Alastair Fowler

C. S. Lewis: Supervisor


Yale Review, Vol. 91 No. 4 (October 2003), pp. 64–80



Alastair Fowler, Regius Professor Emeritus of the University of Edinburgh, is the editor of Spenser’s Images of Life, a book published in 1967 on the basis of C. S. Lewis’s notes for his Cambridge lectures on Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene.

 I am reproducing Professor Fowler’s paper without permission, but still hoping it is allright. Following the relevant directions in the Yale Review website, I have tried to contact the Journals Rights & Permissons Coordinator at Blackwell’s ín Oxford; but both e-mail and p-mail were returned as undeliverable.

Arend Smilde, Utrecht, The Netherlands

September 2004



How C. S. Lewis came to direct my doctoral research calls for explanation. When I graduated from Edinburgh University in 1952, research awards encouraged me to go on to Oxford. But which college? Information to inform the choice was then not easily available. Eventually, after a false start and several interviews, I was accepted by the English faculty and by Pembroke College. About Pembroke I knew nothing except its small size. It turned out a happy choice; the vice‑gerent was a historian, R. B. McCallum. He had worked on John Calvin and was interested in my proposed topic, Protestant defenses of poetry. We agreed, against the general misconception, that Calvin’s views on literature were liberal‑humanist. McCallum advised me to approach the supervisor I wanted rather than wait to have one assigned to me.

The exciting thing about Oxford to me then was the novelist Charles Williams; he must supervise my dissertation. Confident that biographical criticism was irrelevant, I had failed to register the fact of Williams’s death in 1945, Well, then, if Williams was unavailable, how about his friend C. S. Lewis? For years I had enjoyed Out of the Silent Planet, and The Allegory of Love was a high point of my Edinburgh reading. Yes, Lewis must be my supervisor. But here a new difficulty arose. Lewis was averse to supervised research; like many dons then, he considered it unlikely to improve literary studies. (Of the three kinds of literacy at Oxford – literate, illiterate, and B. Litterate – he preferred the first two.) He so often refused to direct research that it is hard to think of exceptions at Oxford, apart from those who, like Peter Bayley and Henry Yorke (the novelist Henry Green), were already his pupils. Only Catherine Ing, M. M. McEldowney, and Mahmoud Manzalaoui come to mind. When Lewis taught graduates from other universities, he usually prepared them for a second undergraduate course. Being married and poor, I had no leisure for that.

When I wrote to Lewis, he politely excused himself; supervision was to him invita Minerva (uncongenial). Very well, he would have to be persuaded. McCallum undertook to write; as a member of Lewis’s Inklings group he knew him well. And he suggested consulting Henry (“Hugo”) Dyson, an old friend of Lewis’s. Dyson, possibly Oxford’s sharpest literary critic at the time, was the kindest of men and most uproarious – capable of shouting across the street, “All right for money, Fowler?” He muted his ebullience when I asked his help, and hesitated before writing Lewis a pleading letter – conscious, perhaps, of asking a large favor? Summoning joint memories to appeal to?

Armed with Dyson’s note, I approached the seat of the spokesman of Old Western culture: through Magdalen lodge, round the cloisters in the shady Old Quad, and suddenly out into a bright vista of the eighteenth‑century New Building with its wisteria swags, patently regular against the enormous trees of the deer park. Climbing the wrong stairs, I trod the bare, scrubbed boards of Top Corridor smelling of freshly moistened wood and descended Lewis’s staircase. With some sense of occasion – not nearly enough – I knocked and a voice said, “Come in.” I crossed a large threshold into a north‑facing room with a view of the deer park (“the Grove”); a sitting room with no one in it. I was nonplussed, until a hearty summons from an open doorway directed me to a smaller sitting room looking south to the rest of the college. Here the great man defended the rampart of a desk. While he read Dyson’s note I took in the room’s cream paneling; its cliffs of shelved literature (fewer books than Dyson’s); its huge floral-patterned Chesterfield; its large, dim reproduction of Botticelli’s Mars and Venus (one of the pictures Lewis most cared for when he first visited the National Gallery in 1922).  He re-read Dyson’s letter, pondered, and – relented. He would take me on. Why? Had Dyson called in some indisputable debt? Did I seem a potential Boswell to Lewis’s Dr. Johnson?

