Archives For T.S. Eliot

The Artistry of Nature

September 1, 2016 — 5 Comments

flamingoes
This picture of flamingos is delightful. That they “randomly” arranged themselves into a silhouette of themselves is amazing. Or, perhaps a divine hand painted this glorious portrait?

“What a fanciful thought,” poets muse.

“How absurd!” atheists groan.

“Is he serious?” realists wonder.

“Now that’s something to ponder…” people of faith think.

“Of course God has fashioned nature’s beauties with his hands,” the eremite smiles.

I happen to believe God was speaking literally when he said through the Psalmist:

For every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the hills, and all that moves in the field is mine (Psalm 50).

It was on the fifth day of creation that the Lord spoke into existence for the first time “every winged bird according to its kind.”

And God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth” (Genesis 1:22).

And, to reveal God’s concern for the creatures he has made did not end with their genesis, allow me one more biblical citation . . . a familiar one. In reminding us of how precious we are to our Father, Jesus describes that God’s concern extends even to the least of his creation.

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father (Matthew 10:29).

C.S. Lewis touches on the preciousness of creation in a 1956 letter to one of his regular correspondents.

I think God wants us to love Him more, not to love creatures (even animals) less. We love everything in one way too much (i.e. at the expense of our love for Him) but in another way we love everything too little. No person, animal, flower, or even pebble, has ever been loved too much—i.e. more than every one of God’s works deserves (Letters to an American Lady).

Now, does God’s concern for his creatures, in this case flamingoes, mean that he takes the time to direct their flight, their nesting, and the shape of their earthly “congregations?” Of course not. But even in saying that, it is wise to note that if he chose to do so, he could. And there are, of course, some scriptural examples of his using animals in specific ways.

It’s possible, and even likely, that this was a mere coincidence. Like the clouds whose shapes sometimes mirror actual things, even in minute detail. While there are rather odd people who believe cloud shapes can foretell the future, I don’t believe there are any Christians who would base their decisions upon the physical arrangements of a flock, colony, gaggle, or flamboyance (with is fancy name for a group of flamingos).

That said, I still believe that the divine Artist is not above occasionally enjoying some playfulness with the tapestry he has fashioned here on earth, and in the heavens.

Lewis & Flamingos

On 12 July 1956, C.S. Lewis attended a garden party at Buckingham Palace hosted by Queen Elizabeth II. Below you will find excerpts from two letters mentioning the subject. They were written to Ruth Pitter (1897-1992), a well-regarded poet with whom Lewis enjoyed a strong friendship.

Lewis wondered if she might be attending the same event, and suggested they might accompany one another, if so. Less than a week later, following the event, he shares with her his delightful observations of the teeming gathering.

Dear Ruth

Do you play croquet with the Queen on Thursday? (Croquet is not mentioned in the invitation but I am well-read enough to know that a royal garden party will involve hedgehogs, flamingos, soldiers, Heads-man, and the grin of a Cheshire cat). If so are you coming via Oxford? I was thinking of going up by 1.58 and returning by the 6.45 or 7.35 on either of which we could dine. You are an experienced courtier and it would give me great moral support to arrive in your company!

Apparently Pitter was not in attendance at this particular outing, also she had been the first woman to receive the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry the previous year. Two decades later the Queen would appoint her a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for her contributions to English literature. Two days after the extravaganza, Lewis wrote again.

Dear Ruth

You were well out of it. I learn from the papers that I was one of 8000 guests and also that the Queen was present, a fact of which I had no evidence from my own experience. One could not even get a cup of tea for the crowd round the refreshment tables was reminiscent of Liverpool Street station on an August bank holiday. Most people didn’t know one another. One saw many married couples pathetically keeping up between themselves a dialogue which was obviously wearing very thin. If I hadn’t run across Archbishop Matthew I’d have been in a vast solitude.

There are flamingoes: metal silhouettes of them round the lake—a tasteful device which we perhaps owe to Prince Albert. In a word, it was simply ghastly. Two pints at the little pub on Praed St. were necessary afterwards.

A Postscript on Pitter

Ruth Pitter was a talented poet, but because she was a traditionalist—something quite agreeable to Lewis—she has not been accorded the respect she merits. One scholar who published her letters in 2014 writes:

Pitter, in contrast to T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and W.H. Auden, is a traditional poet in the line of George Herbert, Thomas Treharne, Thomas Hardy, A.E. Housman, W.B. Yeats, and Philip Larkin. Unlike the modernists, she rarely experiments with meter or verse form, nor does she explore modernist themes or offer critiques of modern English society.

Instead, she works with familiar meters and verse forms, and her reluctance to alter her voice to follow in the modernist line explains in part why critics have overlooked her poetry. She is not trendy, avant-garde, nor, thankfully, impenetrable.

As mentioned above, their friendship was deep. Lewis’ friend George Sayer says Lewis once volunteered that if he had not been a confirmed bachelor, Pitter was just the sort of woman to whom he could be happily married.

They influenced one another professionally, sharing poetic advice and critique. Pitter also attributed her spiritual reawakening, her conversion to Christianity, to Lewis’ influence. In 1948 she wrote to a friend:

Did I tell you I’d taken to Christianity? Yes, I went & got confirmed a year ago or more. I was driven to it by the pull of C. S. Lewis and the push of misery. Straight prayer book Anglican, nothing fancy . . . I realize what a tremendous thing it is to take on, but I can’t imagine turning back. It cancels a great many of one’s miseries at once, of course: but it brings great liabilities, too.

