C. S. Lewis and T. S. Eliot: Unlikely Partners in Mythopoeic Pilgrimage


An author should never conceive himself as bringing into existence beauty or wisdom which did not exist before, but simply and solely as trying to embody in terms of his own art some reflection of eternal Beauty and Wisdom.
— C.S. Lewis, “Christianity and Literature”

Lewis despised the British Modernist innovations from the start. Thinking them unnecessarily rebellious, and even nonsensical, he argued against them in many forums. In letters to friends he criticized the “New Criticism,” sometimes mentioning T. S. Eliot specifically, for whom he reserved special professional ire. His disdain for perhaps Eliot’s most famous poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” is most obvious. In A Preface to Paradise Lost, for instance, Lewis takes Eliot to task as an example of the new poetic excesses. He draws his views from I. A. Richards’s Practical Criticism: A Study of Literary Judgement, and views Eliot’s “Prufrock” as an example of a poet using the wrong “stock responses.”

Lewis sees this practice arising from “a decay in Logic” and a “Romantic Primitivism” (55). For Lewis, the New Criticism represented a fake front, preventing both poet and reader from being completely honest. He specifically criticizes Eliot’s opening lines in “Prufrock”:

Let us go then, you and I,
the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table[.] (ll. 1-3)

Lewis comments:

I have heard Mr. Eliot’s comparison of evening to a patient on an operating table praised, nay gloated over, not as a striking picture of sensibility in decay, but because it was so ‘pleasantly unpleasant.’ . . . When poisons become fashionable they do not cease to kill. (Paradise 56-57)

Lewis even responds in a poem of his own, “A Confession”:

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. (ll. 13-16)

It is obvious that Lewis detested the poetic liberties Eliot embraced. The New Criticism, for Lewis, constituted a rejection of the goodness of all poetry before the Modern Era; thus, Eliot could not escape Lewis’s wide net of critique. Lewis argued against Eliot’s techniques in “Shelley, Dryden, and Mr. Eliot,” a rejoinder to Eliot’s own “John Dryden.” Lewis was upset by Eliot’s apparent rejection of Romanticism. Because Lewis himself recalled his early love for Romanticism as the germinations of the Sehnsucht that led him to his religious faith, he stood opposed to Counter-Romantics like Eliot who seemed to criticize Shelley and others, and who attacked the “religion” they thought Romanticism unnecessarily introduced.

Lewis’s dislike for Eliot’s style and ideas finds its way into his fiction as well. The first fictional piece Lewis published after his conversion to Christianity, of course, was The Pilgrim’s Regress, an allegorical tale of his journey to faith (and a twist on Bunyan’s classic allegory). In Regress, Lewis allegorizes Eliot(!) as the Neo-Angular, a man who talks as though he sees things invisible.

The 19th-century literary traditions form much of Lewis’s style, and he was a writer philosophically grounded in and spiritually committed to the past. And, as Patrick Adcock once put it, Lewis believed “20th-century critics have overreacted in their rejection of 19th-century conventions.”

Despite apparent differences, however, Lewis’s and Eliot’s work shares many commonalities, more than perhaps either would admit and more than they are typically given credit for. For all of Lewis’s post-conversion sniping at Eliot’s poetry, the pre-conversion work of both men (Eliot’s conversion to orthodox Christianity was made public in 1927) represent similar concerns. In retrospect, Lewis’s view of myth and “literary religiousness” apply to Eliot’s work. Both poets’ early verse share common concerns, also. As Eliot’s early poetry seeks to recover the “lost story” by creating a verbal collage of divergent philosophies, religions, and folklores, Lewis’s early poetry evidenced his desire to integrate his Modernist atheism with classical mythologies. The two writers appear to echo each other’s concerns.

The controlling metaphor in Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” and most of his other poetry, is that of “broken images.” He writes:

. . . Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats . . . (ll. 20-22)

Eliot’s poetic style resembles this “broken image” idea as it runs stream-of-consciousness through fragments of thoughts and pictures, becoming a type of literary Cubism — abstract on purpose. This metaphor actually resembles one of Lewis’s own. In the second installment of his Space Trilogy, Perelandra, Lewis’s protagonist Ransom reflects:

Our mythology is based on a solider reality than we dream: but it is also at an almost infinite distance from that base. . . . Ransom at last understood why mythology was what it was—gleams of celestial strength and beauty falling on a jungle of filth and imbecility.

