Excerpt from ‘The Personal Heresy’ by C. S. Lewis: The Only Hope for Poetry

landscape-1629977_1280

In this book, chapters alternate in authorship between Lewis and a Dr. E. M. W. Tillyard. It is a debate over the question of whether the poet’s personality is what is expressed in a poem, as poem.

At the end of his last chapter, Lewis decides to explain his views on what poetry actually is – on what the poet is. He does what any good definition writer should do – rather than seeking the highest and most rarified example of what he’s defining, he is careful to draw the boundary so that all genuine members of the group are included.

He says that in his day, there’s a need to move against “poetolatry” which might be defined as a tendency to think and talk about poets and poetry as divine. Or, divin-ish.

He warns that if something isn’t done, poetry will disappear. His manner of bringing poetry back down to earth does not echo Wordsworth’s, whom he accuses of trying to describe poetry in completely non-poetical ways. In other words, he feels that the common reader actually wants to be talked to in an “interesting” way – that is, with a special or poetic diction.

The truth is that the value of literature, as of other utterances, has always been pretty well understood by the great mass of readers. Of any utterance, whether conversational or poetical, our first demand is that it should be interesting. I am afraid we cannot make it more definite than that. It may be interesting for all sorts of reasons; because it is so funny, because it is so true, because it is so unexpected, or because it does just what we were expecting so well, because it carries us away from daily life into such fine regions of fantasy, or because it brings us back to our immediate surroundings with such a home-felt sense of reality. I know that different things interest different people. It cannot be helped. That is interesting simpliciter which interests the wise man. And in the second place, we demand that an utterance, besides entertaining, charming, or exciting us for the moment, should have a desirable permanent effect on us if possible – should make us either happier, or wiser, or better. There is nothing ‘moral’ in the narrower sense about this, though morals come into it. It is all of  piece with what we want in other departments of life: a man wants his food to be nourishing as well as palatable, his games to be healthy as well as enjoyable, his wife to be a good companion and housekeeper as well as a pleasing sexual mate. I conclude, then, that the old critics were perfectly right when they demanded of literature the utile and the dulce, solas and doctryne, pleasure and profit. All attempts to produce a neater or more impressive scheme have, in my opinion, failed. The only two questions to ask about a poem, in the long run, are, firstly, whether it is interesting, enjoyable, attractive, and secondly, whether this enjoyment wears well and helps or hinders you toward all the other things you would like to enjoy, or do, or be.

The value of a poem consisting in what it does to the readers, all questions about the poet’s own attitude to his utterance are irrelevant. The question of his ‘sincerity’ or ‘disinterestedness’ should be for ever banished from criticism. The dyslogistic terms ‘insincere’, ‘spurious’, ‘bogus’, ‘sham’, &c.; are mere emotive noises, signifying that the speaker is unwilling to keep silence, but has not yet discovered what is wrong with the poem. Unable to answer the real question , ‘What, in this series of words, excites a feeling of hostility which prevents enjoyment?’ he invents answers to the irrelevant question, ‘What was the poet’s state of mind when he wrote.?’

The most characteristic contents of literary utterances are stories – accounts of events that did not take place. The primary value of these is that they are interesting. But why they interest, and in what different ways, and what permanent results they produce in the reader, I do not profess to know. Oddly enough, criticism has discussed this very little. Between Aristotle and the modern mythographical school of Miss Maud Bodkin, Professor Wilson Knight, and Professor D. G. James, we find almost nothing. It is in this direction, I suggest, that critical effort can be most profitably expended.

It will be seen that the tendency of my theory is, in some degree, to lower that status of the poet as poet. But that is because I think the only hope for poetry now lies in lowering his status. Unless he speedily returns to the workmanlike humility of his great predecessors and submits to the necessity of interesting and pleasing as a preliminary to doing anything else, the art of poetry will disappear from among us altogether. It may be that in the past we took too little pains to hear the difficult tune that some new poets were playing; but we have now learned our lesson too well. The Ugly Duckling has stuck too deep in our minds, and we are afraid to condemn any abortion lest it should prove in the end to be a swan. It is high time to remember another story in Hans Anderson which teaches a lesson at least equally important. It is called The Emperor’s New Clothes.

