Cambridge, and Criticism

[Image: Girton College]

I knew C. S. Lewis only during his last years when he was Professor of English at Cambridge. His arrival there coincided with my own, it so happened; I had been invited to return to my old College (Girton) as a Research Fellow, in order to complete my work on William Blake. This invitation came through Dr Bradbrook, who had herself been a pupil of C. S. Lewis for a time in Oxford, and it was she who invited him out to Girton to the dinner-party at which I met him for the first time. I had not expected to like him so much, for at that time I had read only The Problem of Pain and The Screwtape Letters which I did not feel to be in any way for me; but to meet him was to know that here was a man of great learning, continuously kindled into life by imagination. He seemed to possess a kind of boyish greatness — an unique combination of qualities, in my experience, for in him neither seemed to vitiate the other. He was not, certainly intellectually boyish (no reader of his works of scholarship could suppose that) but in the freshness and joyousness with which he carried his learning. I think of Stevenson's line as particularly applicable to him, “Glory of youth glowed in his soul.” The sense of glory has become rare, even in youth; was it perhaps an Irish trait in him, never to doubt the worth of the game? — and for him learning was a joyful and inexhaustible game.

Among so many academic figures whose attitude towards literature was one of bored superiority or active hatred, his love of the material itself was life-giving as a spring in a desert. I went to some of his lectures on the 'matter' of Rome, France, and Britain, and remember how he made the dullest Latin text seem enthralling (he would I am sure here have retorted that no one could possibly consider Boethius dull). The element of play was never far away. He came to tea one day I remember, and walking in the Girton grounds began to imagine how Dryden would have written Blake's The Tyger. He produced instantly a fine couplet (I wish I could remember it) then exclaimed, “No, that is much too good for Dryden, it is almost good enough for Pope,” and unhesitatingly set about polishing it up to Pope's standard. He could put together clear well-made sentences even in verse, and I have heard him express astonishment at how badly a certain world-famous professional colleague put together even the simplest sentence — a sign, he thought, of a fundamental insensitivity to language.

He took a poor view of 'literary criticism' and once asked me if I did not think it entirely useless? I said that I did: scholarship can help towards the better understanding of a poem whose difficulty arises from our lack of certain knowledge; but criticism is a kind of mould or cancer. I found in him an enthusiastic ally in my own work on the sources of William Blake, and little more than a week before his death I received a letter from him from which, since its application goes beyond my own work, I quote: “Yes. Once one goes in for Blake (or Milton or Kipling) one meets, disguised as literary critics, a great many dissentients of quite a different sort. But you'll knock 'em all down, like a second Camilla. Plenty of fact, reasoning as brief and clear as English sunshine, and no personal comment at all.” That was the only kind of criticism he was any use for.

Light on C. S. Lewis (Bles 1965)
“From a Poet” by Kathleen Raine

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

+ Love CS Lewis on the Bible, Biblical criticism & his Narnia books!

Mike M @