            For our first meeting I was to write on the sources of defenses of fiction. I must have looked at a loss, for he started me off by jotting down a dozen or so authors and titles, mostly Greek or Latin: Plato, Plotinus, Philostratus, Dio Chrysostom, Fracastoro’s Naugerius, Philip Sidney’s Defence. History of ideas, without the name. The tradition of imagination’s access to metaphysical truth – the same tradition (assimilated from Owen Barfield) that Lewis would trace in the Sidney chapter of his volume in The Oxford History of English Literature, published a couple of years later. The assignment would make me show my paces on ground fresh in Lewis’s memory. His OHEL volume, just off his hands, summed fifteen years of work; so he was deeply read in sixteenth-century writing without being inaccessibly a specialist.

            A great teacher and a great writer need not be an efficient supervisor. Lewis was too permissive, and left me to get on with things. Perhaps this was deliberate; he was to follow a similar method during his early years at Cambridge, where he supervised David Daiches, Roger Poole, and others. Lewis never insisted I should begin by reading secondary sources. He never insisted I should compile a preliminary bibliography. He never insisted on anything. On the wild assumption I shared his own powers, he gave me so much rope that I tied myself into a ramifying topic that took five years to escape. Yet he gave generously of his time, unlike most supervisors in those days, who were content to see a research student for a few minutes a term. Lewis spent more than twenty hours exploring the vast wildernesses of my ignorance. And this was in the same overfilled terms when he fell in love with Joy Gresham and made his move to Cambridge. I must have been a great nuisance to him; even as graduate students go, I was raw. Yet, affirmative as always, he found more than duty in our shared interest, for we were soon on a basis of disparate equality. Our meetings were opportunities for both to clarify ideas of the sixteenth century. In fact, he offered something far better than efficient supervision; he opened windows to the aer purior, the expanse of intellectuality.


For he talked like an angel. My idea of how angels might talk derives from Lewis. His prose is brilliant, amusing, intimate, cogent; but his talk was of a superior order. It combined fluent, informal progression with the most articulate syntax, as if, somehow, it was a text remembered – and remembered perfectly. The steps of his argument succeeded without faltering, with each quotation in the original tongue, well pronounced. (To keep up his half‑dozen languages he belonged to reading groups – J. R. R. Tolkien’s Kolbitar for Norse, the Dante Society for Italian, another group for Homeric Greek.) Add an extraordinary memory, and you can see how any situation was for him accompanied by a full-voiced choir of verbal associations. “Probably no reader,” he writes, “comes upon Lydgate’s ‘I herd other crie’ without recalling ‘the voces vagitus et ingens in Virgil’s hell.’” For this assumption, Lewis has been called “bookish” – a dumbed‑down response. Of course he was bookish; hang it, he tutored in literature. Even standing on the high end of a punt in a one‑piece swimming costume with a single shoulderstrap, about to dive, he had time for a quotation, half‑heard over the water, something about silvestrem. Was he teasing me for reclining at ease in my punt – tu patulae recubans sub tegmine fagi / silvestrem ... musam? His allusions, not remotely elitist, were to familiar passages. In those days you were expected to recognize Aeneid book 6 or the opening of Virgil’s First Eclogue. Similarly with Old English: Lewis had pages by heart but mostly stuck to the high points: Thas overeode, thisses swa maeg, or Hige sceal the heardra.

Lewis’s marshaling of knowledge might have been overwhelming if it had not been such fun. Here was someone who loved literature as much as I did, but knew the auctores and how to draw on them. And he was no mere conduit of sources but could put ideas in the historical philosopher’s long perspective. On 26 February 1953, I asked him to explain the puzzling metaphysical dichotomies between form‑substance and form‑matter. He defined them at length extempore, soon going beyond my comprehension. Sixteenth‑century confusions of terms needed more detailed analysis than I was ready for. Yet the explanation, which he reverted to in his Spenser lectures, was lucidity itself.

