Archives For Nobility

C.S. Lewis has introduced me to many fascinating writers. Authors I never would have learned about without Lewis’ reference to them.

Sometimes Lewis praises their work. At other times, being an honest literary critic, he is compelled to provide a less flattering appraisal. He typically offers the latter evaluation with a novel flair.

In my previous post I shared the sad tale of a blackbird tapping at our window. I promised to discuss today some other curious birds. These creatures, in contrast to the forlorn blackbird, arise from the imagination of a Scottish poet named Sir David Lyndsay* of the Mount. He lived around 1490 to 1555.

Lyndsay rose to the ceremonial rank of “The Right Honourable the Lord Lyon King of Arms,” which sounds quite impressive. In that capacity, he compiled 400 Scottish coats of arms, which was quite an achievement. You can download a rare facsimile of that document for your personal library from Internet Archive. The central shield may belong to my wife’s ancestors, “Jhonstoun of that ilke.”

Sir Lyndsay was a tutor to James V and served in his Court after his ascendancy to Scotland’s throne. However, it is for his poetry that David Lyndsay is remembered. Which is precisely why C.S. Lewis included him in the volume he wrote for the Oxford History of English Literature. English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama was published in 1944. While this authoritative volume is certainly not casual reading, it is extremely interesting. Just listen to how Lewis introduces Scottish writers of the “close of the Middle Ages.”

Sir David Lyndsay’s Legacy

This academic work is the place our favorite Inkling introduced me to “the last major poet of the old Scotch tradition.” I was on a quest for something interesting about birds, and I learned of a delightful piece of satire written by this Renaissance “Lion King.”

His works are a beautiful example of the ‘single talent well employed.’ The Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis, which holds an important place among our scanty materials for a history of the allegorical drama in Scotland, will be dealt with in another volume of this series . . . stands apart from the rest of Lyndsay’s output by the looseness of the metre and the general popularity of the style, and that it is rich in pathos and low humour.

In his remaining works he everywhere keeps well within the lines marked out for him by his great predecessors, there is no novelty in them . . . But what there is of him is good all through.

I am quite receptive to satire that skewers hypocritical clergy. That’s why the “episcopal ghost”⁑ in The Great Divorce is my favorite example of someone who has rejected the Truth.

This is what appealed to me about Lyndsay’s satire The Testament and Complaynt of our Soverane Lordis Papyngo.

The Complaynt [an earlier work] records, in a brisk, mocking fashion . . . the marked improvement in social order and general well-being throughout the kingdom, except as regards the “spiritualitie.” On the doings of the ecclesiastics he advises [the young king] to keep a watchful eye, and see that they preach with “unfeyneit intentis,” use the sacraments as Christ intended and leave such vain traditions as superstitious pilgrimages and praying to images. . . .

In The Testament and Complaynt of our Soverane Lordis Papyngo (parrot) he exposed more particularly the corruptions and worldliness of the spirituality, and this in a more comprehensive and scathing fashion than in his two previous pieces . . . (Cambridge History of English and American Literature).

And here are the ecclesiastical nemeses of the poem, “religious men, of gret devotioun.”

Here, also, all is pure satire—much of it of a very clever and trenchant character . . . the wise bird [the king’s parrot] with its “holy executors,” who appear in the form of a pyot [magpie] (representing a canon regular), a raven (a black monk) and a gled or hawk (a holy friar). The disposition and aims of these ghostly counsellors are sufficiently manifest; and they act entirely in keeping with their reputed character.

The poor parrot would have much preferred to have, at her death-bed, attendants of a less grovelling type of character, such as the nightingale, the jay, the mavis [song thrush], the goldfinch, the lark, etc.; but, since none of them has come, she has to be content with the disreputable birds who have offered her their services.

After a piquant discussion with them on the growth of ecclesiastical sensuality and greed, she thereupon proceeds to dispose of her personality—her “galbarte of grene” to the owl, her eyes to the bat, her beak to the pelican, her music to the cuckoo, her “toung rhetoricall” to the goose and her bones to the phoenix.

Her heart she bequeaths to the king; and she leaves merely her entrails, including her liver and lungs, to her executors who, however, immediately on her death, proceed to devour her whole body, after which the ged flies away with her heart, pursued by the two other birds of prey.

I can picture the assembled clergy in their avian forms offering their pseudo-comfort to the dying parrot. In English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, C.S. Lewis describes the misbegotten flock in the following manner.

[The parrot’s] testament is made in the unwelcome presence of certain birds of prey who turn out to be monks and friars of the feathered world. The dying parrot inveighs against their hypocrisy and avarice . . . while they vigorously defend themselves by throwing the blame on the secular clergy.

So far, the satire has been ordinary enough; but we find real satiric invention, and even a strange beauty, when the popinjay, having provided for the poor by leaving her gay coat to the owl, her eyes to the bat, and her voice to the cuckoo, and for herself by committing her spirit to the Quene of Farie, is torn in pieces by her carrion executors the moment the breath is out of her body—hir angell fedderis fleying in the air.

It is not without reason an article in Studies in Scottish Literature opens with this praise:

Lindsay’s concern for morality and truthfulness, in an age when political and religious institutions were notoriously corrupt, earned him a considerable reputation in his lifetime. Indeed for later generations of Scottish readers, Lindsay’s name became a byword for reliability and truthfulness, at times even rivalling divine Scripture.

You can read the original poem, along with all of Lyndsay’s other poetic works, in this 1871 collection.


