CS Lewis: Selected Literary Essays

Lewis, C. S. Selected Literary Essays.  Cambridge University Press, reprint 2018.

Before all else Lewis was a literary critic.  Here we see him in his element. He covers the area between early English poetry (and these are his most technical essays) to the 19th century novel. Throughout we are treated to his devastating wit.

Even in his most technical essays (usually concerning how a meter in some obscure medieval poem should be read), we still get his wisdom.  He notes, contrary to many “rad trad” Catholics today who paint the Reformation as a parasite upon a “happy medievalism,” that such a view never existed.  “[Sir Thomas] More would not have understood the idea, sometimes found in modern writers, that he and his friends were defending a ‘Merry’ Catholic England against sour precisions” (Lewis 116).

On Jane Austen.  Lewis points out that Austen writes with the same manly style as Samuel Johnson.  Indeed, she has a “firmness,” using the “great abstract nouns of the classical English moralists…. ‘Good sense, courage, contentment, fortitude” (178).  Lewis concludes, “Contrasted with the world of modern fiction, Jane Austen’s is at once less soft and less cruel” (179).

On Poverty of Style: Lewis notes that bad style isn’t failure to conform to a priori rules.  In fact, listing what makes “good style” is often hard to state. The reader can intuit it, nonetheless.  An example of bad style is when something like strong emotions are called for yet the author “is content with a vague approximation of emotion,” so that the “banality is spread all around” (269).

Bad style is insensitivity to language.

The Literary Impact of the Authourised Version

We know the King James translation had an impact of English literature.  Lewis suggests that the real influence might not be where you think it is.  Its style is exalted by today’s standards. It was not always so. The concepts, especially the historical form, were often embarrassing for ancient writers.  Tyndale, by contrast, has a much healthier approach. He loves the Bible for “its grossness. ‘God is a Spirit,’ he writes, ‘And all his words are spiritual. His literal sense is spiritual’” (quoted in Lewis 131).

The greatest English prose writer of the age, Tyndale’s enemy, Thomas Moore, agreed with Tyndale, ironically, but came to a different conclusion: it’s not good prose (by the then current standards). Writers of high English prose in the 18 century agreed. Edward Harwood wrote a more pristine translation of the English Bible.  Why would he have needed to do that if the King James style was always considered exalted?

Lewis’s argument is that the Romantic movement saw that the King James style fit neatly with key motifs that were found both in the Bible and in the Romantic imagination: shepherds, shepherd-kings, etc.

The Vision of John Bunyan

Bunyan’s chief point of greatness is his mastery “of perfect naturalness in the mimesis of ordinary conversation” (146).  Of course, given that Bunyan wrote in allegories, Lewis explains to us how to read and not read allegory in Bunyan (or Spenser). If we see a green valley, “We ought not to be thinking ‘This green valley represents humility;’ we ought to be discovering , as we read, that humility is like that green valley’” (149). We move into the book from concept to image.

It’s best to read this as a guidebook rather than cover-to-cover.  This text contains hard-to-find essays and gives the reader some insights to Lewis’s social vision (e.g., see his essay on William Morris’s socialism).

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