Lewis opened such abstractions with an apparently natural ease. His forthright, single‑minded progressions, although rapid, were unlike Tolkien’s bubbly effervescence. (I remember Tolkien as a disconcerting conversationalist; he had a habit of distributing speech between several quite different strands – botanical and linguistic, say – and keeping them all in play, as in the entrelacement of a medieval romance, so that you had to keep track of earlier turns of the conversation.) It would never have occurred to Lewis to affect finesses of speech in the manner of some dons of his generation. Not for him the exquisitely offhand sprezzatura of Lord David Cecil. What Lewis said, however surprising at first, most often came to seem plainly right. This forthrightness (which sometimes raised southern English hackles) comes out in his labeling of the sixteenth‑century “Drab” style. It gave him little pleasure, so he said so.

He had almost no small talk; he was courteous but dialectical and sometimes combative. Like his model Dr. Johnson, Lewis was “a very polite man,” Claude Rawson remarks, only in self-ignorance. But I think he knew his shortcoming well enough. He generally followed the adversarial system, and not always quietly. Exulting in victory, he argued closely on until his adversary was crushed or ridiculous. For some reason, this method of conversation did not win universal popularity. It has been called verbal bullying; and A. N. Wilson connects it with Lewis’s pleasure in fantasies of whipping. This connection seems facile. Outward bullying need not imply inner sadism, and sadistic fantasies may be enjoyed by quiet folk. When he was thirty‑five, Lewis wrote about his bullying manner to Arthur Greeves in different terms: “a hardened bigot shouting every one down ... is what I am in danger of becoming.” By the time I knew him, he usually remembered to avoid bigotry. His contentiousness was joy in debate; he never bullied me.

As to bullying pupils, the witnesses differ. Some who knew him well, like George Sayer, remember him as never bullying. My guess, though, is that a few pupils were bullied, and rightly so. Nowadays, of course, all students are sober and industrious; and, if not, they have the right to remain silent in tutorials and idle outside them. Last century things were different. Faced with blockish inertia or faking of essays or lazy superiority to work or lack of interest in justifying a place at the university, Lewis may well have judged a little bullying in order. Unless students worked hard enough to remember a text, they were unteachable. He did not get on, for example, with John Betjeman, whom he judged an idle, mischievous social climber. (I was to fail as badly with Michael Palin, who turned out well in later life but is on record as having learnt nothing from my tutorials.)

Those who called Lewis bully and brute probably included some who shrank from discussing matters of substance. The fifties was a decade of furious exits, slammed doors, demands for “apologies in writing”. Heavies like Iain Macdonald hectored their juniors unmercifully. I shall not forget my own fear in case it came out that I had given way to the contemptible weakness of consulting what Macdonald called a “trick‑cyclist”. Helen Gardner then had the reputation of liking tutorials to end in tears. I can believe it, for I heard her at a student society question the speaker so insistently (“Have you actually read the novel? Have you read the last chapter? Are you trying to tell us that...”) that the woman under interrogation broke down. Fierce duels like this doubtless helped to maintain academic standards; it was dangerous not to know the text. But Lewis was not given to ferocity of that sort.

Often enough, though, he had to defend himself against Oxford’s anti‑Christian orthodoxy. One of these “humanists,” H. W. Garrod the Keats editor, knew how to welcome a guest to Merton: “Ah, Lewis. Aren’t you the man who thinks the Holy Ghost has balls?” – not the gentlest way to remind anyone of the Athanasian Creed. Lewis’s challenges were less rudely ad hominem, but sometimes sharp enough. When one graduate pupil brought a poor essay, Lewis is said to have torn it silently into the wastebasket. A devastatingly impersonal learning experience. Lewis didn’t always know when he hurt. To me, he was more amiable; he would enjoy the escape from repetitive undergraduate tutorials. These cost him much energy – some of it probably going to hide a long-accumulated dislike of tutoring uncongenial pupils in disagreeable subjects outside the English School. Anyway, we got on well; Lewis seemed always on the verge of hilarity – between a chuckle and a roar.

Very occasionally, we had disagreements. One of them concerned Charles Darwin; Lewis saw the theory of natural selection as threatening religion. My education had been on the science side, leading to a year in medicine at Glasgow University; I thought I knew quite a bit about genetics. Probing my views on evolution, Lewis rehearsed an argument from Philip Gosse’s ill-fated Omphalos. “You talk about fossils. How do you know God didn’t put the fossils in the rocks?” Lewis would assume I had read enough Gosse to see the wit of using the Victorian’s subtle compromise to test the crude positivism of modern science. Or maybe he was trying out the old argument as one might casually heft an ancient but still serviceable mace. Anyhow, I was furious. How could he ignore the evidence of the geological record? Or was that a plant, too? Did God often lie to us? And so on. I grew as red as Lewis himself. But he nimbly reined in, avoiding the threatened collision; he never lost his temper in debate.

