Archives For Advice to Writers

Which type of epic are you most likely to write? The two basic choices are either a natural epic, or a literary epic.

Actually, it’s a bit of a trick question, since it would be extremely challenging to draw together all of the pieces necessary to compose a natural epic. You can see just why, in this passage from one of C.S. Lewis’ early letters to his father.

I came across it while searching for references to elegies in Lewis’ writings, as I discussed in my previous post. Lewis mentions an elegy in a letter to his father. One of Lewis students referred to Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” from which I had included an excerpt. As I mentioned there, it was common for schoolchildren to be required to memorize the poem at the time.

I include a portion of Lewis’ letter, however, not because of the elegy reference, but due to the distinction he draws between the two types of epics. In addition, it is entertaining and ends on a positive note despite the disappointing performance of the student in question.

I have got quite recently one pupil [who] is a youth of eighteen who is trying to get a Classical scholarship. I am to coach him in essay writing and English for the essay paper and general papers which these exams always include. I fear we shall win no laurels by him.

I questioned him about his classical reading: our dialogue was something like this:

Self: ‘Well Sandeman, what Greek authors have you been reading?’
Sand: (cheerfully): ‘I never can remember. Try a few names and I’ll see if I can get on to any.’
Self: (a little damped:) ‘Have you read any Euripides?’
Sand: ‘No.’
Self: ‘Any Sophocles?’
Sand: ‘Oh yes.’
Self: ‘What plays of his have you read?’
Sand: (after a pause): ‘Well–the Alcestis.’
Self: (apologetically): ‘But isn’t that by Euripides?’
Sand: (with the genial surprise of a man who finds £1 where he thought there was a 10 [shilling] note): ‘Really? Is it now? By Jove, then I have read some Euripides.’

My next . I asked him if he were familiar with the distinction that critics draw between a natural and a literary epic. He was not: you may not be either, but it makes no difference.

I then explained to him that when a lot of old war songs about some mythological hero were handed down by aural tradition and gradually welded into one whole by successive minstrels (as in the case of ‘Homer’) the result was called a natural epic: but when an individual poet sat down with pen in hand to write Paradise Lost, that was a literary epic.

He listened with great attention and then observed ‘I suppose “Grey’s Elegy” is the natural kind.’ What idiots can have sent him in for a Scholarship? However, he is one of the cheeriest, healthiest, and most perfectly contented creations I have ever met with.

I have often thought how pleasant it would have been to enjoy C.S. Lewis’ company. Yet, when I read about his expectations for his students, I’m not confident I would have measured up. (If I didn’t possess so much respect for teachers, I suppose I could just blame mine.)

Currently, it appears that the two types of epics are usually referred to as folk epics and literary epics. I prefer the word “folk” to “natural” in this regard. It elicits the image of older cultures sitting around the fire telling tales (as some of the Inklings replicated in kolbitar).

And so, we arrive at a question. Not the question of which Greek authors we’ve read. Nor the question of whether we know the difference between folk and literary epics—since we have all now mastered that distinction.

The question is this: will your personal epic be of the literary variety? Or, will you lay aside all of your responsibilities and journey to some primitive environment like a sociologist conducting field research for their PhD—and compile ancient oral traditions into a monumental folk epic destined to be celebrated by one and all?

Actually, it does not have to be one or the other. Since they are not mutually exclusive, perhaps you should be one of the first people in history to ever create both.

A Final Caveat When Authoring Epics

Whatever your path in pursuing your epic dreams, do not fall into the same trap as James Macpherson (1736-1796). He was the first Scottish poet to become widely famous in Europe. Unfortunately, his fame was built on the foundation of a Scottish folk epic attributed to Ossian.

Fortunately for Macpherson, he was already interred in Westminster Abbey by the time his Gaelic “originals” were published. It is widely recognized they were back translations from his English “translation” to create the supposed source material. Not the legacy one would desire.

At least C.S. Lewis evaluated Macpherson’s legacy temperately. In his essay “Addison,” he mentions the poet in passing.   

If [we suppose that] sublime genius lies all in the past, before civilization began, we naturally look for it in the past. We long to recover the work of those sublime prehistoric bards and druids who must have existed. But their work is not to be found; and the surviving medieval literature conspicuously lacks the sublimity and mysteriousness we desire.

In the end one begins inventing what the ‘bards,’ ‘druids,’ and ‘minstrels’ ought to have written. Ossian, Rowley, and Otranto are wish-fulfilments. It is always to be remembered that Macpherson had written original epics about prehistoric Scotland before he invented Ossian. By a tragic chance he and Chatterton discovered that their work was marketable, and so make-believe turned into fraud.

But there was a sincere impulse behind it: they were seeking in the past that great romantic poetry which really lay in the future, and from intense imagination of what it must be like if only they could find it they slipped into making it themselves.

Should you decide to compose a fictional folk epic, feel free to do so. It could end up being quite well received. Please though, for the sake of your future literary reputation, don’t pretend that it is anything but a work of fiction.

One of the pivotal events in the history of God’s grace is found in the Torah account of a dream. Jacob was the heir of Abraham, through whom the Lord promised to redeem the world. But Jacob was far from noble.

Nevertheless, because of the Lord’s mercy (the same mercy he offers to us), he forgave Jacob and promised to bless his descendants. In his dream, Jacob saw a ladder extending from earth all the way to heaven. “And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!” (Genesis 28).

This dynamic connection between heaven and earth reveals God’s constant concern for his creation. Some, such as Martin Luther, have seen in the dream a foreshadowing of the Incarnation itself.

This ladder or stairway can be interpreted in a variety of ways. One thing it is not, however, is a guide to human ascent from our fallen world to the presence of our Creator. (The Lord is the one who comes to us.)

Having acknowledged that the dream’s purpose is not to model sanctification or individual spiritual ascent, it is easy to see why the metaphor of ladders, and the action of climbing, give way to other applications.

The most vivid contemporary example comes in the form of a Christian spiritual entitled “We are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.” A number of versions of the lyrics exist. This is quite unsurprising since it began as part of an oral tradition. According to one website devoted to spirituals, the following lyrics are typical.*

We are climbing Jacob’s ladder
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder
Soldier of the Cross

Ev’ry round goes higher ‘n’ higher
Ev’ry round goes higher ‘n’ higher
Ev’ry round goes higher ‘n’ higher
Soldier of the Cross

Brother do you love my Jesus
Brother do you love my Jesus
Brother do you love my Jesus
Soldier of the Cross

If you love him why not serve him
If you love him why not serve him
If you love him why not serve him
Soldier of the Cross

While there are longer versions, this one aptly illustrates how the metaphor of the ladder—in this case, explicitly Jacob’s ladder—offered a powerful image of deliverance. Climbing the ladder with Jesus, was tantamount to experiencing deliverance from the ills of this world.

America’s Library of Congress offers a useful page which describes “African American Gospel music [as] a form of euphoric, rhythmic, spiritual music rooted in the solo and responsive church singing of the African American South.” They add that “its development coincided with—and is germane to—the development of rhythm and blues.” The site offers links to four 1943 recordings of spirituals. None of these, however, is the hymn we are discussing.

“We are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder” was one of the earliest spirituals to be widely adopted by the interracial faith community. It is familiar in many denominations, and was recently sung in my own Lutheran congregation. Hymnary.org states the song has been “published in 79 hymnals.” Even those who consider themselves unfamiliar with the hymn often recognize its rousing refrain: “Rise and shine and give God the glory, glory, Soldiers of the Cross.”

The talented Paul Robeson recorded the hymn on a number of his albums. The inspiring rendition by scholar Bernice Johnson Reagon was included in Ken Burn’s documentary, The Civil War.

C.S. Lewis and the Spiritual Ladder

The ladder offers such a convenient analogy for growth or spiritual maturation that others have also applied it in this manner. The ladders inspired by Jacob’s dream include the following two which continue to influence Christian disciples today, even though they were written many centuries ago. The second of these was considered by C.S. Lewis to be one of the works of faith influential in his life.

John Climacus (579-649) was a Christian teenager when he entered the monastic life at the foot of Mount Sinai. He soon earned the respect of his elders in that barren land. In the words of Fathers of the Desert, “in this ascetic seclusion he became ripe for the designs of God.”

The abbot of a monastery on the Red Sea requested guidance on the ascetic life to use with his monks. John responded with The Ladder of Divine Ascent. You can download a modern translation of this priceless work here. While the treatise was written specifically to guide monastics in their spiritual growth, many other Christians have also found its wisdom helpful in their own, non-monastic settings.

John introduces the virtue of obedience with two vivid images used by the Apostle Paul, the athlete in training and the armor of God.

Our treatise now appropriately touches upon warriors and athletes of Christ [and the manner in which] the holy soul steadily ascends to heaven as upon golden wings. And perhaps it was about this that he who had received the Holy Spirit sang: Who will give me wings like a dove? And I will fly by activity, and be at rest by contemplation and humility.

