Archives For Classics Worth Revisiting

presence

Have you read The Practice of the Presence of God? Between the world wars, C.S. Lewis pondered this devotional collection written in the 1600s.

Lewis was rather disappointed during his initial reading, but he apparently grew in his respect for the slim volume. He read it in 1930, the year prior to his becoming a communing member of the local Anglican church. His body rests in its cemetery today.

In a letter to his closest friend, Arthur Greeves, Lewis describes his impression of the work. It is impressive to note how he acknowledges that his own “mood” may have influenced his reception.

In reading I have of course little to record, and never shall have much in term time. I read in two evenings a little book that came from Leeborough called The Practice of the Presence of God which I picked up & put in the study when I was there last because it seemed to me a promising title. It is by a seventeenth century monk.

It is full of truth but somehow I didn’t like it: it seemed to me a little unctuous. That sort of stuff, when it is not splendid beyond words, is terribly repulsive, or can be, can’t it?

No doubt it depends very largely on one’s mood. I had just finished the fourth Gospel in Greek (as I think you know) before you came, and after that most other things are a come down. Not that I liked that in all respects either.

It’s fascinating that Lewis acknowledges that his reading of the humble kitchen monk and sandal-maker followed in the wake of his reading of The Gospel according to John, in the Greek. This must rank near the top of Lewis’ greatest understatements: “and after that most other things are a come down.” (Who among us would ever desire for even our finest writing to be compared to John’s inspired Gospel?)

Lewis was not dismissive of the seventeenth century work. As late as 1956, the two friends discussed the volume in their correspondence. That year Lewis wrote “Yes, Bro. Lawrence is of course right” in response to an unpreserved observation made by Greeves.

Christianity Today offers a brief account of the Frenchman’s life here. It describes a pivotal point in the life of the man who would become a soldier, and then a monk.

Born Nicolas Herman in 1614 in a small village in Lorraine, France, he had a soul-altering experience at 18. That winter, while looking at a leafless tree, he marveled that its barrenness would soon turn green again, flower, and bear fruit. This insight made him intimately aware of God’s love from then on.

The Soul of C.S. Lewis describes one example of the similarities shared by the Oxford professor and the French monk whose work he described as “full of truth.”

One of Brother Lawrence’s secrets was in realizing what Lewis would one day also discover: that every activity can be either religious or irreligious. The difference is in our minds and hearts.

Obviously, The Practice of the Presence of God is now in the public domain (since its author died in 1691). There is no excuse to ignore this Christian devotional classic which has long been appreciated by many Protestants, as well as Lawrence’s fellow Roman Catholics. You can download it in several formats here or obtain a (currently) free kindle version from Amazon.

Lewis Quotes Brother Lawrence

Although the following excerpt lacks sufficient context to make a great deal of sense, it is worth noting the following from That Hideous Strength, the final volume in Lewis’ space trilogy. It reveals that the wisdom of the uneducated monk remained with Lewis, even as he wrote his own religious treasures.

In the book, Dr. Dimble is a good-willed academic who Lewis uses to interpose some of his personal thoughts.

Dr. Dimble drove out to St. Anne’s dissatisfied with himself, haunted with the suspicion that if he had been wiser, or more perfectly in charity with this very miserable young man, he might have done something for him. “Did I give way to my temper? Was I self-righteous? Did I tell him as much as I dared?” he thought.

Then came the deeper self-distrust that was habitual with him. “Did you fail to make things clear because you really wanted not to? Just wanted to hurt and humiliate? To enjoy your own self-righteousness . . ?” The sadness that came over him had novelty in it. “And thus,” he quoted from Brother Lawrence, “thus I shall always do, whenever You leave me to myself.”

This intriguing passage suggests that Brother Lawrence’s thoughts continued to inspire Lewis . . . long after his initial exposure to them. Here the fictional professor nearly succumbs to his self-doubt before he reminds himself that this is a common result of introspection that ignores the love and presence of God.

If you have not yet decided to read, or reread, The Practice of the Presence of God, perhaps one of these excerpts will inspire you to do so.

“We ought not to be weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.”

“There is not in the world a kind of life more sweet and delightful, than that of a continual conversation with God; those only can comprehend it who practice and experience it.”

“That we should establish ourselves in a sense of God’s Presence, by continually conversing with Him. That it was a shameful thing to quit His conversation, to think of trifles and fooleries.”