Full of my “liberal” assurance that there could be no conflict between religion and science, I dismissed Lewis’s question as willful obscurantism. If he was determined to set religion against Darwin, surely he could have found a better argument. He might have gone to the De Genesi, say, for Augustine’s doctrine of gradually ripening seeds of creation. Many years later, when I read Omphalos, I was ashamed to find that Gosse had anticipated exactly the objections I made to Lewis in my ignorance. Gosse is sometimes misrepresented as arguing that fossils were inserted to test faith, whereas in fact he revered the fossil record as revealing, without deception, God’s laws of biological development. To reconcile this with biblical chronology, Gosse speculated that fossils “may possibly belong to a prochronic development of the mighty plan of the life‑history of the world.” Lewis must have realized I didn’t know Omphalos, and could have crushed my argument by pointing this out; but the “bully” was too kindly for that. After my outburst I was less in awe of Lewis; his opposition to Darwin came over as simplistic. More recently, I have begun to see that evolution is more complex than it seemed then. All the same, I still think Lewis failed to enter the world of modern science, probably through not grasping its mathematical character. He had so little grasp of mathematics that he could never pass the elementary algebra in Responsions, the Oxford entrance exam.

When I wrote Lewis in 1961 about interesting ideas in Teilhard de Chardin, Lewis replied accusing me, at least half seriously, of “biolatry”: “You talk of Evolution as if it were a substance (like individual organisms) and even a rational substance or person. I had thought it was an abstract noun.” He conceded “there might be a sort of daemon ... in the evolutionary process. But that view must surely be argued on its own merits?” Well, Teilhard had done just that; so it looked as if Lewis had not read The Phenomenon of Man. Then it dawned on me that Lewis was not much interested in science. He had read Greats and like many philosophers – Richard Rorty is a recent instance – was content with general ideas about the philosophical errors of scientists. About the actual character of scientific thought, Lewis knew very little; he had painted himself out of the scientific world picture.


Jenny and I rented an attic at 2 Church Walk in North Oxford, the same house where the Spenserian Rudolf Gottfried stayed. From there I cycled to Magdalen for supervisions. Often Major Lewis sat typing in the large sitting room and directed me through to his brother in the smaller room. One winter morning I got there frozen; Lewis, wearing a dressing gown over his clothes, was engrossed in Astounding Science Fiction. Conversation turned to fantasy; I confessed I was trying to write one, myself, and had got blocked. He made me describe the setting (a paraworld with a slower time‑lapse), then said, “You need two things for this sort of fiction. The first you already have: a world, a mise en scène. But you also need a mythos or plot.” After that, Lewis was always keener to know how The Rest of Time was coming along than to read the next installment of dissertation. This was gratifying, of course, yet somehow depressing to a would‑be academic author. But it was an article of faith with Lewis that writing fiction could never conflict with studying literature. Not that he always wrote without difficulty; sometimes he had to set a project aside for a long period. He showed me several unfinished or abandoned pieces (his notion of supervision included exchanging work in progress); these included “After Ten Years,” The Dark Tower, and Till We Have Faces. Another fragment, a time‑travel story, had been aborted after only a few pages. Getting to the “other” world was a particular problem, he said; he had given up several stories at that stage. His unfamiliarity with scientific discourse may have played a part in this. The vehicles of transition in Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra, although suggestive in other ways, are hardly plausible as scientific apparatus. In the Narnia stories Lewis turned to magical means of entry: teleportation rings from E. Nesbit and Tolkien, or else a terribly strange wardrobe.

