Archives For Literature

C.S. Lewis begins his essay “Miracles” with a rather odd analogy. “I have known only one person in my life,” he writes, “who claimed to have seen a ghost.” As he tells the rest of the story, it works well to illustrate his point about the necessity of faith for recognizing miracles.

It was a woman; and the interesting thing is that she disbelieved in the immortality of the soul before seeing the ghost and still disbelieves after having seen it. She thinks it was a hallucination. In other words, seeing is not believing. This is the first thing to get clear in talking about miracles. Whatever experiences we may have, we shall not regard them as miraculous if we already hold a philosophy which excludes the supernatural.

In our previous post, we explored a number of references to ghosts in C.S. Lewis’ works and correspondence. Most of these notes relate to encountering these disembodied spirits in literature.

For example, as a young man, he commended a poem by Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) to his friend Arthur Greeves.

I was sure that you wd. like “Balder Dead . . .” it is a topping piece of work, especially the journey, as you say, and the description of the ghosts, and the ending with its impressive pause before the glorious line “At last he sighed & set forth back to Heaven.” Doesn’t it all make you think of the dear old days when we were writing our great opera on Loki & Odin & the rest?

It is easy to see how “Balder Dead” resonated with Lewis, given his affinity for “Northernness.”

And doleful are the ghosts, the troops of dead,
Whom Hela with austere control presides…
And all the nobler souls of mortal men
On battle-field have met their death, and now
Feast in Valhalla, in my father’s hall;
Only the inglorious sort are there below…

In 1952, C.S. Lewis was invited to comment on a volume written by Phyllis Elinor Sandeman. The sensitive Inkling displayed the virtues of every good member of a writing critique group. Lewis begins with praise, and offers a single, concrete constructive comment, to aid the author.

Dear Mrs. Sandeman, I have read Treasure on Earth and I don’t believe you have any notion how good it is. . . . The only page that I can’t enter into at all is p. 83. I can’t conceive not being afraid, as a child, of those unseen presences. I should have behaved like little Jane Eyre in the Red Room when she dried her tears for fear a ghostly voice should awake to comfort her. One would rather be scolded by a mortal than comforted by a ghost.

Lewis is referring to a passage in which a specific location in her childhood home presumably granted the author immunity from fears: “Stories of ghosts and witches so delightful in cheerful company returned to trouble her when alone in the dark. It was impossible ever to feel fear in the drawing-room—there could surely never be a room more conducive to peace of mind.”

Two months later, Lewis again wrote Sandeman, perhaps to address her disappointment at receiving his comment about ghosts.

You were perfectly right to put in the bit about the friendly ghosts. I think the absence of fear is, as far as it goes, probable evidence that the experience was not merely imaginary. Everyone fears lest he should meet a ghost, but there seems to be some ground for supposing that those who really meet them are often quite unafraid.

Notice that angels, on the other hand, seem in Scripture to be nearly always terrifying & have to begin by saying “Fear not.”

In Ireland I stayed at a lonely bungalow last summer which the peasants avoided not because a ghost had been seen near it (they didn’t mind ghosts) but because the Good People, the Faerie, frequented that bit of coast. So apparently ghosts are the least alarming kind of spirit.

In a letter to another correspondent, Lewis describes the same stay at the isolated Irish lodging. “I have been really in quiet and almost unearthly spots in my native Ireland. I stayed for a fortnight in a bungalow which none of the peasants will approach at night because the desolate coast on which it stands is haunted by ‘the Good People.’ There is also a ghost but (and this is interesting) they don’t seem to mind him: the faerie are a more serious danger.”

The Anthroposophist Connection

Anthroposophy is a religious philosophy created by Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). It is diametrically opposed to Christian revelation, and was the cause of one of C.S. Lewis’ greatest disappointments. Tragically, his dear friend and fellow Inkling, Owen Barfield, subscribed to Steiner’s doctrines. C.S. Lewis’ “Great War” with Owen Barfield describes a five year period when the two young scholars argued about the religion. Unfortunately, this was prior to Lewis’ own conversion, so he did not bring a Christian faith to the battle.

Steiner’s religion is complex and confusing. There are, in his view, a plurality of gods. And the god to whom he refers as humanity’s Creator is not the God of Genesis. Steiner argues we have lost sight of the true knowledge or gnosis.

During this [contemporary] era, people no longer see Christ as the being who came down from the stars, because they do not understand the stars themselves as an expression of the spirit as it weaves in the cosmos. For humanity today, there is no God or Christ in the cosmos. (The Three Eras of Human Religious Education)

Naturally, since Barfield was such a good friend of Lewis, there is much that is commendable in him . . . despite his esoteric beliefs. Lewis, after all, entrusted Barfield to be the executor of his estate. Despite their differing theologies, Lewis wrote nakedly about his deep sorrow in the wake of the death of their fellow Inkling, Charles Williams.  