For Eliot, the variant world mythologies reflected a universal mythos. Each strand of tradition was a broken image. Piled in a heap, though, with the sun (the Son?) illuminating them, a brighter reality shines through. Lewis’s view concurs: the variant mythologies are individual “gleams” illuminating the “jungle of filth.” The “heap of broken images” and “gleams of strength and beauty” are parallel ideas.

The way these metaphors function in their works carries the idea even further. Their philosophies of myth and literature are not widely divergent. For Eliot, “the living of a myth consists of viewing reality in light of the imagination” (William Skaff, The Philosophy of T. S. Eliot). For Lewis, as Gilbert Meilaender wrote in an 1999 issue of First Things, “imagination was the organ of meaning.” The literature of Eliot and Lewis synthesizes their imaginations with their ideologies. Viewing myth similarly as they do, the prevalence and purpose of allusions to myth, religion, folklore, and literature appear synonymous in their writing.

Eliot’s “The Waste Land” employs the mythic quest as its structural theme. The poem in fact embodies the “form of myth” (Lee Oser, “Eliot, Frazer, and the Mythology of Modernism”). The crossing of water, the acceptance of journey—these are conventions evident in the fragments of descriptions. Eliot apparently believes the universal concept of the quest hints at a true pilgrimage. “The Waste Land” embarks on this pilgrimage, reading the sign posts on the way, watching the heavens and ruminating on the ruins around. Each experience in the poem—love, frustration, adventure, prognostication—are meant as clues to an over-arching story. It is unfortunate that Lewis did not realize the similarity between this approach and his own. Of The Pilgrim’s Regress, Andrew Wheat writes, “Lewis’s pilgrim maps a path between relativist ideology and superstition. Lewis treats the Christian life as a quest and a dialectic rather than a series of questions.”

Implicit in Lewis’s allegorical pilgrimage is the salvation-as-process idea. Given this idea, one would assume Lewis might appreciate Eliot’s processional in “The Waste Land.” And given Eliot’s own conversion, the view of his poetry as processional in the Lewisian sense is not too far off base.

Had Lewis purposefully compared his first published poetry to Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” he would have discovered more similarities than differences. Lewis’s long-form verse Spirits in Bondage, with its subtitle “A Cycle of Lyrics,” represents his immature atheism. At that time in his life, Lewis perceived Beauty as the only true spirituality. Influenced by his experiences in the first World War, Lewis expresses his conviction that nature is malevolent. This is a far cry from his post-conversion views, of course, but the “gleam of celestial beauty” is there—the seed, if you will, of what is filled in later by full Christian theism. The concept behind Spirits in Bondage, differing metrical forms revolving around a central idea, is reminiscent of Eliot’s masterpiece. The cyclical approach suits both poets’ efforts, though Lewis’s work is a collection of poems and Eliot’s is one. Lewis considered his poems in this volume as parts of a whole, however, and this approach is comparable to “The Waste Land”‘s episodes.

From the start, Lewis’s Spirits in Bondage alludes to a figure with a key part in Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” In the first poem, “Prologue” (xli-xlii), Lewis writes:

As of old Phoenician men, to the Tin Isles sailing
Straight against the sunset and the edges of the earth,
Chaunted loud above the storm and strange sea’s wailing . . . (ll. 1-3)

Here, in the first three lines of Lewis’s work, one finds the Phoenician sailor, a critical element to Eliot’s poem. Lewis begins his Cycle with the quest motif, integrating classical archetypes into his presentation of a journey. Eliot’s protagonist in “The Waste Land” is the Phoenician sailor who steers through the ruins and whirlpools of time in search of a turning point in life.

