November 22, 2013 marks the 50th year since the death of C.S. Lewis.
While the full impact of his teaching, writing and living witness is impossible to fully measure,
the 20th century’s “most reluctant convert” continues to encourage and inspire millions of readers.
To honour his extraordinary contribution to the world of literature,Westminster Abbey will be officially installing a memorial to Lewis
giving public recognition of his literary accomplishments and continuing influence on British national life.
Westminster Abbey is hosting a series of events to marking Lewis’s remarkable achievements and examining how his example may be continued. On November 21 Prof. Alister McGrath and the Rev’d Dr Malcolm Guite will deliver lectures on Lewis’s use of Reason and Imagination as approaches to communicating Truth. These two lectures will be followed by a panel discussion chaired by Dr Michael Ward, addressing the strengths and weaknesses of Lewis’s methods and answer questions posed by the conferees. Additionally, Dr Ward has shared that “Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, and now Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, will be the preacher at the Thanksgiving Service on 22nd November, during which the memorial in Poets’ Corner will be unveiled. The Abbey has commissioned a Choral Anthem to be sung at the Service, setting to music Lewis’s poem, “Love’s As Warm As Tears”.”
The following interview with Dr Malcolm Guite, Prof. Alister McGrath, Dr Stan Mattson explores the memorial to C.S. Lewis in Poets’ Corner and its significance. Dr Michael Ward, the lead organiser of the memorial event, gives directions on how to register and how to donate to the memorial project. Malcolm Guite, Chaplin of Girton College, is a poet, priest and academic. He is the author of Faith, Hope and Poetry, Sounding the Seasons, and the chapter on Lewis’s poetry in The Cambridge Companion to C.S. Lewis. Prof. Alister McGrath is Professor of Theology, Ministry and Education at King’s College London, and head of its Centre for Theology, Religion, and Culture. He is the author of C.S. Lewis: A Life and The Intellectual World of C.S. Lewis. Dr Stan Mattson is the Founder and President of the C.S. Lewis Foundation in Redlands, California which, among their many programs, also owns and maintains The Kilns – the former home of C.S. Lewis and now the C.S. Lewis Study Centre.
LES: Dr Mattson, I understand that this current effort to achieve a permanent memorial for Lewis in Poets’ Corner has been initiated by Vernon White, Canon Theologian at Westminster Abbey and Michael Ward, Senior Research Fellow at Blackfriars Hall in the University of Oxford. However, I also know that several attempts have been made over the last ten years or so to accomplish this. Give us a sense of the history of your involvement early on in the process of petitioning Westminster Abbey for C.S. Lewis to be installed in Poet’s Corner.
SM: Well, it goes back a number of years. We were deeply involved in the restoration of The Kilns, C.S. Lewis’s home, during the period of 1993 until its dedication in 2002. It was somewhere in the period I would say around 2002 – during the dedication period of The Kilns that I expressed the real concern and desire to see us approach Westminster about honoring C. S. Lewis and installing him in Poets’ Corner. I had made contact with Westminster Abbey and we corresponded back and forth via telephone conversations. The woman representing the Abbey encouraged me to submit the request via application and I tendered a letter to them making the request of having him installed. And it was a period of, I would say a couple of months before I received a letter back from them saying “We deeply regret that the committee had determined that there was not a sufficient body of poetry to justify the installation of Lewis in Poets’ Corner.” I totally understood that. Lewis’ first passion was poetry. He intended his life be dedicated to the writing of poetry, yet in the providence of God he ended up doing a lot of other writing and teaching, which certainly curtailed his availability and opportunity to write more poetry. I didn’t have a problem with the decision. However, I felt very sad for them and for the nation because I felt that his contribution in the realm of poetry and literature was so outstanding. When I visited Westminster Abbey and Poets’ Corner, it definitely seemed that he belonged in that company of writers.