My dear Barfield Thanks for writing. It has been a very odd experience. This, the first really severe loss I have suffered, has (a) Given corroboration to my belief in immortality such as I never dreamed of. It is almost tangible now. (b) Swept away all my old feelings of mere horror and disgust at funerals, coffins, graves etc.

If need had been I think I could have handled that corpse with hardly any unpleasant sensations. (c) Greatly reduced my feeling about ghosts. I think (but who knows?) that I should be, tho afraid, more pleased than afraid, if his turned up. In fact, all very curious. Great pain but no mere depression.

In this letter C.S. Lewis is speaking wistfully about the ghost of a friend. He is well aware of the fact that—despite the British fascination with spiritualism—that is not how the afterlife works. Those who die “in Christ” join him in Paradise, just as he promised the believing thief who perished beside him.

Ghosts do not wander around the earth. Those are different types of spirits, to be discussed another day. By contrast here are some Steinerian thoughts on the subject.

When human beings cling too strongly to earthly things it may be difficult for them to find their bearings in the sphere of the Moon Beings [which] may cause human beings who have to pass after death into the Moon sphere—the soul-world—but are unable to understand the Moon Beings, to be trapped . . . and they can actually be seen . . . wandering about as ghosts, as spectral shades. (Steiner, Karmic Relationships)

The accumulation in the etheric body caused through these [wicked] experiences of the soul . . . brings about detachments from the beings working in the spiritual worlds and these likewise are now to be found in our environment—they are the “specters” or “ghosts.” (Steiner, Nature Spirits)

Ghosts, as they are generally called, are spirits which have acquired a sensory-physical character (or have become tangible) through the human organisation, whereas impulses, instincts, desires and passions are modern spectres pointing towards the future, spectres which have not yet been raised to spirituality. (The Contrasting World-Conceptions of East and West)

But enough of quotations that foster more confusion than understanding. Let’s look at a letter C.S. Lewis wrote to his friend Arthur Greeves in 1920. In it Lewis describes a visit with Leo Kingsley Baker (1898-1986). Like Lewis, Baker was a young veteran of the First World War. Both served in France, Lewis in the trenches and Baker as a pilot in the RAF. Baker also happened to be an Anthroposophist, and it was in fact Baker who introduced C.S. Lewis and Owen Barfield.

I was in [Leo] Baker’s rooms with [Rodney] Pasley last night: Pasley departed early and the conversation between us two fell on shadowy subjects–ghosts and spirits and Gods. You may or may not disbelieve what followed.

Baker began to tell me about himself: how he had seen things ever since he was a child, and had played about with hypnotism and automatic writing: how he had finally given it all up, till now “things” were coming back of their own accord. “At one time” he said “I was afraid to look round the room for fear of what I might see.”

He also stated confidently that anyone could compel a ghost to appear, that there were definite ways of doing it: though of course the thing you “fished up” might not be what you wanted—indeed quite the contrary.

The greater part of his views I will reserve for our next meeting: what I wanted to tell you was the effect on me. I got, as it were, dazed and drunk in all he said: then I noticed his eyes: presently I could hardly see anything else: and everything he said was real—incredibly real.

When I came away, I moved my eyes off his, with a jerk, so to speak, and suddenly found that I had a splitting headache and was tired and nervous and pulled to pieces. I fancy I was a bit hypnotised. At any rate I had such a fit of superstitious terror as I have never known since childhood and have consequently conceived, for the present, a violent distaste for mysteries and all that kind of business. Perhaps he is a bit mad.

It comes as little surprise that an encounter such as this would leave one with a serious headache. Likewise, further consideration of these arcane matters here at Mere Inkling would likely promote similar cranial vexation. Suffice it to say, as we close, that we who trust in Christ need not fear any spirit or demon we might encounter, because “greater is he who is in [us] than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).

C.S. Lewis did not write ghost stories, but he lived in a country that celebrated the strange genre. For some bizarre reason, the telling of ghost stories became associated with Christmas Eve. It’s a wonder to me why Lewis didn’t include this impropriety in his brilliant essay on Xmas.

“Christmas Eve was traditionally the time to tell scary stories round the hearth,” opens an article in The Guardian. I had never before associated Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol with this bizarre tradition. Nor had I connected it with Amy Grant’s “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” (Far better the theme of Grant’s Nativity song “Breath of Heaven.”)

I presume I can thank my Scandinavian heritage for the absence of ghost stories in our Christmas season traditions. Mercifully we also avoided the plague of seasonal trolls and gnomes.

