This poem, After Prayers, Lie Cold, was written by C.S. Lewis, a man little known for his poetry, but greatly known for his influence on modern intellect. Lewis wrote only a few poems, and they seem to be greatly inspired by his philosophical and intellectual belief system. In this poem, Lewis seems to almost be longing for death, or at the very least to be accepting the idea of never waking again on earth. His firm belief in his destination afterlife likely has had some effect on the words he penned in this poem. Lewis would not long for death, was he not sure of his destination. As it is, Lewis lived the latter days of his life in complete confidence that he was headed for paradise after his death. This is ironic, considering Lewis spent many years as a committed atheist. Having always been practical and philosophical in nature, Lewis never stopped searching for answers to his questions. In the end, he became convinced to believe in God and in an eternal afterlife in which he would leave his body and reside with God forever. This poem reflects some of those beliefs through the speaker- an old man who feels he is a being separate from his body. This poem is particularly notable because although Lewis wrote poetry, much of it was not extraordinarily moving or compelling. Lewis even admitted that poetry was not his strong suit. For the most part, he wrote compelling philosophical arguments. This poem stands out, however, in that it makes one truly think about life, death, and our place here on earth. With these words, Lewis was able to take all of the beliefs and philosophical and intellectual ideas and put them into words that allow the reader to connect with an old man who is ready to leave his body and life on earth in favor of the next life that he believes awaits him.
The Title – ‘After Prayers, Lie Cold’
At first glance, it would seem that this poem is going to express the feelings that come after experiencing unanswered prayers, or prayers that seem to “lie cold”. That is not the case, however. The words of this poem are spoken by the speaker to his own body in the form of various commands. He speaks softly and tenderly to his own body, but they are commands nonetheless. The speaker does not feel that he is one with his body, but rather that he is a separate mind that must tell his body what to do. The old man in this poem is praying in the opening lines, but the prayers he spoke and whether or not they were answered have nothing to do with the purpose of After Prayers, Lie Cold. The title of this poem itself is a command the speaker gives to his body. The comma placed after the word “prayers” in the title is very strategic. The speaker is not suggesting that the prayers themselves lie cold. Rather, he is commanding his own body to lie cold after the prayers have been spoken. The context of the rest of the poem gives greater insight into why the speaker is talking to his body, and why he wishes it to lie cold. The title simply gives foreshadowing into the meaning and purpose of After Prayers, Lie Cold.
Arise my body, my small body, we have striven
Enough, and He is merciful; we are forgiven.
The opening of this poem, which can be read in full here, reveals that Lewis clearly wrote this poem after having converted from atheism to theism. Lewis refers God as “He” and makes it clear that he is talking about God because the word is capitalized and followed by the description of Him as “merciful”. After Prayers, Lie Cold has a striking opening because the speaker is talking to his own body as if it is something apart from himself. This is also reflective of Lewis’ belief system in that he was not one with his body, but rather an eternal soul housed within his body. He describes his body as “small” and talks to it lovingly, saying, “we have striven enough” and assuring his body, “we are forgiven”. These words are common enough in basic theistic beliefs, but Lewis gives them a deeper meaning by addressing his body as something separate from himself. This causes the reader to ponder what humanity really is, if it is something separate from our bodies. It causes one to think about the spiritual as something separate from the physical. Given the title, one can presume that the speaker is telling his body to “arise” after he has been praying. This gives the reader an image of a frail, old man on his knees in prayer.
