Archives For English

shakespeareSometimes authors are not quite so brilliant as we think them to be.

It is possible to read into someone’s work ideas, and even profundity, that was not present when they were originally composed.

That’s an odd thought, I will admit. But the truth is that each of us as readers carry with us our own knowledge and personalities.

Imposing those upon a text is a subconscious reality, and it may even be unavoidable. Minimizing our presuppositions is one of the key elements of honest literary criticism.

This is one of the reasons that it is insanity to impose contemporary “political correctness” on writers who lived before such constraints were imposed. Intelligent people recognize that we must read Twain as an iconoclastic nineteenth century author, and Bunyan as a Baptist preacher of the seventeenth.

I just read a letter in which C.S. Lewis describes how this works. He wrote to a Roman Catholic correspondent, a priest, on Christmas Day 1959. In the letter he responds to his friend’s reference to something he had not consciously included in a particular book.

It is a fascinating letter, and even though it is the final portion that pertains to the subject I’ve been discussing, I will share it in whole.

The Kilns, Headington Quarry, Oxford   Christmas Day 1959

I hope my last letter to you did not sound chilling: still less (heaven help us!) as if I were offended by criticism. I think the chief reason why I am less disposed than you for large-scale discussion by letter is the difference of our ages. In youth we conduct (at least I did) long and deep disputations through the post. It is indeed a most valuable part of our education. We put into it quite as much thought and labour as would go to writing a book. But later, when one has become a writer of books, it is hard to keep it up. One can’t fill one’s leisure with the v. same activity which is one’s main work. And in my case not only the mind but the hand needs rest. Penmanship is increasingly laborious, and the results (as you see) increasingly illegible!

If you sometimes read into my books what I did not know I had put there, neither of us need be surprised, for greater readers have doubtless done the same to far greater authors. Shakespeare would, I suspect, read with astonishment what Goethe, Coleridge, Bradley and Wilson Knight have found in him! Perhaps a book ought to have more meanings than the writer intends? But then the writer will not necessarily be the best person with whom to discuss them.

You are in my daily prayers. Will you pray much for me at present? The cancer from which my wife was (as I believe, miraculously) delivered 2½ years ago, when death in a few weeks was predicted, is returning. Can one without presumption ever ask for a second miracle? The prophet turned back the shadow for Hezekiah once: not twice. Lazarus, raised from the dead, presently died again.

Yours

C.S. Lewis

P.S. I never thought of it before, but how Lazarus was sacrificed. To have it all to do over again–bis Stygios innare lacus!

_____

Father Peter Milward, SJ, taught English Literature at Sophia University in Tokyo. He has extensively published on his major subject, and A Challenge to C.S. Lewis (1995), which I just now ordered for my library. A curious title, however, for a student and “fan” of Lewis.

As a Shakespeare scholar, he has persuasively argued that the bard was Roman Catholic. “When the archbishop of Canterbury recently broke his church’s long silence and acknowledged that William Shakespeare was probably a Catholic, it was a moment of quiet satisfaction for Father Peter Milward, the author who began researching this subject a half century ago.” Read the article here.

From Ear to Quill

October 21, 2015 — 10 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cynewulf’s poetry was familiar to the Inklings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ennobled us, and granted gifts to us,

eternal homes ’mid angels upon high;

and wisdom, too, of soul, full manifold

He sowed and set within the minds of men.

To one He sendeth, unto memory’s seat,

through spirit of the mouth, wise eloquence,

and noble understanding; he can sing

and say full many a thing, within whose soul

is hidden wisdom’s power. With fingers deft

’fore warrior-bands one can awake the harp,

the minstrel’s joy. One can interpret well

the law divine, and one the planets’ course

and wide creation. One cunningly can write

the spoken word. To one He granteth skill,

when in the fight the archers swiftly send

the storm of darts, the wingéd javelin,

over the shields defence. Fearlessly another

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

and stir the surging depth. One can ascend

the lofty tree and steep. One can fashion well

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

the wide ways. Thus the Ruler, Child divine,

dispenseth unto us His gifts on earth;

He will not give to any one man all

the spirit’s wisdom, lest pride injure him,

raised far above the rest by his sole might.

cynewulf

_____

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

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

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

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

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

vik
The initial Viking incursions into England were violent, but they left a colorful linguistic legacy in their wake.

Victims of the onslaught, like the unfortunate monks of Lindisfarne, paid a steep price, but the Norse eventually became farmers and craftsmen like the people they initially displaced.

Their contribution to the British gene pool was small, as was their donation to the English language, but it was not insignificant.

Some of the words fit the Viking mystique. Klubba becomes club (as in the weapon, not the association). Rannsaka may have initially meant searching the house for something like your missing keys, but the English experienced it as ransack. And slatra transfers into slaughter. The original word means “to butcher,” and one wonders if it originally applied to meal preparation. It so, the decades of Norse raids modified that focus.

