Archives For Poetry

What is Your Epithet?

August 24, 2020 — 5 Comments

Everyone has epithets, even though we’re probably not aware of most of them. Some might be unflattering, but we could be pleasantly surprised by positive descriptive phrases people associate with our names.

First, it’s necessary for us to clear the air. Although the modern usage of the word “epithet” is usually negative, that is not the sole—or even primary—use of epithet. Far from being derogatory, most epithets are affirming. That’s because “epithet” is derived from the Greek verb epitithenai which simply means “to put on.” Basically, an epithet is anything that’s added to a person’s name to distinguish them as a particular individual.

Let me offer a simple quiz. What common epithet is often linked to all of the following historical figures?

Charlemagne, King of the Franks
Catherine, the Empress of Russia
Peter, Tsar of Russia
Alexander, the King of Macedonia
Kamehameha I, King of Hawaii
Constantine I, first Christian Emperor of Rome
Frederick, King of Prussia
Rhodri, King of Gwynedd

We can expand this list with several historical figures recorded in the holy Scriptures:

Herod, King of Judea
Cyrus, Founder of the Persian Empire
Darius, Third Shahanshah of the Persian Empire

Obviously, I provided far more options than necessary for you to discern the common epithet. Each of them is, of course, called “the Great.” (Bonus points to anyone recognizing Rhodri the Great; I assume only Mere Inkling’s Welsh readers will know who he was.)

If you think my list is lengthy, check out the wikipedia list of people referred to as “the Great.” And feel free to supplement it, if you recall someone they missed.

A common Christian epithet is “Apostle.” It’s not really a title, though it’s frequently used that way, especially when applied to the original fourteen.⁑ This Orthodox Christian website provides a list of early missionaries who earned the same epithet, including Patrick the Apostle to Ireland and Ansgar, the Apostle to the North.

Back to the Question

So, given that epithets can be neutral or positive, are you aware of any of yours? Our ten grandchildren are developing wonderful senses of humor. I’ve joked with them all ever since they were tiny. More than once they’ve called me their “Funny Grandpa.” That’s an epithet I can be proud of.

Back in my high school years, because I spoke with (assumed) authority on nearly any subject, a couple people called me the “Voice of Experience.” Which just reminded me—literally, as I was typing this—that back at my first active duty assignment, our wing commander publicly bestowed on me an epithet.

There at Reese Air Force Base we were conducting our very first Military Tattoo ceremony. Quite unexpectedly, after doing the yeoman’s work* in composing the lengthy ceremony, he selected me to be the emcee for the extravagant community event. The event flowed flawlessly. The next day, Colonel (later General) Lillard referred to me as the “Voice of Reese.” My wife was suitably impressed!

Now, I have no doubt I’ve accumulated a number of pejorative epithets during my life as well. The good thing about those though, is that people usually don’t share them to our face.

As for your own epithets, you might think of words that friends repeatedly use to describe you. If you’ve been called humble, trustworthy, brave, patient or witty by more than one person, you might be surprised to learn how many others associate that trait with you as well. Talented and smart are also common appellations from those who admire your your various skills or intellect. Sensitive is a nice epithet to own, although I confess it’s seldom applied to me.

Ruth Pitter, C.S. Lewis’ Friend

Pitter (1897-1992) was a highly regarded British poet. Living in artistic circles, it’s unsurprising that she describes her early life as “bohemian.” Bohemians tend to regard that epithet as admirable, while practical people such as myself consider it a negative term. Bohemian, of course, refers to “socially unconventional” behavior which may cover a multitude of alternative lifestyles.

Pitter, however, was also a friend of C.S. Lewis. And it was through his writings and their conversations that she became a Christian. In 1985, two decades after his death, she wrote,

As to my faith, I owe it to C.S. Lewis. For much of my life I lived more or less as a Bohemian, but when the second war broke out, Lewis broadcast several times, and also published some little books (notably The Screwtape Letters), and I was fairly hooked. I came to know him personally, and he came here several times. Lewis’s stories, so very entertaining but always about the war between good and evil, became a permanent part of my mental and spiritual equipment.

At one point in Lewis’ life he said although he was a confirmed bachelor, if he were to propose marriage, it would be to Ruth.

The two writers often critiqued one another’s works. In 1946, Lewis sent the following letter to Pitter. I reproduce the first half of it here not for its content per se, but because of its literary use of the word “epithet.” Presumably, seventy years ago its deprecatory usage had not gained dominance. (What strikes me as the most amazing thing about this letter, is the way in which the two share such a comprehensive knowledge that Lewis did not even need to cite the sources of the quotations to which he refers!)

Dear Miss Pitter–

Certainly a great many good lines have an epithet in them and depend principally on that epithet. But by no means all. Sometimes the work is done by a special use of a Noun:

multosque per annos sustentata ruet moles et machina mundi. (a)

or

how sweetly flows
That liquefaction of her clothes. (b)

sometimes by a verb:

J’ai mendiee la mort chez les peuples sauvages (c)
—where to get the effect one would almost have to translate “I have begged death as bread.” Or

Forever climbing up the climbing wave (d)

Though here something else, the “Figure” of repetition, comes in. Sometimes it turns on a Noun metaphorical:

Oh my America, my Newfoundland! (e)

Again and again it turns on Metaphor:

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame. (f)

That from the nunnery
Of thy chaste breast. (g)

But I beneath a rougher sea
And whelmed in deeper gulfs than he. (h)

But in all these there is something you may regard as equivalent to an epithet. There is another kind of poetry which seems to do it by simple statement:

Thou’ll break my heart, thou bonnie bird,
That sings on yonder bough. (i)

or

Twenty days and twenty nights
They went in red blood to the knee,
And he saw neither sun nor moon
But heard the roaring of the sea. (j)

No one will say that bonnie in the first or red in the second has much to do with the result. One might at a pinch say that the apostrophe to a bird in the first and the whole myth in the second are the same kind of thing as an epithet. But then there are still passages where the statement is of the most factual kind and yet (in its context) it is very poetry:

Ronsard me célébrait du temps que j’étais belle (k)

or

Fulsere quondam candidi tibi soles
Cum uentitabas quo puella ducebat
Amata tantum quantum amabitur nulla. (l)

Oh, and what about the chansons de gestes?

