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C.S. Lewis seldom kept a secret his low opinion of poor writers. This wasn’t because he was a literary snob, it’s because he was a literary critic.

Actually, the breadth of Lewis’ literary tastes was extraordinary. He didn’t expect texts to be more than what they purported to be, and could even enjoy the pulp fiction of his day. Still, Lewis had an eye for pretentious and anemic writing, and he sometimes penned cutting commentary

One of his lifelong friendships began with a discussion about poor writers. More about Lewis’ friendship with Oxford Classics scholar Nan Vance Dunbar (1928-2005) in a moment.

There are some contemporary voices that argue Lewis was misogynistic. Many of these complainants are non-Christian, and eager to see Lewis’ influence diminished. The truth is he possessed a strong traditional respect for women. And, while he unapologetically enjoyed the company of men—no surprise for a longtime bachelor—he counted a number of women scholars among his close friends.

My friend Brenton Dickieson has an excellent column on the subject of women in Lewis’ life, in which he persuasively argues that Lewis “was hardly the insular, sexist, Oxford bachelor that some would make him out to be.”

Professor Dunbar was a devout Christian, of the Presbyterian persuasion (no surprise, since she was Scottish). She attended one of Lewis’ lectures in 1955, and respectfully challenged in correspondence, his interpretation of the Roman poet Statius.

Their friendship grew, although they never agreed upon the status of Statius. The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis includes a biography of Dunbar which describes how the subject even brought her some peace when she was grieving Lewis’ death.

Lewis’s final letter to her, on 21 November 1963–possibly the last he wrote–was to arrange for a visit in December. When he died the next day, Nan was beside herself with grief.

She was consoled by the theologian, Henry Chadwick, Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford. Professor Chadwick reminded her that she would some day die. “And when you get to Heaven,” he said, “you will be met by Lewis. He will have got there before you, and he’ll have his arm firmly around a small man in a toga, who is being dragged along to meet you. ‘All right,’ Lewis will be saying to the ancient Roman–“Tell her!! Tell her!!”’

Nan had no doubt that Lewis would be in heaven, and she roared with laughter at the thought of Statius waiting there to rebuke her. Perhaps such thoughts gave her comfort when she confronted her own death.

The two had grown quite close. “Everyone would agree that Nan Dunbar–with her erudition, her common sense, her Christian faith, her lively conversation–would have been the ideal daughter for Lewis. Indeed, years later, in his letter of 18 November 1963, he spoke of her as ‘the liveliest and learnedest of my daughters.’” (Collected Letters).

Their Discussion about Bad Writers

Diplomas are not required for people to criticize books and writers. Wherever readers gather it is possible to find discussions about favorite, and least favorite writers.

Some literary reputations are so notorious they have awards devoted to them. Each year, for example, The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest draws thousands of entrants. Their motto is quite inviting: “Where WWW Means ‘Wretched Writers Welcome’”

The event honors the great author whose opening line in 1830 also enriches every story ever begun by Charles Schulz’ canine novelist Snoopy.

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness. (Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford)

It is unknown whether B-L’s name arose in the following conversation, but we do find references to two other “notorious” writers.

Dunbar met Lewis for the first time at a dinner in Girton College, probably on 25 January 1956. On finally meeting his critic, Lewis said: “Ah! Miss Dunbar! I’m glad to find you actually exist–I’d thought perhaps you were only the personification of my conscience!”

Lewis was charmed by this delightful Scottish woman, whose wonderful talk and Glaswegian accent made one think she had stepped out of a novel by Sir Walter Scott.

Dunbar remembered that over dinner she talked to Lewis about the Scottish writer William McGonagall (1825–1902), said to be the world’s worst poet, while Lewis introduced her to the Irish novelist Amanda McKittrick Ros (1860–1939), known as the world’s worst novelist. (Collected Letters).

If you care to read anything written by the writers Lewis and Dunbar mentioned in their dinner conversation, refer to the links below. While on its surface their repartee may appear uncharitable, it was certainly not intended to be.

After all, if our own writing brings some measure of joy and entertainment to others, most writers would welcome that. Similarly, to have one’s name associated in history with truly talented writers (even in such an unflattering manner) is by far preferable to the anonymity which is the swift destiny of all but a few.