“We must know before we can love. In order to know God, we must often think of Him; and when we come to love Him, we shall then also think of Him often, for our heart will be with our treasure.”

oz-lionFew people know this peculiar fact about The Wizard of Oz. And this oddity shares an interesting link to one of C.S. Lewis’ most familiar novels.

Filmmaking has changed greatly since 1939 when Dorothy first tapped together her ruby slippers. One of those modifications involves the treatment of animals.

Some of us are old enough to remember the initial appearance of the disclaimers: “No animals were injured in the making of this film.” Those announcements disappeared long ago, as people have long supposed the humane treatment of animals required.

As far as I know, no one has alleged the mistreatment of animals in The Wizard of Oz. But the odd fact mentioned above refers to one of the costumes worn by a major character in the film.

Bert Lahr played the Cowardly Lion, who continued acting until he died during the filming of The Night They Raided Minsky’s in 1968. Fortunately, he was in his prime while traipsing across Oz, because his costume weighed at least sixty pounds.

Apparently the costume designer was going for accuracy—in the case of the Cowardly Lion, if not for the citizens of Munchkinland. He opted for using an actual lion pelt. At least two, in fact, since there was a least one backup.

Cinema memorabilia often provides unbelievable dividends. MGM sold the primary costume in 1970 for a mere $2,400. In 2005, after some restoration by a taxidermist, the costume sold for $826,000. Nine years later, in 2014, it became the highest valued male performer’s costume, selling for $3,100,000.

It is quite fitting that Leo the Lion is the mascot for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film studio. While there have been seven “Leos” since 1916, it is doubtful that any of them contributed their hide to costuming the Cowardly Lion.

What Has Oz to do with Narnia?

Oz and Narnia resemble one another in the obvious sense that both are fantasy lands. I’m ill-equipped to compare the two beyond that, having no desire to read about the former. Here you’ll find an interesting article that offers some insights into the realm of the Wizard. The literary critics of The Telegraph offer the following contrast.

Even so, [Oz is] a strangely amorphous creation, originally reached by cyclone but in later books by shipwreck (twice), by earthquake and by simply getting lost. As a fantasy land, it has none of the depth or authority of Tolkien’s Middle Earth nor even the physicality of CS Lewis’s Narnia.

Reaching back to the turn of the millennia, you might enjoy reading “Oz vs. Narnia.” Comparing the promotion of the two realms on their respective hundredth and fiftieth anniversaries, the author finds Narnia’s treatment by HarperCollins wanting.

But however much the tribute to Oz exceeds the tribute to Narnia in sumptuousness, it can’t disguise the superiority of Lewis’ book. As a child, I loved Oz’s endless cavalcade of strange creatures and, especially, John R. Neil’s trippy art nouveau illustrations and extravagant marginalia; I still like the books today. But the first time I read “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” in second grade, I knew that I’d stumbled into a whole new league.

A Tale of Two Lions

The odd overlap in the two stories is not due to the prominent presence of lions in each world. The Cowardly Lion and Aslan have nothing in common, save perhaps, compassion for others.

But the real life costume of Oz’s lion does relate directly to one of Lewis’ most amazing fictional creations.

In the final Chronicle, The Last Battle, we find many people are led astray by a false prophet. There is a liar masquerading as the true king. The horror that he is able to mislead so many vulnerable souls is magnified by the fact that he too wears an obvious costume—the pelt of a lion.

Lewis’ account of the deception is skillful. One of the most brilliant aspects is that the “king” himself (a donkey) is actually tricked into playing the role by the true deceiver (an ape).

“All the same, Shift,” said Puzzle [the donkey], “even if the skin only belonged to a dumb, wild lion, oughtn’t we to give it a decent burial? I mean, aren’t all lions rather— well, rather solemn? Because of you know Who. Don’t you see?”

“Don’t you start getting ideas into your head, Puzzle,” said Shift. “Because, you know, thinking isn’t your strong point. We’ll make this skin into a fine warm winter coat for you.”

“Oh, I don’t think I’d like that,” said the Donkey. “It would look—I mean, the other Beasts might think—that is to say, I shouldn’t feel—”

“What are you talking about?” said Shift, scratching himself the wrong way up as Apes do.

“I don’t think it would be respectful to the Great Lion, to Aslan himself, if an ass like me went about dressed up in a lion-skin,” said Puzzle. “Now don’t stand arguing, please,” said Shift.

“What does an ass like you know about things of that sort? You know you’re no good at thinking, Puzzle, so why don’t you let me do your thinking for you?”

