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The Personal Heresy

C. S. Lewis

















  The authors would like it to be understood that the following essays do not form what is usually called a ‘symposium’, that is, a staged or prearranged débat, estrif, or disputatio in which the combatants undertake respectively to maintain and attack a prescribed thesis for the delectation of the audience. The author of the first essay was not, when he wrote it, personally acquainted with his antagonist; he hoped, rather than expected, to be answered sometime and somewhere by ‘any whom it might concern’. Since then the argument has continued by its momentum. The authors have decided to publish it because, thinking the subject worthy of consideration, they have not thought that they could lay it more fairly before their readers in any other way. No doubt this form has its drawbacks. Both authors have found now and then that the alley they were exploring was blind and have had to retrace their way, with apparent waste of time and effort. Further, they may be taxing the reader’s attention more severely than if each had written a full-length book. But they believe that the ease with which either of these books might have been read—specially by those who had never read, or had forgotten, the other—would be deceptive. The critical world is at present much divided into groups and camps, and those who accept their principles from any one camp are not, perhaps, always aware of what can be urged against them. One remembers the Dumb Orators in Crabbe. The readers of this book cannot fall into that error; bane and antidote here grow side by side; and neither author, even if he wished, can here play Cato to any ‘little senate’ of his own.

  It has also seemed to us that a revival of the art of Controversy would now be a wholesome thing. A dangerous habit is growing up among critics of disagreeing without ever meeting face to face; of taking for granted in footnotes and parentheses and anonymous reviews the absurdity of opinions which have never, in fact, been publicly refuted. To all this we feel that the justa controversio stands much as the duello stands to mere backbiting, nose-slitting, and abuse; and is, for that reason, to be preferred.

  It only remains to thank the English Association for allowing the reprint of the first three essays, which originally appeared in volumes xix (1934), xx (1935), and xxi (1936) of Essays and Studies.




  An inquisitiveness into the minutest circumstances and casual sayings of eminent contemporaries is indeed quite natural; but so are all our follies.


