The following poem appeared in C. S. Lewis’s first published book, a collection of poetry titled Spirits in Bondage, 1919. While the book as a whole received lukewarm reviews at best and was written during his pre-Christian, angst-ridden days, one sees refreshing hints of his love for myth and England in the collection. These provide interesting indications of what Lewis would spend a great deal of his energy writing about post-conversion. In these poems, one can detect that even at such a young age, Lewis was “living in a world of contradictions”: hating God for not existing and hating Him for creating the world. In Surprised By Joy, Lewis writes the following about that time: “The two hemispheres of my mind were in the sharpest contrast. On the one side a many-islanded sea of poetry and myth; on the other a glib and shallow ‘rationalism’. Nearly all that I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless.”
His poem “The Ass” provides one of those small glimmers of the future Lewis who would be freed from his anger at God and able to reconcile Reason and Imagination. Lewis had quite a fascination with donkeys, especially that most famous (and long-suffering) of donkeys from Old Testament times owned by the wayward prophet Balaam. References to this donkey appear often in Lewis’s writings. Also, one must not forget poor Puzzle from The Last Battle.
Philip and Carol Zaleski have this to say about the poem in their excellent book The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: “In its pastoral serenity, its humor, its Franciscan love of lowly creatureliness, this poem one might expect from Lewis at fifty years of age; it is a happy harbinger of things to come.”
Here it is below. Enjoy!
I woke and rose and slipt away
To the heathery hills in the morning grey.
In a field where the dew lay cold and deep
I met an ass, new-roused from sleep.
I stroked his nose and I tickled his ears,
And spoke soft words to quiet his fears.
His eyes stared into the eyes of me
And he kissed my hands of his courtesy.
“O big, brown brother out of the waste,
How do thistles for breakfast taste?
“And do you rejoice in the dawn divine
With a heart that is glad no less than mine?
“For, brother, the depth of your gentle eyes
Is strange and mystic as the skies:
“What are the thoughts that grope behind,
Down in the mist of a donkey mind?
“Can it be true, as the wise men tell,
That you are a mask of God as well,
“And, as in us, so in you no less
Speaks the eternal Loveliness,
“And words of the lips that all things know
Among the thoughts of a donkey go?
“However it be, O four-foot brother,
Fair to-day is the earth, our mother.
“God send you peace and delight thereof,
And all green meat of the waste you love,
“And guard you well from violent men
Who’d put you back in the shafts again.”
But the ass had far too wise a head
To answer one of the things I said,
So he twitched his fair ears up and down
And turned to nuzzle his shoulder brown.