Most readers come to know C. S. Lewis through his imaginative Narnia Chronicles or through his incisive apologetic writings. King, professor of English at Montreat College, Montreat, North Carolina, introduces readers to an earlier Lewis, who had aspirations of becoming a serious poet. Lewis’s lifelong devotion to poetry and his disciplined study of its forms contributed to his mastery of the technique that set him apart as a major twentieth-century prose stylist.
In this first major work on Lewis as a poet King approaches his subject thematically more than chronologically; however, he makes it easy to pinpoint the times of Lewis’s compositions. Chapters are divided into particular early poems (e.g., the sanguine “Spirits in Bondage”) and then according to the genres of poetry Lewis attempted (e.g., narrative poems, comic and satiric verse, contemplative verse, religious verse), and poetic prose.
King’s analysis of many of Lewis’s diary entries as well as his letters reveal Lewis’s ambition and inspire an appreciation for his development as a literary artist as well as a theologian. King stitches together a patchwork quilt of poems, arranged in a symmetrical pattern that radiates from a central theme: the pursuit of joy. King’s masterful exposition of Lewis’s 1924 poem “Joy” shows Lewis’s frustrated quest for joy in his pre-Christian years.
After becoming a Christian, Lewis, having found the way to joy in Christ, worked doggedly to synthesize his tendency toward “a glib and shallow rationalism” with the “many-islanded sea of poetry and myth” that characterized his earlier life. The result was Surprised by Joy, one of his last prose works, a brilliant chronicle of his lifelong pursuit of joy. However, as King points out, Lewis only fully realizes his goal of creating an effective amalgam of rationalism and creativity in his final great poem, “Till We Have Faces.”
The reader emerges with a new appreciation for the fact that Lewis’s legacy as a writer of superb prose owes much to the disciplined pursuit of his poetic impulse. Poetry offered Lewis the ideal vehicle for expressing his heart and his mind in a way that transports his readers to the source of ultimate joy in Jesus Christ. King does an excellent job of mapping Lewis’s literary journey.
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