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Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature

C. S. Lewis



  Publisher’s Note

  Chapter 1 - De Audiendis Poetis

  Chapter 2 - The Genesis of a Medieval Book

  Chapter 3 - Imagination and Thought in the Middle Ages

  Chapter 4 - Dante’s Similes

  Chapter 5 - Imagery in the Last Eleven Cantos of Dante’s Comedy

  Chapter 6 - Dante’s Statius

  Chapter 7 - The Morte Darthur

  Chapter 8 - Tasso

  Chapter 9 - Edmund Spenser, 1552–99

  Chapter 10 - On Reading The Faerie Queene

  Chapter 11 - Neoplatonism in the Poetry of Spenser

  Chapter 12 - Spenser’s Cruel Cupid

  Chapter 13 - Genius and Genius

  Chapter 14 - A Note on Comus

  Additional Editorial Notes

  About the Author

  Also by C. S. Lewis


  About the Publisher


  When Professor C. S. Lewis died on 22 November 1963, he left few unpublished manuscripts; and that in spite of the astonishing fertility of his pen. He managed throughout his life to meet publishers’ dead-lines and see most of his works in print. As I had become Lewis’s private secretary before his retirement from Cambridge, his brother, Major W. H. Lewis, has kindly allowed me to publish his literary remains.

  Many people will have heard Lewis read papers which have not appeared in print. I note in his pocket diaries the numerous occasions for which he prepared learned addresses. Yet so few survive today. This is because those manuscripts which he did not intend to publish immediately were often turned over and used for writing other books and essays—all in his tiny, beautifully regular handwriting. And, as Lewis habitually kept his desk-tops tidy, they usually ended in the wastepaper basket. Several of the studies in this volume, such as the one on Tasso, survive, I suspect, only because they burrowed their way into his college ‘files’—several large desk drawers into which he threw used envelopes and odd memoranda. Yet the fertility of his genius allowed him to throw so much away, and still to publish an extraordinary number of books, essays, poems and book reviews, as can readily be seen from my bibliography of his writings in Light on C. S. Lewis (1965). This present volume is composed of all the studies in medieval and renaissance literature I have been able to find and which Lewis, for various reasons, never published in his lifetime. I have also chosen to reprint seven related essays which are difficult for some readers to come by. The order in which I have placed the pieces this volume contains is the chronological order of the subjects they discuss.

  ‘De Audiendis Poetis’ was written as an introductory chapter to a book Lewis began several years before his retirement. Some of it recalls passages in his essay ‘The Anthropological Approach’ as well as parts of The Discarded Image. Yet the aim of this book is not like that of either work; it is, as he says, to ‘cure errors of misapprehension’ and even in this single chapter his purpose is clear.

  Again, in ‘The Genesis of a Medieval Book’, we have only the first chapter of a proposed work. His first subject is Laʒamon’s Brut, which was becoming increasingly dear to Lewis. This is one of the last pieces he wrote. He knew that the Early English Text Society edition of the Brut was in preparation, but had to rely on Madden’s edition of 1847. Rather than replace his quotations with those of the E.E.T.S. edition so far available, I have decided to print Lewis’s study just as it stands.

  The two consecutive lectures, ‘Imagination and Thought in the Middle Ages’, amount almost to a précis of The Discarded Image. Lewis’s approach is not the same, however, and herein lies the difference—these lectures were specially prepared for, and delivered to, an audience of scientists at the Zoological Laboratory, Cambridge, on 17 and 18 July 1956. Instead of emphasizing the literary sources—these he hardly mentions—Lewis’s purpose was to construct a clear and simple image of the universe as the men of the Middle Ages understood it. It is, in fact, a ‘map’ for those who want to see their way about, but who have read no medieval literature and for whom even a longer introduction would be a surfeit.

  ‘Dante’s Similes’ was read to the Oxford Dante Society on 13 February 1940 and ‘Imagery in the Last Eleven Cantos of Dante’s Comedy’ was read to the same society on 9 November 1948.

  ‘Dante’s Statius’ is reprinted from Medium Aevum (XXV, no. 3, 1957) with the permission of the editors.