Other adopted words arose from the more peaceful pursuits of the Scandinavians. Bylög meant the laws of the village and became bylaw. Law itself comes from the Norse lag. Husband, skill, thrift, litmus and loan have Viking roots. Those who enjoy a great slice of beef can thank them for their “steak” as well, since steik was their term for frying meat.

The Inkling Affection for the Sagas

J.R.R. Tolkien was actually a Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford. He founded a society devoted to the study of Icelandic and Norse sagas called Kolbitar (Coalbiters).* C.S. Lewis joined him in the group, which preceded the development of the Inklings fellowship.

As a young student, Lewis was attracted to Norse myth and experimented with writing his contribution to the tales. He penned over 800 lines of a massive epic he entitled “Loki Bound.” Only fragments have survived, but the following passage is especially intriguing. In it, Loki criticizes Odin for the manner in which he created humanity.

Odin! And who art thou to make a soul

And force it into being? Who art thou

To bring forth men to suffer in the world

Without their own desire? Remember this,

In all the universe the harshest law,

No soul must ever die: it can but change

Its form and thro’ the myriad years

Must still drag on for aye its weary course,

Enduring dreadful things for thy caprice.

The echoes of teenaged angst are clear in this tirade. The words describe (well, I believe) the fatalistic despair of many people. Fortunately, this young man eventually encountered the One who rescues us from “harshest law” and “dreadful things” that are the lot of fallen mortals.

A Few More Norse>English Words

Here are some more of the seven score words that are identified as having a Scandinavian origin.

An interesting collection of verbs include: bark, blunder, choose, crawl, glitter, race, scare, stagger, stammer and whirl.

The following words associated with people: Guest, kid, lad, oaf, foot, leg, skin, freckles, ill, and weak.

The gamut of emotions: anger, awe, and happy.

And, without their Norse contribution, who knows what we would call these articles today.

axle   ~   window   ~   cake   ~   bag

glove   ~   mug   ~   plow   ~   link

they   ~   trust   ~   same   ~   gift

and even Hell

One final example, as quoted in the source of the comprehensive list of Norse words.

Even though the gun wasn’t invented until centuries after the Viking era, the word comes from Old Norse. The most common usage was in the female name Gunnhildr: gunn and hildr both can translate as “war” or “battle.” Only truly [ferocious] Vikings named their infant daughters “Warbattle.”

_____

*You can read a bit more about Kolbitar here. I have also mentioned Kolbitar in this column.

 

csl bilingualHow many extremely intelligent and well educated people do you know . . . who can actually communicate with those of us possessing normal human intelligence?

That talent is a rarity.

And it is precisely what makes C.S. Lewis such an unusual man. He was brilliant. Yet he could communicate with the common person—even the child—just as easily as he conversed with his fellow university dons.

Lewis, of course, could comprehend a number of languages, so he was more than merely “bilingual.” But that is not exactly the sense in which I am using the word today. I mean it in the sense of my opening paragraphs. It is the ability to communicate (even with the same “language”) to distinctly different groups who would normally not be able to readily understand one another.

In an interview that appeared in Christianity Today, Detroit pastor Christopher Brooks was asked about the challenges of urban ministry.

How have you included both righteousness and justice in your setting?

I think about C.S. Lewis, who had the challenge of building the bridge between the culture of Oxford and Cambridge and the culture of the church. These cultures were worlds apart by his time, but he was bilingual, in a sense: able to speak the language of Oxford to the church and the language of the church to the intellectuals and naturalists.

One of the titles for ancient Roman priests that was adopted by their Christian successors is “pontifex.” It means “bridge-maker.” The Pontifex Maximus was, of course, referred to the greatest of these offices.

In light of Brooks’ words about Lewis as building bridges between elite academia and Christianity, I have added that dimension to my view of him. C.S. Lewis, Pontifex Maximus. (I doubt it would make him happy, so I’ll keep it under wraps . . . and probably never mention it again.) But I am genuinely happy about his skill in building these bridges of understanding.

Before signing off, a special treat. If you call someone who speaks two languages “bilingual,” and someone who speaks three “trilingual,” what do you call someone who only speaks one language? Why, an American, of course.

That joke would not be as funny if it were not so sadly true. While the rest of the world almost assumes that people know at least two languages, most Americans stumble their way through the study of a second language for two or three years and never develop a comfort level with it. But that’s a story for another day.

potterSo much for the effectiveness of “state churches.” The European ones appear to have become abject failures. There is ample evidence that the “establishment” of religions has rarely served either church or state very well.

Here’s the latest proof from the United Kingdom. The BBC recently reported a study that shows three in ten teenaged Brits don’t know the Nativity of Jesus came from the Bible. Similar numbers had never heard about the Crucifixion or Adam and Eve.

