Archives For T.S. Eliot

If you were to embark on a university education today, which sort of campus would you prefer?

(1) A university featuring “vaulted ceilings that draw the eye upwards and outwards . . . the frivolous artistic detail that announces the importance of the unimportant [or] the interplay of light and shade that marks the great Gothic masterpieces, the brilliant proportions of the best classical buildings, and the elaborate grandeur of the Baroque.”

(2) A modern campus comprised of “buildings entirely lacking in charm, grace, or playfulness [featuring] the boxy utilitarian grimness of official educational architecture.”

A second question clearly betrays my own preference. Which academic setting do you imagine C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and their fellow Inklings would most esteem? Tolkien, after all, was not complaining in a letter to his future bride when he wrote “I have got to go to the college library now and get filthy amongst dusty books . . .”

The quotations included in the choices above come from a thought-provoking essay just posted on the website of First Things. The British writer, Niall Gooch, melds wit and genuine insight as he offers an answer to the question “Why are Universities So Ugly?” I highly commend it to you.

Libraries are of particular interest to many of us who treasure the Inkling ethos. And the article includes a delightful discussion of the treasure houses “now called ‘Information Centers’ or ‘Knowledge Hubs.’”

Books increasingly appear to be an afterthought, squeezed into the small spaces not occupied by banks of computers or the glass rooms designated as group work areas. Quiet has been banished to special Silent Study rooms, where those dangerous oddballs who wish to sit still by themselves and concentrate on one thing for a long period can be safely segregated from the normal people.

Inkling Libraries at Cambridge and Oxford

In 1959, C.S. Lewis wrote to T.S. Eliot. Both men served on the Commission to Revise the Psalter. Lewis mentions that he will be hosting an upcoming meeting of the Commission at Cambridge, and that he had secured one of the libraries for their use.

I can’t find the name and address of the secretary of our Commission on the Psalms. As you are in London could you kindly let her know that I have rescued the use of the inner library at Magdalene for our July session? It would be convenient if she told me – for the benefit of the servants – what our daily hours of sitting are likely to be. I also look forward to it.

Although Magdalene College has a distinguished history, it too has joined the revolution offering more contemporary Information Centers. They proudly declare “The New Library is . . . a purpose-built space in College for Magdalene students to meet, work, relax and find inspiration.”

As for the “Inner Library,” to which Lewis referred, I believe it to be what is presently called “The Old Library.” It fittingly includes among its special collections, “the books and manuscripts of T.S. Eliot (Honorary Fellow).”

A revealing history of “The Architectural Evolution of Libraries” begins with the question: “Can you have a civilized society without a library?”

In this article, we trace the typology of the library through history, highlighting twelve of the most important libraries in the world, from Ancient Alexandria to Raleigh, North Carolina, where robots retrieve books from storage.

A fitting close to our consideration of libraries comes from a letter written by J.R.R. Tolkien in 1966. The English Faculty of Oxford University had commissioned a bust of Tolkien – to be sculpted by his daughter-in-law. It presently resides in the English Faculty Library, which undoubtedly displays the elegant architecture of the classical university.

I feel much honoured, and so also does my daughter-in-law (the sculptress), by the Faculty’s wish to place the bust of me in the English Library in some prominent position – if on second thoughts you do not think a storied urn would be better. I shall be most pleased to present it to the Faculty.

It occurs to me that the plaster bust is rather fragile and very easily damaged. I suggest, therefore, that I should have it cast in bronze for presentation (at my own cost). I have already referred the matter to the sculptress who knows how these things are done.

Once in bronze it would then be unaffected by any dignities or indignities offered to it. I often used to hang my hat on the Tsar of Russia’s bust, which he graciously presented to Merton.


The illustration accompanying today’s post is the bust of Tolkien referred to in his correspondence. (In light of this column’s discussion, one can hardly ignore the rather utilitarian architecture revealed through the window behind the celebrated author.)

