Archives For Lord David Cecil

Writing a Biography

January 4, 2022 — 14 Comments

What kind of writer are you? A poet, journalist, essayist or, perhaps, a minimalist? (By “minimalist” I mean someone who writes the bare minimum they have to.)

Many readers of Mere Inkling are, in fact, writers in their own right. Even ignoring the profusion of texts ricocheting around the globe (which are, in fact, literary creations), a fair number of Mere Inkling subscribers have blogs of their own.

The preeminent position of physical letters as the medium for correspondence has been usurped by email. People still write to one another, but – to the woe of the struggling United States Postal Service – they do it digitally.

More serious writers gravitate toward a varieties of genres. Often we try our hands at the sort of literature we prefer reading. That’s why I seldom write poetry. (And, when I do, it’s usually because I’m consciously stretching myself.)

My poetic skills may be limited – you can decide for yourself – but I don’t experience any of the disappointment that befell C.S. Lewis when his poetic dreams were dashed.

Poets are fine. Until they become snobs. If they treat other genres with respect, they stand on an equal footing with everyone else. But when they claim primacy for their preference, they lose me. Consider “William Faulkner Makes Us Wonder: What’s So Great About Poetry, Anyhow?

There’s a reason I can call poetry the highest form of artistic expression without thinking twice about it. And even though most Americans today don’t acknowledge the art form all that much, you’d be hard-pressed to find a sensible person who doesn’t respect or – if only from a distance – admire the magic in it.*

I guess I am one of the Americans who doesn’t possess a special reverence for poetry. And, as for “admiring the magic in it,” please. Wait, I don’t desire to offend you poets out there. Unless, of course, you consider yourself better than everyone else. In that case, consider my words a gentle rebuke (and encouragement to consider the virtue of humility).  

I hope that everyone will read on, and forgive me for maligning “the highest form of artistic expression.”

A Less Honored Literary Genre

I write nonfiction, unsurprising for someone who is basically a historian. Theologically, I neglect the conjecture of systematic theological considerations and focus on what’s usually called “practical theology.” It too, is unpretentious, and intended to make sense to “regular” people.

Recent years have found me dabbling in the memoir, or versions of autobiography, as I consider the potential value of such documents to my descendants.

One arena I’ve never really considered is biography. I suspect it would be a comfortable literary form, for a historian. I mean, you’re simply telling the story of a single life, relating facts and explaining the context of various events. That doesn’t sound too challenging, does it?

I suppose almost anyone could write a biography. The question is, could we write a good one?

Writing a Biography

I have been thinking about this subject ever since my research for my previous post introduced me to the work of David Cecil,⁑ one of the Oxford Inklings who shared the company of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Cecil wrote several biographies. At Internet Archives you can read his lives of William Cowper, Charles Lamb, or Max Beerbohm, or his two-volume biography of Lord Melbourne (1 and 2).

If those individuals don’t tickle your proverbial fancy, you might want to look at the book that piqued my interest: An Anthology of Modern Biography. In it, Cecil explores the work of sixteen biographers. One of the chapters is his own portrayal of the evangelical Anglican cleric, John Newton (an extract from his biography of Cowper).

What intrigues me most about the volume is not the biographical material itself. Rather, it is Cecil’s very informative introduction. Here is his opening, which may whet the interest of future biographers . . . one of whom could be you?

Biography is not an important form of literary art. But it has a special interest to the student of modern literature. For it is the only new form. We can talk of modern poetry and modern novels, but these are only new variations on old forms. . . . Not so biography.

Art is primarily the expression of the artist’s creative powers; he writes to express his personal vision; he chooses as his subject that which he thinks will best exhibit his particular talent.

Now this is not true of the biographer of the past. His aim was not artistic, it was useful; he wanted to give people information. If he was a man of literary talent . . . his book was a work of art. But even if it had not been, it would not have failed. For its primary purpose had been, not to give an artistic impression, but to tell the truth.

This desire for the truth over ostentation resonates with me. But, mind you, he is referring to biographers “of the past.” Now (the book was published in 1936), other influences are at work.

But for the typical modern biographer literature comes first. Mr. Lytton Strachey writes about Queen Victoria, not in order to give us information about her, but because he thinks her life an excellent subject for a work of art. . . .

He does not set out his facts . . . complete with reference and proof, he weaves them into a story, grouping them in order and proportion that will make his picture as vivid and entertaining as possible.

Cecil’s explanation for this transformation is fascinating, and I encourage you to read it yourself, whether or not you are interested in writing a biography yourself. The book is available here, and thanks to the Public Library of India, you can download a complete copy for free.