* Just a caution for those looking for more information about Lyndsay: be aware that his surname is also spelled Lindsay, Lindesay and Lyndesay. Also, he should not be confused with Robert Lindsay of Pitscottie, a roughly contemporary author who compiled The Historie and Chronicles of Scotland. (Robert’s family name is also spelled with similar variants.)

⁑ Lewis’ use of the word “episcopal” here does not refer to a denomination. It suggests a churchly, or more accurately, a high-churchly theologian.

Noble Birds of Aragon, circa AD 1290

Common People

April 8, 2014 — 7 Comments

narnia shieldNone of us like to be considered “common.” No surprise; it’s not a complimentary adjective. We prefer to think of ourselves as exceptional . . . and, if not extraordinary, at least special.

In our democracies, with the possible exception of monarchies where the terminology may still exist, we’re no longer referred to a “commoners.” In fact, in the United States we can even design our own coats of arms!

If you want to add a “title” to your legal name, you can follow the example of some Americans who actually name their sons “Sir.” (Believe it or not, in 2012 it was the 998th most popular male name in California. Then there’s also “Prince Michael ‘Blanket’ Jackson II,” but let’s not go there.)

Owning a noble name is no prerequisite to possessing value. A well known quotation from C.S. Lewis dispels the misassumption that any human being is common or lacking in value. Every person is precious. Every person. And, no matter how tiny you ever feel on your most dejected day, you are special . . . precious . . . and (literally) unique!

There are no ordinary people. You have never met a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.
(The Weight of Glory).

As I was considering this subject I came across a less familiar, but equally true, comment from Lewis. He was writing during an age when class distinctions in Europe were still implicit. He turned the matter on its head in a wartime essay entitled “Private Bates.” Here Lewis says that the very things the “elite” esteem reveal just how slavishly they follow appearances.

We must get rid of our arrogant assumption that it is the masses who can be led by the nose. As far as I can make out, the shoe is on the other foot. The only people who are really the dupes of their favourite newspapers are the intelligentsia. It is they who read leading articles: the poor read the sporting news, which is mostly true.

There’s much truth, I think, to Lewis’ observation. Or, perhaps that is merely my blue-collar upbringing speaking.

Let’s close our thoughts on “common folk” with a rarely read piece of poetry from Lewis’ Spirits in Bondage. (This was a pre-conversion collection, and is the only work of C.S. Lewis that is currently in the public domain.)

Thank God that there are solid folk . . .

Who feel the things that all men feel

And think in well-worn grooves of thought

Whose honest spirits never reel

Before man’s mystery, overwrought.

Yet not unfaithful nor unkind

With work-day virtues surely staid

Theirs is the sane and humble mind

And dull affections undismayed.

O happy people! I have seen

No verse yet written in your praise

And, truth to tell, the time has been

I would have scorned your easy ways.

But now thro’ weariness and strife

I learn your worthiness indeed

The world is better for such life

As stout, suburban people lead.

“In Praise of Solid People”

Spirits in Bondage

“There is but one good; that is God. Everything else is good when it looks to Him and bad when it turns from Him.” (C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce).

I believe this thesis. I don’t expect agnostics and humanists to, though. Still, I believe the statement is true, even for them. Consider my explanation below.

What Lewis is saying is that God is the Source of all good. In the Scriptures, in fact, some of the attributes of God can be viewed as so intimately a part of his divine nature that the particular virtue is, in its purity, a facet of the Lord’s identity. Thus God the Father and God the Son are said to truly be: Love, Light, and Truth.

Christians are inclined to attribute any good fruit we see as coming from the Source of good. Thus, when secularists do something inarguably good or altruistic, we have no problem attributing its inspiration to God. Yes, they may see through the glass dimly, and may for example recognize only the beauty of nature or the magnificence of the cosmos. But these are God’s handiwork, and so we return to where we began.

It is actually the second portion of this quotation that most intrigues me. “Everything else is . . . bad when it turns from Him.”

I suppose I can illustrate this truth more effectively than I can explain it.

Patriotism is a good thing. It results in cohesive communities where individuals are willing to make sacrifices on behalf of their fellow citizens. Focus is on the common welfare. However, run amuck, patriotism can become a deformed thing. The Third Reich united and inspired a weak and demoralized nation, but at a bloody price.

Love of Family is a good thing. Most of us experience the joy of this fact. However, carried to obsessive bounds, it can result in horrendous acts. Not a week passes without the news relaying accounts of parents murdering their own children in the face of a divorce, incarceration or some other form of separation. In their depraved minds, the thought of not being together warped into something uglier than death itself.

Human Freedom is a good thing. If that weren’t so, God wouldn’t have created us with free will. It allows human to say “yes” to him and live in a relationship with our Creator as his children rather than as mindless automata. But, apart from God, is there any question that this most wonderful gift becomes a curse? Proof overflows from the pages of our newspapers.

So, Lewis reminds us that the things of this world possess no intrinsic good. When things such as generosity, courage, and creativity are imbued with a divine element, only then do they become capable of being truly good.

The strongest challenge to this belief comes in the notion that even those who do not acknowledge God are capable of doing things we all consider “good.” As I said above, Christians have no problem celebrating selfless acts of their unbelieving neighbors. The reason for this is actually quite simple. Even though secular humanitarian efforts do not look to God, since they are altruistic, they consciously look away from self. In other words, they are not intentionally turning away from God, but, ignorant of his presence, they still transcend selfish or carnal interests. And, insofar as they are free of these sinful considerations, they possess the capacity for actions rightly deemed “good.”

Ultimately I believe this is due to the truth that all women and men are created in the image of our God. Whether we acknowledge it or not, the echoes of that truth resound throughout our being.