One of the most noted of authors of ghost stories had much in common with C.S. Lewis. M.R. James (1862-1936) was a medievalist scholar who taught at Cambridge. In fact, “James came to sharpen his craft – by telling his stories after the Christmas service at King’s College, Cambridge (where he was provost) to an audience of uneasy fellows.” In the same article no less than H.P. Lovecraft himself is cited as describing James as “a literary weird fictionist of the very first rank.”

I suppose it is a sign of his minimal interest in ghost stories that I cannot find any reference to James’ fiction in C.S. Lewis’ writing. Lewis does, however, refer to one of James’ scholarly works, The Apocryphal New Testament: Being the Apocryphal Gospels, Acts, Epistles and Apocalypses.

In a 1955 letter, Lewis describes how experiencing a relationship with Christ is different than simply knowing about him.

Yes, Jesus Himself, of course: the heart. Not only the God in Him but the historical Man. I don’t know that I ever got much from reading things about Him. Perhaps, in a queer way, I got most from reading the Apocryphal Gospels (The whole Apocryphal N.T. is done in one vol. ed. M.R. James). For there you find things attributed to Him that couldn’t be true. You even find wise & beautiful sayings which nevertheless just don’t ring true. And have you noticed–reading the true sayings in the real Gospels–how hardly one of them could have been guessed in advance?*

References to Ghosts

As befits a person writing over a fifty year period, C.S. Lewis’ comments about ghosts vary. This is emphasized by the change in his worldview which accompanied his conversion from atheism to Christianity.

A 1915 letter to Arthur Greeves reveals Lewis’ affinity for the supernatural. He is describing his reading of “Roots of the Mountains” by William Morris (1834-1896).

Tho’ more ordinary than the [“Well at the World’s End” here and here], it is still utterly different from any novel you ever read. Apart from the quaint and beautiful old English, which means so much to me, the supernatural element, tho’ it does not enter into the plot, yet hovers on the margin all the time: we have ‘the wildwood wherein dwell wights that love not men, to whom the groan of the children of men is as the scrape of a fiddle-bow: there too abide the kelpies, and the ghosts of them that rest not . . .’

In Lewis’ essay “The Novels of Charles Williams,” he describes the uniqueness of Williams’ work.

We meet in them, on the one hand, very ordinary modern people who talk the slang of our own day, and live in the suburbs: on the other hand, we also meet the supernatural—ghosts, magicians, and archetypal beasts.

The first thing to grasp is that this is not a mixture of two literary kinds . . . Williams is really writing a third kind of book which belongs to neither class and has a different value from either.

He is writing that sort of book in which we begin by saying, ‘Let us suppose that this everyday world were, at some point, invaded by the marvellous. Let us, in fact, suppose a violation of frontier.’

In 1939 he wrote to his brother about a play by W.B. Yeats featuring a ghost.

The plays were worth seeing: one, by Yeats [“Purgatory” in Last Poems and Two Plays], his last one, was really powerful: conversation between a tramp and his son outside the ruins of a great house and then the ghost of its last mistress at the window, re-enacting her past life-she being the one who had finally let the whole thing down, marrying a horse-dealer . . . all the usual tragedy of the Irish aristocracy.

Not quite true, of course, because probably most of the preceding generations had been pretty good wasters too: but an effective play.

I have previously explored C.S. Lewis’ actual encounter with Yeats. It was quite odd. In 1921, he had written to his father.

I have been taken recently to see the mighty Yeats. It was the weirdest show you ever saw, and I fear he is a Kod [slang, I believe, for a fraud or a hoaxer]. You sit on hard antique chairs by candlelight in an oriental looking room and listen in silence while the great man talks about magic and ghosts and mystics . . .

What fluttering of the dovecote! It is a pity that the real romance of meeting a man who has written great poetry and who has known William Morris and Tagore and Symons should be so overlaid with the sham romance of flame coloured curtains and mumbo-jumbo.

In 1940 Lewis shared with Warnie his notion that if the seances were real — they had been popular during England’s flirtations with spiritualism — it did not suggest the spirits are particularly bright.

Part of Thursday afternoon I spent with unusual pleasure in the dark, pleasantly smelling, warmth of the old library with a slow dampish snow falling outside-flakes the size of matchboxes. I had gone in to look for something quite different, but became intrigued by the works of Dr Dee [(1527-1608) of Trinity College Cambridge], a mysterious magician and astrologer of Queen Elizabeth’s time.

The interesting thing about this was the fact that it was so uninteresting: I mean that the spirit conversations displayed, so far as I could see from turning over a few pages, just exactly the same fatuity which one observes in those recorded by modern spiritualists. What can be the explanation of this?

I suppose that both are hallucinations resulting from the same kind of mental weakness which, at all periods, produces the same rubbish. One can’t help, however, toying with the hypothesis that they are all real spirits in the case, and that we tap either a ghostly college of buffoons or a ghostly home for imbeciles.

