The Poets Behind C.S. Lewis’ Paragraph about WWI, with Wilfred Owen

I have struggled in the past to understand C.S. Lewis’ complicated relationship with WWI–the Great War, as they called it. In my piece, “Marching as to War: C.S. Lewis on His Way to the Front Line,” I tried to show that although Lewis minimizes his experience of the trenches and battles both in his letters and his memoir, Surprised by Joy, you can see how the war impacts his growth and development as he finishes his teenage years. In a more sophisticated piece, “The Transformative Power of Memory: Lewis and the World Wars,” I argued that Lewis may not have faced all the ways that the war had shaped him. Lewis seems to want to minimize his experience of war, at one point panning it as “even in a way unimportant” (Surprised by Joy, XII). 

Despite this minimizing of the Great War in his later reflections, Lewis was clearly marked by the experience. While in convalescence near the end of the war, Lewis pulled his poetry together for publication as Spirits in Bondage: A Cycle of Lyrics, published in 1919 as Lewis was matriculating at Oxford. In the short poem that begins the book–and really one of the strongest in the interesting but uneven collection–we can see how Lewis wrestles with his evolving philosophical outlook and a world in which WWI is not just allowed, but normative.

Satan Speaks

I am Nature, the Mighty Mother,
I am the law: ye have none other.    

I am the flower and the dewdrop fresh,
I am the lust in your itching flesh.    

I am the battle’s filth and strain,
I am the widow’s empty pain.    

I am the sea to smother your breath,
I am the bomb, the falling death.    

I am the fact and the crushing reason
To thwart your fantasy’s new-born treason.    

I am the spider making her net,
I am the beast with jaws blood-wet.    

I am a wolf that follows the sun
And I will catch him ere day be done.

The title is not unimportant, as Lewis’ walks through a world of discomfort and death to Ragnarök, where the war is one of the final apocalyptic moments before the winking out of all reality.

In a minor way, Lewis could be read as one of the “War Poets,” a collection of writers who pinned readers to the harsh realism of the war, often leaving a bitter taste in the mouth, or even hopelessness. L.M. Montgomery anticipates the importance of poetry for grappling with the realities of this great, transformative war. Her character, Walter Blythe–a son of Anne and Gilbert’s–is both a prophet of doom and a Tennysonian hero. His war poem was to do in fiction what “In Flanders Fields” by Dr. John McCrae has done in Canada and abroad: set the theatre of war in its realities, but give the people back home a way to remember. It is one of the few liturgies left in Canada, the public reading of “In Flanders Fields” on Remembrance Day.

However, the War Poets were not interested in “remembrance” as such, but in “seeing.” They wanted to show the way the war destroys everything, including poets and poetry. And Lewis was certainly not interested in creating a liturgy for the people in his war poems–though Spirits in Bondage is strangely tinted by hope near the end of the cycle. It is hard to read Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, and the other War Poets and not feel a desperate cry at the idea of war. Even in its sadness, Tennyson‘s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” is of a world that has passed away, of heroes that can never rise again. What is valiant or eternal about leaping out of a fox hole to be mowed down is mass slaughter by an enemy technopolis? What were they even fighting for, there in the fields of France?

WWI was not the end of all worlds as Ragnarök foretold, but it was the end of one world for many–a world of romance and chivalry and hope in men, though writers like L.M. Montgomery try to keep that disappearing world alive. And for many, WWI was Götterdämmerung, the Twilight of the Gods, the end of an age where you can confidently believe that this world of fox holes and lost friends is the best of all possible worlds.

The War Poets were well entrenched in irony, and it is perhaps a kind of irony that for C.S. Lewis, WWI was one of the precipitating moments in his turn toward faith. Lewis’ story is one where that haunting dusky light forebodes a Dawn of the Gods, and a life lived toward re-enchantment of the 20th-century technocratic world. As he came to the end of his fairy tale series, The Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis told his story in Surprised by Joy.

I have said that Lewis pans on the war and perhaps misunderstands how deeply he is shaped by the experience. But he does describe in vivid detail some aspects of the war, and in doing so points the reader back to the War Poets and chroniclers of WWI. Recently, a colleague of mine, Arthurian expert Gabriel Schenk, recited a poem that filled in some of the background of war that Lewis is pointing us to in his writings and invited me to look at again at Wilfred Owens work. Here, in remembrance of the war that broke the world, I quote from Lewis in Surprised by Joy and Wilfred Owen’s “Anthem for Doomed Youth” and “Dulce et Decorum Est.: The Latin that titles and closes the first Owen poem, “Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori,” is from Horace, I believe, and could be translated as “Sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country.”

From Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis

The war itself has been so often described by those who saw more of it than I that I shall here say little about it. Until the great German attack came in the Spring we had a pretty quiet time. Even then they attacked not us but the Canadians on our right, merely “keeping us quiet” by pouring shells into our line about three a minute all day. I think it was that day I noticed how a greater terror overcomes a less: a mouse that I met (and a poor shivering mouse it was, as I was a poor shivering man) made no attempt to run from me. Through the winter, weariness and water were our chief enemies. I have gone to sleep marching and woken again and found myself marching still. One walked in the trenches in thigh gum boots with water above the knee; one remembers the icy stream welling up inside the boot when you punctured it on concealed barbed wire. Familiarity both with the very old and the very recent dead confirmed that view of corpses which had been formed the moment I saw my dead mother. I came to know and pity and reverence the ordinary man: particularly dear Sergeant Ayres, who was (1 suppose) killed by the same shell that wounded me. I was a futile officer (they gave commissions too easily then), a puppet moved about by him, and he turned this ridiculous and painful relation into something beautiful, became to me almost like a father. But for the rest, the war—the frights, the cold, the smell of H.E., the horribly smashed men still moving like half-crushed beetles, the sitting or standing corpses, the landscape of sheer earth without a blade of grass, the boots worn day and night till they seemed to grow to your feet—all this shows rarely and faintly in memory. It is too cut off from the rest of my experience and often seems to have happened to someone else. It is even in a way unimportant. One imaginative moment seems now to matter more than the realities that followed. It was the first bullet I heard—so far from me that it “whined” like a journalist’s or a peacetime poet’s bullet. At that moment there was something not exactly like fear, much less like indifference: a little quavering signal that said “This is War. This is what Homer wrote about.” (Surprised by Joy, ch. XII).

Dulce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

“Anthem for Doomed Youth” by Wilfred Owen

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

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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30 Responses to The Poets Behind C.S. Lewis’ Paragraph about WWI, with Wilfred Owen

  1. Allyson says:

    Thank you, Brenton. I especially appreciate your tone in this piece. I am married to a combat veteran. We’re uneasy when some folks approach war like a college football game between rival schools. It’s not glamorous. No one can experience war without being changed in some way.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. k8neville says:

    I am put in mind of Lewis’ reviews of LOTR… He clearly saw the influence of WWI on the War of the Ring, and I have often wondered how much Jack and Tollers talked about their experiences — obliquely, I’m sure.


  3. Joe Christopher says:

    The last poem in _Spirits in Bondage_ was, in its first version, a first-person description of death (in an Irish myth setting) in war. When Lewis survived the war, he re-wrote it in the third person. The point is that he expected to be killed in the war, and he left that poem and the others then written in the possession of Arthur Greeves, to be published in a collection after the war.


    • Hi Joe, the version I have of “Death in Battle” in Spirits in Bondage is in the 1st person. Did that get flipped? I saw the Wade manuscript of this in 2018, but I don’t remember that change exactly.
      I think that you have read the poem well.


      • Joe Christopher says:

        You are right. I just checked King’s _Collected Poems_. In a note no. 123 on (by chance) p. 123, King gives the title of the ms. script version of this poem as “My Own Death Song.” I think I saw a copy of the ms. version at the Wade years ago, and maybe I just was remembering that the title shifted from a “My” to just “Death in Battle.” I’m sorry I was mis-remembering things. I’ll keep quiet about the poems until I have a chance to re-immerse myself in them.


  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I suspect that there are fascinating glimpses throughout Lewis’s work – two examples that stick in my mind are, first, in The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933), III, 3: “‘We lost our ideals when there was a war in this country,’ said a very young Clever, ‘they were ground out of us in the mud and the flood and the blood. That is why we have to be so stark and brutal.’

    “‘But, look here,’ cried John, that war was years ago. It was your fathers who were in it: and they are all settled down and living ordinary lives.'”

    The second is the total complex effect on the inhabitants of St. Anne’s of Malacandra descending in That Hideous Strength (1945), chapter 15, section 1, including on the Great War veteran (and, apparently, officer), McPhee: “‘I’d like to be able to say as an old sergeant said to me in the first war, about a bit of a raid we did near Monchy. Our fellows did it all with the butt end, you know. ‘Sir,’ says he, ‘did you ever hear anything like the way their heads cracked.’ ‘I think that’s disgusting,’ said Mother Dimble. ‘That part is, I suppose,’ said Camilla. ‘But… oh, if one could have a charge in the old style.'” Looking it up, I encountered something I had not remembered, in the paragraph before this one, of the full effect of Perelandra descending on Ransom and Merlin: “It was fiery, sharp, bright, and ruthless, ready to kill, ready to die, outspeeding light: it was Charity […] unmitigated.”

    Listening the other day to the excellent Radio Theatre dramatization of The Magician’s Nephew, it suddenly struck me that when Frank was taken out of the earth and invited by Aslan to dwell ever more in the world of Narnia (ch. 11), he was delivered from any possibility of fighting in World War I (or, it now occurs to me, of being in England in World War II, like the others in the Chronicles, for that matter), yet he is then told that as first King of Narnia he shall “protect them [“all these creatures”] from their enemies, when enemies arise. And enemies will arise”, and asked, “if enemies came against the land (for enemies will arise) and there was war, would you be the first in the charge, and the last in the retreat?'” (It is a happy thought that Lewis’s notes outlining Narnian history suggest that, in the event, it is at least six generations and some 200 years before war comes to Narnia.)

    It is tantalizing to note that in 1955 Lewis published both Surprised by Joy with that sentence, “The war itself has been so often described by those who saw more of it than I that I shall here say little about it”, and his Inaugural Address, ‘De Descriptione Temporum’, with it’s reference to “Mr. Jones’s Anathemata”. Did he, like Charles Williams, also know David Jones’s Great War book, In Parenthesis? – did they even discuss it, perhaps together with other veterans and Inklings?


    • This is a brilliant response, David. Any interest in shaping it into a post for next year that shows how Lewis is not redeeming war, but pointing beyond WWI as the paradigm of war? At least, it seems you are moving in that direction.


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