Roland is dead. God has his soul to Heaven (m)
(Roland est mort. Dieux en ad l’anme aux cieulx)

or

Paien unt tort et Chestien unt dreit
(Paynims [non-Christians] are wrong and Christians are right) (n)

The truth is that there are a great many different kinds of poetry and extreme roughness (or smoothness) evocative epithet (or plain statement), the metaphorical (or literal) the colloquial (or rhetorical) may all, in their place, rise to perfection.

And Finally, For Dessert

That was a lengthy quotation—particularly for readers who don’t thrive on poetry or literary criticism. Here, however, is a delightful use of the word epithet from C.S. Lewis’ youth. In a 1915 letter to his closest friend, Arthur Greeves, Lewis gently chides him for his application of an “impertinent epithet.”

It may be true that it is easier to assign music to people we know, than to conjure up people to fit the music, but I deny that anyone’s character is really unlike their appearance. The physical appearance, to my mind, is the expression and result of the other thing—soul, ego, psyche, intellect—call it what you will. And this outward expression cannot really differ from the soul.

If the correspondence between a soul & body is not obvious at first, then your conception either of that soul or that body must be wrong. Thus, I am “chubby”—to use your impertinent epithet, because I have a material side to me: because I like sleeping late, good food & clothes etc. as well as sonnets & thunderstorms.


* Yes, I’m consciously mixing my military metaphors. While I served as a USAF “airman,” the term yeoman is a junior Navy rating or rank (i.e. the people who do most of the work).
⁑ The original fourteen include Matthias, who replaced Judas, and Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles.

Sources for the citations in Lewis’ letter to Pitter:
(a) Lucretius, De Rerum Natura: “The mighty and complex system of the world, upheld through many years, shall crash into ruins.”
(b) Robert Herrick, “Upon Julia’s Clothes” (1648).
(c) “I begged for death among the savages.”
(d) Tennyson, “The Lotus-Eaters” (1833).
(e) John Donne, Elegies, “To His Mistress Going to Bed” (c. 1595).
(f) Shakespeare, Sonnet 129 (1609).
(g) Richard Lovelace, “To Lucasta, Going to the Wars” (1649).
(h) William Cowper, “The Cast-Away.”
(i) Robert Burns, “The Banks o’ Doon” (1791).
(j) Thomas Rymer and Queen of Elfland.
(k) Pierre de Ronsard, Sonnets pour Hélène: “Ronsard would sing my praise at the time when I was beautiful.”
(l) Catullus, Carmen: “Once the sun shone bright for you,/when you would go whither your sweetheart led,/she who was loved by me as none will ever be loved.”
(m) The Song of Roland (12th century).
(n) The Song of Roland.

We’re accustomed to hearing the word “lust” used in a positive manner, such as “she has a lust for life.”

You might even see this in the context of writing. C.S. Lewis himself did this. In 1948, in a letter to an American pastor, he apparently answers a query about what inspires him to write. “The ‘incentive’ for my books has always been the usual one—an idea and then an itch or lust to write.”

I resonate with Lewis’ response. Some idea dawns on me—usually arising from something I’m reading—and then I get the desire to put my own twist on it and share the original idea with others.

This post is no different. I have been working on the military chaplaincy journal that I edit, and I was reading the poetry of a British chaplain from the First World War. Rev. G.A. Studdert Kennedy (1883-1929) was an Anglican priest. He was awarded the Military Cross due to his “disregard for his own safety in attending to the wounded under heavy fire.” The award also noted his Gospel contribution to the harsh life of WWI trenches. “He searched shell holes for our own and enemy wounded, assisting them to the dressing station, and his cheerfulness and endurance had a splendid effect upon all ranks in the front line trenches, which he constantly visited.”

You can read many of his poems in past issues of Curtana: Sword of Mercy, which is available for free download here.

After reading some of his poetry, I turned for the first time to one of his postwar books. It was entitled “Lies!” and addresses a litany of deceptions that plague the world. Included among these deceits is “the lie of lust.”

In the following excerpt, he refers to writing prurient literature which can guarantee a market. It is echoed by a later comment I read from a writer who said she had to write erotic novels to supplement her preferred titles, just so she could make a living. She used a pen name, of course, for the smut.

You can follow Chaplain Kennedy’s argument in the excerpt which follows. Since it is rather lengthy, I will highlight the reference to writing by using a boldface font. Kennedy contrasts in this passage the conflict between humanity’s sinfulness and our call to holiness, the struggle the Apostle Paul describes so succinctly in the seventh chapter of Romans.

“For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.”

Here is Kennedy’s argument:

But lust in a man is obscene and filthy because it is unnatural. It becomes cruel and debased. It does not proceed to the making of children naturally and cleanly; it descends to unmentionable and disgusting things. The report on the German atrocities in Belgium* provides a kind of horror-chamber in which we can see what lust can bring men to. As one reads that awful document a kind of hot shame comes over one, and makes one sweat for sorrow over sin.

The sting of that shame lies in the fact that one is dreadfully conscious that the root of that disgusting horror is there in one’s own soul. Have you never felt a ghastly doubt rising up in your mind when you read such things? Now what am I reading this for? Is it purely because I want to hate it . . ?

Write a book about the cruelties and debaucheries of a Nero or a Rasputin, and it will sell. There is an appeal in it which thousands, nay, which all men feel, which all men would answer, if the other force within them failed. But the horror of it, the shame for it, is, thank God, as real, more real, than the appeal. There is human history: the war between the appeal and the repulsion of sin: the war between the monkey and the man.

There are thousands of writers, artists, playwrights, musicians, who are making their fortunes out of the appeal to the animal in man. It is the best paying business in the world. Yet, if there is anything that human experience makes certain, it is that there is no end to the journey a man makes in answer to that appeal except damnation, the utter loss of all that makes life good. Lust cannot satisfy a man, because he needs Love. Lust is unnatural in man, it leaves one side of his nature out, and sooner or later that neglected side has its revenge, and turns life’s sweetness bitter to his taste. Then in his despair he will descend in search of new sensations to things which men cannot mention, or even think of without shame. That is the way of it with all men if the great force fail that leads them upward from the animal to the human and divine (Lies! published in 1919).⁑

C.S. Lewis on Carnality

As noted, Lewis was able to use the word “lust” in its muted, nonliteral sense. He was also able to address it literally, and to challenge the hold it exerts on so many lives. In “Religion: Reality or Substitute?” C.S. Lewis vividly described how lust is an enemy.

