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C.S. Lewis the Irishman

August 31, 2018 — 7 Comments

irish aslan

Contrary to the common assumption that C.S. Lewis was English, he was actually an Irishman. He was born in Belfast, and those who know him attested to how his Irish-ness lasted the whole of his life.

Lewis was proud of his roots, and celebrated them. When he first journeyed to England, he experienced a culture shock. “No Englishman will be able to understand my first impressions of England,” he wrote in Surprised by Joy.

Lewis always loved Ireland. He vacationed there regularly, and chose the island for his honeymoon, late in life. One of his Irish students, David Bleakley, related that the transplant professor declared, “Heaven is Oxford lifted and placed in the middle of County Down.” (C.S. Lewis at home in Ireland)

Several years ago, David Clare of the University of Limerick wrote “C.S. Lewis: An Irish Writer.” It appeared in Irish Studies Review, and the abstract is illuminating.

This article examines the effect of C.S. Lewis’s Irish background on his work. It attempts to contradict the assumption that this Belfast-born writer should be included in the English and not the Irish canon. It emphasises that Lewis saw himself as Irish, was seen by others as Irish, and that his Irish background, contrary to what some have written, was important to him throughout his lifetime.

It goes on to demonstrate the ways in which his work was influenced by his youth in Ireland and by the Irish mythology that he loved. Furthermore, this article maintains that, as a child of pre-partition Ireland with roots throughout the island, Lewis was influenced by the country as a whole, not just his native Ulster. Finally, it attempts to understand why Lewis, a proud Irishman, did not do more to promote himself as an Irish writer.

Clare’s argument is necessary because of Irish political correctness. In Surprised by C.S. Lewis, Alister McGrath describes the prejudice.

So why is Lewis not celebrated as one of the greatest Irish writers of all time? Why is there no entry for “Lewis, C.S.” in the 1,472 pages of the supposedly definitive Dictionary of Irish Literature (1996)? The real issue is that Lewis does not fit—and, indeed, must be said partly to have chosen not to fit—the template of Irish identity that has dominated the late twentieth century.

In some ways, Lewis represents precisely the forces and influences which the advocates of a stereotypical Irish literary identity wished to reject. One of the reasons why Ireland has largely chosen to forget about Lewis is that he was the wrong kind of Irishman. . . .

Lewis may have chosen to rise above the provinciality of Irish literature; he nevertheless remains one of its most luminous and famous representatives.

It should be noted, of course, that countless Irish men and women are proud of Lewis, and count him as one of their own.

There’s No Other Place Quite Like Ireland

On a less serious note, and at the risk of contributing to a stereotype, I want to share with you an incident that occurred in Dublin.

First some context. Some people suggest that people in Ireland have a particular affinity for alcohol. This may be a bit of an exaggeration, since they are only ranked twenty-first in the world (for alcohol consumption).

The 1875 tragedy goes by several names, but one is the “Dublin Whiskey Fire.” A malt house and a whiskey warehouse caught fire, and as thousands of gallons of their contents poured down the street in a fiery channel, the blaze spread to many homes and businesses.

Miraculously, the fire did not take any lives. That does not mean, however, that there were not a number of fatalities. A dozen people died from alcohol poisoning. Tempted by unrestricted access to the alcohol, many Dubliners cupped their hands or used their boots to gather up the liquid and drink themselves into oblivion.

You can read an account of the bizarre occurrence in The Irish Times.

I wonder what Lewis thought about this revolting event, since he was surely aware of it. The deranged consumption of filthy and burning alcohol would be condemned by any sane person.

Among teetotalers, however, even a sip of alcohol is objectionable. Many attribute their aversion to their faith. While the Christian Scriptures strongly condemn drunkenness, some verses tacitly affirm the drinking of wine in moderation.*

C.S. Lewis and Drink

C.S. Lewis was among the majority of Christians who accept drinking while avoiding drunkenness. I have written on this subject at length.

In Mere Christianity, Lewis says,

Temperance is, unfortunately, one of those words that has changed its meaning. It now usually means teetotalism. But in the days when the second Cardinal virtue was christened ‘Temperance,’ it meant nothing of the sort. Temperance referred not specially to drink, but to all pleasures; and it meant not abstaining, but going the right length and no further.

It is a mistake to think that Christians ought all to be teetotallers . . . Of course it may be the duty of a particular Christian, or of any Christian, at a particular time, to abstain from strong drink, either because he is the sort of man who cannot drink at all without drinking too much, or because he is with people who are inclined to drunkenness and must not encourage them by drinking himself.

But the whole point is that he is abstaining, for a good reason, from something which he does not condemn and which he likes to see other people enjoying. One of the marks of a certain type of bad man is that he cannot give up a thing himself without wanting every one else to give it up. That is not the Christian way.

An individual Christian may see fit to give up all sorts of things for special reasons—marriage, or meat, or beer, or the cinema; but the moment he starts saying the things are bad in themselves, or looking down his nose at other people who do use them, he has taken the wrong turning.

This is wise counsel. Recapturing the original meaning of temperance—and living as temperate people—results in happier lives and a more peaceful world.