But let us not fail, if you agree, to describe clearly in our treatise the weapons of these brave warriors: how they hold the shield of faith in God and their trainer, and with it they ward off, so to speak, every thought of unbelief and vacillation; how they constantly raise the drawn sword of the Spirit and slay every wish of their own that approaches them; how, clad in the iron armour of meekness and patience, they avert every insult and injury and missile.

And for a helmet of salvation they have their superior’s protection through prayer. And they do not stand with their feet together, for one is stretched out in service and the other is immovable in prayer.

The following passage will be of particular interest to Christian writers. John advises those drawing closer to God to maintain a journal of their progress and insights. I offer it within its wise context.

Let all of us who wish to fear the Lord struggle with our whole might, so that in the school of virtue we do not acquire for ourselves malice and vice, cunning and craftiness, curiosity and anger. For it does happen, and no wonder!

As long as a man is a private individual, or a seaman, or a tiller of the soil, the King’s enemies do not war so much against him. But when they see him taking the King’s colours, and the shield, and the dagger, and the sword, and the bow, and clad in soldier’s garb, then they gnash at him with their teeth, and do all in their power to destroy him. And so, let us not slumber.

I have seen innocent and most beautiful children come to school for the sake of wisdom, education and profit, but through contact with the other pupils they learn there nothing but cunning and vice. The intelligent will understand this.

It is impossible for those who learn a craft whole-heartedly not to make daily advance in it. But some know their progress, while others by divine providence are ignorant of it. A good banker never fails in the evening to reckon the day’s profit or loss. But he cannot know this clearly unless he enters it every hour in his notebook. For the hourly account brings to light the daily account.

In the fourteenth century, an Augustinian mystic in England wrote a book called The Scale [Ladder] of Perfection.” Walter Hilton (c. 1340-1396) provides spiritual exercises requested by a woman adopting life as an anchoress.⁑ You can download a free copy of Evelyn Underhill’s 1923 edition of Hilton’s counsel at Internet Archive.

In 1940, C.S. Lewis wrote to Roman Catholic monk Bede Griffiths in response to the latter’s question about his familiarity with Hilton’s work. “Yes, I’ve read the Scale of Perfection with much admiration. I think of sending the anonymous translator a list of passages that he might reconsider for the next edition.” That same decade Lewis’ collected correspondence reveals he recommended the title to at least two individuals.

Of greatest interest to students of C.S. Lewis will be his mention of the medieval treatise in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy. Here the great author describes his worldly understanding of prayer served as a terrible stumbling block to his faith.

To these nagging suggestions my reaction was, on the whole, the most foolish I could have adopted. I set myself a standard. No clause of my prayer was to be allowed to pass muster unless it was accompanied by what I called a “realization,” by which I meant a certain vividness of the imagination and the affections.

My nightly task was to produce by sheer will power a phenomenon which will power could never produce, which was so ill-defined that I could never say with absolute confidence whether it had occurred, and which, even when it did occur, was of very mediocre spiritual value.

If only someone had read to me old Walter Hilton’s warning that we must never in prayer strive to extort “by maistry” what God does not give! But no one did; and night after night, dizzy with desire for sleep and often in a kind of despair, I endeavored to pump up my “realizations.” The thing threatened to become an infinite regress.

One began of course by praying for good “realizations.” But had that preliminary prayer itself been “realized”? This question I think I still had enough sense to dismiss; otherwise it might have been as difficult to begin my prayers as to end them.

How it all comes back! The cold oilcloth, the quarters chiming, the night slipping past, the sickening, hopeless weariness. This was the burden from which I longed with soul and body to escape. It had already brought me to such a pass that the nightly torment projected its gloom over the whole evening, and I dreaded bedtime as if I were a chronic sufferer from insomnia. Had I pursued the same road much further I think I should have gone mad.

This ludicrous burden of false duties in prayer provided, of course, an unconscious motive for wishing to shuffle off the Christian faith; but about the same time, or a little later, conscious causes of doubt arose.

David Downing, co-director of the Wade Center wrote an excellent essay entitled “Into the Region of Awe: Mysticism in C.S. Lewis” which describes in the broader context what C.S. Lewis wrote in Surprised by Joy.

Note for example a passage in Surprised by Joy in which Lewis discusses the loss of his childhood faith while at Wynyard School in England. He explains that his schoolboy faith did not provide him with assurance or comfort, but created rather self-condemnation.

He fell into an internalized legalism, such that his private prayers never seemed good enough. He felt his lips were saying the right things, but his mind and heart were not in the words. Lewis adds “if only someone had read me old Walter Hilton’s warning that we must never in prayer strive to extort ‘by maistry’ [mastery] what God does not give.”

This is one of those casual references in Lewis which reveals a whole other side to him which may surprise those who think of him mainly as a Christian rationalist. “Old Walter Hilton” is the fourteenth-century author of a manual for contemplatives called The Scale of Perfection. This book is sometimes called The Ladder of Perfection, as it presents the image of a ladder upon which one’s soul may ascend to a place of perfect unity and rest in the Spirit of God . . . [passage continued in footnotes]. ⁂

We’ve considered four separate ladders today. Despite their differences, they all share a common trait—they are meaningful to those who are earnest about growing in the faith. Whether slave or free, wise or simple, or hermit or cosmopolitan—each of these ladders affirms eternal truths.

Underhill described Hilton’s motivation for writing in this way: “It is for those who crave for this deeper consciousness of reality, and feel this impulse to a complete consecration, that Hilton writes.” I believe this is true for the authors of each of these four treasures.


* The following, simpler version appears to follow an earlier tradition. A musical accompaniment for this example can be found in The Books of American Negro Spirituals. The author, James Weldon Johnson (1876-1938), provides a rich and earnest introduction to the book, originally published in two volumes. He expresses his hope that collection “will further endear these sons to those who love Spirituals, and will awaken an interest in many others.”

We am clim’in’ Jacob’s ladder
We am clim’in’ Jacob’s ladder
We am clim’in’ Jacob’s ladder
Soldiers of the cross

O

Ev’ry roun’ goes higher, higher
Ev’ry roun’ goes higher, higher
Ev’ry roun’ goes higher, higher
Soldiers of the cross

⁑ An anchoress (or anchorite) was a religious woman (or man) who would often be walled off in their monastic cell near a church, to foster their life of prayer by freeing them from interruption.

⁂ Downing’s discussion of C.S. Lewis’ reference to Walter Hinton’s insights on prayer is so valuable that I am compelled to offer the rest of it here. You can read the entire essay via the link on the article’s title.

The passage about “maistry” Lewis wished he’d known as a boy comes early in The Scale of Perfection, a section about different kinds of prayer, including liturgical prayers, spontaneous prayers, and “prayers in the heart alone” which do not use words.

Hilton’s advice for people “who are troubled by vain thoughts in their prayer” is not to feel alone. He notes it is very common to be distracted in prayer by thoughts of what “you have done or will do, other people’s actions, or matters hindering or vexing you.”

Hilton goes on to explain that no one can keep fully the Lord’s command to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. The best you can do is humbly acknowledge your weakness and ask for mercy. However badly one’s first resolve fades, says Hilton, you should not get “too fearful, too angry with yourself, or impatient with God for not giving you savor and spiritual sweetness in devotion.”

Instead of feeling wretched, it is better to leave off and go do some other good or useful work, resolving to do better next time. Hilton concludes that even if you fail in prayer a hundred times, or a thousand, God in his charity will reward you for your labor. Walter Hilton was the canon of a priory in the Midlands of England and an experienced spiritual director of those who had taken monastic vows. His book is full of mellow wisdom about spiritual growth, and Lewis considered it one of “great Christian books” that is too often neglected by modern believers.

Hilton’s recurring theme—do what you know to be right and don’t worry about your feelings—is one that appears often in Lewis’s own Christian meditations. But, alas, Lewis as a boy did not have the benefit of Hilton’s advice.

In those boyhood years at Wynyard, he was trapped in a religion of guilt, not grace. More and more he came to associate Christianity with condemnation of others, as in Northern Ireland, or condemnation of oneself, for not living up to God’s standards.


A Note on the Illustration

Nicolas Dipre was a French early Renaissance painter, who flourished 1495-1532. His painting of Jacob’s Ladder portrays the biblical account of the Jewish patriarch’s dream. The icon Ladder of Divine Ascent was painted four centuries earlier by an anonymous iconographer. It is from Saint Catherine’s Monastery beside Mount Sinai, and portrays the ascent of saints in the pursuit of holiness. While fallen angels (devils) seek to drag them from the path, John Climacus leads other in the path to heaven.

Free Storytelling Class

March 3, 2021 — 6 Comments

If you are a storyteller—and if, like me, you’re interested in screenwriting—there is a free class you may find valuable.

