Archives For Poet

From Ear to Quill

October 21, 2015 — 11 Comments

anglo saxonConsider how one humble Anglo-Saxon poet can teach us about the ancient transition from the oral to written delivery of poetry.

In recent study about the transition from aural to literary communication I came upon the following fascinating fact.

In an essay entitled “Oral to Written,” J.B. Bessinger writes:

As literate authors learned to assimilate oral materials to pen-and-parchment composition, and since cultural life and centres of writing were controlled so largely by the Church, it was inevitable that the oral transmission of pagan verse would die out, or at best leave few records of an increasingly precarious existence. Meanwhile the invasion of bookish culture into an oral tradition proceeded.

Amid the overwhelming anonymity of the period, Cynewulf was the only poet who troubled to record his name, not from motives of a new literary vanity, but against the Day of Judgement:* “I beg every man of human kind who recites this poem to remember my name and pray . . .”

I’ve read elsewhere that the names of a dozen Anglo-Saxon poets were recorded, although only four have any work that has survived. I understand, however, why Cynewulf is so well recognized—several thousand lines of his poetry are extant. You can access copies of his work for free at Project Gutenberg and Internet Archive.

Curiously, we know no details about Cynewulf other than his name. This he included in his manuscripts, spelled in runic characters.

Cynewulf’s poetry was familiar to the Inklings.

In his diary during the 1920s, C.S. Lewis describes reading Cynewulf and Cyneheard while he bemoaned that Old English Riddles continued to represent an obstacle to him.

I set to on my O.E. Riddles: did not progress very quickly but solved a problem which has been holding me up. [Henry] Sweet is certainly an infuriating author . . .

[Following afternoon tea, Lewis] retired to the drawing room and had a go at the Riddles. I learned a good deal, but found them too hard for me at present.

J.R.R. Tolkien paid an unimaginable tribute to Cynewulf. He attributed to the ancient poet no less than the original inspiration for his mythopoeic conscience.

In the summer of 1913 Tolkien . . . switched course to the English School after getting an “alpha” in comparative philology. At this time he read the great eighth-century alliterative poem Christ, by Cynewulf and others.

Many years later from the poem he cited Eala Earendel engla beorhtost (“Behold Earendel brightest of angels”) from Christ as “rapturous words from which ultimately sprang the whole of my mythology.”**

Cynewulf was an inspired poet. And, it is possible to discern some Anglo-Saxon words which have made it into contemporary English when passages are lined up, side by side.

We’ll close now with a passage from his poem, Christ. These words come from the beginning of Part II (Ascension) and comprise the beginning of chapter four. For those who would like to compare the texts, a parallel version follows.*** (Just click on the image to enlarge it.)

Enjoy Cynewulf’s celebration of God’s abundant gifts, extended to poets, musicians, and all others.

Then He who shaped the world, God’s Spirit-Son,

ennobled us, and granted gifts to us,

eternal homes ’mid angels upon high;

and wisdom, too, of soul, full manifold

He sowed and set within the minds of men.

To one He sendeth, unto memory’s seat,

through spirit of the mouth, wise eloquence,

and noble understanding; he can sing

and say full many a thing, within whose soul

is hidden wisdom’s power. With fingers deft

’fore warrior-bands one can awake the harp,

the minstrel’s joy. One can interpret well

the law divine, and one the planets’ course

and wide creation. One cunningly can write

the spoken word. To one He granteth skill,

when in the fight the archers swiftly send

the storm of darts, the wingéd javelin,

over the shields defence. Fearlessly another

can o’er the salt sea urge the ocean-bark

and stir the surging depth. One can ascend

the lofty tree and steep. One can fashion well

steeled sword and weapon. One knoweth the plains’ direction,

the wide ways. Thus the Ruler, Child divine,

dispenseth unto us His gifts on earth;

He will not give to any one man all

the spirit’s wisdom, lest pride injure him,

raised far above the rest by his sole might.

cynewulf

_____

* Please don’t correct me regarding the misspelling of “judgment;” this quotation comes from a British text. ;)

** From Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: The Gift of Friendship by Colin Duriez.

*** This image is derived from the 1892 translation of Cynewulf’s Christ by Israel Gollancz.

The lovely Anglo Saxon cross at the top of this page was discovered several years ago in the grave of a young teenage girl who had been buried near Cambridge.

I have blogged about Anglo Saxon legacy in the past . . . here and here.

poetsWhen does our appreciation of a particular writer border on literary idolatry? Well, not idolatry proper, since even shrines like Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey don’t endorse “worship.”

We naturally appreciate the memory of those whose work has contributed to our lives. And that’s fine. But when we begin to focus more on them, than on the real, breathing people around us, our priorities are skewed.

In 1989, Hollywood released a film entitled “Dead Poet’s Society.” It was nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture, and ironically won the Oscar for Best Writing. In the movie, an English teacher awakens his moribund students to literature, and the more reflective aspects of life.

At last week’s writers meeting, we were introducing ourselves to a visitor, and as part of that process, mentioned the type of writing each of us pursues. I listed several genres and concluded with the words “but I’m not a poet.”