When do you feel closest to God? When you’ve been about holy business all day and are now praying at your bedside? Or, when everything in your life seems to have imploded, and you look about you helplessly, with nowhere else to turn than your heavenly Father?

In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis provides a brilliant insight into the nature of our souls.

Man approaches God most nearly when he is in one sense least like God. For what can be more unlike than fullness and need, sovereignty and humility, righteousness and penitence, limitless power and cry for help?

This rings true as I ponder my own spiritual pilgrimage. Tribulation and suffering clear my vision of material distractions in a way that allows me to recognize more vividly my need for God’s grace. And, in relying more consciously on his mercy and compassion, I draw closer to my Lord.

It’s no accident, in my opinion, that among the Psalms of David most treasured by God’s people, are those in which he cries out to the Lord for deliverance and salvation. Verses where David places no trust in his own strength or even in God’s previous beneficence. Poetry where this anointed king acknowledges that even the drawing of his next breath depends wholly on the providence of his Creator.

Seven of David’s songs are traditionally identified as the Penitential Psalms.* The great Saint Augustine’s regard for these Psalms is revealed in the manner in which he spent his final days.

As Augustine lay dying . . . he ordered those psalms of David which are especially penitential to be copied out [for example, “Have mercy on me according to thy steadfast love . . . For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me,” Psalm 51], and when he was very weak, he used to lie in bed facing the wall where the sheets of paper were put up, gazing at them and reading, and copiously and continually weeping as he read (Robert Wilken, The First Thousand Years).

Like this ancient saint, C.S. Lewis knew the Psalms – and the English language – intimately. This led to his appointment to a distinguished “Committee to Revise the Psalter” for the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Joint service on this committee facilitated the healing of a previously strained relationship with the poet T.S. Eliot.

Lewis had largely taken on this task in order to discourage revisions, since he thought the Miles Coverdale version that had been in use for four hundred years more than adequate.

His opinion was shared by another member of the committee, T.S. Eliot, whom Lewis finally got to know. (They had met only once, very briefly, in the forties, though they had corresponded for a while about Charles Williams after their mutual friend’s death.)

The two men got along very well indeed; bygones could at last be bygones, it seems. (The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis)

One of C.S. Lewis’ books is devoted to his thoughts about various themes in the Psalms. One such theme is judgment.

The “just” judge, then, is primarily he who rights a wrong in a civil case. He would, no doubt, also try a criminal case justly, but that is hardly ever what the Psalmists are thinking of. Christians cry to God for mercy instead of justice;’ they cried to God for justice instead of injustice. The Divine Judge is the defender, the rescuer. (Reflections on the Psalms)

In the introduction to this work, Lewis explains, “This is not a work of scholarship. I am no Hebraist, no higher critic, no ancient historian, no archaeologist. I write for the unlearned about things in which I am unlearned myself.” This, readers, is not false humility. It’s the real thing.

One of his most valuable observations comes in the following passage:

What must be said, however, is that the Psalms are poems, and poems intended to be sung: not doctrinal treatises, nor even sermons. Those who talk of reading the Bible “as literature” sometimes mean, I think, reading it without attending to the main thing it is about; like reading Burke with no interest in politics, or reading the Aeneid with no interest in Rome. That seems to me to be nonsense.

But there is a saner sense in which the Bible, since it is after all literature, cannot properly be read except as literature; and the different parts of it as the different sorts of literature they are. Most emphatically the Psalms must be read as poems; as lyrics, with all the licences and all the formalities, the hyperboles, the emotional rather than logical connections, which are proper to lyric poetry.

They must be read as poems if they are to be understood; no less than French must be read as French or English as English. Otherwise we shall miss what is in them and think we see what is not (Reflections on the Psalms).

In C.S. Lewis’ monumental study of English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Excluding Drama), Lewis does not discuss the Psalms per se. He does, however, refer to them as the occasional subjects of Renaissance writers.