If we wish to be rational, not now and then, but constantly, we must pray for the gift of Faith, for the power to go on believing not in the teeth of reason but in the teeth of lust and terror and jealousy and boredom and indifference that which reason, authority, or experience, or all three, have once delivered to us for truth.

In a more metaphorical manner, in the Great Divorce Lewis uses the surprising image of a foreboding ruddy lizard to portray the sinister nature of lust.  

I saw coming towards us a Ghost who carried something on his shoulder. Like all the Ghosts, he was unsubstantial, but they differed from one another as smokes differ. Some had been whitish; this one was dark and oily. What sat on his shoulder was a little red lizard, and it was twitching its tail like a whip and whispering things in his ear. As we caught sight of him he turned his head to the reptile with a snarl of impatience. “Shut up, I tell you!” he said. It wagged its tail and continued to whisper to him. He ceased snarling, and presently began to smile.

The encounter which follows is amazing. I won’t spoil it by describing how it ends, but I will once again encourage you to read what is one of my favorite novels. The Great Divorce is about the separation between Heaven and Hell, and explains how a loving God could allow some of his creation to choose a path away from him.

And a Bonus Insight from Dorothy Sayers

Lewis and Sayers were friends, and they deeply respected one another’s work. In 1943, Lewis wrote to Sayers congratulating her on her recently published The Other Six Deadly Sins. He said, “it is one of the few things which I find, within its limits, perfect—i.e. there is nothing one would wish added or removed or altered.” High praise.

Sayers brilliantly strips away some of the euphemisms that mask and confuse candid discussions about sin. This is how she begins what was originally delivered as a public address:

Perhaps the bitterest commentary on the way in which Christian doctrine has been taught in the last few centuries is the fact that to the majority of people the word “immorality” has come to mean one thing and one thing only. The name of an association like yours is generally held to imply that you are concerned to correct only one sin out of those seven which the Church recognizes as capital.

By a hideous irony, our shrinking reprobation of that sin has made us too delicate so much as to name it, so that we have come to use for it the words which were made to cover the whole range of human corruption. A man may be greedy and selfish; spiteful, cruel, jealous, and unjust; violent and brutal; grasping, unscrupulous, and a liar; stubborn and arrogant; stupid, morose, and dead to every noble instinct—and still we are ready to say of him that he is not an immoral man. I am reminded of a young man who once said to me with perfect simplicity: “I did not know there were seven deadly sins: please tell me the names of the other six.”

About the sin called Luxuria or Lust, I shall therefore say . . . that it is a sin, and that it ought to be called plainly by its own name, and neither huddled away under a generic term like immorality, nor confused with love.

The book sounds like it’s well worth reading. It has been out of print for eighty years⁂ but it appears to have been reproduced in toto by this website. (I plan to read the essay as soon as I get this post uploaded!)


* Over 800 civilians were killed by German troops as they advanced through neutral Belgium in 1914. A short describing of these events can be found at this British Library site.

⁑ You can download free copies of Chaplain Kennedy’s books at Internet Archive: Lies! or a collection of his poetry in Rough Rhymes of a Padre.

⁂ A single used copy is currently available via amazon, for the modest price of $287.36, with the comforting notation that the shipping is free.

During the middle ages, Scandinavia’s skálds were poets, storytellers and even musicians. They were the equivalent of bards in medieval British and Gaelic culture. They were oral historians, committed to memorizing their paeans verbatim, which was simpler since they were in poetic form. Not all skálds possessed the talents to create their own memorable epics. These lesser poets, so to speak, could still memorize and recite the classic or popular songs.

A graphic explanation for the difference in the talents of the first tier skálds and their inferiors is found in the Prose Edda which was written by Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241). Sturluson compiled Norse myths in his Edda, and the sagas of her kings in Heimskringla.

The second part of the Prose Edda is entitled Skáldskaparmál, which means the language of poetry. One of the myths it contains describes the Mead of Poetry. Mead, of course, is the rich Viking beverage created by fermenting honey.

As for poetry, I’ve written about it fairly often. (Most recently in respect to my “winning” entry in a Terrible Poetry Contest.) I’ve even offered genuine, albeit feeble, attempts at the art myself. Alas, if I were a classical Greek I would say my Muse is Clio (the Muse of History), rather than Thalia or Erato, Muses of various genres of poetry.

It is well known that C.S. Lewis himself was a frustrated poet. While his literary criticism and historical work was highly respected—and his Christian works are still revered—his poetry never received a warm reception. The Poetry Foundation offers a useful article on the subject here.

My personal opinion is that I am thankful Lewis’ energies were devoted to more profitable fields of writing.

Back to the Vikings

C.S. Lewis and several other Inklings were enamored with Northern sagas. I have touched on this in the past, and discussed the amazing fellowship gathered by J.R.R. Tolkien, as a sort of precursor to the Inklings.

Tolkien named the group Kolbítar, which denoted “Coalbiters,” or Norse storytellers who gathered close to the fire as they discussed the stories of their ancestors. This exploration of Icelandic literature was connected to Tolkien’s conviction, as a professor of Anglo-Saxon, that these works belonged within the study of the English canon.* Old Norse definitely left a mark on English, as I’ve discussed here at Mere Inkling.

In Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths, Nancy Marie Brown gleans some insights about Kolbítar from Lewis correspondence. They gathered to read the literature aloud.

They began with Snorri’s Edda. Reading it in Icelandic was slow going but addictive, Lewis recalls: “Hammered my way through a couple of pages in about an hour, but I am making some headway. It is an exciting experience.” Lewis . . . had also been smitten as a boy by “pure ‘Northernness’” [and] popular versions of Snorri’s tales had inspired Lewis to write an adolescent tragedy about the Norse gods, “Loki Bound.”

There is no record of what the members of the Kolbítars thought of the myth of the Mead of Poetry, but I would imagine that they found its crass distinction between gifted and stumbling poets quite—Norse. To set the stage for the following passage, one should know: (1) the Aesir were the Old Norse gods, (2) Suttung was a Jötunn (belonging to a race of giants at war with the Aesir), (3) Suttung was in possession of the magical mead of poetry, which Odin stole through cunning but immoral means, swallowing all of it, (4) Odin changed into an eagle to effect his escape, and Suttung followed him in the same form, and (5) the Aesir prepared large vessels to receive the disgorged magical mead. Now, from the Edda itself:

When the Æsir saw Odin flying, they placed their vats in the courtyard, and when Odin entered Asgard he spat the mead into the vats. It was such a close call, with Suttung almost catching him, that he blew some of the mead out of his rear. No one paid attention to this part, and whoever wanted it took it; we call this the bad poets’ portion. Odin gave Suttung’s mead to the Æsir and to those men who know how to make poetry. For this reason we call poetry Odin’s catch, find, drink or gift, as well as the drink of the Æsir.

