Ten Autograph Letters to Leo Baker



LEWIS, C.S. Ten Autograph Letters to Leo Baker


An extraordinary correspondence comprising ten long autograph letters by a young C. S. Lewis to his very close Oxford friend Leo Baker. Five letters from 1920, three from 1921 and one each from 1935 and 1936. Variously written on the headed paper of the Oxford Union or Magdalen, otherwise headed in holograph by Lewis. In all, forty-two pages of manuscript material chiefly from C. S. Lewis's most formative artistic and intellectual period. All in very good condition, entirely legible in Lewis's neat hand. Each of the larger sheets folded for posting.

Leo Baker was Lewis's closest friend at Oxford and was the instigator of the original Inklings friendship when he introduced Lewis to his Wadham College friend Owen Barfield. When Lewis and Baker met they were both twenty-one years old, both fresh to Oxford after active service in France in the First World War, both wounded in that war, and both aspiring young poets.
The correspondence begins with Lewis referencing a poem Baker had recently sent him, strangely Narnian in setting, that Lewis thought excellent, "the first line carries you away into a strange country, a grave childlike kind of Christmas land, homely yet strangely interesting and even awe-inspiring" (12th January 1920).
Poetry is the chief subject of the letters, and Lewis engages with the artform, its meaning and its practitioners with an intensity he seemed to reserve for his letters to Baker. Lewis's greatest influences are well in evidence, with long passages devoted to comparing Spenser and Milton, juxtaposing "the faery atmosphere and the divine". Lewis comes out of these passages as a resolutely independent thinker, happy to disregard the perceived wisdom of "all historians of literature" (14th August 1920). Such letters are also painstakingly considered; the letter quoted above, Lewis admits, took him three days to write, and he closes the letter with a twelve-line original poem, inspired by his stay in Somerset.
Elsewhere, a suggestion of a theory of poetry by Baker is met with a trailblazing two page dissertation on the definition of poetry from which no previous poet or critic is safe. Coleridge's famous suggestion of "the best words in the best order" is judged by Lewis "bad" on account of the fact that "'The train will leave at 7.30' gives us the best words (for that purpose) in the best order... Wordsworth indeed might have written 'The hissing locomotive with her line of labouring coaches from the platform side/ shall take departure ere the moving index/ on the high, grim chronometer etc': but this wd. be worse words in a worse order" (25th September 1920).
Throughout 1920, the year in which the first five letters were written, Baker and Lewis were engaged in trying to get Basil Blackwell to publish a poetry anthology. It was to feature their own poems, as well as those by their friends Owen Barfield and R. M. S. Pasley. The project never came to fruition, but was born out of Lewis's distaste for the modernists, who he termed "the Vorticists", and the anthology was due to present an alternative to the movement. Tasked with writing a preface to the volume, Lewis writes:
"I became more and more convinced of the futility of any theorising about poetry... if the Vorticists are bad, 'without doubt they shall perish everlastingly'. It was not the preface to the Lyrical Ballads but the Lyrical Ballads themselves that moved mountains" (12th April 1920).
Religion also figures heavily in the letters. When they first met Baker was new to the idea of atheism, but Lewis was certain in his view. Elsewhere Baker recalled that "one day over the tea cups in my room Lewis cried out in an angry crescendo 'You take too many things for granted. You can't start with God. I don't accept God'". It was a rare loss of temper and in the letters, which all are written after Baker has left Oxford, Lewis is increasingly circumspect on the matter and is clearly evolving his thinking towards the direction of Christianity:
"I have had to postulate some sort of God as the least objectionable theory: but of course we know nothing. At any note we don't know what the real Good is, and consequently I have stopped defying heaven" (25th September 1920).
Shortly after this, in what Baker has described as "a most violent letter", Lewis wrote to say he did not wish to see or speak to him again. Baker has never made further reference to this particular letter, and it does not survive. It is therefore with an apologetic tone that Lewis renewed their correspondence in 1935, having heard that Baker was ill:
"It stimulated an impulse that has been hovering in my mind for some time to write to you and to try and pick up some of the old links. That they were ever dropped was, I imagine, chiefly my fault┬ľat least even self-love on my part cannot find any substantial respect in which it could have been yours. Will you forgive me? I think I have learned a little since those days and can promise not to serve you so again".
Updating Baker on the intervening years he states plainly, "I am going bald. I am a Christian. Professionally I am chiefly a medievalist" (28th April 1935).
The final letter follows Lewis having sent Baker a copy of his first major academic work, The Allegory Of Love (1936). Lewis is most modest about the work, chiefly sharing the jokes told by fellow Dons about its excessive length. As ever, the subject soon returns to poetry, and particular to Lewis's recent interest - instigated by Tolkien - in Icelandic verse:
"it wakes up a storm of sound which, when combined, as it usually is, with a tragic theme, and contrasting its rock-like form with the vain liquidity of sorrow, produces an almost unbearable tension of stoical pathos - 'iron tears down Pluto's cheek'" (June 24th 1936).
In 1971, Baker lent Walter Hooper nine of the present letters, and copies of these letters were xeroxed so that reproductions could be stored in the Bodleian Library's Lewis Collection. A letter to this effect is also present, from the Assistant to The Keeper Of Western Manuscripts. The same nine letters were reproduced in Hooper's Collected Letters, though the 4-page letter, dated 12th April 1920 and focussed on Lewis's theory of poetry, remains unpublished.

PROVENANCE: Leo Kingsley Baker (1898-1986), thence by descent.

Stock ID: 40858


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