Great and Little Men: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Letter about C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot

For much of the last week, I have been fighting through the relationship between C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot. In my 2015 post about Eliot’s striking lyrical poem, “…In the Vacant Places,” I was more than a bit optimistic when I said that “C.S. was a slow convert to T.S. Eliot’s poetry”–and I have been since challenged on that point. So I have taken time to go carefully through all the available materials.

My understanding of the story is that a young Lewis, working out his vocation as a poet and sharpening his critical mind, deeply disliked Eliot’s poetry as soon as he encountered it. Steeped as he was in the great classical traditions of the West, and revelling in romances and medieval poetry, Lewis saw Eliot’s modernist innovations of metre, atmosphere, and imagery–both poetic diction and content–as representational of culture in imaginative decay.

Later, when Lewis is working as a professional critic and literary historian, he disagreed with a number of critics, including E.M.W. Tillyard, I.A. Richards, F.R. Leavis, T.S. Eliot himself, and other–critics connected with Cambridge, theoretical movements like “the New Criticism” and “Practical Criticism,” modernist movements like the Bloomsbury Set, and trend-setting journals like Criterion and Scrutiny. As Eliot was a gatekeeper, Lewis needed to deal with Eliot and usually did so politely, even submitting an article to Criterion, which Eliot ultimately rejected. You can see threads of Lewis’ resistance to these movements in much of his longer literary critical articles, in lit theory books like The Personal Heresy and An Experiment in Criticism, and in his literary books such as A Preface to Paradise Lost, where he takes on Tillyard and Eliot directly. Indeed, the whole of Lewis’ career as a literary scholar is a moral resistance to these movements–and Lewis saw Eliot as a leader within these movements, and sometimes as a symbol of them.

Professionally speaking, Lewis was usually polite and firm when challenging Eliot in most of his literary criticism and theory. Sometimes the challenge is a bit more jovial, though there are a couple of moments of more pointed or heated criticism. Lewis was far more profuse in blame in his letters, where there seems to be a personal animosity toward Eliot–at least toward Eliot as a symbol. Twice, however, Lewis had a more personal opportunity to rethink his position and make a connection with another leading Anglican public intellectual.

The first of these was through Charles Williams, who was a close friend of both Eliot and Lewis. Indeed, Eliot and Lewis each described Williams in striking terms, admitting to Williams’ charismatic appeal and value as a poet and critic. Williams tried once, just a few months before he died, to bridge the divide between Eliot and Lewis. Just months before Charles Williams died, he arranged a meeting between Eliot, Lewis, and another Inkling, Fr Gervase Mathew, at the Mitre Hotel in Oxford. It was not a success.

After Williams’ death, Lewis worked on a volume of essays in his honour. Eliot agreed to contribute to the edited Williams volume, and Lewis’ letters were polite and functional. Eliot, terrible at deadlines, could not contribute even a poem. Lewis was disappointed, for Eliot would have heightened the entire project in the public eye (though it is a book that continues to sell because of Tolkien’s famous “On Fairy-stories” essay more than anything that Lewis did or Eliot could have done).

Although slighting references to Eliot are most focussed on the 1930s until the early 40s, Lewis continued to critique Eliot’s poetry and critical approach until late in life, when a second moment of connection emerged. In an intriguing twist, Lewis’ Reflection on the Psalms led to an invitation to work with the Committee to Revise the Psalter, which in turn led to a friendship with Eliot. As I discuss in this article, the committee began by meeting at Lambeth Palace in January 1959, and the group of scholars, theologians, pastors, and poets worked fastidiously towards a publication in 1963, including several day-long and even three-day conferences. Eliot and Lewis, despite their differing perspectives about the very essence of poetry and many critical aspects of Anglican faith, became friends in the process of translation/adaptation of the Psalter. The letters of 1959 and the early 1960s are personal, sometimes jocular, and usually brief, where Lewis writes to “My Dear Eliot” about lunches together, the committee, and other events of notice.

Though their late friendship was never terribly deep, the story ends in a soft and touching way. Lewis’ one-time literary arch-nemesis, T.S. Eliot, in his role as publisher, was the first to recognize that A Grief Observed–Lewis’ pseudonymous memoir of grief following the death of Joy–was really from the literary scholar who had most vociferously attacked him in print, C.S. Lewis. Eliot praised the book and gave some advice that protected Lewis’ anonymity.

