Archives For France

C.S. Lewis & French Poetry

January 15, 2020 — 7 Comments

Ah, the snow is wrapping the world in a thick blanket, and I have no where I need to be. As I sit at my desk gazing out at the whitewashed forest, I attempt now something that I seldom do. I am writing a poem.

I admit that I haven’t read Jane Kenyon’s work, but I can definitely relate to one of her famous quotations: “My ear is not working, my poetry ear. I can’t write a line that doesn’t sound like pots and pans falling out of the cupboard.”

One of the bloggers I follow hosts a weekly poetry contest. I’ve never been tempted to compete, although I’m eminently qualified. You see, this is a “Terrible Poetry Contest.”

I had already begun writing my next post, and it relates to the depression some people feel during the winter. Of course, I do my best to make sure that what I write for Mere Inkling is not “terrible.” But I decided to delay that column and pause to enter this contest. On a whim. I certainly don’t expect to win . . . which in this case is, ironically, good news.

I decided to use an uncommon poetic form, since I can at least have the satisfaction that it offers patient readers an “educational” tidbit. I chose the French descort poetic form, because it seems expressly tailored to generate terrible poetry. According to Writer’s Digest, “the descort differentiates itself from other forms by differentiating its lines from other lines within the poem. That is, the main rule of descort poems is that each line needs to be different from every other line in the poem.”

A descort poem has different line lengths, meters, avoids rhyming with other lines, no refrains, and that goes for stanzas as well. In other words, no two lines in a descort should look like each other, and the same could be said for each descort.

The strength of the form is that it allows utter freedom to the poet. The weakness is that the results are appalling. (Read the example written by the editor of the linked article, if you don’t believe me.) Without further ado, I present my latest experiment with verse.* (There’s really nothing “French” about it, beyond the fact it’s a descort.⁑

Frigid French Philologies
by Robert C. Stroud

Shards of bleak winter gestate day after day.
The citric cannonade gurgled melodies of complacency.
Echinodermata rides again.

Hagar was not so Horrible.
Beware 48°52.6′S 123°23.6′W.
Fini.
Don’t stare at dark holes.
A Galapagos penguin reads about tobacco.

Captain Kirk sings the National Anthem.
Angkor longed to visit Tenochtitlán.
Sheepish wolves.
From lofty Mount Olympus descended Odin.

Soon comes the summer of our discontent.

A French Poem by C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis wrote poetry. There is actually a plaque in his honor in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. Deservedly so. Nevertheless, Lewis’ poetry was never highly regarded.

I, for one, consider this lack of appreciation providential. By this I mean that even though C.S. Lewis had to suffer the disappointment of not realizing his desires as a poet, it is a blessing to the whole world that his energies were redirected into his other writings. Who knows, if his poetry had been celebrated, whether or not Narnia would ever have existed?

The only book of Lewis’ which is in the public domain (i.e. free for downloading), is Spirits in Bondage: A Cycle of Lyrics. It was published after the First World War, written while he was still an atheist. While it makes for interesting reading, much of the imagery will be a bit disorienting for readers only familiar with Lewis after he encountered Christ.

The following poem is taken from that collection. As Alister McGrath writes in The Telegraph article, Lewis’ hopes were dashed relatively early.

The early poems remain a powerful witness to Lewis’s early atheism, railing against an absent and uncaring God who failed to halt the slaughter the author saw around him. But he never achieved recognition as a “war poet,” like Rupert Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon, who are also commemorated in Poets’ Corner. Indeed, not only did he fail to secure recognition for his war poetry, he was not acclaimed as a poet of any kind, as the lack of interest in his second volume of verse—Dymer (1926)—made painfully clear.

This example of Lewis’ war poetry does stand tall in comparison to the verse of the “acclaimed” war poets (in my modest opinion). It describes a battle site during the war—and the transformation of human beings into beasts.

French Nocturne (Monchy-Le-Preux)

Long leagues on either hand the trenches spread
And all is still; now even this gross line
Drinks in the frosty silences divine
The pale, green moon is riding overhead.

The jaws of a sacked village, stark and grim;
Out on the ridge have swallowed up the sun,
And in one angry streak his blood has run
To left and right along the horizon dim.

There comes a buzzing plane: and now, it seems
Flies straight into the moon. Lo! where he steers
Across the pallid globe and surely nears
In that white land some harbour of dear dreams!