  During the war I saw an anthology which contained the work of some ‘young soldier poets’, as we used to call them. The advertisement on the wrapper promised that if you bought the book these young men would tell you things about themselves which they had never told to ‘their fathers, or their sweethearts, or their friends’. The assumption was that to read poetry means to become acquainted with the poet, as we become acquainted with a man in intimate conversation, to steep ourselves in his personality; and the appeal based on this assumption was an appeal to curiosity. When that appeal is put so crudely, it endangers no educated reader’s judgement; and if that assumption were made only in advertisements, it would not be worth consideration. But it is impossible not to recognize in the passage which I have quoted the logical conclusion of a tendency from which, in our own day, even reputable criticism is not always exempt. Few will deny that the role of biography in our literary studies is steadily increasing; and if we look into the most popular literary biographies of the last decade or so, we shall find that in them the poet’s life is connected with his work after a fashion quite alien from the methods of Johnson. Poetry is widely believed to be the ‘expression of personality’: the end which we are supposed to pursue in reading it is a certain contact with the poet’s soul; and ‘Life’ and ‘Works’ are simply two diverse expressions of this single quiddity. In a work published by His Majesty’s Stationery Office we are urged to use English literature as ‘a means of contact with great minds’.1 This seems innocent enough, but there is more behind. In Dr Tillyard’s Milton we are told that the only critics of Paradise Lost who ‘seemed to tackle’ the ‘problem’—for a poem is always a ‘problem’ to psychological critics—in the ‘right kind of way’ were the Satanists; and their rectitude consisted, apparently, in the fact that they ‘invested the character of Satan with all that Milton felt and valued most strongly’.2 They were right because they assumed from the outset that Milton’s poetry must be the expression of his personality. Later in the book Dr Tillyard complains that such matters as style ‘have concerned the critics far more than what the poem is really about, the true state of Milton’s mind when he wrote it’.3 The concealed major premise is plainly the proposition that all poetry is about the poet’s state of mind. Certainly, in the opinion of Mr Kingsmill this proposition is so axiomatic that a poem which is not about the poet’s state of mind can for that reason be condemned. Of Sohrab and Rustum he says, ‘Throughout the interminable poem there is hardly a hint of any relation between Thomas and Matthew Arnold on the one hand, and Rustum and Sohrab on the other. Even in the death of Sohrab the emotional pressure behind the verse seems to me . . . too weak to suggest any conscious or unconscious recognition on Arnold’s part of the likeness between his fate and Sohrab’s.’4 If the emotion were strong, apparently, it would have to be egoistic; if the poem were good, it would express the emotions arising out of the poet’s personal situation. More difficult to interpret is Mr T. S. Eliot’s statement that ‘The rage of Dante . . . the deep surge of Shakespeare’s general cynicism and disillusionment, are merely gigantic attempts to metamorphose private failures and disappointments’.5 Of this it would, perhaps, carry us too far to say that what we most desire to know of an ‘attempt’ is whether it failed or succeeded, and that ‘metamorphosis’ is a dark conception till we have asked ‘Metamorphosis into what?’ It concerns our present purpose more to notice the assumed, and concealed, major premise that the cynicism and disillusionment put into the mouths of some Shakespearian characters are Shakespeare’s. Even dramatic poetry is tacitly assumed to be the expression of the poet’s personality. Nor is it only among the νεωτερίζοντες that such a dogma hides. A critic of a different school, Professor Garrod, has admitted into his Wordsworth sentences which bear, if they do not invite, a dangerous interpretation. We are there told that ‘a man’s poetry is but a part of him’;6 and this, in some sense, is true. A poet does many other things in addition to composing poems. But Professor Garrod goes on to say that if, in reading poetry, ‘we put the poet out of the room, we let in one of two interlopers. We let in either ourselves or a false image of the poet.’ Professor Garrod’s words, judged in the light of all he says elsewhere, may, perhaps, be so understood as not to involve the personal heresy. But it cannot be denied that they are most easily read as though they involved the assumption that what we attend to, in reading poetry, is a representation claiming to be the poet; and that to read poetry well is to have a true idea of the poet, while to read it ill is to have a false idea of him. Taken in this sense their implication seems to me to be a serious error.

  In this paper I shall maintain that when we read poetry as poetry should be read, we have before us no representation which claims to be the poet, and frequently no representation of a man, a character, or a personality at all.

  I shall begin by tackling the prob
lem on a very shallow and popular level. Dismissing all the more ambiguous senses in which the word personality can be used, and in which we can be said to meet or come into touch with it, I shall try to show that there is at least one very obvious sense in which it is certain that the object offered to us by a good poem is not the poet’s personality. My position—in this obvious sense, which will suffice at the present stage—is so simple that a few examples will make it good. I read, for instance,

  Whenas in silks my Julia goes,

  Then, then, methinks how sweetly flows

  That liquefaction of her clothes.

  If the theory which I am attacking, taken in its crudest sense, were true, it ought to be true that what I derive from these lines is the impression of a certain personality. My pleasure ought to consist in the perception of that personality, and the permanent result of the poem ought to be an enrichment of my conception of human nature. Now there is no doubt that I can extract from the poem the idea of a humorous nature, amorous yet dainty, dowered with an almost feminine sensibility to the qualities of clothes. The question is whether that is presented to me as part of my poetical experience. For, of course, any and every result which may follow from my reading of a poem cannot be included in my poetical apprehension of it, and cannot, therefore, belong to the poem as a poem. Thus, for example, I can learn from reading these lines that the pronunciation ‘clo’es’ for clothes is at least as old as the date at which the poem was written. That piece of philological knowledge is a result of the poem; but clearly philological truths do not make part of the poem, nor do I encounter them so long as I am apprehending it with my imagination, but only when I come to reflect upon it, later, and in a very different light. The problem, therefore, is whether my perception of the poet’s character is part of my direct experience of the poem, or whether it is simply one of those later and unpoetical results. I think this is answered as soon as it is asked. I know that the poet was sensitive to the qualities of silk. How? Plainly because he has conveyed them so vividly. But then he must have conveyed or expressed them to me before I can know that he was thus sensitive, and to say that he has conveyed them to me means that I myself, in reading the poem, became conscious of silk in a new way. I know that his expression is good only because that expression has already wrought its effect on me. I see that liquefaction is an admirably chosen word; but only because I have already found myself seeing silk as I never saw it before. The first object presented to me is an idea of silk. To account for the unusual vividness of that idea, I may then analyze the poem and conclude ‘It is the word liquefaction that does the trick’; and only then, by a third step, can I conclude ‘With what eyes he must have seen7 silk to think of such a word’, and thence ‘He must have been that sort of man’. In other words, my idea of the poet presupposes that the poem has already had its effect on my imagination, and cannot, therefore, be part of that effect. The only experience which has any claim to be poetical experience is an apprehension, not of the poet, but of silk. Perception of the poet’s skill comes later, and could not come at all unless I had first and foremost apprehended the silk; and perception of the personality implied by such skill comes later yet. It is twice removed from the essential poetic experience.

