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C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot: How Rivals Became Friends
Humanizing Contact over a Common Project Brought the Two Literary Giants Together
Did Charles Williams know what would happen when he invited his mutuals, C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot, to tea? One suspects. Lewis had long registered disapproval of Eliot’s work. But surely they’d get on in person, no?
No. It was 1945 and the trio convened at the Mitre Hotel in Oxford. The first words out of Eliot’s mouth? “Mr. Lewis,” he exclaimed, “you are a much older man than you appear in photographs!” The meeting deteriorated from there.
“I must tell you,” Eliot continued, “I consider A Preface to Paradise Lost your best book.” Already irked, now Lewis was in disbelief. While he had dedicated the book to their friend Williams, Lewis had taken a few deliberate swipes at Eliot in those very pages.1
Chapter 2, “Is Criticism Possible?” Lewis defends his right to comment on Paradise Lost. Eliot had written earlier that only, as Lewis said, “the best contemporary practicing poets” were fit to challenge Eliot’s views on Milton’s epic poem. Lewis wasn’t having any.
How, after all, could a person validate if a writer belonged to this august group of poets? It takes one to know one. “Poets become on this view and unrecognizable society,” Lewis objected, “and their mutual criticism goes on within a closed circle, which no outsider can possibly break into at any point.”2
This points us to a deeper irritation for Lewis, who possessed strong opinions about poetry and considered himself superior in the art to his rude tea companion. He trashed Eliot’s poetry in private correspondence. “[Eliot’s] intention only God knows,” Lewis wrote Paul Elmore More in 1935, adding:
I must be content to judge his work by its fruits, and I contend that no man is fortified against chaos by reading “The Waste Land,“ but that most men are by it infected with chaos. . . . The Inferno is not infernal poetry: “The Waste Land” is.3
Lewis also trashed Eliot’s poetry in poetry. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” published in 1915, begins,4
Let us go then, you and I, When the evening is spread out against the sky Like a patient etherised upon a table. . . .
I am so coarse, the things the poets see Are obstinately 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.
Interestingly, Lewis wrote his letter to Farrer in February 1954 and published his riposte in Punch later that same year—four decades after Eliot’s original. Something about Eliot’s phrase lodged firm in Lewis’s craw. “Lewis found Mr Eliot’s comparison of an evening to a patient on an operating table unpleasant,” explained Lewis’s secretary Walter Hooper, “one example of the decay of proper feelings.”7
Indeed, he attacked the same line in Preface to Paradise Lost. “I have heard Mr Eliot’s comparison . . . praised, nay gloated over, not as a striking picture of sensibility in decay, but because it was so ‘pleasantly unpleasant.’”
As far as Lewis was concerned, asking the reader to relish something so revulsive was morally dangerous:
That elementary rectitude of human response . . . is a delicate balance of trained habits, laboriously acquired and easily lost, on the maintenance of which depend both our virtues and our pleasures and even, perhaps, the survival of our species. For though the human heart is not unchanging (nay, changes almost out of recognition in the twinkling of an eye) the laws of causation are. When poisons become fashionable they do not cease to kill.8
Overdialed? For Lewis Eliot’s poetry was playing with fire, and the entire modernist movement Eliot represented was jettisoning everything valuable in inherited forms and sensibilities. Either Eliot hadn’t actually read the book he praised at tea or he was blowing off Lewis’s gravest warning.
Outside the Circle
These swipes in Preface to Paradise Lost weren’t Lewis’s first. In 1926 he mentioned in his diary a “joke” to float pseudonymous and parodic modernist poems to Eliot’s magazine The Criterion to expose the “quackery” of the style. In a letter around the time he referred to this prank as “a leg pull to Mr. T.S. Elliot’s [sic] paper.”9
Then in 1933 Lewis leveled his guns in The Pilgrim’s Regress, indirectly referring to Eliot there as “Mr. Neo-Angular.” The book was a wide-ranging allegorical takedown of religious, social, and intellectual movements—“Anglo Catholicism, Materialism, Sitwellism, Psychoanalysis, and T.S. Elliot [sic],” as Lewis explained to his editor—patterned after Bunyan’s classic.10 “T.S. Eliot is the single man who sums up the thing I am fighting against,” he admitted of the project.11
There could be something pettier at play here, at least to rankle Lewis beyond his principles and which might have hardened him in them. Lewis was ten years Eliot’s junior and early on, though stuck teaching philosophy and later literature, wanted nothing more than to be a poet. Yet his first forays proved unsuccessful. Spirits in Bondage (1919) and Dymer (1926), both cycles of verse published under the pseudonym Clive Hamilton, flopped.
Lewis loathed Eliot’s poetry, but his own attempts had failed to garner much praise or success in the marketplace.12 Meanwhile, Eliot’s star did nothing but rise. It’s easy to assume some jealousy for the older man. Such an assumption throws green-tinted light on Lewis’s jab in Preface to Paradise Lost about “the best contemporary practicing poets,” a circle whose work he disdained and to which he was barred but which he nonetheless wished to join—on his own terms, of course.13
But then something happened; the pair met again.
A Humanizing Project
Through the 1940s and ’50s, Lewis’s reputation as a popular religious writer grew. The Problem of Pain, Mere Christianity, and other titles brought him critical and commercial success—and at least occasionally the attentions of church hierarchy.