No one said the Norse were above using crass humor. Still, it does offer a quite imaginative explanation for the differences between exceptional and mediocre poets, doesn’t it?


* Tolkien “loved the cold, crisp, unsentimental language of the sagas, their bare, straightforward tone like wind keening over ice. Reading Snorri and his peers was more important than reading Shakespeare, Tolkien argued, because their books were more central to our language and our modern world” (Song of the Vikings).

Ah, the snow is wrapping the world in a thick blanket, and I have no where I need to be. As I sit at my desk gazing out at the whitewashed forest, I attempt now something that I seldom do. I am writing a poem.

I admit that I haven’t read Jane Kenyon’s work, but I can definitely relate to one of her famous quotations: “My ear is not working, my poetry ear. I can’t write a line that doesn’t sound like pots and pans falling out of the cupboard.”

One of the bloggers I follow hosts a weekly poetry contest. I’ve never been tempted to compete, although I’m eminently qualified. You see, this is a “Terrible Poetry Contest.”

I had already begun writing my next post, and it relates to the depression some people feel during the winter. Of course, I do my best to make sure that what I write for Mere Inkling is not “terrible.” But I decided to delay that column and pause to enter this contest. On a whim. I certainly don’t expect to win . . . which in this case is, ironically, good news.

I decided to use an uncommon poetic form, since I can at least have the satisfaction that it offers patient readers an “educational” tidbit. I chose the French descort poetic form, because it seems expressly tailored to generate terrible poetry. According to Writer’s Digest, “the descort differentiates itself from other forms by differentiating its lines from other lines within the poem. That is, the main rule of descort poems is that each line needs to be different from every other line in the poem.”

A descort poem has different line lengths, meters, avoids rhyming with other lines, no refrains, and that goes for stanzas as well. In other words, no two lines in a descort should look like each other, and the same could be said for each descort.

The strength of the form is that it allows utter freedom to the poet. The weakness is that the results are appalling. (Read the example written by the editor of the linked article, if you don’t believe me.) Without further ado, I present my latest experiment with verse.* (There’s really nothing “French” about it, beyond the fact it’s a descort.)⁑

Frigid French Philologies
by Robert C. Stroud

Shards of bleak winter gestate day after day.
The citric cannonade gurgled melodies of complacency.
Echinodermata rides again.

Hagar was not so Horrible.
Beware 48°52.6′S 123°23.6′W.
Fini.
Don’t stare at dark holes.
A Galapagos penguin reads about tobacco.

Captain Kirk sings the National Anthem.
Angkor longed to visit Tenochtitlán.
Sheepish wolves.
From lofty Mount Olympus descended Odin.

Soon comes the summer of our discontent.

A French Poem by C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis wrote poetry. There is actually a plaque in his honor in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. Deservedly so. Nevertheless, Lewis’ poetry was never highly regarded.

I, for one, consider this lack of appreciation providential. By this I mean that even though C.S. Lewis had to suffer the disappointment of not realizing his desires as a poet, it is a blessing to the whole world that his energies were redirected into his other writings. Who knows, if his poetry had been celebrated, whether or not Narnia would ever have existed?

The only book of Lewis’ which is in the public domain (i.e. free for downloading), is Spirits in Bondage: A Cycle of Lyrics. It was published after the First World War, written while he was still an atheist. While it makes for interesting reading, much of the imagery will be a bit disorienting for readers only familiar with Lewis after he encountered Christ.

The following poem is taken from that collection. As Alister McGrath writes in The Telegraph article, Lewis’ hopes were dashed relatively early.

The early poems remain a powerful witness to Lewis’s early atheism, railing against an absent and uncaring God who failed to halt the slaughter the author saw around him. But he never achieved recognition as a “war poet,” like Rupert Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon, who are also commemorated in Poets’ Corner. Indeed, not only did he fail to secure recognition for his war poetry, he was not acclaimed as a poet of any kind, as the lack of interest in his second volume of verse—Dymer (1926)—made painfully clear.

This example of Lewis’ war poetry does stand tall in comparison to the verse of the “acclaimed” war poets (in my modest opinion). It describes a battle site during the war—and the transformation of human beings into beasts.

French Nocturne (Monchy-Le-Preux)

Long leagues on either hand the trenches spread
And all is still; now even this gross line
Drinks in the frosty silences divine
The pale, green moon is riding overhead.

The jaws of a sacked village, stark and grim;
Out on the ridge have swallowed up the sun,
And in one angry streak his blood has run
To left and right along the horizon dim.

There comes a buzzing plane: and now, it seems
Flies straight into the moon. Lo! where he steers
Across the pallid globe and surely nears
In that white land some harbour of dear dreams!

False mocking fancy! Once I too could dream,
Who now can only see with vulgar eye
That he’s no nearer to the moon than I
And she’s a stone that catches the sun’s beam.

What call have I to dream of anything?
I am a wolf. Back to the world again,
And speech of fellow-brutes that once were men
Our throats can bark for slaughter: cannot sing.

I confess (though I did it on purpose) that the heading for this section was a bit misleading. “French poem” may have been interpreted as a poem written in French. While Lewis was certainly fluent in French, he did not write in the language. He did, however, appreciate the tongue.

In 1952 he wrote his publisher about the French translation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. He praised quality of the translation, as well as the tone achieved by the translator, in Le Lion et la Sorcière Blanche.

I don’t foresee many occasions for copies of Le Lion, but if you will kindly send me 2, they might come in useful. The translator deserves to be congratulated of course—French is a very powerful language—the children become perfect little Frenchmen, but that is all to the good.

What pleased and surprised me is the passage at the end where I made them talk like characters in Malory, and he has really got some of the quality of the French 13th century prose romances: grande honte en aurions⁂—is exactly right.