  ‘The Morte Darthur’ is an unsigned review (7 June 1947) of Professor Vinaver’s Works of Sir Thomas Malory, reprinted by permission of The Times Literary Supplement. Judging from the handwriting, I should guess that Lewis wrote the essay on ‘Tasso’ in the 1940’s.

  It is to Harcourt, Brace and World Inc. that I owe permission to reprint ‘Edmund Spenser, 1552–99’ which originally accompanied Lewis’s selections from The Faerie Queene and Epithalamion in Major British Writers (vol. I, 1954). In his correspondence with the late William Borst, editor of the Harcourt, Brace and World college department, Lewis speaks of his own satisfaction with the article and his concern that readers should remember that Spenser is primarily a romancer à longue haleine. Students, he complains, ‘are too carefully shielded from the rumour of worlds they have not yet broken into’ by being led to read only the ‘dear old show-pieces’ from The Faerie Queene, selections which leave the reader content to adventure no further. In his own choice of selections Lewis attempts to quarry from the poem those passages which he feels reproduce its real characteristics: ‘leaving the first appearances of characters as unprepared as Spenser leaves them’. As a consequence, one is tantalized and asks for more. With this in mind, one can better appreciate Lewis’s discussion of what he calls ‘polyphonic narrative’ in the essay reprinted here. ‘On Reading The Faerie Queene’ was originally entitled ‘Edmund Spenser’ and is reprinted by permission of the Oxford University Press from Fifteen Poets (1941).

  ‘Neoplatonism in the Poetry of Spenser’ is a review-essay of Dr Robert Ellrodt’s book of the same title and is reprinted from Etudes Anglaises (XIV, no. 2, 1961) by permission of its editors. I include it here because, as with all of Lewis’s reviews, his own contribution is noteworthy. There is certainly a marked similarity between some of his most recent thinking about Spenser’s poetry (as I see from his Cambridge lecture notes) and his criticism of Dr Ellrodt’s book. And, judging from my conversation with Lewis, I gather that, had he enjoyed a longer retirement, he might have written a book-length study of Spenser’s poetry based on his Cambridge lectures. Happily, there does survive a further draft of one passage from his notes. It is ‘Spenser’s Cruel Cupid’, a study of Faerie Queene, III, xi, 48 which Lewis was discussing with Dr Alastair Fowler a few months before his death. Lewis himself spoke of the piece as exemplifying an iconographical approach which he was finding fruitful with Spenser.1

  ‘Genius and Genius’ is reprinted from The Review of English Studies (XII, no. 46, 1936) by permission of its editors and ‘A Note on Comus’ is reprinted from the same source (VIII, no. 30, 1932) by permission.

  I mentioned desk-tops above. Lewis could write anywhere, even when conditions were unfavourable. During term he usually worked in his college rooms, but on vacation and week-ends he wrote in one of his two studies at The Kilns, his home in Oxford. As could be expected, his papers were in no particular order: I found the pages of ‘Spenser’s Cruel Cupid’ in three different places. This arrangement also meant that part of Lewis’s library was invariably in the other place. He almost always quoted from memory; I have compared the quotations in these studies with the texts he used and have needed to make a number of minor corrections. As Lewis did n
ot himself prepare these papers for publi­cation, I have used my judgement also in correcting and regularizing the spelling and punctuation.

  We all wonder, I suppose, what Lewis would have written had he lived longer. I spoke of the two introductory chapters in this volume and of Lewis’s growing delight in the Arthurian legend. This brings me to his plans for retirement. Lewis asked several times what I should like him to write. I wanted him to finish his novel on Menelaus, but he could not see his way after the first few chapters. Then I suggested that he might do a translation of Laʒamon’s Brut: this he liked, although it meant, he said, waiting for the new E.E.T.S. edition to appear. Meanwhile he had other ideas—and here I hope I shall be forgiven for digressing a little.