I imagine they’ll consider the new Noah film just another work of Hollywood fiction. (Actually, half of them didn’t know that very story comes from the Bible.)

What’s more—their parents are nearly as ignorant.

Many of the teens did, however, think that the plotlines from the Harry Potter series were based on Bible stories.

As a person who was genuinely inspired by England’s magnificent cathedrals while I lived there, it is painful to contemplate the terrible loss. The great-great-grandchildren of saints who suffered and sacrificed for the Gospel have disregarded the good news.

And, lest any readers think I’m pointing fingers as a “self-righteous” American, let me assure you I take no pride in my own nation’s slide into apostasy. The words of Micah’s prophecy seem closer to fulfillment each day. “The faithful have been swept from the land; not one upright person remains.”

C.S. Lewis saw this coming. Consider the following from his 1950 essay, “The Literary Impact of the Authorised Version.”

It may be asked whether now, when only a minority of Englishmen regard the Bible as a sacred book, we may anticipate an increase of its literary influence. I think we might if it continued to be widely read. But this is not very likely. Our age has, indeed, coined the expression “the Bible as literature.” It is very generally implied that those who have rejected its theological pretensions nevertheless continue to enjoy it as a treasure house of English prose.

It may be so. There may be people who, not having been forced upon familiarity with it by believing parents, have yet been drawn to it by its literary charms and remained as constant readers. But I never happen to meet them. Perhaps it is because I live in the provinces. But I cannot help suspecting, if I may make an Irish bull, that those who read the Bible as literature do not read the Bible.

Speaking of reading the Bible “as literature,” that’s not a bad thing. It informs so much Western literature, that an ignorance of the Scriptures is tantamount to possessing an inadequate education. An excellent online resource for exploring this truth can be found at the Bible Literacy Project.

The site includes a copy of a comprehensive 2006 study of English professors from America’s top-rated schools, including Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Texas A&M, UC-Berkeley and others. In the study, not a single professor disagreed with the statement that: “Regardless of a person’s faith, an educated person needs to know the Bible.”

If some people could get past their prejudices against the Bible, they would recognize the truth of this statement. Everyone should be reading the Bible, even if only as a significant literary work.

Perhaps, if this widespread study comes to pass, one day people will be able to recognize the difference between the Scriptures and Harry Potter.

Free C.S. Lewis Book

October 14, 2013 — 5 Comments

bookshelvesC.S. Lewis has encouraged innumerable prominent individuals in their own faith and writing journeys. I know of no others who offer at no cost a book about his influence.

John Piper is a pleasant exception to that. In a moment I’ll provide the link where you can download a free copy of Alive to Wonder: Celebrating the Influence of C.S. Lewis.

The volume includes a number of extended excerpts from Piper’s fifty-plus books . . . passages where Lewis’ imprint is particularly vivid. For example:

The synthesis of mind and heart was embodied in C.S. Lewis. Lewis became for me in my college days what Jonathan Edwards became in my seminary days. He was a “romantic rationalist”—that was the name of a small book about Lewis that got me very excited because it summed up what I thought I was (which may be very akin to “pastor-scholar”). Lewis has had a tremendous influence on me in several ways.

Lewis embodied the fact that rigorous, precise, penetrating logic is not inimical to deep, soul-stirring feeling and vivid, lively—even playful—imagination. He combined what almost everybody today assumes are mutually exclusive terms: rationalism and poetry, cool logic and warm feeling, disciplined prose and free imagination. In shattering these old stereotypes, he freed me to think hard and to write poetry, to argue for the resurrection and to compose hymns to Christ, to smash an argument and to hug a friend, to demand a definition and to use a metaphor.

The author is chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. It was founded by Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, where Piper served as pastor for several decades.

The writer’s desiringGod website actually offers free PDF copies of many of his books and articles, even though most remain in print and available for regular purchase.

As delightful as Alive to Wonder is, most students of Lewis will find the materials from the 2013 desiringGod National Conference even more welcome. This year’s theme was “The Romantic Rationalist: God, Life, and Imagination in the Work of C.S. Lewis.”

Piper’s website includes ten keynote presentations plus an informative panel discussion, all of which are available for download in audio files. Best of all, the lineup of speakers is first-class, featuring a number of familiar names.

And, since we’re on the subject of “free books,” allow me to share another interesting website.

Forgotten Books offers approximately a million volumes, to which “subscribers” have unlimited access. What sets them apart from other “public domain aggregates,” is that they (unlike books.google.com) provide a searchable text, in a variety of epub formats.

For those who are not interested in purchasing a subscription, they offer a Free Book of the Day option in which you receive the link to one of their texts which is good for twenty-four hours.