Obviously, a comparison between real and fictional characters wearing lion skins can only go so far. Still, I assume some readers will find the use of a lion’s pelt to camouflage a completely different species, to be a rather peculiar parallel between Oz and Narnia.

mayanC.S. Lewis offered one of his keen insights into literature when he wrote: “The more ‘up to date’ the book is, the sooner it will be dated.” (Letters to Malcolm)

The racks of clearance titles at bookstores provide ample evidence of that truth. It’s particularly evident with nonfiction works dealing with technology. Their shelf life can be counted in months (if they are fortunate).

But the short lifespan of modern writing is not restricted to science-driven topics. It also relates to the literary “fads” that come and go like mists dispelled by the afternoon sun.

There appears to be a direct correlation between touting the modernity or timeliness of a book and it imminent obsolescence. Many readers of Mere Inkling vividly recall the deluge of books warning about the dangers posed by Y2K. The new millennium was guaranteed—in the eyes of publishers milking the rare event—to bring momentous change, perhaps including catastrophic disasters.

When that crisis failed to materialize, there was a slightly less voluminous—but equally ominous—discussion of the threat of Armageddon heralded by the end of the Mayan calendar in 2012. It was newsworthy enough that NASA posted this message the day after “doomsday.”

News flash: the world didn’t end on Dec. 21, 2012. You’ve probably already figured that out for yourself. Despite reports of an ancient Maya prophecy, a mysterious planet on a collision course with Earth, or a reverse in Earth’s rotation, we’re still here.

The Mayan connection “was a misconception from the very beginning,” says Dr. John Carlson, director of the Center for Archaeoastronomy. “The Maya calendar did not end on Dec. 21, 2012, and there were no Maya prophecies foretelling the end of the world on that date.”*

It is unfair, though, to single out time sensitive publications as doomed to pass quickly into the recycling bin. After all, it wasn’t technological or calendar-focused texts Lewis was referring to.

What Lewis was critiquing is books that consciously attempt to catch the latest wave of popularity . . . without recognizing that only a small fraction of such movements are of lasting value.

He despised books that lacked substance and were utterly transient in their “value.”

Lewis knew from personal experience about the varying quality and potential lifespan of books. The following passage from his autobiography describes vividly how in his childhood he was exposed to books of all sorts, even though some had been purchased only because of his parents’ “transient” interests.

I am a product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences, attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under the tiles.

Also, of endless books. My father bought all the books he read and never got rid of any of them. There were books in the study, books in the drawing room, books in the cloakroom, books (two deep) in the great bookcase on the landing, books in a bedroom, books piled as high as my shoulder in the cistern attic, books of all kinds reflecting every transient stage of my parents’ interest, books readable and unreadable, books suitable for a child and books most emphatically not.

Nothing was forbidden me. In the seemingly endless rainy afternoons I took volume after volume from the shelves. I had always the same certainty of finding a book that was new to me as a man who walks into a field has of finding a new blade of grass. (Surprised by Joy)

Lewis believed that any good book was worth rereading. As a relatively young man he wrote in 1916, “You really lose a lot by never reading books again.” Sixteen years later he would write to Arthur Greeves once again and say, “I can’t imagine a man really enjoying a book and reading it only once.” And, without belaboring the subject, in 1933 he would once again voice this conviction to his lifelong friend. “Clearly one must read every good book at least once every ten years.”

The “good books,” of course, were those that had proven themselves over the passage of time. They were polar opposites to the shallow, insipid writing Lewis derided.

In An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis elaborates on this notion. He argues that no truly worthwhile text can be fully digested in a single reading.

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. . . . 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.

It is honest to acknowledge that a book only recently published is not inherently of lesser value than something that has remained of sufficient value to have been preserved over the centuries. After all, every book was at one time new.

Lewis offers a persuasive rationale for his position reading outside one’s own historical context is beneficial.

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. (“On the Reading of Old Books”)

It should be noted that Lewis did offer an exception to his rule about revisiting texts. He regarded it as feasible that a volume of facts or “information” could be processed in one reading.

No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty—except, of course, books of information. The only imaginative works we ought to grow out of are those which it would have been better not to have read at all. (“On Stories”)

Lewis could exclude “books of information” from requiring rereading due to his prodigious memory which made that unnecessary. Lesser minds, such as that of the writer of this column, often benefit from returning to even these books.

Lewis, however, was absolutely convinced that the classics (using the term in a broad sense) were vital to developing the mind. He even proposed a specific ratio for one’s literary consumption.