In a 1932 letter to Arthur Greeves, C.S. Lewis contrasts biographies with the evidence from people’s daily lives. He shares with his lifelong friend a question this raises in his own minid.

It is a very consoling fact that so many books about real lives – biographies, autobiographies, letters etc. – give one such an impression of happiness, in spite of the tragedies they all contain. What could be more tragic than the main outlines of Lamb’s or Cowper’s lives?

But as soon as you open the letters of either, and see what they were writing from day to day and what a relish they got out of it, you almost begin to envy them.

Perhaps the tragedies of real life contain more consolation and fun and gusto than the comedies of literature?

Biography. Considering trying it. And, Poetry, it’s not that bad, either.


* The article does include interesting information about Faulkner. It appears his disappointed poetic dream shifted him to more productive fields. This parallels C.S. Lewis’ literary career.

For all of [Faulkner’s] achievements, his Nobel Prize for Literature, his Pulitzers and National Book Awards, his mug on a 22-cent postage stamp – the man still fell short. And it wasn’t that he dropped out of high school and did only a few semesters of college, or that he was once fired by an employer for reading on the job.

These were small missteps and shortcomings that were basically inconsequential in the long run. The larger issue is that, in his own view, William Faulkner was a failed poet. Failed.

“Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first,” he told The Paris Review in 1956, “finds he can’t, and then tries the short story, which is the most demanding form after poetry. And, failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing.”

What you may not know is that before his first novel, Soldier’s Pay, Faulkner had written two books of poetry, Vision in Spring in 1921 and The Marble Faun in 1924. While he’d long dreamed of being taken seriously as a poet, the verse was always second-rate and not particularly significant. Eventually he abandoned his efforts as a poet to focus solely on his fiction.

⁑ In the spirit of most colonials who shook off the reigns of monarchial rule, I tend to respect the Queen as a head of state, and disregard the affectations of an aristocracy they once “lorded” it over. Thus, I can take or leave Cecil’s normative citation as “Lord David Cecil.

If we were to ask C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and the rest of the Inklings for insights about a New Year, what wisdom might they share?

Read on. Mere Inkling answers that question with a few select quotations from their writings. We also include comments from several other writers associated, in spirit, with the Oxford Inklings.

While some of the pithiest of the quotations below are well represented at quotation websites, your humble host has secured the less familiar quotations through the diligent search of obscure manuscripts.

J.R.R. Tolkien:

From a holiday letter to a friend.

“There is small chance of this reaching you tomorrow Jan. 1 to wish you a Happy New Year. I hope you have plenty of food in store! It is my birthday on Jan. 3rd, and I look like spending it in the isolation of a house turned igloo; but the companionship of several bottles of what has turned out a most excellent burgundy (since I helped to select it in its infancy) will no doubt mitigate that: Clos de Tart 1949, just at its top. With that hobbit-like note I will close, wishing you and your wife and children all blessings in 1962.”

As the world conflict raged on, Tolkien wrote to his son Christopher who was serving in the Royal Air Force. “This empty year is fading into a dull grey mournful darkness: so slow-footed and yet so swift and evanescent. What of the new year and the spring? I wonder.”

Christopher Tolkien:

A scholar in his own right, Christopher devoted much of his life to editing his father’s published and unpublished works. In The End of the Third Age, he reminds us that sometimes the jobs on which we embark end up being far more involved than we anticipated. “With this book, my account of the writing of The Lord of the Rings is completed. I regret that I did not manage to keep it even within the compass of three fat volumes.

C.S. Lewis:

“What wonderful adventures we shall have, now that we are all in it together.”

“You are never too old to set another goal or dream a new dream.”

“Isn’t it funny how day by day nothing changes, but when you look back, everything is different.”

“I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and help others to do the same.”

“If you live for the next world, you get this one in the deal; but if you live only for this world, you lose them both.”

“There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.”

“I think that if God forgives us we must forgive ourselves. Otherwise, it is almost like setting up ourselves as a higher tribunal than Him.”

Charles Williams:

“I think in order to move forward into the future, you need to know where you’ve been.”

“Play and pray; but on the whole do not pray when you are playing and do not play when you are praying.”

Owen Barfield:

“. . . the poet, while creating anew, is likely to be in a sense restoring something old.”

In a short story entitled “The Devastated Area,” Barfield, a veteran of WWI, described the way a soldier can view an uncertain future. “Armistice day; the last shot; and the hushed, doubtful little group in the dug-out at 11 o’clock. He is sitting there in uniform, willing for the first time in three years to let his thoughts run on into the future. But they will go back to the past instead . . .”