C.S. Lewis’ brother, Warnie, was a bit of a Francophile. He knew his subject well enough that he authored a book about its history, The Splendid Century: Life In The France Of Louis XIV. He offers an entertaining account of some literary gatherings where the works of Jean Chapelain (1595-1674) were employed in a novel manner. The writers shared agreed upon rules, and transgressions demanded discipline. Thus the punishment for “the breach of rules was to read a verse of Chapelain’s poetry, or, in aggravated circumstances, a whole page.”

I won’t hold my breath awaiting the results of the poetry contest. Though I periodically enjoy dabbling in poetry, I feel I am destined to share the fate of Lewis when it comes to the way in which the masses assess the quality of our verse.


* I have written poetry in the past. I explored the quintain here, and have a few of my experiments in poetry posted at All Poetry.

⁑ According to Encyclopedia Britannica, descort can also refer to “a poem in medieval Provençal literature with stanzas in different languages.”

⁂ The phrase means “great shame we would have.”

A Unique Approach to Poetry

September 25, 2019 — 6 Comments

I’m guessing that only lit majors—and possibly only a minority of them—know the literary definition of “effusions.” This despite the fact, that nearly every writer pens them.

Effusion, of course, is a common enough word. From its typical context, readers can pretty accurately determine its meaning. Its Latin root meant to “pour out,” making the word ideal for technical medical usage. Eventually, it entered the literary canon, where it refers to pouring out one’s thoughts or feelings in an unrestrained manner.

Obviously I have heard people use effusive as an adjective, as in “she received effusive praise for her treatise on the Inklings and their reliance on the Mesoamerican Codex Borbonicus.” But I don’t recall ever encountering “effusion” in the context of writing. I suspect that its relative rarity is simply due to slipping out of modern usage.

Nearly a century ago, in 1921, C.S. Lewis casually used the term in a letter to his brother Warnie. Lewis begins by explaining why he had not written recently. It turns out, Lewis was a bit miffed at his brother due to thinking Warnie had been negligent in writing to him.

My dear W., I was delighted to get your letter this morning; for some reason it had been sent first to a non-existent address in Liverpool. I had deliberately written nothing to you since those two you mention: not that I was tired of the job, but because I did not feel disposed to go on posting into the void until I had some assurance that my effusions would reach you.

That seemed a process too like prayer for my taste: as I once said to Baker—my mystical friend with the crowded poetry—the trouble about God is that he is like a person who never acknowledges one’s letters and so, in time, one comes to the conclusion either that he does not exist or that you have got the address wrong. I admitted that it was of great moment: but what was the use of going on dispatching fervent messages–say to Edinburgh–if they all came back through the dead letter office: nay more, if you couldn’t even find Edinburgh on the map.

His cryptic reply was that it would be almost worth going to Edinburgh to find out. I am glad however that you have ceased to occupy such a divine position, and will do my best to continue: tho’ I hope it won’t be for fifteen months.

These are fascinating insights into prayer, especially coming from the perspective of C.S. Lewis during his atheist period. (Which is why I quoted the letter at length.)

Effusion in a Literary Context

It appears the labeling of writing, or poetry at least, as effusive, has fallen out of style. Take the case of the poem I included in my most recent post. The source of “Easy Rules for Punctuation,” was a collection entitled Ephemeral Effusions.

I spent quite some time tracking down an actual definition for literary effusions. Eventually I found one in Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Bloom’s Modern Critical Views). Harold Bloom writes, “I have come across approximately one hundred late-eighteenth- and nineteenth-century works entitled ‘effusions.’” The following discussion about the subject will be of interest to readers and writers alike.

Between poetry and oratory stands rhetoric. I have attempted to show that Coleridge’s effusions take up residence in a middle ground criss-crossed by other literary practices. While they arguably have an identifiable character, formed in part by a Horatian tradition, Coleridge defines his effusions less by their positive identity than by their self-conscious difference from the other genres and figures (sermo, epistle, address, aversion, conversation) that impinge on and cohabit their poetic space.

As a distinct genre, however, the effusion was relatively short-lived, becoming more common as a “lady’s” genre, suitable for the expression of delicate feelings and sensibilities, though also occasionally lending itself to more “heroic” sentiments by military men. Effusions of the heart, the poets discovered, can be both literal and figurative, erotic and patriotic, tender and polemical. . . . Later, indeed, there would be a few noteworthy instances of the genre, such as Wordsworth’s 1835 “Extempore Effusion upon the Death of James Hogg,” in which Coleridge is remembered by name in a catalogue of dead poets. But no one approaches the theoretical or practical accomplishment of Coleridge in a genre so carefully positioned between poetry and non-poetry.

Coleridge’s term “effusions,” however, appears to have been unfamiliar to contemporary reviewers . . . [a reviewer in 1796] praises Coleridge’s poems: “They consist of sonnets, which, however, Mr. Coleridge chooses to call Effusions. . . .” The reviewers nowhere identify any literary tradition in which an “effusion” might stand defined.

This column marks consecutive posts related to poetry. A stunning first in Mere Inkling’s five year history. Personally, I make no claims to being a poet, although I confess I’ve dabbled in the genre.

For those desiring to download a nineteenth century collection entitled Poetic Effusions, check out this treasure by Mary Peach Collier (1799-1858). We’ll close with one of the shorter effusions in the book.

On the Death of a Little Girl

Farewell, blest Ellen I long thy spotless name
Shall deep imprinted on our memories live;
Long on the records of unsullied fame
Thy lovely innocence a charm shall give.

Farewell, thou little flow’ret of the shade
Just born to blossom, like thy kindred rose;
Early transplanted where no thorns invade,
To flourish fair in regions of repose.

bennett

Some Christians are obnoxious. Well, okay, quite a few Christians are insufferable when they persistently “witness” to those who are deaf to their appeals. But, truth be told, many atheists are becoming increasingly obnoxious in their attitudes towards Christians as well. Let’s consider which group is worse.

First, some definitions. By Christians I don’t mean people who have some vague deistic notion that there is a God, and Jesus is somehow connected to this divinity because he was such a holy prophet.

By Christian I mean someone who has placed their faith and trust in Jesus the Christ, the only begotten Son of God who declared he was the Way, the Truth and the Life… The Logos (Word) through whom the universe was created.

By Atheist, I don’t mean people who do not share that faith, but who consider it an unprovable thesis. Most people with this viewpoint are ambivalent about whether or not others “believe.” The majority of these folks, many of whom do not feel threatened by religious conversations, are better understood as Agnostics.

