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

A Naked Tree: Love Sonnets to C.S. Lewis and Other Poems. Joy Davidman. Ed. Don W. King. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015. Softcover. xvi + 320 pp. $30 ($19.89 from; kindle $18.90. ISBN 978-0-8028-7288-3.

Don W. King has managed, in a great coup, to publish editions of all the poems (or certainly almost all) of C.S. Lewis and of Joy Davidman in the same year. He has arranged the poems chronologically in both cases. In Joy Davidman's volume, he has five sections of poems: 1929-1938; next, the poems in her Letters to a Comrade (1938); then 1939-1940; 1941-1952; and 1952-1955 (the latter also labelled "Poems to C.S. Lewis"). Most members of the Mythopoeic Society will be interested primarily in the final section.

This division consists of fifteen poems before the sonnet sequence of the book's subtitle; the latter consists of a verse prologue plus fifty-four numbered poems. The fifteen poems before the sequence are also directed to Lewis, although sometimes indirectly. Perhaps the most delightful is "Apologetic Ballade by a White Witch," beginning "I didn't really mean any harm [...]" (270). Note that this is a White Witch, not the White Witch--let us say, an alternate world's witch to her in Narnia. Some of these fifteen poems refer to Davidman's early visit(s) to Lewis's home, and two of them are acrostics, spelling out CLIVESTAPLESLEWIS in the first letters of the lines. Another of special interest is "Nightlong I Wrestled," which can be read simply as a Jewish poem based on Genesis 32:22-32, but which, indirectly, may be read as applying to Davidman's several years of trying to capture Lewis's love (eros).

The sonnet sequence is uneven, of course, but certainly has biographical interest. In the prefatory poem, Davidman says she can write a sonnet in fifteen seconds--"I do the trick too easily." She admits that since she "can write the thing acceptably/So often, it is hard to write it well" (282). No doubt the casualness is shown partly in her variations between sonnets forms and in her reliance on many off rhymes. For example, sonnet no. I is a mixture of Italian and English rhyme schemes: that is, it has three quatrains of ABBA pattern but separately rhymed followed by a couplet, all spaced to emphasize the three quatrains and couplet. The second quatrain shows the off rhyming clearly: "mouth," "word," "dared," "breath." The second sonnet rhymes its second quatrain in the English pattern, ABAB, between the two quatrains of Italian patterning. The third sonnet has two couplets after its Italian opening: ABBACCDD EFFGEG. The sestet is no doubt acceptable, but it is not a common pattern. In the second and third lines of the fourth sonnet, the rhyme of "face" and "graves" seems pretty strained, even for off-rhyming. And so on.

The casualness is also shown in the generalities of the diction and the great use of enjambment. No. I again can be used as an example: "Despair/Of treating you better than other men [i.e., former loves] / Would take the taste of love out of my mouth/Before I had spoken half the lying word" (282, ll. 3b-6). Before this passage, Davidman had a good image about her having "begun so many loves in fire/And ended them in dirty ash"; but what is the "taste of love" in l. 5 that is being taken away? Presumably a sweetness-but she offers only the general "taste." (Maybe love tastes like barbeque sauce to some; what does it taste like to Davidman?) And one can understand that Davidman considers saying "I love you" or "I'll love you forever" a lie because of her past experiences, but is there no imaginative way to say it, beyond the flat phrase "the lying word"? The enjambment turns the lines into near-prose.

The objections are not that she is writing in a Drab style, exactly, for the part-of-the-time Golden style of Sir Philip Sidney is not available to modern poets. The Italianate style of Dante Gabriel Rossetti in The House of Life is also not available. But Imagism suggests that generalities are to be avoided, and Archibald MacLeish wrote a few Imagistic sonnets, proving it can be done. (The octave of his "Soul-Sight" is a better example than the sestet; his "The End of the World" is very specific in detail, but it is a special case, being narrative.) Davidman's background in the propagandistic New Masses may have inclined her to a good Drab, but she also has influences from the witty style of John Donne and the clearly written, popular appeals of her early mentor, Stephen Vincent Benet. Davidman's later sonnets in the sequence are, in general, better than the earlier ones. Perhaps she took more time on them.