            Once fully started, Lewis quickly wrote a more or less final version, like Anthony Trollope. Unlike Henry James (or Tolkien), he never drafted and redrafted. Nevill Coghill might have to make ten or more drafts of anything for publication; but when things went well Lewis would write only a rough copy and a fair copy (with one or two corrections per page). And that was it, except for scholarly books like the OHEL volume, which were tried out first as lectures. Even the final version would be in longhand; Lewis thought a noisy typewriter dulled the sense of rhythm. Fortunately, his writing was legible enough to go straight to the publisher, unless Warren typed it out. Obviously, composition was not so fast as writing; before committing to paper, he must have composed each work in his head, retaining it by some “power of memory” (as Tolkien called Lewis’s retentiveness of the spoken word). Lewis’s fluency suggests that he composed in paragraphs, as Robert Louis Stevenson did, and Edward Gibbon in his covered acacia walk. Others of Lewis’s generation similarly revolved ideas while walking; the rhythm assisting them, perhaps, to develop expansive themes. Erwin Panofsky wrote much art history in Princeton’s woods, returning from a walk with paragraphs finished to the last full stop. He recited installments to a friend who noticed, after a break due to illness, that Panofsky had lost his place and was repeating, word for word, a passage already imparted. And he was not only word perfect but punctuation perfect.

            The flow of Lewis’s writing and speaking had much to do with this remarkable memory. Memory feats were common enough in Oxford then, especially among classicists. Edgar Lobe the papyrologist and fungiphage, to mention one, modestly denied having Homer by heart – but added, “Mind you, if you said a verse I dare say I could give you the next one.” Lewis could have claimed much the same of Paradise Lost. Kenneth Tynan, whom Lewis tutored, tells of a memory game. Tynan had to choose a number from one to forty, for the shelf in Lewis’s library; a number from one to twenty, for the place in this shelf; from one to a hundred, for the page; and from one to twenty-five for the line, which he read aloud. Lewis had then to identify the book and say what the page was about. I can believe this, having seen how rapidly he found passages in his complete Rudyard Kipling or his William Morris. Tynan’s anecdote usefully suggests the sort of memory involved; not memory by rote (although Lewis had plenty of that) but something more like the Renaissance ars memorativa, depending on “places” in texts. It was not principally memoria ad verba but rather ad res – memory of the substance, aimed at grasp of contents through their structure. Lewis’s annotations of his own books show him continually charting formal structures and divisions of the work. When he offers himself in De Descriptione Temporum as a specimen of “Old Western culture”, he could have validated this on the basis of memory alone. But we ignored him; and now that detailed knowledge of texts is neither pursued nor examined, an essential method of cultivating and testing literary competence has been abandoned.

            Endowed with such a memory, one might expect Lewis to have lectured extempore, as he was perfectly capable of doing (and did, in the informal situation of the Socratic Society). But the lecture notes for his Cambridge Spenser lectures reflect a more complicated procedure, which may have had something to do with his habit of using successive lecture series to work up material for a book. In these notes, quotations are written out in full – even passages one might expect Lewis to have had by heart. These would serve as memory prompts, and to indicate where the script was to take over from improvisation. For the main body of the lecture, by contrast, only a skeletal argument is provided; a sequence of logical divisions and conclusions. Each element has its letter, almost as in formal logic: “Simplicity A ... Sophistication A. ... Simplicity B ... Sophistication B”; or


            a. B[ritomart] > < Radigund

            b. B[ritomart] – Artegall relation < > Radigund Artegall relation.


Sometimes the manuscript signalizes the “lead-in” to some joke or coup d’amphithéatre. These were prepared for long in advance; as Derek Brewer puts it, “the fuse might be lit several minutes before the actual, yet unexpected, explosion.” Altogether, the lecture notes are no more (and no less) than aides-mémoires for trains of thought serving as armatures for his improvisations. However closely logical the progressions might be, their rhetoric was conversational, albeit with a certain dramatic heightening. I heard part of the “Prolegomena to Renaissance Literature” series (drawn from his 1944 Clark Lectures and already written OHEL volume, and trying out for The Discarded Image); my impression was of avuncular informality. At times, “Uncle Lewis” seemed hardly to be performing but rather exploring a thought for the first time. And, so far was he from standing on ceremony or authority or superior learning that he started his lecture as he came through the door and finished it as he walked out. He was a popular and (not at all the same thing) good lecturer – lecturing sometimes to an audience of three hundred or more. He towered above his colleagues in the English faculty – at a time, admittedly, when lecturing standards were not high. His resonant voice suited the rostrum; he was always easily audible (something that could not be said of Tolkien).