Adam Fox:

In his history of English hymnody, Fox praises his nation’s people and offers timely advice regarding musical accompaniment. “It takes no long argument to prove that Hymn Singing is a national institution in Great Britain. It is so rather in the same way as cricket. . . . The singing is usually accompanied on an organ, or if there is no organ, then on a piano. The harmonium, though sometimes used for the purpose, cannot be recommended, and is falling into disuse.”

Jack A.W. Bennett:

In The Humane Medievalist, Bennett praises his friend and fellow Inkling, C.S. Lewis. Coincidentally, this essay was his own inaugural lecture as he assumed the Cambridge chair which had been created for Lewis himself. “C.S. Lewis died a year ago today, and the year has deepened not diminished our sense of loss. Those of us who had the good fortune to call him master must feel as the prentice Hoccleve felt about Chaucer: ‘Fain he would me have taught, But I was dull, and learned little or naught.’”

Lord David Cecil:

He begins his biography of Lord Melbourne with a curious sentence suggesting that even we who have lived the most average of lives, may still have great things ahead of us. “William Lamb, second son of the first Viscount Melbourne, had arrived at the age of forty-seven without achieving anything of significance in the world.”

Hugo Dyson:

Discussing the Tragedies written by Shakespeare, Dyson reminds us to recognize potential blessings in the coming year’s challenges. “Our awareness both of ourselves and of the world at large is intensified by confrontation with an unexpected or serious or painful situation. Our wits and imaginations alike grow more acute under difficulties.”

Nevill Coghill:

Referring to Chaucer’s portrayal of the Knight, Coghill describes an ongoing goal for those who will to live nobly. “There is a fundamental answer to those who want to think the Knight’s moral nature . . . was too good to be true, and so can be no better than a romantic illusion. People who think thus can never have thought about Christianity at all; that we can live up to the moral demands that it makes on us, and that at any moment we may fall into the pit that opens beneath us, does not lessen the love we are taught . . . to have, and to attempt. Christianity plainly tells us to be perfect, impossible as it seems, impossible as it proves; but this does not make that demand less real, or even less realistic . . . Coming to the aid of human imperfection, there is grace.”

A Special Bonus for Mere Inkling Readers as the Year Ends

And a few additional thoughts from writers with connections to our favorite Inklings.

George MacDonald:

“A man’s real belief is that which he lives by. What a man believes is the thing he does, not the thing he thinks.”

A reminder to trust God for his daily provision. “It is not the cares of today, but the cares of tomorrow, that weigh a man down. For the needs of today we have corresponding strength given. For the morrow we are told to trust. It is not ours yet. It is when tomorrow’s burden is added to the burden of today that the weight is more than a man can bear.”

“Past tears are present strength.”

Dorothy Sayers:

“Paradoxical as it may seem, to believe in youth is to look backward; to look forward we must believe in age.”

G.K. Chesterton:

“When it comes to life, the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.”

Joy Davidman:

“Being a fool for God was not merely alright but liberating.”

“We do not need a world in which there is nothing to be afraid of . . . Nor can we have such a world, for all our strivings; no matter pleasant and safe we make the journey, the end of it is death. What we do need is to remember that we have been redeemed from death and the fear of death, and at a rather high price too.”

Douglas Gresham:

“I am beginning to realize that every point in one’s life at which one loses everything is far more a beginning than an end, for one has lost merely the past, and one has yet to gain the future, and eternity itself.”

And, encouragement for those among us who are writers: “Don’t forget, the rejection by a publisher of a book that you’ve written is not a failure.”

One Final Bit of Wisdom for the New Year

The internet offers lots of valuable information, accessible with the click of a key. Unfortunately, a significant amount of it is unsubstantiated, and downright false. This includes the quotations attributed to various people.

Some largescale quotation “aggregators” consider attribution on other unvalidated sites sufficient justification for loading the questionable citations to their own pages. For example, check out the quotations attributed online to Lord David Cecil. Or, better yet, don’t.

During my research for this post I discovered many of them – or, at least those most beneficial to reflective minds – actually come from the pen of Richard Cecil (1748-1810), an Anglican priest. Here is a grand example of misattribution, particularly appealing to a pastor such as myself: “It requires as much reflection and wisdom to know what is not to be put into a sermon, as what is.”

We’ll close now with an apocryphal C.S. Lewis quote. Despite scores of sites attributing the following thought to Lewis, no one can find it anywhere in his work. It is, however, consistent with his wisdom, and leaves us with an optimistic truth as 2021 draws to a close.

“You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.”

Amen. Lord, grant all those who read these words of wisdom, both now and during years to come, a blessed New Year.