False mocking fancy! Once I too could dream,
Who now can only see with vulgar eye
That he’s no nearer to the moon than I
And she’s a stone that catches the sun’s beam.

What call have I to dream of anything?
I am a wolf. Back to the world again,
And speech of fellow-brutes that once were men
Our throats can bark for slaughter: cannot sing.

I confess (though I did it on purpose) that the heading for this section was a bit misleading. “French poem” may have been interpreted as a poem written in French. While Lewis was certainly fluent in French, he did not write in the language. He did, however, appreciate the tongue.

In 1952 he wrote his publisher about the French translation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. He praised quality of the translation, as well as the tone achieved by the translator, in Le Lion et la Sorcière Blanche.

I don’t foresee many occasions for copies of Le Lion, but if you will kindly send me 2, they might come in useful. The translator deserves to be congratulated of course—French is a very powerful language—the children become perfect little Frenchmen, but that is all to the good.

What pleased and surprised me is the passage at the end where I made them talk like characters in Malory, and he has really got some of the quality of the French 13th century prose romances: grande honte en aurions⁂—is exactly right.

C.S. Lewis’ brother, Warnie, was a bit of a Francophile. He knew his subject well enough that he authored a book about its history, The Splendid Century: Life In The France Of Louis XIV. He offers an entertaining account of some literary gatherings where the works of Jean Chapelain (1595-1674) were employed in a novel manner. The writers shared agreed upon rules, and transgressions demanded discipline. Thus the punishment for “the breach of rules was to read a verse of Chapelain’s poetry, or, in aggravated circumstances, a whole page.”

I won’t hold my breath awaiting the results of the poetry contest. Though I periodically enjoy dabbling in poetry, I feel I am destined to share the fate of Lewis when it comes to the way in which the masses assess the quality of our verse.


* I have written poetry in the past. I explored the quintain here, and have a few of my experiments in poetry posted at All Poetry.

⁑ According to Encyclopedia Britannica, descort can also refer to “a poem in medieval Provençal literature with stanzas in different languages.”

⁂ The phrase means “great shame we would have.”

bennett

Some Christians are obnoxious. Well, okay, quite a few Christians are insufferable when they persistently “witness” to those who are deaf to their appeals. But, truth be told, many atheists are becoming increasingly obnoxious in their attitudes towards Christians as well. Let’s consider which group is worse.

First, some definitions. By Christians I don’t mean people who have some vague deistic notion that there is a God, and Jesus is somehow connected to this divinity because he was such a holy prophet.

By Christian I mean someone who has placed their faith and trust in Jesus the Christ, the only begotten Son of God who declared he was the Way, the Truth and the Life… The Logos (Word) through whom the universe was created.

By Atheist, I don’t mean people who do not share that faith, but who consider it an unprovable thesis. Most people with this viewpoint are ambivalent about whether or not others “believe.” The majority of these folks, many of whom do not feel threatened by religious conversations, are better understood as Agnostics.

By Atheist I mean people who are so convinced that Christianity is fallacious that they feel they must do what they can to stamp it out. They are so emotionally engrossed in the matter that they are genuinely unable to recognize that their own belief is based on nothing other than faith itself.

I can respect the fact that Atheists have historically been mistreated by “Christendom.” By my definition, this institutional entity is not synonymous with actual Christianity. In fact, it’s persecuted far more Christians of different denominational allegiances, than it has unbelievers who simply kept their mouths closed. But that’s a subject for another day.

Christians do not hate agnostics, or even atheists. Their motivation for sharing the Gospel inclines them towards the opposite attitude. Certainly they do it in obedience to their Lord’s command. Most possess a genuine concern and compassion for those they consider to be lost and facing eternal separation from God.

On the other hand, an increasing number of Atheists are insultingly dismissive of Christians who they consider—as a group—to be ignorant and prejudiced.

An Atheist columnist acknowledged this fact, and the discomfort it causes him, in a recent essay. David Harsanyi wrote the following in “Political Idols,” an article about a broader subject.

Unlike many of my fellow non-believers, I don’t feel especially enlightened or rational for my apostasy; I feel kind of unlucky, actually.

The typical non-believer sees the strictures of Christianity or Judaism [the faith in which Harsanyi was raised] as a punishment—mythical limitations set to inconvenience him—but I see people who take profound comfort in a beautiful fate that awaits them as long as they treat people as they would want to be treated themselves.