It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones. (“On the Reading of Old Books”)

One reason for alternating one’s reading is to ensure we don’t ingest too much mental “junk food.” After all, as Lewis writes in “Learning in War-Time,”

You are not, in fact, going to read nothing . . . if you don’t read good books you will read bad ones. If you don’t go on thinking rationally, you will think irrationally.

The Classics as Curricula

Recent years have witnessed a revival of interest in reading what Lewis called “old books,” as the essential foundation for an excellent education. He would certainly have applauded this movement.

Numerous American colleges and universities offer Great Books programs. The Association for Core Texts and Courses tracks them here.

One Roman Catholic university describes theirs in this way:

Our students immerse themselves in the Great Books (the Western Canon), the Good Book (the Bible), and God’s “First Book” (nature)—all of which we consider necessary for a true liberal education. Our humanities curriculum starts our freshmen off in Homeric Greece and brings our seniors through modernity and postmodernity. In a time of cultural amnesia, this deep study in the sweep of Western literature, history, politics, and philosophy cultivates the intellect and the heart.**

The Great Books Foundation is an organization established to provide resources for younger students. It’s never too early, supporters believe, to undertake this approach to grounding one’s education.

The C.S. Lewis Society, which operates the Study Center at the Kilns where Lewis resided, has been attempting to fund C.S. Lewis College in the States. They have a grand dream, inspired by the worldview of their namesake. “C.S. Lewis College will be a college of the Great Books and the Visual and Performing Arts.”

God-willing, in the future, more and more enlightened readers, taught from their youth to value quality literature, will echo Lewis’ words, saying, I too “am a product . . . of endless books.”

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* The full article is here and offers an interesting insight in to Mayan religion. According to Carlson,

“If we could time warp a Maya to the present day, they would say that Dec. 21, 2012, is a very important date. Many Maya believed that their gods who created the world 5125 years ago would return. One of them in particular, an enigmatic deity named Bolon Yokte’ K’uh, would conduct old rites of passage, to set space and time in order, and to regenerate the cosmos.” The world would be refreshed, not destroyed.

** “Mother Church or Uncle Sam” by Kevin Roberts (unfortunately not available in full online).

 

Who Said That?

June 14, 2016 — 3 Comments

thoms and lewisWho said that? It’s a question people ask when they recall a familiar saying and don’t remember the source.

Occasionally when we are reminded of the source, we shake our heads and think that’s right; how could I have forgotten!

At other times though, discovering the source of the maxim doesn’t help at all. It could be because the proverb is anonymous, or it might be due to the fact that it’s originator was not particularly well known.

That’s the case of the following statement, which is familiar to many Christians.

“Be careful how you live; you will be the only Bible some people ever read.”

When I thought of this phrase several weeks ago, I had a bit of trouble tracking it down. I actually found it on a number of sites, but the problem was that the author’s name was so unfamiliar it was almost always misspelled.

He was usually cited as “William Toms.” Yet I was pretty sure the saying hadn’t originated, however, with an Irish footballer.*

Just when I assumed I had encountered a clichéd brick wall, I stumbled upon the truth. Like so many classic maxims, the quotation did indeed originate from the British Isles.

The British writer William J. Thoms penned this thoughtful maxim, and it isn’t the only wise thing he wrote.

William John Thoms (1803 – 1885) was a British writer credited with coining the term “folklore” in the 1840s. Thoms’ investigation of folklore and myth led to a later career of debunking longevity myths. Hence, he is an early advocate of “validation research” when examining demographics.

Several of Thoms’ works are available online. They include:

C.S. Lewis had more in common with Thoms than simply being British and engaging in literary pursuits. The two men shared an interest in simple tales that intrigued and inspired men and women through the ages.

It was Thoms, in fact, who in 1846 introduced into English the term “folklore.”

A shared interest in legends and even the supernatural, suggests that the two may well have enjoyed one another’s company, had their lives intersected.

Sadly, Thoms’ desire to compile a comprehensive “Folk-Lore of England” was never realized, as this superb article describes.

The two scholars shared another trait of bookish people. (“Bookish,” by the way, is a compliment here at Mere Inkling.) Neither man sought out the frivolities of popular society. They were both content to socialize with similar minds in more intimate community. The following description of Thoms, from the Dictionary of National Biography,could just as naturally have been written about Lewis.

Thoms went little into society, but at congenial resorts, such as the ‘Cocked Hat Club,’ he was remarkable for a ready play of wit and an almost inexhaustible fund of humorous anecdote and reminiscence.

