Walter Hooper on Lewis’ Verse

The fact that he did not publish these poems during his lifetime  suggests that Lewis was hesitant about their publication. He knew his poems were very unlike most contemporary verse. Because of this, he could not be certain of the reaction of his readers. The answer is not far to seek. In the poem, ‘A Confession’, Lewis says with ironical disappointment:

I am so coarse, the things the poets see
Are entirely invisible to me.
For twenty years I’ve stared my level best
To see if evening—any evening—would suggest
A patient etherized upon a table;
In vain. I simply wasn’t able.

Lewis found Mr. Eliot’s comparison of an evening to a patient on an operating table unpleasant, one example of the decay of proper feelings. He mistrusted, in fact, the free play of mere immediate experience. He believed, rather, that man’s attitudes and actions should be governed by, what he calls in the same poem, Stock Responses (e.g. love is sweet, death bitter, and virtue lovely). Man must, for his own safety and pleasure, be taught to copy the Stock Responses in hopes that he may, by willed imitation, make the proper responses. He found this perfectly summed up in Aristotle’s ‘We learn how to do things by doing the things we are learning to do’. This concern is expressed, directly or indirectly, in almost all of Lewis’ books,  but most clearly in his defence of Milton’s style (A Preface to ‘Paradise Lost’, Ch. VIII). His belief that poetry did not need to be eccentric to enrich a response and of ‘being normal without being vulgar’, one of the characteristics which distinguish him from many contemporary poets, made him think he might be classed as an Angry Old Man. If so, he concluded that he was much less angry with things in general than are the Young Men, and having perhaps the better claim to Age than some do to Youth.

–Walter Hooper, Oxford, 1964, Preface to Poems by C.S. Lewis

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