Lewis’s innate memorial powers were developed by education, first at school and then with his private tutor William Kirkpatrick. At Oxford they were strengthened by having to depend on the Bodleian Library rather than on his own books. In the 1940s, Lewis’s personal library struck Brewer as meager. Later, when he bought more largely and accumulated about three thousand books (still not large by modern standards), his reading habits had become ingrained, and he continued to rely on memory. Often he used books almost in the medieval way, as memory prompts.

            Literary memory depends on use: it must be frequently refreshed. Even a “photographic” memory like Frank Harris’s needs refreshment, to keep out “creative” errors. Lewis had almost total recall of words (he remembered new vocabulary after once looking it up in the dictionary), yet he had to go over texts frequently – sometimes immediately before a tutorial. Consequently his reading and re-reading were astonishingly copious. Reading habits, of course, were different in the fifties; I used then to read ten hours a day. Lewis, who read far faster, read with surer grasp, and read whenever commitments allowed – read even at mealtimes – read prodigiously. He kept a record, to know when a text needed re-reading (unless it was a case of “never again!”). Some quite minor authors were re-read. A copy of the Worm Ouroboros he lent me was inscribed “Read for the first time... read for the second... for the fifth time,” with dates. And E. R. Eddison was neither a canonical author nor a person Lewis found very congenial.

            Lewis managed to cram copious reading into his busy life by not making a task of it. He told his pupils, “The great thing is to be always reading but never to get bored – treat it not like work, more as a vice!” Following his own advice, he pursued congenial literature with passion (pleasure is too weak a word). As for uncongenial works, a few minutes a day would get him through. His tastes became more catholic with maturity (he reached out latterly even to drama); but he always read selectively rather than systematically. If a major work like Abraham Cowley’s Davideis bored him, he set it aside. What he read, however, he read more deeply than most. He led me to see that coverage – complete knowledge of literature – can never be attained. Rising from a thirst to range over it and take in all that is delightful, good reading has to work by sampling, exploring, and at last grasping strategic works or passages, in the context of sources, analogues, historical circumstances, and the inferior subliterature whose lower pleasures it leaves behind. Lewis’s selectivity showed in the works he had chosen to remember. Being fairly political then, I thought of William Morris as the author of News from Nowhere; but Lewis preferred The Well at the World’s End (and persuaded me to read it). He made a good deal of room for reading simply by missing out newspapers – at the cost of being amazingly ignorant of current affairs. That shocked me; I had been taught that reading the papers was a duty, next after the Bible. I had yet to discover the revulsion from politics that Lewis had formed as a consequence of early memories of politically religious hatred in Ireland.

            Lewis’s choice of reading differed from that of mainstream literary critics of his time like F. R. Leavis of Wallace Robson. Lewis took a longer view; he knew the official canon was prone to change, and so was happy to study authors outside it. The private canon he held in memory featured Spenser, Pope, Sir Walter Scott, Jane Austen, John Keats, Charles Dickens, and Wilkie Collins (rather than William Thackeray). George Meredith’s Egoist he re-read every year. Robert Lewis Stevenson, John Ruskin, and Kipling (extracanonical then) were important to him personally. Influential models included Dr. Johnson and, in another way, George MacDonald. On the whole, a romantic emphasis. He went to Walter de la Mare and Robert Graves, even to Roy Campbell, for alternatives to modernism. He kept up with the modernists (and could quote from them) but rejected their intense introspection. Early T. S. Eliot he particularly disliked; and he read Henry James’s letters for the first time in his middle fifties. He had even less interest in the movement writers Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis. When Amis introduced himself, on the Belfast ferry, he received what he took (perhaps wrongly) as a putdown: “Amice? Amice? No, I don’t believe I know the name.” That would cause chagrin, for Amis admired Lewis’s lecturing . (Lewis lectured fairly slowly, and Amis, who despised students, exaggerated this; he lectured at dictation speed, “so you can get it all down.”)

            I don’t mean that Lewis closed his mind to all contemporary literature or new methods of criticism. On the contrary, he valued Virginia Woolf, W. H. Auden, and George Orwell very highly. And he even said he envied my generation our chance to work out the details of older literature. This was apropos of Kent Hieatt’s work on Spenser’s Epithalamion; Lewis read Short Time’s Endless Monument for Columbia University Press and sent me a page proof as soon as it was published. Supervisor or ex-supervisor made no difference; Lewis always remembered to pass on new scholarship that might be relevant. He sent the Hieatt on 22 November 1960, and soon after his own review of Robert Ellrodt’s Neoplatonism in the Poetry of Spenser, before its publication in Études Anglaises. We also exchanged less academic books: he made me aware of David Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus, and I responded, less successfully, with Austin Wright’s Islandia.