Can’t you just picture the Cocked Hat Club meeting at one table in the Eagle and Child while the Inklings shared their own warm friendship at their table at the other end of the pub?

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* Not that I follow English football, but I learned an athlete by that name played forward for Plymouth Argyle and Manchester United.

** The Book of the Court, published in 1838 with the second edition, linked here, printed six years later, has the delightful, if rather lengthy, subtitle: Exhibiting the History, Duties, and Privileges of the Several Ranks of the English Nobility and Gentry, Particularly of the Great Officers of State and members of the Royal Household; Including Vaious Forms of Court Etiquette, Tables of Precedency, Rules to be Observed at Levers and Drawing Rooms, Etc.

quarlesI had to add the parenthetical comment to the title of this column or it would have been dismissed on its surface by readers like me. Although I dabble at poetry myself, I never voluntarily choose that genre for reading. And metaphysics? As a practical pastoral theologian, I have little interest in abstract philosophies.

I have just discovered metaphysical poetry, and it is quite intriguing.

How well read are you? Do you read broadly, deeply, or both? Unfortunately, most of us restrict our reading to a rather narrow scope. This is due to two factors.

First of all is our lack of time. Few enjoy the leisure hours to indulge in the sheer pleasure of reading simply for joy.

A second dilemma arises from the deluge of new books being published every day.

It is tempting to retreat in the spirit of C.S. Lewis to the classics, and not waste our time on a volume until it has proven its worth by remaining in print. Alas, digital technology devastates that metric, since even the most worthless tripe can remain in virtual print indefinitely.

As a semi-retired pastor, I enjoy more time than I did when I was serving full time, but I still limit my reading primarily to theology, history, current events, and anything related to C.S. Lewis. I seldom have time to explore the treasure of literature that is freely available to us.

I recently spent some time doing just that.

I read some writing advice from the pen of Francis Quarles (1592-1644) who is best known for his book Emblems. It is representative of a genre (called “emblem books”) that flourished in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Here are two enjoyable observations:

If thou desire to make the best advantage of the muses, either by reading, to benefit thy selfe, or by writing, others, keep a peacefull soul in a temperate body: a full belly makes a dull brain; and a turbulent spirit, a distracted judgement: the muses starve in a cook’s shop, and a lawyer’s study. (LXXIX).

If thou intend thy writings for the publique view, lard them not too much with the choice lines of another author, lest thou lose thy own gravy: what thou hast read and digested being delivered in thy owne stile becomes thine: it is more decent to weare a plaine suit of one entire cloth, than a gaudy garment checquered with divers richer fragments. (XCVII).

Lewis was, of course, intimately acquainted with Quarles’ work. Like everyone else, however, he was more influenced by the literary contribution of John Donne (1572-1631). Like Quarles, Donne is considered one of the English “metaphysical poets.”

These writers offered used “conceits,” which were similar to analogies, but compared things that were clearly different from one another. It requires significant skill to convince a reader of the similarities of things that are deeply unlike one another.

In his essay “Dante’s Similes,” Lewis discusses the subject in detail.

It will be easily seen in what sense Dante’s similes are ‘metaphysical.’ The connexion between the two members is real, ontological, intelligible, and the material need not be in itself beautiful or may be even grotesque—as when Time is represented as a tree growing downwards with its roots in a vase which is the Primum Mobile (Paradiso, XXVII, 118). And this certainly connects them, in one way, with what literary critics call ‘Metaphysical’ conceits, meaning the conceits used by Donne and his followers.

But there are only two points of contact—first, the difficult and (at first sight) unpoetical nature of the material, and, secondly, the intellectual rather than emotional connexion between this material and the thing compared with it. The spirit in which they are used is not the same in Donne and in Dante. In Donne, the connexion, though intellectual as in Dante, is as momentary, as incapable of life beyond the immediate context, as the connexions in Homer or Virgil.

It may be true that Donne cannot court a mistress without bringing in scholastic philosophy, law, chemistry, and cosmography. But he has no interest in these things except as toys and does not care in the least what place they have, if any, in the real universe—if, indeed, there is a real universe outside the present emotion. The longer you look at Donne’s comparison of the lovers to the compasses, the less alike they will seem, and the more certain you will become that the innumerable differences between them are a more interesting and fruitful field for thought than the single analogy.

But in the greatest Dantesque similes, the longer you look the greater the likeness becomes and the more fruitful in thoughts that are interesting as long as you live. This, of course, is no disparagement to Donne: a witty love song, whether salacious or saturnine, is not meant to be chewed over like the great Comedy which made its author lean. If I seem to be breaking a butterfly upon a wheel, it is only because I want to avoid a misunderstanding which would hinder our reading both of the great and of the little poet.

