Archives For Poetry

It’s nearly impossible to avoid digressions – those temporary departures from the current subject of conversation. While many digressions are interesting in the own right, they occasionally cause the speaker (or writer) to lose track of the actual point they are attempting to establish.

It’s like when I would be reading something the Emperor Constantine the Great, and at the mention of the Persian Empire, I would put the current article on hold while I explored the subject of just how the current regime in Iran reflects the religious fundamentalism of Zoroastrianism as it resisted during the Abbasid Caliphate. Ah, but forgive me, I digress.

The reason I am thinking about digressions today is because I recently encountered a massive one in one of Mark Twain’s works. But before we look at it, let’s consider a more recent example, in an article about C.S. Lewis.

In “The Uses of Ignorance,” literary critic Alan Jacobs explores a number of themes, including the way Lewis’ presentation of Christianity’s core resonates with believers from diverse theological backgrounds.

One lesson to be learned . . . is just how carefully Lewis articulated his “mere Christianity” so that it seemed “mere” indeed – recognizable to Christians from many different traditions as the faith they understood and practiced. But we also see . . . “that the lasting appeal of Mere Christianity is not based so much on Lewis’s genius as on his ability to point readers to the luminosity of the gospel message itself.” Which, I might add, is a kind of genius in itself.

The article is well worth reading, but the specific reason I mention it now, is because the author includes a lengthy (315 word) departure from his main theme which he brackets with the words “A digression:” and “End of digression”.) It’s rare to see something this straightforward.

C.S. Lewis as a Digresser

If the average woman or man is prone to digression, it seems apparent a genius – with voluminous knowledge on diverse subjects – would occasionally succumb to the same temptation. For someone like C.S. Lewis this is not a major problem, as he would never lose his place in the original conversation. On the contrary, Lewis’ digressions would invariably enrich the discussion, as they illuminated his points.

One of the only books written by C.S. Lewis which has entered the public domain is Spirits in Bondage. When it was published in 1919 (while he was an atheist), Lewis wrote to a friend: “The sub-title ‘A cycle of lyrical poems’ was not given without a reason: the reason is that the book is not a collection of really independent pieces, but the working out, loosely of course and with digressions, of a general idea.” (You can download a free copy of Spirits in Bondage at Project Gutenberg.)

Mark Twain’s Masterful Digression

I’ve written about Mark Twain in the past. In one column I shared his humorous reflections on the nature of editors. Writers will find the post particularly entertaining.

Editors played a major (usually unwelcome) role in Twain’s existence. Thus, it is unsurprising that a major digression in “How to Make History Dates Stick” involves these denizens of the publishing world.

One book I was reading this week includes an extensive and, of course, intentional example of digression. Although he doesn’t bracket it with the word “digression,” it is probably one of the best examples in existence. (We would expect nothing less from Samuel Clemens!)

In his novel Roughing It, Twain describes a pervasive blight to the western frontier, sagebrush.

I do not remember where we first came across “sage-brush,” but as I have been speaking of it I may as well describe it. This is easily done, for if the reader can imagine a gnarled and venerable live oak tree reduced to a little shrub two feet high, with its rough bark, its foliage, its twisted boughs, all complete, he can picture the “sage-brush” exactly.

Often, on lazy afternoons in the mountains I have lain on the ground with my face under a sage-bush, and entertained myself with fancying that the gnats among its foliage were Lilliputian birds, and that the ants marching and countermarching about its base were Lilliputian flocks and herds, and myself some vast loafer from Brobdingnag waiting to catch a little citizen and eat him.

Twain’s description of his daydreaming about sagebrush is entertaining, but this is not the quintessential digression I wish to share. After this brief digression, Twain writes a page and a half about the plant’s actual physical attributes and utility (e.g. for fires and tea). But then, when the reader least expects it, Twain goes off on another extended ramble.

Sage-brush is very fair fuel, but as a vegetable it is a distinguished failure. Nothing can abide the taste of it but the jackass and his illegitimate child, the mule. But their testimony to its nutritiousness is worth nothing, for they will eat pine knots, or anthracite coal, or brass filings, or lead pipe, or old bottles, or anything that comes handy, and then go off looking as grateful as if they had had oysters for dinner. Mules and donkeys and camels have appetites that anything will relieve temporarily, but nothing satisfy.

