'C. S. Lewis Overflow'
Kennedy's latest book is The Everything Guide to
C.S. Lewis and Narnia, due in stores in March 2008, from Adams Media, F&W
Publications. This series of articles is thinking inspired by readings in Lewis's
work that didn't fit into the book.
Click here for a list of all articles in the C.S. Lewis Overflow series.
from the Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume 1
Edited by Walter Hooper,
Harper SanFrancisco, 2004
1027 | November 21 2007
After eleven weeks, I have finished reading
the first volume of Lewis's letters and this week and for the next three or more
weeks I'll share the passages I marked for further reference, with any comments
that come to mind. Some of these are self-explaining. Some seem to foreshadow
positions Jack (as C. S. Lewis signed virtually all of the letters in this first
volume) continued to champion for the rest of his life, like the fourth paragraph
below critical of "modern education." But more of them show a somewhat self-centered
and self-important youth, as Jack himself says in discussing the early letters
to his friend Arthur Greeves in one of the closing letters in this first volume
of the three collected volumes of correspondence. Some are items that reveal either
strengths or chinks in his character or that seem inconsistent with the character
we've come to know in the half-century since his death. And some, like the first
one, are just informational tidbits that may have come from Jack or his quotation
of others, or footnotes by the collection editor, Walter Hooper. Some are definitions
of terms Jack uses that weren't clear to me when I first read them. Arthur, of
course, is Arthur Greeves; "Papy" is Jack's father, Albert Lewis, and Warnie is
his brother, Warren. This covers only the first one-third of the more than 1000
Sir Walter Raleigh (1851-1922) was the first Professor of English
at Oxford (1904) p vii.
"I was acquainted with the theory of essay writing,
in however crude a form, at an age when most boys hardly know the meaning of the
word." To Papy, 8/7/13, p 28. Goes on to describe the Irish as "a race rich in
literary feeling and mastery of their own tongue." Dundela (the suburb of Belfast
the family lived in) and "Leeborough" (Jack's and Warnie's nickname for their
house, Little Lea) breathed a unique "literary ether."
dictu, Latin, "Wonderful to relate," footnote p 37.
From Malvern College,
February 1914, to Papy: "How can people advocate a 'modern' education? What could
be better or more enjoyable than reading the greatest masterpieces of all time,
under a man who has made them part of himself?" p. 49.
Though they were not
yet fast friends, Jack wrote a lengthy letter to Arthur Greeves from Malvern College
on June 5, 1914 (age 15), p. 58.
"...to come to my point: the great revelation
of the book [The Upton Letters] is the statement made somewhere that we
'ought not to write about our actions but about our thoughts.' How wonderfully
true...." To Papy, June 22, 1914, p 61.
After forming the bond of their
friendship, the first letter to Arthur was September 26, 1914, from Great Bookham,
p 70. "In Greek, I have started to read Homer's Iliad...." p. 71.
A rare expression
of specific political opinion: to Papy, November 3, 1914, regarding the forced
resignation of a Royal Navy officer because of his German background: "because
a number of ignorant and illiterate clods (who have no better employment than
that of abusing their betters) so choose, he must resign. This is what comes of
letting a nation be govered by 'the people.' 'Vox populi, vox Diaboli,' we might
say, reversing an old but foolish proverb," p 88. Vox Diaboli would be the voice
of the Devil.
"It is the immemorial privilege of letter-writers to commit
to paper things they would not say: to write in a more grandiose manner than that
in which they speak: and to enlarge upon feelings which would be passed by unnoticed
in conversation." To Arthur, November 10, 1914, p 91.
D'Arthur...is really the English national epic...." to Arthur, November
17, 1914, p 94.
"Morte D'Arthur...is really the greatest thing
I've ever read." To Arthur, February 2, 1915, p 104.
"proseur," p 106,
= a pretentious word for a writer of prose, especially artful prose (?) p 106.
The "n-word," to Papy, February 13, 1915, p 107.
P. 115, Jack wrote "The Hills
of Down," a poem about County Down, Ireland, in 1915. It appears in his Collected
Poems (1994), p 115.
"I don't really quite understand good painting,"
to Arthur (who was an aspiring artist at the time and sold paintings later on),
"It is hot as our future home down below, here," to Arthur,
May 15, 1915, p. 123.
"I like sleeping late," to Arthur, p. 133.
"...at sixteen we will do much for excitement, a new experience," to
Papy, July 28, 1915, p 140.
"...as the greater includes the less, the
passion of a great mind includes all the qualities of the passion of a small one."
To Arthur, October 12, 1915, p 146.
Note on p 148: William H.F. "Bill" Patterson...wrote
A Glossary of Words in Use in the Counties of Antrim and Down (1888) [and
he] was addicted to puns and was a recognized Strandtown wit. Jack calls him "a
joy for ever, is he not? to himself."
