C.S Lewis was by no stretch of the imagination a good poet, although he did produce a couple of gems. His fame rests on his apologetics and children’s stories. The only people who are going to read his poems are those of us – a goodly number – who are interested in “C.S Lewis” and want to see how his rather mediocre poetry illuminates our knowledge of The Man. Unfortunately, the current edition of his poetry is an editorial mess which makes it very hard to find out when a given poem was published and what Lewis’s intentions for it were.
The current volume, "Collected Poems" (published in 1994) is edited by Walter Hooper, and consists of three sections -- "Poems", a verbatim reprint of a collection of poems first published in 1964; "Spirits in Bondage", a reprint of the collection published under the name of Clive Hamilton in 1919; and some previously uncollected poems under the title of "A Miscellany of Additional Poems." (I don’t know why he puts "Spirits in Bondage" second and Poems first...maybe he is prejudiced against publication order.)
In the introduction to the current "Collected Poems" edition Hooper mentions that Lewis’s friend Owen Barfield said that the 1964 "Poems" and "Spirits in Bondage" should be treated as "historical documents" and left unaltered. This is a slightly odd viewpoint because while "Spirits in Bondage" is a collection made by Lewis himself (and intended to be thought of as a cycle), "Poems "is a collection made by Hooper, a year after Lewis died: the ordering of the poems and the section headings have no connection with Lewis. Nevertheless, the" Collected Poems" prints the old collection, including (confusingly) a separate Preface written by Hooper in ‘64.
In the introduction to the 1994 "Collected Poems", Hooper writes:
"In 1954, Lewis began colleting his poems, published and unpublished, towards eventual publication in a volume to be called "Young King Cole and Other Pieces". He began going through the three notebooks of poems written in thirties, forties and fifties and revising some of them extensively."
I initially took this to mean that Hooper’s text was based on the unfinished text of “Young King Cole” however, in the introduction to the Poems (from 1964) Hooper makes it clear that this is not the case:
"Lewis began collecting his poems over ten years ago for a volume to be called "Young King Cole and Other Pieces". Some poems, including two from the Pilgrims Regress had been typed; others added later were in his handwriting. They were in no particular order. It was not always easy to determine his final version of a poem, especially if there were slightly different versions or if the poem had already appeared in print. Nor is it clear that the selection he had made represented a considered judgment on his part; for as I discovered in conversation with him, he simply did not know what he had written... I have therefore felt justified in collecting everything that I could find among his literary remains and in following my judgment as to what should be printed."
So Hooper is not simply taking Lewis's latest version and publishing it: he's looking at different versions and printing the one he thinks is best based on his personal judgment. The trouble with this procedure is that it isn't transparent: nothing in the book tells us whether we are reading an early or late version, or, come to that, where Hooper found it. (It would be nice to be told whether a given poem was one that Hooper found "scribbled on a scrap of paper", or whether it was one that he'd meticulously typed up for "Young King Cole" -- one ought to know if one is reading a rough draft or a polished work.)
In the appendix to "Poems", (1964) Hooper lists all the works that have been previously published and states whether or not they have been revised. For example, Footnote to all Prayers has a little "rev." by it:--it was published in "The Pilgrims Regress", but it’s a revised version that appears in the "Poems". The changes are pretty trivial:
"Poems": "Thus always, taken at their word, all prayers blaspheme/Worshipping with frail images a folklore dream"
"Regress": "All prayers always, taken at their word, blaspheme/Invoking with frail imageries a folk-lore dream."
But what he DOESN’T tell us in the "Poems" is that where a poem had already been published by Lewis, he, (Hooper) sometimes ignores the published version and goes back to an earlier manuscript. For this, you have to look at the small print in C.S Lewis: "Companion and Guide" the massive reference book that Hooper published in 1996. In the bibliography section we find, for example, that a poem called The World is Round was published in 1940, in and that it is a "revised" version of an earlier work called Poems For Psychoanalysts and/or Theologians. But it's the latter ("Poems for Psychoanalysts") that appears in the 1964 Poems. This appears to mean that Lewis wrote the poem before 1940, revised it and published it as The World is Round, but that Hooper has disregarded the published version and gone back to the older one.
To make matters worse, Hooper also remarks, in the 1964 introduction to the Poems:
"When I was his secretary, he sometimes used to dictate poems. Even after he thought one was completed, he might suggest a change here. Then a change there."
This is a bit scary, because pretty much everyone now accepts that Hooper lied about having been Lewis's secretary and exaggerated the length of time that they knew each other for; so that one has to be very slightly skeptical about things that Hooper remembers Lewis saying. Certainly, if you are inclined to believe the theory put forward by Lindskoog that Hooper actually forged documents to create “new” works by Lewis that he had written himself it is a bit worrying to hear Hooper claiming that some poems were dictated to him by Lewis...it means that you could find something in Hooper's handwriting and it might still be by Lewis...Ouch.
I also like the use of the word "suggest"...!
Finally: although the Companion and Guide repeats the information about "Young King Cole" and states that Poems was edited by Walter Hooper, it treats "Poems" as a unified work that can be criticized as finished product.
"It is divided into five parts. Part I "A Hidden Country" opens with 'A Confession'...however as one soon discovers "A Hidden Country" refers to those things which Lewis had a particular fondness for, or which simply gave him pleasure..."
But, of course, the groupings of the poems into sections and the section titles have nothing to do with Lewis; they are simply editorial creations by Hooper. It is doubly bizarre to find Hooper in his commentary on the poems taking five line to tell us that the title "Further up and Further In" is a quote from "The Last Battle", and then adding half a line to the effect that this section of the poems contains five Sonnets – as if Hooper’s title were more important than Lewis’s actual text!
Now, I don't think this amounts to evidence that Hooper was necessarily making his own amendments to the poems and claiming they were Lewis’s. But it DOES seem to indicate
1: That Hooper has been inconsistent in his editorial practices -- sometimes printing a published version, sometimes a later revision, sometimes an earlier draft.
2: That he doesn't make it clear what he has done, although the information can usually be ferreted out of bibliographies if you care enough to look it up.
3: That the provenance of the poems may be open to question.
4: That he has made use of dictated poems and "suggested" amendments that Lewis personally told him and that no one else knows about.
5: That he is very, very keen to make us think that the versions of the poems which he has chosen are the real, final, definite versions -- reminding us that Barfield thought that the published volume was a historical document and shouldn't be changed; and discussing and explaining the over-arching structure of the "Poems" collection in his "Companion and Guide" even though Lewis himself had nothing to do with it.
Presumably, these various notebook and periodicals are scattered around a number of libraries and private collections, and one day, some scholar will be able to produce a critical edition with the sort of footnotes and variant readings that make Christopher Tolkien’s "History of Middle Earth" such riveting bed time reading. In the meantime, maybe when all three volumes of the Lewis’s "Letters" are finally out, Harper Collins could be persuaded to do a complete "Poems" based on some coherent editorial strategy, say "latest version only" or "published version only".
It would also help if the silly three-part structure was thrown out and all the poems were printed in chronological order, or order of publication, or something.