John Paul the Great Catholic University focuses on degrees related to the creative arts. They are currently offering a five session “crash course” discussing the key elements of storytelling. And the teachers apparently possess genuine credentials, being “veterans of Pixar’s Braintrust, Warner Bros. Script Department, and Hollywood writers’ rooms.”

You can learn more about the self-paced course here.

The final session on “adaptations” looks particularly intriguing.

What makes a good adaptation? In this lesson, Professor Chris Riley guides you through the basic principles of adapting source material (such as novels and true stories) for film and television. . . . Recommended for anyone with a curiosity for how novels and real life stories are distilled and written into movies. Especially recommended for writers interested in making movies from short stories, novels, or real life stories.

C.S. Lewis and the rest of the Oxford Inklings were gifted storytellers. Lewis began honing his skills when he a child and collaborated with his brother Warnie to compose the tales of Boxen.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings relates an overarching saga of humble heroism. Its skilled creator weaves into the Fellowship’s quest many other fascinating tales. The trilogy is a series that spawns fresh wonders, reading after reading. As one reviewer notes, Tolkien showcases “duty, honor, perseverance, and friendship.” He continues:

That, my friends, is the power of great stories. But a good story alone isn’t good enough either. One reason that Tolkien remains popular is because his stories were about important ideas, ideas that stand the test of time.

In a rather more scholarly article, “J.R.R. Tolkien and the Telling of a Traditional Narrative,” the writer says “the literary critical question is, why would Tolkien spend so much time and effort telling such an old story?” He answers that question in the following manner.

The answer lies . . . in the purpose of traditional narrative and the intent of the traditional tale teller. The traditional tale teller, like any traditional performer, is recreative rather than creative, doing those things that the community wants (and perhaps needs) over and over again, striving not to do something totally inventive and perceptually new but rather to do the traditional thing well and, perhaps, with some special, individual flair.

Turning to C.S. Lewis, we find numerous reference to his storytelling skills. In one aptly named work, we discover why Lewis became a writer rather than a sculptor.

C.S. Lewis loved stories. Throughout his life he found it really had to make anything by hand.* He could, though, hold a pencil or a pen and was driven to write stories instead. It was a blessing in disguise! Many years later C.S. Lewis wrote that you can do more with a castle in a story than with the best cardboard castle that ever stood on a nursery table (C.S. Lewis: The Story Teller).

Encouraging Another Storyteller

One of the main reasons for the Inkling’s very existence was their mutual encouragement in writing. Members often read their works in progress and offered (occasionally gentle) constructive criticism.

As a popular author, C.S. Lewis was approached by many aspiring writers. He patiently and encouragingly responded to these contacts. Some of these correspondents were former students and friends.

One such dear friend was Roger Lancelyn Green (1918-1987). Green had been a student of Lewis’ and a member of the Inklings while he studied and taught at Oxford. The two were quite close, and he actually joined Lewis and his wife Joy during their holiday in Greece.

As an Inkling and an English professor himself, Green was destined to become a writer. In addition to his other biographies—he co-authored one of the best on C.S. Lewis—he was a noted children’s writer. In fact, among his popular retellings of various mythologies, he compiled the stories of the Greeks, Egyptians and Norse. Many of his works can be “borrowed” from the Internet Archives library.

However, years before he wrote these volumes, Green shared one of his earliest efforts with his mentor. In September of 1945, C.S. Lewis offered him a significant amount of specific advice, but begins—as all good critiquing should—with encouragement.

My dear Green– I have now read The Wood That Time Forgot and this is what I think. The general narrative power is excellent: i.e. on the question whether you have in general the story-telling talent, you may (in my opinion) set your mind at rest. I read it on a railway journey and it carried me as far as Bletchley (which was at chapter VII) without a single flagging of interest.

I particularly admired the transition from the natural to the supernatural part. This went just gradually enough to elicit one’s faith and by the right stages. I thank you for giving me the authentic thrill: as you did several times.

As noted, Lewis follows this introductory affirmation with explicit comments on various facets of the manuscript. In June of 1949, Lewis offered his friend comments on a revised version of the story.⁑

Too bad we don’t all have a mentor like C.S. Lewis. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be encouraged by such an anointed storyteller.

Chances are that you, like Tolkien and Lewis, are a storyteller as well. Which is why I shared with you the invitation to the free storytelling course linked above. I will likely sign up for it myself, since I too have a screenplay I would someday like to write.


* This was due to a the lack of a metacarpophalangeal joint in his thumb. He shared this syndrome with his father and brother. If interested, you can read “Symphalangism, C.S. Lewis Type” in an online catalog of genetic disorders.

⁑ Lewis’ comments regarding the revised manuscript are included in volume two of The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, with the following introduction.

Roger Lancelyn Green, in an attempt to turn his story The Wood That Time Forgot into “a fairy tale for grown-ups,” had revised it . . . to give it a completely new ending—of which Lewis approved. The book, however, remains unpublished as it would appear to owe too much to The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.

All of Green’s mythologies appear to currently be in print. In the introduction to his Norse mythology  volume, he provides an interesting contrast with his previous work closer to the Mediterranean.

Norse mythology is the very antithesis of Greek from the reteller’s point of view. The wealth of literature and legend available for studying the gods of Olympus is positively embarrassing, and the problem there is one of selection. The gods of Asgard, on the other hand, remain strangely aloof: the difficulty here is to find enough about them. And when the scanty material is collected, it is still harder to fit together the incomplete jigsaw-puzzle which is all that remains to us.

C.S. Lewis on Brevity

February 17, 2021 — 17 Comments

Regular readers of Mere Inkling are accustomed to posts that require a bit of thinking.* This one will be different.

I opted for a simpler topic, wedged as this post will be, between two more thought-provoking subjects. Avoiding verbosity is a worthwhile goal. Admittedly, it’s harder for some of us to reach, than for others who are innately succinct.

I will simply say, to promote clear communication it is necessary to (1) strip away all extraneous words, and (2) ensure that we know what the words we use mean to our hearers or readers. (This is especially true when “preaching.”)

In terms of the meanings of words, C.S. Lewis describes the value of commonly shared or “learned” language. If a word, say “baptism,” or even something simpler, such as “tree,” meant the same thing to all—communication could be much more concise.

In the very process of eliminating from your matter all that is technical, learned, or allusive, you will discover, perhaps for the first time, the true value of learned language: namely, brevity (“Before We can Communicate”).

[Such learned language] can say in ten words what popular [common] speech can hardly get into a hundred. Your popularisation of the passage set will have to be very much longer than the original.” Alas, because we lack that united vocabulary, this we must just put up with.”

Still, Lewis would argue: let’s please keep the unnecessary extraneous explanation to a bare minimum. (It would be an easy task to whittle that sentence down, wouldn’t it? Let’s try.)

C.S. Lewis says using the fewest necessary words is (usually) best.

[If you would like to read a slightly more developed essay on this subject,
search no farther than “Brevity & Clear Communication,” which was published in 2017.]


* I was tempted to write “a bit of cognitive interaction,” but realized I’d be undermining my purpose for this simple post in my very first sentence!

Each writer brings a unique balance of talents to the task before them. Some excel at the initial writings. Others are especially talented at sharpening their work after the first draft has been created.

Understanding where we fit on that spectrum of author or editor, can be very empowering. Knowing our strengths and non-strengths is a major step in becoming a better writer.

Andy Le Peau worked for four decades at InterVarsity Press. His excellent blog, Andy Unedited, explores “books, life, and writing.” Five years ago he penned a short post that I still find extremely enlightening.

In “Authors are Like Pioneers—Editors Are Like Settlers,” Le Peau uses that unusual analogy to explain a creative tension at play in the lives of most writers I know. And, once we understand this fluid dichotomy, I believe it makes us better writers.

Authors tend to come up with new ideas and push them forward. They like to move into literary territories not explored before. Creating something new is like a shot of caffeine to their systems.

Good editors see how to improve a book, make it read better, clearer. They don’t try to shape the book in their own image. Rather they see the good that is already there and find ways to make it even more effective, better organized, clearer.

Good writers are usually pretty decent editors. Not expert, but adequate enough to recognize ways in which their own work can be improved. That’s why we call the “first draft” a first draft.

Now, if you consider your initial draft a finished product, you are definitely not a settler!

C.S. Lewis was a gifted writer. He also knew a great deal about editing, as I’ve discussed here in the past. I’ve even described his astonishment with the practices of some editors.

Lewis was quite open to revising his own work, even after it was published. In 1959, he wrote to one of his publishers, “Yes, there is one chapter of Miracles that needs revision. The result of the revision will, I think, make it shorter rather than longer. I’ll get onto this job as soon as I can.”