In 1946 he complimented Ruth Pitter (1897-1992), a longtime friend and correspondent. Pitter’s First Poems are available here.

I’m not sure I’ve understood The Bridge as a whole: but I love ‘shapes of sorrow and empty vessels,’ etc. Nice things in Seaborn. The Cygnet comes off as well as things like air-raids can come off in poetry. I don’t mean because they’re modern.

But as a rule, the bigger a thing is, physically the less it works in literature. One ghost is always more disquieting than ten: no good fight in a story can have more than a dozen or so combatants: the death of a million men is less tragic than that of one.

By the way, that final comment will prove of great value to any modern writer!

I’ve accumulated several other Lewisian references to ghosts, so what say we continue this discussion in our next post? In the meantime, perhaps you will care to read some of the linked volumes, or to comment on the odd link between ghost stories and Christmas Eve.


* The Apocrypha Anecdota: A Collection of Thirteen Apocryphal Books and Fragments by Montague Rhodes James is available here. He also wrote The Lost Apocrypha of the Old Testament: Their Titles and Fragments.

Several of James’ ghost stories are available in these collections: The Five Jars and A Thin Ghost and Others. Dr. Dewi Evans has compiled The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James and made them available in several formats on his website.

Most aspiring writers are sincere. The question is, does the earnestness of their work translate into excellence? In other words, does honesty correlate to quality?

C.S. Lewis addressed this question in an essay about John Bunyan (1628-1688). Bunyan was the English writer and Puritan preacher best known for The Pilgrim’s Progress. At the outset of the allegory Bunyan attempts to “show the profit of my book,” and encourage its reading.

This book is writ in such a dialect
As may the minds of listless men affect:
It seems a novelty, and yet contains
Nothing but sound and honest gospel strains.

While C.S. Lewis respected this classic work, he argues that its value is not simply a consequence of Bunyan’s honesty.

The other thing we must not say is that Bunyan wrote well because he was a sincere, forthright man who had no literary affectations and simply said what he meant. I do not doubt that is the account of the matter that Bunyan would have given himself. But it will not do. (“The Vision of John Bunyan”)

Lewis is not, of course, challenging Bunyan’s claim to honesty. What Lewis does, in fact, is challenge a common misconception. He dismantles the excuse for any who would dismiss grammar and literary rules as unimportant because they are writing earnestly. Basically, Lewis suggests we cannot justify creating a mediocre product and by burnishing it with the declaration that “it is an outpouring of our deepest passion.”

“If [candid honesty] were the real explanation,” states Lewis, “then every sincere, forthright, unaffected man could write as well.”

And we all know that is not the case. Lewis proceeds to offer an illuminating and curious illustration. It recalls the days of the First World War when one of the responsibilities of the officers was to review the correspondence of the troops before they accidentally divulged classified military information to their family at home.

But most people of my age learned from censoring the letters of the troops, when we were subalterns [lieutenants] in the first war, that unliterary people, however sincere and forthright in their talk, no sooner take a pen in hand than cliché and platitude flow from it. The shocking truth is that, while insincerity may be fatal to good writing, sincerity, of itself, never taught anyone to write well. It is a moral virtue, not a literary talent. We may hope it is rewarded in a better world: it is not rewarded on Parnassus.*

Lewis continues, praising Bunyan’s writing.

We must attribute Bunyan’s style to a perfect natural ear, a great sensibility for the idiom and cadence of popular speech, a long experience in addressing unlettered audiences, and a freedom from bad models. I do not add ‘to an intense imagination,’ for that also can shipwreck if a man does not find the right words.

A Lesson for Modern Writers

C.S. Lewis’ keen analysis of Bunyan’s writing is more than a mere history lesson. It offers a lesson to those of us who take up the pen today. By all means, we should exercise the moral virtue of sincerity in our writing. However, we should not rest on the strength of our integrity to ensure the quality of our writing.

We should hone our skills. Likewise, we should welcome the constructive criticism of our peers, as did the Inklings themselves.

Our work will also benefit when we intently listen. Learning the idiom and cadence of our characters (real or fictional) enables them to rise alive from the page.

Lewis’ essay on Bunyan offers another suggestion I would highlight. This will be true for any writer, but I think it is of particular import to Christian authors. Lewis affirms a forthright, honest, and powerful presentation of the truth as we perceive it. He cautions against pulling our punches because we are timid about how the austere truth may be received.

For some readers the ‘unpleasant side’ of The Pilgrim’s Progress [lies] in the intolerable terror which is never far away. Indeed unpleasant is here a ludicrous understatement. The dark doctrine has never been more horrifyingly stated than in the words that conclude Part I: Then I saw that there was a way to Hell, even from the Gates of Heaven, as well as from the City of Destruction.

