Archives For Great Authors

Be an Inkling

May 3, 2017 — 5 Comments

Lemming Critique

Do you invite others to critique your writing before you publish it? If you want to be successful, you definitely should.

I never cease to be amazed at how presumptuous some writers are. I’m referring to those who deny their work could be improved by having others offer suggestions for improving it.

When I reflect on the fact that C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien subjected their own work to the critical eyes (and ears) of their peers, I realize I must do no less.

Just as their involvement in the Inklings made them better authors, in the same way our participating in writing or critiquing fellowship is vital to our advancing in the art.

Lewis recognized this early in life. Long before the birth of the Inklings, he exchanged “works in progress” with his lifelong friend, Arthur Greeves.

Lewis went so far as to declare, in a 1916 letter to Greeves: “It is impossible to write one’s best if nobody else ever has a look at the result.”

Benefits of Writing Fellowships

Some profitable results that come from participating in a support group are obvious. Depending on the group, your compatriots identify places where your writing is not as clear as you intend it to be. Some participants may also be good copy editors, and willing to share their skills.

Then there are the proverbial “grammar Nazis” whose contributions are actually valuable, if you desire to write well. (Of course, the comments of others are only suggestions, and all writers are free to implement, or dismiss, the advice.)

In longer works, your writing companions can help you identify when your pace is erratic or your story is going off track. It’s not uncommon for them to offer worthwhile ideas that would never have come to you if you relied solely on your own cranium.

Another benefit comes from gaining new insights into the writing life. For example, one of my writing partners made this observation that continues to guide me. Discussing how frequently I digress to extinguish any possibility of misunderstanding, he said, “The instinct of the journalist is to be concise. The instinct of the historian is to be thorough. You’re a historian.” Realizing that I invariably default to the latter, the historian, helps me to consciously attempt to temper that orientation. (I know, I don’t succeed too well with that, but just imagine what my writing would be like if I surrendered unconditionally to my innate inclination.)

Encouraging Others

Participating in a writing collective means we never have to be isolated, alone with words destined never to be seen by another human eye. At the very least, we share them with our friends. And, potentially, the collaborative process helps see them through to publication

It is well known that without C.S. Lewis’ persistent encouragement, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit would never have seen print.

Lewis revealed his nature as an encourager early in his life. The quotation above comes, in fact, from a letter when he is challenging Greeves to continue faithfully sending his work for Lewis to comment upon.

I do really want to see something of yours, and you must know that it is impossible to write one’s best if nobody else ever has a look at the result.

However, I told you I would proceed to serious measures, so here is my manifesto. I, Clive Staples Lewis, student, do hereby give notice that unless some literary composition of Arthur Greeves be in my possession on or before midnight on the last night of June in the year nineteen hundred and sixteen, I shall discontinue from that date forward, all communication to the said Arthur Greeves of every kind, manner, and description whatsoever, until such composition or compositions be forwarded. ‘So there’ as the children say. Now let us go on.

This amusing passage reminds us of two final things. First, if we have difficulty connecting with a local writing group, remember that we are not limited by geographic proximity. (Never truer than in today’s wired world.)

A second lesson is that, as in most human relations, humor makes good things even better. Oh, how the halls of Magdalen College and the Eagle and Child must have echoed with their laughter.

Devastated by Criticism

November 14, 2016 — 14 Comments

calvin-criticismHow do you feel when others criticize something you’ve written? Do you just want to tear your work up and start all over again? If you do, you have something in common with J.R.R. Tolkien, creator of Lord of the Rings. And he is not the only great writer with whom you share this hypersensitive trait.

Tolkien’s inability to accept constructive criticism is no secret; it is frequently noted in biographies.

Few people enjoy receiving criticism, and we are often suspicious of the mental health of those who do. Yet many writers actively seek out constructive criticism in order to sharpen their skills and improve their work.

That is a major reason for the existence of writers’ groups which pop up in varying expressions wherever serious writers live. While another benefit of such communities is the simple encouragement that comes from gathering with others who share your passion, it is the critical examination of each other’s manuscripts which provides the clearest concrete benefit. It’s no accident many such literary meetings are actually called critique groups.