* For those who God expressly commands not to drink, should avoid it completely. For example, an angel told Zechariah that John the Baptist, “must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.” (Luke 1:15). John’s cousin Jesus, on the other hand, miraculously created wine for a wedding party, and offered the Passover wine to his disciples with the words “this cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” (Luke 22:20)

 

Degrees of Importance

March 29, 2018 — 9 Comments

swiss horn

Not all college degrees are created equal. Some are “marketable,” and lead to well compensated careers. Others do not necessarily make one “employable,” but offer intrinsic satisfaction.

Engineering degrees would probably be in the first category. Creative writing degrees typically fall into the latter.

If I had the good fortune to study at Oxford when C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien taught there, I would have savored the opportunity to sit in their presence and explore the wonders of Medieval Literature or Old English. (In America, at least, both of those degrees would fall into the second category identified above.)

As it was, my initial degree was in journalism. It seemed that every quarter our professors at the University of Washington would remind us that five years after graduation, no more than five percent of us would be working in that particular field. (I referred to those sessions as de-motivational chats.)

Still, learning how to write is a skill that serves one well in nearly any field.

Learning to yodel, on the other hand, probably possesses far fewer applications.

This year the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts will introduce a course on alpine “singing.” The University has expressed hope they will inspire enough Swiss yodelers to establish a degree program. If their efforts really pay off, they dream of offering a graduate degree in the rarified field.

The BBC reports “Yodelling is enjoying something of a resurgence in Switzerland, even featuring on successful chart albums last year.” I guess that answers the question about what the Swiss do beyond banking and making confectioneries.

If you have led a life so sheltered that you are uncertain exactly what yodeling is, the BBC describes it as “a form of singing which involves wobbling the voice up and down in a rapid change of pitch.”

An online dictionary defines yodel as a verb meaning “to sing with frequent changes from the ordinary voice to falsetto and back again, in the manner of Swiss and Tyrolean mountaineers.”

While most of us prefer our falsetto music in small doses, yodeling capitalizes on the full range of the human larynx, and then some.

The course will be taught by a famous yodeler, Nadja Räss. I’ve linked to one of her performances below.

I was curious as to what Lewis and Tolkien would have thought about this subject’s suitability for academic study. I suspect it would have provided the Inklings a chuckle, but they would affirm the value of studying one’s unique cultural heritage.

I did find one curious encounter Lewis had with a Swiss traveler in 1927. It has nothing to do with yodeling, and only tangentially touches on the university, but it is rather interesting. In a letter to his brother he mentions that Minto (Janie Moore) who lived with him, was being visited by an acquaintance.

You will be surprised to hear that while I write this, Minto is out to dinner. This results from the chief event since you left—the arrival of ‘un ami’ of Florence de Forest—not staying here, thank heavens.

He is a little Swiss commercial traveller, ‘Villie Goût,’ as smart as a bandbox, and very polite. Beyond making horrible noises in clearing his ‘pipes . . .’ and being intensely ugly, he is really quite harmless, tho’ of course very vulgar. He and Florence absolutely insisted on Minto’s dining with them at the Eastgate tonight, and won the day.

They know how to move their monde, as you will see from this fact and also when I tell you that they made me take them up Magdalen Tower this morning—as well as round the College. When I showed them the deer he made one of those extremely simple French jokes with which Maurice and M. Zée have familiarised us.

I had explained that these deer were descendants of a herd wh. had been there before the College was founded (that is quite true by the by, or as true as a College tradition need be), and I added ‘So you may say they are the oldest members of the College’.

‘And ze most intelligent?’ returned M. Goût.

I am confident that Mr. Goût and his companion enjoyed their visit to Oxford. Perhaps he returned home to Switzerland hoping that someday their universities would rival those of Britain.

Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts was not founded until 1997, but their bold academic vision would have made Goût proud.

_____

You can enjoy a sample of Nadja Räss’ singing here.

 

yeats and lewis.jpg

Among Irish writers who left large imprints on literature, there were a peculiar pair who failed to impress one another when twice their paths crossed. William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) and C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) met in Oxford, and both found their encounters less than inspiring.

Obviously, when the two of them met, Yeats was an internationally renowned pillar of poetry, and Lewis was a young man with a trifling reputation. Oddly enough, they were introduced by an American poet.

[Editorial Note: This is a longer post than most, but it is a fascinating subject that demands more comprehensive discussion.]

William Force Stead (1884-1967) had served in the United States Consular Service. Upon being posted to the United Kingdom, he studied at Queen’s College in Oxford, and was ordained a priest in the Church of England.

His religious life must have been curious, since he apparently explored some of the spiritualism common to that era. However, his ordination did allow for his employment in a convenient position. While Chaplain of Worcester College in Oxford, he baptized T.S. Eliot, who had become his friend.

He left the position when he decided to convert to Roman Catholicism. (Apparently it was a bit of a scandal.) At the outset of the Second World War, he returned to the United States where he pursued an academic life. One of his poems, “Sweet Wild April,” can be read in the supplemental notes below.

