Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Lewis on Narrative Verse and Ritual

I found this paragraph and a half of C.S. Lewis’s A Preface To Paradise Lost to be too good of an introduction to the particularities of narrative verse, and too good an apology for the proper place of ritual for me to cut it up into digestible blog-bites. Read on. It’s only 500 words.

A line which gives the listener pause is a disaster in oral poetry because it makes him lose the next line. And even if he does not lose the next, the rare and ebullient line is not worth making. In the sweep of recitation no individual line is going to count for very much. The pleasure which moderns chiefly desire from printed poetry is ruled out anyway. You cannot ponder over single lines and let them dissolve on the mind like lozenges. That is the wrong way of using this sort of poetry. It is not built up of isolated effects; the poetry is in the paragraph, or the whole episode. To look for single, ‘good’ lines is like looking for single ‘good’ stones in a cathedral.

The language, therefore, must be familiar in the sense of being expected. But in Epic which is the highest species of oral court poetry, it must not be familiar in the sense of being colloquial or commonplace. The desire for simplicity is a late and sophisticated one. We moderns may like dances which are hardly distinguishable from walking and poetry which sounds as if it might be uttered ex tempore. Our ancestors did not. They liked a dance which was a dance, and fine clothes which no one could mistake for working clothes, and feasts that no one could mistake for ordinary dinners, and poetry that unblushingly proclaimed itself to be poetry. What is the point of having a poet, inspired by the Muse, if he tells the stories just as you or I would have told them? It will be seen that these two demands, taken together, absolutely necessitate a Poetic Diction; that is, a language which is familiar because it is used in every part of every poem, but unfamiliar because it is not used outside poetry. A parallel, from a different sphere, would be turkey and plum pudding on Christmas day; no one is surprised at the menu, but every one recognizes that it is not ordinary fare. Another parallel would be the language of a liturgy. Regular church-goers are not surprised by the service—indeed, they know a good deal of it by rote; but it is a language apart. Epic diction, Christmas fare, and the liturgy, are all examples of ritual—that is, of something set deliberatly apart from daily usage, but wholly familiar within its own sphere. The element of ritual which some dislike in Milton’s poetry thus comes into epic at the very beginning. Its propriety in Milton will be considered later; but those who dislike ritual in general—ritual in any and every department of life—may be asked most earnestly to reconsider the question. It is a pattern imposed on the mere flux of our feelings by reason and will, which renders pleasures less fugitive and griefs more endurable, which hands over to the power of wise custom the task (to which the individual and his moods are so inadequate) of being festive or sober, gay or reverent, when we choose to be, and not at the bidding of chance.


  1. That is just wonderful!!

    Paul and I were just talking in the car yesterday about our writing styles. Each of us noted that we have some kind of switch we flip when writing which remains inactive in regular daily interaction. Paul, for instance, is far wittier in writing, and far more extroverted. I asked Paul if reading my writing was like seeing a different side of me. He said it was like me, but if I was giving a pubic address, not casual. And that seems right for me. I was brought up to think of writing as a special form of communication. As I told him, many writers (I'm specifically thinking of bloggers just now) that are very popular aren't really writers, they're talkers. I don't mean this as a dig, mind you, just an observation. When I talk, I talk; when I write, I write, and those, to me, are two very different things. Writing for me is formal....set apart....special.

    As to Milton, the edition I'm reading from is so laden with footnotes that more of the page is covered with notes than with poetry. I think this is what derailed me in my first effort to read it. (I am religious reader of footnotes.) This time I determined not to let the footnotes interrupt the flow unless absolutely necessary. Reading aloud I got through the first book in just an hour or so. It was definitely meant to be read aloud.

  2. My writing style always veers towards stuffiness. It is formal, and often when it is casual, it is calculatedly so. I don't speak in the same cadences, or the same diction with which I write. When writing I listen to the words. When speaking casually, I'm just struggling to get through it without looking like an idiot. If I have the luxury of a relaxed and prolonged conversation then I'll be looking for the right verbal images. My wife says I repeat myself with many variations. Next time she does so, I'm going to point out this bit from C.S. Lewis from Chapter IV of the same book:

    "The 'proper' oral technique of the later poem, that which distinguishes it most sharply from Homer, is the variation or parallelism which most of us have first met in the Psalms. 'He that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh them to scorn; the Lord shall have them in derision.' The rule is that nearly everything must be said more than once. The cold prose about the ship in which Scyld's dead body was sent away (Beowulf 50) is that nobody knew what became of it. The poetical rendering is that 'Men knew not to say for a truth, the talkers in the hall knew not, warriors under the sky knew not, who received that cargo.'"