By Atheist I mean people who are so convinced that Christianity is fallacious that they feel they must do what they can to stamp it out. They are so emotionally engrossed in the matter that they are genuinely unable to recognize that their own belief is based on nothing other than faith itself.

I can respect the fact that Atheists have historically been mistreated by “Christendom.” By my definition, this institutional entity is not synonymous with actual Christianity. In fact, it’s persecuted far more Christians of different denominational allegiances, than it has unbelievers who simply kept their mouths closed. But that’s a subject for another day.

Christians do not hate agnostics, or even atheists. Their motivation for sharing the Gospel inclines them towards the opposite attitude. Certainly they do it in obedience to their Lord’s command. Most possess a genuine concern and compassion for those they consider to be lost and facing eternal separation from God.

On the other hand, an increasing number of Atheists are insultingly dismissive of Christians who they consider—as a group—to be ignorant and prejudiced.

An Atheist columnist acknowledged this fact, and the discomfort it causes him, in a recent essay. David Harsanyi wrote the following in “Political Idols,” an article about a broader subject.

Unlike many of my fellow non-believers, I don’t feel especially enlightened or rational for my apostasy; I feel kind of unlucky, actually.

The typical non-believer sees the strictures of Christianity or Judaism [the faith in which Harsanyi was raised] as a punishment—mythical limitations set to inconvenience him—but I see people who take profound comfort in a beautiful fate that awaits them as long as they treat people as they would want to be treated themselves.

As a man who believes his story ends in a pile of dirt rather than celestial salvation, I have many reasons to be envious.

Yet, for my entire atheistic life, I’ve been nudged to mock the believer. The unifying doctrine of atheism is a reflexive antagonism toward faith and all the ideas it has dragged along with it through the centuries.

If all Atheists recognized this, and all Christians acknowledged that they are no more deserving of God’s mercy than their neighbor, oh what wonderful conversations about matters of eternal significance we could have!

C.S. Lewis’ Comment about an Atheist Writer

In a 1916 letter to his friend Arthur Greeves, Lewis comments on a book that Greeves had mentioned. He says the particular volume is of little value, without remarking on the author’s work in fiction, for which he as better known.

What is most significant about this particular letter is Lewis’ reference to the writer’s atheism, and the allusion to his own. It must be remembered that Lewis would not experience his conversion to Christianity for another fifteen years!

The book you refer to is ‘How to Form a Literary Taste’ by Arnold Benett: the edition is pretty but the book is not of any value. The very title—as if you set out to ‘learn’ literature the way you learn golf—shews that the author is not a real book-lover but only a priggish hack.

I never read any of his novels & don’t want to. Have you? By the way, he is a rather violent atheist, so I suppose I shall meet him by

‘The fiery, flaming flood of Phlegethon,’ as good old Spenser has it.

Before we look at Arnold Bennett (1867-1931), the author Lewis is describing, let us take a moment to consider the literary allusion Lewis includes in this passage.

“The fiery, flaming flood of Phlegethon” comes from The Faerie Queene, an epic poem which was the masterpiece of Edmund Spenser (1552-1599). Various editions of the fantasy poem are available.

In Spenser’s poem, the Phlegethon is a river found in Hell. The name itself means “flaming,” and it initially appears in Greek mythology as one of the Underworld’s five rivers. In The Faerie Queene, the terrible place where “the damned ghosts in torments fry.”

While his agnosticism assumes there is no afterlife, he acknowledges he may be wrong. And, if so, it is precisely to this tragic, fiery end that the unbelieving Lewis delivers Bennett . . . and himself.

So, who was Arnold Bennett?

Bennett was a versatile writer, and found success not only as a novelist, but also in theater and journalism. He even served as the Director of Propaganda for France during WWI, even though he was English. (He had resided in France since 1903.)

He was outspoken in his view that religious faith was not for the wise. Ironically, he died of typhoid after ignoring a French waiter’s counsel not to drink the “ordinary [tap] water from a carafe,” which was unsafe.

In 1932, Bennett’s widow began editing and publishing his journals. In a review that year, a literary magazine noted his antagonism towards Christianity.

Through it all one gets the impression of a terribly self-centered personality. Perhaps the artist is necessarily self-centered, though I cannot believe that Shakespeare was.

There have been artists like Dante, like Milton, whom it would be absurd to call selfish in the usual sense of the term because, colossal as their egos were, they yet consecrated themselves and all their pride of art and pride of soul to something for which, in the final analysis, their inmost spirits cared immensely more than they cared for self or for art or for any other thing on the earth below or in the heavens above it. . . .

Probably he was as great an artist as a man can be without religion, and the measure of his greatness is to be found in his straining against the limitations he so needlessly imposed upon himself. . . .

He had nothing of the mystic in him. In a moment of illumination he declares that “there is no such thing as ugliness in the world,” but this is as far as he gets. Yet he holds out against Christianity as he holds out against what he thinks of as sentimentalism, and his wife was probably right in her feeling that he might have made a very good Christian if he had only been willing to let himself go.

Civil Atheism

It would be a good thing for us individually and as members of a pluralistic world, to treat one another with civility. As a Christian, I can confess for my brothers and sisters that we do not always do so. Let us strive to do better.

And, as for those who identify themselves as Atheists, perhaps there is some room for improvement in this area as well. If more people resisted atheism’s “reflexive antagonism toward faith,” the world would definitely become a more friendly place.

A final note for those who would read more about Bennett. G.K. Chesterton wrote an essay about morality and punishment, in which he responds to a proposal offered by Bennett that society should not “judge” criminals. You can read “The Mercy of Mr. Arnold Bennett” here.

Since it relates to our discussion here, I must share a portion of Chesterton’s witty introduction to his essay.

Mr. Arnold Bennett recently wrote one of his humorous and humane “causeries” pleading very properly for social imagination and the better understanding of our fellows. He carried it, however, to the point of affirming, as some fatalists do, that we should never judge anybody in the sense of condemning anybody, in connexion with his moral conduct.

Some time ago the same distinguished writer showed that his mercy and magnanimity were indeed on a heroic scale by reviewing a book of mine, and even saying many kind things about it.

But to these he added a doubt about whether true intelligence could be consistent with the acceptance of any dogma. In truth there are only two kinds of people; those who accept dogmas and know it, and those who accept dogmas and don’t know it. My only advantage over the gifted novelist lies in my belonging to the former class.