  But perhaps I seem to have chosen, unfairly, an example in which the poetry is of an unusually sensuous and simple type. In fact, however, the more subtle types of poetry differ only by being less manageable for purposes of exposition.

  Very old are we men;

  Our dreams are tales

  Told in dim Eden

  By Eve’s nightingales.

  Here it is very much harder to indicate by prose pointers the nature of the object presented to me. But at least we may be quite certain what it is not. It is not a picture of the poet. It is something extended interminably in time, shrouded in mystery, and yet, for all its age, carrying still about it some hint of the dewy freshness of primeval myth. That may not be a good description of the thing, but it would be a much worse description of Mr De la Mare. If I try to imagine Mr De la Mare, I can imagine him only as an individual living in a particular time and place, with other times and places forming a sort of context that stretches away indefinitely on all sides of him. But what I look towards in reading the poem is that context itself—the ages of human history. How could the object be the idea of a man who himself is inside that context? Where the thing presented already contains the poet as one of its least important details, how could it also be the poet himself?

  To be sure there are poems in which the thing that we attend to is unmistakably a human being in a certain state of emotion. Thus, for example,

  I breathe again.

  Trances of thought and mountings of the mind

  Come fast upon me. It is shaken off,

  That burthen of my own unnatural self,

  The heavy weight of many a weary day

  Not mine, and such as were not made for me.

