THE MARION E. WADE CENTER, WHEATON COLLEGE
Born in 1898 to a Belfast solicitor and his mathematics-trained wife, C.S. Lewis, or Jack, as he preferred to be called, was deemed by his tutor for the Oxford entrance exams to have been “born with the literary temperament,” and “while admirably adapted for excellence and probably for distinction in literary matters, he is adapted for nothing else.” It was true. An admirer of Beatrix Potter, young Jack wrote talking-animal novels and came to have hopes of success as a poet. One thing got in the way: he was not a poet. And not, by the way, in the manner in which Ford Madox Ford wasn’t a poet–Ford in his poems lived up to his standard that poetry should be at least as well written as prose. Lewis talked down to himself in his poems; this is the fatal flaw in much of what we know as bad poetry.
Lewis was, however, an uncanny reader of poetry, able to find sense and sensuousness in the bleakest thickets of verse. Fancy and fresh expression attracted Lewis; ponderousness and absurd muddle drew his scorn. In English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, his contribution to the Oxford History of English Literature, he brings forth worthy phrases and lines from dozens of authors lost to time, from Jasper Heywood to Thomas Nuce to John Studley, who among the dross also wrote, “Who lysteth to the flaterying Maremaides note/Must needes commit his tyred eyes to sleepe,” and such pleasant memorable inventions as “frostyface,” “topsy-turvy” and “Stygian puddle glum.”
Lewis’s life, too, was topsy-turvy. Within two weeks of the death of his mother, 9-year-old Jack was sent by his father to a boarding school in England run by a sadist who would be forced out of his job in disgrace. The next school Jack attended was not much better. He read and endured. In 1917 he won a scholarship and was elected to University College at Oxford, but before he was settled into his rooms he went to the war. Lewis and his roommate Paddy Moore entered into a pact, in the event that either one made the ultimate sacrifice, to look after the other’s family.
Janie “Minto” Moore survived her son, and she and her young daughter came to live with Lewis at Oxford. She stayed for more than thirty years. (The truly odd thing about this arrangement is that Mr. Moore was alive.) Lewis referred to her, when he did at all, as his foster mother, but there is little doubt among his biographers that their relationship was, early on at least, more romantic than filial. A confirmed atheist since the death of his mother, Lewis insisted that Moore’s daughter spend Sunday mornings in church, leaving them at home alone. After the death of Lewis’s father ten years later, Lewis’s alcoholic older brother, Warnie, moved in as well. Warnie observed that Moore, who once referred to C.S. Lewis as an extra maid, never let him work more than half an hour without interrupting his reading and writing with errands.