The content of the sonnets is interesting, and certainly suggests artistry of arrangement. The first section (of four sonnets) is titled "America, 1953"; as King's notes indicate, two of these were written earlier: no. II (about making love to William Lindsay Gresham, her husband, while thinking about C.S. Lewis) was written in "1948 or 1949" (King's dating); no. IV, containing for its "octave" nine lines from "Notes on an Obsession" (a poem about an earlier love), is tentatively dated to September 1938 by King. (There is a tradition of re-using old sonnets in a later sequence--cf. Shakespeare's sonnet in iambic tetrameter [no. 145], written for Anne Hathaway [if one accepts "hate away" in l. 13 is a pun on her last name--with the highly probable assumption it was written very early in Shakespeare's career].)

The second section, titled "England, 1952," contains four more sonnets. No. V is another early poem, dated by King to "1940?" Nos. VI and VII describe the autumn weather when Davidman met Lewis. No. VIII indicates she told Lewis of her love, and he told her not to, "Saying I must not love him any more" (287, l. 13).

The third section, titled "America, 1953," contains eight sonnets. Davidman is back after her visit to England. No. IX, beginning "If ever I go back to Headington" (287) should be compared to a poem earlier in this 19521955 section, made of two tetrameter octaves, "When I came back to Headington" (271)--the tetrameter poem imagines her going back to Headington as a ghost. According to King's dating, the ghost poem was written 10 February 1953 and the sonnet the next day.

Sonnet XII begins, as King notes, the theme of the conventional blonde beauty as contrasted to Davidman's dark hair (and fair skin as contrasted to darker skin). This theme is developed further in nos. XX, XXII, and XXXI (and hinted at in IXX). It is a traditional part of the sonnet sequence--cf. Sidney's blonde Stella in Astrophil and Stella (e.g., nos. 3, 9--as numbered in the 1598 folio) and Shakespeare's Dark Lady, an anti-love figure (e.g., nos. 127, 130, 131). Davidman claims that Lewis is strongly attracted to blondes. Perhaps so, although he never mentions it on his own; or perhaps she is deliberately playing with literary conventions. Or--even more likely as a conjecture--perhaps he simply invented the attraction to discourage her infatuation. Whatever the beginning point, the sonnet tradition is to a degree behind her development of the theme. Certainly her first example, as she writes in America, is of Helen of Troy as blonde--and that is a literary convention. (So is her avoidance of Lewis's name throughout these sonnets proper--she uses "Sir," "my lord," "love," and--surely a literary disguise--"my lad," etc. So Davidman partly is working within the conventions in several ways.)

The fourth section, titled "England, 1954," has twenty-eight sonnets. It begins with no. XVII, using the Norse myth of the Fimbulwinter before Ragnorak (see King's footnote 33; he oddly does not point out Davidman's allusions to MiSgarSsormr and Fenrir in ll. 11-12). One wonders if Davidman's allusion to a tame bird, a phoenix, that Lewis feeds her body to (no. XXI), may not be a reply to Lewis's "The Phoenix" (King cannot date Lewis's poem in his edition of Lewis's poems). No. XXIX contains the "naked tree" that King chose for the book's title: a parable (one may call it) of a bare tree in winter taken home by a man, the tree producing silver petals in his room--which he praised; but then the tree went on to produce fruit, "Apples of the Hesperides ... /Sweeter than Eden," to which he said, "I only wanted flowers" (299).

Space in a review does not allow for a complete survey of the sonnets, but the above suggests something of their skill--sometimes so-so, sometimes quite good in their way. (It should be added that, in his notes, King provides Davidman's titles for individual sonnets from other copies of the same poems, made before they were gathered into the sequence. Often these give the themes of the single sonnets.)

The earlier sections of poems will not be of equal interest to members of this Society. The first two sections really should be read together--"Poems 1929-1938" and "Letters to a Comrade (1938)"--for the best of the earlier poems are collected in the book. King's notes trace poems in Letters as being written from 1933 to 1938. One finds in these sections her communist poems (obvious in the titular poem of the book), love poems (always a Davidman theme), and a scattering of other topics. Perhaps the most surprising poem in Letters to a Comrade is "Sorceress Eclogue," an imitation of the Theocritus/Vergil/Robert Frost tradition of the woman working an enchantment to bring her lover back to her. It may be considered a fantasy work by Davidman.

The 1939-1940 group continues the social concerns of Davidman's communism, often collected from New Masses. One of these, "The Devil Will Come," is a modern take on the Faustus legend. Not all are social concerns. "Villanelle of Bill Benet" (163-4) shows her interest (true or feigned) in seducing William Rose Benet. King does not note that the phrasing imitates G.K. Chesterton's "A Ballade of Suicide," with its refrain "I think I will not hang myself today." One of Davidman's refrains is "I will not hang myself today." "Ghost Story" describes an elderly stalker with supernatural overtones. "Incubus, Incubus!" is spoken by the demon (it may be a metaphor for thoughts of Davidman interrupting a man's sleep). "Incubus, Incubus!" is also one of Davidman's few odd sonnets of nine + five lines.