In my opinion the book would be immeasurably weakened as a work of art if the flames of Hell were not always flickering on the horizon. I do not mean merely that if they were not it would cease to be true to Bunyan’s own vision and would therefore suffer all the effects which a voluntary distortion or expurgation of experience might be expected to produce. I mean also that the image of this is necessary to us while we read.

The urgency, the harsh woodcut energy, the continual sense of momentousness, depend on it. We might even say that, just as Bunyan’s religious theme demanded for its vehicle this kind of story, so the telling of such a story would have required on merely artistic grounds to be thus loaded with a further significance, a significance which is believed by only some, but can be felt (while they read) by all, to be of immeasurable importance.

Keeping this in mind—that we should be faithful to the truth of what we are professing—will serve us well in the final accounting. After all, it is the compromises of the tepid of which we must beware.


* Parnassus refers to a Greek mountain associated by the ancients with Apollo, the Muses and poetry.

The Pilgrim’s Progress is available in a variety of free versions.

The Pilgrim’s Progress, an Allegory features a “Biographical Sketch of the author, by Lord Macaullay.”

In an 1834 edition, we have Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Metrically Condensed: In Six Cantos.

The version with the most entertaining title has to be: The Pilgrim’s Progress [by John Bunyan] In Words of One Syllable.

The Child’s Pilgrim’s Progress can be downloaded in not one, but two volumes. It was published in 1860, with the preface:

No endeavour has been made in this little book to improve Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. To do so would be simply absurd. To bring prominently into view scenes supposed most attractive to children has been attempted; and, while the Dreamer’s narrative is preserved, others of less striking character have been thrown into the back ground. The quaint, simple language of the incomparable Bunyan is, for the most part, retained.

The Pilgrim’s Progress: for the Young was published in 1850. Its introduction includes commentary that echoes the theme of the post above.

John Bunyan, though a very pious and good man, was not a learned one ; for he was by trade a tinker, and had no opportunity to learn much more than to read, in his youth, and when a boy he was wild and wicked. But he made very good use afterward of what he knew ; and very diligently studied his Bible and other good books.

He was also what is called a genius, which means that he had great natural talent. He wrote many works, and one of his books, called the Pilgrim’s Progress, has been read and admired by more people than any other book except the Bible. Learned and unlearned men have read it again and again, and it has been translated into all modern languages.

A Unique Approach to Poetry

September 25, 2019 — 6 Comments

I’m guessing that only lit majors—and possibly only a minority of them—know the literary definition of “effusions.” This despite the fact, that nearly every writer pens them.

Effusion, of course, is a common enough word. From its typical context, readers can pretty accurately determine its meaning. Its Latin root meant to “pour out,” making the word ideal for technical medical usage. Eventually, it entered the literary canon, where it refers to pouring out one’s thoughts or feelings in an unrestrained manner.

Obviously I have heard people use effusive as an adjective, as in “she received effusive praise for her treatise on the Inklings and their reliance on the Mesoamerican Codex Borbonicus.” But I don’t recall ever encountering “effusion” in the context of writing. I suspect that its relative rarity is simply due to slipping out of modern usage.

Nearly a century ago, in 1921, C.S. Lewis casually used the term in a letter to his brother Warnie. Lewis begins by explaining why he had not written recently. It turns out, Lewis was a bit miffed at his brother due to thinking Warnie had been negligent in writing to him.

My dear W., I was delighted to get your letter this morning; for some reason it had been sent first to a non-existent address in Liverpool. I had deliberately written nothing to you since those two you mention: not that I was tired of the job, but because I did not feel disposed to go on posting into the void until I had some assurance that my effusions would reach you.

That seemed a process too like prayer for my taste: as I once said to Baker—my mystical friend with the crowded poetry—the trouble about God is that he is like a person who never acknowledges one’s letters and so, in time, one comes to the conclusion either that he does not exist or that you have got the address wrong. I admitted that it was of great moment: but what was the use of going on dispatching fervent messages–say to Edinburgh–if they all came back through the dead letter office: nay more, if you couldn’t even find Edinburgh on the map.

His cryptic reply was that it would be almost worth going to Edinburgh to find out. I am glad however that you have ceased to occupy such a divine position, and will do my best to continue: tho’ I hope it won’t be for fifteen months.

These are fascinating insights into prayer, especially coming from the perspective of C.S. Lewis during his atheist period. (Which is why I quoted the letter at length.)

Effusion in a Literary Context

It appears the labeling of writing, or poetry at least, as effusive, has fallen out of style. Take the case of the poem I included in my most recent post. The source of “Easy Rules for Punctuation,” was a collection entitled Ephemeral Effusions.

