How C.S. Lewis Handled a Lost Election

C.S. Lewis died on November 22, 1963. In a letter to Anne Barrett dated August 30, 1964, J.R.R. Tolkien defended his late friend against literary criticism that he received upon his death. Tolkien pointed out that Lewis’ critics didn’t know the man and were unable to properly assess his character. He went on to give this example at a time when Lewis lost an election to be professor of poetry:

Well of course I could say more, but I must draw the line. Still I wish it could be forbidden that after a great man is dead, little men should scribble over him, who have not and must know they have not sufficient knowledge of his life of and character to give them any key to the truth. Lewis was not “cut to the quick” by his defeat in the election to the professorship of poetry: he knew quite well the cause. I remember that we had assembled soon after in our accustomed tavern and found C.S.L. sitting there, looking (and since he was no actor at all probably feeling) much at ease. “Fill up!” he said, “and stop looking so glum. The only distressing thing about this affair is that my friends seem to be upset.”

(Tolkien, The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien)

Tolkien gives us a wonderful glimpse of the humility of Lewis. Arguably one of the most influential Christian writers of the 20th century, no one would have blamed Lewis for taken the loss hard. His lesser-known volume of collected poetry is quite good. In fact, in November 2013, Lewis was honored with a memorial stone in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, joining other great poets like Shakespeare, Spenser, Milton, and Wordsworth.

All this leads us to the great humility of the man who aspired to be considered a great poet, but had humility to take the loss of a professorship in poetry in stride. He could have railed against the election process or those who voted against him, but instead, chose to gather with his friends at their favorite tavern and encourage them to join him in moving on from the disappointment.

Here’s one of my favorite Lewis poems.

On Being Human

Angelic minds, they say, by simple intelligence
Behold the Forms of nature. They discern
Unerringly the Archtypes, all the verities
Which mortals lack or indirectly learn.
Transparent in primordial truth, unvarying,
Pure Earthness and right Stonehood from their clear,
High eminence are seen; unveiled, the seminal
Huge Principles appear.

The Tree-ness of the tree they know—the meaning of
Arboreal life, how from earth's salty lap
The solar beam uplifts it; all the holiness
Enacted by leaves' fall and rising sap;
But never an angel knows the knife-edged severance
Of sun from shadow where the trees begin,
The blessed cool at every pore caressing us
—An angel has no skin.

They see the Form of Air; but mortals breathing it
Drink the whole summer down into the breast.
The lavish pinks, the field new-mown, the ravishing
Sea-smells, the wood-fire smoke that whispers Rest.
The tremor on the rippled pool of memory
That from each smell in widening circles goes,
The pleasure and the pang—can angels measure it?
An angel has no nose.

The nourishing of life, and how it flourishes
On death, and why, they utterly know; but not
The hill-born, earthy spring, the dark cold bilberries.
The ripe peach from the southern wall still hot
Full-bellied tankards foamy-topped, the delicate
Half-lyric lamb, a new loaf's billowy curves,
Nor porridge, nor the tingling taste of oranges—
An angel has no nerves.

Far richer they! I know the senses' witchery
Guards us like air, from heavens too big to see;
Imminent death to man that barb'd sublimity
And dazzling edge of beauty unsheathed would be.
Yet here, within this tiny, charmed interior,
This parlour of the brain, their Maker shares
With living men some secrets in a privacy
Forever ours, not theirs.

(Lewis, Poems, 57-58)

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