As a man who believes his story ends in a pile of dirt rather than celestial salvation, I have many reasons to be envious.

Yet, for my entire atheistic life, I’ve been nudged to mock the believer. The unifying doctrine of atheism is a reflexive antagonism toward faith and all the ideas it has dragged along with it through the centuries.

If all Atheists recognized this, and all Christians acknowledged that they are no more deserving of God’s mercy than their neighbor, oh what wonderful conversations about matters of eternal significance we could have!

C.S. Lewis’ Comment about an Atheist Writer

In a 1916 letter to his friend Arthur Greeves, Lewis comments on a book that Greeves had mentioned. He says the particular volume is of little value, without remarking on the author’s work in fiction, for which he as better known.

What is most significant about this particular letter is Lewis’ reference to the writer’s atheism, and the allusion to his own. It must be remembered that Lewis would not experience his conversion to Christianity for another fifteen years!

The book you refer to is ‘How to Form a Literary Taste’ by Arnold Benett: the edition is pretty but the book is not of any value. The very title—as if you set out to ‘learn’ literature the way you learn golf—shews that the author is not a real book-lover but only a priggish hack.

I never read any of his novels & don’t want to. Have you? By the way, he is a rather violent atheist, so I suppose I shall meet him by

‘The fiery, flaming flood of Phlegethon,’ as good old Spenser has it.

Before we look at Arnold Bennett (1867-1931), the author Lewis is describing, let us take a moment to consider the literary allusion Lewis includes in this passage.

“The fiery, flaming flood of Phlegethon” comes from The Faerie Queene, an epic poem which was the masterpiece of Edmund Spenser (1552-1599). Various editions of the fantasy poem are available.

In Spenser’s poem, the Phlegethon is a river found in Hell. The name itself means “flaming,” and it initially appears in Greek mythology as one of the Underworld’s five rivers. In The Faerie Queene, the terrible place where “the damned ghosts in torments fry.”

While his agnosticism assumes there is no afterlife, he acknowledges he may be wrong. And, if so, it is precisely to this tragic, fiery end that the unbelieving Lewis delivers Bennett . . . and himself.

So, who was Arnold Bennett?

Bennett was a versatile writer, and found success not only as a novelist, but also in theater and journalism. He even served as the Director of Propaganda for France during WWI, even though he was English. (He had resided in France since 1903.)

He was outspoken in his view that religious faith was not for the wise. Ironically, he died of typhoid after ignoring a French waiter’s counsel not to drink the “ordinary [tap] water from a carafe,” which was unsafe.

In 1932, Bennett’s widow began editing and publishing his journals. In a review that year, a literary magazine noted his antagonism towards Christianity.

Through it all one gets the impression of a terribly self-centered personality. Perhaps the artist is necessarily self-centered, though I cannot believe that Shakespeare was.

There have been artists like Dante, like Milton, whom it would be absurd to call selfish in the usual sense of the term because, colossal as their egos were, they yet consecrated themselves and all their pride of art and pride of soul to something for which, in the final analysis, their inmost spirits cared immensely more than they cared for self or for art or for any other thing on the earth below or in the heavens above it. . . .

Probably he was as great an artist as a man can be without religion, and the measure of his greatness is to be found in his straining against the limitations he so needlessly imposed upon himself. . . .

He had nothing of the mystic in him. In a moment of illumination he declares that “there is no such thing as ugliness in the world,” but this is as far as he gets. Yet he holds out against Christianity as he holds out against what he thinks of as sentimentalism, and his wife was probably right in her feeling that he might have made a very good Christian if he had only been willing to let himself go.

Civil Atheism

It would be a good thing for us individually and as members of a pluralistic world, to treat one another with civility. As a Christian, I can confess for my brothers and sisters that we do not always do so. Let us strive to do better.

And, as for those who identify themselves as Atheists, perhaps there is some room for improvement in this area as well. If more people resisted atheism’s “reflexive antagonism toward faith,” the world would definitely become a more friendly place.

A final note for those who would read more about Bennett. G.K. Chesterton wrote an essay about morality and punishment, in which he responds to a proposal offered by Bennett that society should not “judge” criminals. You can read “The Mercy of Mr. Arnold Bennett” here.