  One morning in August of 1963 we were discussing our plans for Christmas and Lewis reminded me that he neither gave nor received Christmas gifts. Then almost immediately he expressed a desire to write something on the Arthurian legend—if only he owned a copy of the Vulgate Version of the Arthurian Romances. ‘I have all seven volumes’, I said. ‘Have you?’ he asked, his eyes twinkling. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘Would you like them?’ There was a very long pause. ‘After what I have just said,’ he fumbled, ‘would you—could you part with them?’ It gave me great pleasure to see the noble Arthurian volumes on his shelves and I continue to imagine what golden visions might have sprung from them.

  I should like to thank Dr and Mrs Austin Farrer, Mr Colin Hardie, Dr J. E. Stevens, Dr Alastair Fowler and Mr Daryl R. Williams for their valuable assistance and encouragement in the preparation of this volume. And it is to Major W. H. Lewis that I owe the honour of being allowed to collect these, his brother’s last studies in medieval and renaissance literature.



  St Matthias’s Day 1965


  Lewis uses words and quotations from Old English, which contains symbols no longer used in modern English. The yogh (ʒ) is pronounced /j/, transcribed in modern type as a y, g, or z. Both the eth (ð) and the thorn (þ) are pronounced as a hard /th/ and can be likened to the Greek theta (Θ).

  Numbered footnotes are the author’s originals.

  Asterisks represent additional notes provided by the editor.



  There are more ways than one of reading old books. A choice between two of them is well expressed by Mr Speirs1 when he denounces as ‘discouraging’ the notion ‘that before the modern reader can properly appreciate a medieval poem he must first have somehow put himself back’ into the age when it was composed. For thus he will be seeking not ‘what the poem means’, but ‘what it once meant’ and will become ‘concerned less with reading and responding to a poem than with reading and researching outside it’.

  That anything which takes us outside the poem and leaves us there is regrettable, I fully agree. But we may have to go outside it in order that we may presently come inside it again, better equipped. (We have to go outside some medieval poems pretty often to look up hard words in a glossary or dictionary.) And what we find inside will always depend a great deal on what we have brought in with us. Mr Speirs modestly under-rates all the knowledge of history, all the imaginative and emotional adjustments, which he himself uses when he reads an old book. A man who read the literature of the past with no allowance at all for the fact that manners, thought, and sentiments have changed since it was written, would make the maddest work of it. Finding that Nausicaa does the washing, though her father seems to be in easy circumstances, he would think he was reading a version of Cinderella. In the Knights Tale the action of Theseus, who condemns two prisoners of war to a dungeon for life, would strike him as an atrocity. The battles of Romance, fought in peacetime between knights who had no quarrel—and what might the very word knights mean to such a reader?—would seem to him a picture of lunacy.

  This is, of course, only to say that the reader of medieval poetry must already be a man of general education. But the point is that what we call ‘general education’ includes a quite considerable knowledge of the past and a considerable mental adjustment to it. Some substitution of what the work may be supposed to have meant in its own day for what it would mean to us if we now read it with nothing but modern feelings and ideas, is therefore unavoidable. It is made by everyone; even, in their degree, by children of ten and by the uneducated. We are all so used to this substitution that we make it almost unconsciously. The only question is how far the process should go. Are we to rest content with ‘putting ourselves back’ into the attitudes of the old author just so far as general education permits, and indeed forces, us to do: or are we to go on and put ourselves back as completely as, with labour and patience, we can?

  I am asking, of course, which we should do as lovers of literature. In so far as we are historians, there is no question. When our aim is knowledge we must go as far as all available means—including the most intense, yet at the same time most sternly disciplined, exercise of our imaginations—can possibly take us. We want to know—therefore, as far as may be, we want to live through for ourselves—the experience of men long dead. What a poem may ‘mean’ to moderns and to them only, however delightful, is from this point of view merely a stain on the lens. We must clean the lens and remove the stain so that the real past can be seen better.