The Relationship Between Lewis and Stead

In his diary of his early life, published as All My Road Before Me, Lewis describes a visit to his home made by Stead.

Sunday 8 July: After lunch I lay on the lawn reading Boswell while Harwood and Maureen played duets to their great satisfaction. Just before tea I had gone into the house when I saw someone at the hall door and opening it found Stead.

I talked to him in the drawing room for a few minutes and then brought him out and introduced him to Harwood and disappeared to get tea. He talked philosophy to Harwood and I threw in impertinent interruptions whenever I came out to put a cup or a cake on the table. . . .

Stead, fresh back from Venice and Rome, gave as his verdict that “Italy was a pleasant surprise to him. He had always imagined the Italians a degenerate people but found that they were really quite go ahead and up to date.”

They were also more patriotic than the English, for they were always waving flags and went mad over the name of Italy whereas “he had never found that Englishmen showed any great enthusiasm over the mention of England.” They and their landscape were, he said, hardy and vigorous whereas one always felt the softness of England.

Lewis’ next sentence expresses in eleven words an entire volume. It is followed by fascinating observations about the Italian fascism of the early twenties.

Stead is an American and has not been to the war. We also talked of Fascismo. We were all inclined to favour it except Harwood who said it was only a more successful version of the Ku Klux Klan and that Mussolini had the face of a villain.

Asked if he believed in Fascist atrocities, Stead said that they committed atrocities only when they were deserved.

Stead’s Introduction of Lewis to Yeats

Stead apparently possessed the type of personality that resonated with Yeats, who was captive to various Hermetic and Rosicrucian mythologies. Yeats must also have appreciated Stead’s poetry, since he included two of his poems in the Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1892-1935).

Stead was modest about his ability to contribute to the conversation as it was guided by the elder authority. With some frequency, he was invited to dine with Yeats and his wife (although it does not appear that his own wife accompanied him). Here is his description of the normal pattern for such evenings.

[It was] an easy and intimate little party, but I was often puzzled in the hours that followed when we retired to his study: Yeats, who mistook me for a philosopher and a man of learning, went voyaging off into regions with which I was wholly unfamiliar.

He was then reading the Catholic theologian, Baron von Hugel—and here I could offer a few comments; he was already interested in Byzantium, and I had a little knowledge of the Eastern Empire. But his range of interest–tho’ he was not a man of learning–went far beyond my boundaries. For instance, he would open a volume on Art, Apollo by Reinach, and ask me to compare the facial expressions in Greek and Roman sculpture, as representing the contrast between the subjective or instinctive life and the objective or rational life.

This led to a discussion of the difference between the Greek and Roman civilizations, and to subjective and objective periods during the Christian era.
Here I was invited to follow his involved system of intersecting cones, as the objective age or civilization was moving up into the subjective, and the subjective age or civilization was moving down into the objective.

These again were symbolised by the dark of the moon as the objective, and the light or full moon as the subjective, and the transition as the gradual rounding out of the dark into the light, and vice versa.

I was often quite lost, and even the poet himself, to whom this reading of character and history had come as a revelation—partly thro’ his wife, who had pronounced psychic powers—even the poet would pause at times, drop his glasses, dangle them at the end of their ribbon, look round and say: “It is all very difficult.”

Stead offers a suggestion as to why his company may have been valued by the famous poet.

I must have been useless as a source of information and ideas, but Yeats was lonely and felt rather neglected in Oxford; his was not the academic type of mind, and learned ladies bored him by asking, “Mr. Yeats, what is your subject?” as though he were a don, with some narrow field of research.

He soon adopted a blunt reply—“Astrology,” and that floored them. As a matter of fact, it was one of his many interests in occultism. . . .

Yeats welcomed almost any form of belief. He craved the supernatural. It was the only air he could live and breathe in.  (“Oxford Poets” by David Bradshaw in Yeats’s Mask)

Lewis’ Introduction to Yeats

Lewis could hardly believe his good fortune when his acquaintance invited him to meet Yeats. However, it was the poet’s peculiarities, rather than his talents, that left the deepest impression.

In a lengthy letter to his brother Warren, Lewis describes in detail these events. He begins with the receipt of the invitation, and includes a humorously critical evaluation of Stead’s poetry.

I received this morning a letter from my obliging friend Stead. Stead is rather a punt: I think you saw me stop to speak to him one day in the Corn. 36 He is an undergraduate but also curate of a parish in Oxford. He writes poetry. The annoying thing is that it’s exactly like mine, only like the bad parts of mine: this was my own original opinion and it has been confirmed by others. Perhaps you can imagine the sensation I experienced in reading it.

Stead’s letter was to say that he had mentioned to Yeats–whom he knows–“my double claim to distinction as an Irishman and a poet” and would I come along this evening and see him?

The letter continues with a description of the evening.

I accordingly repaired after dinner to Stead’s lodging in Canterbury Street. He is a married man: his wife is an American: she is the sister of a woman who is married to a brother of Mrs Moore’s.

She was a woman of implacable sullenness who refused even to say good evening to me: beside her at the fire sat an American gentleman who was apparently left to console her for the absence of her husband.