Since it relates to our discussion here, I must share a portion of Chesterton’s witty introduction to his essay.

Mr. Arnold Bennett recently wrote one of his humorous and humane “causeries” pleading very properly for social imagination and the better understanding of our fellows. He carried it, however, to the point of affirming, as some fatalists do, that we should never judge anybody in the sense of condemning anybody, in connexion with his moral conduct.

Some time ago the same distinguished writer showed that his mercy and magnanimity were indeed on a heroic scale by reviewing a book of mine, and even saying many kind things about it.

But to these he added a doubt about whether true intelligence could be consistent with the acceptance of any dogma. In truth there are only two kinds of people; those who accept dogmas and know it, and those who accept dogmas and don’t know it. My only advantage over the gifted novelist lies in my belonging to the former class.

I suspect that his unconsciousness of his dogmas extends to an unconsciousness of what he means by a dogma. If it means merely the popular idea of being dogmatic, it might be suggested that saying that all dogmatism is unintelligent is itself somewhat dogmatic.

And something of what is true of his veto on dogma is also true of his veto on condemnation; which is really a veto on vetoes.


The photograph above is of a statue of Arnold Bennett unveiled this summer in his home town of Stoke-on-Trent.

A Mastery of Words

December 22, 2015 — 8 Comments

ben franklinOh the curse of so many fascinating things to read . . . and so little time. The following pieces of wisdom come from a free volume, The World’s Famous Orations, by William Jennings Bryan.*

Bryan (1860-1925) was one of the most prominent American orators and politicians. In his study of rhetoric he collected a wide range of speeches given throughout Western history.

The collection is fascinating. It includes moments from well known historical events and from obscure yet intriguing occasions. For example, you can hear the words of Hannibal spoken to his army after its successful crossing of the Alps, or the republican speech offered by the falsely condemned Algernon Sidney from the scaffold.**

Public speaking used to be a cornerstone of education. In colleges today, “speech” is often merely an elective.

C.S. Lewis relates a funny story about one of his first experiences speaking in a formal setting. The occasion was the annual Encaenia at Oxford University, which commemorated founders and benefactors. Honorary degrees were given and excerpts from prize compositions were recited.

Lewis wrote to his father about the event. “I had almost forgotten, if I had ever known, that ‘prizemen’ have to read portions of their compositions at our ceremony of the Encaenia.”

After the honorary degrees [one of which was received by Georges Clemenceau], the Professor of Poetry made an ‘oration’ in Latin, chiefly about colleagues who had died during the last year: this was my first experience of spoken Latin and I was pleased to find that I could follow and enjoy it. The performance of us prizemen was of course very small beer after all this. We had been instructed to read for about two minutes each: I had some difficulty in finding a short passage which would be intelligible by itself. I was, of course, nervous: I am also told that I was the first of our little band whom Clemenceau looked at: but as I do not know with what expression he looked, nor whether he speaks English, we must remain in doubt whether this was a compliment or not.

I have had a good lesson in modesty from thus seeing my fellow prize men. I was hardly prepared for such a collection of scrubby, beetle-like, bespectacled oddities: only one of them appeared to be a gentleman. Any I spoke to sounded very like fools, perhaps like Goldsmith, they ‘writ like an angel and talked like poor Poll’. 76 It brings home to one how very little I know of Oxford: I am apt to regard my own set, which consists mainly of literary gents, with a smattering of political, musical and philosophical–as being central, normal, and representative. But step out of it, into the athletes on one side or the pale pot hunters**** on the other, and it is a strange planet.

The World’s Famous Orations combines a number of separate volumes that run from classical Greece and Rome, on through most of the European nations, including their “colonies” in the Western Hemisphere. President Teddy Roosevelt is the final orator whose words are included.

I invite you to sample some of the rich banquet included in this volume. The speeches themselves are fairly short, and these excerpts the more so. Mere teasers. If you perchance become bored, skip to the final passage—Benjamin Franklin provides his fellow Americans a warning that we sadly failed to heed.

Socrates (470-399 BC) upon being condemned wittily insults his judges.

For the sake of no long space of time, O Athenians, you will incur the character and reproach at the hands of those who wish to defame the city, of having put that wise man, Socrates, to death. For those who wish to defame you will assert that I am wise, though I am not. If, then, you had waited for a short time, this would have happened of its own accord; for observe my age, that it is far advanced in life, and near death. . . .