Sample Their Works (for free)

If you are able to carve out a few hours of your time to delight in the rich banquet provided by the three writers mentioned above, visit these links to download their books in the digital version of your choice.

Francis Quarles’ Emblems

(This edition is elegantly illustrated!)

The Poems of John Donne

(Volume I)

The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri

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The elaborate image at the top of this column is one of the illustrations found in the copy of Emblems linked to above.

A Mastery of Words

December 22, 2015 — 8 Comments

ben franklinOh the curse of so many fascinating things to read . . . and so little time. The following pieces of wisdom come from a free volume, The World’s Famous Orations, by William Jennings Bryan.*

Bryan (1860-1925) was one of the most prominent American orators and politicians. In his study of rhetoric he collected a wide range of speeches given throughout Western history.

The collection is fascinating. It includes moments from well known historical events and from obscure yet intriguing occasions. For example, you can hear the words of Hannibal spoken to his army after its successful crossing of the Alps, or the republican speech offered by the falsely condemned Algernon Sidney from the scaffold.**

Public speaking used to be a cornerstone of education. In colleges today, “speech” is often merely an elective.

C.S. Lewis relates a funny story about one of his first experiences speaking in a formal setting. The occasion was the annual Encaenia at Oxford University, which commemorated founders and benefactors. Honorary degrees were given and excerpts from prize compositions were recited.

Lewis wrote to his father about the event. “I had almost forgotten, if I had ever known, that ‘prizemen’ have to read portions of their compositions at our ceremony of the Encaenia.”

After the honorary degrees [one of which was received by Georges Clemenceau], the Professor of Poetry made an ‘oration’ in Latin, chiefly about colleagues who had died during the last year: this was my first experience of spoken Latin and I was pleased to find that I could follow and enjoy it. The performance of us prizemen was of course very small beer after all this. We had been instructed to read for about two minutes each: I had some difficulty in finding a short passage which would be intelligible by itself. I was, of course, nervous: I am also told that I was the first of our little band whom Clemenceau looked at: but as I do not know with what expression he looked, nor whether he speaks English, we must remain in doubt whether this was a compliment or not.

I have had a good lesson in modesty from thus seeing my fellow prize men. I was hardly prepared for such a collection of scrubby, beetle-like, bespectacled oddities: only one of them appeared to be a gentleman. Any I spoke to sounded very like fools, perhaps like Goldsmith, they ‘writ like an angel and talked like poor Poll’. 76 It brings home to one how very little I know of Oxford: I am apt to regard my own set, which consists mainly of literary gents, with a smattering of political, musical and philosophical–as being central, normal, and representative. But step out of it, into the athletes on one side or the pale pot hunters**** on the other, and it is a strange planet.

The World’s Famous Orations combines a number of separate volumes that run from classical Greece and Rome, on through most of the European nations, including their “colonies” in the Western Hemisphere. President Teddy Roosevelt is the final orator whose words are included.

I invite you to sample some of the rich banquet included in this volume. The speeches themselves are fairly short, and these excerpts the more so. Mere teasers. If you perchance become bored, skip to the final passage—Benjamin Franklin provides his fellow Americans a warning that we sadly failed to heed.

Socrates (470-399 BC) upon being condemned wittily insults his judges.

For the sake of no long space of time, O Athenians, you will incur the character and reproach at the hands of those who wish to defame the city, of having put that wise man, Socrates, to death. For those who wish to defame you will assert that I am wise, though I am not. If, then, you had waited for a short time, this would have happened of its own accord; for observe my age, that it is far advanced in life, and near death. . . .

But if, on the other hand, death is a removal from hence to another place, and what is said be true, that all the dead are there, what greater blessing can there be than this, my judges? For if, on arriving at Hades, released from these who pretend to be judges, one shall find those who are true judges, and who are said to judge there. . . . At what price would you not estimate a conference with Orpheus and Musæus, Hesiod and Homer? I indeed should be willing to die often, if this be true. For to me the sojourn there would be admirable, when I should meet with Palamedes, and Ajax son of Telamon, and any other of the ancients who has died by an unjust sentence.

The comparing my sufferings with theirs would, I think, be no unpleasing occupation. But the greatest pleasure would be to spend my time in questioning and examining the people there as I have done those here, and discovering who among them is wise, and who fancies himself to be so but is not.

“Enough with the insults, philosopher; drink the hemlock.”