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To learn more about McGonagall and Ros, you may wish to download the following free volumes: 

“He was not a poet at all, and that he has become synonymous with bad poetry in Scotland is only a natural consequence of Scottish insensitivity to the qualities alike of good poetry and of bad.” (Scottish Eccentrics)

“Sympathise with me, indeed! Ah, no! Cast your sympathy on the chill waves of troubled waters; fling it on the oases of futurity; dash it against the rock of gossip; or, better still, allow it to remain within the false and faithless bosom of buried scorn. Such were a few remarks of Irene as she paced the beach of limited freedom, alone and unprotected.” (Irene Iddesleigh by Amanda McKittrick Ros)

 

book head

Would C.S. Lewis have embraced digital books if he had lived to see them? Or, would the Oxford and Cambridge scholar have deemed them an abomination?

Posing questions like this—about how prominent historical figures would have regarded technologies invented after they died—relies on conjecture. In most cases, one can only “assume” the likeliest answer.

A recent essay entitled “The Screen and the Book” sounds like something C.S. Lewis could have written about the encroachment of digital media on the domain formerly commanded by print.

The contention of the author is that:

Books are solid. This is at once a physical description and a metaphysical one, and it is on this metaphysical solidity that we ought to ground our loyalty to the book over and against the allure of the ever-changing screen.

When it comes to the notion of Lewis comparing heavily loaded bookshelves to a text laden hard drive, there is absolutely no question which he would prefer.

As Lewis declared in one essay, “an unliterary man may be defined as one who reads books once only.” (“On Stories”)

Lewis would without any doubt have despised the way ebooks have been displacing “real” books.

Lewis’ affection for modern and ancient codices enshrining the written word is legendary. In fact, one cannot possibly navigate the internet without repeatedly crashing into this single quotation: “You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.”

One could fill volumes with Lewis’ comments about books. And that’s not simply because he was an astute literary critic. The simple truth is that C.S. Lewis loved books. A few less familiar quotations follow.

Some Bookish Thoughts Penned by C.S. Lewis

Lewis expressed his affection for devotional literature in a 1930 letter to Arthur Greeves.

All private reading has ceased, except for 20 minutes before bed (if alone) when I drink a cup of cocoa and try to wash the day off with MacDonald’s Diary of an Old Soul.

I shall soon have finished it and must look round for another book. Luckily the world is full of books of that general type: that is another of the beauties of coming, I won’t say, to religion but to an attempt at religion—one finds oneself on the main road with all humanity, and can compare notes with an endless succession of previous travellers. It is emphatically coming home: as Chaucer says “Returneth home from worldly vanitee.”

Books are vital to the preservation of what is good.

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”)

Lewis describes classical education’s focus on the ancients, and the natural affection readers had for poetic works they encountered on their own.

The great authors of the past wrote to entertain the leisure of their adult contemporaries, and a man who cared for literature needed no spur and expected no good conduct marks for sitting down to the food provided for him. Boys at school were taught to read Latin and Greek poetry by the birch, and discovered the English poets as accidentally and naturally as they now discover the local cinema.

Most of my own generation, and many, I hope, of yours, tumbled into literature in that fashion. . . . Shall we be thought immodest if we claim that most of the books we loved from the first were good books and our earliest loves are still unrepented? (“High Brows and Low Brows”)

In the following letter from 1953, Lewis praises existing volumes on the subject of prayer and explains his hope for Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer.

I invite your prayers about a work which I now have in hand. I am trying to write a book about private prayers for the use of the laity, especially for those who have been recently converted to the Christian faith and so far are without any sustained and regular habit of prayer.

I tackled the job because I saw many no doubt very beautiful books written on this subject of prayer for the religious but few which instruct tiros and those still babes (so to say) in the Faith. I find many difficulties nor do I definitely know whether God wishes me to complete this task or not.

In his essay “George Orwell,” Lewis relates his strong preference for Animal Farm over 1984. In addition to being prescient, he refers in a creative manner to his appetite for good books.

What puzzles me is the marked preference of the public for 1984 [over Animal Farm]. For it seems to me (apart from its magnificent, and fortunately detachable, Appendix on “Newspeak”) to be merely a flawed, interesting book; but the Farm is a work of genius which may well outlive the particular and (let us hope) temporary conditions that provoked it.

To begin with, it is very much the shorter of the two. This in itself would not, of course, show it to be the better. I am the last person to think so. . . .

