There was just enough distance between my brother and I in our ages (he was four years ahead of me in school), and just enough difference in our interests (he was in band, I played tennis), that I never had to be “Michel’s brother.” But I had friends who were “Emily’s sister” and “Mr. Randall’s son,” friends identified and defined by people other than themselves. I felt sorry for them. I was sorry that, in some way, they couldn’t be judged on their own merits and accomplishments. I was sorry they had to live in someone else’s shadow.
Maybe you knew someone in the same position, and maybe you felt sorry for them. Maybe you were in that position yourself, and others felt sorry for you.
But I doubt that any of us had it quite as bad as Joy Davidman.
Who was Joy Davidman, you ask? She was C. S. Lewis’s wife.
I imagine that anything one might do as Mrs. Clive Staples Lewis would be overshadowed, in his lifetime as well as ours, by so giant a personality. But Joy didn’t do just anything. She, too, was a writer. She, too, published books — novels and poetry and even Christian theology.
You may be familiar with Joy Davidman. You many even have read about her, perhaps in a biography of her husband, or maybe in the play about their marriage (Shadowlands, adapted from the TV movie, and later itself adapted into a feature film), or maybe in Lewis’s own book, A Grief Observed. But you’ve likely never read anything by her.
A Naked Tree
That is a shame — but it’s one that now can be remedied. Don King has edited her collected poems, many previously unpublished, and they’re available in a beautiful volume recently published by Eerdmans: A Naked Tree: Love Sonnets to C. S. Lewis and Other Poems.
You can see there in the title just how hard it is to separate Davidman from Lewis and approach her as a poet in her own right. The casual reader will see the “Lewis” first and then the “love”; sonnets will be secondary; “other poems,” and even the poet’s name, might be negligible.
But of the 300+ pages of poems in this book, those sonnets comprise less than thirty. And as tempting as it might be to flip right to the back and start with sonnet I, “Dear Jack,” that would be quite a mistake.
In those last few pages, in the sonnets and in some other poems to Lewis, Davidman’s humor comes out. Her readiness to toy with the sing-song patterns of the sonnet, and her willingness to lay down a lame rhyme out of sheer playfulness, show just how much she loved (and trusted) Lewis. But though these poems form a truly compelling work as a sonnet sequence — especially with their conception of Lewis as Davidman’s antagonist, a man whose distant politeness is a sharper weapon than cruelty could ever be — the best poetry precedes them.
In the poems not written to Lewis (or at least not written about him or her love for him), Davidman proves herself a remarkably agile poet. She composes in just about every form imaginable: not just sonnets, but free verse, terza rima, Sapphic stanzas, villanelles. There’s an impressive sestina in this collection, which is a nearly impossible feat, and there’s also a successful acrostic — in hendecasyllables to boot — which might be an even more impossible feat.
Davidman also has the gift of plying the simple word to form the complex idea. In one of the memorable poems from her conversion period, “Prayer before Daybreak,” she uses words available to most children — mostly monosyllables, in fact — to weave through the paradox and ironies of her deepest existential question:
I have loved some ghost or other all my years.
Dead men, their kisses and their fading eyes
dim in the house of memory; glimmers
in twilight air, no more. They were not there
to say no to me when I wanted them,
so it was safe to love them.
And dead gods,
blind eyes in plaster in the safe museum,
the broken hands without the thunderbolt
and the lost mouths that could not laugh at prayers
I did not make to them.
. . . . .
Only the terrible Now
I dared not love. Not the word made flesh,
not the Incarnation bearing a sword
to strike me to the heart; not that which is,
but is not I.
Perhaps Davidman’s greatest gift is her rich imagination, which is on display even in her earliest poems. Davidman can see and transmit visions of subtle beauty. Her modest diction is again an aid in this, transporting the reader seamlessly into the world she creates. My favorite example of this is “Endymion: I Had Prayed to the Distant Goddess,” just the fourth poem in this collection, written when Davidman was — astoundingly — just fifteen. She writes about Endymion’s love for Selene, the goddess of the moon; the final two stanzas of the poem, where Endymion (thinks) he finally gets what he wants, capture the complex of immanence and distance impressed on us by both nature and the divine:
Then the moon answered and came down to me.
Oh — I had lain for many nights and sighed
Because she was no nearer, though I knew
The moon was brighter for the distance. Now
She has come down, the years’ dream has come true.
A silver shadow floating above my head,
The cold white moon dissolving in the air,
And dripping liquid silver through the pines,
Till it surrounded me in silver dew,
All of the brightness soft within my arms.
Yet she was magic, high above the pines,
Being divine and unattainable,
And white-serene, while I looked up at her.
For readers who love C. S. Lewis (and that seems to be all readers) it is tempting to think of someone like Joy Davidman as simply another member of his solar system — perhaps one of the brightest, but one who nevertheless owes all her light, and all her importance, to her proximity to him, the sun. The poems in A Naked Tree should convince us otherwise — and so would Lewis, if he were here. Joy Davidman was never just “C. S. Lewis’s wife” to him. She is her own light, and that light is undimmed even in the shadow of Lewis himself.
Click to order A Naked Tree: Love Sonnets to C. S. Lewis and Other Poems, and click here to see the full text of the poems mentioned in this post, “Prayer before Daybreak” and “Endymion: I Had Prayed to the Distant Goddess.”
* * *
 Lewis’s popular memoir Surprised by Joy predates his relationship with Davidman and is not about her — though nearly all his biographers can’t help but borrow that title for their chapter about Davidman.
 In one poem, titled “Apologetic Ballade by a White Witch” (clearly a nod to the Narnia books), Davidman jokes about casting a spell to call down winter. In the last stanza, to rhyme with her refrain, she twists the lines into some pretty bad poetry:
Prince, I’ll never do it no more!
My interest was purely scientif-
Ic (as doctors say when they bathe in gore);
I just wanted to see what would happen, if . . .
* * *
About Poets’ Corner:
The South Transept at Westminster Abbey is called “Poets’ Corner.” It’s a place where the luminaries of British literature, beginning with Chaucer and extending through Dryden and Dickens to Eliot and Auden, are buried and memorialized. For those who, like me, can’t quite remember their art history lessons, the transept is the shorter arm of a cruciform church. Thus the placement of Poets’ Corner becomes a symbol, a simple and beautiful reminder of the place that poetry has in faith. Not all our belief is theology, or perhaps more precisely, not all our theology is syllogism and argument. Some of it is wonder. Some of it is beauty.