I spent quite some time tracking down an actual definition for literary effusions. Eventually I found one in Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Bloom’s Modern Critical Views). Harold Bloom writes, “I have come across approximately one hundred late-eighteenth- and nineteenth-century works entitled ‘effusions.’” The following discussion about the subject will be of interest to readers and writers alike.

Between poetry and oratory stands rhetoric. I have attempted to show that Coleridge’s effusions take up residence in a middle ground criss-crossed by other literary practices. While they arguably have an identifiable character, formed in part by a Horatian tradition, Coleridge defines his effusions less by their positive identity than by their self-conscious difference from the other genres and figures (sermo, epistle, address, aversion, conversation) that impinge on and cohabit their poetic space.

As a distinct genre, however, the effusion was relatively short-lived, becoming more common as a “lady’s” genre, suitable for the expression of delicate feelings and sensibilities, though also occasionally lending itself to more “heroic” sentiments by military men. Effusions of the heart, the poets discovered, can be both literal and figurative, erotic and patriotic, tender and polemical. . . . Later, indeed, there would be a few noteworthy instances of the genre, such as Wordsworth’s 1835 “Extempore Effusion upon the Death of James Hogg,” in which Coleridge is remembered by name in a catalogue of dead poets. But no one approaches the theoretical or practical accomplishment of Coleridge in a genre so carefully positioned between poetry and non-poetry.

Coleridge’s term “effusions,” however, appears to have been unfamiliar to contemporary reviewers . . . [a reviewer in 1796] praises Coleridge’s poems: “They consist of sonnets, which, however, Mr. Coleridge chooses to call Effusions. . . .” The reviewers nowhere identify any literary tradition in which an “effusion” might stand defined.

This column marks consecutive posts related to poetry. A stunning first in Mere Inkling’s five year history. Personally, I make no claims to being a poet, although I confess I’ve dabbled in the genre.

For those desiring to download a nineteenth century collection entitled Poetic Effusions, check out this treasure by Mary Peach Collier (1799-1858). We’ll close with one of the shorter effusions in the book.

On the Death of a Little Girl

Farewell, blest Ellen I long thy spotless name
Shall deep imprinted on our memories live;
Long on the records of unsullied fame
Thy lovely innocence a charm shall give.

Farewell, thou little flow’ret of the shade
Just born to blossom, like thy kindred rose;
Early transplanted where no thorns invade,
To flourish fair in regions of repose.

Peculiarities of Punctuation

September 17, 2019 — 15 Comments

I question how we can ever secure world peace, when we can’t even agree on how to punctuate. And this is not only an international controversy—although it certainly possesses intercontinental ramifications.

Writers who have submitted their work to editors know exactly what I’m talking about. The world abounds with critics who are positive they know how to “fix” your manuscript, so you can more effectively communicate what you are trying to say.

A fine example of this is found in the case of Samuel Clemons. As I described several years ago, Mark Twain considered editors to be a plague. He sums up his irritation in a letter to a friend.

I give it up. These printers pay no attention to my punctuation. Nine-tenths of the labor & vexation put upon me by [them] consists in annihilating their ignorant & purposeless punctuation & restoring my own. This latest batch [also has] my punctuation ignored & their insanities substituted for it.

C.S. Lewis experienced similar challenges in working with his editors. In 1959, Lewis was responding to edits made by his longtime editor, Jocelyn Gibb, on the manuscript of The Four Loves.

I enclose my emendations, concessions, and resistances. . . . as regards my emendations, will you be so kind as to type them and send them to Harcourt Brace for the American edition. Otherwise we shall create a ‘textual problem.’

After arguing for several points of substance, Lewis offers a preemptive surrender on the field of punctuation. “Do anything you like (in reason) to the punctuation.” Lewis’ qualified capitulation was in response to this editorial comment from Gibb:

Do you really favour a comma before an “and” which seems to run all through? If so, why not: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe?

It’s curious Lewis’ editor would question his inclusion of commas in this manner, since it is not uncommon in British literature. In fact, punctuation in this context is often called an “Oxford comma.” You can read a decent discussion of the subject here. And, lest you deem it an inconsequential matter, check out this interesting article describing how it became “the crux of a $10 million class-action lawsuit . . .” The author of the article notes:

Many style guides, including the Chicago Manual of Style, American Psychological Association (APA), and American Medical Association (AMA), recommend the use of the Oxford comma to prevent ambiguity.

Yet others, including the AP style guide, Canadian Press (CP) style guide, and (shockingly) the University of Oxford style guide itself, use the Oxford comma only when a sentence could be misinterpreted by the reader without it.

Here’s the problem, though, for those who do not consistently use the Oxford comma: when writing a sentence, you don’t always realize that what you’re writing could be misinterpreted.