  Such lines might seem to support the case of my opponents; for beyond question what they convey to me is the keener awareness of a certain kind of human feeling—just as Herrick’s poem enabled me to see the liquid quality of silk as I had never seen it before. But the difficulty is only apparent. It is easy to suppose that we do not know whether these lines come from a work where the poet is speaking in his own person or from a speech by one of the characters in a play. And it is clear that if they came from a play they would not directly present us with the poet’s character. The Drama is, in fact, the strongest witness for my contention. Even my convinced opponents would falter in dealing with the Drama, for there the poet is manifestly out of sight, and we attend not to him but to his creations. How far any of them may resemble him is, no doubt, an interesting question; but to ask that question, still more to answer it, is clearly to have turned from imaginative apprehension to later and unpoetic reflection. The objective or impersonal theory of poetry which I am defending finds its easiest application in the drama and the epic. And if we return, with this in our minds, to the passage under consideration, we must surely agree that there is nothing in the poetry itself to show whether it is dramatic or not. We happen to know that it is from Wordsworth’s Prelude. But we do not know that by imaginative experience. Or if we take the Prelude as a whole, the appreciation of it as poetry does not include the knowledge that it is autobiographical. A process of human development, that is, a particular man growing up, is presented to us; that this man is, or is intended to be, Wordsworth himself, we learn from literary history—unless we are so simple as to suppose that the use of the first person settles the question. The same holds good of all poetry. We do not know whether the story of the sonnets was Shakespeare’s own story or not; we do not know whether Milton really grieved for the death of Mr King or not; and if we know that Shelley had really met Keats, we do not know it in and by appreciating Adonais. So that at the very best, all we can mean by claiming to find the poet’s personality in a poem is that we find some personality, which may, on quite other grounds, be discovered to be that of the poet. I submit that this is not what is ordinarily meant by knowing or getting into touch with a man. If I have the idea of a particular character, and it just happens that a man, say, in Timbuctoo exists who does, as a matter of fact, bear that character—a man I have never heard of—it would be a very odd use of language to say that I knew, or was in touch with, the man as soon as I had the idea. At best, therefore, we meet the poet, even in the most personal lyric poetry, only in a strained and ambiguous sense. But we can go much farther than this. It is, in fact, quite impossible that the character represented in the poem should be identically the same with that of the poet. The character presented is that of a man in the grip of this or that emotion: the real poet is a man who has already escaped from that emotion sufficiently to see it objectively—I had almost said to see it dramatically—and to make poetry of it. The man who cries out with pain is not the same as the man who vividly expresses to us the blood-curdling nature of the cry. The man who e
xpends his spirit in a waste of shame is not the same as the man who sees the imaginative significance of that whole situation and writes down ‘The expense of spirit in a waste of shame’. The characteristic of a poet is, after all that he is a poet; and if poems put us into touch with him, the characters presented to us in all poems, however diverse they may be, ought, at least, to have this in common, that they are all poets. But the great crowd of lovers, mourners, fighters, and the like whom we meet in sonnets and songs are not poets. They may be spoken of in the first person, but they differ from their creators by this very fact that they are merely loving, mourning, and being angry; whereas the real poet is writing poetry about love, or sorrow, or anger. Nor, indeed, is it possible for any one to describe himself, even in prose, without making of himself, to some extent, a dramatic creation. The character whom I describe as myself leaves out; at least, this present act of description—which is an element in my real history; and that is the beginning of a rift which will grow wider at every step we take from the vulgarity of confession to the disinfected and severer world of lyric poetry. The ‘I’ and ‘me’ of whom poets speak really affect us in exactly the same way as any of the other characters whom they present to us; they are phases of human nature, detached from their historical context—οία ἂν γε´νοιτο—things that might happen. That something tolerably like them has actually happened in the poet himself is poetically irrelevant.

  It follows, then, at least in the crudest and most obvious sense of the words, that the thing presented to us in any poem is not and never can be the personality of the poet. It is the liquid movement of silk, or the age and mystery of man, or a particular man escaping from a long period of constraint—never Wordsworth, or De la Mare, or Herrick. But here a distinction must be made. Poetry, after all, is not science or history; and the silks are not described in the manner of the mercer, nor the history of man after the manner of the anthropologist. It is, in fact, these things, not as they are, but as they seem to be, which poetry represents to me; or so I shall be told. It may be true that what I am aware of in reading Herrick’s poem is silk, but it is not silk as an object in rerum natura. I see it as Herrick saw it; and in so doing, it may be argued, I do come into contact with his temperament in the most intimate—perhaps in the only possible—way. For the moment I not only accept but embrace this view of the matter. It introduces a point of the last importance which the crudest form of the personal theory had overlooked. Let it be granted that I do approach the poet; at least I do it by sharing his consciousness, not by studying it. I look with his eyes, not at him. He, for the moment, will be precisely what I do not see; for you can see any eyes rather than the pair you see with, and if you want to examine your own glasses you must take them off your own nose. The poet is not a man who asks me to look at him; he is a man who says ‘look at that’ and points; the more I follow the pointing of his finger the less I can possibly see of him. To be sure there are all sorts of difficult questions hanging over us. But for the moment let us thrust them aside. Whatever may turn out to be the whole truth, let us make fast, before we go a step farther, this aspect of the truth. To see things as the poet sees them I must share his consciousness and not attend to it; I must look where he looks and not turn round to face him; I must make of him not a spectacle but a pair of spectacles: in fine, as Professor Alexander would say, I must enjoy him and not contemplate him. Such is the first positive result of my inquiry.