In 1926, at the height of modernism’s golden age, a young C.S. Lewis and a few of his friends decided to play a literary prank. As told in Alister McGrath’s clear-eyed biography, they wrote a spoof of T.S. Eliot’s poetry and submitted it for publication at The Criterion, where Eliot was editor. “My soul is a windowless façade,” the poem began, and went on to ruminate over the Marquis de Sade, upholstered pink furniture, and mint juleps. If the older poet took the bait and published the poem, Lewis, who was then 27 years old and a fellow at Magdalene College, would use the event “for the advancement of literature and the punishment of quackery.” If not, it might prove there was something more to modernist poetry than he thought.
But Eliot never answered Lewis’s letter, and looking back on the ruse now is like watching a mouse brazenly challenge a cat. Eliot was then at the pinnacle of his career, having already published Prufrock and Other Observations (1917) and The Waste Land (1922); the younger Lewis’s literary future was still nebulous. Eliot has been called the most important poet of the 20th century; few today are aware that Lewis, the mastermind behind The Chronicles of Narnia, wrote poetry at all. But poetry was his first love, and his devotion to the form will be officially honored this month with the unveiling of a monument at the Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, 50 years after his death.