A Nineteenth Century Tribute to Punctuation

Punctuation can provide insights into a writer’s personality, as I have discussed here. Recently I encountered this personally published poem from 1861. You can download Ephemeral Effusions, the quaint volume in which it appears, at no cost via Internet Archive.

Easy Rules for Punctuation

Written for the amusement
of a valued Friend,
who was a great stickler
for correct punctuation.

I.
Whene’er you pause, to dip the pen,
A comma you must place;
If at a loss to find a word,
A semicolon trace.

II.
Should thoughts flow slowly, fill the gap
With colon, or with rest;
And when the sentence is complete,
A period answers best.

III.
A bright idea always claims
A note of admiration;
And, if you doubt, a crooked mark
Implies interrogation.

IV.
Inverted commas indicate,
Your wits are at an end;
And, your ideas failing,
You borrow from a friend.

V.
Parenthesis (example take),
I won’t say much about;
It guards a sentence, which sometimes
Had better be left out.

VI.
The little star of secrecy,
Tho’ last, not least in fame,
Is aide-de-camp to mystery,
And asterisk its name.

These rules are all so clear,
they need no explanation;
And constitute the art
of modern punctuation.

achilles

If you don’t know the meaning of “hamartia,” you’re not alone. But it’s a very important word, for more than one reason, so read on.

Hamartia describes a feature many writers of fiction or drama instill in their most memorable characters. It simply means “tragic flaw.” The deep character defect which cannot be overcome by sincere intention or persistent effort.

Merriam-Webster describes it this way.

Aristotle introduced the term in the Poetics to describe the error of judgment which ultimately brings about the tragic hero’s downfall. As you can imagine, the word is most often found in literary criticism.

However, news writers occasionally employ the word when discussing the unexplainable misfortune or missteps of übercelebrities regarded as immortal gods and goddesses before being felled by their own shortcomings.

Despite being a thespian in high school, I never formally studied drama. So I didn’t encounter the word there.

Likewise, I have written consistently since earning a Journalism degree four decades ago. However, since I have a 37:1 nonfiction to fiction ratio, I did not know this Greek word had found its way into the English lexicon.

I was surprised to discover its English meaning in my usually-familiar word of the day email (from The Free Dictionary).

While I was unfamiliar with its English usage, I already knew the word. I originally met hamartia (ἁμαρτία) while studying the New Testament in Greek. Hamartia literally refers to “missing the mark,” and it is the primary biblical Greek word for sin.

The first usage of the word in the sense of being an inner quality, occurs in Aristotle’s Poetics.  Aristotle writing as a pre-Christian philosopher, naturally perceived the literary device in a pagan manner.

The Greek word hamartia translates pretty directly as “error” or “shortcoming” without any necessary overtones of guilt or moral failure. Our modern conception of tragedy and the “tragic flaw” of the hero usually involves the concept of hubris, or overweening pride, that leads to disaster.

Macbeth, for instance, has the arrogance to think he can overstep the laws of God and state, and ultimately pays dearly for this arrogance. Macbeth is a tragic hero with a clear tragic flaw: his downfall results from a moral failing and can be seen as divine retribution proportional to his guilt. But Macbeth also contains heavy Christian overtones that would of course be found nowhere in Greek tragedy.

An understanding of Aristotle’s concept of hamartia—and indeed an understanding of Greek tragedy in general—relies on an understanding of the ethics and cosmology of the ancient Greeks. . . . Greek ethics are based more on the notion of virtue than obligation.

What of the Consequences?

In a 2014 article entitled “C.S. Lewis: The Anti-Platonic Platonist,” Grace Tiffany skillfully explores the Platonic echoes in Lewis’ writings. In discussing his literary examples of human failings, she writes:

There are of course Biblical models justifying Lewis’ “negatively capable” presentations of misguided characters . . . An older philosophical source, if not a Platonic one, also justifies mimetic representations of evil by the argument that these are morally purgative.

Imitations of hamartia, or tragic error, produce “fear and pity” (Aristotle, Poetics 1453b)—compassion for the character elicited by a skilled simulation of his psychology, naturally accompanied by a healthy fear of ourselves making similar mistakes. What ensures the fear is, of course, the dramatization of the horrible end to which hamartia has led . . . (Christianity and Literature 63.3).

In 1953, C.S. Lewis wrote to a correspondent that sin was more than merely making a mistake. In doing so, he alludes to the change in the meaning of the word ἁμαρτία.

No. I don’t think sin is completely accounted for by faulty reasoning nor that it can be completely cured by re-education. That view has, indeed, been put forward: by Socrates and, in the early 19th Century, by Godwin.