This was a very amiable person: he was ‘studyin’ when I entered, but politely laid his book down. You know the sort of face in which a long promontory of nose (eagle build) projects from between two rounded hills of cheek (cherub build)? Picture this surmounted by a pair of horn spectacles and made of a texture rather like cod’s roe: then add that this face beams but can contribute to the crack only by saying ‘That’s right’ at the end of everyone’s remark.

In these rather nasty surroundings Stead was finishing a very nasty meal of cold fish and cocoa: but he soon put on his coat and after asking his lady why there were no stamps in the house and receiving no answer, swung out with me into the usual Oxford theatrical night. Trusting soul to leave his wife unguarded in such society!

Yeats lives at the end of Broad St, the first house on your right as you leave the town. I can assure you I felt a veritable Bozzy as I reflected that I was now to meet at last WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS! But enough of that.

We were shown up a long stairway lined with rather wicked pictures by Blake–all devils and monsters–and finally into the presence chamber, lit by tall candles, with orange coloured curtains and full of things which I can’t describe because I don’t know their names.

The poet was very big, about sixty years of age: “awful” as Bozzy says: grey haired, clean shaven. When he first began to speak I would have thought him French, but the Irish sounds through after a time.

Before the fire was a circle of hard antique chairs. Present were the poet’s wife, a little man who never spoke all evening, and Father Martindale. Father M. is a Catholic Priest, a little twinkling man like a bird, or like Puck, whom I take to be an atheistical dog. I used to go to his lectures in the old days: he is a mocker.

Everyone got up as we came in: after the formalities I was humbly preparing to sink into the outlying chair leaving the more honourable to Stead, but the poet sternly and silently motioned us into other ones. The meaning of this I have not fathomed: ’twas very Pumble-chookian.

Then the talk began. It was all of magic and cabbalism and “the Hermetic knowledge.” The great man talked while the priest and Mrs Yeats fed him with judicious questions.

The matter I admit was either mediaeval or modern, but the manner was so XVIII Century that I lost my morale.

I understood how it is possible for a man to terrify a room into silence: and I had a ghastly presentment that something would presently impel me to up like that “unknown curate” and say “Were not Vale Owen’s revelations, Sir, addressed to the passions?”

And then as Max Beerbohm says “Bang” the suddenness of it! However I remembered that Johnson WAS really dead and controlled myself. Indeed some good angel guided me: for presently I really had something to say–a case mentioned by Coleridge which was most apposite and indeed crying for quotation on something just said.

But thank God I didn’t: for a minute later the priest did. YEATS (thumping his chair): “Yes–yes–the old woman in Coleridge. That story was published by Coleridge without the slightest evidence. Andrew Lang exposed it. I’ve never had a conversation on the subject that SOMEONE didn’t bring in Coleridge’s old woman. It is anonymous in the first place and every one has taken it over without question. It just shows that there’s no limit to the unscrupulousness that a sceptical man will go to–”

MARTINDALE: “Oh surely Mr Yeats–”

YEATS: “Yes! There is a Professor living in Oxford at this moment who is the greatest sceptic in print. The same man has told me that he entered a laboratory where X (some woman whose name I didn’t catch) was doing experiments: saw the table floating near the ceiling with X sitting on it: vomited: gave orders that no further experiments were to be done in the laboratories–and refused to let the story be known.”

But it would be only ridiculous to record it all: I should give you the insanity of the man without his eloquence and presence, which are very great. I could never have believed that he was so exactly like his own poetry.

One more joke must be recorded. Stead presently told us a dream he had had: it was so good that I thought it a lie. YEATS (looking to his wife): “Have you anything to say about that, Georgie?” Apparently Stead’s transcendental self, not important enough for the poet, has been committed to Mrs Yeats as a kind of ersatz or secondary magician.

Finally we are given sherry or vermouth in long and curiously shaped glasses, except Martindale who has whiskey out of an even longer and more curiously shaped glass, and the orgy is at an end.

Try to mix Pumblechook, the lunatic we met at the Mitre, Dr Johnson, the most eloquent drunk Irishman you know, and Yeats’s own poetry, all up into one composite figure, and you will have the best impression I can give you.

A week later Lewis records, in the same missive, a description of their encore gathering.

Having met Stead yesterday in the Broad with his wife and of course with our friend of the nose, I was told that the great man had expressed himself sorry not to have been able to see more of me owing to his argument with the priest, and would I come again with Stead [the] next night?

This night we were shown to a study up in the ceiling and entertained by him alone: and, would you believe it, he was almost quite sane, and talked about books and things, still eloquently and quite intelligently? Of course we got on to magic in the end—that was only to be expected.

It was really my fault, for I mentioned Bergson. “Ah yes,” said he, “Bergson. It was his sister who taught me magic.” The effect of this statement on Aunt Suffern (already in paroxysms of contempt over what I had already told her about Yeats) ought to be amusing.

We spoke of Andrew Lang. YEATS: “I met him once—at a dinner somewhere. He never said a word. When we began to talk afterwards, he just got up and took his chair into a corner of the room and sat down facing the wall. He stayed there all the evening.” Perhaps Lang didn’t like wizards!