I doubt that Lewis ever came to appreciate Eliot’s poetry, which I always feel as a kind of loss. In surveying the material available, and even dipping into the biographies to see the various ways they interpret the entire affair, I also reread a letter by J.R.R. Tolkien that speaks to the Lewis-Eliot affair. One of Lewis’ students, George Bailey, had written a 1964 memorial article where he suggests that Lewis’ literary challenges to Eliot were fuelled by envy at Eliot’s success. Somehow, Tolkien read this piece and a scrap of his response is printed in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (letter #261, 30 August 1964 letter to Anne Barrett of the publisher, Houghton Mifflin).

As today is Aug 30th, someone on Facebook posted the letter as an anniversary salute, which made me want to share it with you. Besides addressing the charge of “envy”–such a claim is “a grotesque calumny,” Tolkien protests–it manages in Tolkien’s special style to give to Lewis a slighting comment or two while praising him in remarkable ways. Lewis, for Tolkien, was odd and sometimes irritating, unaffected, generous-minded, aware of prejudicial thinking although not always fully self-aware, easy in defeat, and a loyal and caring friend. Moreover, Tolkien believed Lewis to be a scholar worthy of a Cambridge Chair and, indeed, a “great man.” While Tolkien’s letter cannot tell us the full story of Lewis’ late-in-life thoughts about Eliot, it is delightful and worth reading for a taste of Tolkien and Lewis’ friendship.

C.S.L. of course had some oddities and could sometimes be irritating. He was after all and remained an Irishman of Ulster. But he did nothing for effect; he was not a professional clown, but a natural one, when a clown at all. He was generous-minded, on guard against all prejudices, though a few were too deep-rooted in his native background to be observed by him. That his literary opinions were ever dictated by envy (as in the case of T. S. Eliot) is a grotesque calumny. After all it is possible to dislike Eliot with some intensity even if one has no aspirations to poetic laurels oneself.

Well of course I could say more, but I must draw the line. Still I wish it could be forbidden that after a great man is dead, little men should scribble over him, who have not and must know they have not sufficient knowledge of his life and character to give them any key to the truth. Lewis was not ‘cut to the quick’ by his defeat in the election to the professorship of poetry: he knew quite well the cause. I remember that we had assembled soon after in our accustomed tavern and found C.S.L. sitting there, looking (and since he was no actor at all probably feeling) much at ease. ‘Fill up!’ he said, ‘and stop looking so glum. The only distressing thing about this affair is that my friends seem to be upset.’ And he did not ‘readily accept’ the chair in Cambridge. It was advertised, and he did not apply. Cambridge of course wanted him, but it took a lot of diplomacy before they got him. His friends thought it would be good for him: he was mortally tired, after nearly 30 years, of the Baileys of this world and even of the Duttons. It proved a good move, and until his health began too soon to fail it gave him a great deal of happiness.

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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29 Responses to Great and Little Men: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Letter about C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot

  1. Lex McMillan says:

    Very enjoyable! Thanks!

    Lex McMillan 400 Ridgewood Drive Gettysburg, PA 17325 610.207.1674

    Sent from my iPhone


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Larry Repass says:

    Yes, great! Thank you. It’s this kind of story that reminds us to see people as people and not just as “scholars” or “professionals.” In the end, neither Tolkien, Eliot, nor CSL will care whether their ‘work’ was worth anything, but the character that can recognize the other with respect will commend itself to everyone present and to the Judge of all the earth Himself. Larry

    Liked by 1 person

  3. H.P. says:

    I love the image of Lewis greeting his friends as they walk into the pub, after.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Aonghus Fallon says:

    I guess there’s one school of thought that would see Eliot as an innovator with Tolkien and Lewis as the old guard, and argue that this was the real reason for the mutual animosity between Lewis and Elliot. That said, I remember reading some of Lewis’s early poetry and being struck by how he was clearly trying to produce work that was modernist in tone (it reminded me a bit of Auden). Alas, he had no real ‘ear’ – funny, given his facility with prose.


  5. danaames says:

    Brenton, who were Bailey and Dutton, that they would have caused Lewis such fatigue at Oxford?



    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      “One of Lewis’ students, George Bailey, had written a 1964 memorial article” – the introductory note to Letter 261 identifies it as published in The Reporter, 23 April 1964, while an endnote explains “Bailey wrote: ‘From the very first tutorial, Lewis consistently mistook me for Geoff Dutton, an Australian and an excellent student, and Dutton for me.” Wikipedia helps further by noting “George Bailey (journalist)” (1919-2001) “studied English Literature under C.S. Lewis” and including “C.S. Lewis: Speaker and Teacher, Collective work. Carolyn Keefe […] 1971, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids” in the Bibliography. There, Keefe, in her editorial ‘Preface’, notes (p. [10]) that his chapter, ‘In the University’, is an expanded version of his article” – where the Dutton comment appears in context on pages 86-87. Wikipedia also includes an quite a short article with a long Bibliography, “Geoffrey Dutton” – “an Australian author and historian” who “studied at Magdalen College, Oxford”, and must surely be the same one.

