art reading writing

Almost Plagiarizing C.S. Lewis, Art

This past two weeks I’ve reread Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer—I read it the first time in a public library, I think in high school—and finished C.S. Lewis’s narrative poems (I’d read Dymer and the Launcelot before but stalled out before The Nameless Isle and The Queen of Drum).

A few notes from Letters to Malcolm:

1. I loved Lewis’s way of turning all pleasure into adoration. This is a really, really lovely idea.

2. An outtake I’d been proud of (a passage that never made it into Duessa, which I posted here back when I started blogging) turned out to be very nearly plagiarized from this book. When I write something that strikes me as good and comes easily I should always ask whether it’s really mine.

In the passage I unwittingly copied, Lewis discusses how abstract statements about God are just as metaphorical as supposedly “naive” metaphors (such as “God lives in the sky and has a beard”) and how the naive metaphors are less dangerous. He quotes and alters Blake, commenting that while “to generalize” is not necessarily “to be an idiot” it is certainly “to be a finite mind”; all abstraction, he claims, is metaphorical.

3. Some of what CSL does with prayer is something I want to try to do with art: Try to get in touch with or come to terms with reality (or, in my case, uncertainty about reality)—where reality means not the shapes life usually takes in our minds but whatever lies beneath, understandable only (as Duessa discovers and Lewis observes) through metaphor, whether that metaphor be the language of abstract mathematics or pillars of light or sumptuous bedrooms.

Meanwhile, I learned (from The Collected Poetry of C.S. Lewis, which I just checked out from a local university library) that in his youth, before his conversion, Lewis wanted to be a great poet with single-minded passion. I feel frustrated and sad on his behalf. But I agree with the rest of posterity that Lewis’s prose is much, much more powerful than his poetry. I suspect some of this is my general philistinism—in An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis suggests that the unliterary reader wants a cliche to evoke feelings whereas the literary reader wants either more, better, more interesting description—or less. Lewis may, in these poems, offer “less,” and I’m not imaginative enough for that “less” to strike sparks. (I think this is a problem with me and George MacDonald too; MacDonald’s fairy tales have certainly stuck with me, but they catch and move me much, much less than Lewis’s prose or much contemporary genre fiction does because they all seem to flow in a vague, toothless dream). I suspect, too, that much of my objection to Lewis’s poems is that I know he was writing in the twentieth century, so I come expecting certain kinds of austerity and strangeness that aren’t there. I wish I could read him while genuinely mistaking him for a Romantic poet, because I think I might just like him enormously if I did. But I feel at least some small amount of faith that posterity and my instincts are right—C.S. Lewis’s poetry is….meh.

The Queen of Drum was my favorite poem in the book, and I especially liked the beginning, but the Christianity felt pasted-on in a way it rarely does in Lewis’s writing—I think, perhaps, because a significant part of his (and the reader’s) heart gets invested in the Queen’s view of things and because God is asking her to value her wild fae passion differently or less, rather than seeming (as God often does in Lewis’s writing, though I recognize it’s more complex really) to embody it. I finish the poem feeling, at least, more on her side rather than the Archbishop’s, and suspect that—perhaps—Lewis did too. I think that the Queen of Drum embodies a temptation, or what Lewis takes for a temptation, that is much more alluring to him than some of the others he takes on in his fiction. I think I, unlike Lewis’s editor, want The Queen of Drum to be longer and develop the situation more fully. I want a fuller emotional picture of the Archbishop and all he stands for—I want to see more of the glories of humility and obedience (not that it isn’t there—it just doesn’t feel real and organic enough). I want to see living thought on the topic. The passion associated with this conflict seems to me one that could yield a shattering poem and instead it makes merely an uncomfortable one. And, less philosophically, I want to know what becomes of Drum under the usurping general.

In the meantime, I am working on a wheel for my wordless June-themed Evernost zine:


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