Wednesday, October 30, 2013

C.S. Lewis and Thomas Merton: poetic affinities

It is a rare day, indeed, when C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) and Thomas Merton (1915-1968) are breathed in the same breath. There are many who bow low to Lewis, and many others genuflect to Merton. Both men, for different reasons, have an ample following. Is it even possible to think of these men as having anything in common?

We do know that Lewis was quite fond of Merton. John Brown did a thesis at Union Seminary on race relations in the 1960s, and in a letter to Merton, he had this to say. “I am rather ashamed to admit that you are the first Roman Catholic writer that I have read seriously, and then only on the recommendation of C. S. Lewis, who in a letter not long before he died, stated that he had discovered your writing, and found it quite the best spiritual writing he had come across in a long time”. Merton replied to Brown (August 7 1968). “Thanks for your kind letter. I am certainly happy to think that so sound a judge as C.S. Lewis found something to like in my writing” (The Road to Joy: p. 369) . Merton’s interest in Lewis, though, can be traced back to a book review he did of The Personal Heresy in 1939.

Thomas Merton had finished his MA in English Literature at Columbia University in 1939. The thesis was on William Blake. ‘Nature and Art in William Blake: An Essay in Interpretation’ was a rather interesting read of Blake that few would approve or accept today. Northrop Frye’s magisterial book on Blake, Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake (1947), had not yet been published. But, Merton was very much in the thick of literary criticism at the time, and he was ahead of his time with his interest in Blake. Merton was primed and pumped to do his PH.D., and G.M. Hopkins held his attention. It seemed, from a certain perspective, that Merton was well on his way to becoming an academic and professor. A few more years of solid work on Hopkins, and a thesis behind him, and Merton would be well set on a solid vocational path.

C.S. Lewis, in the 1920s- 1930s, had serious concerns about both the poetry and literary theories of T.S. Eliot. Eliot was editor at the time of one of the most influential literary magazines: Criterion. Lewis sent Eliot an essay to be published in Criterion that reflected his worries. Lewis’ essay, ‘The Personal Heresy in Criticism’ took both Eliot and Tillyard to task in the way they interpreted Dante and Milton. Lewis thought that it was inappropriate to use an author’s writing to learn more about the author. A poem should be studied in and for itself not as a door into the soul of the creator. Lewis sent the article to Eliot in 1931. Eliot refused to publish the essay. The issue, though, would not go away. In fact, the personal heresy took on a fuller and more animated life. The essay was, finally, published in Essays and Studies in 1934. More articles rolled off the pens of Tillyard and Lewis, and they were published in Essays and Studies in 1935 and 1936. Is poetry merely a form of veiled autobiography? Lewis would have none of it. Tillyard thought there was some truth in the suggestion. The essays were finally published as The Personal Heresy: A Controversy (1939). Merton realized this was a book that had to be reviewed.

Merton studied at Clare College, Cambridge from the autumn of 1933 to the spring of 1934. Merton might have heard of Lewis at the time, although Lewis was at Oxford. Merton did a full course on Dante when at Cambridge, and Lewis was immersed in the Medieval-Renaissance era and Dante. Lewis was, obviously, a few decades ahead of Merton on the journey. Lewis was to have a profound impact on the renewal of the Classical catholic tradition to which Merton would turn as he followed the lead of prominent Roman Catholic thinkers such as Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson. There is no doubt that there were important affinities between Lewis and Merton. Merton’s turn to the Cistercians in 1941 as his monastic family very much reflected a turn to a Medieval and Classical notion of the Roman Catholic tradition.

The fact that Merton decided to review The Personal Heresy (1939) in The New York Times (July 9 1939) does need to be heeded, and the fact that Merton, for the most part, sided with Lewis against Tillyard needs to be noted, also. The main points of Merton’s review do need to be briefly summarized. The review has been republished in The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton (1960).

Merton had completed his MA on Blake, but he was also a poet, novelist and interested in literary criticism. This meant that he was reading and pondering some of the more pertinent theories and ideas of the time in the 1930s. There is no doubt, given Merton’s area of interest, that Tillyard and Lewis articulated different and at odds views in the area of literary criticism. Merton was the novice, and Lewis-Tillyard the opposing Abbas.

‘E.M.W. Tillyard and C.S. Lewis—A Spirited Debate on Poetry’ can be read at a variety of levels. Merton had done his MA on Blake, and Blake had certainly engaged Milton, and Merton walked the extra mile to situate Blake within aspects of the Medieval heritage. This meant that Merton could not but read Tillyard and Lewis. Tillyard had published two significant articles on Milton and literary theory, and Lewis had more than won his academic stripes with the publication of The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition (1936). Merton flags this reality at the beginning of the review of The Personal Heresy.

