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.