My Perspective on the Writing Process

While I embrace the pioneer or settler symbolism, I expand the analogy by thinking about my own writing process. I tend to think of it in three categories, with

Researching – Writing – Editing

To this process, if we desire to actually share our work, should be added at its end, “Submitting/Publishing.” Submitting refers to presenting it for potential publication in various media. By publishing, I refer to skipping the proverbial middle person, and posting your work online or using one of the self-publishing options readily available today.

In my personal context, I regard researching as a semi-independent stage of the writing process.

This may be due to the fact I focus on nonfiction. (Fiction writers can devote meager attention to it, and get away with it—not that they should ever ignore it.)

There are two additional reasons researching earns its own place in my writing process. First, because it is in my innate nature to be thorough and accurate. Second, I simply love the process. I know I’m in the minority.

Most writers prefer to get on with the task as soon as possible. I, however, am enslaved by my inherent curiosity to learn as much as possible about the undertaking as I can, before embarking on the actual writing. (And, yes, I recognize this may be exaggerated by my mortal tendency to procrastinate.)

To maintain the original analogy, in the spirit of Leif Erikson, I think of it this way:

Explorer – Pioneer – Settler

This works well for me, and I hope this post offers some insight and encouragement to you, as well.

Do you consider quotations good or bad? As a reader, do you think quotations enhance what you are reading . . . or do they detract from the text?

My personal opinion is that the educated use of quotations enriches writing. (Sloppy quotation is another matter.) Positive contributions made by quotes would include:

They can offer “authoritative” support of a point being made by the writer.
Quotations can offer a refreshing change of pace in a lengthy work.
The selection of the individuals quoted gives me insight into the mind of the current writer.
A well-chosen epigraph piques my curiosity about the chapter which follows.
And, frankly, I simply enjoy a brilliant turn of phrase or a timeless but fresh insight.

I’m not alone in appreciating quotations. It’s no accident The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations is in its seventh edition. Why Do We Quote? describes it this way:

The demand for ODQ remains substantial. It has also spawned numerous sister dictionaries, many themselves appearing in several editions. We have The Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations,… of Literary Quotations,… of Political Quotations,… of Biographical Quotations,… of Medical Quotations,… of American Legal Quotations,…. of Scientific Quotations.… of Phrase, Saying, and Quotation,… of Thematic Quotations,… of Quotations by Subject,… of Modern Quotation,… of Twentieth-Century Quotations, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Quotation. A Little Oxford Dictionary of Quotations has gone through successive editions. There have also been several editions of The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs, the first in 1936. There is an avid market, it seems, for quotation collections.

The number of quotation collections is staggering. Read on, and I’ll provide links to some of the compilations available for free download, thanks to public domain laws.

The sheer weight of these books reveals their popularity. And quotations collections are marketable today. In “How Inspirational Quotes became a Whole Social Media Industry,” the author cites a Canadian whose “interest in motivational quotes has proven lucrative, and while he still has a day job in the wireless technology industry, he says that he’s recently been taking home two to three times his regular income from advertising on his website.”

And it all began when, “One day when he was a teenager, he was browsing in a book shop and came across a small book of famous quotations. Something about these pithy sayings appealed to him, and he started to compile his own collection of quotes that particularly resonated.”

Before the birth of the internet, I invested in several quotation collections—a not uncommon purchase for pastors. I confess to still referring on occasion to The Quotable Lewis to suggest new themes to explore here at Mere Inkling.

C.S. Lewis and Quotations

A beloved lecturer, C.S. Lewis recognized the value of worthy quotation. While few of us have his “eidetic memory,” we can certainly follow his example in using apt quotations to illustrate our points.

Lewis even regarded quotation collections highly enough to compile one. In 1946, he published George MacDonald: An Anthology. It was a tribute to the writings of his “mentor,” who appears in his fictional masterpiece about heaven and hell, The Great Divorce. The anthology remains in print. However, Canadian readers of Mere Inkling can benefit from it falling into public domain status in their Commonwealth. Canadians will find it available for download at this site.

While every reader is capable of enjoying the 365 selections in the volume, Lewis did have a specific intent in the passages he chose.

This collection, as I have said, was designed not to revive MacDonald’s literary reputation but to spread his religious teaching. Hence most of my extracts are taken from the three volumes of Unspoken Sermons. My own debt to this book is almost as great as one man can owe to another: and nearly all serious inquirers to whom I have introduced it acknowledge that it has given them great help—sometimes indispensable help towards the very acceptance of the Christian faith.

Scores of Free Quotation Collections Available to All

Internet Archive has an enormous (free) lending library of books featuring collections of quotations. Many can be “checked out” for temporary use. Other older books are available for download.

Project Gutenberg offers a smaller number, but includes titles they have edited themselves by gleaning pithy phrases from books in their public domain library. Many* of these free (public domain) compilations are linked below.

The massive selection of quotation collections (I quit counting as I approached 100) is daunting. Among those not available for download (which are still accessible for reading) you will note ever more esoteric subject matter. As a whole, we find a small number are collected from prolific individuals, such as Shakespeare, Mark Twain, or John F. Kennedy. Many are generalist, featuring “popular” quotations on a wide range of subjects. Others are thematic, focusing on subjects such as friendship, humor, women, sports, country music, dog [or cat] lovers, climbers, business, motor racing, the military, lawyers, saints, atheists, rock ‘n’ roll, or any of fourscore more themes. Some featuring national or cultural quotations, for example French, Jewish, Scottish, German, etc. And, for those up to the challenge, you can even read Wit and Wisdom of the American Presidents: A Book of Quotations.

🚧 Feel Free to Ignore Everything Below 🚧

Only the smallest attempt has been made here to sort the free volumes. You will find a few general headings below, and a multitude of similarly titled books. One wonders how many of the quotations cited in the larger volumes are common to all of them. Perhaps as you glance through this list, you will see a title or two you might appreciate perusing.

General Quotation Collections

The Oxford Dictionary Of Quotations
(Second Edition: 1953)

The Book of Familiar Quotations
Unnamed Compiler (London: 1860)

Familiar Quotations
John Bartlett (Boston: 1876)

Dictionary of Contemporary Quotations (English)
Helena Swan (London and New York: 1904)

What Great Men have Said about Great Men: a Dictionary of Quotations
William Wale (London: 1902)

A Cyclopaedia of Sacred Poetical Quotations
H.G. Adams (London: 1854)

The International Encyclopedia of Prose and Poetical Quotations from the Literature of the World
William Shepard Walsh (Philadelphia: 1908)

The Book of Familiar Quotations; being a Collection of Popular Extracts and Aphorisms from the Works of the Best Authors
Unnamed Compiler (London: 1866)

The Book of Familiar Quotations; being a Collection of Popular Extracts and Aphorisms from the Works of the Best Authors
L.C. Gent (London: 1866)

Dictionary of Quotations (English)
Philip Hugh Dalbiac (Long & New York: 1908)

A Dictionary Of Quotations
Everyman’s Library (London: 1868)

Forty Thousand Quotations: Prose and Poetical
by Charles Noel Douglas (New York: 1904)

Three Thousand Selected Quotations From Brilliant Writers
Josiah H. Gilbert (Hartford, Connecticut: 1905)

Stokes’ Encyclopedia of Familiar Quotations: Containing Five Thousand Selections from Six Hundred Authors
Elford Eveleigh Treffry (New York: 1906)

Historical Lights: a Volume of Six Thousand Quotations from Standard Histories and Biographies
Charles Eugene Little (London & New York: 1886)

Great Truths by Great Authors: A Dictionary of Aids to Reflection, Quotations of Maxims, Metaphors, Counsels, Cautions, Aphorisms, Proverbs, &c., &c. from Writers of All Ages and Both Hemispheres
William M. White (Philadelphia: 1856)

Truths Illustrated by Great Authors: A Dictionary of Nearly Four Thousand Aids to Reflection, Quotations of Maxims, Metaphors, Counsels, Cautions, Aphorisms, Proverbs, &c., &c.
William M. White (Philadelphia: 1868)

Handy Dictionary of Prose Quotations
George Whitefield Powers (New York: 1901)

Letters, Sentences and Maxims
Philip Dormer Stanhope Chesterfield (London & New York: 1888)

Poetical Quotations from Chaucer to Tennyson: With Copious Indexes
Samuel Austin Allibone (Philadelphia: 1875)

Prose Quotations from Socrates to Macaulay
Samuel Austin Allibone (Philadelphia: 1880)

Cassell’s Book Of Quotations, Proverbs and Household Words
William Gurney Benham (London & New York, 1907)

Putnam’s Complete Book of Quotations, Proverbs and Household Words
William Gurney Benham (New York, 1926)

Benham’s Book Of Quotations
William Gurney Benham (London: 1949)

Hoyt’s New Cyclopedia Of Practical Quotations
by Kate Louise Roberts (New York: 1927)

