Saturday, 24 October 2015

‘A great book, the only one of his that gives me unalloyed pleasure.’

The ‘great book’ is C. S. Lewis’s English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, about which I started to tell you in my September blog. And the person who said this was none other than Lewis’s friend, J. R. R. Tolkien.

Let’s not use this remark as fuel for the debate about why Tolkien and Lewis became estranged. Instead, let’s remember that in ELISC Lewis was doing his real job, the task which his education and profession had formed him for, and not straying into disciplines in which he was, strictly speaking, an amateur. Tolkien was enjoying the mature fruit of Lewis’s lifetime study of our foundational literature.

And professional this book is. You don’t have to know much about the subject to enjoy the book, because you are in the hands of a writer who knows it inside out, loves it, and only wants to convey his excitement and fascination with it.

Let me attempt to convey this to you by plunging you into the midst of the book. In order to prepare us for his discussion of the sixteenth century, Lewis lays a foundation of literary developments in the preceding century. And because there are two English-speaking countries to deal with, he has a chapter each on England and Scotland. And Scotland gets the first chapter, because—did you know?—literature blossomed in fifteenth-century Scotland, while in England it gradually declined.

So here we are reading about a period we scarcely know in a country whose early history, unless we are Scots, we likewise scarcely know: the reign of James IV. And one of the great names in this period is Gavin Douglas, who ended up as Bishop of Dunkeld (well, actually he was ejected from the see before he died in 1522). Probably Douglas’s greatest work is his translation of Virgil’s Aeneid. Are you beginning to get bored? Well, don’t be, because this apparently dry terrain brings out the very best in Lewis. It’s worth letting him be your safari leader.

One of the things he tells us is that the language Douglas uses to translate Virgil’s Latin strikes the reader, if they are reasonably versed in classical studies, as terribly homely and familiar, almost undignified and unworthy of the high poetry of Virgil. Lewis uses the translation by Dryden, 150 or so years later, as a point of comparison. So Douglas writes

her nek schane like unto the rois in May (her neck shone like the rose in May)

where Dryden has

she turned and made appear Her neck refulgent

In another place, Douglas has

in caroling the lusty ladeis went

where Dryden didn’t translate the Latin at all.

Lewis’s point is that Douglas seems to us unsuitably un-Virgilian and ‘medieval’. But in fact, the world of Douglas and the world of Virgil were much closer in spirit than we are to either. What has happened since Douglas’s time is the establishment of the concept of ‘classicism’, which was created by the fifteenth and sixteenth century ‘humanists’ of the Renaissance; ‘the spectral solemnity, the gradus epithets, the dictionary language, the decorum which avoids every contact with the senses and the soil’, as Lewis puts it.

Lewis is telling us something really important about our culture, for even if we never studied the classics, never learnt Latin or Greek, western culture has inculcated into us a completely false concept of ‘classicism’, bequeathed to us by the so-called ‘revival of learning’. One can see why Tolkien enjoyed it.


  1. This is fascinating. It was an aspect of Lewis, and if the time, of which I had never heard. Thank you

  2. This IS fascinating. When I was reading English at Cambridge, we were advised against reading any of CS Lewis' literary criticism, especially the Allegory of Love, because it was "outdated" "too controversial" and he "made things up" apparently! I read it anyway, and this makes me want to read it again.

  3. I really enjoyed reading this piece. I always found Lewis's work a powerful antidote to the constant diet of FR Leavis that we were fed.

  4. Love the comparison of Douglas and Dryden's efforts at translation. Lewis down to earth and unencumbered by attempts to make English studies obscure, or dependent on a belief than the progression of time always means a progression in 'sophistication', and thus newer ideas must always replace old and 'less valuable past ones.