Tolkien was a member of one of the most famous such fellowships that ever existed, the Inklings. It was in that setting where he first shared the stories of hobbits and elves who would make such a profound impact on Western literature. He said it was primarily through the encouragement of the Inklings—specifically his good friend, C.S. Lewis—that these amazing stories were ever published.

You see, Tolkien had a terrible and frequently fatal flaw . . . When his writing was criticized, he felt compelled to toss it aside and begin anew. Many other writers have been afflicted with this curse, and not all of them had a C.S. Lewis to rescue their words from the dust bin.

I have shared in the past Lewis’ description of his friend’s handicap.

No one ever influenced Tolkien—you might as well try to influence a bander-snatch. We listened to his work, but could affect it only by encouragement. He has only two reactions to criticism; either he begins the whole work over again from the beginning or else takes no notice at all.

Criticism of the Constructive Variety

As I said a moment ago, no one really craves criticism, and yet most serious writers actively solicit it. As I write this very column, it is with the intention of sharing it tomorrow with my friends in my own writing circles.

When you read it, it will likely have changed, probably in subtle, enriching ways. You can gauge the benefit of mutual critiquing by the amount and the quality of the criticism which is shared. And, should you feel violated, rebuke defensiveness and remind yourself that even the greats, like Tolkien and Lewis, gained from the comments and suggestions of their friends.

I recently learned of another individual who struggled with receiving criticism. It was John Calvin, the father of Reformed theology. Belonging to the Lutheran branch of the church universal, my readings in Reformed history have been limited. However, I’m currently reading two similarly titled books* and I discovered something that may be commonly known to Reformed clergy but was news to me.

He often tended to express his disappointment in extravagant terms. When he encountered an obstacle, his reaction was stark: he would burn his manuscript, never write again, never publish anything again. His decision to write was motivated by external factors: a request by his circle of friends and colleagues, or as the result of his emotional reaction to an event or a work that he read. . . . (John Calvin and the Printed Book)

The good news though is Calvin did not allow these obstacles to have the final say. Instead, he turned to those he trusted and sought their counsel.

Indeed, his extreme sensitivity meant that he needed to have the emotional support of close friends. As a Reformer and specifically as an author, Calvin never worked in isolation even though he was the dominant figure in his setting. While he was confident of the quality of his writings, Calvin still had no hesitation in submitting them to his colleagues before publication. (Ibid.)

Not that Calvin always welcomed suggestions. There was one particular Reformer to whom he sent some of his work whose “commend from Zurich were too numerous and detailed. Hence Calvin stopped sending his manuscripts to Bullinger prior to printing, although he maintained cordial relations with the Zurich Reformer.” I can almost read Calvin’s mind at the time: I asked for your suggestions, not a complete rewrite of the manuscript.

So, it appears those of us who feel discomfort at the sting of criticism—even when we request it—stand in good company. So don’t ever let that temporary pain discourage you from continuing to write.

____

* A 2005 volume is called John Calvin and the Printed Book, while a 2015 collection of essays is called Calvin and the Book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sure mark of an unliterary man is that he considers “I’ve read it already” to be a conclusive argument against reading a work. . . . Those who read great works, on the other hand, will read the same work ten, twenty or thirty times during the course of their life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Classics as Curricula

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

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

One Roman Catholic university describes theirs in this way:

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

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

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

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

_____

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Offering Gentle Criticism

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

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

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

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

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

A Poetic Postscript

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

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

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

_____

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

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

punch dante

csl introvertLearning about ourselves is a lifelong quest. And the more actively we pursue self-knowledge, the wiser we become.

A well known sixteenth century Christian mystic wrote:

“Self-knowledge is so important that even if you were raised right up to the heavens, I should like you never to relax your cultivation of it.” (Saint Teresa of Ávila, Interior Castle).