The similarities between the two writers’ mythopoeic sensibilities don’t end there. In Spirits in Bondage, Lewis’s poem “Spooks” (11) follows a man who feels dead inside and thinks himself a ghost to the outside world. In the last stanza he recalls:

So thus I found my true love’s house again
And stood unseen amid the winter night
And the lamp burned within, a rosy light,
And the wet street was shining in the rain. (ll. 113-16)

These lines are eerily similar to Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Prufrock, whether actually inside the room or not, views the party as apart from himself. Both poems feature this sense of detachment, this burning of unrequited love or internal emptiness. The voices in “Prufrock” and “Spooks” are disenchanted, disillusioned, and distanced from life. Even the environmental descriptions in the two poems share images: Eliot has “pools that stand in drains” (l. 18), and Lewis has “wet street shining in the rain” (l. 16). The speakers in each poem echo distance from “the light.”

Returning to Eliot’s “The Waste Land” as a primary indicator of the poet’s mission, more similarities to Lewisian poetry are found. The description of a “turning of the tide” appears in “The Waste Land” both explicitly and implicitly. Eliot writes:

The river sweats
Oil and tar
The barges drift
With the turning tide . . . (ll. 266-69)

This “turning” is a recurring theme in the poem, elucidated most clearly through the Wheel tarot card and illustrating Eliot’s notions of time and history as cyclical. The turning motion is an exquisite companion for the poem’s entire lyrical movement as well. In his later collection of verse, simply titled Poems, Lewis includes a piece called “The Turn of the Tide” (49-51) about the birth of Jesus. The poem singles out the moment of the birth of the Word Incarnate as the turning point in time and space:

The vibrant dithyramb shook Libra and the Ram,
The brains of Aquarius spun round . . . (l. 59-60)

For Lewis, the turning tide is the birth of Christ. For Eliot it is the attempt by man to resist the degenerative flow of “modern” ideas. Eliot’s view emerges from his ideas of culture and history. Lewis’s view is similar to that of Albert Schweitzer, who thought that Christ meant to turn the wheel of history through revolution. Christ failed (according to Schweitzer), was murdered, and then it was his broken body thrust upon the wheel of time that began its turning. (Lewis’s view is not as cynical, but it is still Christocentric.) At the time, Eliot may not have seen Christian Theism as the wheel turner, but he must have eventually. Eliot’s concept of the turning tide can be illustrated as “all paths lead to the same place; we must change directions.” Lewis’s concept can be illustrated thus:

And though there seemed to be, and indeed were, a thousand roads by which a man could walk through the world, there was not a single one which did not lead sooner or later either to the Beatific or the Miserific Vision. (Perelandra)

The cyclical journeys, the attempts at turning the tide, reflect correlative ideas in both writers’ works.

Along with the “tide” similarities, there is another lyrical similarity between Eliot and Lewis. In two instances, they appear to view the process of thought in a like manner. In “The Waste Land,” Eliot writes:

What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
I never know what you are thinking. Think. (l. 113-14)

In a similar passage, in Poems’ “Poem for Psychoanalysts and/or Theologians” (113), Lewis writes:

All this, indeed, I do not remember.
I remember the remembering . . . (ll. 12-13)

The process of thought, as random and disjointed, appears in both excerpts. Also, emphasis is placed on fallacies of thought. Eliot’s speaker admits ignorance (“I never know . . .”), and so does Lewis’s (“I do not remember”). Lewis’s poem embodies the fragmentary approach of Eliot’s.

The many individual allusions in “The Waste Land” are to works and movements Lewis finds influential, also. Eliot alludes to Edmund Spenser’s Prothalamion—“Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song (l. 176)”—and Spenser’s shadow towers over nearly all of Lewis’s work. Referring to Spenser’s Epithalamion, Lewis writes:

“Into this buoyant poem Spenser has worked all the diverse associations of marriage, actual and poetic, Pagan and Christian: summer, landscape, neighbours, pageantry, religion, riotous eating and drinking, sensuality, moonlight—all are harmonized . . . Those who have attempted to write poetry will know how very much easier it is to express sorrow than joy. That is what makes the Epithalamion matchless.”

Like Spenser, both Lewis and Eliot enrich basic allegory with epic ideas.