In 1985 she wrote to a correspondent about the same subject.

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.

Since we have been introduced to this unique woman now, it’s fitting to close with one of her poems. A poem inspired by another of the avian wonders created by our artistic God.

stormcock

Stormcock in Elder

In my dark hermitage, aloof

From the world’s sight and the world’s sound,

By the small door where the old roof

Hangs but five feet above the ground,

I groped along the shelf for bread

But found celestial food instead:

For suddenly close at my ear,

Loud, loud and wild, with wintry glee,

The old unfailing chorister

Burst out in pride of poetry;

And through the broken roof I spied

Him by his singing glorified.

Scarcely an arm’s-length from the eye,

Myself unseen, I saw him there;

The throbbing throat that made the cry,

The breast dewed from the misty air,

The polished bill that opened wide

And showed the pointed tongue inside;

The large eye, ringed with many a ray

Of minion feathers, finely laid,

The feet that grasped the elder-spray;

How strongly used, how subtly made

The scale, the sinew, and the claw,

Plain through the broken roof I saw;

The flight-feathers in tail and wing,

The shorter coverts, and the white

Merged into russet, marrying

The bright breast to the pinions bright,

Gold sequins, spots of chestnut, shower

Of silver, like a brindled flower.

Soldier of fortune, northwest Jack,

Old hard-times’ braggart, there you blow

But tell me ere your bagpipes crack

How you can make so brave a show,

Full-fed in February, and dressed

Like a rich merchant at a feast.

One-half the world, or so they say,

Knows not how half the world may live;

So sing your song and go your way,

And still in February contrive

As bright as Gabriel to smile

On elder-spray by broken tile.

_____

The Bible verses quotes above are taken from the ESV, the English Standard Version.

The “stormcock” in whose humble honor Pitter dedicates this poem is also called the Mistle Thrush. Its informal nickname arises from its eagerness to sing its songs in every sort of weather.

Poetry for Geeks

November 15, 2013 — 6 Comments

csl ipadThe word “Geeks,” we know, is no longer an insult. It often refers to those über-intelligent folks who author the invisible “codes” that make computer software work.

Their mystical incantations make the modern world go round.

Two years ago some creative programmers decided to invent a new genre of poetry. It’s called “code poetry,” and they’ve published a collection entitled code {poems}.

It’s an intriguing genre, but the examples I’ve read suggest that you need to have at least an elementary understanding of programming languages to truly appreciate the poems. Consider “Dailygrind.”

DAILYGRIND

by Paul Illingworth (// Java)

import java.util.Date;

public class DailyGrind {



   public static final void main(String[] args) {



        boolean its_time_to_go_home = false;


         boolean away_the_hours = true;



        while (away_the_hours) {



              Date now = new Date();


               its_time_to_go_home = now.getHours() > 17


                         && now.getMinutes() > 30;



              if (its_time_to_go_home) {


                   break;


               }

        

      try {


                   Thread.sleep(60000);


               } catch (InterruptedException e) {


                   // ignore


               }


          }


     }


}

As I understand it, the code needs to (1) be functional (i.e. it has to actually work on a computer), and to (2) possess a lyrical essence.

Boasting no programming skills, I find it rather confusing. Then again, I’ve been confused by other examples of atypical poetry. I guess I’m a poor judge on the matter.

C.S. Lewis, on the other hand, was an expert on nearly all things literary. Although he died before the development of the internet, I would be curious to see how he would measure this novel approach to verse.

Although he was little praised for his poetic forays, Lewis penned a number of poems. Some are sprinkled throughout his writings, and others were compiled after his passing by Walter Hooper. The collection Poems is quite enjoyable. And Hooper’s preface to the collection is very informative.

He relates a delightful example of Lewis’ poetic admission that he found a particular poetic image particularly inappropriate.

The fact that he did not publish these poems during his lifetime suggests that Lewis was hesitant about their publication. He knew his poems were very unlike most contemporary verse. Because of this, he could not be certain of the reaction of his readers. The answer is not far to seek. In the poem, “A Confession,” Lewis says with ironical disappointment:

I am so coarse, the things the poets see

Are obstinately invisible to me.

For twenty years I’ve stared my level best

To see if evening—any evening—would suggest

A patient etherized upon a table;

In vain. I simply wasn’t able.

Lewis found Mr Eliot’s comparison of an evening to a patient on an operating table unpleasant, one example of the decay of proper feelings. He mistrusted, in fact, the free play of mere immediate experience. He believed, rather, that man’s attitudes and actions should be governed by, what he calls in the same poem, Stock Responses (e.g. love is sweet, death bitter, and virtue lovely).

Man must, for his own safety and pleasure, be taught to copy the Stock Responses in hopes that he may, by willed imitation, make the proper responses. He found this perfectly summed up in Aristotle’s “We learn how to do things by doing the things we are learning to do.”

Returning to the question of what Lewis might have thought of code poetry, I suspect he would be just as mystified as I am. Still, depending on how each individual poem resonates with the stock responses to which Hooper alludes . . . perhaps Lewis would embrace some of them as worthy expressions of a genuinely poetic heart.

_____

The T.S. Eliot poem to which Lewis was responding, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” was published in 1915. If you are up to the challenge of interpreting it, you can read it here.