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Book Review: A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis

 

(The book review can be downloaded or printed out here.)

C.S. Lewis published A Grief Observed under the pseudonym N. W. Clerk, (the N. W. is Anglo-Saxon shorthand for nat whilk, “I know not whom”). In fact, the book was never published under Lewis’ name while he lived. First published in 1961, it has been called an unsettling book and the use of a pseudonym seems to indicate that Lewis knew that it would be found so.

Some argue that it is not about Lewis’ anguish over his wife’s, Joy’s, death but instead a fictional account of grief. Mary Borhek summarizes the position of those who hold this view:  “The only reasons I can see for believing the book to be a fictionalized account are a desire to distance oneself from the extreme discomfort of confronting naked agony and an unwillingness to grant a revered spiritual leader and teacher permission to be a real, fallible, intensely real human being.”

Still others object to Lewis’ candid expressions of anger at God, suggesting the book demonstrates Lewis’ loss of faith: John Beversluis in his C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion states that “There is no case for Christianity in this book. Gone are the persuasive arguments and the witty analogies. Gone, too, are the confidence and urbanity evident in The Problem of Pain…The fundamental crisis of the book is a crisis of meaning, a crisis of such paralyzing magnitude that Lewis tries to distance himself from it in every possible way.”

Noelene Kidd in A Grief Observed: Art, Apology, or Autobiography? argues the book “is not simply a record of Lewis’s grief at the loss of his beloved wife…but a dissection of grief itself.  The work is chiefly an apology concealed by art.” Still others find the book, while a deeply moving account of loss, overly introspective and emotional, verging on the maudlin. Yet Lewis avoids bathos in the book at least in part because of a clipped, prose style characterized by short, simple sentences and brief, almost snapshot-like paragraphs. These stylistic devices prevent his wallowing in excessive self-pity; in effect, he becomes a surgeon analyzing a patient’s medical chart. Ironically, of course, he is at the same time both surgeon and patient.” 

Don King has written:

“A close consideration of the prose style of A Grief Observed suggests the book may be read as vers libre or free verse, poetry relying not upon a regular metrical pattern but instead upon pace or cadence. Furthermore, whereas conventional poetry places a premium upon the foot and the line, free verse finds its rhythm in the stanza. Accordingly, the short paragraphs of A Grief Observed function as stanzas linking it with other ostensibly prose works such as Psalms and the Song of Songs. If we read Lewis’ book this way, we may find that while his focus upon traditional poetic conventions in his consciously conceived poetry actually restrains his poetic impulse—that is, his concern with form overshadows his poetic sensibilities—the release he experiences unconsciously in free verse liberates his poetic impulse so that A Grief Observed becomes his greatest poem.”

As I read A Grief Observed I had all this in the back of my mind. Occasionally I would find myself pulling parts of it out and rewriting them in my mind to reflect more of what I saw in a poetic structure. Here are a few of what I did. I found they made the book more memorable for me, rather than saving a few quotations, which is my normal reading practice.

Her Absence

At first I was very afraid of going to places where H. and I had been happy,

Our favorite pub, our favorite wood.

But I decided to do it at once,

Like sending a pilot up again as soon as possible after he’s had a crash.

Unexpectedly, it makes no difference.

Her absence is no more emphatic in those places than anywhere else.

It’s not local at all.

I suppose that if one were forbidden all salt one wouldn’t notice it much more in any one food than in another.

Eating in general would be different, every day, at every meal.

It is like that.

The act of living is different all through.

Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything.

 

After All Hope Was Gone

It is incredible how much happiness, even how much gaiety, we sometimes had together,

After all hope was gone.

How long, how tranquilly, how nourishingly,

We talked together that last night!

And yet, not quite together.

There’s a limit to the ‘one flesh.’

You can’t really share someone else’s weakness, or fear or pain.

What you feel may be bad.

It might conceivably be as bad as what the other felt,

Though I should distrust anyone who claimed that it was. 

But it would still be quite different.

When I speak of fear, I mean the merely animal fear,

The recoil of the organism from its destruction;

The smothery feeling; the sense of being a rat in a trap.

It can’t be transferred.

The mind can sympathize;

The body, less.

In one way the bodies of lovers can do it least.

All their love passages have trained them to have, not identical, but complementary,

Correlative,

Even opposite, feelings about one another.

We both knew this.

I had my miseries, not hers;

She had hers, not mine.

The end of hers would be the coming-of-age of mine.

We were setting out on different roads.

This cold truth, this terrible traffic regulation

(‘You, Madam, to the right

– you, Sir, to the left’)

Is just the beginning of the separation

Which is death itself.

 

Praise Is The Mode Of Love

Praise is the mode of love which always has some element of joy in it.

Praise in due order;

Of Him as the giver,

Of her as the gift.

Don’t we in praise somehow enjoy what we praise,

However far we are from it?

I must do more of this.

I have lost the fruition I once had of H.

And I am far, far away in the valley of my unlikeness,

From the fruition which,

If His mercies are infinite,

I may some time have of God.

But by praising I can still,

In some degree, enjoy her,

And already, in some degree,

Enjoy Him.

Better than nothing

 

4 comments

  1. I had forgotten how ‘real’ this book was. It was Lewis’s total presence which I felt when I read this book that made it my favorite of his non-fiction works. I know Lewis is at his theological and rhetorical best in other works, but I like the way he opens himself up, shows his vulnerablity in AGO. I read this sometime not long after my brother died and it helped me so much. An intellectual treatise on grief would have turned me off; I had already had so many people trying to talk me out of how I was feeling. Reading about someone else’s exposed wound somehow helped me begin to heal.


  2. [...] “We have no ‘right to happiness’” is the title of the last thing that C. S. Lewis wrote for publication and it appeared shortly after his death (he died the same day President Kennedy did) in The Saturday Evening Post of 21-28 December 1963. That such a unique moral voice was silenced at the time it was most needed has always struck me as a great sadness. He wrote this within 2-3 years of his beloved wife’s death that ended a happy marriage lasting only slightly more than 3 years. More on that event in Lewis’ life here. [...]


  3. How I enjoyed this blog post. A year ago my daughter was diagnosed with cancer, and through the writings of Lewis I realized my fear was actually a form of grief….grief of a mother who could not protect her child from cancer, treatment, and pain. This book is all too real…the detractors should be grateful they have not suffered through the dark unknown to the extent that would create a writing so deeply touching to those who have. I, too, blogged about this book touching and changing my life. I, recently, reread it and fell in love with Lewis all over again….and love is healing to a crushed spirit…..he makes my heart dance to a splendid melody.

    Thank you for this post!


  4. [...] reminds us of C. S. Lewis’s autobiographical A Grief Observed. Lewis wrote about his suffering as a result of his wife’s death (and her suffering in the [...]



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