Another literary figure influential on both men is Dante. In his “Notes on ‘The Waste Land’,” Eliot cites Dante’s influence five times. Of Dante, Lewis writes, “I think [his poetry], on the whole, the greatest of all the poetry I have read,” and, “He has not only no rival, but none second to him.” The prevalent theme in Dante’s work, the mythic journey as picture of Christian afterlife, appears significantly transported to the works of Eliot and Lewis. Eliot cites Milton and Wagner in his “Notes” also, and these two artists are perhaps the two most influential upon Lewis in his adolescence. Lewis writes of his pre-Christian yearnings as stabs of joy. He believes God used works like those by Wagner and Milton to create within him a longing for “the other.” John Bremer writes:

[Lewis] came across a periodical in the schoolroom containing a review of the recent translation of Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods by Margaret Armour; the review included illustrations by Arthur Rackham. One of them, accompanying Act III of Siegfried, shows the startled, awestruck Siegfried, gazing in wonder at the bare-breasted Brunhild whose long sleep he is about to terminate with a kiss. She is the first woman he has ever seen. [Lewis] did not know who Siegfried was, but the picture gave him a sense of “northernness” and a rediscovery of Joy. Later, he was able to buy, with Warren Lewis’s help, the complete volume . . with all the illustrations, and also to collect recordings of parts of the Ring, beginning with The Ride of the Valkyrie. The love of Wagner and all things “northern” continued throughout his life.

Lewis mentions Milton many times in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy. In this passage, Milton joins a list of formative influences, giving us another window into how Lewis’s conversion informed his mythopoeia:

All the books were beginning to turn against me. Indeed, I must have been as blind as a bat not to have seen, long before, the ludicrous contradictions between my theory of life and my actual experiences as a reader. George MacDonald had done more to me than any other writer, of course it was a pity he had that bee in his bonnet about Christianity. He was good in spite of it. Chesterton had more sense than all the other moderns put together; bating, of course, his Christianity. Johnson was one of the few authors whom I felt I could trust utterly; curiously enough, he had the same kink. Spenser and Milton by a strange coincidence had it too.

Milton’s masterpiece, of course, also inspired Lewis’s foremost critical effort, A Preface to Paradise Lost. The influence of both Milton and Wagner upon Eliot’s poetry is significant in his comparison with Lewis. They share these formative influences.

A more curious allusion, and admittedly only a minor note (though still worth mentioning), is Eliot’s allusion to Hinduism. The benediction to “The Waste Land” is extracted from the Upanishads. Eliot writes:

Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
Shantih shantih shantih[.] (ll. 433-34)

The repetition and spiritual otherness echoed here induce a trance-like reading. The closing is solemn, even “holy.” Interestingly enough, Lewis also had some positive words for Hinduism. While facing which road to formal religion to follow after abandoning atheism, he writes in Surprised by Joy, “There were really only two answers possible: either in Hinduism or in Christianity.” Though eventually accepting Christianity, Lewis believed there was something in Hinduism that set it apart from other religions. Apparently, Eliot believed this, too, as he chose a meditative chant as the climax to “The Waste Land”‘s meta-religious pilgrimage.

The most important similarity between Eliot and Lewis is their view of myth. Mythology, religion, folktale, music, and literature, to them, all hold bits of reality. Between the two of them there is much reliance on classical myths and even the Grail legend. William Skaff writes, “Myths for Eliot, then, give us a glimpse into our unconscious, a sense of Reality as immediate experience.” Similarly, Lewis writes, “Myth is . . . like manna; it is to each man a different dish and to each the dish he needs.” In myth, Lewis and Eliot see a universal acknowledgment of “the other,” of something beyond. Both writers explored myth as a way of finding the truth. In his most focused examination of this concept, the essay “Myth Became Fact,” Lewis writes:

Now as myth transcends thought, Incarnation transcends myth. The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens—at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.

. . To be truly Christian we must both assent to the historical fact and also receive the myth (fact though it has become) with the same imaginative embrace which we accord to all myths.

. . . Those who do not know that this great myth became Fact when the Virgin conceived are, indeed, to be pitied. But Christians also need to be reminded—we may thank Corineus for reminding us—that what became Fact was a Myth, that is carries with it into the world of Fact all the properties of a myth. God is more than a god, not less; Christ is more than Balder, not less. We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology.