This self-knowledge leads to a greater recognition of our dependence on God. She continues, “so long as we are on this earth, nothing matters more to us than humility. . . . As I see it, we shall never succeed in knowing ourselves unless we seek to know God: let us think of His greatness and then come back to our own baseness; by looking at His purity we shall see our foulness; by meditating on His humility, we shall see how far we are from being humble.”

C.S. Lewis echoes this sentiment.

If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realise that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed. (Mere Christianity).

As part of my self-examination, I have recently revisited my “personality type” as assessed by the well known Myers Briggs Personality Indicator (MBTI).

Without over-explaining the MBTI, it measures an individual’s preference related to four ways by which we experience and make sense of the world. (News Flash: Not everyone perceives reality the same way!)

These dichotomies are:

Extraversion (E) or Introversion (I)

Whether your preferred focus is outward or inward.

Sensing (S) or Intuition (N)

How you focus on information and process it.

Thinking (T) or Feeling (F)

Primary preference in your decision-making.

Judging (J) or Perceiving (P)

Your orientation towards making sense of existence.

You can get some additional authoritative information here. There are also numerous “unofficial” websites related to the subject.

Sixteen combinations are possible, and each has its respective strengths. (None are “better” than others, of course, since we’re all created in the image of God.)

Speaking of which, I’ve also been studying the different combinations that are more common to Christian ministers than they are within the general population.

For example, the following types (with their shorthand title) range from two to six times more common for male clergy than the general male American population:

ENFJ (The Teacher)

ENFP (The Provider)

INFP (The Healer)

INFJ (The Counselor)

ENTJ (The Field Marshal)

Which type of pastor do you prefer?

Online Surveys to Visit after you finish this post

There are a number of free MBTI-type tests online. Naturally, they are not as reliable as the official inventory given through a certified provider. Nevertheless, the following sites did render accurate assessments for me, based on my formal scoring.

I have mentioned in the past that I am an *NTJ… with the asterisk representing that my I/E preference is too close to call. A previous post shows how that makes me a blend of Middle Earth’s Elrond and Théoden.

Humanmetrics Jung Typology Test

CelebrityTypes Personality Type Test

So, What Is C.S. Lewis’ Personality Type?

This is a subjective question. The MBTI is a self-reported assessment, so guessing the type of another person is by nature dicey.

In Lewis’ case, however, there is a fair degree of consensus. This is due to his openness about his personal life and his extensive writings. The general agreement does not mean though that there are not minority opinions.

The most common argument is that C.S. Lewis was INTJ. I find the reasons persuasive, and not just because it matches my own type!

One student of the subject says “Check out this quote—how INTJ is this?!”

Five senses; an incurably abstract intellect; a haphazardly selective memory; a set of preconceptions and assumptions so numerous that I can never examine more than a minority of them—never become even conscious of them all. How much of total reality can such an apparatus let through? (A Grief Observed)

One blogger writes, “There is no doubt in my mind that Lewis was an INTJ. It seeps off all his writing and is blatant in his behavior in all of his biographies.” She continues:

Highly imaginative child who lived in a dream world? Check.

Someone highly emotional/sensitive but that never showed it on the surface? Check.

A prolific writer who blazed through finishing projects at an astounding rate, who was so successful at everything he did, despite never having done it before, that he quickly rose to the top? Check.

Another site considers both C.S. Lewis and his fellow inkling J.R.R. Tolkien to be INFPs. The aptly titled CelebrityTypes.com offers a brief selection of quotations to illustrate the reasons for their identification.

If the site’s identifications are accurate, the two are in good company. Other writers include John Milton, Augustine of Hippo, Hans Christian Andersen, William Shakespeare, Søren Kierkegaard, George Orwell, A.A. Milne, Edgar Allan Poe, William Blake, J.K. Rowling and George R.R. Martin.

A Warning from Lewis Himself

Understanding ourselves better than we already do, is a good thing.