"Kipling is one of those writers
who has the misfortune in common with Longfellow, of always being known and liked
for his worst works." To Papy, November 11, 1915, p 149.
Though he became
known as an opponent of free verse, Jack refers in a letter to Papy of November
15, 1915, to "the excellent blank verse poem...." (Blank verse, developed in the
Italian Renaissance, has rhythm but no rhyme; free verse, a twentieth century
innovation, has neither rhythm or rhyme.)
"I think my new 'find' is quite
as good as Malory or Morris himself. The book, to get to the point, is George
Macdonald's 'Faerie Romance,' Phantastes, which I picked up ...last Saturday...whatever
book you are reading now, you simply MUST get this at once...." To Arthur,
March 7, 1916, p 169-70.
"Perhaps one of these days you may even make
a Christian of me." Op. cit., p. 171.
"Don't you loathe 'funny' poetry?"
To Arthur, March 14, 1916, p 173. (John Whitcomb Riley?)
"Isn't it funny
the way some combinations of words can give youalmost apart from their meaninga
thrill like music? It is because I know that you can feel this magic of words
AS words that I do not despair of teaching you to appreciate poetry: or rather
to appreciate all good poetry, as you now appreciate some." To Arthur, March
21, 1916, p 175.
"Terreauty (a word I've coined to mean terror and beauty)...."
op. cit., p 176.
"...the worst of a book with a plot is that when the
plot is over, the obvious 'fixing up' is desperately tedious." To Arthur,
May 30, 1916, p 186.
"I came on a phrase in Maeterlinck the other day
which just suits my views about youth and silly scientific learning. 'L'ignorance
lumineuse de la jeunese,' the luminous ignorance of youth is exactly our strong
point, isn't it?" To Arthur, June 6, 1916, p 190.
"It doesn't matter
what we write (at least this is my view) at our age, so long as we write continually
as well as we can. I feel that every time I write a page either of prose or of
verse, with real effort, even if it's thrown into the fire next minute, I am so
much further on." To Arthur, June 14, 1916, p 193.
"I do really want
to see something of yours, and you must know that it is impossible to write one's
best if nobody else ever has a look at the result." To Arthur, June 20, 1916,
"Of course it is a small point, but don't you think 'that' is more
simple, natural, and dignified than 'which'?" To Arthur, June 28, 1916, p
201 (a point I have made to my writing students for the past thirty yearsjk).
"I have learnt by now that whatever plans you make in this world, everything
always turns out quite differently...." To Arthur, July 4, 1916, p 205.
"...the primitive savage idea [was] that everything has a spirit (just as
your precious Jehovah is an old Hebrew thunder spririt)...." op cit., p 206.
"You are rather naive in telling me that you 'have to sit for a minute thinking'
and 'find the same word coming in again' as if these weren't the common experiences
of everyone who has ever written. ...As to the 'sitting for ten minutes,' I don't
believe that good work is ever done in a hurry: even if one does write quickly
in a burst of good form, it always has to be tamed down afterwards. I usually
make up my instalment in my head on a walk because I find that my imagination
only works when I am exercising." To Arthur, July 11, 1916, p 210.
to "the artist Beardesley" (Beardsley), p 211.
"...we very rarely succeed
in finishing a first work. If you saw the number of 'beginnings' I have made!"
Reference to Letters from Hell, translated from German to English and published
by Macmillan in 1911. Says the editor, Walter Hooper: "Who knows? the book may
have played some part, years later, in the genesis of Lewis's Screwtape Letters
(1942)." p 215.
"I don't think I should advise [that you read] Milton:
while there are lots of things in him you would lovethe descriptions of
Hell and Chaos and Paradise and Adam and Eve and Satan's flight down through the
stars, on the other hand his classical allusions, his rather crooked style of
English, and his long speeches, might be tedious. Besides, it is written in blank
verse (without rhymes) and people who are beginning to read poetry don't usually
care for that." To Arthur, July 25, 1916, p 220.
"My father seemed
in very poor form when I got home, and fussed a lot about my cold: so everything
is beastly, and I have decidedof courseto commit suicide again."
To Arthur, September 9, 1916, p 222.
Note by Walter Hooper on p 228: "Wan
Jadis is a young man in Lewis's 'Bleheris.' ...this 'sweet and comely youth' is
caught in a swamp named the 'Grey Marish.' Lewis was later to use the name 'Jadis'
in the Chronicles of Narnia for the Queen of Charn who becomes the White Witch."
"You ask me my religious views: you know, I think, that I believe in no religion.
