Spirits in Bondage: A Book Review

Series: Book Reviews 

by Sam Parkison February 25, 2021

Lexham Press has done all Lewis enthusiasts a great service by publishing this new edition of Spirits in Bondage: A Cycle of Lyrics. The introduction by Karren Swallow Prior would alone be worth the price of the book, but the real prize is the window we receive into the pre-conversion heart of Lewis through these poems. Here we are introduced to a Lewis many of us have heard of, but have never met. There are certain enriching continuities—the love of words, the love of nature, the love of fantasy and adventure. But there are also stark discontinuities—cynical, hopeless, condescending. This Lewis is a house divided: enthralled by the enchanted world he insists is strictly material. This conflict of convictions is occasionally felt by Lewis, and when the materialistic disenchantment wins the battle, it is hard to grieve for the young soul-stricken Lewis—sitting in his dirty trench and suffocating from hopelessness:

False, mocking fancy! Once I too could dream,
Who now can only see with vulgar eye
That he’s no nearer to the moon than I
And she’s a stone that catches the sun’s beam.

What call have I to dream of anything?
I am a wolf. Back to the world again,
And speech of fellow-brutes that once were men
Our throats can bark of slaughter: cannot sing. (pg. 7)

This cynicism does at some places give way to throbbing conceit, as in the case of the ever-condescending poem, “In Praise of Solid People” (the delicious irony is that all the things young Lewis patronizingly praises in “solid people,” aged and converted Lewis praises in good faith). There is no mistaking the old self Lewis describes in Surprised by Joy many years later: a self who is very angry at God for not existing:

Come let us curse our Master ere we die,
For all our hopes in endless ruin lie.
The good is dead. Let us curse God most High.

O universal strength, I know it well,
It is but froth of folly to rebel,
For thou art Lord and hast the keys of Hell.

Yet I will not bow down to thee nor love thee,
For looking in my own heart I can prove thee,
And know this frail, bruised being is above thee. (pg. 27-28)

If this were all we ever had for this young poet, Spirits in Bondage would be a straightforward tragedy. But the looming and towering giant we as C.S. Lewis casts light backwards into these dark poems. And what we discover in the daylight of time passing is that the hound of heaven was at the young aspiring poet’s heels the whole time. Or rather, heaven was pulling him there irresistibly—he was always bound for Aslan’s Country. The fight between Lewis’s affections for “Northernness” and his pessimistic disenchantment was only ever going to go one way. Christ Jesus had him by the gut, and that was that. Lewis’s later conversion transforms moments of hopefulness and longing from pictures of inconsistency to pictures of destiny. These are the stabs of joy that were the beginning of the end of Lewis’s atheism:

Or is it all a folly of the wise,
Bidding us walk these ways with blinded eyes
While all around us real flowers arise?

But, by the very God, we know, we know
That somewhere still, beyond the Northern snow
Waiting for us the red-rose gardens blow. (pg. 63)

And the all of the roads is upon me, a desire in my spirit has grown
To wander forth in the highways, ‘twixt earth and sky alone,
And seek for the lands no foot has trod and the seas no sail has known:

—For the lands to the west of the evening and east of the morning’s birth,
Where the gods unseen in their valleys green are glad at the ends of the earth
And fear no morrow to bring them sorrow, nor night to quench their mirth. (pg. 81-82)

In this little collection of poems, we have the privilege of getting to know Lewis better. It is, in its way, a magnificent display of God’s saving grace. It is also a window into the aspirations of Lewis, who loved poetry more than prose, and desired to be a poet far more than an apologist. There are many references in Spirits in Bondage that I—as someone who did not receive the kind of classical education Lewis enjoyed, formal and informal—miss in ignorance. But the central and glaring truth in Spirits in Bondage is the truth Lewis himself missed in ignorance while he wrote: God is a gracious God who is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. Lewis’s story, and the story of this whole world, begins and ends in some way or another illustrating this central truth.