            A corollary of Lewis’s memory art was that his reading, prodigious as it was, had gaps and limits. He certainly read less widely than F. W. Bateson, the last Oxford don to keep up with all the journals. Lewis’s understanding of contemporary philosophy was inadequate, as a famous debate with Miss Anscombe painfully exposed. His theology was almost exclusively biblical, rather than “systematic” or “dogmatic”. And he had little interest in the visual arts – unlike his friend Nevill Coghill, for example, or John Bryson his rival for the Magdalen fellowship, both connoisseurs. Only belatedly, when Erwin Panofsky, Edgar Wind, and Mario Praz influenced the study of literature as well as of art, did Lewis develop an interest in iconography. Even in reading for his OHEL volume, Lewis followed individual predilections. He suffered criticism for his unfavorable account of the humanists – due perhaps to insufficient knowledge of the northern humanists.

            Perhaps Lewis’s most striking limitations was his lack of interest in literary criticism as distinct from literature. In the fifties, New Criticism and structuralism were only beginning to reach Oxford; Theory appeared no more than a harmless little cloud on the horizon. Intelligent academics could see that the new theories depended on false premises and assumed they would come to nothing. Lewis certainly knew the need to study context and could have opposed neo-Saussureanism effectively; but instead he ignored it and left Bateson to sketch a theory of contextualism. Unconcerned with phenomenology, Lewis regarded criticism simply as a report on reading. So he went on exploring his impressions, clarifying them and determining the properties of individual works. Would theory have helped with this? Without it, he often went right to the heart of what others called critical issues. Like most Oxford dons, Lewis thought F. R. Leavis’s narrow moralism more of a threat. In Lewis’s view (and I agreed), to study only an approved canon was to evade literature’s challenges. Literature did not merely confirm one’s views but might surprise by embodying perspectives that could qualify reader’s prejudices and widen their horizons.

            The range of literature that Lewis held in memory was affected by the formal limitations of the Oxford English School, whose canon then ended at 1830. In the syllabus debate of the fifties, Lewis defended this arrangement against the proposal of Helen Gardner and others to extend the canon to 1900 or later. Although this would have taken in many of his favorite authors, Lewis argued against it. The proposed field would be unworkably extensive, making preparation more superficial and tending to what we now call “dumbing down”. At that time I favored extending the curriculum; but I have since come to repent this. In the event, “reform” brought a radical lurch, and gave the Oxford School, like many others, a disastrously modern focus. Modern literature has proved unsuitable for undergraduate study. It is not far enough removed from our shared assumptions to challenge them. It has yet to prove itself as the memory of our history. And mostly it is not memorable. Besides, the reference books required for studying it are not yet available.


If Lewis’s memory of literature was somewhat idiosyncratic, this hardly affected his supervising. For he conceived the role, not as that of manager, still less as authoritative Doktorvater, but rather as that of disputant, like his own Kirkpatrick. The disputations might be designed (as on the Gosse occasion) to force clearer formulation or self-defense or discovery of hidden assumptions. What, for example, did I think thinking was? “How often, Fowler, do you suppose yourself to be actually thinking?” I was about to claim, absurdly, that I spent most of my waking life thinking, when he broke in to confess that he himself thought only about once a week – twice, in a good week. The term “thinking” was to be kept for inference from ground to consequent. Another time he amiably ruminated, “you know, Fowler, you don’t have enough roughage in your life.” This must have been projection; I’ve never known anyone who organized his life more than Lewis himself.