– C. S. Lewis

23 thoughts on “Excerpt from ‘The Personal Heresy’ by C. S. Lewis: The Only Hope for Poetry

  1. So do you believe this? ( “The only two questions to ask about a poem, in the long run, are . . .” ) If so, that gives a lot of freedom to the writer of poems–which gives me more confidence– and places the balance of importance on the reader, any reader, however well read. So the, if I write something that C. S. L. might not find interesting but Jack and his gang would, good on me.

    I’m pushing too hard, I know. You understand “interesting” to mean how a poet talks (but not necessarily what he says? I don’t think so) This brings to mind a book I almost worshipped when I first got close to poetry– “How Does a Poem Mean?” By John Ciardi. Years later, however, either I’m going by instinct (learned behavior, more likely) or I’ve given up trying to interest others–except for persons I care about or who care about what and whom I care for .

    Interesting afterthought: I don’t particularly like Lewis’s poems. And some of his writings sound a bit snobbish to me. But I do find interesting what he says about life. Which includes God of course.

    P.S. I just read this from one special online friend, and it clicked. I understand more now about Walter de la Mare, and the possibility of a kind of universal interest. https://gretchenjoanna.com/2016/08/31/my-winding-path-to-the-key/

    Liked by 1 person

      • No, no. I don’t see Jack as a poet. The last sentence of my first paragraph above was should have had a “?” at the end. I’m trying to figure out if there is, or should be an arbiter on these matters. Sometimes it seems like poetry is a series of intellectual sports, each with its own rules. Also I’m afraid I would sound like a very unpopular figure –peripheral, but unforgven –in the history of literature (scripture),, if I asked the question about art, “What is wisdom?”

        Liked by 1 person

    • On the matter of Lewis as poet, I haven’t cared much for his poems either, at least not the ones I’ve encountered, but perhaps I have not found my way to the right ones that would speak to me.

      I think this one reads as rather flat,
      http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/as-the-ruin-falls-2/

      however, I love, love, love this version of it set to music by Phil Keaggy, perhaps because his singing brings the feeling out of the words for me.

      What do you two think? Apologies for taking this slightly off topic!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks for developing this side of the conversation, Leah. It’s an interesting question.

        To be honest, I don’t care for the song. I think he is trying to pull a musicality out of this devotional poem that isn’t there. And I think as well, that you and I are probably alike in avoiding the sort of “woe-is-me, I’m so horrible” spirituality that Lewis indulges in here. He’s basically trying to get at a completely disinterested love of God, and we see him working through that misunderstanding in a lot of his later work. Chesterton describes this approach as basically Puritan, in that excerpt from his work on G. B. Shaw I posted here a while back. And what’s interesting is that Lewis was brought up in the same part of the world as Shaw. Chesterton couldn’t save Shaw, but he helped save Lewis.

        I think C. S. Lewis wrote some very good poems. They tend to be a bit intellectual… perhaps the intention, or the planning side of the intelligence tends to lay too heavy a hand on them. But that doesn’t ruin them all. The workmanship is really good.

        My guess is that the C. S. Lewis poems that people tend to post online are his spiritual/devotional poems. But that was not the main thing Lewis used poetry for. He mainly used it for delight, and that’s where he’s at his best.

        Have you read his Narnia Suite? It’s a fun place to start. They should make not just a song but a whole choral symphony out of that!

        His set of poems about the seven planets will delight anyone who’s dabbled in classical astrology a bit.

        Dymer is fantastic, even though it’s pre-conversion. Any Jungian would be splashing around in it like a child at the seashore, I believe.

        And there are lots of little gems among the whole collection.

        I don’t think his poetry is expensive to get on Amazon. Well, Dymer is hard to get hold of, but his other poems are available on Kindle if I recall.

        Like

    • Albert, you say,

      “You understand “interesting” to mean how a poet talks (but not necessarily what he says? I don’t think so)”

      No, I think what he says comes into it as well! I also think, in the absence of Lewis’ “wise man” that what interests a child is a good guide. In other words, a pure heart matters. It matters in judging what one ought to contemplate, and it matters in being attracted to what one ought to contemplate, and it matters in what happens to people when they contemplate the wrong thing. I was telling Leah, that contemplation is more than just thinking about something. It is a kind of thinking that unites you to what you are thinking about. And that is why St. Paul said (to refer to Gretchenn Joanna’s point) “Whatever is true, lovely and of a good report, think on these things.

      The thing about art is that it is specifically made to involve the thought of the heart – to invite contemplation. That is why, there are things you may read about in the newspaper that you shouldn’t read about it in a poem.