There is absolutely no proof for any of them, and from a philosophical standpoint
Christianity is not even the best. All religions, that is, all mythologies to
give them their proper name are merely man's own inventionChrist as much
as Loki. Primitive man found himself surrounded by all sorts of terrible things
he didn't understandthunder, pestilence, snakes, etc.: what more natural
than to suppose that these were animated by evil spirits trying to torture him.
These he kept off by cringing to them, singing songs and making sacrifices, etc.
Gradually, from being mere nature-spirits these supposed being(s) were elevated
into more elaborate ideas, such as the old gods: and when man became more refined
he pretended that these spirits were good as well as powerful." To Arthur,
October 12 (?) 1916, p 230-31.
"That the man Yeshua or Jesus did actually
exist, is as certain as that the Buddha did actually exist: Tacitus mentions his
execution in the Annals. But all the other tomfollery about virgin birth, magic
healings, apparitions and so forth is on exactly the same footing as any other
mythology." To Arthur, October 18, 1916, p 234.
"...if you were not
my best friend I should almost suspect you of wilfully misunderstanding me through
temper." Op cit., p 235.
Page 240: "how hight he?" "Hight" is "an
archaic word for call, or name."
"...the Arthur myth [i.e., King Arthur
and the Knights of the Roundtable] is Welsh." to Arthur, November 8, 1916,
Jack was probably reflecting interwar attitudes toward America and
Americans among the British, writing to Arthur (November 29, 1916, p 259): "I
intend to read all Hawthorne after this. What a pity such a genius should be a
Dreading the entrance exams for Oxford at age 18, he
ended a letter to Arthur with, "I wish I were dead" (November 29, 1916,
Even when an atheist, his morality was praised, at least by a fellow
atheist, his tutor of the time, William Thompson Kirkpatruck, who is quoted by
editor Walter Hooper as writing to Jack's father, "Now to whom is Clive indebted
for his brains? Beyond all question to his father and mother. And I hold that
he is equally indebted to them for those moral qualities which though less obvious
and striking than the intellectual, are equally necessary for the accomplishment
of any great object in lifeI mean fixity of purpose, determination of character,
persevering energy..." p 263-64.
Jack refers in a letter to Warnie, January
1917, about his listing Malvern College as his public school, despite having left
it to go to study with a tutor before graduating there (p 265): "I quite agree
with what you say about "C. S. Lewis (Malvern). Though of course I pulled
a long face about it, I took very good care that Malvern should appear in the
form I filled up: moreover, when people asked me what Coll. I was at I replied
in the best manner 'Mawan': I saw no need to add 'two years ago.' It has been
very comfortable at K's but there's no need to publish the fact: indeed I have
now got to that stage when I am beginning to sentimentalize about the Coll...."
To Arthur, January 28, 1917, p 268 and 69, two fairly transparent references to
his sadistic fetish regarding love interests, both in angle brackets (meaning
they had been deleted from and later restored to the text).
January 31, 1917, p 270 and 71, three references to his sadistic proclivities,
all in angle brackets (meaning they had been obscured from and later restored
to the text). This is the letter which Jack signs "Pilomastix," meaning "fond
of the whip." That, also, is in angle brackets. In a follow-up letter a week later
(February 7, p 274), Jack says "My own is only a harmless piece
of Greek affectation: 'philo' is the same word you see in 'philosopher' 'philologist'
etc., and means 'fond of' while <'mastix' is the ordinary word for a whip.>
To Arthur, February 1, 1917, p 272, mentions a ("silly") book, The Talking
Horse, which may have played some role in Jack's later creating The Horse
and His Boy, the Narnian Chronicle that is about two talking horses. He also
mentions Arthur's objection to his cigarette smoking in the context of reporting
that he had taken up smoking a pipe.
On p 276 approximately 15 letters
that Arthur had obscured are forever indecipherable. In this letter (February
15, 1917), as many others in this period, Jack addresses Arthur as Cher Ami (French
for "dear friend"). In it, he also says (p 277), "Sweet lord! how one does want
to read everything." And, "One sort of music still holds me as much, or indeed
more than everpiano music." A reference by Jack to Percy Bysshe Shelly and
he both having been at University College, Oxford, is accompanied by a footnote
by the editor on the same page: "Shelley was expelled from University College
in 1811 for circulating a pamphlet, The Necessity of Atheism (1811)...."
Jack seems to be making the point that his atheism was "cool."
to "a certain lady" to Arthur (February 28, 1917, p 283) is the first allusion,
though an oblique one, to a possible affair or erotic fantasy of Jack's. He says:
"The gods>whom I'm always abusingcertainly produced a masterpiece
in her: even to see her walk across the room is a liberal education. Ah me,
Of course I don't say that it is quite my own ideal type of beauty. But then who
ever is? After all 'The love that I shall never see' is better both in body and
soul than all the real women on earth."