In Syria, once, at the head-waters of the Jordan, a camel took charge of my overcoat while the tents were being pitched, and examined it with a critical eye, all over, with as much interest as if he had an idea of getting one made like it; and then, after he was done figuring on it as an article of apparel, he began to contemplate it as an article of diet. He put his foot on it, and lifted one of the sleeves out with his teeth, and chewed and chewed at it, gradually taking it in, and all the while opening and closing his eyes in a kind of religious ecstasy, as if he had never tasted anything as good as an overcoat before in his life.

Then he smacked his lips once or twice, and reached after the other sleeve. Next he tried the velvet collar, and smiled a smile of such contentment that it was plain to see that he regarded that as the daintiest thing about an overcoat. The tails went next, along with some percussion caps and cough candy, and some fig-paste from Constantinople.

And then my newspaper correspondence dropped out, and he took a chance in that – manuscript letters written for the home papers. But he was treading on dangerous ground, now. He began to come across solid wisdom in those documents that was rather weighty on his stomach; and occasionally he would take a joke that would shake him up till it loosened his teeth; it was getting to be perilous times with him, but he held his grip with good courage and hopefully, till at last he began to stumble on statements that not even a camel could swallow with impunity.

He began to gag and gasp, and his eyes to stand out, and his forelegs to spread, and in about a quarter of a minute he fell over as stiff as a carpenter’s work-bench, and died a death of indescribable agony. I went and pulled the manuscript out of his mouth, and found that the sensitive creature had choked to death on one of the mildest and gentlest statements of fact that I ever laid before a trusting public.

At that point, the writer pretends to realize he has digressed and concludes the chapter in the persona of the naturalist he has earlier assumed.

I was about to say, when diverted from my subject that occasionally one finds sage-bushes five or six feet high, and with a spread of branch and foliage in proportion, but two or two and a half feet is the usual height.

Well, that’s probably more than enough of a diversion from your day’s responsibilities. I hope you enjoyed reading these words, and that your own skills as a digresser will be correspondingly enhanced.

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

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

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

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

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

Sir David Lyndsay’s Legacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Noble Birds of Aragon, circa AD 1290

The Patina of the Inklings

February 4, 2021 — 8 Comments

Some antiques boast lovely patinas. Some old words do, as well. In fact, I would argue the legacy of, and the deep respect for, the Oxford fellowship known as the Inklings, has created a rich patina of its own.*

The community gifted scholars, especially in the persons of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, accrued a reputation that continues to gain a deeper luster with each new generation.

When I was a young man, I collected American coins. I also studied what Americans call “World coins.” The latter reinforced my love for geography as well as history.

To me, the most fascinating period of history has long been that of the Roman empire.

 So you can imagine my awe when I learned how simple it was to collect genuine Roman coins.

 This remains true today for common coins, such as bronzes of the fourth century (when the first Christian emperors reigned). This article describes “Collecting Roman Coins on a Budget.”

A surprising number of ancient coins, all readily identifiable and of historical interest, can be acquired for less than $100—and often in the $5-to-$25 range. This is especially true with Roman coins . . .

When I began collecting ancient coins, I learned the multifaceted meaning of a word unfamiliar to me at the time. That word was “patina” (pə’tēnə). As you probably know, it literally refers to the green or brown film (not rust) that appears on bronze and other metals under suitable conditions over a period of time. A handful of coins in my collection possess stunning patinas.

Metaphorical Patina

Many people are also acquainted with the figurative use of the word, as I employed it in my introduction It refers to an appearance or impression of distinction or luster associated with a person, idea or object. It is often linked to esteem held for the past. The following provocative quote comes from a contemporary Swiss artist.

“Life is one long decay, no? There’s a lot of beauty in it. Like the patina in an old city” (Urs Fischer).

Chad Walsh applied it to one of C.S. Lewis’ early books in The Literary Legacy of C.S. Lewis. Writing more than forty years ago, in a discussion of Pilgrim’s Regress, he said:

Regress has permanent value. It is, first of all, a spiritual autobiography, no matter how much Lewis may wish to minimize the personal quality of the quest and make his John into a potential Everyman. . . .

The Regress is already taking on a patina of age, a pleasant chronological quaintness, but time does not render it obsolete.

Four decades after he offered this comment, I believe I am correct in ascribing a warm patina to the Inklings as a fellowship.

Patinas can be added to items, to affect a more aged appearance. While “acquired” patina is always considered desirable, “applied” patina is often quite acceptable. It does not become problematic until the application is used to intentionally misrepresent the age of an item. An example of the proper use of applied patina is seen in these modern busts of C.S. Lewis.