. . . If God chooses to be mythopoeic—and is not the sky itself a myth—shall we refuse to be mythopathic? For this is the marriage of heaven and earth: Perfect Myth and Perfect Fact: claiming not only our love and our obedience, but also our wonder and delight, addressed to the savage, the child, and the poet in each one of us no less than to the moralist, the scholar, and the philosopher.

Lewis and Eliot both imaginatively embraced this Christian “myth” (Lewis in 1931, Eliot officially in 1927). With this in mind, it is a wonder that Lewis could not recognize the pilgrimage in Eliot’s early poetry. Lewis halted at his disregard for the Modernist style, neglecting an explanation of the purpose behind it. Some critics, like James Tetreault, have begrudged Lewis his cynicism. In an essay published in Renascence Journal, James Tetreault chronicles the two writers’ parallel lives and art, focusing on Lewis’s “unwavering hostility” (257), “major assault” (260), and “major onslaught” (261) against Eliot.

This is probably too much. Critics criticize, and Lewis is no exception. In Eliot, Lewis found the chief spokesman for the Modernist movement he vehemently disagreed with. One can hardly blame him for his aggression. Tetreault appears to credit Lewis’s hostility to his own failed attempts at poetry, insinuating envy as the motivation (264). Anyone at all familiar with the works of Lewis would not arrive at this conclusion so hastily. Lewis was perhaps envious, but there are no other indicators of his jealousy leading to animosity. Lewis had several friends who enjoyed varying degrees of success (Charles Williams, Dorothy Sayers, Owen Barfield), often more than his own. J. R. R. Tolkien is one as well, and Lewis never begrudged “Tollers” his success. Tetreault appears to be grasping at straws here and finally approaches something resembling reasonable when, almost as an afterthought, he reprints Lewis’s words to Walter Hooper, “You know that I never cared for Eliot’s poetry and criticism, but when we met I loved him at once.”

In later years, Lewis and Eliot became friends when both were asked by the Archbishop of Canterbury to serve on the Commission to Revise the Psalter. In a letter to Eliot, Lewis wrote:

You need not sympathise too much: if my condition keeps me from doing some things I like, it also excuses me from doing a good many things I don’t. There are two sides to everything!

We must have a talk—I wish you’d write an essay on it—about Punishment. The modern view, by excluding the retributive element and concentrating solely on deterrence and cure, is hideously immoral. It is vile tyranny to submit a man to compulsory “cure” or sacrifice him to the deterrence of others, unless he deserves it. On the other view what is there to prevent any of us being handed over to Butler’s “Straighteners” at any moment?

I’d have to know more about the Greek of that period to make a real criticism of the N.E.B. (N.T. which is the only part I’ve seen.) Odd, the way the less the Bible is read the more it is translated.

In this letter, one finds evidence of previous conversation. This correspondence finds Lewis and Eliot interacting as friends (Eliot is concerned about Lewis’s health), as literary companions (Lewis apparently thinks highly enough of Eliot’s work to suggest he write an essay), and as colaborers (translation theory is discussed).

What joins Lewis and Eliot together is more important than what makes them different. Lewis later observed, “I agree with him about matters of such moment that all literary questions are, in comparison, trivial.” But, with each closer inspection, their literary differences appear less significant. Eliot and Lewis took up a literary and mythic journey that has challenged mankind throughout history. They weathered storms and charted paths. In terms of literary history, they have helped turn the tide of mytho-literary thinking. In a recent New Yorker essay on religion, John Updike ponders, “What might a faith of the future consist of? . . . Religions are conservative artifacts, made from scraps of others.” Compare this to Lewis’s words in perhaps his most important apologetic work, Mere Christianity: “If you are a Christian, you are free to think that all . . . religions, even the queerest ones, contain at least some hint of truth.”

The future of faith, in the Eliotic and Lewisian sense, in one of gathering up the “heap of broken images,” of bathing in the “gleams of celestial beauty”—these are the “artifacts,” the “scraps.” These are the common elements of our universal experience. Stylistically, Eliot and Lewis may be worlds apart, but thematically they journey together.

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