Classic Quotations: A Thought-Book of the Wise Spirits of All Ages and all Countries, Fit for All Men and All Hours
James Elmes (New York: 1863)

A Dictionary of Quotations from the English Poets
Henry George Bohn (London: 1902)

A Complete Dictionary Of Poetical Quotations
Sarah Josepha Hale (Philadelphia: 1855)

The Handbook of Quotations: Gleanings from the English and American Fields of Poetic Literature
Edith B. Ordway (New York: 1913)

Carleton’s Hand-Book of Popular Quotations
G.W. Carleton (New York: 1877)

Many Thoughts of Many Minds
George W. Carleton (New York: 1882)

Many Thoughts Of Many Minds
Henry Southgate (London: 1930)

A Manual of Quotations (forming a new and considerably enlarged edition of MacDonnel’s Dictionary of Quotations)
E.H. Michelsen (London: 1856)

A Dictionary of Quotations from Various Authors in Ancient and Modern Languages
Hugh Moore (London: 1831)

Dictionary Of Quotations: from Ancient and Modern, English and Foreign Sources
James Wood (London: 1893)

A Dictionary of Quotations in Prose: from American and Foreign Authors
Anna L. Ward (New York: 1889)

Webster’s Dictionary Of Quotations: A Book of Ready Reference
(London: undated)

Collections of Individual Authors

Quotations from Browning
Ruth White Lawton (Springfield, Massachusetts: 1903)

The Wesley Yearbook: or, Practical Quotations from the Rev. John Wesley
Mary Yandell Kelly (Nashville: 1899)

Quotes and Images From The Works of Mark Twain
David Widger (Project Gutenberg: 2002)

Widger’s Quotations from the Project Gutenberg Editions of Paine’s Writings on Mark Twain
David Widger (Project Gutenberg: 2003)

Quotes and Images From The Diary of Samuel Pepys
David Widger (Project Gutenberg: 2004)

Quotes and Images From Memoirs of Louis XIV
David Widger (Project Gutenberg: 2004)

Quotes and Images From Memoirs of Louis XV and XVI
David Widger (Project Gutenberg: 2005)

Quotes and Images from the Memoirs of Jacques Casanova de Seingalt
David Widger (Project Gutenberg: 2004)

Quotes and Images From Motley’s History of the Netherlands
David Widger (Project Gutenberg: 2004)

Quotes and Images from the Writings of Abraham
David Widger (Project Gutenberg: 2004)

Quotes and Images From The Tales and Novels of Jean de La Fontaine
David Widger (Project Gutenberg: 2004)

Quotes and Images From The Works of George Meredith
David Widger (Project Gutenberg: 2004)

Quotes and Images From Memoirs of Cardinal De Retz
David Widger (Project Gutenberg: 2005)

Quotes and Images From Memoirs of Count Grammont by Count Anthony Hamilton
David Widger (Project Gutenberg: 2005)

Widger’s Quotations from the Project Gutenberg Editions of the Works of Montaigne
David Widger (Project Gutenberg: 2003)

Widger’s Quotations from Project Gutenberg Edition of Memoirs of Napoleon
David Widger (Project Gutenberg: 2003)

Quotes and Images From the Works of John Galsworthy
David Widger (Project Gutenberg: 2005)

Quotes and Images From The Confessions of Jean Jacques Rousseau
David Widger (Project Gutenberg: 2004)

The French Immortals: Quotes and Images
David Widger (Project Gutenberg: 2009)

Quotes and Images From The Works of Charles Dudley Warner
David Widger (Project Gutenberg: 2004)

Quotes and Images From Memoirs of Marie Antoinette
David Widger (Project Gutenberg: 2005)

Quotes and Images From The Works of Gilbert Parker
David Widger (Project Gutenberg: 2004)

Quotes and Images From The Confessions of Harry Lorrequer by Charles James Lever
David Widger (Project Gutenberg: 2004)

Quotes and Images From Memoirs of Madame De Montespan
David Widger (Project Gutenberg: 2005)

Quotes and Images From the Works of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
David Widger (Project Gutenberg: 2004)

Quotes and Images From The Works of William Dean Howells
David Widger (Project Gutenberg: 2004)

The Spalding Year-Book: Quotations from the Writings of Bishop [John Lancaster] Spalding for Each Day of the Year
Minnie R. Cowan (Chicago: 1905)

Worldly Wisdom; Being Extracts from the Letters of the Earl of Chesterfield to His Son
William L. Sheppard (New York: 1899)

A Year Book of Quotations: From the Writings of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
with spaces for Autographs and Records (New York: 1896)

The Bernhardt Birthday Book: Being Quotations from the Chief Plays of Madame Sarah Bernhardt’s Repertoire and Other Works
E.M. Evors (London: 1912)

Beauties of Robert Hall
John S. Taylor (New York: 1839)

Shakespeare Gets His Own Section

Everyman’s Dictionary Of Shakespeare Quotations
D.C. Browning (London: 1961)

Shakespearean Quotations
Charles Sheridan Rex (Philadelphia: 1910)

Shakespeare Quotations
Emma Maria Rawlins (New York: 1900)

Quotations from Shakespeare
Edmund Routledge (London: 1867)

A Dictionary of Shakspere Quotations
C.J. Walbran (London: 1849)

The New Shaksperian Dictionary of Quotations
G. Somers Bellamy (London: 1875)

Longer Moral Quotations From Shakespeare
M. Venkatasiah (Mysore/Mysuru, India: 1923)

Dictionary of Shakespearian Quotations: Exhibiting the Most Forceful Passages Illustrative of the Various Passions, Affections and Emotions of the Human Mind
Thomas Dolby (New York: 1880)

Odd, Quaint and Queer Shaksperian Quotations Handsomely and Strikingly Illustrated
Henry McCobb [using pseudonym Shakspere Snug] (New York: 1892)

Thematic Quotation Collections

Quotations from Negro Authors
Katherine D. Tillman (Fort Scott, Kansas: 1921)

Sovereign Woman Versus Mere Man: a Medley of Quotations
Jennie Day Haines (San Francisco: 1905)

About Women: What Men have Said
Rose Porter (New York: 1894)

The Dixie Book of Days
Matthew Page Andrews (London & Philadelphia: 1912)

Living Waters
Alice L. Williams (Boston: 1889)

Green Pastures and Still Waters
Louis Kinney Harlow (Boston: 1887)

Out-of-Doors; Quotations from Nature Lovers
Rosalie Arthur

Ye Gardeyn Boke: a Collection of Quotations Instructive and Sentimental
Jennie Day Haines (San Francisco & New York: 1906)

The Optimist’s Good Morning
Florence Hobart Perin (Boston: 1909)

The Optimist’s Good Night
Florence Hobart Perin (Boston: 1910)

The Book of Love
Jennie Day Haines (Philadelphia: 1911)

Author’s Calendar 1889
Alice Flora McClary Stevens (Boston: 1888)

Proverbs and Quotations for School and Home
John Keitges (Chicago: 1905)

Excellent Quotations for Home and School
Julia B. Hoitt (Boston: 1890)

Borrowings: A Compilation of Helpful Thoughts from Great Authors
Sarah S.B. Yule & Mary S. Keene (San Francisco: 1894)

More Borrowings: the Ladies of First Unitarian Church of Oakland, California
Sarah S.B. Yule & Mary S. Keene (San Francisco: 1891)

Quotations
Norwood Methodist Church (Edmonton, Alberta: 1910).

Goodly Company: a Book of Quotations and Proverbs for Character Development
Jessie E. Logan (Chicago: 1930)

The Atlantic Year Book: Being a Collection of Quotations from the Atlantic Monthly
Teresa J. Fitzpatrick & Elizabeth M. Watts (Boston: 1920)

Here and There: Quaint Quotations, a Book of Wit
H.L. Sidney Lear

Author’s Calendar 1890
Alice Flora McClary Stevens (Boston: 1889)

Catch Words of Cheer
Sara A. Hubbard (Chicago: 1903)

Catch Words of Cheer (new series)
Sara A. Hubbard (Chicago: 1905)

Catch Words of Cheer (third series)
Sara A. Hubbard (Chicago: 1911)

How to Get On, Being, the Book of Good Devices: a Thousand Precepts for Practice
Godfrey Golding (London: 1877)

The Dictionary of Legal Quotations: or, Selected Dicta of English Chancellors and Judges from the Earliest Periods to the Present Time . . . embracing many epigrams and quaint sayings
James William Norton-Kyshe

The Vocabulary of Philosophy, Mental, Moral and Metaphysical: with Quotations and References
William Fleming (Philadelphia: 1860)

Manual of Forensic Quotations
Leon Mead and F. Newell Gilbert (New York: 1903)

Toaster’s Handbook Jokes Stories And Quotations
Peggy Edmund and Harold W. Williams (New York: 1932)