In reviewing Lewis’ writings, I only uncovered one occasion where he used the concept of patina. It occurred in a 1946 letter to his friend, Ruth Pitter. Lewis is contributing to one of their ongoing conversations.

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. . . .

 Once more, read Barfield on Poetic Diction.⁑ That is why Spender’s objection to the ‘willed quality’ in Milton seems to me so bats’-eyed. It is the glory of one kind of poetry to sound un-willed, as if it had dropped out of the sky like Blake or else arisen spontaneously in conversation like Donne.

But then it is equally the glory of another kind to sound willed: to sound as if one were watching, or even sharing, the building of a huge tower.

To demand that Milton should have the spontaneity of Catullus or Blake is like demanding that a King at his coronation or a celebrant approaching the altar should have the same charm as a child dancing in the waves. Don’t we want both: both frolics and rituals? At any rate I do. . . .

Of course you are very right about Patina–again see Barfield. No old French poetry got that peculiar Old-Frenchness which is to us part of the charm. Half the beauties of the Old Testament did not exist for the writers. I wouldn’t be too sure, though, that it is wholly a question of our ‘projecting’ qualities into the old lines.

Ending on a Numismatic Note

Although I have not actively collected coins for many years, I commend it as a rewarding pastime. Seven years ago⁂ I wrote a column about religious likenesses on coins, which included a moving poem written by C.S. Lewis. You can read it here.

While writing this column I came across some genuine Narnian coins that were minted in New Zealand. They are genuine in the sense that they possess actual face values for legal tender in the island nation, which minted similar coins in honor of Middle Earth.

In terms of Narnian coins which circulated in Narnia itself, I learned that you can purchase “coins” which were used as actual props “appearing” in the recent Chronicles of Narnia films.

For an Inkling cinema buff such as myself, deciding to grab one for my personal collection was a no-brainer.


* The writings of the Inklings have even enhanced the patina of Oxford itself. This is especially true for those who live “across the pond,” and will never journey to the city itself. In a succinct review of The Inklings of Oxford: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and their Friends, one Aussie architect refers to the stately oxidation of the city’s copper, brass and bronze: Picturesque book of picturesque Oxford focusing on C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien and the elegant, much patina-ed Oxford environment that they lived in.” I imagine he would concur with my suggestion that the Inklings themselves also bear a splendid patina.

⁑ Owen Barfield dedicated this book to his good friend with the inscription: “To C.S. Lewis ‘Opposition is true friendship’”

⁂ Seven years of blogging does sound like a lengthy time, but it’s not long enough for even the best of posts to accrue a patina of their own.

Writing During the New Year

December 29, 2020 — 20 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Longfellow’s Influence on C.S. Lewis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

An Audience of Angels

December 8, 2020 — 10 Comments

Most writers are content to have humans read their works. Not so, William Blake (1757-1827). He indicated on various occasions that his audience included angels.

Blake was a very odd man. Talented, true. Inspired, likely. (Though by whom, debatable.) Christian, I think not. C.S. Lewis had a mixed opinion of him, affirming some of his poetry, and challenging one of his most prominent theological errors.*

True, Blake drew most of his imagery from Christian themes, but that is to be expected by someone writing and painting around the turn of the nineteenth century in Britain. His views of Christian faith were anything but consistent with orthodoxy.

Indeed, Blake appears to have fashioned his own religion, with an unrestrained syncretistic impulse, and an unhealthy measure of sinuous semantics.

The source of many of Blake’s unorthodox musings appears to have been spiritual sources. He reported seeing visions, beginning in his childhood. Apparently, he would sketch the likenesses of spirits that presented themselves to him. At an 1819 séance he saw and communicated with the ghost of a flea (portrayed above).

The British Library offers a brief and informative video about Blake’s spiritual visions which is available here.

He sees angels—they’re angels to him. He sees figures at the window of his bedroom and as life goes on, these visions become more challenging. The old prophets, or Raphael, the painter, or some great figure he wants to discuss things with, appears in his chamber—it’s a kind of séance.

Eventually Blake’s conflated visions of heavenly beings and departed humans, developed into his own peculiar blend of spiritualism. In 1800, he wrote to comfort a friend whose son had died.

I know that our deceased friends are more really with us than when they were apparent to our mortal part. Thirteen years ago I lost a brother, and with his spirit I converse daily and hourly in the spirit, and see him in my remembrance, in the region of my imagination. I hear his advice, and even now write from his dictate.⁑

Despite William Blake’s flaws, C.S. Lewis was capable of appreciating his poetry.

