C.S. Lewis’ love story with poet and author Joy Davidman has been made famous by Lewis biographers and, especially, the stage production and film, Shadowlands. Abigail Santamaria’s fairly recent biography of Davidman, Joy: Poet, Seeker, and the Woman Who Captivated C. S. Lewis–which I have reviewed here–goes some distance in helping us see the story from another angle. Some biographies tell the story well, but there are hints of sexism and peculiar judgments of Lewis and Davidman sprinkled through the literature. Frankly, it gets weird sometimes, and we must admit that although Lewis was a leading Christian figure his lifestyle choices were pretty controversial. For 30 years he lived with a woman and after publishing Narnia and Mere Christianity, married a divorced American poet. It will always be a story that required a deft hand in telling.
The details are fairly well known. And yet, there will always be, I think, something of a mystery about the story of how these penpals met, became friends, married to avoid deportation, and then fell in love just when it was clear they couldn’t be together long. I like that there is mystery–a story that goes deeper than my own curiosity as a scholar and reader.
C.S. Lewis shared very little of his own love affair while it was happening, except to certain friends. When Davidman was in deepest pain or suffering, he reached out to letter-friends for prayer. But he was very private in his relationship, at least to those outside Oxford. And when Joy finally passed away, Lewis even used a pseudonym for his memoir of loss, A Grief Observed.
One of the beautiful things about historical and biographical work, though, is that the mystery can take unseen turns. One of these twists in the story is a poem, “Aubade,” published for the first time in 2015 by editor Don King in The Collected Poems of C.S. Lewis. “Aubade” is based on a copy found in an archive, and is part of a 12 Jul 1957 unpublished letter to Lewis’ longtime friend, Owen Barfield.
An aubade is a morning poem, where lovers take a parting glimpse at one another as the dawn breaks into the room. In the summer of 1957, after Joy was taken home from the hospital after their Christian marriage blessing, Lewis wrote an aubade to his surprising love. Normal to the genre, Lewis attends to his partner’s body. But this gaze is, of course, different, for Davidman’s body is betraying her–betraying them both now that they are a union of two. Yet, Lewis finds a completeness in her body, a sexual something that evokes youth. No, it is not the classic poem that John Donne’s “The Sun Rising” has become–I love few poems as much as this one–but I do think this is an evocative piece that adds a little bit more to the mystery.
“Aubade” by C.S. Lewis (1957)
Somehow it’s strange discovering, dear,
That your given body has complete
As any woman’s has, those sweet
And private things on which (too many a year)
Youth’s casual act or more persistent thought
Unwearyingly, wearisomely, wrought;
As if, now raised to wealth, some boy
Who had tossed, and begged for, grimy pennies,
Allowed to bathe wrist-deep in guineas
Incredulous arms, should feel amid such joy
Some wonder that even these, so bright, clean, new
Were round and clinked and were a Queen’s head too.