I suspect that his unconsciousness of his dogmas extends to an unconsciousness of what he means by a dogma. If it means merely the popular idea of being dogmatic, it might be suggested that saying that all dogmatism is unintelligent is itself somewhat dogmatic.

And something of what is true of his veto on dogma is also true of his veto on condemnation; which is really a veto on vetoes.


The photograph above is of a statue of Arnold Bennett unveiled this summer in his home town of Stoke-on-Trent.

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?

 

editors wants

The goal of most writers is to become published writers. In his diary, C.S. Lewis describes a rather peculiar route to publication followed by one of his acquaintances at Oxford.

During his prolific career, Lewis dealt with many different editors. Some experiences were positive, while others were less so.

In the diary entry which follows, Lewis expresses his befuddlement at the criteria some editors use to make their decisions.

“Stead” was William Stead, an American poet who came to England as a diplomat, became an Anglican priest, baptized T.S. Eliot, and returned to the States prior to WWII. Stead also introduced Lewis to W.B. Yeats, a curious encounter I will be writing about quite soon.

Wednesday 5 April: Started revising Greek History today. At first I found my notes etc. in great confusion, but when that was straightened out I worked with more interest and pleasure than I had expected. . . .

I also got the two poems (typed v. accurately for I/-)* and saw Stead in order to get the address of the London Mercury.

He told me with a solemn face and admirable naivety how he had got his accepted. Two or three were sent back by return post, whereupon he went up to London and called on the Editor, saying, “Look here Mr Squire, you haven’t taken these poems of mine and I want to know what’s wrong with them!!”

If the story ended there, it would be merely a side light on Stead, but the joke is that Squire said, “I’m glad you’ve come to talk it over: that’s just what I want people to do” and actually accepted what he’d formerly refused. Truly the ways of editors are past finding out! (All My Road Before Me)

Anyone who has submitted their work for publication consideration can relate to Lewis’ incredulity. Long ago I resigned myself to their arbitrariness and irrationality. They are, after all, simply human beings, and as such, inescapably subjective.

While we could all agree on circular filing** submissions filled with typos or misspellings, they sometimes reject what is excellent and embrace what is maudlin. The stories of best sellers that were repeatedly rejected are common.

It’s true that some publications have pretty exhaustive stylebooks, but when it comes to the content of what they publish, it frequently appears to be based on momentary whim.

After many years of writing, and a handful of years as an editor myself, I have come to believe the decisions are purely subjective. Subjective and arbitrary, depending on the mood, time of day, weather, status of family relations and digestion of the editor.

A Postscript on C.S. Lewis and Stead

After the diary excerpt cited above, Lewis continues with a bit more about the brash American.

Stead gave me the proof of his new book, The Sweet Miracle, wh. I took away. So far it seems rather dull. Worked for the rest of the day, except for a nightcap of Repington.

If you would like to assess for yourself the “dullness” of Stead’s poetry, you can download a copy of The Sweet Miracle and Other Poems via Hathitrust.

The book Lewis refers to as his “nightcap” was a history of the First World War, in which he had personally served. It was written by Lieutenant Colonel Charles à Court Repington, a war correspondent. Both volumes are available for your bedtime reading (volume one, volume two).


* “Typed very accurately for one pound.”

** Also referred to as the “round file.”

 

 

 

 

african-steerWho was the mysterious poet whose quiet, brim-shrouded attentiveness to C.S. Lewis in a pub inspired J.R.R. Tolkien to describe the hero Aragon in a similar pose?

Being neither a poet nor a literature major, I’m not ashamed to admit I have been unfamiliar with the interesting story of Roy Campbell. While his friendship with the Inklings of Oxford most intrigues me, his life itself is a fascinating story.

A South African who offered his deepest emotional devotion to Spain, his early years were influenced by the license of London’s bohemian underworld. He did, however, end up criticizing the excesses of the Bloomsbury Group.

Later, he and his wife would convert to Roman Catholicism, and even risk their lives to protect the letters of Saint John of the Cross from murderous Spanish revolutionaries who sought to burn them. They accepted responsibility for the documents shortly before the seventeen monks at the monastery were rounded up and shot in the street while their library burned.

Several days later the Campbells were visited by a search party of militiamen. Expecting such an intrusion, Roy and Mary had already taken the precaution of removing all crucifixes and religious pictures from the walls. Their main fear was that the trunk containing the Carmelite archives, including the personal letters of St John of the Cross, would be discovered.

The search, however, was not particularly thorough. At one stage some of the militiamen even leaned their rifles on the trunk without thinking of opening it. (Joseph Pearce, “The poet who saved a saint’s priceless letters”)

C.S. Lewis & Roy Campbell

C.S. Lewis considered Campbell’s championing of the Spanish fascists (who protected the Roman Catholic Church from the Leftist rebels) to be naïve. He even wrote a poem in direct response to Campbell’s lengthy “Flowering Rifle,” which is included in issue 4.2 of Curtana: Sword of Mercy.

I happen to edit the military chaplaincy journal Curtana, which is currently on hiatus. In the same issue I included another Campbell poem, “Christ in Uniform” (see pages 78-79).

In a second article, Joseph Pearce who was quoted above provides a lengthy exploration of the relationship between the two men. Its subtitle, “The Best of Friends and Enemies” reveals its theme. While Lewis remained critical of his acceptance of fascists, the two eventually became friends.

In spite of such an unpromising encounter, Lewis warmed to Campbell and invited him to meetings of the Inklings. He even offered to put Campbell up when he was in Oxford, offering him “dinner, bed and breakfast” at his home. They would exchange correspondence about the poetry of Milton, which both men admired, and settled into an altogether affable relationship.

Another peculiar thing about their friendship is how Lewis based a satirical character on Campbell in The Pilgrim’s Regress. When a song is requested, it is a one of the most savage of the men who first takes the stage.

“I will,” cried thirty voices all together: but one cried much louder than the others and its owner had stepped into the middle of the room before anyone could do anything about it.

He was one of the bearded men and wore nothing but a red shirt and a cod-piece made of the skins of crocodiles: and suddenly he began to beat on an African tom-tom and to croon with his voice, swaying his lean, half-clad body to and fro and staring at them all, out of eyes which were like burning coals.