Being overly curious about the personality of someone who is deceased is another matter. Lewis’ point in the passage that follows is that such concerns must never supersede our regard for others, in the spirit of Matthew 8:22.*

There is a reaction at present going on against the excessive love of pet animals. We have been taught to despise the rich, barren woman who loves her lap dog too much and her neighbor too little. It may be that when once the true impulse is inhibited, a dead poet is a nobler substitute than a live Peke, but this is by no means obvious.

You can do something for the Peke, and it can make some response to you. It is at least sentient; but most poetolaters [worshippers of poets] hold that a dead man has no consciousness, and few indeed suppose that he has any which we are likely to modify. Unless you hold beliefs which enable you to obey the colophons of the old books by praying for the authors’ souls, there is nothing that you can do for a dead poet: and certainly he will do nothing for you. He did all he could for you while he lived: nothing more will ever come.

I do not say that a personal emotion towards the author will not sometimes arise spontaneously while we read; but if it does we should let it pass swiftly over the mind like a ripple that leaves no trace. If we retain it we are cosseting with substitutes an emotion whose true object is our neighbour.

Hence it is not surprising that those who most amuse themselves with personality after this ghostly fashion often show little respect for it in their parents, their servants, or their wives. (The Personal Heresy: A Controversy).

Reflecting on our own nature, and pondering the personalities of those we respect, are worthwhile activities. However, it’s best to remember that all we can see are mere glimpses into the depths of who we truly are.**

_____

* Matthew 8:22 quotes Jesus’ response to a disciple who demurred that he could not follow the Lord until after he attended to his father’s burial. “And Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.’”

** As Paul words in Romans 8:27 are paraphrased in The Message Bible: God “knows us far better than we know ourselves . . .”

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.

adjectivesMark Twain was a fount of wit and wisdom.* I recently encountered this astute maxim attributed to him.

A man’s character may be learned from the adjectives which he habitually uses in conversation.

While the statement rings true, it turns out that Mark Twain is not the person who coined it.

That honor belongs to Henry Theodore Tuckerman (1813-71). The confusion is apparently due to the fact that Twain’s future bride, Olivia Langdon, began compiling a commonplace book while a teenager, in which she included this paraphrase of one of Tuckerman’s observations.

The actual quotation comes from an 1850 volume in which he wrote:

It is amusing to detect character in the vocabulary of each person. The adjectives habitually used, like the inscriptions on a thermometer, indicate the temperament. (The Optimist, “Conversation”)**

C.S. Lewis was not a fan of the excessive use of adjectives, as I have written about in the past.

Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the things you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful;” make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please, will you do my job for me?”

Despite Lewis’ warning, I have to confess that I love adjectives. When they are creatively chosen, I find them illuminating, provocative and welcome. In fact, the ideal adjective accomplishes Lewis’ goal of conveying an emotion, not simply describing it.

And, as we have been reminded today, adjectives have the additional benefit of giving us glimpses into the personality of the authors themselves. “It is amusing to detect character in the vocabulary of each person. The adjectives habitually used, like the inscriptions on a thermometer, indicate the temperament.”

Meeting a New Author

Researching this subject I encountered an interesting quote from a popular Chilean-American writer, Isabel Allende.

I want to have an epic life. I want to tell my life with big adjectives. I want to forget all the grays in between, and remember the highlights and the dark moments.

While I can understand her desire to live an epic life, and applaud the accompany image of living one’s life with “big adjectives,” I have to say I am a bit disappointed in her choice of adjective itself. “Big” adjectives? “Vast,” “immense,” “deep,” and “complex” are just a handful of the substitutes that might convey different aspects of the concept “big.”

Perhaps she originally penned this in Spanish, and chose just such a “bigger” word? But then again, I assume she would do all of her own translation work. So it could be she was striving for irony? Not having read her work, I cannot say with any confidence.

Still, if I do expose myself to a greater quantity of her “adjectives habitually used” . . . I have no doubt I can gain some insight into her literary temperament.

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* If you are curious as to whether Twain was a “fount” or a “font,” check this out.

** You can find more of his wisdom by downloading a free copy of Selections from the Writings of Henry Theodore Tuckerman.