Archives For New Year

Writing During the New Year

December 29, 2020 — 19 Comments

A new year is dawning, and the future is yours to write. For writers, these optimistic words possess doubled promise.

Metaphorically, 2021 offers all of us a fresh beginning. We can build on the good aspects of our lives, and abandon behaviors that result in less desirable outcomes. Some people do that in the form of making “new year resolutions.”

The new year offers those who write—a large number of those who actively follow Mere Inkling—a new opportunity to pursue our literary dreams. For example, we can begin scheduling regular times for studying the art, and even (I realize this is shocking) for writing itself!

Certainly, many of life’s experiences remain beyond our control, but how we choose to respond to them is not. And it is not too challenging to imagine that these unpleasant days of social isolation might contribute to inherently personal pursuits such as writing.

While I was working on an upcoming post about “quotations,” I encountered the volume illustrated at the top of this column. It represents the first two pages of A Year Book of Quotations: From the Writings of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, with spaces for Autographs and Records (New York: 1896).

Look not mournfully into the Past. It comes not back again. Wisely improve the Present. It is thine. Go forth to meet the shadowy Future without fear, and with a manly* heart. (Hyperion).

These pages commended themselves to me as an ideal exemplar of the point I am attempting to make. New Year’s Day is an ideal time to begin new writing practices. While the hobby of collecting “autographs” may have declined through the years, the value of keeping written “records” has not.

The very structure of this journal invites a reader to preserve their unique insights. And, while the space in the book itself is limited, the blank lines serve to remind us that a few minutes devoted to the keyboard or pen each day can be worthwhile.

Longfellow’s Influence on C.S. Lewis

The epic poetry of Longfellow (1807-1882) was highly regarded during his lifetime. Following the death of his second wife, he wrote less poetry and focused on translating foreign authors into English.

In a 1915 letter to his father, Lewis commented on Rudyard Kipling’s militant promotion of the First World War. As he concluded his thoughts on the subject, he wrote, “I conceive that Kipling is one of those writers who has the misfortune in common with Longfellow, of always being known and liked for his worst works.”

There is one poem in Longfellow’s works—a piece inspired by his translation of a Swedish poet—that greatly impacted a very young C.S. Lewis. In “Tegner’s drapa,” Lewis encountered the essence of “Northernness” which would fuel his imagination the remainder of his life.

The entire poem is available here, but it was the ode’s opening that sparked the flame.⁑ Lewis describes the incident in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy.

It will be clear that at this time—at the age of six, seven, and eight—I was living almost entirely in my imagination; or at least that the imaginative experience of those years now seems to me more important than anything else. . . . I had become fond of Longfellow’s Saga of King Olaf: fond of it in a casual, shallow way for its story and its vigorous rhythms.

But then, and quite different from such pleasures, and like a voice from far more distant regions, there came a moment when I idly turned the pages of the book and found the unrhymed translation of “Tegner’s Drapa” and read,

I heard a voice that cried,
Balder the beautiful
Is dead, is dead.

I knew nothing about Balder; but instantly I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky, I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described (except that it is cold, spacious, severe, pale, and remote) and then, as in the other examples, found myself at the very same moment already falling out of that desire and wishing I were back in it.

In 1927, Lewis penned a lengthy letter to his brother, which included an entertaining discussion of American authors. He highlights the nationalistic bragging to which many Americans succumb. He encourages Warnie to recall the days when the two of them boasted about the accomplishments of Northern Ireland.

If you cast back your mind, when we were at Wynyard we were in exactly that phase: it gave us a pleasure at which I still blush to din into people’s ears the fact that Belfast had the largest gantry in the British isles or had launched the largest ship afloat.

But we have outgrown it: it would now give me no appreciable thrill to convince the fellows of Magdalen that my father was the largest batata⁂ in Europe. If the analogy between peoples and individuals were sound, I suppose we should have to forgive the Americans for being in a state which we once passed through ourselves.

After discussing several others, Lewis confesses, “Hawthorne I admire beyond words: and ‘I have a sneaking affection’ for Longfellow.”

In retrospect, all of us who appreciate the writer C.S. Lewis became, owe a profound debt to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

And, if Longfellow’s collection of quotations—with spaces for Autographs and Records—encourages any of us to renew our commitment to becoming better writers, we have another good reason to be grateful.


* Yes, the pronouns are a bit dated, but we all know what Longfellow meant.

⁑ You can find direct inspiration for Longfellow’s poem in his translation of the poetry of Esaias Tegnér (1782-1846).

⁂ In case you are like me, and didn’t know, a batata is a sweet potato. It may also have been used as slang for Irish people, referring to being potato eaters. One can just imagine the two young men touting such a grand accomplishment by their father. (If anyone knows the precise meaning Lewis intended for the word, please let us know!)

guardian angelOxymoron is a great word. Too bad so few people understand what it means.