Seneca (the Younger, 4 BC-AD 65) before being ordered to commit suicide by Nero, whom he had tutored.

This is the fourteenth year, Cæsar, since I was summoned to train you for your high destiny; and the eighth since your advancement to the empire. During the intervening period, you have showered such honors and riches upon me, that nothing is wanting to complete my felicity but the capacity to use them with moderation. . . .

But both of us have now filled up our measure— you, of all that the bounty of a prince could confer upon his friend; I, of all that a friend could accept from the bounty of his prince. Every addition can only furnish fresh materials for envy; which, indeed, like all other earthly things, lies prostrate beneath your towering greatness, but weighs heavily on me. I require assistance. Thus, in the same manner as, were I weary and faint with the toils of a warfare or a journey, I should implore indulgence; so in this journey of life, old as I am, and unequal even to the lightest cares, since I am unable longer to sustain the weight of my own riches, I seek protection.

Order your own stewards to undertake the direction of my fortune, and to annex it to your own; nor shall I by this plunge myself into poverty, but having surrendered those things by whose splendor I am exposed to the assaults of envy, all the time which is set apart for the care of gardens and villas, I shall apply once more to the cultivation of my mind.

“Did you forget, noble tutor, that I Nero am insane enough to demand both your wealth and your life?”

Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556) at his execution, following his renunciation of a forced recantation. (Yes, that sounds confusing, but under duress he had bent to the will of bloody Queen Mary.)

And now I come to the great thing which so much troubleth my conscience, more than anything that ever I did or said in my whole life, and that is the setting abroad of a writing contrary to the truth—which now I here renounce and refuse, as things written with my hand contrary to the truth which I thought in my heart, and written for fear of death, and to save my life if it might be—and that is, all such bills and papers which I have written or signed with my hand since my degradation, wherein I have written many things untrue.

And forasmuch as my hand hath offended, writing contrary to my heart, therefore my hand shall first be punished; for when I come to the fire, it shall be first burned.

“Darn that troublesome archbishop! That wasn’t the speech we approved in advance for him to give.”

Maximilien François Marie Isidore Robespierre (1758-94) denying King Louis was entitled to a trial.

Louis was king and the Republic is founded; the great question which occupies you is decided by these words alone. Louis has been dethroned for his crimes; Louis denounced the French people as rebels; to chastise them he has invoked the arms of his brother tyrants. Victory and the people have decided that he was the rebel: hence Louis can not be judged; he is judged already. He is condemned, or the Republic is not absolved.

To propose a trial for Louis XVI. in any way whatever is to retrograde toward royal and constitutional despotism; it is a counter-revolutionary idea, for it is putting the revolution itself on trial.

“We’ll see how you feel about allowing trials for tyrants two years into your reign of terror, when we take you to the guillotine.”

Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) warns about the dangers of providing salaries to bureaucrats.

I think I see inconveniences in the appointment of salaries [for those in the Executive Branch]; I see none in refusing them, but, on the contrary, great advantages.

Sir, there are two passions which have a powerful influence in the affairs of men. These are ambition and avarice—the love of power and the love of money. Separately, each of these has great force in prompting men to action; but, when united in view of the same object, they have, in many minds, the most violent effects.

Place before the eyes of such men a post of honor, that shall, at the same time, be a place of profit, and they will move heaven and earth to obtain it.

The vast number of such places it is that renders the British government so tempestuous. The struggles for them are the true source of all those factions which are perpetually dividing the nation, distracting its councils, hurrying it sometimes into fruitless and mischievous wars, and often compelling a submission to dishonorable terms of peace.

And of what kind are the men that will strive for this profitable preeminence, through all the bustle of cabal, the heat of contention, the infinite mutual abuse of parties, tearing to pieces the best of characters? It will not be the wise and moderate, the lovers of peace and good order, the men fittest for the trust.

It will be the bold and the violent, the men of strong passions and indefatigable activity in their selfish pursuits. These will thrust themselves into your government and be your rulers.

“Oh that we had listened to your sage counsel. Now we are reaping what we have sown in our political machinations.”

_____

* You can download a personal copy of the book in a variety of versions here.

** Algernon Sidney (1622-83) fought honorably for the republican cause in the English Civil War. The fact that he opposed the execution of Charles I did not deliver him from the vengeance of the hedonist Charles II.

*** Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929) was the French prime minister who helped set the stage for World War II by demanding excessive concessions with Germany during the Versailles peace talks.