At this point, the reader can begin to picture the speaker as an old man, frail, and cold. This evokes some emotion on the part of the reader and creates some empathy with the speaker. The way the speaker talks to his body is almost as if it is not his own. He doesn’t recognize it because it is so old and frail. It seems now, rather like a place in which his soul is trapped than a part of himself. The reader can begin to understand this when the speaker describes his body as “small,” “puppet-like,” and “pale”.. This is the second time the speaker has referred to his body as “small”. The human body does shrink with age, and it is clear that the speaker is surprised at the changes that have occurred with his age. He is not familiar or comfortable with his own body. The smallness of his body and his “cold fingers” seem strange to him, and he cannot view his soul as one with his body. His description of his body as “puppet-like” is yet another piece of evidence that the speaker does not feel one with his own body. Rather, he feels that he must order it about and watch it do as he commands as if it were nothing more than a puppet. This also ties in with the title, in which the speaker commands his body to “lie cold” in the moments after he has spoken his prayers. In line four, he describes his body as “white as the bed-clothes” and “cold as snow”. He notices that his body is cold and white as he climbs into bed. This is a further description of his age, allowing the readers to understand that these are the thoughts and feelings of a very frail old man. The speaker orders his body to “undress with small cold fingers”. The use of the word “small” a third time reiterates the speaker’s feelings about his own small, aging body.
He seems continually surprised at how small and cold he is. He is clearly at the end of his days. He commands his body to “put out the light” and the “be alone” and “hush’d mortal in the sacred night”. The commanding of his body reminds the reader that he does not feel one with his body. He feels he is someone different, someone spiritual, trapped within a small, old body. And yet, he speaks tenderly to his body, telling it what to do and when. He calls the night “sacred”. Because the title has already revealed that the speaker has commanded his body to “lie cold” and because the speaker seems to already have separated himself from his own body, it is possible that the speaker refers to the night as “sacred” because it could possibly be his last night living on earth.
Once the old man has climbed into bed, he continues to describe his own body as something apart from himself. He describes it as “a meadow whipt flat” by the rain. This suggests that his body has been through many storms in this life, and that it has withered and been laid flat like a meadow after a storm. He also describes himself as “a cup emptied and clean”. Perhaps this is why he feels he is separate from his body. His body seems empty and hollow. His soul seems to be elsewhere. He describes his body as “faded in colour” and “thinned almost to raggedness”. It is clear that the speaker is shocked by the appearance of his own body- so much so that he cannot even identify with it. He seems to be fully ready to leave his old, ragged body behind and enter into the next life. He does not seem as though he will miss his frail, old, ragged body. Rather, he seems to be ready to let go of it and take his soul elsewhere. The reason he describes his body as nearly ragged is that it has been dirtied and washed so many times. This gives the reader a realistic image of the old man’s body. It has been through much in this life, and it has been dirtied and washed more times than the speaker can count. His description of his body reveals that it is entirely worn out. The separation of his spiritual being from his physical being suggests that his mind does not feel ragged and worn as his body looks. This is part of the reason for his inability to see his mind and body as the same being.
In line eleven of After Prayers, Lie Cold, the speaker encourages his body not to warm itself in bed too quickly. He is not eager to take care of his body, at this point. Rather, he is content if it does not warm quickly. This is further evidence that the speaker feels detached from his own body. He continues to speak with his body, telling it to be okay with lying cold for a while, and to consent to the idea that it may never warm again. The speaker is clearly comfortable with the idea of leaving his body and residing elsewhere. It seems as though the speaker believes he must convince his body to let go of life. He seems to believe that his body will not agree with him in this request. Nonetheless, he asks his body to “consent to weariness,” to let go, and to allow his mind to move from his bodily house. He describes his body as nothing more than the “watery element” of himself. This further reveals his belief that he is not his body. He is his mind and his soul. He believes that he will still exist even when his body lies cold.
He continues to talk to his body, asking it to “drink up the bitter water” and to “breathe the chilly death”. It is as if the speaker longs for death, but knows that his body is hanging on to life. The speaker is actively trying to convince his body to let go of life and to consent to death so that his mind might be free. In the end, it is not the body that must concede, but the speaker himself. In the last line, the speaker says, “Soon enough comes the riot of our blood and breath”. This reveals that the speaker has accepted that his own body is not yet ready to let go of life. And even though he describes his own life as a “riot of blood and breath” he has clearly given in to the wishes of his body and accepted that he will likely wake again the next morning to go on living the small, frail body that does not seem his own until the day when his body is finally ready to let go of life and free his spirit.