  But among lovers of poetry the question admits two answers. You may do which you please. There are two ways of enjoying the past, as there are two ways of enjoying a foreign country. One man carries his Englishry abroad with him and brings it home unchanged. Wherever he goes he consorts with the other English tourists. By a good hotel he means one that is like an English hotel. He complains of the bad tea where he might have had excellent coffee. He finds the ‘natives’ quaint and enjoys their quaintness. In his own way he may have a pleasant time; he likes his winter-sports in Switzerland and his flutter at Monte Carlo. In the same way there is a man who carries his modernity with him through all his reading of past literatures and preserves it intact. The highlights in all ancient and medieval poetry are for him the bits that resemble—or can be so read that they seem to resemble—the poetry of his own age. Thus when modernity was Romanticism (for modernity naturally changes) the great thing in Sophocles was the nightingale chorus in the Coloneus; and Dante meant the Inferno and the Inferno meant Paolo and Francesca and Ulysses: and what really mattered about Villon was just the Old Frenchness, so archaic, so wistful. This sort of reading is well reflected in the successive schools of translation. A while ago the classics were made to sound like the Authorised Version or the Pre-Raphaelites; now they are to be stark and slangy and ironic. And such reading has its reward. Those who practise it will have certain enjoyments.

  But there is another sort of travelling and another sort of reading. You can eat the local food and drink the local wines, you can share the foreign life, you can begin to see the foreign country as it looks, not to the tourist, but to its inhabitants. You can come home modified, thinking and feeling as you did not think and feel before. So with the old literature. You can go beyond the first impression that a poem makes on your modern sensibility. By study of things outside the poem, by comparing it with other poems, by steeping yourself in the vanished period, you can then re-enter the poem with eyes more like those of the natives; now perhaps seeing that the associations you gave to the old words were false, that the real implications were different from what you supposed, that what you thought strange was then ordinary and that what seemed to you ordinary was then strange. In so far as you succeed, you may more and more come to realize that what you enjoyed at the first reading was not really any medieval poem that ever existed but a modern poem made by yourself at a hint from the old words. But that is an extreme case. Sometimes, by luck, your first shot may not have been so wide. Not all things at a given date in the past are equidistant from the present.

  I am writing to help, if I can, the second sort of reading. Partly, of course, because I have a histori
cal motive. I am a man as well as a lover of poetry: being human, I am inquisitive, I want to know as well as to enjoy. But even if enjoyment alone were my aim I should still choose this way, for I should hope to be led by it to newer and fresher enjoyments, things I could never have met in my own period, modes of feeling, flavours, atmospheres, nowhere accessible but by a mental journey into the real past. I have lived nearly sixty years with myself and my own century and am not so enamoured of either as to desire no glimpse of a world beyond them. As the mere tourist’s kind of holiday abroad seems to me rather a waste of Europe—there is more to be got out of it than he gets—so it would seem to me a waste of the past if we were content to see in the literature of every bygone age only the reflexion of our own faces—zum Ekel find’ ich immer nur mich?

  But if I left it at this I should seem to be demanding as much austerity in one direction as Mr Speirs perhaps would approve in the other. Actually, the two approaches can to some extent be combined. We come to see the old texts with a sort of double vision. Most of us, I fancy, when we read Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue, see simultaneously—or with oscillations so rapid as to give the effect of simultaneity—the poem as it may have been for the Romans and the poem as it came to be in Christian times. But this double vision, the reward of some ripeness, is different from acquiescence in our first illusions.

  A man that looks on glasse,

  On it may stay his eye;

  Or if he pleaseth, through it passe,

  And then the heav’n espie.*

  If he pleaseth. This is quite different from mistaking the flaws or blurrings of the glass for real clouds or hills.

  The worst method of all, in my opinion, would be to accept the first impression that the old text happens to make on a modern sensibility and then apply to this the detailed methods of ‘practical’ criticism. That is to make the worst of both worlds. If you are content that the Heraclitus epigram should mean to you what it meant to Cory, if you are content, with Hopkins, to find sprung rhythm in Piers Plowman, best enjoy these phantoms lightly, spontaneously, even lazily. To use the microscope, yet not to focus or clean it, is folly. You will only find more and more mares’ nests. You are passing from uncorrected illusions to positively invited illusions. The critic who said (of medieval poetry, as it happens) ‘one cannot find what is not there’ was unduly optimistic. Here, as elsewhere, untrained eyes or a bad instrument produce both errors; they create phantasmal objects as well as miss real ones.