I heard that there is a new administration there at Westminster Abbey and I was absolutely elated when when Michael [Ward] shared with me that, in fact, the inspiration for this came from Westminster Abbey itself. It was remarkable and truly wonderful. I applaud them, Vernon White, John Hall (the new Dean of the Abbey), Michael [Ward] and all those involved in enabling it, encouraging it, and facilitating it. And as a foundation we are very keen to participate in that and to offer any support and help that we can.
LES: Prof. McGrath, what is the significance of being memorialized in Poets’ Corner for any author? What do you see as the significance for C.S. Lewis in particular?
AM: It represents public recognition of Lewis’s achievement, and the long-term impact and significance of his writing. Lewis operated outside the social, political, and religious establishment of his day. This event marks his final acceptance by the establishment, despite always having operated from its margins.
LES: I have heard some rather scathing remarks by Brits about Poets’ Corner being a graveyard of white elephants in the literary world. In the United States receiving the Oscar often is prelude to professional decline. In your estimation, does being commemorated in Poets’ Corner signify the end of active significance and literary influence for Lewis?
AM: There are many in Poets’ Corner who nobody has ever heard of. Especially in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, writers were commemorated within years of their death, often because of family or political connections. Their reputations subsequently plummeted, and they are no longer remembered. Lewis does not need this memorial to be remembered; he is being honored precisely because he is remembered and read, fifty years after his death. It’s an official seal of approval for something that has already happened.
LES: You will be giving one of the two plenary lectures at the Westminster Abbey on the day before the unveiling of the Lewis memorial in Poets’ Corner. The other lecture will be given by the Rev’d Dr Malcolm Guite. Do I understand this correctly that you will be giving an address about Lewis and Reason while Dr Guite’s message will focus on Lewis and Imagination?
AM: Yes, that is how the conference has been arranged. It is an excellent choice of topics, and I expect that between us we will be able to capture something of Lewis’s vision for a rationally robust yet imaginatively powerful faith. I am delighted to be speaking alongside Malcolm Guite, and think this will be a very worthwhile event.
LES: Dr Guite, what is your take on the significance of the installation of a Lewis memorial in Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner?
MG: I think the first thing I want to say is something about Westminster Abbey itself. It is the hallows of the kingdom. It’s where the monarchs are crowned. It has memorials and statues of all the people that were significant in our history. It’s not just Poets’ Corner. It’s the place where all the significant and still living, resonant relics of who we are and what we are as a United Kingdom are kept. And we’re talking about all the parts, including Scotland and Wales. There is that sense that you’re gathering together there in a kind of special treasury. So, there’s a deep significance there, and you feel it when you go. It’s a sacred place, that’s the first thing.
And I think the second thing that is really significant about it is that Lewis is one of our greats whom we have somehow neglected and failed to connect with or honor in a particular way. Other nations have, but we haven’t. I think there are reasons for that which go back to the attitude of Oxford to him, the fact that they felt it was somehow slightly improper for an Oxford don to write books that were so popular or so wide-ranging, and that slight Oxford snobbery then turned into something outside, more aggressive, caught up in the struggle between secularism and faith. And while he was clearly brilliant academically, he wasn’t offered a chair in the university even though he’d served so long and so faithfully. And I think it set a tone, that people would say, “He’s famous and he writes a great kids’ story”, but he was not being taken seriously as a great figure or as a public intellectual, even though he was, in fact, one of the greatest figures we’ve had. Now, I think things are changing. I think that this, this memorial in a sacred place, in these hallows, is actually a symbolic moment. It’s a sign of a kind of a sea- change.
But the final thing which I just feel very strongly significant for Lewis, is that it’s Poets’ Corner. That’s really significant. Poets’ Corner, as you know, is not only for poets, but also for writers more generally. But Lewis’s great ambition was to be a poet, though he gave that up after a while. He thought, I think wrongly, that he’d failed at it. There are lots of examples of poets who are actually very good, but thought they had failed. Keats at the end, he didn’t think he had done it. Keats wouldn’t even have his own name on his tombstone in Rome, his wish was to have written, “Here lies one whose name is written on water.” But, it took about 50 years, for people to realize how great he really was. Now, I’m not saying Lewis was in the same realm as Keats, but I think he has written some really great poetry, so, I want to say he should be there simply because of his poetry alone, but obviously he’s also there because there’s a recognition that poetry is more than just verse, in a deeper and more specific sense, the poet means “a maker”: the person who has made and shaped a living, resonant, and beautiful thing that has come to be used to communicate of things about the true and the beautiful. That’s what a poet does. And, so even if he hadn’t written a verse, Lewis is certainly a poet.
