Archives For Dante

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.

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* 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

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.

Vampire Poetry

February 19, 2014 — 13 Comments

vpoetryI was afraid to read it. I had just listened to the poem during an online newscast, and it included it so many jarring and disturbing images that I thought I must have misheard it.

Then again, it was written by a successful Hollywood star, so it certainly must be worthy of publication.

So, motivated by two impulses, I sought out the text. My first reason was that I did not wish to misjudge the writer, based on my shallow initial impression. The second was that I really did want to discover if it was as odd as I perceived it to be.

It is from the heart and pen of Kristen Stewart, who played the leading role in the Twilight series. It is described as a “love poem,” which is helpful to know in advance . . . since that might not be how one might inadvisably approach it.

I reared digital moonlight

You read its clock, scrawled neon across that black

Kismetly . . . ubiquitously crest fallen

Thrown down to strafe your foothills

. . . I’ll suck the bones pretty.

Your nature perforated the abrasive organ pumps

Spray painted everything known to man,

Stream rushed through and all out into

Something Whilst the crackling stare down sun snuck

Through our windows boarded up

He hit your flint face and it sparked.

And I bellowed and you parked

We reached Marfa.

One honest day up on this freedom pole

Devils not done digging

He’s speaking in tongues all along the pan handle

And this pining erosion is getting dust in

My eyes

And I’m drunk on your morsels

And so I look down the line

Your every twitch hand drum salute

Salutes mine . . .

Overwhelming. I was actually tempted to use the word “pretentious,” until I read the following note about the magazine interview during which she shared the verse.

Before reading the poem, Kristen told the mag, “I don’t want to sound so f—ing utterly pretentious…but after I write something, I go, ‘Holy f—, that’s crazy.’ It’s the same thing with acting: If I do a good scene, I’m always like, ‘Whoa, that’s really dope.’”

After seeing that comment, with its sadly limited vocabulary, I can picture her composing her poetry dictionary and thesaurus in hand.

The poem’s significance takes a moment to sink into one’s mind . . . even if our brains are not clouded by being drunk on someone’s morsels. The poem is, in fact, so rich in meaning that it required two distinct titles: “Freedom Pole” and “My Heart is a Wiffle Ball.”

I dabble in poetry, but don’t consider myself a poet. So, I’m probably not the one to judge.

I would be curious to know what the newest addition to the Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey would think of Stewart’s work. C.S. Lewis wrote poetry himself, of course, although he is much better known for his other literary contributions.

In English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Lewis describes the poetry of Samuel Daniel. “Though Daniel’s poetry is often uninspired, sometimes obscure, and not seldom simply bad, he has two strong claims on our respect.” I wonder if Lewis’ gracious nature might lead him to discern two strengths in Stewart’s poetic corpus.

In contrast to the previous evaluation, Lewis considered the poetry of Dante Alighieri to be masterful. In Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, Lewis writes:

I think Dante’s poetry, on the whole, the greatest of all the poetry I have read: yet when it is at its highest pitch of excellence, I hardly feel that Dante has very much to do. . . . I draw the conclusion that the highest reach of the whole poetic art turns out to be a kind of abdication, and is attained when the whole image of the world the poet sees has entered so deeply into his mind that henceforth he has only to get himself out of the way, to let the seas roll and the mountains shake their leaves or the light shine and the spheres revolve, and all this will be poetry, not things you write poetry about.

Dare I confess that after Dante even Shakespeare seems to me a little factitious? It almost sounds as if he were “just making it up.” But one cannot feel that about Dante even when one has stopped reading him.

That’s the sort of verse that poets should always strive for—“the highest reach of the whole poetic art [which] turns out to be a kind of abdication.” Word dabblers such as myself are unlikely to ever attain such a lofty goal.

It may be that Stewart has kismetly attained these heights. But then again, perhaps she still has a little farther to travel before she reaches Marfa.