It is difficult to see this poem in the Christmases that most of us are subjected to. I think that’s why C.S. Lewis became a bit of a Christmas curmudgeon in his latter days. But in the midst of his Narnian period, Lewis penned a poem that I think is one of his most important short pieces. It is here, in “The Turn of the Tide,” where we see how Lewis puts the incarnation of Christ–that great, eucatastrophic movement of incarnation, death, and resurrection–is not just a key moment in the history of salvation, and certainly not a model for crèche or card. The birth of Christ is the hingepoint of history, where all cosmic realities turn toward hope.
And Lewis captures this in a poem filled with evocative imagery. Jerry Root and Mark Neal describe the turning point well it well:
When the hush has stilled both earth and heaven with a paralyzing fear of death and annihilation, there returns with a rush a sense of life and equilibrium, a lightening of spirits (The Surprising Imagination of C.S. Lewis, 184).
It is a Perelandran moment of myth and history becoming one and changing every destiny in the universe. Whatever we have reduced Christmas to in our culture, whatever they say on TV, this poem shows the ages of depth behind the Bethlehem moment.
Breathless was the air over Bethlehem; black and bare
The fields; hard as granite were the clods;
Hedges stiff with ice; the sedge, in the vice
Of the ponds, like little iron rods.
The deathly stillness spread from Bethlehem; it was shed
Wider each moment on the land;
Through rampart and wall into camp and into hall
Stole the hush. All tongues were at a stand.
Travellers at their beer in taverns turned to hear
The landlord—that oracle was dumb;
At the Procurator’s feast a jocular freedman ceased
His story, and gaped; all were glum.
Then the silence flowed forth to the islands and the north
And it smoothed the unquiet river-bars,
And leveled out the waves from their revelling, and paved
The sea with the cold, reflected stars.
Where the Cæsar sat and signed at ease on Palatine,
Without anger, the signatures of death,
There stole into his room and on his soul a gloom,
Till he paused in his work and held his breath.
Then to Carthage and the Gauls, to Parthia and the Falls
Of Nile, to Mount Amara it crept;
The romp and rage of beasts in swamp and forest ceased,
The jungle grew still as if it slept.
So it ran about the girth of the planet. From the Earth
The signal, the warning, went out,
Away beyond the air; her neighbours were aware
Of change, they were troubled with doubt.
Salamanders in the Sun who brandish as they run
Tails like the Americas in size,
Were stunned by it and dazed; wondering, they gazed
Up at Earth, misgiving in their eyes.
In Houses and Signs the Ousiarchs divine
Grew pale and questioned what it meant;
Great Galactic lords stood back to back with swords
Half-drawn, awaiting the event,
And a whisper among them passed, “Is this perhaps the last
Of our story and the glories of our crown?—
The entropy worked out?—the central redoubt
Abandoned?—The world-spring running down?”
Then they could speak no more. Weakness overbore
Even them; they were as flies in a web,
In lethargy stone-dumb. The death had almost come,
And the tide lay motionless at ebb.
Like a stab at that moment over Crab and Bowman,
Over Maiden and Lion, came the shock
Of returning life, the start, and burning pang at heart,
Setting galaxies to tingle and rock.
The Lords dared to breathe, swords went into sheathes
A rustling, a relaxing began;
With rumour and noise of the resuming of joys
Along the nerves of the universe it ran.
Then, pulsing into space with delicate dulcet pace,
Came a music infinitely small,
But clear; and it swelled and drew nearer, till it held
All worlds with the sharpness of its call,
And now divinely deep, ever louder, with a leap
And quiver of inebriating sound,
The vibrant dithyramb shook Libra and the Ram,
The brains of Aquarius spun round—
Such a note as neither Throne nor Potentate had known
Since the Word created the abyss.
But this time it was changed in a mystery, estranged,
A paradox, an ambiguous bliss.
Heaven danced to it and burned; such answer was returned
To the hush, the Favete, the fear
That Earth had sent out. Revel, mirth and shout
Descended to her, sphere below sphere,
Till Saturn laughed and lost his latter age’s frost
And his beard, Niagara-like, unfroze;
The monsters in the Sun rejoiced; the Inconstant One,
The unwedded Moon, forgot her woes;
A shiver of re-birth and deliverance round the Earth
Went gliding; her bonds were released;
Into broken light the breeze once more awoke the seas,
In the forest it wakened every beast;
Capripods fell to dance from Taproban to France,
Leprechauns from Down to Labrador;
In his green Asian dell the Phoenix from his shell
Burst forth and was the Phoenix once more.
