A Naked Tree: Love Sonnets to C. S. Lewis and Other Poems

Joy Davidman
Published by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company in 2015

Reviewed by Marion H. Larson, English, Bethel University

Joy Davidman is best known today as the wife of C. S. Lewis, her untimely death poignantly portrayed in the play and subsequent film Shadowlands. Many also know of her through the touching reflections on death and the problem of pain that Lewis penned in A Grief Observed, drawn from a journal that Lewis kept during Davidman’s struggle with cancer. But Davidman was also an important writer in her own right. In 1936, when she was not yet 21 years old, Davidman first had poems published in the prestigious journal Poetry. This success led her to produce a complete volume of poetry—Letters to a Comrade, which won the Yale Younger Poets’ competition and was published that year (1938). In addition to her poetry, Davidman wrote fiction (two published novels) as well as numerous film, theater, and book reviews, serving as poetry editor for New Masses, the weekly magazine of the Communist Party of the United States of America. She edited and published War Poems of the United Nations (1943), and in 1954 she published Smoke on the Mountain: An Interpretation of the Ten Commandments, a volume for which C. S. Lewis wrote the preface.

A Naked Tree: Love Sonnets to C. S. Lewis and Other Poems represents part of a series of books written and edited by Don W. King (former editor of CSR) that focus on “C. S. Lewis and the two women writers who most influenced his life and poetry: Ruth Pitter and Joy Davidman.”1 Three of these books relate specifically to Davidman. The first, Out of My Bone (Eerdmans, 2009), is a collection of Davidman’s letters, many previously unpublished, as well as her autobiographical essay “The Longest Way Round.” The second is A Naked Tree, and the third, Yet One More Spring (Eerdmans, 2015), will be the first comprehensive critical study of Davidman’s writing—her poetry, nonfiction, and fiction.

A Naked Tree: Love Sonnets to C. S. Lewis and Other Poems brings to light dozens of previously unknown poems by Davidman, along with the just over seventy poems that were published during her lifetime. King notes in his introduction that A Naked Tree, “as the first comprehensive collection of her verse, makes the case that her status as a twentieth-century American poet should be re-apprized.”2 I absolutely concur. This volume is important reading for those interested in Davidman and Lewis—and it also presents the work of a fine American poet.

King notes three overarching themes in Davidman’s poems: God, death, and immortality; politics; and romantic love.3 Because King has arranged the poems in this volume chronologically, a reader familiar with Davidman’s faith journey can see indications of her movement from atheism to Christianity in her poems about the first overarching theme (see, for example, “The Haunted Atheist,” “The Foolish Virgin,” “Prayer before Daybreak,” and “Blessed Are the Bitter Things of God”). Even from her earliest poems, biblical themes and allusions are evident (“Resurrection,” “Jacob and the Angel,” “Jericho,” “Againrising”). On the theme of death, an early poem, “Yet One More Spring” (composed when Davidman was only 23 years old), is among her most powerful:

…what will come of me
In the end,…
What will come of me and shall I lie
Voiceless forever in earth and unremembered, And be forever the cold green blood of flowers And speak forever with the tongue of grass Unsyllabled….

Davidman’s political poems are clearly marked by the turmoil and tragedies of the 1930s and 1940s: the terrible social conditions of the Great Depression, the many injustices in American society, the Spanish Civil War, and World War II (see for example “Four Years After Munich,” “Dialogue for D-Day,” “This Year of the Atom,” “For the Conveyor Belt,” “Office Windows,” and “Letter to a Comrade”). Her writer’s voice in many of these poems is insistent, powerful, and commanding, often exhibiting what King describes as a “vigorous resistance, a fierce sensibility, an all-consuming intensity.”4 This voice can be heard particularly in the collection originally published as Letter to a Comrade, exemplified in the title poem in which the speaker often employs the imperative, commanding readers to “Turn” and “Assault the door, break down the door, open the door.”5 Like many of David- man’s personal letters (see Out of My Bone), Davidman’s poetic voice often has a “conversational and rhetorical edge—argumentative, persuasive, and insistent.”6 Even though at times Davidman’s work (particularly poems from Letters to a Comrade) can “suffer from a propagandist’s zeal,” it is this voice that makes much of Davidman’s poetry so engaging.7

Davidman’s voice is also particularly evident in her love poetry, which covers a range of emotions, at times expressing anger or disappointment about a love gone wrong (“I Hate You For Your Kind Indifference,” “Whine from a Beggar”) and at other times speaking powerfully about sexual passion (“Postscript: But All I Want,” “The Empress Changes Lovers”). At times the speaker in her poems is commanding, at other times pleading or tentative. This range of emotion can be seen clearly in her sonnets for C. S. Lewis.