      I think a wise man is a child who has managed to grow up intellectually, without his heart having become darkened through union with evil. Perhaps we could say that contemplation is when the heart, and not just the mind, thinks on something. The mind must think on evil, but the heart must never think on it. “In that day you shall be as gods, knowing good and evil…” (They already knew of evil mentally or there would have been no meaning to assign to the sentence.) So when Eve saw that the fruit was appealing to the eyes and to the taste, she took it. She contemplated the fruit, where before she had merely known it was there.

      St. Theophan tells us that it is easy both to defile and to cleanse the mind. However, if something defiling the mind ever reaches the heart, it is hard to cleanse the heart. It is harder to defile the heart, as well – but also harder to cleanse it.

      My concern is that art provides a short-cut to the heart, making it easier to do things there. To cleanse the heart, meditating on the Psalms is very powerful. Again, this does not mean reasoning about the Psalms… it means drinking them in. I like to do this when half-asleep because it makes it easier to get the eager wagging intellect to lie down and let the heart take over.

      It is hard to talk about these reasons among academic types, because you can’t bring in “the heart.” But I believe the heart is implicated nevertheless. I suppose you will understand, despite your former ties to academia! You are a person with an awakened heart.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Lots to ponder here, Alana. Thank you! I may have some interesting thoughts n response, but they usually don’t come easy, or soon.

        p.s. I severed my cinnection with academia a long time ago. In fact when I finally finished college I ignored an offer to join a PhD program in comparative literature because I ddnt want to live in such an isolated world and try to convince students that libraries were where life is happening. Working in high schools, then with elementary school children, both energized and inspired me. As I told Leah, I would never have tried making art if it weren’t for those young persons I spent my days with.

        Liked by 1 person

          • In this context, and ones like it, I always think of Margaret Schlegel’s advice in the novel Howard’s End by E,M. Forester: “Only Connect!” That phrase was also used as the book’so epigraph, so evidently it summarizes an important concept.

            One of the meanings for Margaret was that of connecting deeply with other persons. I believe that is what makes an essential part of our schooling, no matter the age differences, no matter the titles (teachers/students, children/adults, ) or the catagories (age, youth, social class, sex, level of education/etc.) It’ may be thar the barriers we cross are what free and enlighten us. Simple instance: I never would have discovered religion, as I see it now, had it not been for a connection years later with a former student. Her offhand comment changed my life.

            All of this to say, your work here is a way to foster connection. A true form of learning and growth for all of us. Keep at it. (And by the way, don’t pay attention to rejection slips from editors. Surely you’ve heard the stories about their lack of relevance to the real value of an author’s work.)

            P.S. I just got back from a copy center where I printed out the two essays on Madeleine L Engle and poetry, along with the important comments. While editing those latter — the packet still added up to more than 25 pages, single spaced — I became better acquainted with what wisdom meant to Lewis and now means to you. The whole discussion is, and will continue to be, fascinating.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Now we’re very curious about the former student’s offhand comment.

              As far as rejection slips… well, your comment is timely. So no… I don’t know what they say about their lack of relevance. I’m quite uncertain about the real value of my work. I was telling Leah, I’ve been thinking of giving up writing altogether except as an avenue of fellowship. Thoughts?

              Like

      • This is where I missed the connection that I think you are making about poetry and wisdom: “The mind must think on evil, but the heart must never think on it.” I have read elsewhere, and read again and again, but I still don’t understand about the heart– yet. But I’m working at it.

        Thus it is hard for me to follow how poetry, or art in general, “provides a short-cut to the heart, making it easier to do things there” (bad as well as good, presumeably). For example, I have read Baudelaire’s poems and thought about them, wondering if I were capable of picking the “flowers of evil,” and it was clear to me that I was. So his poems acted on me even more powerfully than the way the holocaust museum in D.C did, .showing not just what all humans are capable of but what I could easily be drawn to. Whenever I read Baudelaire I am warned, chastened. This is not just an intellectual experience. Now I dont want to write poems like that, but it’s not because I couldn’t, or because it wouldn’t cleanse me (i think it might). My heart was darkened a long time ago, I fear. I just don’t want to reveal that in public. But maybe it helps to meet artists who are impelled to do that.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Heart… is the organ of embrace, of knowledge by union.

          Mind… is the organ of distinction, of knowledge by inspection.

