22 December 2009

Literary Tradition & the 'Organisation of Responses'

At the monthly meeting of our local C.S. Lewis & Inklings Society last night, one of the works we discussed was Lewis’s short lyric, ‘The Nativity’. Indeed, it is brief enough that it is worth reproducing in full:

Among the oxen (like an ox I’m slow)
I see a glory in the stable grow
Which, with the ox’s dullness might at length
Give me an ox’s strength.

Among the asses (stubborn I as they)
I see my Saviour where I looked for hay;
So may my beastlike folly learn at least
The patience of a beast.

Among the sheep (I like a sheep have strayed)
I watch the manger where my Lord is laid;
Oh that my baa-ing nature would win thence
Some wooly innocence! [1]

One lady commented on the parenthetical asides, asking whether such self-deprecation was typical of Lewis. I remarked that it seemed to me that it was, and another fellow began to speak of Lewis’s humility (it occurred to me however that his was an acquired rather than innate humility). But there was another comment I wanted to make about those asides, and I was afraid some of my less literary interlocutors might misunderstand. Addressing the lady who had originally asked the question, I said, ‘This is not to say that Lewis’s humility or self-deprecation here is not genuine, but . . .’, and then I pointed out how very seventeenth-century I found these lines. Specifically, I thought, they reminded me of George Herbert. While a brief look through Herbert this morning yielded little material for obvious comparison, I did find in the humble English parson’s own lyrics on Christmas the following lines (15-8):

The shepherds sing; and shall I silent be?
My God, no hymn for thee?
My soul’s a shepherd too; a flock it feeds
Of thoughts, and words, and deeds,
. . . [2]

Extending Lewis’s indebtedness back even further, one Jenny Sawyer at the C.S. Lewis Foundation blog has offered an illuminating comparison of Lewis’s poem with ‘The Friendly Beasts’, an old French carol of around the 12th century. But the point of this post is not so much to draw out specific comparisons, but to explain my little disclaimer. I have touched on this issue before (here) in regards to Milton’s Lycidas, but it seems clear to me that there is a notion abroad that literary art, particularly if it is traditional and formal, is inimical to ‘genuine’ feeling, and not only this, but to strict veracity as well. In other words, this notion would tell us, if Lewis’s lyrical self-deprecation is inspired by, or worse, in imitation of some older poet, then it is a ‘mere device’ and not ‘true’. As I pointed out in the post on Lycidas, this is what Lewis himself has called a ‘confusion (arising from the fact that both are voluntary) between the organization of a response and the pretence of a response’, as well as being surely akin to his ‘Romantic Primitivism . . . which prefers the merely natural to the elaborated, the un-willed to the willed’. [3]

Tolkien too has made an effort to dispel such ideas. In a passage I have quoted here, Tolkien refers to the Anglo-Saxon poetic fragment, ‘The Battle of Maldon’:

Near the end of the surviving fragment an old retainer, Beorhtwold, as he prepares to die in the last desperate stand, utters the famous words, a summing up of the heroic code, . . . :

Hige sceal þe heardra, heorte þe cenre,
mod sceal þe mare þe ure mægen lytlað.

‘Will shall be the sterner, heart the bolder, spirit the greater as our strength lessens.’

It is here [in Tolkien’s play based on ‘Maldon’] implied, as is indeed probable, that these words were not ‘original’, but an ancient and honoured expression of heroic will; Beorhtwold is all the more, not the less, likely for that reason actually to have used them in his last hour. [4]

Certainly, there is a difference between the culture of Beorhtwold, which was presumably still quite oral, and that of Lewis, who is a man par excellence of the written word. But both have a similar relation to their cultural tradition, which they have internalised. Indeed, in the post on ‘Maldon’, I pointed out that Lewis alludes to these lines in his sci-fi novel, Perelandra, when he writes, ‘Once he was actually astride the enemy’s chest, squeezing its throat with both hands and—he found to his surprise—shouting a line out of The Battle of Maldon: but it tore his arms so with its nails and so pounded his back with its knees that he was thrown off.’ [5]

It did not occur to me at the time, but it strikes me now that Lewis may well have been intentionally proving the truth of Tolkien’s observation that a man who has so internalised ‘ancient and honoured expression[s]’ of the great virtues is likely to find them coming to him even, or especially, at moments of the most extreme and therefore, presumably, ‘genuine’ emotion.

This line of thought seems to me to have direct bearing on another of my perennial interests: hagiography. I do not have the book in front of me, but I seem to recall Garry Wills defending the historical veracity of St Augustine’s conversion in the Confessions in the face of charges that it is a ‘mere literary device’. But this is a very common charge made against the Lives of Saints. If a story or claim serves some literary purpose, or seems to have been modeled on an earlier work, it is dismissed as ‘unhistorical’ or ‘legendary’. Fortunately, voices of reason occasionally appear. Speaking of Book II of the Dialogues of St Gregory the Great, the infallible Adlabert de Vogüé writes:

How then does one explain the constant and often troubling similarities between the accounts of Gregory and the miracles of Holy Scripture or of earlier hagiography? Let us remember first the role of the human condition which causes the same situations, the same needs, and the same distresses to occur over and over again. Further, the Christian saints and narrators are all steeped in the same spiritual milieu impregnated by the Bible. Scripture inspires the hopes, prayers and gestures of the wonder-workers themselves. In their turn, their disciples and admirers are always ready to recognize these scriptural models of their heroes, and even to discover new ones which the saints themselves had not thought of, which nevertheless will influence their reports unconsciously. Finally, the hagiographer plays a part, spontaneous or calculated, in this biblical coloring of the event. The same stylizing process flows from the models of the hagiographic tradition. [6]

Thus it seems to me that a greater understanding of tradition is called for in the humanities, and I am happy to point out that Fr Andrew Louth for one has already called for it. [7]

[1] C.S. Lewis, Poems, ed. Walter Hooper (San Diego: Harcourt, 1992), p. 122.

[2] George Herbert, The Complete English Works, ed. Ann Pasternak Slater (NY: Everyman’s Library, 1995), p. 78.

[3] C.S. Lewis, A Preface to ‘Paradise Lost’ (NY: Oxford U, 1965), p. 55.

[4] J.R.R. Tolkien, ‘The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son’, The Tolkien Reader (NY: Ballantine, 1966), p. 5.

[5] C.S. Lewis, Perelandra (NY: Scribner, 1996), p. 132.

[6] Adlabert de Vogüé, Foreword, The Life of Saint Benedict, by St Gregory the Great, comm. Adlabert de Vogüé, trans. Hilary Costello & Eoin de Bhaldraithe (Petersham, MA: St Bede’s, 1993), p. vii.

[7] Fr Andrew Louth, Discerning the Mystery: An Essay on the Nature of Theology (Wichita, KS: Eighth Day, 2007).

1 comment:

Andrea Elizabeth said...

I thought of the last verse of Christina Rosetti's "In the Bleak Midwinter" when I read the Lewis poem. The comparison's are with people instead of animals, but the sentiment seems similar. There is also this part in the middle,
Enough for him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
which adore.