But if, on the other hand, death is a removal from hence to another place, and what is said be true, that all the dead are there, what greater blessing can there be than this, my judges? For if, on arriving at Hades, released from these who pretend to be judges, one shall find those who are true judges, and who are said to judge there. . . . At what price would you not estimate a conference with Orpheus and Musæus, Hesiod and Homer? I indeed should be willing to die often, if this be true. For to me the sojourn there would be admirable, when I should meet with Palamedes, and Ajax son of Telamon, and any other of the ancients who has died by an unjust sentence.

The comparing my sufferings with theirs would, I think, be no unpleasing occupation. But the greatest pleasure would be to spend my time in questioning and examining the people there as I have done those here, and discovering who among them is wise, and who fancies himself to be so but is not.

“Enough with the insults, philosopher; drink the hemlock.”

Seneca (the Younger, 4 BC-AD 65) before being ordered to commit suicide by Nero, whom he had tutored.

This is the fourteenth year, Cæsar, since I was summoned to train you for your high destiny; and the eighth since your advancement to the empire. During the intervening period, you have showered such honors and riches upon me, that nothing is wanting to complete my felicity but the capacity to use them with moderation. . . .

But both of us have now filled up our measure— you, of all that the bounty of a prince could confer upon his friend; I, of all that a friend could accept from the bounty of his prince. Every addition can only furnish fresh materials for envy; which, indeed, like all other earthly things, lies prostrate beneath your towering greatness, but weighs heavily on me. I require assistance. Thus, in the same manner as, were I weary and faint with the toils of a warfare or a journey, I should implore indulgence; so in this journey of life, old as I am, and unequal even to the lightest cares, since I am unable longer to sustain the weight of my own riches, I seek protection.

Order your own stewards to undertake the direction of my fortune, and to annex it to your own; nor shall I by this plunge myself into poverty, but having surrendered those things by whose splendor I am exposed to the assaults of envy, all the time which is set apart for the care of gardens and villas, I shall apply once more to the cultivation of my mind.

“Did you forget, noble tutor, that I Nero am insane enough to demand both your wealth and your life?”

Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556) at his execution, following his renunciation of a forced recantation. (Yes, that sounds confusing, but under duress he had bent to the will of bloody Queen Mary.)

And now I come to the great thing which so much troubleth my conscience, more than anything that ever I did or said in my whole life, and that is the setting abroad of a writing contrary to the truth—which now I here renounce and refuse, as things written with my hand contrary to the truth which I thought in my heart, and written for fear of death, and to save my life if it might be—and that is, all such bills and papers which I have written or signed with my hand since my degradation, wherein I have written many things untrue.

And forasmuch as my hand hath offended, writing contrary to my heart, therefore my hand shall first be punished; for when I come to the fire, it shall be first burned.

“Darn that troublesome archbishop! That wasn’t the speech we approved in advance for him to give.”

Maximilien François Marie Isidore Robespierre (1758-94) denying King Louis was entitled to a trial.

Louis was king and the Republic is founded; the great question which occupies you is decided by these words alone. Louis has been dethroned for his crimes; Louis denounced the French people as rebels; to chastise them he has invoked the arms of his brother tyrants. Victory and the people have decided that he was the rebel: hence Louis can not be judged; he is judged already. He is condemned, or the Republic is not absolved.

To propose a trial for Louis XVI. in any way whatever is to retrograde toward royal and constitutional despotism; it is a counter-revolutionary idea, for it is putting the revolution itself on trial.

“We’ll see how you feel about allowing trials for tyrants two years into your reign of terror, when we take you to the guillotine.”

Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) warns about the dangers of providing salaries to bureaucrats.

I think I see inconveniences in the appointment of salaries [for those in the Executive Branch]; I see none in refusing them, but, on the contrary, great advantages.

Sir, there are two passions which have a powerful influence in the affairs of men. These are ambition and avarice—the love of power and the love of money. Separately, each of these has great force in prompting men to action; but, when united in view of the same object, they have, in many minds, the most violent effects.

Place before the eyes of such men a post of honor, that shall, at the same time, be a place of profit, and they will move heaven and earth to obtain it.