I am just back from my Easter walking tour with Barfield and co., this year in Derbyshire. Have you been there? It is appreciably more like my ideal country than any I have yet been [to].

It is limestone mountains: which means, from the practical point of view, that it has the jagg’d sky lines and deep valleys of ordinary mountainous country, but with this important difference, that owing to the paleness of the rock and the extreme clarity of the rivers, it is light instead of sombre–sublime yet smiling–like the delectable mountains. It gives you something [like] the same sensation as Blake’s songs.

Lewis is referring here to Blake’s collection, Songs of Innocence. From that collection, I particularly enjoy “The Lamb,” which you can read in the footnote section below.⁂

When I previously wrote about C.S. Lewis’ visits to the home of William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), I shared Lewis’ impression of the occultic flavor of the residence. In a 1921 letter to a close friend, Lewis writes the following:

His house is in Broad Street: you go up a long staircase lined with pictures by Blake–chiefly the ‘Book of Job’ and the ‘Paradise Lost’ ones, which thus, en masse, have a somewhat diabolical appearance.

We cannot know exactly which images adorned Yeats’ stairwell, but this sample comes from Blake’s Illustrations of the Book of Job.

Returning to Spiritual Matters

Not only did Blake’s angelic audience laud his work, their praise was so great he could pen this bizarre description of the celestial realms. (How much is irreligious satire, and what part is genuinely inspired by actual visions and belief, remains debatable.)

I am more famed in Heaven for my works than I could well conceive. In my Brain are studies & Chambers filled with books & pictures of old, which I wrote & painted in ages of Eternity before my mortal life; & those works are the delight & Study of Archangels.

Perhaps C.S. Lewis’ most direct response to the confusion promoted by William Blake’s beliefs is found in his classic, The Great Divorce. This illuminating exploration of the gulf between heaven and hell was written, in part, as a response to Blake’s volume, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. But, the comparison between the two requires an examination more than worthy of its independent discussion.

Suffice it here to include an example of Blake’s advocacy for hell. Blake describes a confrontation between “a Devil in a flame of fire, who arose before an Angel that sat on a cloud.” After their brief argument about God, the Angel “stretched out his arms embracing the flame of fire, and he was consumed . . .” That was not his end, however, for Blake adds a “Note.”

This Angel, who is now become a Devil, is my particular friend; we often read the Bible together in its infernal or diabolical sense . . . (William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell).

As noted, the matter of whether Blake’s championing of Satan was sincere or simply an arcane literary device is debatable.⁑⁑ However, his correspondence reveals his belief in the supernatural was certainly genuine.

In the end, there’s no question that C.S. Lewis’ assessment of William Blake was accurate. Unsurprisingly, it is one I share. The poet Blake possessed talent, and some of his poetry is quite good. However, as a theologian, this confused mystic is utterly unreliable.

Of course, Christians may be wrong regarding Blake’s spiritual enlightenment. What if, after all, Blake’s vision of his distinguished reputation with the angelic hosts was not a mere delusion? In the unimaginable possibility that this odd man truly is “famed in Heaven,” you must count me among those due to be the most surprised.  


* Even as he challenged one of Blake’s major works, C.S. Lewis wrote, “if I have written [disagreeing with Blake] this is not because I think myself a fit antagonist for so great a genius . . .”

⁑ Some might contend that Blake is referring here to “imagining” the presence of his brother in some sentimental fashion. That is clearly not the case. The fact that he states his brother is, at that moment, advising him on what to write, is intended to be understood as fact. It should be noted he is not referring to the spiritualist practice of “automatic writing,” which is done in a state of trance or spirit possession. Blake’s description of the process is more that of conversational interaction and “advice.”

⁂ “The Lamb,” by William Blake
Little lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee,
Gave thee life, and bade thee feed
By the stream and o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, woolly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?
   Little lamb, who made thee?
   Dost thou know who made thee?
   Little lamb, I’ll tell thee;
   Little lamb, I’ll tell thee:
He is called by thy name,
For He calls Himself a lamb.
He is meek, and He is mild,
He became a little child,
I a child and thou a lamb,
We are called by His name.
  Little lamb, God bless thee!
   Little lamb, God bless thee!

⁑⁑ Like most literary expressions, Blake’s was likely an amalgam of his beliefs and his fancies. A fascinating article on this subject is Peter A. Schock’s, “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: Blake’s Myth of Satan and Its Cultural Matrix,” published in 1993. Shock says, “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell presents a programmatic expression of [Blake’s] interconnected political, moral and metaphysical thought . . .”

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.