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Review: C.S. Lewis, The Nameless Isle

C.S. Lewis is better known for his fiction (the Narnia series, his Space Trilogy, and The Screwtape Letters, and for his books on Christianity. But he was also both a practicing poet and a literary scholar, and in both roles he took a special interest in alliterative poetry.

Lewis wrote an essay on alliterative meter, which makes interesting reading. ("The Alliterative Metre", in C.S. Lewis, Selected Literary Essays, ed. Walter Hooper.) In this essay he takes the position - shared perhaps by Auden and few other modern poets - that alliterative verse is worth taking seriously as an option for English verse. But he does not mean rough approximations; he means the real thing: the alliterative meter of Old English, the rhythms of Beowulf. The essay carefully outlines what you have to do to compose Old English alliterative verse in modern English.

C.S. Lewis' poetry is not widely known, but he published a variety of poems in his lifetime (which can be found in his Collected Poems), and wrote four narrative poems, Dymer, Launcelot, The Nameless Isle, and The Queen of Drum, which appear in a posthumous collection, C.S. Lewis: Narrative Poems ed. by Walter Hooper. The Nameless Isle is Lewis' proof that you really can compose modern English] verse in Anglo-Saxon meter. It is one of his best poems, and contains some of the most beautiful lines of alliterative verse written in the 20th century.

When we start to read this poem, we instantly drop from time and space, and enter that world beloved of the Romantics, halfway between allegory and dream. A mariner is shipwrecked on a nameless island. He meets a woman in the wood: a figure of magic, who nourishes the beasts of the field with her own milk, and rules this wild wood as queen. But she complains of a sorceror who has stolen half the island from her sway, who offers a drink that turns all living things to stone. She urges a sword on him, asking him to go kill the wizard and rescue her daughter - daughter to her and to the wizard - before she too becomes no more than a marble statue. He accepts, and proceeds across the island. Events move with a strange unpredictability, involving a dwarf, a flute, and several metamorphoses. I will not spoil the plot by telling the ending, but will simply note that this is not an adventure narrative (as in Beowulf) but closer far in spirit to a dream vision: both wizard and woman stand for more than themselves; they are clearly archetypal figures.

The following sample illustrates the rhythmic beauty that Lewis can achieve. These are the closing lines of the poem:

            ... ahead, far on
    Like floor unflawed, the flood, moon-bright
    Stretched forth the twinkling streets of ocean
    To the rim of the world. No ripple at all
    Nor foam was found, save the furrow we made,
    The stir at our stern, and the strong cleaving
    Of the throbbing prow. We thrust so swift,
    Moved with magic, that a mighty curve
    Upward arching from either bow
    Rose, all rainbowed; as a rampart stood
    Bright about us. As the book tells us,
    Walls of water, and a way between
    Were reared and rose at the Red Sea ford,
    On either hand, when Israel came
    Out of Egypt to their own country.

The strength and rhythmic beauty of its lines is also the poem's chief weakness: the density of language can make the story line hard to follow, so that it is best read slowly, and savored, rather than read straight through like a novel.

Even so, it is well worth the effort: the rich prosody, powerful diction, and the story line dense with symbolism, will reward the reader who pays it close attention.

Copyright ©1999, Paul Deane