A member of the group immediately “corrected” me, since I have, in fact, written several poems during the past couple of years. Well, I guess I should get used to saying something like, “I don’t consider myself a poet.”

Poetry, some poets insinuate, carries a more artistic air than other, pedestrian genres. Fiction, of course, has its own advocates, and they too occasionally look down on folks like me who typically muddle around in the nonfiction worlds history and religion.*

In the following paragraphs, C.S. Lewis offers some provocative thoughts about how we should rightly feel toward departed writers. His argument is really about how we must not neglect our duty to living humanity by focusing on those who are “gone.”

A special treat in the selection is his coining of the word which inspires the title of this post.

There is a reaction at present going on against the excessive love of pet animals. We have been taught to despise the rich, barren woman who loves her lap dog too much and her neighbor too little.

It may be that when once the true impulse is inhibited, a dead poet is a nobler substitute than a live Peke, but this is by no means obvious. You can do something for the Peke, and it can make some response to you. It is at least sentient; but most poetolaters hold that a dead man has no consciousness, and few indeed suppose that he has any which we are likely to modify.

Unless you hold beliefs which enable you to obey the colophons of the old books by praying for the authors’ souls, there is nothing that you can do for a dead poet: and certainly he will do nothing for you.

He did all he could for you while he lived: nothing more will ever come. I do not say that a personal emotion towards the author will not sometimes arise spontaneously while we read; but if it does we should let it pass swiftly over the mind like a ripple that leaves no trace.

If we retain it we are cosseting with substitutes an emotion whose true object is our neighbour. Hence it is not surprising that those who most amuse themselves with personality after this ghostly fashion often show little respect for it in their parents, their servants, or their wives. (The Personal Heresy).**

Lewis alleges our emotional “bonds” with departed writers are fruitless, imaginary, and perhaps even detrimental. I agree that when they displace our connections with living people, it is tragic.

While I rarely disagree with the Magister Lewis, I will in this case. I would make an exception to his argument—in a single sense. For Christians, our filial affection for a departed Christian writer, is a unique case. The distinction being the fact, that in light of the resurrection, and the gift of eternal life, we are not talking about others who are permanently severed from a genuine relationship with us.

On the contrary, there are many other disciples of Jesus living today who feel a powerful connection to writers like Lewis himself. And, with all eternity ahead, there should be ample time for each of us to enjoy his company, and thank him for the blessing he bequeathed to us through his work.

Postscript:

I recognize that it may be in questionable taste, but the subject of departed artists reminds me of a humorous song from Monty Python’s Flying Circus. It’s called “Decomposing Composers,” and the modestly disconcerting lyrics are rendered in a somber, classical manner. If interested, you can listen to it here.

_____

* I intentionally refer to “religion” as nonfiction, since I regard it to be just that. (And also because I know that pushes some people’s buttons.)

** Last year I approached this same passage by Lewis from a different perspective. If you would like to read some thoughts related to pet fads, check them out here.

Free C.S. Lewis Book

October 14, 2013 — 5 Comments

bookshelvesC.S. Lewis has encouraged innumerable prominent individuals in their own faith and writing journeys. I know of no others who offer at no cost a book about his influence.

John Piper is a pleasant exception to that. In a moment I’ll provide the link where you can download a free copy of Alive to Wonder: Celebrating the Influence of C.S. Lewis.

The volume includes a number of extended excerpts from Piper’s fifty-plus books . . . passages where Lewis’ imprint is particularly vivid. For example:

The synthesis of mind and heart was embodied in C.S. Lewis. Lewis became for me in my college days what Jonathan Edwards became in my seminary days. He was a “romantic rationalist”—that was the name of a small book about Lewis that got me very excited because it summed up what I thought I was (which may be very akin to “pastor-scholar”). Lewis has had a tremendous influence on me in several ways.

Lewis embodied the fact that rigorous, precise, penetrating logic is not inimical to deep, soul-stirring feeling and vivid, lively—even playful—imagination. He combined what almost everybody today assumes are mutually exclusive terms: rationalism and poetry, cool logic and warm feeling, disciplined prose and free imagination. In shattering these old stereotypes, he freed me to think hard and to write poetry, to argue for the resurrection and to compose hymns to Christ, to smash an argument and to hug a friend, to demand a definition and to use a metaphor.

The author is chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. It was founded by Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, where Piper served as pastor for several decades.

The writer’s desiringGod website actually offers free PDF copies of many of his books and articles, even though most remain in print and available for regular purchase.

As delightful as Alive to Wonder is, most students of Lewis will find the materials from the 2013 desiringGod National Conference even more welcome. This year’s theme was “The Romantic Rationalist: God, Life, and Imagination in the Work of C.S. Lewis.”

Piper’s website includes ten keynote presentations plus an informative panel discussion, all of which are available for download in audio files. Best of all, the lineup of speakers is first-class, featuring a number of familiar names.

And, since we’re on the subject of “free books,” allow me to share another interesting website.

Forgotten Books offers approximately a million volumes, to which “subscribers” have unlimited access. What sets them apart from other “public domain aggregates,” is that they (unlike books.google.com) provide a searchable text, in a variety of epub formats.

