Academic journal article Mythlore

"Deep Lies the Sea-Longing": Inklings of Home (1)

Academic journal article Mythlore

"Deep Lies the Sea-Longing": Inklings of Home (1)

Article excerpt

WHEN ELWIN RANSOM takes the name Fisher-King and the office of Pendragon, when England becomes Logres and a remote part of Venus becomes Avalon, we realize that the Arthurian myth has come to resonate more deeply in C.S. Lewis's creative work than it had before. The first two novels of the Ransom trilogy contain nothing of this sort. Some attribute the change to Lewis's closer association with Charles Williams, and they could be right. It may have been around the same time that Lewis requested from Williams, and received, the explanatory notes that are quoted so extensively in his commentary on Williams's Arthurian poems. Yet having identified the Arthurian element in That Hideous Strength, we still have only half the background.

For the Avalon-Venus connection, at any rate, has roots much farther back in Lewis's imaginative life. Let me quote the opening lines of a poem he encountered early and long admired, Milton's Comus.

   Before the starry threshold of Jove's court
   My mansion is, where those immortal shapes
   Of bright aerial spirits live ensphered
   In regions mild of calm and serene air,
   Above the smoke and stir of this dim spot
   Which men call earth [...].

   (lines 1-6)

That last part "always reminds me," Lewis wrote to Arthur Greeves, "of our walks over the clean hills when we look down into the Nibbelheim below" (They Stand Together [TST] 198). Twenty-eight years later, the same pair of lines was the subject of two letters from Lewis to the Times Literary Supplement ("'Above the Smoke'"). Here in Comus it is the Attendant Spirit speaking, and at the end of the masque when his labors are finished he reveals more about his dwelling place:

   To the ocean now I fly,
   And those happy climes that lie
   Where day never shuts his eye,
   Up in the broad fields of the sky:
   [...]
   All amidst the gardens fair
   Of Hesperus, and his daughters three
   That sing about the golden tree [...].

   (lines 975-82)

This passage Lewis called "the best thing of all [...] so beautifully lonely and romantic" (TST 198). (2) Those golden apples (if we may follow ancient tradition in saying "apples" for oranges) lodged in Lewis's mind, from other reading no doubt before he ever encountered Milton, and they turn up regularly in his writings. Before this letter, in fact, he had written several poems using vaguely Hesperian imagery and one that is more explicit: "I would follow, follow / Hesperus the bright, / To seek beyond the western wave / His garden of delight" (Collected Poems [CP] 217-18 ["Hesperus"]). (3) In a somewhat later poem, reflecting Lewis's wartime experience, the speaker longs for "the sweet dim Isle of Apples over the wide sea[']s breast" (CP 223 ["Death in Battle"]). A similar romantic longing is depicted in John's Island vision in The Pilgrim's Regress, and Lewis the scholar writes of its appeal in his discussion of the garden of medieval allegory (Allegory of Love 74-76, 119-20). As late as 1948, when his poem "The Landing" appeared in Punch, Lewis could still empathize with that Faustian feeling of "Joy," drawing one on to a satisfaction never quite to be attained. He has the speaker of the poem tell of a voyage to the Hesperides, glimpsed far off in a telescope, only to find, on reaching the island, not a golden tree but another telescope showing yet another enticing island (CP 41-42). Later still, in Till We Have Faces (9), Lewis has the Fox, the epitome of rationalism, feel uncharacteristically moved by the passage from Euripides' Hippolytus that begins, "Take me to the apple-laden land." (4)

In all of this Lewis gives expression to that longing which made up one part of his own divided inner life during his early years. (5) Eventually he would understand it as a hunger for one's true home beyond this life: "If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world" (Mere Christianity 121). …

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