Stepping Outside the Wardrobe: A Review of CS Lewis’ Narrative Poem Dymer by Matt O’Sullivan

Hillsdale students adore C.S. Lewis. Most students first heard The Chronicles of Narnia in between the essays of the Federalist while they were still in the womb. At the age of three, these wannabe-Narnians chased the family pet crying, “Aslan is on the move!” By fourteen, they are refuting the last vestiges of atheism by posting quotes from Mere Christianity on Facebook. At college, they seek the prince or princess with whom they will have four children in the hallowed boy-girl-boy-girl alternation and bend the laws of nature to their will. Perhaps the above is hyperbole. Regardless, Hillsdale gets excited about C.S. Lewis. They pore over the Chronicles and peruse Lewis’ nonfictional greats like Mere Christianity and The Abolition of Man. Yet many readers—even those who call themselves triple-A fans (Avid Aslan Aficionados)—never step outside the Wardrobe to delve into some of his richest and, arguably, greatest works. Dymer, one of Lewis’ four narrative poems, hides in a little box of treasures overshadowed by his major works. The idea for Dymer “came to [him]” when he was seventeen: “a man who, on some mysterious bride begets a monster: which monster, as soon as it has killed its father, becomes a god.”  He first published the poem in 1926 under the pseudonym Clive Hamilton and then republished it under his own name in 1950. As he wrote the poem, Lewis stood locked in his intellectual wrestling match with Christianity. As such, the little nine-canto narrative poem gives readers a view of Lewis unseen in his other books. Dymer offers the reader a keen perspective on Lewis for two reasons. First, Lewis wrote it during his early years as an author, years in which he sought to stake his claim as a poet. Although we know him best for his fiction and prose, poetry marked Lewis’ beginnings. Some critics dub Dymer “his supreme effort at writing narrative poetry, that kind of poetry by which he hoped to achieve poetic acclaim.”  Lewis resisted the poetic style of his day, writing in a manner akin to that of History’s poetic giants. His structure of choice is the rhyme royal, or “Chaucer Stanza”: seven lines of iambic pentameter in an ababbcc rhyme pattern. By writing in this style, he joins a history rooted in great English poetry – the rhyme royal was “the standard English stanza to use for serious verse” until the late sixteenth century.  Because his poetry goes against the tides of his day and the fact that Lewis tried to root it in the styles of classical literature, Dymer offers plenty for both the seasoned English major and the freshman muddling through the Odyssey, the Divine Comedy, and Paradise Lost. Second, Dymer refines our view of C.S. Lewis himself. Hillsdale students should be careful not to make a god or thirteenth disciple of Lewis. The epistles do not include letters intercepted from the correspondence of two demons, and the Lion of Judah is not named Aslan. As Petrarch wrote during his dealings with the Scholastic Aristotelians in the 1300s: “I certainly believed that Aristotle was a great man who knew much, but he was human and could well be ignorant of some things, even of a great many things.” Like most of Lewis’ works, Dymer offers a puzzling story full of meaning, but it serves as a reminder that he did not always churn out dazzling prose laced with Christian symbolism that brings the high and divine down to the layman. The meaning of the story does not come easily. Though it is always difficult to pin down the exact meaning of a story, when an author says of his work, “Every one may allegorise it or psychoanalyse it as he pleases: and if I did so myself my interpretations would have no more authority than anyone else’s,” one can be sure that serious interpretation will require great care. Indeed, in Dymer Lewis crafts a patchwork quilt that strings together the greatest of themes: anarchy and authoritarianism, dreams and disillusionment, love and lust, destiny and downfall. The jam-packed feel of the poem has drawn much criticism: “Taken as a whole, Dymer fails. Considered episode by episode, there is a checkered pattern of failures and successes.”  In other words, say such detractors, Dymer’s quilt has its pretty patches, but the blanket as a whole is ugly to behold. But not all quilts weave the particulars into one clear image. The most meaningful quilts are often not made of the finest fabric but the scraps of t-shirts emblazoned with prints from summer camp and the frayed corner of a childhood blanket. Such quilts do not meld into one unified idea – they tell a story. Lewis’ narrative poem is a deeply personal quilt of old t-shirts from the philosophical places he had been. Thus, Dymer captures a glimpse of Lewis’ quest for joy and his struggle with Christianity. Dymer’s feeling of “some fear of being found, / Some hope to find he knew not what”  may serve as an expression of Lewis’ own soul. This looming fear and faint hope makes Dymer become more than a loosely related series of themes connected only by the binding of the pages. It is a vivid account of the search for meaning everyone endures. Viewed this way, the
frantic transition between themes becomes a powerful portrayal of life’s great chase. In that chase, one sometimes runs from what one wanted all along, in the manner of Lewis. Thus, when Dymer ponders the nature of joy—“Can it all die like this? . . . Joy flickers on / The razor-edge of the present and is gone” —we can see Lewis still waiting to be surprised by Joy.

1. C.S. Lewis, Dymer, in Narrative Poems, ed. Walter Hooper (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1969), 3.
2. The C.S. Lewis Readers’ Encyclopedia, Ed. Jeffrey D. Schultz and John G. West Jr. (Grand Rapids: ZondervanPublishingHouse, 1998), 144.
3. Jack Myers and Don. C. Wukasch, Dictionary of Poetic Terms (Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2003), 55.
4. Francesco Petrarca, On His Own Ignorance and That of Many Others, in Western Heritage Reader, ed. Hillsdale College History Faculty (Hillsdale: Hillsdale College Press, 2010), 524.
5. Lewis, 3.
6. Chad Walsh, The Literary Legacy of C.S. Lewis (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979), 46.
7. Lewis, II.4.3-4.
8. Lewis, V.10.5-6.

Matt O’Sullivan is a sophomore studying the liberal arts

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