The vast number of such places it is that renders the British government so tempestuous. The struggles for them are the true source of all those factions which are perpetually dividing the nation, distracting its councils, hurrying it sometimes into fruitless and mischievous wars, and often compelling a submission to dishonorable terms of peace.

And of what kind are the men that will strive for this profitable preeminence, through all the bustle of cabal, the heat of contention, the infinite mutual abuse of parties, tearing to pieces the best of characters? It will not be the wise and moderate, the lovers of peace and good order, the men fittest for the trust.

It will be the bold and the violent, the men of strong passions and indefatigable activity in their selfish pursuits. These will thrust themselves into your government and be your rulers.

“Oh that we had listened to your sage counsel. Now we are reaping what we have sown in our political machinations.”

_____

* You can download a personal copy of the book in a variety of versions here.

** Algernon Sidney (1622-83) fought honorably for the republican cause in the English Civil War. The fact that he opposed the execution of Charles I did not deliver him from the vengeance of the hedonist Charles II.

*** Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929) was the French prime minister who helped set the stage for World War II by demanding excessive concessions with Germany during the Versailles peace talks.

**** A “pothunter” is someone who hunts game without a concern for rules of sport. Lewis is likely applying it here in the sense of a person who participates in competitions primarily with the goal of accumulating prizes.

Adopting a Puppy

December 23, 2014 — 12 Comments

calliI recently described Henri III’s torture of puppies during his reign. The clown actually wore them, as an adornment!

In that same column, I mentioned that we were adopting a new puppy . . . and she has arrived in our home!

Getting a puppy marks a departure from our normal pattern. Our last three border collies (including the mature lady who still graces our manse) were all “rescues.”

However, we did not feel that Foxy was up to adjusting to another mature dog, since she lost Lyric last winter and her other (long-lived) sister, Tanner.

In my post about Henri III, I shared comments from two letters that C.S. Lewis wrote a century ago to one of his closest friends. Arthur Greeves had gotten a puppy, and Lewis reminded him of the responsibilities of the human member of that relationship.

Lewis wrote that it was cruel, “Unless you are a person with plenty of spare time and real knowledge, it is a mistake to keep dogs . . .”

In a subsequent letter, Lewis advised Greeves on how to choose a name for his puppy.

How’s the poor, miserable, ill-fated, star-crossed, hapless, lonely, neglected, misunderstood puppy getting along? What are you going to call him, or rather, to speak properly, how hight he? Don’t give him any commonplace name, and above all let it suit his character & appearance. Something like Sigurd, Pelleas or Mars if he is brisk and warlike, or Mime, Bickernocker or Knutt if he is ugly and quaint.

We had already chosen the name for our puppy before I found this quotation. But I think Lewis would have approved.

We named our new little girl after one of the Greek Muses, who inspired literature and the arts. Her name is Calli.

If you’re knowledgeable in mythological matters, you will recognize that it’s our nickname for Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry.

Being more of a historian than a poet, I wanted to use the name Clio, who is the Muse of History. Calli fits her better though.

Calliope is a wonderful, musical name though, since she was the chief Muse, and her name literally means “beautiful-voiced.” What a lovely name. I hope Calli learns to sing, like our first border collie, Lady. Lady would accompany my wife as she played the piano. It was quite entertaining.

If you have read this far, you too are likely a pet lover. If you have a dog, cat, rabbit, lemur or whatever, of your own, may the Lord bless it with a long and healthy life . . . just as we pray for our own little Calli.

Abusing Puppies

December 2, 2014 — 25 Comments

henriPuppies are cute and cuddly, but leave it to a French king to carry that fact to absurd lengths.

One might think owning 2,000 lap dogs is a bit overmuch. Not so Henri III (1551-1589). It would seem that after the first thousand, it might become difficult to recall all of their names, but that didn’t deter Henri.

He so loved his puppies that he used them as a form of adornment, regularly wearing them in a small basket suspended around his neck.

And, amazingly, it appears none of his courtiers mentioned that it looked quite silly. Who knows, he may have established a temporary fad, not unlike the purse puppies used by some modern celebrities to increase attention to themselves.

Puppies are on my mind now, because my wife and I have “reserved” a border collie from a recent litter.

Some readers will recall the grief we experienced when a dog we rescued a year ago, died due to an onslaught of seizures, one after the other. Lyric’s tragic passing, at a young age, was so much more difficult than the loss of our previous three who had lived well into their geriatric years.

