Enlarging C.S. Lewis’ Vocabulary

May 10, 2016 — 3 Comments

csl sayersCan you imagine receiving a compliment like this from C.S. Lewis? Your work “even enlarged my vocabulary.”

Shocking . . . but another writer did receive that rare praise.

In 1954, Lewis wrote a lengthy letter to his friend Dorothy Sayers, praising her recent publication of Introductory Papers on Dante. Lewis’ opening sentence reveals his delight. “Your Introductory Papers have given me a regular feast.”

Lewis specifically comments on a number of insights he found particularly worthwhile. And remember, Lewis was an expert on Dante in his own right.

One evidence that Lewis’ praise is sincere, and not mere flattery, comes in his comment that “every essay and nearly every page enriched me.” Not every page, mind you, but very nearly every one of them.

Offering Gentle Criticism

Consistent with the nature of friendly literary criticism (like one receives in a healthy writers group), Lewis does offer some specific advice on how to strengthen a specific point that he regards as overemphasized. In this case it relates to a classical Latin phrase.

At one point Lewis expresses awe about a portion of the book, and then immediately proceeds to make an enjoyable comment about the limitations of the English language.

P. 52 is a blaze of (just) splendour. (Drat our homophones: by just I don’t mean ‘nothing but,’ I mean ‘justified,’ ‘veracious.’)

Toward the close of his letter, Lewis raises a profound notion about our perception of humor. He cautions Sayers, in her interpretation of Dante’s Comedy, not to read it directly through the lens of our own day. “I’ve a feeling that in handling particular passages you are too certain that whatever is comic to us was, and was meant to be, comic at the time.” He continues:

Because, as any one can see even from the old Punches,* nothing changes so quickly as the sense of humour: so that in reading any old book there is nothing we are less sure of than which places wd. welcome a smile. And oughtn’t we to start by a recognition that our generation (yours & mine) was quite abnormally ‘tickle o’ the sere’** (already the young people are less so).

A Poetic Postscript

Lewis ends his letter to Sayers with some advice for her subsequent work with Dante. He courteously writes, “Don’t give me the next set, I’ll buy it.”

Then he makes a suggestion to protect her from the spurious criticisms of ignorant literary critics. (Note that he doesn’t use the choice descriptive in a vulgar sense common today, but in more classical sense of extreme foolishness.)

And do put in an essay on D. as ‘poet’ in the old, narrowest sense—his sheer poeticalness. Otherwise we shall have some ass saying that because you like so many other qualities, you are oblivious to that.

_____

* Punch Magazine was published in England until 1992. The 1881 image below is inspired by Dante’s Inferno, and applied to the violence in Ireland.

** Easily made to laugh. From Hamlet: “The clown shall makes those laugh whose lungs are tickle o’ the sere.” The seare, or sere, was part of the trigger of old matchlock guns, so arranged that the slightest movement would make the gun discharge. Lungs, then, “tickle o’ the sere,” are those easily moved to laughter.

punch dante

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