          You already do both of these things, but one of them remakes you and the other only remakes your opinions.

          The other point is that the heart is the seat of God. At its deepest point, hard to experience or find, it is a gateway opening on the spiritual world and on the Kingdom of God; dreams and impulses float up from these depths and guide the soul. It is especially harmful and sacrilegious to defile this. People want to say that morality and religion have nothing to do with art. And it’s true that at a certain level they are distinct subjects. However, it is naive to fail to realize that at a certain depth of being, all these things coalesce into a single whole and mix together.

          Flowers of Evil… I really wonder what is meant by that. I mean, the good things that one finds in bad circumstances, perhaps? That would be harmless… But I haven’t really read it. The only one I read was Edna St. Vincent Millay’s translation of The Sun… it went through my mind like a shock because of its similarity to my own poem “At This Hotel.”

          I think I know what you mean by thinking about evil and being warned and chastened. I would not call that ‘contemplation’ in my special sense, even though it is certainly a very wise and deep kind of inspection. I think this is an imaginative activity in which you are actually holding your heart apart from what you are imagining. Certainly we are free to do that no matter what we look at. I usually do it while watching movies because I don’t entirely trust the form. My concerns is that art inherently invites the involvement of the heart, because through the imagination, we come near to things we wouldn’t otherwise encounter, and we vividly experience them at a distance. With that dynamic in mind, why would we want to invite someone to imagine evil, unless we were going to sculpt that imaginative experience to end in a clear difference between good and evil, and an invitation to love what is good and repudiate the evil? That is my concern as an artist.

          An example of inviting a reader to contemplate evil would be if you wrote a serious novel from the perspective of a Holocaust perpetrator, and the novel made people come out feeling that the Holocaust was perfectly understandable and not blame-worthy given the perpetrator’s point of view. That’s the kind of art I hate; it induces union with evil and then the reader is left bewildered about whether it is actually permissible to revile evil actions.

          Like

          • Flowers of Evil… I really wonder what is meant by that” –

            to me it means both the lurking dangers of beauty and the natural appeal of the dark side of life.
            But I have a thought about the example you gave, the hypothetical holocaust novel.

            I think it contrasts with Baudelaire’s work in that his “evil” is private (lust, degradation, loss of virtue, empty values, search for pleasure) but revealed artistically in interpersonal social settings (prostitutes, bars, bleak street scenes). How are these beautiful or in any way appealing is a problem, unless you consider that a great many persons’ lives seem to fall into that pattern, at least for a time, or even vicariously, as in pornography, violent movies, etc. So it’s not the pure evil of Satan or the haulocaust engineers; it’s more the attraction of not being “good.” But again, why make that the subject of art? I suppose the only answer is that it’s not a choice. For some, art seems to be a difficult gift. You don’t select a subject; rather it selects you (I have heard said). In some cases you select a subject but soon it selects a direction and purpose of its own. The next question, why read or study art that does not portray the good, has to be answered by those who have their own need — for confession, say, or for regular reminders.

            I read  Millay’s translation of “The Sun.”  The poem didn’t sound like the Baudelaire who presented his experience of darkness in much of his work  — just the opposite in fact, with the sun and poet making “the man on crutches stump along / As gay as a young girl, humming as sweet a song; / [calling] to the human spirit to climb and ripen still ”

            —  until the final stanza, where the poet “enobles and gives purpose to the least thing.” That may explain why the dark side is worth shedding light upon, even if the enobling is by contrast and only (only?) spiritual.

            I looked for “At This Hotel” but it doesn’t seem to be in the list of poems at the top.

            Like

        • As I continue to think about this, it seems right to clarify the relations between the imagination and the heart, as I see them. I think the imagination is an organ of the soul, while the heart goes deeper than the soul – though the heart also exists on the psychological and physical levels. However, my point is that I am not trying to say that whenever we read imaginative literature, we are therefore reading with the heart. Not at all.

          What I am saying is a bit more complex. Here’s an analogy.

          When we pray while lying down, we usually fall asleep, though it’s possible not to. When we pray while kneeling, we often feel reverence, though it’s possible not to. Pray while standing, and we often do better with attention – though it’s possible not to. In each case, the attitude or posture of the body has a tendency to communicate a corresponding attitude or posture to the soul. This is what I mean by “induce” or “invite.”