Of the “great Victorians” he said: “The most interesting thing about the Victorian period was their penchant for selecting one typical great man in each department—Tennyson, THE poet, Roberts, THE soldier: and then these types were made into myths. You never heard of anyone else: if you spoke of medicine it meant—(some ‘THE Doctor’ whose name I’ve forgotten): if you spoke of politics it was Gladstone.” This is especially interesting to us as explaining the mental growth of a certain bird we wot of. (“Well all said and done boys, he was a GREAT man.”)

So home to bed more pleased with our poet than I had been on the last occasion: and rather thankful that L’Oiseau Pomme de Terre hadn’t been there to explain that “you can see he’s a disappointed man” after every adverse criticism on any living writer. Oh, before I leave it, Stead told me he had shown Yeats a poem: Yeats said he thought “IT WOULD DO VERY WELL” to set to music! Stead thinks this is a compliment. H’mh!

A moment ago we heard Stead’s appraisal of Yeats, which ended with a declaration of his interest in the supernatural. Stead said “Yeats welcomed almost any form of belief.” Well, that is not quite true. As the passage continues, he reveals Yeats’ discomfort with those who might challenge his affinity for occultic phenomena.

Once when I had brought an undergraduate with me, Yeats gave us a long discourse on re-incarnation. At the end my young friend ventured to observe that the theory of re-incarnation “bristles with difficulties.”

Yeats passed it off in sullen silence, but several times later on referred indignantly to “that young man who said re-incarnation bristles with difficulties.” (“Oxford Poets”)

The young man who dared suggest to Yeats that reincarnation was a flawed philosophy was none other than C.S. Lewis.

It is little surprise that the relationship between the two Irish poets never grew close.


Below you will find poems written by Lewis’ acquaintances mentioned in this column. The first is by Stead, and reflects a truly carefree spirit. The second is one of Yeats’ most famous works, penned in the aftermath of WWI.

Sweet Wild April

O sweet wild April
Came over the hills,
He skipped with the winds
And he tripped with the rills;
His raiment was all
Of the daffodils.
Sing hi,
Sing hey,
Sing ho!

O sweet wild April
Came down the lea,
Dancing along
With his sisters three:
Carnation, and Rose,
And tall Lily.
Sing hi,
Sing hey,
Sing ho!

O sweet wild April,
On pastoral quill
Came piping in moonlight
By hollow and hill,
In starlight at midnight,
By dingle and rill.
Sing hi,
Sing hey,
Sing ho!

Where sweet wild April
His melody played,
Trooped cowslip, and primrose,
And iris, the maid,
And silver narcissus,
A star in the shade.
Sing hi,
Sing hey,
Sing ho!

When sweet wild April
Dipped down the dale,
Pale cuckoopint brightened,
And windflower trail,
And white-thorn, the wood-bride,
In virginal veil.
Sing hi,
Sing hey,
Sing ho!

When sweet wild April
Through deep woods pressed,
Sang cuckoo above him,
And lark on his crest,
And Philomel fluttered
Close under his breast.
Sing hi,
Sing hey,
Sing ho!

O sweet wild April,
Wherever you went
The bondage of winter
Was broken and rent,
Sank elfin ice-city
And frost-goblin’s tent.
Sing hi,
Sing hey,
Sing ho!

Yet sweet wild April,
The blithe, the brave,
Fell asleep in the fields
By a windless wave
And Jack-in-the-Pulpit
Preached over his grave.
Sing hi,
Sing hey,
Sing ho!

O sweet wild April,
Farewell to thee!
And a deep sweet sleep
To thy sisters three, –
Carnation, and Rose,
And tall Lily.
Sing hi,
Sing hey,
Sing ho!

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

 

rididule

C.S. Lewis seldom kept a secret his low opinion of poor writers. This wasn’t because he was a literary snob, it’s because he was a literary critic.

Actually, the breadth of Lewis’ literary tastes was extraordinary. He didn’t expect texts to be more than what they purported to be, and could even enjoy the pulp fiction of his day. Still, Lewis had an eye for pretentious and anemic writing, and he sometimes penned cutting commentary

One of his lifelong friendships began with a discussion about poor writers. More about Lewis’ friendship with Oxford Classics scholar Nan Vance Dunbar (1928-2005) in a moment.

There are some contemporary voices that argue Lewis was misogynistic. Many of these complainants are non-Christian, and eager to see Lewis’ influence diminished. The truth is he possessed a strong traditional respect for women. And, while he unapologetically enjoyed the company of men—no surprise for a longtime bachelor—he counted a number of women scholars among his close friends.

My friend Brenton Dickieson has an excellent column on the subject of women in Lewis’ life, in which he persuasively argues that Lewis “was hardly the insular, sexist, Oxford bachelor that some would make him out to be.”

Professor Dunbar was a devout Christian, of the Presbyterian persuasion (no surprise, since she was Scottish). She attended one of Lewis’ lectures in 1955, and respectfully challenged in correspondence, his interpretation of the Roman poet Statius.