The Banquet Book: A Classified Collection of Quotations Designed for General Reference, and Also an Aid in the Preparation of the Toast List
Cuyler Reynolds (London & New York: 1902)

Like Expressions: a Compilation from Homer to the Present Time
A.B. Black (Chicago: 1900)

Oracles from the Poets: a Fanciful Diversion for the Drawing-Room
Caroline Howard Gilman (London & New York: 1844)

The Sibyl: or, New Oracles from the Poets
Caroline Howard Gilman (New York: 1848)

A Book of Golden Thoughts
Henry Attwell (London & New York: 1888)

A Little Book of Naval Wisdom
Harold Felix Baker Wheeler (London: 1929)

Medical Quotations from English Prose
John Hathaway Lindsey (Boston: 1924)

Psychological Year Book: Quotations Showing the Laws, the Ways, the Means, the Methods for Gaining Lasting Health, Happiness, Peace and Prosperity
Janet Young (San Francisco: 1905)

The Oshawa Book of Favorite Quotations
(Oshawa, Ontario: 1900)

The Pocket Book Of Quotations
Henry Davidoff (New York: 1942)

Quotations for Occasions
Katharine B. Wood (New York: 1896)

Quotations For Special Occasions
Maud Van Buren (New York: 1939)

A Complete Collection of the Quotations and Inscriptions in the Library of Congress
Emily Loiseau Walter

Words and Days: a Table-Book of Prose and Verse
Bowyer Nichols (London: 1895)

The Book of Good Cheer: “A Little Bundle of Cheery Thoughts”
Edwin Osgood Grover (New York: 1916)

The Good Cheer Book
Blanche E. Herbert (Boston: 1919)

Just Being Happy: a Little Book of Happy Thoughts
Edwin Osgood Grover (New York: 1916)

Pastor’s Ideal Funeral Book: Scripture Selections, Topics, Texts and Outlines, Suggestive Themes and Prayers, Quotations and Illustrations
Arthur H. DeLong (New York: 1910)

Quips and Quiddities: a Quintessence of Quirks, Quaint, Quizzical, and Quotable
William Davenport Adams (London: 1881)

The Book of Ready-Made Speeches: with Appropriate Quotations, Toasts, and Sentiments
Charles Hindley (London: 1893)

Suggestive Thoughts on Religious Subjects
Henry Southgate (London: 1881)

Two Thousand Gospel Quotations from the Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price
Henry H. Rolapp (Salt Lake City, Utah: 1918)

Selected Quotations on Peace and War: with Especial Reference to a Course of Lessons on International Peace, a Study in Christian Fraternity
Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America (New York: 1915)

Book of Science and Nature Quotations
Isaac Asimov & Jason A. Shulman (New York: 1988)
From an Indian Library Collection (not generally public domain)

Foreign (i.e. non-English) Collections

Dictionary of Quotations (Spanish)
[With English Translations]
Thomas Benfield Harbottle and Martin Hume (New York: 1907)

A Literary Manual of Foreign Quotations Ancient and Modern, with Illustrations from American and English Authors
John Devoe Belton (New York: 1891)

Dictionary of Quotations (Classical)
Thomas Benfield Harbottle (London: 1897)

Dictionary of Latin Quotations, Proverbs, Maxims, and Mottos, Classical and Medieval
Henry Thomas Riley (London: 1866)

Treasury of Latin Gems: a Companion Book and Introduction to the Treasures of Latin Literature
Edwin Newton Brown (Hastings, Nebraska: 1894)

A Dictionary of Oriental Quotations (Arabic and Persian)
Claud Field (London & New York: 1911)

A Little Book of German Wisdom
Claud Field (London: 1912)

Dictionary Of Foreign Phrases And Classical Quotations
Hugh Percy Jones (Edinburgh: 1908)

Dictionary Of Quotations: in Most Frequent Use, Taken Chiefly from the Latin and French, but Comprising Many from the Greek, Spanish and Italian Languages
[Translated into English]
D.E. MacDonnel (London: 1826)

A Dictionary Of English Quotations And Proverbs
With translations into Marathi
C.D. Deshmukh (Poona/Pune, India: 1973)

Classical and Foreign Quotations: a Polyglot Manual of Historical and Literary Sayings, Noted Passages in Poetry and Prose Phrases, Proverbs, and Bons Mots
Wm. Francis Henry King (London: 1904)


* Too many.

⁑ A bit of irony in this title, since it was written over 115 years ago.

Writing During the New Year

December 29, 2020 — 20 Comments

A new year is dawning, and the future is yours to write. For writers, these optimistic words possess doubled promise.

Metaphorically, 2021 offers all of us a fresh beginning. We can build on the good aspects of our lives, and abandon behaviors that result in less desirable outcomes. Some people do that in the form of making “new year resolutions.”

The new year offers those who write—a large number of those who actively follow Mere Inkling—a new opportunity to pursue our literary dreams. For example, we can begin scheduling regular times for studying the art, and even (I realize this is shocking) for writing itself!

Certainly, many of life’s experiences remain beyond our control, but how we choose to respond to them is not. And it is not too challenging to imagine that these unpleasant days of social isolation might contribute to inherently personal pursuits such as writing.

While I was working on an upcoming post about “quotations,” I encountered the volume illustrated at the top of this column. It represents the first two pages of A Year Book of Quotations: From the Writings of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, with spaces for Autographs and Records (New York: 1896).

Look not mournfully into the Past. It comes not back again. Wisely improve the Present. It is thine. Go forth to meet the shadowy Future without fear, and with a manly* heart. (Hyperion).

These pages commended themselves to me as an ideal exemplar of the point I am attempting to make. New Year’s Day is an ideal time to begin new writing practices. While the hobby of collecting “autographs” may have declined through the years, the value of keeping written “records” has not.

The very structure of this journal invites a reader to preserve their unique insights. And, while the space in the book itself is limited, the blank lines serve to remind us that a few minutes devoted to the keyboard or pen each day can be worthwhile.

Longfellow’s Influence on C.S. Lewis

The epic poetry of Longfellow (1807-1882) was highly regarded during his lifetime. Following the death of his second wife, he wrote less poetry and focused on translating foreign authors into English.

In a 1915 letter to his father, Lewis commented on Rudyard Kipling’s militant promotion of the First World War. As he concluded his thoughts on the subject, he wrote, “I conceive that Kipling is one of those writers who has the misfortune in common with Longfellow, of always being known and liked for his worst works.”

There is one poem in Longfellow’s works—a piece inspired by his translation of a Swedish poet—that greatly impacted a very young C.S. Lewis. In “Tegner’s drapa,” Lewis encountered the essence of “Northernness” which would fuel his imagination the remainder of his life.

The entire poem is available here, but it was the ode’s opening that sparked the flame.⁑ Lewis describes the incident in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy.

It will be clear that at this time—at the age of six, seven, and eight—I was living almost entirely in my imagination; or at least that the imaginative experience of those years now seems to me more important than anything else. . . . I had become fond of Longfellow’s Saga of King Olaf: fond of it in a casual, shallow way for its story and its vigorous rhythms.

But then, and quite different from such pleasures, and like a voice from far more distant regions, there came a moment when I idly turned the pages of the book and found the unrhymed translation of “Tegner’s Drapa” and read,

I heard a voice that cried,
Balder the beautiful
Is dead, is dead.

I knew nothing about Balder; but instantly I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky, I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described (except that it is cold, spacious, severe, pale, and remote) and then, as in the other examples, found myself at the very same moment already falling out of that desire and wishing I were back in it.

In 1927, Lewis penned a lengthy letter to his brother, which included an entertaining discussion of American authors. He highlights the nationalistic bragging to which many Americans succumb. He encourages Warnie to recall the days when the two of them boasted about the accomplishments of Northern Ireland.

If you cast back your mind, when we were at Wynyard we were in exactly that phase: it gave us a pleasure at which I still blush to din into people’s ears the fact that Belfast had the largest gantry in the British isles or had launched the largest ship afloat.

But we have outgrown it: it would now give me no appreciable thrill to convince the fellows of Magdalen that my father was the largest batata⁂ in Europe. If the analogy between peoples and individuals were sound, I suppose we should have to forgive the Americans for being in a state which we once passed through ourselves.

After discussing several others, Lewis confesses, “Hawthorne I admire beyond words: and ‘I have a sneaking affection’ for Longfellow.”

In retrospect, all of us who appreciate the writer C.S. Lewis became, owe a profound debt to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

And, if Longfellow’s collection of quotations—with spaces for Autographs and Records—encourages any of us to renew our commitment to becoming better writers, we have another good reason to be grateful.


* Yes, the pronouns are a bit dated, but we all know what Longfellow meant.

⁑ You can find direct inspiration for Longfellow’s poem in his translation of the poetry of Esaias Tegnér (1782-1846).