In America, at least, nine times out of ten you will hear it misused. Most folks seem to think it means a “contradiction in terms.”

One common example is “military intelligence.” Perhaps I am sensitive to it, being a veteran, but I would enjoy never again hearing people guffaw at that term.

In actuality, the oxymoron is a much more sophisticated rhetorical device.

An oxymoron is the combination of two incongruous words or images to create a unique effect. Often it hints of irony. For example, “she was a poor little rich girl.”

Further examples suggest complex circumstances. “Cruel kindness” and “making haste slowly,” are quite intriguing. The context would provide greater illumination, but these phrases suggest a painful treatment given in love . . . and urgency, tempered by caution.

Another example, apropos for an age in which zombies have become so popular, is the phrase “living death.” Reanimated corpses aside, this oxymoron is extremely powerful.

It evokes the sense of a person’s life having become deathlike in some way. Perhaps it is physical, emotional, psychological or spiritual. In any case, drawing together life and death in this epigram is provocative.

In his most vulnerable work, A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis describes humanity itself as an oxymoron. Most certainly, he uses the word appropriately.

Sometimes, Lord, one is tempted to say that if you wanted us to behave like the lilies of the field you might have given us an organization more like theirs. But that, I suppose, is just your grand experiment. Or no; not an experiment, for you have no need to find things out. Rather, your grand enterprise. To make an organism which is also a spirit; to make that terrible oxymoron, a ‘spiritual animal.’

Lewis’ point is well taken. That the Creator of the cosmos would make flesh bound human beings with a spiritual nature that allows him to describe as made in his own image, is incomprehensible.

Animals are animals. That is what modern secularists argue that we are. Yet it is evident to the vast majority of humans throughout all times and cultures, that we are unlike beasts. For we possess a spirit. And we are, accordingly, that unique thing among all beings—a spiritual animal.

So peculiar are we in the universe that even the angels themselves—spirits, never “animals”—are curious about the nature of our redemption. As Peter writes in his first epistle:

Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories.

It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look.

From one oxymoron to another, I hope that this new year brings you many blessings. Most especially, I pray that if you have not already experienced this wondrous miracle which amazes even the angels of heaven . . . that you would come to know God’s love.

Annual Encouragement

January 2, 2014 — 11 Comments

2013Our grandparents never dreamed a single person could touch as many other people as we now take for granted in our digital age. If you had told them that in a single year, you could interact with people from 140 different nations—and all from the comfort of your own home—they would have had you institutionalized.

Yet, that’s precisely what we do today. And what may be even odder, we consider it commonplace.

Readers who are familiar with the “wordpress community” know that the arrival of the new year includes a welcome ritual. We receive a congratulatory note on our blogging accomplishments during the previous year.

In addition to various statistical notes, the report identifies particularly successful posts. For example, a couple of years ago I wrote “Lessons Taught by Onions,” and for some peculiar reason it continues to draw visitors every single month.

At the top of this post I have reproduced what many of us regard as the most intriguing aspect of the report–revealing where your readers reside. As a novice blogger it’s a wonderful feeling when we first see something we’ve written read by people in a foreign land.

Over the years it’s fascinating to see how the list of visitors grows.

Some countries are tough to reach. This year I finally had a visitor or two from the People’s Republic of China and Mongolia . . . a couple of those challenging lands.

I still haven’t been able to penetrate North Korea. But then, that’s no surprise since they only have one computer with international access, and I don’t publish the type of material that would be of interest to the resident of the presidential palace.

As the new year begins, it’s good to be encouraged by others for one’s past performance. Most of us require a bit of encouragement now and then.

Speaking of encouraging, in a 1956 letter, C.S. Lewis expresses appreciation to a writer who enjoyed his book, Till We Have Faces.

It was nice of you to write about Till We Have Faces (I originally called it Bareface, but the publishers vetoed that because they said people would think it was a ‘Western’!), and a most needed encouragement to me, for it has so far had a more hostile reception from the critics than any book I ever wrote. Not that critics really matter very much. The real question is how the book goes 10 or 15 years after publication.

Encouragement is always welcome, and never more so than in the wake of abundant discouragement.

And then, of course, there is the feigned or teasing sort of encouragement that can only be offered by someone we trust. Someone we know regards us with affection. In that light, I couldn’t resist including the following passage from a letter Lewis wrote in 1951.

All well here except myself, who have a bad cold; but I’m off to Ireland I hope on Friday for a fortnight, which may shift it. (Warnie in his usual way of encouragement, reads me paragraphs from the paper at breakfast about liners wind bound in the Mersey and waves 6 ½ feet high off the Irish coast.)

I must confess that with a large and literate family, I receive more than my share of just this sort of “encouragement.” And I welcome it.

In the meantime, however, the annual report of Mere Inkling’s popularity does inspire me to press on with my self-imposed pace of two columns a week. I warmly invite you to continue the journey alongside me.