The 1941-1952 section has some of the same sort of poems, with an additional number about World War II and some about her approaching Christian belief. (King has a note on the first of the latter, "The Haunted Atheist.") Although King does not make the connection to Piers Plowman, Davidman's "Peter the Plowman" is a communist version, when the vision does not occur "In a somer seson, whan soft was the sonne" but "soberly in winter while the sun/lit up the loneliness of everyone" (220). The speaker insists he/she had a vision indicating that poets are the means of awakening the people to equality. "Fairytale" is about the castle guarded by giants that is known through dreams but never reached. One surprise is that Davidman does not write a number of identifiable poems about her husband before their marriage. Several about Gresham (and the children) appear afterwards. In a sonnet "That Time Five Years Ago," she says to a former lover that he received the poetry; she now has prose. "I'm a wife and mother all this year/And do not vex my soul for stranger men/Than the sufficient one I'm married to" (231). (King dates the poem to 4 August 1944; since Davidman's first son was born on 27 March 1944, she may well have felt overwhelmed at this point.) "When They Grow Up" is about her sons growing up in the era of the atomic bomb. "Lines for a Lazy Husband" is about their financial situation. "Love, in the Lonely Night" seems to be about a literal or metaphoric separation of Gresham and Davidman. A few more may reflect her marital situation. "For Davy Who Wants to Know about Astronomy" is the last poem of the section. Clearly no series of love sonnets to William Lindsay Gresham survives--and presumably none was written. (Only three poems are dated to 1942--Davidman and Gresham were married on 24 August of that year--and only "Convalescence" [Winter 1941-1942]) has a good chance to be about their love: "you and I/are alive, alive, alive, alive," it ends [219].)

King's editing involves more than the footnotes to the poems that have been mentioned. The "Introduction" (ix-xvi) falls into four general sections. First, he offers a survey of Davidman's writings and explains the circumstances that now allow a large number of her poems to be published for the first time. He suggests that her "real gift was poetry" (ix). Perhaps so--even probably so--but she left a number of unpublished short stories, so all the evidence is not in yet. Even if the stories are mainly attempts at commercial fiction, she may have been writing too well for the market.

Second, King establishes Davidman's three major poetic themes as (1) "God, death, and immortality"; (2) "politics," including her communist poems; and (3) "romantic love," "the largest body of her verse." He sums up the third section well: "not only the physical delights of love-making and a fierce desire to possess the beloved, but also the desolation of either broken romances or unrequited longing" (x-xii).

The "unrequited longing" leads to the titular "Love Sonnets," after a transition on Davidman writing in both free verse and traditional verse forms. So King comes to, third, a discussion of the "Love Sonnets to C.S. Lewis." In this introduction, King mainly touches on the typescripts as evidence that Davidman originally wrote the sonnets singly and then decided to turn them into a sequence.

Fourth, King sets up his editorial principles. The poems are arranged chronologically by composition, with the dates, certain or with a question mark, given after the poems. The exceptions to the arrangement (not to the dating) are the poems in Letters to a Comrade and "Love Sonnets to C.S. Lewis," both published as arranged. The only principle that seems strange is that King prints the first published version of the poems, even, he seems to say, printing the magazine versions of those appearing later in Letters to a Comrade. (They have not been compared by this reviewer.) Off hand, one would think he would want to publish the final version of the poems as probably the best version, if Davidman were any good at revisions. Perhaps he suspects Stephen Vincent Benet, the book's editor, did some of the revisions. (On the other hand, magazine editors have been known to edit their contributors' contributions, so the later printing might be the original version.)

King also offers an "Appendix: Poetic Verse Patterns" (308-09), defining the forms of the ballade, rondeau, sestina, sonnet, and villanelle, on (one conjectures) the assumption that modern readers are not familiar with these forms. In his discussion of the ballade, King does not note that the envoy is normally addressed to some reader (Davidman's "Ballade of Blistered Feet" [267-8] has the envoy addressed to "Ducks," either literally and/or in its slang sense). In his discussion of the rondeau, he does not note that the short refrain normally first appears as the first part of the first line. (Davidman's "Rondeau of the Rain"--a poem about two ghosts--does not fit King's definition of type as having some short lines and does not repeat the first part of the first line--it repeats the first line in its entirety.) In his discussion of the sonnet, King lists Edmund Spenser and Shakespeare as having popularized the sonnet in English in the sixteenth century; Sir Philip Sidney would be a better example than Spenser since the Spenserian sonnet has never been a popular form; Sidney wrote Italian sonnets, and his name would go well with Shakespeare's, since they would set up the Italian and English rhyme patterns that follow. In King's discussion of the villanelle he correctly says that the form takes nineteen lines, but his rhyme pattern omits six lines; it also does not clearly distinguish the first repeated "a" rhyme from other "a" rhymes.

