Poet’s Corner

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I was giving a lecture in Oxford the other day, and took the opportunity, as I often do, to drop into the Eagle and Child. It’s a fine old 17th-century pub, unspoiled by “improvement;” it still has a couple of those lovely wood-panelled “snugs” which encourage camaraderie and close conversation—and, most famously, “the Rabbit Room,” where C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and their friends met on Tuesday lunchtimes, for the kind of sparring, cajoling, but ultimately encouraging conversation that was at the heart of their informal club, “The Inklings.” As Lewis said of these pub sessions in a letter to his friend Arthur Greeves: “The fun is often so fast and furious that the company probably thinks we’re talking bawdy when in fact we’re very likely talking theology.”

It’s a pleasure to raise a pint to their memory in that room, and to imagine the free flow of their talk, to think of how the solid goodness, the conviviality and welcome that Tolkien evoked in the Prancing Pony, might owe something to this place. Indeed, life sometimes imitates art, and, on one occasion, Tolkien recalled, “I noticed a strange tall gaunt man, half in khaki, half in mufti, with a large wide awake hat and a hooked nose sitting in a corner. The others had their backs to him but I could see in his eye that he was taking an interest in the conversation.”

Moments later, the stranger leaned forward and took up the thread of what was being said, and was discovered to be the poet Roy Campbell, who had come from South Africa to Oxford specifically to seek out Lewis and Tolkien. Tolkien reflected that it was just like the moment when Strider is revealed at the Prancing Pony, an episode from the unfinished New Hobbit, which he had only recently read to his fellow Inklings.

So, as I sat in that dark little snug, nursing my pint, in the same corner (if not the same chair) as that wayfaring poet, I savoured the way in which literary inns enhance one’s appreciation of real inns, and vice versa.

It's a pleasure to raise a pint to their memory in that room, and to imagine the free flow of their talk, to think of how the solid goodness, the conviviality and welcome that Tolkien evoked in the Prancing Pony, might owe something to this place.

Malcolm Guite

The other good thing about “The Bird and Baby,” as the Inklings called it, is that it is just a few doors down from the Oxfam bookshop, which, as one would expect in Oxford, is always well-stocked, and sometimes I pop in there on my way to the pub. On this occasion, I picked up a nice hardback edition of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, a choice of which both Tolkien and Lewis would have approved. Enjoying the happy combination of beer and Beowulf, I recalled that “Beer and Beowulf” was the name Lewis gave to his Anglo-Saxon tutorials at Magdalen. How much more attractive a title than “Linguistics 101: The Vowel Shift!”

Before I drained my pint, I recited (under my breath) a little tributary sonnet to Lewis:

From “Beer and Beowulf” to the seven heavens,
Whose music you conduct from sphere to sphere,
You are our portal to those hidden havens
Whence we return to bless our being here.
Scribe of the Kingdom, keeper of the door
Which opens on to all we might have lost,
Ward of a word-hoard in the deep heart’s core,
Telling the tale of Love from first to last.
Generous, capacious, open, free,
Your wardrobe-mind has furnished us with worlds
Through which to travel, whence we learn to see
Along the beam, and hear at last the heralds
Sounding their summons, through the stars that sing,
Whose call at sunrise brings us to our King.

This piece was originally posted here at Church Times.


2 Comments

  1. Rebecca D Martin

    It has been several decades since I’ve visited the Bird and Baby, and being there with you through this piece has been a delight. Thank you for bringing us along! You’ve also brought vividly to mind memories of gathering weekly with friends during my own grad student days in Georgia – also two decades ago. We met in a less romantic place – there Mellow Mushroom – but there was always a high-backed booth, a perfect snug, for the six or seven of us men and women on Friday evenings, and our comraderie and close conversation also often turned boisterous and loud … but always rich, loving, and good. I live years and miles from that place and some of those friendships now, but the blessing of those times in community in a space that made a place for our growth together still resonates, a sharp, bright light from my past. Also, a hope for the future.

    The sonnet is perfect: “Ward of a word-hoard in the deep heart’s core” . . . Ah, yes.

  2. Christopher Stewart

    Reading this entry gives me a feeling similar only to what I imagine a dying ember or smoldering coal must feel like when blown upon by one carefully tending fire.

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