"For Catullus (you saw him in my
big Medici volume) though I have only read a third or so of him, is to me one
of the really sacred poets, some of his tiny little things leave me really breathlessin
particular one bit about that wander-lust feeling in the Spring, which he describes
beautifully; in fact he is one of my gods, I put him on a level with Morris or
Keats," p 288.
Referring to his and Arthur's sharing of their sexual "secrets":
"In a way we have spoiled our paradise. All the same, having gone thus far, there
is no good trying to go backit would be horrible to keep an artificial silence
and feel that there was something there all the time. Let us talk of these things
when we want, but always keep them on the side that tends to beauty, and avoid
everything that tends to sordid-ness
Cher ami, please don't think this is preaching. I don't pretend that I have done
so any better than you..." p 288.
P 289 "When God can get hold of a really
first rate character like Charlotte Bronte to torture, he's just in his element:
cruelty after cruelty without any escape."
P 290 "I have finished 'Paradise
Lost' again, enjoying it even more than before. Really you must read it sometime
soon. In Milton is everything you get everywhere else, only better. He is voluptuous
as Keats, as romantic as Morris, as grand as Wagner, as wierd as Poe, and a better
lover of nature than even the Brontes."
To Arthur, April 28, 1917, p 298,
from OxfordL "Later on, as I get to know more people, perhaps I shall find some
real friends here also."
Later on the same page, a reference to masturbation
(all the Lewis experts seem to agree): <(No--not since I came back. Somehow I
haven't even thought of it.)>
To Papy, May 3, 1917, from Oxford: "Beyond
the 'commons' mug of ale supplied with our lunch, bread and cheese, I see no drinking
here." He was 18 at the time.
To Arthur, May 6 1917, p 301: "I hope you
are still on half time and are having some nice afternoons <(--in that way?)>
in the garden." In this section of the correspondence, oblique references to "it"
and "that" are thought to be referring to masturbation, which is reinforced by
the fact that Arthur had obscured the words that are in angle brackets.
To Arthur on May 13, 1917, he describes swimming in the river at Oxford in the
nude, p 304. Same page: "Oh, Galahad, you simply must come up after the war. This
at present is only a shadow of the real Oxford, yet even so I never was happier
in my life." In a footnote on the same page an acquaintance of Jack's from this
time "recalls that Lewis in 1917 'could join in any discussion on any subject
and talk fluently and knowledgeably; he was particularly interested in those early
days in religion and was particularly challenging in his scepticism.'"
To Arthur on May 20, 1917, p 307, he expresses pleasure that Arthur is enjoying
reading Milton: "Don't you love all the descriptions of Hell? (Item. When reading
about the Shetlands in 'The Pirate' [by Sir Walter Scott] I was disconsolate because
I thought I should never see them. In reading about the scenery of Hell, I need
have no such uneasiness!)
Later on the same page: "How I like talking!"
To Arthur, May 27, 1917, p 310: "there is no doubt, ami, that the Irish are the
only people: with all their faults I would not gladly live or die among another
To Arthur, June 3, 1917, p 313: "<Butler tells me that the person
to read on my subject is a Frenchman of the 17th century called the Visconte de
his books, however, are very hard to come by."
Same letter, p 314: "I quite
agree with you that cards are the most utter and senseless and losing waste of
time ever invented, and I never play them from inclination but only because you
can't go on refusing the same people if you have nothing to do."
June 10, 1917, writing about his recently begun officer training regime before
going into the military to serve in World War I: "(days of trench digging and
route marching under a blazing sun are a fine cure for tendencies in THAT direction)..."
Later: "...for the first time in my life, I was royally drunk. ."
Later: "The story that you have a headache after being drunk is apparently
quite a lie <(like the other one about going mad from THAT)>."
a letter to Arthur, July 8, 1917, p 323-25, he describes the "love" he has developed
for University College. "I love every stone in it." And he describes a lonely
tour he took of the nearly deserted college (as most undergraduates at the time
were gone to the war), falling asleep on a bed in an unlocked room, and finding
his way to a dark attic where he was mystified for a time by a "thumping" which
turned out to be the ticking of the big college clock.
To Arthur, August
4, 1917, p 333, on the matter of "style" in prose writing: "For every thought
can be expressed in a number of different ways: and style is the art of expressing
a given thought in the most beautiful words and rythms of words. For instance
a man might say 'When the constellations which appear at early morning joined
in musical exercises and the angelic spirits loudly testified to their satisfaction.'
Expressing exactly the same thought, the Authorized Version says 'When the morning
stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy.' Thus by the power
of style what was nonsense becomes ineffably beautiful. See?"
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