      As far as those Wikipedia bibliographies go, by the time Tolkien was writing, no book by Bailey is listed, while one novel, three volumes of poetry, and three non-fiction works by Dutton are listed. I suppose Tolkien, in the context, is thinking of Bailey – and even Dutton – as not untypical of tiresome undergraduates Lewis had to tutor.

      I do not really remember – and have not reread – the Bailey article, but just looking up the Dutton reference gave me an impression of repulsively smug pretentiousness. (A curious choice for reprinting…)

      Liked by 1 person

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  7. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Warren Lewis has a fascinating diary entry for 25 September 1947 about an evening with George Sayer, Colin Hardie, Christopher Tolkien, ‘Hugo’ Dyson, himself and his brother, including,”Some enjoyable talk arising out of T.S. Eliot, one of whose poems J [Jack = C.S.L.] read superbly, but broke off in the middle declaring it to be blige”. The whole entry is worth reading, but that combination of “reading superbly” yet quite the opposite of critically appreciating is intriguing.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. This is lovely, thankyou so much for reproducing Tolkien’s letter in Lewis’s defence. I too am rather sorry Lewis never ‘got’ Eliot’s poetry, but there was so much other poetry that he did love, I imagine he never felt the deficit.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Richard K Mason says:

    Just seeing you for the first time. Most enjoyable! I thank you for making this available and will, indeed, share this with friends.

    Liked by 1 person

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  12. How fascinating that Charles Williams was friends with both of them. I can see why Lewis wouldn’t have liked ‘The Wasteland’ but I am amazed that he didn’t like ‘The Four Quartets’, especially ‘Little Giddings’.


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      It’s interesting that in That Hideous Strength (ch. 9, section 2) Lewis writes of Mark that “as one of the poets says, he ‘discovered in his mind an inflammation swollen and deformed, his memory'”. This, as Arend Smilde notes, is from “the long poem ‘S.O.S.… ‘Ludlow’, the three-part title poem of a volume by Christopher Hassall (1912-63), published in 1940.” Hassall was one of the poets who contributed a play to the Canterbury Festival, ‘Christ’s Comet: The Story of a Thirty Years’ Journey that Began and Ended on the Same Day’ (1937) – as did Lewis’s friends, Williams and Dorothy L. Sayers (twice!) – as did Eliot. I wonder what Lewis thought about Murder in the Cathedral – and, for that matter, all these other Canterbury Festival plays, and Eliot’s other plays (if indeed he knew them) – I can’t remember ever reading about that, and somehow never thought to try to find out, till just now! I should start checking the indexes of the second and third volumes of the Collected Letters… (Lewis himself wrote what I once heard from Karl Leyser was a very amusing play, never published – written in the Vice-Presidents’ Book, when Lewis was Vice-President of Magdalen College, and read by Leyser when he became Vice-President!) Tolkien refers to Williams’s play, The House of the Octopus, in The Notion Club Papers – presumably the Inklings got to hear bits of it read out, and discussed it, while Williams was writing it…

      Liked by 2 people

  13. Joe R. Christopher says:

    Brenton, let me mention something that I can’t cite. If I remember correctly, Lewis started a draft of an autobiography back before before he became a Christian. I _think_ it is in Wheaton. (Some of the details he later used in _Surprised by Joy_.) What’s interesting in it in the Eliot context is that he treats Eliot as the leading poet of the time (in England), speaking of him positively. It was after his Christian return that he began his attacks. Of course, “post” does not prove “because of”. –Joe

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Much more erudite comment lies above this one. Mine is just to say that I have long pondered the unhappy relationship between Lewis and Eliot and I am grateful to you for writing on it. I am sure that Lewis was never personally envious of Eliot as Tolkien clearly affirmed. Did it hurt at all that Eliot was hailed as one of the great poets of the 20th century while his own rather languished in the shadows? I have been nourished by Lewis the story teller above all and then by some of his writings, especially the essays. I don’t think that I have ever turned to his poetry. With Eliot it is the poetry to which I return again and again.
    On the Revised Psalter I can only think of one Anglican community who were using it in their worship 30 years ago. I only spent a weekend with them but was greatly drawn to it. Maybe I should try to use my small influence as a country parson to introduce it into our life of prayer. I wonder if it is in print?

    Liked by 1 person

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