Their friendship grew, although they never agreed upon the status of Statius. The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis includes a biography of Dunbar which describes how the subject even brought her some peace when she was grieving Lewis’ death.

Lewis’s final letter to her, on 21 November 1963–possibly the last he wrote–was to arrange for a visit in December. When he died the next day, Nan was beside herself with grief.

She was consoled by the theologian, Henry Chadwick, Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford. Professor Chadwick reminded her that she would some day die. “And when you get to Heaven,” he said, “you will be met by Lewis. He will have got there before you, and he’ll have his arm firmly around a small man in a toga, who is being dragged along to meet you. ‘All right,’ Lewis will be saying to the ancient Roman–“Tell her!! Tell her!!”’

Nan had no doubt that Lewis would be in heaven, and she roared with laughter at the thought of Statius waiting there to rebuke her. Perhaps such thoughts gave her comfort when she confronted her own death.

The two had grown quite close. “Everyone would agree that Nan Dunbar–with her erudition, her common sense, her Christian faith, her lively conversation–would have been the ideal daughter for Lewis. Indeed, years later, in his letter of 18 November 1963, he spoke of her as ‘the liveliest and learnedest of my daughters.’” (Collected Letters).

Their Discussion about Bad Writers

Diplomas are not required for people to criticize books and writers. Wherever readers gather it is possible to find discussions about favorite, and least favorite writers.

Some literary reputations are so notorious they have awards devoted to them. Each year, for example, The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest draws thousands of entrants. Their motto is quite inviting: “Where WWW Means ‘Wretched Writers Welcome’”

The event honors the great author whose opening line in 1830 also enriches every story ever begun by Charles Schulz’ canine novelist Snoopy.

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness. (Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford)

It is unknown whether B-L’s name arose in the following conversation, but we do find references to two other “notorious” writers.

Dunbar met Lewis for the first time at a dinner in Girton College, probably on 25 January 1956. On finally meeting his critic, Lewis said: “Ah! Miss Dunbar! I’m glad to find you actually exist–I’d thought perhaps you were only the personification of my conscience!”

Lewis was charmed by this delightful Scottish woman, whose wonderful talk and Glaswegian accent made one think she had stepped out of a novel by Sir Walter Scott.

Dunbar remembered that over dinner she talked to Lewis about the Scottish writer William McGonagall (1825–1902), said to be the world’s worst poet, while Lewis introduced her to the Irish novelist Amanda McKittrick Ros (1860–1939), known as the world’s worst novelist. (Collected Letters).

If you care to read anything written by the writers Lewis and Dunbar mentioned in their dinner conversation, refer to the links below. While on its surface their repartee may appear uncharitable, it was certainly not intended to be.

After all, if our own writing brings some measure of joy and entertainment to others, most writers would welcome that. Similarly, to have one’s name associated in history with truly talented writers (even in such an unflattering manner) is by far preferable to the anonymity which is the swift destiny of all but a few.

_____

To learn more about McGonagall and Ros, you may wish to download the following free volumes: 

“He was not a poet at all, and that he has become synonymous with bad poetry in Scotland is only a natural consequence of Scottish insensitivity to the qualities alike of good poetry and of bad.” (Scottish Eccentrics)

“Sympathise with me, indeed! Ah, no! Cast your sympathy on the chill waves of troubled waters; fling it on the oases of futurity; dash it against the rock of gossip; or, better still, allow it to remain within the false and faithless bosom of buried scorn. Such were a few remarks of Irene as she paced the beach of limited freedom, alone and unprotected.” (Irene Iddesleigh by Amanda McKittrick Ros)

 

A Rare C.S. Lewis Book

March 29, 2017 — 6 Comments

readers

Just because you read a book doesn’t mean you need to purchase it for your library. Yet some of us do feel compelled to add almost every volume we enjoy to our personal collections. The dilemma arises when the cost of a particular book may exceed its “long-term” value to us.

Faced with this question a few weeks ago, I pursued a course open to many readers of Mere Inkling. I simply borrowed the book from my local library, which in turn borrowed it via interlibrary loan from a university in a neighboring state. Most libraries offer this service without charge. I regularly use it when researching obscure subjects I don’t anticipate I will continue to follow.

The subject of the particular text I am currently reading, of course, C.S. Lewis. While I believe I own a copy of every work ever written by Lewis that has been published, I doubt any human being could gather together every book written about the Oxford and Cambridge professor.

The Volume in Question

So, I have been spending some time during recent days reading notes and essays on Lewis that were written in a variety of periodicals and collected in 1992. Critical Thought Series 1: Critical Essays on C.S. Lewis was edited by George Watson, and published by Scolar Press. Watson also served as General Editor of the Series, compiled “in an attempt to recover the controversies that have surrounded the great critics of the modern age.”

The material is of particular interest to those interested in Lewis’ work as a literary critic. In addition to general reviews, there are special sections for critiques of The Allegory of Love, A Preface to Paradise Lost, and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century. Allow me to share a small taste of CEoCSL.