I recently used it to add Pure English: A Treatise on Words and Phrases, or Practical Lessons in the Use of Language to my kindle library. I find the reading of dated literary books to be:

Entertaining

Educational

and, occasionally, even

Inspiring

Here are a few sample passages from Pure English. The first sounds remarkably contemporary:

The abuse to which the English language is so generally subjected must be a source of sincere regret to all who appreciate its beauties. Ours is an age of progress and civilization, and it ought to be remembered that language, is also progressive.

In a section entitled “Objectionable and Obsolete Words” we read:

Banister is a common barbarism. The proper word is baluster, or balustrade.

— Noted. In the future I will alternate between baluster and balustrade.

“Disremember,” often employed in the sense of do not remember, although given in Webster, is condemned by the critics as a low vulgarism.

— Apparently so vulgar as to have fallen out of usage completely.

Hence, authoress and poetess are superfluous. So, also, are such words as conductress, directress, inspectress, waitress, etc., all of which have recently come into current use. Perhaps the next edition of our dictionaries will, if the custom continues, be enriched by the addition of such words as writeress, officeress, carpenteress, manageress, secretaryess, treasureress, singeress, walkeress, talkeress, etc.

— How did “waitress” survive, especially in the wake of such witty sarcasm?

It is questionable taste to call a coffin a casket. The pleasing name applicable to a case for jewels does not lessen the dread of death and burial.

— I hadn’t known before the sentiment behind the adoption of the word “casket,” since it’s become so thoroughly associated with this usage that was apparently at one time novel.

If you are interested in the books I’ve mentioned above, you You can download a free copy of Alive to Wonder here, and you can sign up for the free book of the day here.

punctuation personalitiesWordsmiths love wordplay.

In fact, they love to toy with everything related to language, including punctuation. The entertaining illustration to the left was created by Carrie Keplinger and inspired me to produce my own supplement to her study.

The idea behind the graphic is to play on the meaning of different punctuation symbols and describe the type of personality they represent.

I took the notion a step further, and based some of my psychological diagnoses on the appearance of the images themselves. I also fudged a bit and included a couple that are common symbols, albeit not punctuation.

In the past I’ve shared here my fascination with fonts. This extends to pictographic languages like Egypt’s hieroglyphs. Consider this example:

horus

One may not know this particular image is associated with the Egyptian god Horus, but it’s immediately apparent it represents a familiar part of human anatomy.*

If you find the subject of hieroglyphics interesting, you may enjoy reading this article I recently discovered. The author briefly compares the thought of C.S. Lewis with that of the ancient philosopher Plotinus. He writes:

The Hieroglyphs are visible mirrors of the invisible, to use Jean-Luc Marion’s language, the recognition of which brings immediate awareness and experience of meaning rather than strict syllogistic definition. For Lewis, “thinking along” cannot be reduced to concepts.

For Plotinus, Nature cannot be reduced to analysis. As Marion says, when faced with the visible mirror of the invisible one must look beyond the physical and experience the infinite gaze. Although the sunbeam is a physical reality I think it is a great example of “looking along” because it stirs us up to contemplate Beauty itself. Indeed God is Beauty for Lewis and for Plotinus (though not the Christian God for the latter).

Returning to the Subject of Punctuation

Punctuation is a fundamental tool of writers. And, like the broader subject of grammar, it is incumbent on us to do our best to use it properly.

“Improper” usage is not necessarily wrong, however. On numerous occasions we may intentionally make an “error” to achieve a specific purpose. Or, we may object to certain conventions and challenge the ever-evolving status quo. For example, I avoided unnecessarily capitalizing “internet” long before it became acceptable. I also dropped the hyphen from email, etc. prior to that becoming fashionable.**

Naturally, when we are seeking publication of our work, we need to conform to whatever stylistic standards the venue follows. However, in our “personal” writing, I long ago learned there is no value in being enslaved to “official” literary conventions. After all, these seemingly rigid rules themselves are fluid, shifting with ever more frequent speed.

I began with the declaration that lovers of words inherently enjoy wordplay. I certainly do. One evidence of that is found below, in my supplemental list to the chart at the top of this column.

Immediately upon reading “punctuation social personalities,” my own mind, unbidden, began to consider additions. A moment later I had pen in hand, and the rest is history.

Belated Warning: You may experience a similar irresistible response. 

punctuation personalities 2

_____

* A variation of the eye of Horus is actually found on American currency . . . at the peak of the pyramid that adorns the one dollar bill. (It’s officially called the “Eye of Providence,” but its association with the pyramid makes that title rather unconvincing.) It is actually reproduced on America’s money because it is found on the reverse of Great Seal of the United States. Yes, it’s portrayed on the hidden side of the extremely familiar eagle clutching an olive branch and arrows that we see all of the time.

** I’m not suggesting I am a trendsetter . . . merely that I anticipated the eventual elimination of these superfluous elements early on. Well, it’s due to that prediction combined with my own typographical prejudices, such as disliking the over-hyphenation of the English language.