This time John saw no picture of an Island at all. He seemed to be in a dark green place full of tangled roots and hairy vegetable tubes: and all at once he saw in it shapes moving and writhing that were not vegetable but human.

The passage continues, but it’s best read in context. Especially since it precedes an accusation that John, the pilgrim in the tale, is so unsophisticated as to be unable to distinguish between art and pornography.

The Making of a Poet

Lewis and Campbell were both poets. Campbell was successful in this pursuit, and admired by many. Lewis . . . much less so. But it was my recent reading of one of Campbell’s poems on the subject of poetry that set me to researching for this column. So it’s only fitting that I close now with his poem entitled, “The Making of a Poet.”

It’s quite visceral, evoking the savage imagery of his native Africa, and hints at what inspired Lewis to caricature him in the way we read a moment ago.

In every herd there is some restive steer
Who leaps the cows and heads each hot stampede,
Till the old bulls unite in jealous fear
To hunt him from the pastures where they feed.

Lost in the night he hears the jungles crash
And desperately, lest his courage fail,
Across his hollow flanks with sounding lash
Scourges the heavy whipcord of his tail.

Far from the phalanxes of horns that ward
The sleeping herds he keeps the wolf at bay,
At nightfall by the slinking leopard spoored,
And goaded by the fly-swarm through the day.

You can read more of Campbell’s poetry here.

kellerSome are born deaf. Others lose their hearing due to accident or illness. Still others find our hearing failing us gradually, as it is displaced by the persistent presence of that unwelcome visitor, tinnitus.

As I was pondering the slow decay of my own hearing, I recalled one of C.S. Lewis’ most brilliant insights.

We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world. (The Problem of Pain)

Even as I am concerned about the inevitable decline of my hearing—and more so, my vision—I try to conscientiously follow my wife’s guidance about vitamins and behaviors that will keep these senses around as long as possible.

At the same time, being a realist, I have decided to disengage my emotions from the matter as much as I am able, and simply accept the unavoidable. In fact, I have learned to enjoy some of the inaccuracies of hearing that I more and more often experience.

Hardly a day passes when I do not get a good laugh out of something I misheard. What I mean is that my brain translates the garbled sounds into actual words that constitute some sense that is in reality nonsensical. It hasn’t cause any problems yet, so I just smile or chuckle. If the mishearing is especially humorous, I sometimes share it with my family.

Recently, I smiled when my pastor went on about how great “Lutheran circuses” are, and how important it was that we invite others to attend our “Lutheran worship circuses” (services). That substitution was easy to recognize; it’s far funnier when I mishear something and what I think they said makes an odd sense that could almost be true . . . but is actually ludicrous.

I don’t share my personal way of dealing with the weakening of my sense of hearing with the intention of belittling the seriousness of a cross many have to bear as their lives are detrimentally impacted by these afflictions.

The Original Plan

Certainly, the impairment of any of the senses God has given us is cause for sadness. After all, when our first parents were created, their senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste were undiminished. That’s the way that the Lord intended for us to enjoy the rest of his creation.

Actually, some people argue that there are seven senses, adding two that do make sense:

Vestibular – the sense of balance, perceiving our body in relationship to gravity and movement (equilibrioception)

Proprioception – the sense of the relative position of different parts of the body, particularly as it pertains to movement (kinesthesia)

Another source declares there are nine senses, adding to the palette

Thermoception – the sensation of the presence or absence of heat

Nociception – “nonconscious perception of nerve or tissue damage”

I personally imagine that when “the day of the Lord” arrives, and we witness the restoration of a new heaven and a new earth, that our restored bodies* will possess a myriad of other senses we are not even capable of fathoming at this present moment.

Yes, it is a tragedy when people have to live with their senses crippled. This is especially true when it is the young who are afflicted. To be born without sight or hearing rightly seems like a curse to many. The testimony of Helen Keller, who actually lost her vision and hearing at the age of nineteen months, illustrates how the human spirit is capable of transcending even these severe limitations.**

In 1952, C.S. Lewis wrote a letter to a young teacher at the Manchester Royal School for the Deaf.

The work you are engaged in is a magnificent one (much in my mind because, as it falls out, I’ve just been reading Helen Keller’s book): hard, no doubt, but you can never be attacked by the suspicion that it is not worth doing. There are jolly few professions of which we can say that.

The translation of great stories into a limited vocabulary will, incidentally, be a wonderful discipline: you will learn a lot about thought and language in general before you are done. I hope you will sometimes let me know how you get on. God bless you.

In writing this column I learned something of which I had been unaware. Keller was also a poet.

And, while I’m a poor judge of verse, I found my brief exploration of hers to be moving. However, here is a review from The New York Times which declares, “Modern psychology cannot account for Miss Keller nor explain the psychic sense by which she apprehends the minutest phases of a beauty she has never witnessed.”

You can download a copy of the book The Song of the Stone Wallhere.

Across the meadow, by the ancient pines,

Where I, the child of life that lived that spring,

Drink in the fragrances of the young year,

The field-wall meets one grimly squared and straight

Beyond it rise the old tombs, gray and restful,

And the upright slates record the generations.

Stiffly aslant before the northern blasts.

Like the steadfast, angular beliefs

Of those whom they commemorate, the head-stones stand,

Cemented deep with moss and invisible roots.

The rude inscriptions charged with faith and love,

Graceless as Death himself, yet sweet as Death,

Are half erased by the impartial storms.

As children lisping words which move to laughter

Are themselves poems of unconscious melody,

So the old gravestones with their crabbed muse

Are beautiful for their halting words of faith,

Their groping love that had no gift of song.

But all the broken tragedy of life

And all the yearning mystery of death

Are celebrated in sweet epitaphs of vines and violets.

Helen Keller’s life is a witness to the fact that God can intervene in our brokenness and make us whole. It is also a foretaste of that complete restoration that awaits disciples of Jesus on the Last Day.

And one more thing her life proves is the truth of C.S. Lewis’ insight that in our suffering we become more attuned to our need, and God “shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

_____

The image at the top of the page shows Helen Keller as she looked on the day of her graduation from college.

* This transition from these fragile and perishing bodies to the new is described here. And, here’s a link to a readable essay on the subject of the resurrected or new body Christians are promised.

** Helen Keller found hope in the good news of Jesus Christ, albeit through the extremely peculiar teachings of the philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg. Helen Keller’s book My Religion is available for free download here.