    So, I'm exercising a Psalmic tradition. Plus I'm Trinitarian, so I have to say everything 3 times. And my parents are both school teachers -- every point needs to be driven home thrice.

    And, as of right now... Happy New Year.

  3. Ha! Happy New Year to you!

    Ain't it grand when the greats can make us feel better about ourselves?! And even better yet when we can bring them alongside, like a second to a duel....

    Is there such a thing as a second at a duel...or did I confuse that with the car race scene from Grease? Oh well, you're a smart guy. You get my point.

  4. Your comment about the Milton copy which is all footnotes brought to mind the preface from Lewis's The Discarded Image.

    "I cannot boast that it contains much which a reader could not have found out for himself if, at every hard place in the old books, he had turned to commentators, histories, encyclopaedias, and other such helps. I thought the lectures worth giving and the book worth writing because that method of discovery seemed to me and seems to some others rather unsatisfactory. For one thing, we turn to the helps only when the hard passages are manifestly hard. But there are treacherous passages which will not send us to the notes. They look easy and aren't. Again, frequent researches ad hoc sadly impair receptive reading, so that sensitive people may even come to regard scholarship as a baleful thing which is always taking you out of the literature itself. My hope was that if a tolerable (though very incomplete) outfit were acquired beforehand and taken along with one, it might lead in. To be always looking at the map when there is a fine prospect before you shatters the 'wise passiveness' in which landscape ought to be enjoyed. But to consult a map before we set out has no such ill effect. Indeed it will lead us to many propspects; including some we might never have found by following our noses."

    I have the Norton Critical Edition of Paradise Lost. I'm finding myself relieved that the footnotes aren't referenced in the lines, themselves. They are there at the bottom of the page to be consulted if one gets stuck or in review. I, too, am an obsessive note reader. I can't help but think I will miss something vital if I don't read them all.

  5. Heh. Yes, there are seconds in dueling. What I know of dueling comes from War and Peace and from the true history of how the great Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin, met his demise.

    I'm sure everyone is getting sick of the Lewis quotes. I honestly hadn't picked up anything of Lewis since 1998-1999. (Mmmm. Except for a re-reading of Narnia 5 or 6 years ago.) All of a sudden I'm finding him incredibly relevant to me.

  6. I'm nowhere near sick of Lewis quotes.

    My edition seems quite old, though I cannot find a date on it. It is edited by Sir Egerton Brydges, Bart. (Whatever Bart. means) His "Introductory Remarks" could be well subtitled "wherein I gush". He actually hints at the possibly that the work might be divinely inspired: "...that of all uninspired writings (if these be uninspired)..."

    The footnotes are occasionally helpful, but as I said before, I'm resisting them except when I really think it might help to peek. I did this only on two occasions in Book II and almost laughed out loud to realized I'd broken from my reading just for a note that said, in so many words, "This is a really good part!" Well, here, I'll quote the note verbatim, so you can grin. "The grandeur here both of the thought and the picture is incomparable." Yep, that was the whole note. Good thing he pointed that out.

    As for what Lewis says about reading a map first, I can tell you that just having someone tell you something about the story beforehand really makes those parts stand out more. Today Paul mentioned a bit he thought was in Book One, assuming I'd already gotten to it. It didn't sound familiar, so I figured I'd missed it somehow. Well, turns out it was in Book II and it really jumped out at me, because we had discussed the concept of it previously. (It was the part about Lethe, the river of oblivion, which the inhabitants of hell were not allowed access to lest they lose some of there sensitivity to their misery.

    Anyway, I can say that I thought Book II was amazing.

    As a for-instance, the various activities the devils undertook to busy themselves while awaiting the return were so like the ways in which lost mankind busies itself and distracts itself until the day of judgment: some engaged in sport, other ran amock with violent activity, still others turned to musical entertainments, and most sophisticated yet, others became theologians and philosophers.


    And the origin and personification of sin and death really captured my imagination (no easy feat!)

    And all so suspenseful too.

  7. That should read "while awaiting the return of Satan". Eesh.


Don't be a jerk.