In My Coracle of Verses: A Review of “Spirits In Bondage”

I was browsing through the shelves of our college’s bookstore and discovered that HarperCollins has been reissuing their C.S. Lewis library in new paperback editions with some frankly rather beautiful covers. The books are classy, too, with French flaps and deckle-edged paper. I immediately began calculating excuses to replace the books by Lewis I already own with these new ones (one of the many reasons a bookstore can be a dangerous place). But as I scanned the spines, I noticed titles I didn’t recognize alongside the ones I did; the publishers have taken the opportunity to not only refresh the cover designs, but also to reintroduce some of Lewis’ more obscure books to his readers.

Among those obscure titles is his first published work, a poetry collection called Spirits In Bondage: A Cycle of Lyrics. He was twenty years old, fresh out of the army and the Great War, and excited to begin his career as a creative writer. But what makes Spirits In Bondage almost unique in the Lewis oeuvre is that the man who would become famous as a Christian apologist and popular theologian was, at the time, an atheist. He had left behind the religion of his childhood and though he made light of it in his letters home, it was one of the factors that put a strain on his relationship with his father.

I knew that Lewis was an atheist. What I had little inkling of was what that meant for him and his inner life. The poems in this slim volume (some of which, at least, were written in the trenches)  gives voice to that inner turmoil of doubt as he witnesses firsthand the violence of which men are capable and the God who must have turned his back on all this world.

Most striking is the “Prologue” that opens the book, where the poet evokes the image of ancient Phoenician sailors who sang as they plied the waves in order to make their labour lighter:

So in mighty deeps alone on the chainless breezes blown
In my coracle of verses I will sing of lands unknown,
Flying from the scarlet city where a Lord that knows no pity,
Mocks the broken people praying round his iron throne,
Sing about the Hidden Country fresh and full of quiet green.
Sailing over seas uncharted to a port that none has seen.

In one of his letters to his father, Lewis offhandedly remarks that “You know who the God I blaspheme is and that it is not the God you or I worship, or any other Christian”, but his remark seems calculated to hide his atheism. In these poems, the existence of a just God is but an idealistic dream; the only God that must exist is by turns distant and aloof, or cruel and tyrannical.

The desire to flee and find a better world, one where peace and beauty reign is strong throughout the entire cycle, which is divided into three parts: The Prison House, Hesitation, and The Escape. But this better world also seems to be less than materialistic at times, and indeed Satan (the subject of two different poems called “Satan Speaks”) claims to rule nature while the other “god” is off wandering in some glorious ethereal place. The book ends with a poem called “Death In Battle”, both an elegy and a prayer for escape from the cruel and evil world:

Ah, to be ever alone,
In flowery valleys among the mountains and silent wastes untrod,
In the dewy upland places, in the garden of God,
This would atone!

I shall not see
The brutal, crowded faces around me, that in their toil have grown
Into the faces of devils–yea, even as my own–
When I find thee,

O Country of Dreams!
Beyond the tide of the ocean, hidden and sunk away,
Out of the sound of battles, near to the end of day,
Full of dim woods and streams.

The theme of escape would continue to thread a path through Lewis’ writings, and he notably would come to find in stories a capacity to catch hold of the spiritual, the transcendent, and the eternal. He would discover the ways in which imaginative literature could paradoxically fit us for the real world, even as he spoke of the human condition being one of exile, and our desire for “a far-off country…we have never yet visited”, and that all beauty we find now is only a reflection of the beautiful world to come. When he wrote Spirits In Bondage, all this was in his future though the seed of it seems to have been in his heart.

However, I think it would be a mistake to find a sustained atheistic argument or worldview in the book. Lewis seems to whirl around between opposites all the time. He doubts the efficacy of the old stories and ancient tales as a fuel for imaginative escape, but liberally alludes to them in many poems (in particular Persephone, the goddess of the seasons and the queen of the underworld, referred to as Despoina and representing the cycle of life and death). He is almost Gnostic in his rejection of nature and matter as evil, but frequently praises the beauty of the world as the seasons change.

Lewis calls the work Spirits In Bondage, which he allowed his father to believe was a reference to 1 Peter, and could be taken in several different ways to the bondage of the human race: to material existence, to God, to life and death. He himself is, I think, in bondage to his own doubt, going back and forth between despondancy and pleasure, between praying and cursing. The collection doesn’t have the character of a man persuading you to his side, only of a man trying to find his way. The inconsistencies don’t belong to the realm of apologetics and debate. In polemic you are trying to be right; in poetry you’re allowed to be honest. And Lewis’ career began with some deeply honest verses.

I thought I knew C.S. Lewis, the creator of Narnia and source of many a sermon quotation. This book has introduced me to the Lewis I never knew, the one with a story I’d never fully explored. It sparked in me the desire to go back and read his books and get to know him better, reviewing them along the way.

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