Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, August 12, 2021

"French Nocturne (Monchy-Le-Preux)" by C. S. Lewis


A Young C.S. Lewis


By David F. Beer

Clive Staples Lewis (1898–1963) was one of the most noted and influential authors of the 20th century. His books on literary history, religion, and fiction—such as The Chronicles of Narnia—are well known and have been translated into over 30 languages. His conversion to Christianity in 1931 is described in his autobiographical Surprised by Joy

Less known is that in his younger days Lewis rejected Christianity and wrote poetry. His first collection of war poems, Spirits in Bondage, resulted from spending several months in the trenches with the Somerset Light Infantry. On 15 April 1918, he was badly wounded by an explosion which pulverized a soldier next to him. He was taken to a hospital near Étaples and was discharged from the army in December 1918.


Ruins of Monchy at War's End

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His war poetry rails against the idea of a loving or caring God. He had earlier expressed this atheism in a longer poem, De Profundis: “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.” Here’s one of his war poems, inspired by his trench life near Monchy Le Preux:


      French Nocturne (Monchy-Le-Preux)

Long leagues on either hand the trenches spread

And all is still; now even this gross line

Drinks in the frosty silences divine

The pale, green moon is riding overhead.

The jaws of a sacked village, stark and grim;

Out on the ridge have swallowed up the sun,

And in one angry streak his blood has run

To left and right along the horizon dim.

There comes a buzzing plane: and now, it seems

Flies straight into the moon. Lo! where he steers

Across the pallid globe and surely nears

In that white land some harbour of dear dreams!

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 for slaughter: cannot sing.


By 1918 the small town of Monchy-Le-Preux was an utter ruin, having seen heavy fighting and huge loss of life during the Battle of Arras from 9 April to 16 May 1917. Trenches were still occupied in the area, and from one of these Lewis records his feelings as he looks over the parapet of “this gross line” in the evening, seeing “The jaws of a sacked village, stark and grim.”   


37th Division Memorial Near Monchy

Just a glimpse of twilight remains, and the poet sees this as no more than an angry streak of blood.  An aircraft seemingly climbing towards the moon offers no hope: the romantic moon of traditional poetry that might have conjured up “dear dreams” is remote to the battle-hardened Lewis, just a “False mocking fancy.”

The final quatrain (four lines) of the poem confirms that Lewis has given up all humanity. He has become a beast, brutalized, just like his fellow fighting men. No music, no dreams, no hope, no divinity exists—just slaughter. No hint of the loving deity he would come to know later in life.


3 comments:

  1. "Our throats can bark for slaughter: cannot sing."

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  2. Of war poets he's strictly second division.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thank you for this insight. Your inputs always give us a better understanding of the people and their times. Cheers

    ReplyDelete