While Davidman employs a range of poetic forms in her work, she returns to the sonnet form several times throughout her career. She only published five sonnets in her lifetime but wrote over 90, 45 of which are the love sonnets she addressed to Lewis. In many of these sonnets, her “impassioned voice” is evident, thus making many of these poems sound like “something akin to personal journal entries,” notes King.8 Most of these love sonnets were written between 1949 and 1954—so some were written well before Davidman met Lewis (1952). And some were written even earlier than that, with Sonnet XLIV written in 1939, a decade before Davidman wrote her first letter to Lewis. Thus, observes King, it seems reasonable to conclude that many of these sonnets were originally conceived of as separate poems and only later collected (and sometimes revised) by Davidman as a sequence she gave to Lewis as part of a deliberate effort to make clear her feelings for him and to help persuade him to return her affections. While each sonnet is complete as a whole, telling “its own little story,” there is also a “larger story or narrative” that runs throughout the sequence. In these sonnets, Davidman carries on numerous conversations—with herself, with Lewis, with God—and the mood vacillates throughout.9 While the whole sonnet sequence has to be read (and re-read) to be appreciated fully, perhaps some excerpts will help to illustrate:

XI
…The argument that keeps the sun in power

Over his children, makes the firefly glow,

Adorns the summer with her proper flower

And decorates the winter with his snow,

Makes the dead men rise and promises come true—

Such reasons do I have for loving you.

XX
My love, who does not love me but is kind,

Lately apologized for lack of love,

Praising the fire and glitter of my mind,

The valour of my heart…

He said that I had beauty of a sort

Might do for other men, but not for him….

XXXIX
Do not be angry that I am a woman

And so have lips that want your kiss, and breasts

That want your fingers on them; being human

I need a heart on which my heart can rest;

I was made flesh for this, and so were you….

King provides useful reading aids in A Naked Tree. His brief introduction notes the primary characteristics of Davidman’s poetry—its recurring themes, literary forms, and voice—providing an example or two of each to help illustrate his observations for a reader. He also notes in his introduction that, whenever possible, he has arranged these poems chronologically as they were written, and he provides at the end of each poem the date when the poem was written. This chronological arrangement, says King, “is the most important editorial principle I have followed because I want readers to be able to chart Davidson’s development and growth as a poet by being able to see easily when each poem was written.”10 Other useful reading aids in this volume include footnotes, some of which define poetic terms or unusual words, others giving historical or literary context to the composition of or a reference in a poem. A short appendix provides paragraph-length definitions of several poetic verse patterns that Davidson employs. An index of poem titles as well as an index of first lines both help make this a useful reference for those seeking specific works.

Cite this article
Marion H. Larson, “A Naked Tree: Love Sonnets to C. S. Lewis and Other Poems”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 45:3 , 294-297

Footnotes

  1. Don W. King, “The Joy Davidman Project,” accessed July 14, 2015, http://ww2.montreat.edu/don_king/joy_davidnman_project/tabid/1307/Default.aspx.
  2. Don W. King, introduction to Joy Davidman, A Naked Tree: Love Sonnets to C. S. Lewis and Other Poems, ed. Don W. King (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2015), x.
  3. Ibid., x-xi.
  4. Don W. King, “Joy Davidman, Poet: Letter to a Comrade,” Christianity and Literature 62.1 (2012): 84.
  5. Ibid., 86.
  6. Ibid., 86.
  7. Ibid., 74.
  8. King, introduction to Davidman, A Naked Tree, xiv.
  9. Ibid., xv.
  10. Ibid., xv.

Marion H. Larson

Bethel University (MN)
Marion H. Larson is a Professor of English at Bethel University in St. Paul, MN