Carved in Stone: What the Bird Did Not Say Early in the Year

The Lewis Legacy-Issue 75, Winter 1998 The C. S. Lewis Foundation for Truth in Publishing

by Kathryn Lindskoog with Gracia Fay Ellwood and Joe R. Christopher

“…I MUST SAY that I am surprised that any editor would present so many changed texts to the public without saying where he got them” That was Richard Wilbur’s informal response to the news that under Walter Hooper’s editorship more than half the poems published in Lewis’s lifetime (forty-five of approximately seventy-five) appear posthumously only in revised versions. Twenty-six of the seventy-five have been published since Lewis’s death with altered titles.

Richard Wilbur claims no particular expertise in Lewis studies. But until 1995 even those with expertise in Lewis studies were unaware of the momentous changes that first occurred in texts of Lewis’s published poetry a few months after his death. And even after 1995 this information has not spread fast.

Lewis’s posthumous editor Walter Hooper writes in his “Preface” to Poems, “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.” All one can say to this is if all the changes in Lewis’s poems were the result simply of choices between drafts, Mr. Hooper has the distinction of being an editor who almost invariably chooses the poorer reading when he has a choice of more than one.

In 1996 one of the lesser-known Lewis poems suddenly began its ascent from almost sixty years of obscurity into prominence. Michael Ward, Centenary Secretary of the Oxford C. S. Lewis Society, made the following announcement in Seven, An Anglo-American Literary Review under the title “Addison’s Walk.”

As part of the celebrations of the centenary of Lewis’s birth in 1998, the Oxford University C. S. Lewis Society will be erecting at Magdalen College a free-standing stone bearing Lewis’s poem, “What the Bird Said Early in the Year”….

The poem is about Addison’s Walk, a mile-long circuit round the deer park at Magdalen, which Lewis traversed frequently with pupils and friends. It was in Addison’s Walk in 1931 that Lewis had the famous midnight conversation about myth with Tolkien and Dyson that led to his conversion to Christianity.

It’s a short poem, suitable for inscription on stone, and, dealing as it does with the fruition of desire, is typically Lewisian. The President of Magdalen, Anthony Smith, has kindly given permission for the stone to be put up, and a site in Addison’s Walk has been agreed upon.

The stonemason, Alec Peever, who has created original commemorative works in Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s and Canterbury Cathedrals, has been commissioned to design the stone and the estimated cost will be in the region of five thousand pounds sterling.

If Seven readers would like to contribute to the cost of this stone, which will become an enduring part of the Oxford landscape, they should make cheques payable to “The C. S. Lewis Centenary Stone” and send them to Mr. Peter Cousin, The Treasurer, The Oxford University C. S. Lewis Society, c/o Pusey House, St Giles, Oxford, OXl 3LZ. For further information about the stone or about the Society, please write to Mr. Michael Ward, Centenary Secretary, at the same address.

What the Bird Said Early in the Year

I heard in Addison’s Walk a bird sing clear:

This year the summer will come true. This year. This year.

Winds will not strip the blossom from the apple trees

This year, nor want of rain destroy the peas.

This year time’s nature will no more defeat you,

Nor all the promised moments in their passing cheat you.

This time they will not lead you round and back

To autumn, one year older, by the well-worn track.

This year, this year, as all these flowers foretell,

We shall escape the circle and undo the spell.

Often deceived, yet open once again your heart,

Quick, quick, quick, quick! — the gates are drawn apart.

C. S. Lewis, 1898-1963

The monument thus described by Michael Ward might make “What the Bird Said Early in the Year” Lewis’s most famous poem. Mr. Ward did not mention the fact that this 12-line version of Lewis’s 14-line poem was never published until after Lewis’s death. Lewis titled his original poem “Chanson D’Aventure” and published it in The Oxford Magazine on 10 February 1938. (Line numbers are added below.)

Chanson D’Adventure

1. I heard in Addison’s Walk a bird sing clear

2. ‘This year the summer will come true. This year. This year.

3. ‘Winds will not strip the blossom from the apple trees

4. This year, nor want of rain destroy the peas.

5. ‘This year time’s nature will no more defeat you,

6. Nor all the promised moments in their passing cheat you.

7. ‘This summer will not lead you round and back

8. To autumn, one year older, by the well-worn track.

9. ‘Often deceived, yet open once again your heart,

10. The gates of good adventure swing apart.

11. ‘This time, this time, as all these flowers foretell,

12. We shall escape the circle and undo the spell.’

13. I said, ‘This might prove truer than a bird can know;

14. And yet your singing will not make it so.’

“Chanson D’Aventure” is not the most memorable of Lewis’s poems, but it is a skillful lyric and uniquely appropriate for his memorial stone at Magdalen College. It not only hints at his fondness for Addison’s Walk, but subtly expresses what lies at the heart of his life and all his writing. Couplets and brevity are especially appropriate in a poem using the imagery of birdsong, and especially practical on a memorial stone.

The poem is Lewis’s intellectual response to spring. It is essentially about his longing for Joy and, ultimately, all human longing for heaven. It is about our natural desire to escape from human mortality and futility, from the cycle of life and death, and from the mutability of all earthly joys. It is about the endless summer that can exist only outside nature as we know it, if at all. And it is also about epistemology.

Lewis’s title “Chanson D’Aventure” refers to the medieval tradition of a noble quest or adventure undertaken in the spring in a spirit of valor and optimism. In medieval thought, two kinds of adventure focusing on the Ultimate were (in literature) the knightly quest for the Holy Grail, and (in life) pilgrimage to the shrine of a saint. The Grail is the source of Christ’s blood, the wine of Eternal Life; at the shrine, the pilgrim stands between earth and heaven, potentially participating in the death and divine life of the Saint. In both quests, the journeyer risked his or her life in hopes of attaining the ultimate divine gift. Thus the poem is about a birdsong encouraging a veteran traveller who has been disappointed in all his or her previous quests. (Lewis was repeatedly disappointed in his early searches for Joy, just as John was repeatedly disappointed in his search for the Western Island in The Pilgrim’s Regress.) Lewis’s choice of title shows the importance of line 10, “The gates of good adventure swing apart.”