It’s taken us a year to be willing to consider adding another dog to our family. We still have Foxy, who we rescued about eight years ago, during our final military tour in California. We decided it would be much easier for her if we added a puppy to our family this time.

I’ll write more about our puppy in the future. For now I’ll end with the “teaser” that we’re naming her after one of the Greek Muses.

C.S. Lewis loved dogs, although apparently not enough to wear them like jewelry.

In 1916, he corresponded with his friend Arthur Greeves about adding a puppy to the latter’s family. His first mention, as Greeves was contemplating the decision, reveals Lewis’ emphasis on the wellbeing of the dog over its master’s preferences.

I think you are very wise not to take that puppy from K. Unless you are a person with plenty of spare time and real knowledge, it is a mistake to keep dogs–and cruel to them.

Greeves proceeded with the adoption, as Lewis appends a postscript to his next letter, written a week later.

Poor puppy!! What a life it’ll have! I shall poison it in kindness when I come home!

In a subsequent letter, the same month, Lewis offers advice about naming the puppy that I was delighted to read. It suggests that he would approve of our decision for the name of the new addition to our family.

In the meantime, whatever name we bestowed on our new puppy, she would never need to worry about being traipsed around on display like a fashion accessory. We’ll leave that to French kings and egocentric divas.

Rational Fears

July 21, 2014 — 10 Comments

men at lunchFear comes in many forms. It also comes at many heights. This famous 1932 photograph shows eleven men—without safety harnesses—taking a lunch break during construction of the Rockefeller Center in New York City.

Simply looking at the picture of them leaning in various poses as they casually converse with one another is enough to send shivers up the spine of someone suffering from acrophobia.

I don’t personally have an “irrational fear of heights.” After all, I’ve enjoyed forays into the sky via the Eiffel Tower, the Tokyo Tower and the Space Needle in nearby Seattle. Still, I must confess that when I stand high above the earth on a piece of clear glass or acrylic that I do find it a bit disconcerting. It’s not as if I doubt the building is secure . . . but precisely what clear substance like that is worth trusting our lives to?

cracksIn fact, not long ago, a group of people were standing on just such a viewing panel when it began to crack. Two facts, it was new (opened in 2009) and it was on the 103rd floor of the Chicago building. The quaintly named “Ledge” was certified to 10,000 pounds, and it’s difficult to imagine the family standing on it, when it fractured, as exceeding that weight.

Let’s return for a moment to 1932. There’s a lesser known photo, taken the same day as the renowned image. It is even more disturbing. Check this out.

restThis shot was taken after the men had staged the lunch picture for the press. They were simply resting after eating, before returning to work.

Now, I appreciate rest as much as anyone, and far more than most. But, if I was on that steel girder, 840 feet above the pavement, I would be so hyper vigilant a tranquilizer dart couldn’t put me down.

That picture, frankly, scares me.

Fortunately, C.S. Lewis reminds us that there is nothing wrong with fear. Beyond sometimes protecting us from foolish risk-taking, the fear itself does not determine our reaction to it. In other words, a soldier can rightly be afraid on the battlefield, yet overcome that fear and do something heroic. Common men and women often surprise themselves when they overcome fear they might have thought would cripple them.

C.S. Lewis says it this way. “The act of cowardice is all that matters; the emotion of fear is, in itself, no sin” (The Screwtape Letters).

I’ve learned through the years that there is wisdom in learning about one’s own fears. Sometimes what we learn diminishes the fear. At other times, understanding our fears can prevent us from misattributing our emotions to another source.

For example, you might think you dislike a person who frequently invites you to share your thoughts with a group. When, in actuality, it might merely be your fear of public speaking, or your fear of having your ideas rejected that troubles you. Upon recognizing this, you might even grow to like the other person, seeing how they are confident that you have something of value to offer to the discussion.

Like every other fallen human being, I’m riddled with fears and buried under worries. It is beyond comprehension how God has manifested his love for us in his only begotten Son . . . truly we can cast all of our burdens onto his compassionate and willing shoulders.

In fact, it is during our darkest hours when, assailed by our personal terrors, we lean most upon his strength. Without a doubt, if severe unemployment has forced me to be one of those construction workers nearly a century ago, I would most definitely have been one praying man!