My appetite is hearty and when I sit down to read I like a square meal. But in this instance the shorter book seems to do all that the longer one does; and more. The longer book does not justify its greater length. There is dead wood in it.

In 1928 Lewis mentioned a project that would have made fascinating reading if he had pursued it. He describes how an engaging volume can capture our attention in such a way that it leads us on a continuing quest of literary exploration.

My studies in the XVIth century—you will remember my idea of a book about Erasmus—have carried me much further back than I anticipated. Indeed it is the curse and the fascination of literary history that there are no real beginnings.

Take what point you will for the start of some new chapter in the mind and imaginations of man, and you will invariably find that it has always begun a bit earlier; or rather, it branches so imperceptibly out of something else that you are forced to go back to the something else. The only satisfactory opening for any study is the first chapter of Genesis.

Did Lewis Write the Following?

I’ll tell you the answer up front. No, he didn’t. But to my ear it sounds like it could easily have come from his lips.

In actuality, it is the closing statement of the essay referred to above. And, since it so clearly echoes the sentiments of C.S. Lewis, I deemed it fitting to close with it.

If you want to destroy a child’s love for learning, get rid of books. Serve him Plato from a PDF and E.B. White from an e-reader. Banish from his formative years any experience of objects that incarnate immaterial thought.

Remove the impractical, antiquated book in all its stubborn solidity, and encourage the child to dive into the flux wherein everything could be otherwise.

If we do this absolutely, if we ensure that not even the rumor of books reaches our rising generation, we will create a new man for the digital age: a puddle of disconnected thoughts pretending to have a head.

A Rare C.S. Lewis Book

March 29, 2017 — 6 Comments

readers

Just because you read a book doesn’t mean you need to purchase it for your library. Yet some of us do feel compelled to add almost every volume we enjoy to our personal collections. The dilemma arises when the cost of a particular book may exceed its “long-term” value to us.

Faced with this question a few weeks ago, I pursued a course open to many readers of Mere Inkling. I simply borrowed the book from my local library, which in turn borrowed it via interlibrary loan from a university in a neighboring state. Most libraries offer this service without charge. I regularly use it when researching obscure subjects I don’t anticipate I will continue to follow.

The subject of the particular text I am currently reading, of course, C.S. Lewis. While I believe I own a copy of every work ever written by Lewis that has been published, I doubt any human being could gather together every book written about the Oxford and Cambridge professor.

The Volume in Question

So, I have been spending some time during recent days reading notes and essays on Lewis that were written in a variety of periodicals and collected in 1992. Critical Thought Series 1: Critical Essays on C.S. Lewis was edited by George Watson, and published by Scolar Press. Watson also served as General Editor of the Series, compiled “in an attempt to recover the controversies that have surrounded the great critics of the modern age.”

The material is of particular interest to those interested in Lewis’ work as a literary critic. In addition to general reviews, there are special sections for critiques of The Allegory of Love, A Preface to Paradise Lost, and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century. Allow me to share a small taste of CEoCSL.

In the editor’s introductory article, he argues that Lewis possessed an “essential modernity, which was seldom if ever noticed in his lifetime.” An example he offers is Lewis’ “mingling of formalism and fantasy.” This facet of Lewis’ genius has a peculiar result.

[Lewis] belongs to that rare breed of critics who are more original than they would wish to be.

Watson also provides an intriguing view of how Lewis’ faith and literary community were perceived by those outside its influence.

Early and late, critics and reviewers found [Lewis] a hard nut to crack. In his middle years, from the late 1930s till his removal to Cambridge in 1954, the critical reception of his works was admiring of his style but wary of his matter.

It was vaguely understood by the late 1930s that a neo-Christian group of story-tellers and critics existed at Oxford, even that they were known as Inklings; but they formed no part of London literary life and were widely seen as a reactionary clique all to apt to a remote, rainy place celebrated for its devotion to lost causes and impossible loyalties.

Lewis, though a best seller, belonged wholly to that remote world, and his sales only made matters worse. They made him look formidable. He and his friends were occasionally dismissed as new-romantics, since a label can be an easy excuse for declining discussion; and the suspected association with Chesterton was not, to avant-garde opinion, endearing. The Inklings were anti-Modernist, anti-modern, backward-looking and deliberately unfashionable.