⁂ In case you are like me, and didn’t know, a batata is a sweet potato. It may also have been used as slang for Irish people, referring to being potato eaters. One can just imagine the two young men touting such a grand accomplishment by their father. (If anyone knows the precise meaning Lewis intended for the word, please let us know!)

We’re accustomed to hearing the word “lust” used in a positive manner, such as “she has a lust for life.”

You might even see this in the context of writing. C.S. Lewis himself did this. In 1948, in a letter to an American pastor, he apparently answers a query about what inspires him to write. “The ‘incentive’ for my books has always been the usual one—an idea and then an itch or lust to write.”

I resonate with Lewis’ response. Some idea dawns on me—usually arising from something I’m reading—and then I get the desire to put my own twist on it and share the original idea with others.

This post is no different. I have been working on the military chaplaincy journal that I edit, and I was reading the poetry of a British chaplain from the First World War. Rev. G.A. Studdert Kennedy (1883-1929) was an Anglican priest. He was awarded the Military Cross due to his “disregard for his own safety in attending to the wounded under heavy fire.” The award also noted his Gospel contribution to the harsh life of WWI trenches. “He searched shell holes for our own and enemy wounded, assisting them to the dressing station, and his cheerfulness and endurance had a splendid effect upon all ranks in the front line trenches, which he constantly visited.”

You can read many of his poems in past issues of Curtana: Sword of Mercy, which is available for free download here.

After reading some of his poetry, I turned for the first time to one of his postwar books. It was entitled “Lies!” and addresses a litany of deceptions that plague the world. Included among these deceits is “the lie of lust.”

In the following excerpt, he refers to writing prurient literature which can guarantee a market. It is echoed by a later comment I read from a writer who said she had to write erotic novels to supplement her preferred titles, just so she could make a living. She used a pen name, of course, for the smut.

You can follow Chaplain Kennedy’s argument in the excerpt which follows. Since it is rather lengthy, I will highlight the reference to writing by using a boldface font. Kennedy contrasts in this passage the conflict between humanity’s sinfulness and our call to holiness, the struggle the Apostle Paul describes so succinctly in the seventh chapter of Romans.

“For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.”

Here is Kennedy’s argument:

But lust in a man is obscene and filthy because it is unnatural. It becomes cruel and debased. It does not proceed to the making of children naturally and cleanly; it descends to unmentionable and disgusting things. The report on the German atrocities in Belgium* provides a kind of horror-chamber in which we can see what lust can bring men to. As one reads that awful document a kind of hot shame comes over one, and makes one sweat for sorrow over sin.

The sting of that shame lies in the fact that one is dreadfully conscious that the root of that disgusting horror is there in one’s own soul. Have you never felt a ghastly doubt rising up in your mind when you read such things? Now what am I reading this for? Is it purely because I want to hate it . . ?

Write a book about the cruelties and debaucheries of a Nero or a Rasputin, and it will sell. There is an appeal in it which thousands, nay, which all men feel, which all men would answer, if the other force within them failed. But the horror of it, the shame for it, is, thank God, as real, more real, than the appeal. There is human history: the war between the appeal and the repulsion of sin: the war between the monkey and the man.

There are thousands of writers, artists, playwrights, musicians, who are making their fortunes out of the appeal to the animal in man. It is the best paying business in the world. Yet, if there is anything that human experience makes certain, it is that there is no end to the journey a man makes in answer to that appeal except damnation, the utter loss of all that makes life good. Lust cannot satisfy a man, because he needs Love. Lust is unnatural in man, it leaves one side of his nature out, and sooner or later that neglected side has its revenge, and turns life’s sweetness bitter to his taste. Then in his despair he will descend in search of new sensations to things which men cannot mention, or even think of without shame. That is the way of it with all men if the great force fail that leads them upward from the animal to the human and divine (Lies! published in 1919).⁑

C.S. Lewis on Carnality

As noted, Lewis was able to use the word “lust” in its muted, nonliteral sense. He was also able to address it literally, and to challenge the hold it exerts on so many lives. In “Religion: Reality or Substitute?” C.S. Lewis vividly described how lust is an enemy.

If we wish to be rational, not now and then, but constantly, we must pray for the gift of Faith, for the power to go on believing not in the teeth of reason but in the teeth of lust and terror and jealousy and boredom and indifference that which reason, authority, or experience, or all three, have once delivered to us for truth.

In a more metaphorical manner, in the Great Divorce Lewis uses the surprising image of a foreboding ruddy lizard to portray the sinister nature of lust.  

I saw coming towards us a Ghost who carried something on his shoulder. Like all the Ghosts, he was unsubstantial, but they differed from one another as smokes differ. Some had been whitish; this one was dark and oily. What sat on his shoulder was a little red lizard, and it was twitching its tail like a whip and whispering things in his ear. As we caught sight of him he turned his head to the reptile with a snarl of impatience. “Shut up, I tell you!” he said. It wagged its tail and continued to whisper to him. He ceased snarling, and presently began to smile.

The encounter which follows is amazing. I won’t spoil it by describing how it ends, but I will once again encourage you to read what is one of my favorite novels. The Great Divorce is about the separation between Heaven and Hell, and explains how a loving God could allow some of his creation to choose a path away from him.

And a Bonus Insight from Dorothy Sayers

Lewis and Sayers were friends, and they deeply respected one another’s work. In 1943, Lewis wrote to Sayers congratulating her on her recently published The Other Six Deadly Sins. He said, “it is one of the few things which I find, within its limits, perfect—i.e. there is nothing one would wish added or removed or altered.” High praise.

Sayers brilliantly strips away some of the euphemisms that mask and confuse candid discussions about sin. This is how she begins what was originally delivered as a public address:

Perhaps the bitterest commentary on the way in which Christian doctrine has been taught in the last few centuries is the fact that to the majority of people the word “immorality” has come to mean one thing and one thing only. The name of an association like yours is generally held to imply that you are concerned to correct only one sin out of those seven which the Church recognizes as capital.

By a hideous irony, our shrinking reprobation of that sin has made us too delicate so much as to name it, so that we have come to use for it the words which were made to cover the whole range of human corruption. A man may be greedy and selfish; spiteful, cruel, jealous, and unjust; violent and brutal; grasping, unscrupulous, and a liar; stubborn and arrogant; stupid, morose, and dead to every noble instinct—and still we are ready to say of him that he is not an immoral man. I am reminded of a young man who once said to me with perfect simplicity: “I did not know there were seven deadly sins: please tell me the names of the other six.”

About the sin called Luxuria or Lust, I shall therefore say . . . that it is a sin, and that it ought to be called plainly by its own name, and neither huddled away under a generic term like immorality, nor confused with love.

The book sounds like it’s well worth reading. It has been out of print for eighty years⁂ but it appears to have been reproduced in toto by this website. (I plan to read the essay as soon as I get this post uploaded!)


* Over 800 civilians were killed by German troops as they advanced through neutral Belgium in 1914. A short describing of these events can be found at this British Library site.

⁑ You can download free copies of Chaplain Kennedy’s books at Internet Archive: Lies! or a collection of his poetry in Rough Rhymes of a Padre.

⁂ A single used copy is currently available via amazon, for the modest price of $287.36, with the comforting notation that the shipping is free.

This is the most amazing post you will ever read about hyperbole. Well, until you write one yourself and use even more exaggerated adjectives.

Hyperbole is a curious rhetorical device, a frequent element of satire. Unfortunately, hyperbole is too often employed in a sloppy way (e.g. “he was the worst politician ever”). Yet, in skillful hands it can be quite effective. For example, in English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, when Lewis discusses poet Michael Drayton,* he writes:

When he speaks simply as any lover he can sometimes outsoar all the sonneteers except Shakespeare. . . . Yet again, and in quite a different vein, that of towering hyperbole, Drayton (this time with no rival at all, neither Shakespeare nor any other) sets up the seamark beyond which poetry in that kind has never gone nor could go:

And Queens hereafter shall be glad to live
Upon the almes of thy superfluous prayse.

If he had never written another verse, these two would secure him that praise which is due to men who have done some one thing to perfection.

I was thinking about hyperbole after coming across a wonderful quote by Erasmus of Rotterdam⁑  about his contemporary, the reformer Martin Luther. Though they shared many concerns, they parted company on how best to reform the Roman Catholic Church. Erasmus objected to Luther’s tendency to take every disagreement to extremes, and he named the Wittenberg professor “Doctor Hyperbolicus.”

It reminded me of one of our sons. As a youngster, he suffered from that common childhood disease, excessive summa hyperbolism. Everything was either the best thing ever, or the worst thing he’d ever encountered. Sometimes I referred to him as the “King of Hyperbole,” which was hyperbole on my own part. He was more like a Duke of Hyperbole.