In the editor’s introductory article, he argues that Lewis possessed an “essential modernity, which was seldom if ever noticed in his lifetime.” An example he offers is Lewis’ “mingling of formalism and fantasy.” This facet of Lewis’ genius has a peculiar result.

[Lewis] belongs to that rare breed of critics who are more original than they would wish to be.

Watson also provides an intriguing view of how Lewis’ faith and literary community were perceived by those outside its influence.

Early and late, critics and reviewers found [Lewis] a hard nut to crack. In his middle years, from the late 1930s till his removal to Cambridge in 1954, the critical reception of his works was admiring of his style but wary of his matter.

It was vaguely understood by the late 1930s that a neo-Christian group of story-tellers and critics existed at Oxford, even that they were known as Inklings; but they formed no part of London literary life and were widely seen as a reactionary clique all to apt to a remote, rainy place celebrated for its devotion to lost causes and impossible loyalties.

Lewis, though a best seller, belonged wholly to that remote world, and his sales only made matters worse. They made him look formidable. He and his friends were occasionally dismissed as new-romantics, since a label can be an easy excuse for declining discussion; and the suspected association with Chesterton was not, to avant-garde opinion, endearing. The Inklings were anti-Modernist, anti-modern, backward-looking and deliberately unfashionable.

As I hinted above, this book contains a number of interesting pieces not readily accessible elsewhere. It is no hagiography, and includes essays that offer criticisms of some of Lewis’ writing.

In one review of English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, American poet and literary critic Yvor Winters enumerates problems he has with Lewis’ arguments. He then wraps up his review with an analysis of the cause of the disagreements.

There are many men who have re more in this field than I have, and Lewis is certainly one of them. Some of them will find errors in Lewis which have overlooked. I have found more errors in my own few publications than I have found in Lewis. It is not the errors in scholarship which trouble me, primarily, however, for those are inevitable. It is the critical mind that bothers me. . . .

There is a great deal in Lewis’s book which is valuable, and I may as well confess a great deal which has added to my own education. . . . But what is the function of this kind of book? No single man is competent to write it. . . .

Because it is impossible to write a flawless survey] the book is, as I have said, misleading, and so is every other book of the kind which I have ever read. And within twenty years it will doubtless be superseded by another book on the same subject, which will be better in some ways and worse in others.

The first-rate monograph, or the first-rate critical essay, is never superseded; it becomes a part of literature; but the text-book is a hugger-mugger affair, no matter who writes it. Lewis undertook a thankless task, and a hopeless one.

Personal Libraries

You are fortunate if you have this volume in your library. But don’t let its absence rob you of the chance to read it. There are many fascinating insights to be gleaned from its pages . . . and I am certainly glad that I borrowed it.

Oh, and as to Winters’ prediction that Lewis’ treatment of sixteenth century English literature would be superseded . . . thanks to the marvels of Kindle, it remains in print more than sixty years after his prognostication.

_____

The picture on this page is a drawing entitled, “Their First Quarrel.” It was obviously sketched prior to the invention of the television and cellphone.

hooper

Upon Lewis’ death, Walter Hooper assisted Inkling Owen Barfield (1898-1997) in overseeing Lewis’ literary estate. He continues to serve as a literary advisor to the estate. Hooper’s Lewisian contributions have grown in magnitude over the years.

He began by co-authoring a biography of Lewis in 1974, written jointly with Roger Lancelyn Green (1918-87). Green had been a student of Lewis, and a member of the Inklings. After writing several other works through the years, in the late nineties he penned C.S. Lewis: A Companion and Guide and C.S. Lewis: A Complete Guide to His Life and Works. Priceless resources!

The list of material edited by Hooper is quite impressive. He dutifully, and brilliantly, edited many of Lewis’ writings. The world should be particularly grateful for the three-volume compilation of Lewis’ correspondence. A humble man, Hooper writes sincerely in the preface to the volumes: “The eight years I have spent editing the letters would not have been as fruitful nor as pleasant were it not for the help of many others. My debts are numerous, and nothing I can say can adequately reflect my gratitude.”

Hooper’s meeting with Lewis was providential, coming as it did so near the end of the great author’s life. The following letter describes their arrangement. It reveals how much Lewis appreciated the initial assistance provided by Hooper, and how hopeful he was that Hooper would be able to resume his secretarial duties in the summer of 1963. Lewis remained, however, concerned about how he would meet all of his financial responsibilities in the wake of his medical retirement.

[The Kilns] 20 Sept 63

My dear Walter

We get on reasonably well, tho’ we all greatly miss, not only your utility, but your companionship. No one has ever so endeared himself to the whole household.

The noble Arthurian volumes continue to arrive, but are not yet on the shelves. The work of arranging all my books in their new homes, tho’ delightful, goes on v[ery] slowly, for I am not strong enough to do more than a little each day.

Now, about the future. It is entirely reasonable that you shd have a salary and a darn good one, and I feel I have been rather sponging on your kindness. But what it may be proper for you to ask may also be impossible for me to do.

I dare not at present increase my expenses. In this country one is taxed each year on the income of the previous year. One’s first year in retirement is therefore very alarming. And if, on top of the drop in income, there are the expenses of an illness, and some rather heavy and unexpected expenses for David–well you see.

