Celebrating Clive Staple’s 121st

Clive Staples “Jack” Lewis (1898 ~ 1963)

Today would have been the 121st birthday of C.S. Lewis. A week ago today marked the 56th anniversary of his death, which was, at the time, overshadowed by the assassination of President Kennedy.

To celebrate his birthday, I decided to read the second essay found in the 1969 edition of Selected Literary Essays by C.S. Lewis, edited by Walter Hooper. Interestingly, the copy I checked out from the Kansas City Public Library may be a first edition. If not, it’s been in circulation for fifty years, as evidenced by date stamps through early 1996, after which, I assume, the Library moved from analog to digital (card catalog to barcodes):

KCPL Catalog Number 6958742
Check out date stamps through mid-90s plus new KCPL barcode.

I originally checked out this volume specifically to read the 21st essay entitled “Psycho-Analysis and Literary Criticism” which was referenced in a footnote in an essay I read recently in A Tolkien Compass. For today, though, I wanted to celebrate the friendship between C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, so I read, instead, the second essay entitled “The Alliterative Metre.”

The essay covers many of the rules governing alliterative verse, including these definitions:

  • The half-line consists of Lifts and Dips. Every half-line must contain neither more nor less than two Lifts.
  • A Lift is either (1) one syllable both long and accented (as the first syllable of ogre or mountain); or (b) two syllables whereof the first is short but accented, and the second unaccented (as the first two syllables of merrily, vigorous, melancholy, evident).
  • A Dip is any reasonable number of unaccented syllables whether long or short.

Despite my best efforts, I quickly got sidetracked by yet another footnote. It all began with a short example alliterative verse, composed (I’m assuming) by Lewis.

We were TALKing of DRAGONS, | TOLkien and I
In a BERKshire BAR. | The BIG WORKman
Who had SAT SILent | and SUCKED his PIPE
ALL the EVEning, | from his EMPTy MUG
"I SEEN 'em mySELF', | he SAID FIERCEly

Note: Syllables printed above in capitals are Lifts, the rest are Dips.

The first and most distracting footnote followed the word ‘fiercely’ and read:

I have been asked by many people if these lines were part of a longer poem. The answer, I regret to say, is No. They were written simply for the purpose of illustrating the alliterative line. Professor Tolkien, when I asked if he knew the origin of these lines, kindly favoured me with the following note: ‘The occasion is entirely fictitious . . . A remote source of Jack’s [C.S.L.’s] lines may be this: I remember Jack telling me a story of Brightman, the distinguished ecclesiastical scholar, who use to sit quietly in Common Room saying nothing except on rare occasions. Jack said that there was a discussion on dragons one night and at the end Brightman’s voice was heard to say, “I have seen a dragon.” Silence. “Where was that?” he was asked. “On the Mount of Olives”, he said. He relapsed into silence and never before his death explained what he meant.’

Walter Hooper, first footnote to “The Alliterative Meter”; also Letter 300 (20 February 1968) from The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien

This anecdote sent me down yet another rabbit hole on dragon symbology in Catholicism, which sent me mixed signals since dragons are most often associated with sin and paganism and is why most saints are the dragon-slaying kind. Yet Jesus spent a lot of time on Mount Olivet where He wept over Jerusalem, He taught and prophesied to His disciples, spent a night in prayer and anguish over His bitter cup in a garden there; was betrayed by one of His twelve there, and it was the last place on Earth He was seen before Ascending.

Could Brightman have been referring to the dragon in Judas? Or the temptation to walk away from the bitter cup? Or is Jesus somehow a Lion, a Lamb and a Dragon?

I found an article from the Catholic Encyclopedia on the Feast of the Ascension that mentioned “the English custom of carrying at the head of the procession the banner bearing the device of the lion and at the foot the banner of the dragon, to symbolize the triumph of Christ in His ascension over the evil one.”

All of this is well and good for Catholics, like Tolkien. But I was raised a protestant (Methodist) and the symbology I remember for Ascension Day was kingly, uplifting, triumphal. Note: Ascension Day is one of only three non-Sunday holy day observances included in Wesley’s forerunner to the Book of Worship – the other two days being Christmas and Good Friday.

But enough theology, back to poetry. The essay concluded with an alliterative verse entitled “The Planets” which I assume was composed by Lewis. He prefaces the verse with a paragraph that starts “A man who preaches metre must sooner or later risk his case by showing a specimen.” His verse begins with the closest celestial body to us, the Moon, and then jumps to Mercury, followed by Venus, Mars, Jupiter and ends with Saturn. I’m not sure when this essay was published, but surely by then everyone was aware of the existence of Uranus (1781), Neptune (1846) and even Pluto. Well perhaps not the last one, since it was discovered by a Kansan in 1930.

I read many of the lines out loud, as Lewis stated early in the essay that “the reader must learn to attend entirely to sounds, and to ignore spelling.” My favorite section, strangely, were the lines written on Mars, perhaps because I’ve been reading A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II, binge watching most of the final season if The Man in the High Castle and watching the 2002 made-for-television movie Silent Night based on a true story of “Christmas Eve, 1944, where a German Mother and her son seek refuge in a cabin on the war front. When she is invaded by three American soldiers and then three German soldiers, she successfully convinces the soldiers to put aside their differences for one evening and share a Christmas dinner.”

I appear to be obsessed with WWII this Thanksgiving.

Back to the lines that struck a chord with me:

Dark with discord dins beyond him,
With noise of nakers, neighing of horses,
Hammering of harness. A haughty god
MARS mercenary, makes there his camp
And flies his flag; flaunts laughingly
The graceless beauty, grey-eyed and keen,
-- Blond insolence -- of his blithe visage
Which is hard and happy. He hews the act,
The indifferent deed with dint of his mallet
And his chisel of choice; achievement comes not
Unhelped by him; -- hired gladiator
Of evil and good. All's one to Mars,
The wrong righted, rescued meekness,
Or trouble in trenches, with tress splintered
And birds banished, banks fill'd with gold
And the liar made lord. Like handiwork
He offers to all -- earns his wages
And whistles the while. White-featured dread
Mars has mastered. His metal's iron
That was hammered through hands into holy cross,
Cruel carpentry. He is cold and strong,
Necessity's son.

I stopped short, leaving off the last half line, which continues on into Jupiter’s orbit.

I hope you have enjoyed my celebration post and are inspired to read something written by or about C.S. Lewis today.

You can’t get a cup of tea big enough or a book long enough to suit me.

C.S. Lewis, 1898-1963

To get you started, you can visit https://www.cslewis.com/us/about-cs-lewis/ for book suggestions.

2 thoughts on “Celebrating Clive Staple’s 121st”

    1. Robbie would like us (the Tolkien Society of Kansas City) to read Beowulf as a group, possibly next year after we finish the History of the Lord of the Rings group read.

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