John Colet⁂ was another English scholar discussed in Lewis’ longest work. Colet was a theologian, and a strong advocate of biblically-grounded morality. As we frequently find, Lewis’ assessment is informative, and entertaining.

Colet is, in fact, a declamatory moralist. By calling him declamatory I do not at all mean that he is insincere, but that his methods are those of the declamation; repetition, hyperbole, and a liberal use of emotional adjectives. The morality he wishes to enforce is harsh and ascetic. . . .

The truth is that Colet is a Platonist at heart and has really little interest in the temporal and mutable world below the moon. . . . A cloistered perfectionist, who happens to be also a rhetorician, often says, not exactly more than he means, but more than he understands. He leaves out the reservations: he has really no idea of the crudely literal applications which will be made. (English Literature in the Sixteenth Century)

Hyperbole in Lewis’ Personal Life

The First World War began in 1914. It was a conflict which would cost ten million military lives. C.S. Lewis himself would be counted among a greater number, who suffered terrible wounds during combat. At the beginning of the conflict, Lewis gently chided his father for embracing a growing British fear.

My dear Papy, You have surpassed yourself. The popular press . . . remarks on the possibility of an invasion: the idea, after being turned over in your mind, appears in your next letter, clothed as “it is absolutely certain that he is going to invade England” Surely . . . this is rather hyperbole?

The one thing that Britain can depend upon is her fleet: and in any case Germany has her hands full enough. You will perhaps say that I am living in a fool’s paradise. “Maybe thon.” But, providing it only be a paradise is that not preferable to a wise and calculating inferno? Let us have wisdom by all means, so long as it makes us happy: but as soon as it runs against our peace of mind, let us throw it away and “carpe diem.” I often wonder how you came to have such a profound and genuine philosopher for your son, don’t you?

In a 1949 letter he explains to a correspondent that the Gospel claims to Christ’s divinity were not hyperbolic appellations.

The Jews may have had their own use of hyperbole but the last direction in wh. they would have used it was to deify a man. The absolute chasm which they put between Jahveh and His creatures was just the thing that cut them off from Pagans.

No other race could have told the stories they told about Moses & Elijah and yet left these persons absolutely, sheerly human. What was Jesus condemned for by the Sanhedrin? Surely His declaration “I am etc.” must have been recorded right?

And, finally, a quotation C.S. Lewis selected for inclusion in his anthology of George MacDonald’s writings.

“But how,” says a man, who is willing to recognize the universal neighborhood, but finds himself unable to fulfill the bare law toward the woman even whom he loves best—“How am I then to rise into that higher region, that empyrean of love?” And, beginning straightaway to try to love his neighbor, he finds that the empyrean of which he spoke is no more to be reached in itself than the law was to be reached in itself. . . .

The man who will love his neighbor can do so by no immediately operative exercise of the will. It is the man fulfilled of God from whom he came and by whom he is, who alone can as himself love his neighbor who came from God too and is by God too. The mystery of individuality and consequent relation is deep as the beginnings of humanity, and the questions thence arising can be solved only by him who has, practically at least, solved the holy necessities resulting from his origin. In God alone can man meet man. . . .

It is possible to love our neighbor as ourselves. Our Lord never spoke hyperbolically. (Unspoken Sermons, First Series, “Love Thy Neighbor”)

I am absolutely convinced C.S. Lewis is one of the most outstanding Christian writers in history. That’s not hyperbole. If anything, it is a vast understatement.


* A selection of the poetry of Michael Drayton (1563-1631) is available at Internet Archive. The introduction to the collection begins, “no poet is more thoroughly English than Michael Drayton.”

⁑ Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus (1466-1536) was a Dutch humanist who shared many concerns about the state of the Roman Catholic Church with Luther. However, he disliked Luther’s roughshod response and chose to attempt to accomplish some amount of reform from within. His early epistles are available in this free volume.

⁂ For more about John Colet (1467-1519), you might download this biography.

C.S. Lewis did not write a Cinderella story of his own, but he did refer to one of his books as his “Cinderella,” for a different reason.

The Cinderella folk tale is familiar to many cultures. Like the Ugly Duckling, it celebrates real life occasions where events turn upside down, and the disadvantaged are vindicated.

More than two thousand years ago, the Greeks told the story of Rhodopis, a Greek slave girl whose sandal was snatched by an eagle and dropped into the lap of the Egyptian pharaoh. His search for the lovely foot that graced the footwear culminated in a joyous marriage.

I was thinking about step parenting recently, and how some people care for their own children differently than they treat children brought into the union from a spouse’s previous relationship. The subject arose during my prayers, when I thought to offer thanks to God for the depth of love he has given me for my “step-grandchildren.” It is, as far as I can tell, indistinguishable from the love I hold for my biological grandkids.

Following my prayers, I reflected further on family. And—because it reflects real life in terms of raising children, I thought of the story of Cinderella. In particular, I was wondering whether the “wicked stepsisters” were destined to be cruel simply because they were raised by their “wicked stepmother.”

The answer to that dilemma is obvious. Do bad parents raise bad kids? Sometimes, but thankfully, not always. Do good parents raise good kids? Sometimes, but sadly, not always.

If you remove the outliers—the saints on one side and the sociopaths on the other—kids have a reasonable chance to turn out “okay.” Basically, just because someone’s parents are disreputable, doesn’t mean the kids will grow up to be bums as well.

This comes as no shock to any of us, of course. We are too sophisticated to impute the sins of the parents to their children. But are we really? In truth, we often make judgments based upon things utterly beyond a child’s control. Nationality, social status, physical or mental disability . . . some people default to an unconscious ranking of desirability.

I’m reminded of the rewards of working with orphans and the tragic manner in which even these victims are “ranked” in terms of their perceived worth. So much for viewing the world through carnal eyes.

C.S. Lewis described the way a children’s story can flip things around in a way that reveals truth. In 1947 he described this to an American correspondent.

About stories for children. (a) Don’t the ordinary fairy tales really already contain much of the Spirit, in solution? Does not Cinderella give us exaltavit humiles,* and is not Redemption figured in The Sleeping Beauty? (b) For something a little more explicit, what about Geo. MacDonald’s⁑ The Princess & the Goblins, Curdie & the Princess, The Wise Woman, and The Golden Key?

In a 1943 letter to Sister Penelope, Lewis commented on a manuscript she had sent for his review. He suggests a “longish speech” by Melchizedek would be better presented in a different manner.

He’s got to have the sense of mystery about him. That means, for purposes of these plays, he must sound like a king out of a fairy tale. Actually in this speech he sounds more like a Bampton Lecturer! Represents, condemnation, include, mediator all strike the wrong note. I am referring only to the style: the matter is perfectly right. It is easier, of course, to pick holes than to mend them!

He then offers a note about the power of stories to communicate facts and deeper truths.

If I were trying to do it myself I should make it a speech about the Kings of Salem, not about ‘kingship’ in general—like a special magic in that family. (The Kings of Salem are not ordinary kings. . . .)

On the imaginative level I think the deepest truths enter the mind much better as arbitrary marvels than as universal theorems. Cinderella had to be back at midnight—Psyche must not see Cupid’s face—Adam and Eve must not eat the fruit: how much better these statements are than any philosophical generalities about obedience.

C.S. Lewis’ Personal Cinderella

Each reader of C.S. Lewis has their personal favorite, thoughtfully selected from the rich buffet of his diverse works. While I treasure many of his works, my personal favorite is The Great Divorce. It pleases me that the title also occupied a special place in Lewis’ own estimation.

Lewis described the underappreciated volume as his “Cinderella.” The beauty and nobility were there all of the time, though unrecognized.

Writing in 1954 to his editor, Jocelyn Gibb, he expresses appreciation for two handsomely bound copies of his books. He says, “perhaps these two charming volumes will teach me at last to have for the bodies of my own books the same reverence I have for the bodies of all other books.” In the same letter he writes, “I am always glad to hear of anyone’s taking up that Cinderella, The Great Divorce.”

Kathryn Lindskoog wrote an article about the book, calling the volume “C.S. Lewis’s Divine Comedy.” She begins with a personal anecdote.

C. S. Lewis beamed, then said “It’s my Cinderella.” I had just told him how much I loved The Great Divorce. (If I had been forced to choose one favorite of all his books, that would have been my choice.) He said he didn’t understand why Screwtape Letters got all the attention when The Great Divorce was so much better.

The Screwtape Letters is another of Lewis’ works that continues to impress me for its unique and effective way of illustrating the malevolent mind that shapes so many of the temptations that assail us. But, for sheer pleasure, I too prefer the wisdom, and the witness to heaven’s reality, that shine so brightly in The Great Divorce.

——

* Exaltavit humiles comes from the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) and means God “has exalted the humble.”

⁑ Most of MacDonald’s books are available for free download at Google and Kindle.