“C.S. Lewis in his Reflection on the Psalms shows what a layman has to contribute,” said Gordon Selwyn, dean of Winchester Cathedral and editor Theology, a journal to which Lewis contributed, in a letter to Geoffrey Fisher, archbishop of Canterbury. Fisher and Michael Ramsey, archbishop of York, had decided to revise the psalter used in Anglican services, originally translated by Miles Coverdale in the 1530s. “Two scholars of English” were asked to join the team tasked with the work: Lewis—and Eliot.14
Eliot couldn’t make the committee’s first meeting in January 1959, but he made the second in April. “It seems to have been the first meeting between Lewis and Eliot since 1945,” says Lewis scholar George Musacchio, who studied the relevant archival materials.15
While their first meeting started with fireworks and degenerated into time-killing small talk until the pair could politely depart, leaving Charles Williams the satisfaction of his stunt, this encounter was different.
It was only five years since Lewis had compared Eliot’s work to poison in his letter to Katherine Farrer, but something had shifted. Perhaps it was marriage. Lewis wed Joy Davidman in 1957, a relationship that seems to have stretched and softened him. Eliot had also wed that same year, marrying Esmé Valerie Fletcher.
Perhaps it was the shared appointment to the committee. While Lewis had doubted the seriousness of Eliot’s Christianity, surely their joint invitation by the two archbishops lent it credence. Eliot’s comportment in the meeting must have also had an impact. As evidenced by a letter to “My dear Eliot” following the April encounter, Lewis seems to have turned around.16
The two were aligned on their love of Coverdale’s translation and wished to retain as much of its style and feel as possible in the revision. In fact, the modernist Eliot proved more conservative on this point than the conservative Lewis.
Their shared perspective opened other possibilities. After the July 1959 meeting of the committee, which lasted three days, Lewis and Eliot lunched together with their wives. “As a result of their work on the Psalms,” said Musacchio, “the two men gained respect for each other.” Indeed, Lewis said he found it easy to “love” Eliot after getting to know him.17
Before their work on the committee, it’s safe to say that Eliot wasn’t a person for Lewis. Eliot was instead symbol, an icon of everything Lewis detested about modernism, Anglo-Catholicism, and whatever else. Early on, he couldn’t even bring himself to spell the man’s name correctly.
The extent of Eliot’s humanity was bounded by what he represented to Lewis. But then you get to know “the single man who sums up the thing I am fighting against” and your estimation changes. A shared project exposed commonalities that humanized Eliot, engendered respect, and repaired a relationship.
Let them who have ears to hear. . . .
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George Musacchio, “C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot, and the Anglican Psalter,” VII: Journal of the Marion E. Wade Center 22 (2005), 48.
C.S. Lewis, Preface to Paradise Lost (Oxford University Press, 1942), 9–10.
C.S. Lewis, On Writing (and Writers), edited by David C. Downing (Harper, 2022), 137–138. Here I should pause and thank Professor Leslie Baynes of Missouri State University. After I quoted this bit in an earlier review, she pointed me to Musacchio’s article quoted above and later in this piece.
T.S. Eliot, Collected Poems, 1909–1935 (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1936), 11. The poem was first published in the June 1915 issue of Poetry and later collected in Eliot’s Prufrock and Other Observations, published by Egoist In 1917. Only 500 copies were printed of this first edition; it’s likely Lewis read the poem in a later edition.
Lewis, On Writing (and Writers), 137.
C.S. Lewis, Poems, edited by Walter Hooper (Harcourt, Brace and World, 1964), 1.
Lewis, Poems, from Hooper’s Preface, viii. Hooper adds that Lewis “mistrusted . . . the free play of mere immediate experience. He believed, rather, that man’s attitudes and actions should be governed by what he calls . . . 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.” In his letter to Farrer, Lewis warned of abnormal imagery: “I believe that anything but the most sparing admission of such images [namely, a night spread out like a surgical patient] is a very dangerous game. To invite them, to recur willingly to them, to come to regard them as normal, surely, poisons us?”
Lewis, Preface to Paradise Lost, 55. Note that Lewis’s letter to Farrer, written more than a decade later, returns to the idea that Eliot’s imagery is poisonous.
C.S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Vol. 3, edited by Walter Hooper (Harper, 2007), 1503.
C.S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Vol. 2, edited by Walter Hooper (Harper, 2004), 94. “There are,” says Lewis biographer A. N. Wilson, “sentences in ‘Neo-Angular’s’ speeches which are echoed almost word for word in the essays of T.S. Eliot and the letters of Evelyn Waugh.” See Wilson, C.S. Lewis (Fawcett Columbine, 1990), 134.
Quoted in Musacchio, “C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot, and the Anglican Psalter,” 47. As his biographer Alan Jacobs notes, Lewis’s depictions in The Pilgrim’s Regress were more earnest than accurate. See Jacobs, The Narnian (Harper, 2005), 158–159.
Alister McGrath, C.S. Lewis (Tyndale, 2013), 106, 132.
Jealousy helps explain the vendetta-like quality of Lewis’s disdain. J.R.R. Tolkien rejected the idea. “That his literary opinions were ever dictated by envy (as in the case of T.S. Eliot) is a grotesque calumny,” he wrote in a letter to Anne Barrett. “After all it is possible to dislike Eliot with some intensity even if one has no aspirations of poetic laurels oneself.” Of course Lewis did possess such aspirations—at least early on—so the situation is perhaps more complicated. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter (Houghton Mifflin, 1981), 350.
Musacchio, “C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot, and the Anglican Psalter,” 45–46.
Musacchio, “C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot, and the Anglican Psalter,” 47.
Musacchio, “C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot, and the Anglican Psalter,” 48.
Musacchio, “C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot, and the Anglican Psalter,” 48–49.