I am v. ashamed, not of confessing the situation, but of refusing the wholly just demand from a man to whom I already owe more than any money could repay.

But you see, having you as a paid secretary wd. be a luxury, and I’ve no right to imperil those who depend on me for the sake of a luxury to myself.

On other grounds, I couldn’t recommend you to come in January. Mrs Miller and I talked it over and both concluded that an English house in an English winter wd. be misery for you. Our central-heating apparatus is v. primitive (nothing like yours) and we can afford to use it only during very cold snaps.

If you can afford to come in June, you will be thrice welcome. W. is still away. I fear he’ll kill himself if this goes on much longer.

Our plums are splendid this year. With all our loves. Yours Jack

A Wonderful Interview with Hooper

Walter Hooper has been very content to remain behind the scene, and deep in the shadow of the man whose memory he preserves.

Fortunately, in addition to his personal writings and editorial work, Hooper has been willing to speak in various settings. The photograph at the top of the page comes from the unveiling of Lewis’ memorial in Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner.

We owe a debt of gratitude to “Socrates in the City: Conversations on the Examined Life,” which is produced by Eric Metaxas, a Christian writer and syndicated radio host.

Metaxas took his program from the city of New York, to the city of Oxford to avail himself of the wealth of brilliant speakers accessible there. Among those he interviewed in this casual setting is Walter Hooper. Wonderfully, the Hooper interview was substantial enough that it is presented in three parts. Do check it out.

Do Titles Matter?

December 5, 2016 — 9 Comments

cbeThere are many sorts of titles one may accumulate, and some people pursue them with great passion. There are familial titles like “Grandmother,” military titles such as “Ensign,” academic titles like “Associate Professor,” and ecclesiastical titles as in “Archimandrite.”

And that’s only the tip of the titular iceberg. Titles are prominent in many fields, such as medicine, politics and the judiciary. And appellations such as “Coach,” are precious to multi-millionaire athletic leaders and folks working with preschoolers in the gym or on the field alike.

The best way to tell how important a person’s titles are to them, is to witness how they respond to the “misuse” of one. My wife and I have a joke when I show my identification card when we enter a military installation. If the guard courteously says, “have a good day, colonel,” after I roll up the window and proceed, I will sometimes say (for Delores’ benefit) “that’s lieutenant colonel!”

If you’re unfamiliar with the armed forces, there’s a good chance you miss the joke. A lieutenant colonel is junior in grade to a “full” colonel, although addressing one simply as “colonel” is allowed. In fact, in a sense it’s an added courtesy or sign of respect. (I should mention that it’s not uncommon for some of the civilian guards to follow up such a greeting with a glance towards my wife and the words, “and a good day to you, general.”)

I have mixed feelings about titles, a trait I believe I share with C.S. Lewis.

In 1952, Lewis declined appointment as a Commander (CBE) in the Order of the British Empire. He did so to avoid entangling his Christian witness with political considerations. But by declining he forsook the opportunity to be known as “Sir Lewis,” although, I doubt he lost sleep over his decision. (In fact, in his humility, Lewis never revealed the matter for public scrutiny.)

A 1959 letter to Lance Sieveking, the BBC producer who wrote the radio script for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, offers an interesting insight into Lewis’ attitude about titles. He begins with this greeting:

Dear Sieveking

(Why do you ‘Dr.’ me? Had we not dropped the honorifics?)

Volume three of Lewis’ letters reveals this was representative of his thinking. Once he had established a rapport with some correspondents, he requested that they drop the use of titles. A typical example reads, “We may both drop the honorific now, mayn’t we?.” In one case he writes in the imperative, “Dear Hooton (Do drop the honorifics!).”

So, Do Titles Matter?

My grandchildren surprised me the other day by addressing me as “Doctor Grandpa.” They proudly shared in my joy (read “relief”) at having completed my Doctor of Ministry degree.

I responded to their adulation with “actually, kids, it’s ‘Reverend Doctor Grandpa.’” This led to a fun discussion about titles during which I was able to explain to them how my pastoral title was of greater significance to me than the doctoral honorific. After which I reminded them the matter was moot because all I want them to call me is grandpa. I explained how only eight people in the entire world can call me that, and it made that title extremely precious to me.

Ultimately, the most valuable title any human being could have is to be addressed as son or daughter, by God. As Jesus’ disciple John wrote:

See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. (1 John 3:1).

On this, I have no doubt C.S. Lewis would agree.

Despite this, there are cases where titles are critical. The military, with its “chain of command” sometimes being a life or death matter, is a prime example.

In other settings, the honorifics are less significant. I addressed all my instructors in college as “Professor,” regardless of whether they were full/associate/assistant/whatever.

I doubt that many of Lewis’ very fortunate students thought less of his lectures because of Oxford’s politics which withheld from him the full “professorship” he had certainly earned. (It would be left to the wiser University of Cambridge to rectify this oversight.)

This suggests to me that titles mean less to most people than the way others think of them. If people respect you as someone with integrity . . . if they call you “friend . . .” how much more fortunate could you be?