King's contents page lists the section but not the individual poems--e.g., "Poems 1929-1938," but not "What Spur of Gold Is This That Pricks the Dawn?," "Sunset--The Hall of Fame," "In a Moment of Ecstasy," et seq. In the back he has an "Index of Titles" and an "Index of First Lines." This reviewer, at least, would have liked to have a second contents page in the front that listed both each section and the individual poems in each; as it is, it is difficult to get an overview of the contents of the periods. Admittedly, with 311 poems in the book (if this reviewer counts correctly), this is a large number of titles--but the individual listing would have been helpful.

Errata: p. xiii, a space is inserted after the fifth line of a sonnet (contrast the same poem with the space after the fourth line on p.303); p.127, stanza three of "For the Revolution," "murder" probably should be "murderer"; p.139, third line on that page, an apostrophe is needed in "in arrows wake"; and p.204, "dyad" ("I am not a dyad in a tree") should be "dryad." In the Index of Titles, "Ballade of Blistered Feet" should refer to p.267.

Is there anything else that would have been a good addition to the book? No doubt, others will suggest other things, but this reviewer suggests (besides the second contents page) that as an appendix to the book--really, to the section of Davidman's poems to Lewis--the publication of William Lindsay Gresham's poem to Lewis, "The Friar of Oxford." It is a piece of light verse, and one may conjecture (it is no more than that) Gresham had seen such poems by Davidman to Lewis as "Apologetic Ballade by a White Witch" and not her serious poems to him, and thus Gresham thought it appropriate. This reviewer was told by the late Perry Bramlett that Gresham wrote it to Lewis after Davidman's death and Gresham's visit to England to see his sons.

Despite some complaints above, however, this is a very valuable book. Many, who are interested in Davidman biographically, will use it as a supplement to King's edition of her letters, to his Yet One More Spring, and to Abigail Santamaria's Joy: Poet, Seeker, and the Woman Who Captivated C.S. Lewis (the biography published this year). But the poems are also interesting qua poems. Davidman is a good poet--not (in the reviewer's opinion) great, but a good second-rank writer. In the last poem in the "Love Sonnets" (actually written back in 1939), Davidman says that she has "said the words that can be said" and has "set down for any man to see/My blood and body in plain poetry" and asks, "what advantage shall I have/To be thus naked to the questioner?" (307). This is a reminder that, to a large degree, she has been open about sexual matters throughout her career--not just about love affairs but about her opinions about other, usually private matters, such as in her early pro-abortion poem, "Threat: There Is No Room in My Body" (82-83), written in 1938. Thus, Davidman's major topic is to a large extent similar in approach and to some degree in content to the Confessional poets of the 1950s, including such women as Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Adrienne Rich (confessional notably in her "Floating Poem" of the 1970s). This is not an argument about influence, but about a similar content at a similar time. A male Confessional poet, John Berryman, in Berryman's Sonnets, wrote an account of an affair while married. Of course differences exist, but Berryman's sonnets and Davidman's are both about love affairs--hers thwarted (in the poems), his consummated. What advantage can she have to be thus naked? To find a classification among American poets of her era.


Berryman, John. Berryman's Sonnets. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1967.

Davidman, Joy. Out of My Bone: The Letters of Joy Davidman. Ed. Don W. King. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2009.

Gresham, David Lindsay. "The Friar of Oxford." Not published; not dated. The original is stored in folder 280 of the William Lindsay Gresham Papers at The Marion E. Wade Center, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois. (Thanks to Laura Schmidt for the title and folder information.)

King, Don W. Yet One More Spring: A Critical Study of Joy Davidman. Grand Rapids: Williams B. Eerdmans, 2015.

Lewis, C.S. The Collected Poems of C.S. Lewis: A Critical Edition. Ed. Don W. King. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2015.

Santamaria, Abigail. Joy: Poet, Seeker, and the Woman Who Captivated C.S. Lewis. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015.
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Author:Christopher, Joe R.
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2015
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