Line 1: Lewis begins and ends this poem in the first person, reporting the narrator’s experience to the reader. The birdsong he hears in line 1 turns out to symbolize the hopeful spirit that comes unbidden in the spring.

Line 2: “Summer will come true” means that the pleasantest season won’t be transitory, but will give ultimate fulfillment. Repetition of “this year” not only suggests the repetitious phrasing of birdsong, but perhaps suggests also the contrast between time and eternity.

Lines 3-4: Time destroys whatever is beautiful and life-enhancing, suggested by blossoms, potential fruits (apples) and vegetables (peas). Within the first four lines, Lewis has used “this year” four times.

Line 5: “This year” is used for the fifth time. The bird (natural instinctive hope) claims that the nature of time will not continue to prevail.

Line 6: The (false) promise of spring is for lasting joy, not the fleeting joy that always disappoints.

Lines 7-8: This is the central couplet of the poem, and summer is the central season of the year. Here Lewis likens his treks around the year to his treks around (circular) Addison’s Walk. In both cases he ends back where he started, with less time left to live. In diction, the general “this year” gives way to the more immediate “this summer” of the year’s cycle (in contrast to autumn).

Line 9: Hope urges the narrator to believe again in an incipient fullness of Joy in spite of the fact that so far he has always ended up back where he started. This part of the poem portrays what Lewis called “the dialect of desire” that led him through the adventures he portrayed allegorically in The Pilgrim’s Regress. By contrast, one who chooses self-protective cynicism keeps his heart shut.

Line 10: This key line likens the open heart to open gates through which a pilgrim or knight ventures out to seek the elusive sunum bonum. (Perhaps Lewis had in mind the large, handsome gates through which one leaves Addison’s Walk.)

Line 11: Here Lewis switches from “this year” and “this summer” to “this time.” “All these flowers” shows that the setting of the poem is full spring.

Line 12: Spring’s promise to an open heart is that the spell of mutability will be broken and that we can escape earth’s endless circle of life and destruction. (Spring blossoms were the occasion of Lewis’s first longing for Joy, described in the first chapter of Surprised by Joy.) The images of escaping a circle and undoing a spell are those of magic — with the hidden suggestion that it will take real magic — God’s own magic — to escape the cycle of nature. This prepares the reader for the final couplet.

Line 13: The poem concludes with the narrator’s response to the bird’s message. He admits that nature’s portents about eternity may happen to be true, but nature itself is within the circle of time and cannot comprehend eternity.

Line 14: The possible truth of nature’s occasional portents about the coming of eternal Joy (summer) does not mean that nature is an authority. Nature is a secondary cause, part of the created (and fallen) order. Nature only “will come true” outside itself, in the realm of the Supernature. (Exactly six years after publication of “Chanson D’Aventure,” Lewis declared in a BBC radio talk: “. . .vague religion — all about feeling God in nature and so on — is so attractive. . . .But. . .you will not get eternal life by just feeling the presence of God in flowers or music.” ) It could be argued that Lewis’s final couplet is also a comment on his own philosophical poetry (“singing”); thus the dialog between the narrator and the bird is Lewis’s playful depiction of the dialog between aspects of his own mind.

In contrast to posthumous versions of some of Lewis’s other poems, this one incorporates few changes. But these few changes create significant problems. For one thing, the new title sets the poem “early in the year” (presumably January, February or March) rather than in the flowering of spring (traditionally May). More importantly, the new title omits all reference to medieval pilgrimage or chivalric quest.

Lines 7 and 8 were the heart of the original poem. But in the edited version the word summer, intentionally linked here to autumn, is inexplicably replaced by the phrase “time they.”

The removal of the fifth couplet is puzzling. Line 9 is shifted to the sixth couplet, and line 10 is completely deleted.

Because the subject of this poem is the contrast between time in general (mutability and loss) and eternity, removal of the key phrase “this time, this time” in line 11 is also puzzling. Repetition of “this year, this year” from line 2 adds nothing.

Omission of Lewis’s final couplet does away with the first-person brackets that shaped the entire poem; thus the substitute ending is apt to strike many readers as the weakest part of the posthumous version. The reason for the bird to urge the narrator “Quick, quick, quick, quick!” is not at all clear. (The song of a British thrush reportedly includes a note that can be transcribed as “quick.”) “[T]he gates are drawn apart” seems more ambiguous and less felicitous than Lewis’s “The gates of good adventure swing apart.” And, finally, the narrator’s conclusion in “Chanson D’Aventure” was that the feeling of transcendence sometimes provided by nature (and celebrated by poets) is insufficient as a way to find eternal life; for some readers “Chanson D’Aventure” has been eviscerated by its removal.

In conclusion, “What the Bird Said Early in the Year” lacks cogency compared to Lewis’s original version. We propose that “Chanson D’Aventure” would be a far more fitting inscription on Lewis’s memorial stone. *

Carved in Stone

According to the Oxford C. S. Lewis Society, dedication of the Oxford Centenary Stone will take place on 12 May 1998. “A list of contributors will be deposited among the Lewis Society archives in the University Library, the Bodleian.”

From the promotional brochure: the circle on the wall shows where the Centenary Stone will be mounted. On the left of the picture you can see the back of the New Buildings (1733) where Lewis had his rooms.