The Approach to English

We were soon acquainted, for we were in the same situation; each was in the position of having no more than a year in which to read the English School, for had we taken two we would have been overstanding for Honours. I had read the History School before, and he Honour Classical Mods and Greats. Apart from this similarity of situation, we shared the good fortune of having F. P. Wilson for our tutor in English literature, arid all that year we lived at the rate of eight or ten working hours a day pressing forward under his unerring guidance, over the terra incognita (as it virtually was for us) of English poetry and prose. It was a continuous intoxication of discovery: to almost every week came its amazement. I remember particularly our excitement on first reading the poems of John Donne, who was just beginning, in those early years, to be known again after two centuries of contemptuous neglect. We were uninhibitedly happy in our work and felt supported by an endless energy.

There was no reason why we should not have been happy; we had both just emerged safely from a war which (we then believed) had ended war for ever. We had survived the trenches, the nightmare was over, we were at Oxford, we were in our early twenties. The old order seemed not only restored but renewed; life and art lay before us for exploration and the interchange of ideas, and we seemed to be experiencing what happened to Odin and his fellow-gods when they returned after their long twilight; finding their golden chessmen where they had left them in the grass, they sat down and went on with the game.

We saw clearly what lay before us, a life of reading and teaching, perhaps of writing — for, as we confessed to each other very soon, we both hoped to be poets, or at least writers. It was not until six or seven years later that Lewis said sadly to me, 'When I at last realized that I was not, after all, going to be a great man...' I think he meant 'a great poet'. In those early days however nothing seemed impossible as we fed our imaginations on all the best that had been written in our language; for it wonderfully illuminated, for both of us, the other subjects we had been studying up till then. In my case, all the history I had so painfully and uncomprehendingly imbibed for three years and more in the History School became suddenly intelligible to me in terms of its poetry. I had, for instance, taken the reign of Richard II as my special subject; but none of my history tutors had thought of suggesting anything so obvious as that I should read some Chaucer or Langland. I presume they took it for granted that I knew them already; so they were never mentioned, and I, in my ignorance, was virtually unaware of them. But now, while all that the chronicles and other sources had told me of the reign of Richard was still fresh in my head, the poetry of The Canterbury Tales and Piers Plowman suddenly added a new dimension to history for me: and these poems, of course, were no less vivified in their turn by what I knew of the fourteenth century.

Nevill Coghill
“Light on C.S. Lewis” (1965)

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