To make this memorial, to have that name in that spot, is a real, and I think, belated, but extraordinary recognition. It feels to me as an Englishman like a missing element is shifting into place. Something that has not been in the place it should be is clicking into place at last. And so our sense of who we are is, in some way as a nation, is changed for the better. Who we are is the story we tell about the people who have made us who we are. For all those reasons I think this moment is a highly significant moment for us. And I’m delighted that it’s a moment that our friends in America are delighted in too. But I think that there’s something else happening here, which is significant for recognition of our national public life.
LES: Would you fill us in a little about your role in the events for the symposium and memorial service at Poets’ Corner?
MG: I was delighted to hear what was happening with Lewis’s recognition by Westminster Abbey and really honored to be asked to speak at the conference which was associated with it. I’m giving the second talk. And my talk is about Lewis and the truth of imagination. I am going to talk about Lewis’s own way of recognizing that what Coleridge called the “shape and spirit of imagination” can also be God’s way of showing us and teaching us truth that we could come to in no other way. I’m shaping what I say in a complementary way to what Alister McGrath will be speaking about in Lewis’s use of reason in apologetics. I’m trying to show that at the very heart of Lewis’ own conversion to Christianity is a reconciliation, in Christ, between reason and imagination. And that it’s Lewis coming to Christ which enables him to bring those two halves of his life together, fruitfully. I actually think that is one of the greatest concerns of our age. We’ve divided up objective and subjective, we’ve got a science of quantity that has no qualities or values to it. We have qualities and values, but we now just call them values, and you just choose your own from some smorgasbord; they are not related to objective truth. We are living in that divide. And the history of Lewis’s conversion is the history of Christ in Lewis’s own psyche healing that divide and bringing the two severed halves together again. I think that then becomes the mission of his whole writing. So, what I’m hoping is going to happen in the conference is that Alister McGrath and I are going to look at those two sides and part of my closing is to talk about how they have become reconciled and how Christ Himself is the reconciler.
Michael Ward has shared the following registration instructions and information on how to donate to this historic memorial project.
“To book your free tickets, please visit: http://www.westminster-abbey.
As you will see from the Abbey website, if you want to come to ONLY the Service on Friday 22nd November, you need to write in the old-fashioned way, enclosing a self-addressed envelope, to Matthew Arnoldi at the address given: Matthew Arnoldi, Room 22, The Chapter Office, Westminster Abbey, 20 Dean’s Yard, London, SW1P 3PA.
If you want to come to BOTH the Thursday events AND the Friday events, you don’t need to write to Matthew Arnoldi because your tickets can be given to you in person on Thursday 21st. You will be able to register for the Friday Service as part of your registration for the Thursday Symposium.
Finally, if you haven’t yet contributed to the Memorial Stone, please do! We have so far raised about half of the sum total and need another £10,000 to make the whole thing happen. Though this sounds like a lot of money, remember that the Abbey is a listed building (probably Number 1 on the List!) and anything that affects its fabric has to be carried out to the highest standards in both design and materials. Additionally, a small sum is required for the permanent upkeep of the memorial. And lastly, some of the costs of the memorial service itself (e.g. printing of the Order of Service) need to be covered. The Abbey has kindly agreed to close itself to visitors for much of Friday 22nd November, thus forgoing huge amounts of revenue from entrance charges, but without passing on that cost to the sponsors of the memorial project.
To make a donation, please visit www.lewisinpoetscorner.com/donate.php
All of the images in this post are copyright of Lancia E. Smith Photography.
If you wish to reproduce the images please contact me directly regarding their usage.
Thank you so much for your courtesy!