For those who are not interested in purchasing a subscription, they offer a Free Book of the Day option in which you receive the link to one of their texts which is good for twenty-four hours.

I recently used it to add Pure English: A Treatise on Words and Phrases, or Practical Lessons in the Use of Language to my kindle library. I find the reading of dated literary books to be:

Entertaining

Educational

and, occasionally, even

Inspiring

Here are a few sample passages from Pure English. The first sounds remarkably contemporary:

The abuse to which the English language is so generally subjected must be a source of sincere regret to all who appreciate its beauties. Ours is an age of progress and civilization, and it ought to be remembered that language, is also progressive.

In a section entitled “Objectionable and Obsolete Words” we read:

Banister is a common barbarism. The proper word is baluster, or balustrade.

— Noted. In the future I will alternate between baluster and balustrade.

“Disremember,” often employed in the sense of do not remember, although given in Webster, is condemned by the critics as a low vulgarism.

— Apparently so vulgar as to have fallen out of usage completely.

Hence, authoress and poetess are superfluous. So, also, are such words as conductress, directress, inspectress, waitress, etc., all of which have recently come into current use. Perhaps the next edition of our dictionaries will, if the custom continues, be enriched by the addition of such words as writeress, officeress, carpenteress, manageress, secretaryess, treasureress, singeress, walkeress, talkeress, etc.

— How did “waitress” survive, especially in the wake of such witty sarcasm?

It is questionable taste to call a coffin a casket. The pleasing name applicable to a case for jewels does not lessen the dread of death and burial.

— I hadn’t known before the sentiment behind the adoption of the word “casket,” since it’s become so thoroughly associated with this usage that was apparently at one time novel.

If you are interested in the books I’ve mentioned above, you You can download a free copy of Alive to Wonder here, and you can sign up for the free book of the day here.

C.S. Lewis the Poet

June 27, 2012 — 19 Comments

Many of us desire to write. And yet, we often consider ourselves “failed” writers because the novel buried within us is never published. Print on Demand technology has addressed this to a degree . . . but the fact remains that few of us are destined to receive accolades for our work.

And that, simply, is life. We cannot all be “successful,” especially as the world defines the concept.

It is good to have family and friends who remind us of what does truly make us precious, especially if we are enslaved by our passion to write, and discouraged by the meager fruits of our efforts.

In the writers group in which I participate, we enjoy that sort of supportive “family.” While we encourage everyone to refine their skills, expand their horizons and pursue their dreams . . . we are also realistic in our expectations. One of the most important things we can do for novice writers, in my humble opinion, is to help them discover the particular fields in which their literary labors will be most effective.

For example, many writers compose memoirs that prove invaluable to family members. When these stories capture the flavor of a bypast locale, their value extends to others who are interested in that beloved community. Likewise, I’ve known people whose gift for writing was most radiant in terms of letters. Their personal correspondence was glorious. Like radiant gems carved to perfection for each of the individual persons to whom they were addressed. In past eras, such correspondence was highly esteemed. Gifted writers such as these owe no apology for not writing best-selling fiction.

Still, we often judge ourselves by our failures, rather than our successes.

C.S. Lewis was no different. He was quite successful as a writer, and was certainly in high demand as a professor and adviser at Oxford and Cambridge. He received international praise for his work, and yet he was despondent about at least one aspect of his writing.

Lewis had longed from his adolescence to become a respected poet. This was partly due to the age in which he was reared. Poetry was viewed as the most cultured and elegant form of writing. Much more so than is true today. (Although I assume today’s poets still regard Euterpe, pictured above, as the most wondrous of Greece’s Muses. Her domain was Music and Poetry.)

Lewis’ poetry did not receive much critical praise. We’ll consider the subject more in the future, but for now suffice it to say that this fact caused him much grief. Walter Hooper, Lewis’ secretary writes in his C.S. Lewis: Companion & Guide: “The most noticeable effect of Lewis’ conversion [to Christianity] was the death of his old ambition as a poet and the emergence of a man never thereafter at a loss for the right words.”

Lewis still wrote poetry, of course, but he no longer sought his identity in it. The following love poem, inspired by his deep affection for his wife Joy, is quite powerful. As they faced her illnesses and death, I believe his words reach heights rarely attained by many a poet laureate.

As the Ruin Falls by C. S. Lewis

All this is flashy rhetoric about loving you.

I never had a selfless thought since I was born.

I am mercenary and self-seeking through and through:

I want God, you, all friends, merely to serve my turn.

Peace, re-assurance, pleasure, are the goals I seek,

I cannot crawl one inch outside my proper skin:

I talk of love—a scholar’s parrot may talk Greek—

But, self-imprisoned, always end where I begin.

Only that now you have taught me (but how late) my lack.

I see the chasm. And everything you are was making

My heart into a bridge by which I might get back

From exile, and grow man. And now the bridge is breaking.

For this I bless you as the ruin falls. The pains

You give me are more precious than all other gains.

If you find this poem moving, it is well worth taking a moment to listen to Phil Keaggy’s musical treatment of Lewis’ lyrics.