As I hinted above, this book contains a number of interesting pieces not readily accessible elsewhere. It is no hagiography, and includes essays that offer criticisms of some of Lewis’ writing.

In one review of English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, American poet and literary critic Yvor Winters enumerates problems he has with Lewis’ arguments. He then wraps up his review with an analysis of the cause of the disagreements.

There are many men who have re more in this field than I have, and Lewis is certainly one of them. Some of them will find errors in Lewis which have overlooked. I have found more errors in my own few publications than I have found in Lewis. It is not the errors in scholarship which trouble me, primarily, however, for those are inevitable. It is the critical mind that bothers me. . . .

There is a great deal in Lewis’s book which is valuable, and I may as well confess a great deal which has added to my own education. . . . But what is the function of this kind of book? No single man is competent to write it. . . .

Because it is impossible to write a flawless survey] the book is, as I have said, misleading, and so is every other book of the kind which I have ever read. And within twenty years it will doubtless be superseded by another book on the same subject, which will be better in some ways and worse in others.

The first-rate monograph, or the first-rate critical essay, is never superseded; it becomes a part of literature; but the text-book is a hugger-mugger affair, no matter who writes it. Lewis undertook a thankless task, and a hopeless one.

Personal Libraries

You are fortunate if you have this volume in your library. But don’t let its absence rob you of the chance to read it. There are many fascinating insights to be gleaned from its pages . . . and I am certainly glad that I borrowed it.

Oh, and as to Winters’ prediction that Lewis’ treatment of sixteenth century English literature would be superseded . . . thanks to the marvels of Kindle, it remains in print more than sixty years after his prognostication.

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The picture on this page is a drawing entitled, “Their First Quarrel.” It was obviously sketched prior to the invention of the television and cellphone.

hooper

Upon Lewis’ death, Walter Hooper assisted Inkling Owen Barfield (1898-1997) in overseeing Lewis’ literary estate. He continues to serve as a literary advisor to the estate. Hooper’s Lewisian contributions have grown in magnitude over the years.

He began by co-authoring a biography of Lewis in 1974, written jointly with Roger Lancelyn Green (1918-87). Green had been a student of Lewis, and a member of the Inklings. After writing several other works through the years, in the late nineties he penned C.S. Lewis: A Companion and Guide and C.S. Lewis: A Complete Guide to His Life and Works. Priceless resources!

The list of material edited by Hooper is quite impressive. He dutifully, and brilliantly, edited many of Lewis’ writings. The world should be particularly grateful for the three-volume compilation of Lewis’ correspondence. A humble man, Hooper writes sincerely in the preface to the volumes: “The eight years I have spent editing the letters would not have been as fruitful nor as pleasant were it not for the help of many others. My debts are numerous, and nothing I can say can adequately reflect my gratitude.”

Hooper’s meeting with Lewis was providential, coming as it did so near the end of the great author’s life. The following letter describes their arrangement. It reveals how much Lewis appreciated the initial assistance provided by Hooper, and how hopeful he was that Hooper would be able to resume his secretarial duties in the summer of 1963. Lewis remained, however, concerned about how he would meet all of his financial responsibilities in the wake of his medical retirement.

[The Kilns] 20 Sept 63

My dear Walter

We get on reasonably well, tho’ we all greatly miss, not only your utility, but your companionship. No one has ever so endeared himself to the whole household.

The noble Arthurian volumes continue to arrive, but are not yet on the shelves. The work of arranging all my books in their new homes, tho’ delightful, goes on v[ery] slowly, for I am not strong enough to do more than a little each day.

Now, about the future. It is entirely reasonable that you shd have a salary and a darn good one, and I feel I have been rather sponging on your kindness. But what it may be proper for you to ask may also be impossible for me to do.

I dare not at present increase my expenses. In this country one is taxed each year on the income of the previous year. One’s first year in retirement is therefore very alarming. And if, on top of the drop in income, there are the expenses of an illness, and some rather heavy and unexpected expenses for David–well you see.

I am v. ashamed, not of confessing the situation, but of refusing the wholly just demand from a man to whom I already owe more than any money could repay.

But you see, having you as a paid secretary wd. be a luxury, and I’ve no right to imperil those who depend on me for the sake of a luxury to myself.

