppose all possibilities would have an accent on the first syllable), there might be some (strong?) evidence from assonance… another encouragement to rereading!
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David, do you have an example of that?
Yewtree, I agree, though I’m a Canadian and we steal some British trends.
No, but I’ll try to get rereading, at least browsingly, and see what I can find…
Oh, don’t go to a bunch of work! I just mean, what could that look like?
Not to worry – we’ll see! (Maybe I’m onto an new ‘Authorial Pronunciation Research Tool’…)
Next thought – if assonance helps, might he thoughtfully signal it early?
Hmm… this ain’t so easy: just what serves as evidence? Having worked through Canto I:
Stanza 11, lines 1-2: A sort of chiasmus? – silent room || sun-stream Dymer
Stanza 12, lines 4-7: Lots of long-i sounds? – Dymer Why Dymer / I Dymer / eyes /Sighed
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Stanza 23, line 1: Two long-i sounds (in the context of the whole pattern of vowels, consonants, internal rime)?: like || Dymer
Stanzas 29-30: A lot of long-i sounds? – lamplight / light / sighing / Wise // Dymer light / pile night / spiry / light fire / light
Stanza 32: A lot of long-i sounds culminating in four-times repeated combination in final couplet? – Why wide / Dymer / big-eyed / side / I’m / I’m I’m Dymer
Ah, well done. I think that you have it right. I suppose part of learning dead languages is looking for rhymes and alliteration to learn the old pronunciation.
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