            Similarly out of the blue, he proposed to dispute what life’s greatest pleasure was. Great art? No. Mystical ecstasy? No: something more generally accessible. Simultaneous orgasm? But that wasn’t it either. “I’ll tell you,” he said; it’s the pleasure, after walking for hours, of coming to a pub and relieving yourself.” Probably I had been too solemn, or high-flown. But his down-to-earth example was not chosen at random. He would sometimes in the middle of a supervision go off to the next room and pee into a chamber pot, apologizing for his “weak bladder” and maintaining the flow of discourse through the open door. (Oxford was still very much a male society; senior common rooms might have chamber pots behind screens, and one of the Inklings was known to conduct tutorials from his bath.) Outside the teaching frame, Lewis was hardly less disputatious. When we had him to dinner at Church Walk, conversation turned to hot-cross buns and Jenny faulted the local variety for its paucity of raisins and spices. At once Lewis pounced; the traditional hot-cross buns had neither fruit nor spice. It was made, was it not, with the last of the unleavened bread?

            Naturally, the challenges were most often literary. When Lewis praised Samuel Henry Butcher and Andrew Lang’s translation of Homer, I said something in favor of T. E. Lawrence’s Odyssey. Instantly, Lewis rubbished it, chuckling: “But the style’s Wardour Street, isn’t it?” – one of his favorite dismissive epithets. He thought my approval too vague and wanted to maneuver me into substantiating it. We settled, I think, for Lawrence’s handling the narrative lucidly. Sometimes Lewis would take up the evidential basis of a point, giving me en passant a crash course in rhetoric. “Don’t exaggerate claims beyond what the evidence will easily bear,” he advised; the weaker the statement, the stronger the case.” Or “Make your statements only as strong as you have to.” I had a propensity to overstate – an un-English tendency Lewis himself displayed, as at the English faculty meeting when he foolhardily told Helen Gardner that all his pupils read Calvin.


In 1955 Lewis went off to Cambridge to take up the chair of medieval and Renaissance English. Never forgetting a pupil, he passed me on to his own former tutor, F. P. Wilson, Merton Professor, compiler of the Oxford Book of Proverbs and an authority on Elizabethan and Jacobean prose. Wilson was a very different supervisor: less the bold critic, more the professional scholar. He knew just what shape a dissertation should have; and his gentle suggestions, quietly put, were so clearly right as to render argument superfluous. But no single supervisor could supply Lewis’s place. Soon I found unofficial mentors: Helen Gardner, the learned Ethel Seaton, Batson of the Cambridge Bibliography, J. B. Leishman, and George Temple the mathematician. Besides these I could rely, of course, on my peer group; for we all mysteriously had time then for coffee in the morning and in the afternoon tea – Ian Gregor and Mark Kinkead-Weekes, the satirical rogue Claude Rawson and the laid-back Walt Litz, and sometimes George Hunter or Christopher Ricks.

            During Lewis’s Cambridge years I saw little of him, and by 1962 we were different people. I had finished my D. Phil., been a junior research fellow at Queen’s, taught a year in Indiana, and become a fellow of Brasenose. Lewis, too was a different person from the supervisor I remembered: he had married but lost his wife and was himself seriously ill. Visiting him in the Acland hospital and at the Kilns, I got to know him as a friend. Now our talk, more recollective and ruminative, was about anything and everything: his dreams, plum jam, The Lord of the Rings. On his side at least, it seemed without reserve. The sort of topic he proposed now was whether the pleasures of masturbation were keener than those of full intercourse. In the United States, I heard of a Lewis quite distinct from the Lewis I knew. My Lewis smoked incessantly, drank more than was altogether good for him, and appreciated bawdy, whether of the Rodiad or the Eskimo Nell genre. If he was a saint, it was not one of an austere or narrowly pious sort. Nor given to angst. He was assured, and talked of his wife, Joy, without difficulty. Retrospection now brought no unbearable sadness.

            In 1963 Jack died, and with him much else. He had been laughed at for offering himself as a specimen of Old Western culture. But he proved in actuality to be one of the last of a threatened species. Before he died, he wrote, optimistically, of the tide turning back to literature. In the event, N.I.C.E. turned out to have more subsidiaries, on both sides of the Atlantic, than he ever feared. Universities submitted to bureaucratic management, dons morphed into accountants, training replaced education, and Theory displaced literature. Reading simplistic codes, supplying false contexts, pursuing irrelevant indeterminacies or tell-tale “gaps”: these have proved no substitute for the memorial grasp of literature. Now that the tide really seems on the turn after its fifty-year ebb, we could do a great deal worse than look back across the drift to the great reader Lewis. We need to try to recall what literature was; what it meant, and can still mean, to grasp literary works in memory.