The most interesting such discussion involves John Fisher (1469-1535), a Roman Catholic bishop who was executed by Henry VIII. Fisher was a scholar, whose works included Commentary on the Seven Penitential Hymns.⁑

His vernacular works include devotional treatises – a Consolation to his sister and The Ways to Perfect Religion – and sermons, a series on the Penitential Psalms, funeral orations for Henry VII, and for the Countess of Richmond, and the famous sermon against [Martin] Luther in 1521.

Fisher’s style is grave and a little diffuse, never comic (though the pulpit then admitted that excellence), mildly rhetorical, and at times really eloquent. . . . His chief weakness is that he is too leisurely he is in no hurry to end a sentence or to let an idea go. . . .

Some of the medieval sweetness and richness still hangs about the prose of Fisher . . . but for our present purpose he matters less as a literary figure than as a convenient representative of the religion in possession at the very beginning of the English Reformation. He was a bishop and died for his faith. In him we ought to find what men like Tyndale were attacking. It was not in all respects what they imagined it to be. The Pelagianism of which they implicitly accused the Roman Church is, like the antinomianism of which the Papists accused them, a figment of controversy.

Some of Fisher’s statements seem, at least to a layman, to be very close to Tyndale’s own, as when Fisher writes: ‘From the eyen of almyghty God whiche may be called his grace shyneth forth a meruaylous bryghtnes lyke as the beme that cometh from the sonne. And that lyght of grace stereth and setteth forthwarde the soules to brynge forth the fruyte of good werkes.’ (Sermon on Psalm xxxii)

And again, on Psalm li, ‘no creature of himself hath power to do good werkes without the grace and help of God’ What Tyndale would have regarded as the cloven hoof appears chiefly when Fisher is talking of penance By penance, on his view, sinners can ‘make due satysfacion’ so as to be ‘clene out of dette’ (Sermon on Psalm xxxii), and so ‘mstyfyed by the sacrament of penaunce’ that ‘God can ask no more of them’ (ibid). . . .

One merit, very unusual in that age, Fisher can claim he is hardly at all scurrilous. His attack on Luther is not, indeed, masked under those forms of politeness which are usual between theological (though not between political) opponents today. But there is hardly any real abuse, compared with More, or even with Tyndale, Fisher is almost courteous.

Many readers of Mere Inkling already possess a high regard for the Psalms. In light of the affection felt for them by saints (including C.S. Lewis) for millennia, perhaps those who do not yet appreciate them, will reconsider their appraisals.


* They are Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143. The opening of the first expresses a theme common to all: “O Lord, rebuke me not in your anger, nor discipline me in your wrath” (ESV).

Likewise, the beginning of Psalm 130: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord! O Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy!” (ESV).

⁑ You can download John Fisher’s Commentary in two volumes at no cost, from Internet Archive (1 and 2).

Renaissance Fashions

Although it does not relate to the topic of this post directly, the following information from the “Medieval Manuscripts Blog” of the British Library is quite interesting. It describes “Girdle Books,” which frequently included selections from the Psalms.

In the 16th century, it became fashionable for aristocratic women to wear miniature prayer books bound in elaborate metalwork covers hanging from their girdles (i.e. belts). These girdle books provided them with handy reading material as well as fashionable dress accessories, allowing them to display their literacy and piety to the world.

The images on the page are fascinating. Of special historical interest is one that once belonged to Anne Boleyn (shown above), a gift from her murderous husband.

A particularly luxurious example is a girdle book with covers of gold filigree . . . It contains selected Psalms in English verse, translated and apparently written out by John Croke, one of Henry VIII’s clerks in Chancery, with a portrait of Henry VIII at the beginning.

The volume is traditionally thought to have belonged to Anne Boleyn, who is said to have handed it to one of her maids of honour when she was standing on the scaffold before her execution in 1536.

The Artistry of Nature

September 1, 2016 — 7 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.