On other grounds, I couldn’t recommend you to come in January. Mrs Miller and I talked it over and both concluded that an English house in an English winter wd. be misery for you. Our central-heating apparatus is v. primitive (nothing like yours) and we can afford to use it only during very cold snaps.

If you can afford to come in June, you will be thrice welcome. W. is still away. I fear he’ll kill himself if this goes on much longer.

Our plums are splendid this year. With all our loves. Yours Jack

A Wonderful Interview with Hooper

Walter Hooper has been very content to remain behind the scene, and deep in the shadow of the man whose memory he preserves.

Fortunately, in addition to his personal writings and editorial work, Hooper has been willing to speak in various settings. The photograph at the top of the page comes from the unveiling of Lewis’ memorial in Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner.

We owe a debt of gratitude to “Socrates in the City: Conversations on the Examined Life,” which is produced by Eric Metaxas, a Christian writer and syndicated radio host.

Metaxas took his program from the city of New York, to the city of Oxford to avail himself of the wealth of brilliant speakers accessible there. Among those he interviewed in this casual setting is Walter Hooper. Wonderfully, the Hooper interview was substantial enough that it is presented in three parts. Do check it out.

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.

Is Fantasy Foolish?

April 26, 2016 — 11 Comments

lion of lyonSome of the smartest people around dismiss reading fantasy as a crazy waste of time. At the same time, many of the most brilliant people I know love nothing more than passing from their mundane lives through a magical wardrobe into a land of wonder.

On a recent episode of the television series Castle, the eponymous Richard Castle,* a best-selling author and private eye, has a great line. Castle is defending his hyperactive imagination (which frequently leads to the solving of the crime of the week).

A suspect calls him “reality-challenged.”

To which he responds, “I prefer fantasy-augmented.”

Now, there’s a description that would fit most readers of Mere Inkling. We’re “fantasy-augmented.”

It would also fit most of the Oxford Inklings. Not all of them, of course. Some of them, like C.S. Lewis’ brother Warnie, were more oriented towards factual, historical literature.

The fantasists among their ranks were not lacking as writers of nonfiction either.

However, it was the fact that they were “fantasy-augmented” that has led to the inclusion of several of their members in the first ranks of twentieth century writers.

Narnia and Middle Earth are as real to many people today as Ogre, Latvia, Humpty Do, Australia, Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, Wales, and Frankenstein, Missouri. (Perhaps more real!)

In 1936, C.S. Lewis wrote a letter to Charles Williams, praising his recent novel.**

A book sometimes crosses ones path which is so like the sound of ones native language in a strange country that it feels almost uncivil not to wave some kind of flag in answer.

I have just read your Place of the Lion and it is to me one of the major literary events of my life–comparable to my first discovery of George Macdonald, G. K. Chesterton, or Wm. Morris.

The following day, Williams wrote a letter of his own to C.S. Lewis. It began:

My dear Mr Lewis, If you had delayed writing another 24 hours our letters would have crossed. It has never before happened to me to be admiring an author of a book while he at the same time was admiring me. My admiration for the staff work of the Omnipotence rises every day. To be exact, I finished on Saturday looking—too hastily—at proofs of your Allegorical Love Poem.

William’s reference to coincidence is poetic. He doesn’t rely on the timeworn “divine Providence,” which is so prevalent in literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Returning to Lewis’ missive, we learn exactly how Williams’ fantasy so deeply impressed him.

A book sometimes crosses ones path which is so like the sound of ones native language in a strange country that it feels almost uncivil not to wave some kind of flag in answer. I have just read your Place of the Lion and it is to me one of the major literary events of my life—comparable to my first discovery of George Macdonald, G.K. Chesterton, or Wm. Morris.

There are layers and layers—first the pleasure that any good fantasy gives me: then, what is rarely (tho’ not so very rarely) combined with this, the pleasure of a real philosophical and theological stimulus: thirdly, characters: fourthly, what I neither expected nor desired, substantial edification.

It’s unlikely that any of us should ever author a work that would equally impress C.S. Lewis. Still, what a grand goal for any fantasy-augmented writer to strive for!

_____

* Castle is played by Nathan Fillion, who captained the spacecraft “Serenity,” in a delightful series entitled Firefly.

** You can download The Place of the Lion in a variety of formats at ManyBooks.

The illustration above is used with the permission of its creator, Charis Tsevis.

 

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.