So Death lay in arrest. But at Bethlehem the bless’d
Nothing greater could be heard
Than sighing wind in the thorn, the cry of One new-born,
And cattle in stable as they stirred.
You were reading Christmas poems. This one by CS Lewis just appeared in my email. I am forwarding it to you.
On Tue, Dec 25, 2018 at 8:23 AM A Pilgrim in Narnia wrote:
> Brenton Dickieson posted: “It is difficult to see this poem in the > Christmases that most of us are subjected to. I think that’s why C.S. Lewis > became a bit of a Christmas curmudgeon in his latter days. But in the midst > of his Narnian period, Lewis penned a poem that I think is one ” >
Brenton, Thank you for reminding us of the wonderful poem by Lewis. Several years ago I wrote extensively on this poem (“C. S. Lewis, T. S. Eliot, and the Milton Legacy: The Nativity Ode Revisited,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 44 (2002): 324-48). Note the Ousiarchs, and compare (in the line after) the personal motive the one of Malacandra had in seeking that long interview with Dr. Ransom.
Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.
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Merry Christmas to all!!
Thanks for this great poem and post! “The birth of Christ as the hingepoint of history, where all cosmic realities turn toward hope ….. myth and history becoming one and changing every destiny in the universe ….. with the stable a place where “its inside is bigger than its outside” (https://apilgriminnarnia.com/2012/12/25/the-inside-is-bigger-than-the-outside-a-christmas-thought-from-narnia-for-our-world-too/)
Is this True History? (re discussion in https://apilgriminnarnia.com/2018/10/30/john-donnes-the-flea-on-halloween/
Happy Christmas on this its Third Day, and the Feast of St. John the Divine (i.e.. Theologian) – and thanks for this!
It was Fr. Aidan Kimel posting this poem 4 years ago on Christmas Eve at his blog, Eclectic Orthodoxy, that finally got me to read straight through the edition of Lewis’s Poems and that of his Narrative Poems which we have (after years of delighted browsing – which had somehow missed this poem!).
My comment there and then (on New Year’s Eve) was:
Belated thanks for this! Marvellous! And, how fascinating it is (to use an inadequate word)! It makes me think of “which things the angels desire to look into” (1 Peter 1:12, KJV) and also “For while all things were in quiet silence, and that night was in the midst of her swift course, Thine Almighty word leaped down from heaven out of thy royal throne, as a fierce man of war into the midst of a land of destruction” (Wisdom 18:14-15, KJV). It also makes me think of Hardy’s “The Oxen” (which it effectively answers in its own way)! And of Archibald MacLeish’s “You, Andrew Marvell”, for that matter! (Would Lewis (be likely to) have know that, then?) The edition of Lewis’s Poems which I have suggests that the original version of this (which I have not seen) was published in 1948 – not only after That Hideous Strength (to which it could be seen as a kind of appendix), but after Lewis had been very busy with Charles Williams’s late Arthurian poetry, lecturing on it and then writing his book-length commentary in Arthurian Torso – surely there is play, here, with that – in the reference to “Taproban”, for example, and, too, I think, in the combined use of internal- and end-rhyme (it is actually a series of quatrains, rhymed aa b cc b) – almost a contribution as well as a compliment to that unfinished opus. And, according to Paul Ford’s chronology, in the midst of writing The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (ah, “Capripods”, and so on!)…
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As we still lie within the twelve days of the feast (the eighth as I write this) may I wish you a very merry Christmas. I may have done so already. I forget. But if I have done so that I am happy to do so again!
I had been wondering about the date of composition of this poem and I am grateful to David Llewellyn Dodds for his comment. It seems to fit so well into the ending of That Hideous Strength. Certainly my first weeks as rector of my seven Worcestershire parishes had some of the feel of this and I can’t help but feel that the many who only attend church at Christmas do so because of a nagging “If only!”
I have my own, if only, too. Probably similar to Lewis’s expressed longing for the return of King Arthur. The BBC have just begun a dramatisation of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. The great literary adapter, Andrew Davis, commented on his work for the series that is about a decision to live a life for good against all the odds. Just what I need to stir me to action once again but Lewis gives me more hope!
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