But I think it overlooked the (to me) obviously central fact that our will is not necessarily determined by our reason. If it were, then, as you say, what are called ‘sins’ would not be sins at all but only mistakes, and would require not repentances but merely correction.

Returning to the literary or dramatic definition of hamartia as a tragic flaw, it seems to me that this term offers a fitting parallel to the word sin.

Ever since humanity’s fall, we suffer the curse of bearing original sin, a tragic flaw. It is a scar that no medical or psychological treatment can cure and no amount of determination can repair. This tragic flaw will be our doom. Unless, that is, there is One who is capable and desirous of restoring us to our original health and purity. One, perhaps, in whose own image you and I were created . . .

This wonder is something well worth pondering—and perhaps one day, writing about.

dog author

Wouldn’t it be amazing to read about the adventures, struggles, triumphs, thoughts, and dreams of real animals? C.S. Lewis thought so.

Admittedly, referring to the thoughts and dreams of a squirrel or a hummingbird is a bit fanciful. But isn’t it feasible to imagine that a pregnant doe is hoping to find a lush meadow, or that a beaver who’s just finished a fine meal is gratefully contented as he snuggles down for the night in his lodge?

In one of his thought-provoking books—which I enthusiastically recommend to everyone who likes to read—Lewis describes exactly how reading is vital to expanding our world. “Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realise the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors” (An Experiment in Criticism).

In this volume, Lewis argues that books are better measured by how they are read,  than by how they are written. In other words, Lewis is making the case that the true value of a book is not determined by the skill the author applied to its creation. Instead, Lewis writes, “so far as I can see . . . the specific value or good of literature [is that] it admits us to experiences other than our own.”

Lewis continues, with a fascinating discussion of his “experiment,” which flips traditional literary criticism on its head. Don’t rush through the following excerpt from the argument. It’s well worth taking your time to ponder his words and see if you agree.

[The experiences of others] are not, any more than our personal experiences, all equally worth having. Some, as we say, ‘interest’ us more than others. The causes of this interest are naturally extremely various and differ from one man to another; it may be the typical (and we say ‘How true!’) or the abnormal (and we say ‘How strange !’); it may be the beautiful, the terrible, the awe-inspiring, the exhilarating, the pathetic , the comic, or the merely piquant. Literature gives the entrée to them all.

Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realise the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realise it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison.

My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented. Even the eyes of all humanity are not enough.

At this point we arrive at the utterly Lewisian notion that even animals (e.g. uncivilized “brutes”) would be capable of broadening the horizons of our own thinking.

I regret that the brutes cannot write books. Very gladly would I learn what face things present to a mouse or a bee; more gladly still would I perceive the olfactory world charged with all the information and emotion it carries for a dog.

Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. There are mass emotions which heal the wound; but they destroy the privilege. In them our separate selves are pooled and we sink back into sub-individuality.

But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do” (An Experiment in Criticism).

On the Subject of Reading & Rereading

If you need any more encouragement to seek out a copy of this wonderful book, allow me to share with you two profound points Lewis makes in support of his distinction between “literary” and “unliterary” people. (Lewis, of course, does not demean the latter. On the contrary, he grieves for the “tiny world” they choose to inhabit.)

The majority [of unliterary people], though they are sometimes frequent readers, do not set much store by reading. They turn to it as a last resource. They abandon it with alacrity as soon as any alternative pastime turns up. It is kept for railway journeys, illnesses, odd moments of enforced solitude, or for the process called ‘reading oneself to sleep.’

They sometimes combine it with desultory conversation; often, with listening to the radio. But literary people are always looking for leisure and silence in which to read and do so with their whole attention (An Experiment in Criticism).

In terms of rereading, Lewis was a fervent advocate of reading good books more than once. Most of us would say lack of time is the greatest deterrent to rereading classics, but most of us do have some favorites that we have returned to more than once.

The majority never read anything twice. The sure mark of an unliterary man is that he considers ‘I’ve read it already’ to be a conclusive argument against reading a work. We have all known women who remembered a novel so dimly that they had to stand for half an hour in the library skimming through it before they were certain they had once read it.

But the moment they became certain, they rejected it immediately. It was for them dead, like a burnt-out match, an old railway ticket, or yesterday’s paper; they had already used it (An Experiment in Criticism).

In contrast, Lewis describes how “those who read great works, on the other hand, will read the same work ten, twenty or thirty times during the course of their life.” Many of us would initially think our rereading frequency falls short of those specific tallies, perhaps we should reconsider. After all, most readers of Mere Inkling reread with great frequency portions of a particular library of sixty-six books,* gathered together in a book called the Bible.


* More books in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox collection of the Scriptures, which include seven Deuterocanonical books. Fewer, of course, for our Jewish friends who follow the teachings of twenty-four books, which are also included in the Christian Bible.