          The soul is the body of the spirit, in at least some sense. And so the attitude of the soul can invite or induce the spirit to a corresponding attitude, though vastly subtler and more profound. When we imagine, we are entering a psychological attitude which makes distant things near. We close with something mentally, that before had been distant to our inner vision.

          As I say, this invites or induces the spirit to the corresponding action of spiritual union through embrace of the heart. It’s possible not to, but that is the tendency.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Correction: 46 pages, and all paragraphs in the comment section realigned with standard margins!

    P.S. picked up from the local library today: “Pomes All Sizes” By J.K.
    (thought you’d want to know)

    Also, “The Ordering of Love” — such a lovely little big book,
    as if the better to hide in my man bag.

    Kidding! I’m going to carry it around in the car so when I’m waiting to pick up my granddaughter Gracie from high school I can display it on the windshield for the kids to see as they spill out the doors laughing or sighing in in relief. The photographon on the cover is calming, and the book itself is really nice to hold. Appearances are important when it comes to certain books. In this one the pages are made to look somewhat faded, and the edges are slightly rough and irregular, as if hand-cut. I won’t try reading the poems aloud to Gracie (she’s both too old and too young for that), but maybe just seeing a book like this in my hand or nearby will register later.

    Oh and four books by W. de la M., three with intriguing titles or subtitles, like . . . well, you know.

    (I had to tell someone, and there’should nobody awake here to listen. It’s like watching a grand sunset by yourself. Or, as I am doing now, trying to decipher the language or songs of the crickets outside my window.) Thanks again for the references!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Alana, I’ve been thinking

    About the student’s comment: “My church is very strict, but with amazing freedoms.” How could anyone not want to follow up on that? Since she wouldn’t explain, it was left to me to investigate. (She had become a successful teacher herself, I can see now; she understood the importance of inquiry.)
    About rejection slips and the idea of “giving up writing” : I worked on a comment, then set it aside, having just came across this by Madeleine L’Elengle, “Whether the story [or poem] be marketed for grown-ups or for children, the writer writes for himself, out of his own need” *

    If you cannot not write, then you will carry on. If you want a public audience, then you do the work of selling yourself–and you find magazines which publish the kinds of poems that speak to you. You read them regularly, maybe write to the editors, let them know why you think your work will fit into their projects. It’s the business of writing. Not fun, but important. But most important, you surround yourself (as it were) with persons who share your views and can both challenge and inspire you,

    unless you are satisfied, as I have become, to share your poems privately and in like-hearted settings or contexts.

    All the best,

    from “Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art”

    Liked by 1 person

      • Do you know this one? https://imagejournal.org/journal/

        As a starter, I’ll bet they would be interested in your reflections on Madeleine L’ Engle’s poetry. Even if they don’t publish an edited or revised version of it , they will get to know your name, so that when you submit poems, they would likely read them more carefully. It always helps to have an “in.” Why, simply referencing( in a cover letter or an inquiry) Eclectic Orthodoxy’s posting your work should get their attention.

        I haven’t been reading journals recently, so it may take time for me to come up with other places to submit. I have a friend from church who reads quite a lot. I’ll ask him for suggestions.

        The important thing is to be patient, and not let a no-response (which is even worse than a rejection slip) discourage you. Think of it as a job. Direct mail advertisers consider a 2% response rate is acceptable. From that point of reference, if you queried or submitted to 100 publications, you might feel OK about two acceptances. Believe it or not, that seems to be how the very successful poet William Stafford got started and continued to work. I used to attend local readings by visiting poets–another idea for you to consider if you live near a universiry–and I heard him describe a simple system of preparing packets for submission to magazines. When the poems would come back with a rejection slip he would switch envelopes and send them on again, sort of a round robin of poetry. I’m pretty sure he was exaggerating to make a point. But still . . .

        Of course if you had contacts, like the persons who attend or graduate from the University of Iowa creative writing program, or similar programs and workshops, you would expect to get lots of responses. That’s how the system works, as I assume you know. On the bright side, your skill as an essay writer might open doors that poetry alone couldn’t. So as a practical matter, I’d suggest writing to Pegg Rosenthal – https://imagejournal.org/2016/08/09/fit-for-immortality/ She selects poems to post every Friday. Tell her your story and ask for advice.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I know it a bit. I could write the sort of essay they are looking for. It seems a bit dreary but maybe worth it to get a foothold. Anyhow, thanks for the suggestion. I daresay it’s the right one.

          Like

Chime In!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s