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P.S. – Oh, and if anyone is curious about the flask held by the construction worker on the right, I’m sure it only contained water and not some useless form of “liquid courage.”

Is More Better?

May 15, 2014 — 15 Comments

everettThat’s a trick question. More of some things certainly is better . . . more peace, more compassion. But more—even of good things—can sometimes become too much.

Case in point: words.

I continue to frustrate one of my critique group friends because I write “like a historian rather than a journalist.” The distinction being:

Journalist – Just the facts, please.
Historian – Lover of descriptions, details, esoterica, and trivia.

Guilty as charged.

C.S. Lewis commends the literary virtue of brevity. The following passage is found in his aptly named essay, “Before We Can Communicate.”

In the very process of eliminating from your matter all that is technical, learned, or allusive, you will discover, perhaps for the first time, the true value of learned language: namely, brevity. It can say in ten words what popular speech can hardly get into a hundred.

Last year marked the 150th Anniversary of one of the world’s most famous speeches. Not only Americans are familiar with Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. It has become a monument to succinctness and power.

Rereading it recently I began to wonder about the other speech delivered at the event . . . the two hour oration delivered by Edward Everett, one of the era’s most highly regarded public speakers.*

The journalists and audience at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery were extremely impressed by Everett’s presentation, and surprised by the brevity of Lincoln’s remarks.

Following the event, both men lauded each other’s message. Lincoln responded to Everett’s note which praised him for the “eloquent simplicity & appropriateness” of his remarks. Everett said, “I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

Your kind note of to-day is received. In our respective parts yesterday, you could not have been excused to make a short address, nor I a long one. I am pleased to know that, in your judgment, the little I did say was not entirely a failure. Of course I knew Mr. Everett would not fail; and yet, while the whole discourse was eminently satisfactory, and will be of great value, there were passages in it which transcended my expectation. The point made against the theory of the general government being only an agency, whose principals are the States, was new to me, and, as I think, is one of the best arguments for the national supremacy. The tribute to our noble women for their angel-ministering to the suffering soldiers, surpasses, in its way, as do the subjects of it, whatever has gone before.

I tracked down an online copy of Everett’s Gettysburg speech. I’ve skimmed it, and it is rather interesting. With the course of the war still undetermined at the time it was presented, it is easy to see how its stirring words could inspire an already war-weary nation. As he elaborates on the efforts of the Confederates to establish a new nation, he begs for patience. “Pardon me, my friends, for dwelling on these wretched sophistries.” Sophistries indeed.

The speech offers a partisan analysis of the entire course of the war up to that time. International readers of Mere Inkling may find the references to other countries interesting. He describes “civil wars” in England, Germany, Italy and France. Since he spoke during an era when Italy was still disunited, allow me to quote that portion of the speech.

In Italy, on the breaking up of the Roman Empire, society might be said to be resolved into its original elements–into hostile atoms, whose only movement was that of mutual repulsion. Ruthless barbarians had destroyed the old organizations, and covered the land with a merciless feudalism. As the new civilization grew up, under the wing of the Church, the noble families and the walled towns fell madly into conflict with each other; the secular feud of Pope and Emperor scourged the land; province against province, city against city, street against street, waged remorseless war with each other from father to son, till Dante was able to fill his imaginary hell with the real demons of Italian history.

So ferocious had the factions become, that the great poet-exile himself, the glory of his native city and of his native language, was, by a decree of the municipality, condemned to be burned alive if found in the city of Florence. But these deadly feuds and hatreds yielded to political influences, as the hostile cities were grouped into States under stable governments; the lingering traditions of the ancient animosities gradually died away, and now Tuscan and Lombard, Sardinian and Neapolitan, as if to shame the degenerate sons of America, are joining in one cry for a united Italy.

For those who are interested, this paragraph from Everett’s speech is only fifty-five words shorter than the entire Gettysburg Address.

Of course, just as being loquacious does not guarantee irrelevance, neither does brevity ensure quality.

The key is using the right number of words. That will vary from person to person.

In the twenty-first century, though, a good rule of thumb is to follow the example of Lincoln rather than his speechifying colleague.

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* Everett had a prolific political career. It included: U.S. House of Representatives, Governor of Massachusetts, U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom, U.S. Secretary of State, U.S. Senator. Oh, and he was also President of Harvard University, a job that probably included at least as much politics as his previous endeavors.