**** A “pothunter” is someone who hunts game without a concern for rules of sport. Lewis is likely applying it here in the sense of a person who participates in competitions primarily with the goal of accumulating prizes.

From Ear to Quill

October 21, 2015 — 10 Comments

anglo saxonConsider how one humble Anglo-Saxon poet can teach us about the ancient transition from the oral to written delivery of poetry.

In recent study about the transition from aural to literary communication I came upon the following fascinating fact.

In an essay entitled “Oral to Written,” J.B. Bessinger writes:

As literate authors learned to assimilate oral materials to pen-and-parchment composition, and since cultural life and centres of writing were controlled so largely by the Church, it was inevitable that the oral transmission of pagan verse would die out, or at best leave few records of an increasingly precarious existence. Meanwhile the invasion of bookish culture into an oral tradition proceeded.

Amid the overwhelming anonymity of the period, Cynewulf was the only poet who troubled to record his name, not from motives of a new literary vanity, but against the Day of Judgement:* “I beg every man of human kind who recites this poem to remember my name and pray . . .”

I’ve read elsewhere that the names of a dozen Anglo-Saxon poets were recorded, although only four have any work that has survived. I understand, however, why Cynewulf is so well recognized—several thousand lines of his poetry are extant. You can access copies of his work for free at Project Gutenberg and Internet Archive.

Curiously, we know no details about Cynewulf other than his name. This he included in his manuscripts, spelled in runic characters.

Cynewulf’s poetry was familiar to the Inklings.

In his diary during the 1920s, C.S. Lewis describes reading Cynewulf and Cyneheard while he bemoaned that Old English Riddles continued to represent an obstacle to him.

I set to on my O.E. Riddles: did not progress very quickly but solved a problem which has been holding me up. [Henry] Sweet is certainly an infuriating author . . .

[Following afternoon tea, Lewis] retired to the drawing room and had a go at the Riddles. I learned a good deal, but found them too hard for me at present.

J.R.R. Tolkien paid an unimaginable tribute to Cynewulf. He attributed to the ancient poet no less than the original inspiration for his mythopoeic conscience.

In the summer of 1913 Tolkien . . . switched course to the English School after getting an “alpha” in comparative philology. At this time he read the great eighth-century alliterative poem Christ, by Cynewulf and others.

Many years later from the poem he cited Eala Earendel engla beorhtost (“Behold Earendel brightest of angels”) from Christ as “rapturous words from which ultimately sprang the whole of my mythology.”**

Cynewulf was an inspired poet. And, it is possible to discern some Anglo-Saxon words which have made it into contemporary English when passages are lined up, side by side.

We’ll close now with a passage from his poem, Christ. These words come from the beginning of Part II (Ascension) and comprise the beginning of chapter four. For those who would like to compare the texts, a parallel version follows.*** (Just click on the image to enlarge it.)

Enjoy Cynewulf’s celebration of God’s abundant gifts, extended to poets, musicians, and all others.

Then He who shaped the world, God’s Spirit-Son,

ennobled us, and granted gifts to us,

eternal homes ’mid angels upon high;

and wisdom, too, of soul, full manifold

He sowed and set within the minds of men.

To one He sendeth, unto memory’s seat,

through spirit of the mouth, wise eloquence,

and noble understanding; he can sing

and say full many a thing, within whose soul

is hidden wisdom’s power. With fingers deft

’fore warrior-bands one can awake the harp,

the minstrel’s joy. One can interpret well

the law divine, and one the planets’ course

and wide creation. One cunningly can write

the spoken word. To one He granteth skill,

when in the fight the archers swiftly send

the storm of darts, the wingéd javelin,

over the shields defence. Fearlessly another

can o’er the salt sea urge the ocean-bark

and stir the surging depth. One can ascend

the lofty tree and steep. One can fashion well

steeled sword and weapon. One knoweth the plains’ direction,

the wide ways. Thus the Ruler, Child divine,

dispenseth unto us His gifts on earth;

He will not give to any one man all

the spirit’s wisdom, lest pride injure him,

raised far above the rest by his sole might.

cynewulf

_____

* Please don’t correct me regarding the misspelling of “judgment;” this quotation comes from a British text. ;)

** From Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: The Gift of Friendship by Colin Duriez.

*** This image is derived from the 1892 translation of Cynewulf’s Christ by Israel Gollancz.

The lovely Anglo Saxon cross at the top of this page was discovered several years ago in the grave of a young teenage girl who had been buried near Cambridge.

I have blogged about Anglo Saxon legacy in the past . . . here and here.