Merton notes that ‘it is Mr. Lewis who dominates the whole subject’, and ‘Mr. Tillyard seems only to be presenting a mere foil for Mr. Lewis’ ideas’.

What, though, is the core of the issue? Merton summed it up succinctly.

‘Reconstructing verses into personalities and using the images of poetry for the experiments of psychoanalyis constitute heresy….its value as poetry cannot be judged in terms of Freud or the history of language’. Tillyard, for example, in his work on Milton, had suggested that Milton’s description of Satan ‘was really describing himself’.Merton did lean, therefore, towards Lewis and his position, but he was also willing to recognize that Lewis might have gone too far with his notion, and Tillyard had spoken some truth. ‘Some poems, however, cannot fail to communicate a vague idea of their author’s personality’. This is Merton at his nimble and supple best, weighing and evaluating, unwilling to be an uncritical ideologue. Merton makes it clear that the poetry of Milton, Donne, Blake, Swinburne and Marvell are the products of different personalities and dispositions, and the poetry does say something about the authors.

Merton recognizes, in the controversy, that Tillyard does ease off from his position ‘under pressure of Mr. Lewis’ arguments, but he does arrive at an interesting definition of his position’. Tillyard does argue that there are ‘mental patterns’ that do say something about that poet’s personality, and these patterns are embodied in the poems. This means that Tillyard is more interested in something deeper in the poet’s soul than the mere details of biography. Merton has certainly, in the review, heard both Lewis and Tillyard well. He has refused to take uncritical sides in the debate. Both men, as literary critics, were onto something, and Merton wanted to know just what these literary directors had to say.

The core of the book seems to hinge on the meaning of “personality”, and the relationship of the ‘mental patterns’ of a poet, the poems of the poet and the deeper significance of personality. Lewis in his logic chopping way might have missed some of the more oblique yet insightful aspects of Tillyard’s thought just as Tillyard needed to deepen his definitions of poet, personality and poem. Merton’s review, in a thoughtful manner, attempted to synthesize Lewis and Tillyard rather than doff to the one and dismiss the other. This approach speaks much about Merton’s more dialogical and dialectical way of knowing. There is much more to Lewis-Merton affinities than a delving into the details of literary criticism.

Merton completed his controversial Peace in the Post-Christian Era in April 1962, but the Abbot General of the Cistercian order, Dom Gabriel Sortais, banned the book from being published. Peace in the Post-Christian Era probes the historic peace and war traditions within Christianity and leans in the dovish direction. Most Merton scholars are convinced the title for the book was drawn from Lewis’ “De Descriptione Temporum”. When Lewis took the position of Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English Literature at Cambridge University in 1954, his inaugural lecture was called ‘De Descriptione Temporum” (A Description of the Times’). Lewis suggested in the lecture that Western Culture was moving into a ‘Post-Christian era, Christians and Classical pagans might have more in common with one another than both would have in common with non-religious secularists in such a Post-Christian world. Lewis had, of course, argues the same point in Abolition of Man and The Last Battle.

It has been suggested and cogently argued that Lewis’ coining of the term, Post-Christian, was at the heart and centre of Merton’s use of the neologism in Peace and the Post-Christian Era. Patricia Burton’s compact and convincing essays on the topic, ‘Editorial Note Concerning Thomas Merton’s Peace in the Post-Christian Era’ and ‘Forbidden Book: Thomas Merton’s Peace in the Post-Christian Era’ (The Merton Annual: Volume 17, 2004) makes the case of Merton borrowing from Lewis. George Kilcourse argued further in ‘Thomas Merton on the Challenge of the Post-Christian World’ (The Merton Journal: Volume 15, Number 1: Easter 2008), that Merton dipped his bucket deeply in the well of Lewis’ thought in his use of Post-Christian.

Lewis did describe the post WWII times as Post-Christian. Both Lewis and Merton keenly realized that the times were out of joint, and Christians could no more appeal to either the premises or worldview of either Christianity or Christendom. If Christians were ever going to meaningfully address the reality of the Post-Christian West at a serious and substantive level as public intellectuals, a serious rethinking had to be done on how such a dialogue would take place. Both Lewis and Merton, to their credit, were at the centre of this rethinking process, and this is why they still act as mentors and models of how to think and live the Christian journey in the post-Christian world.

Lewis had a great admiration for Merton. He thought Merton was the best writer in the area of spirituality he had come across in a long time. Merton had a great admiration for Lewis. He thought Lewis was a ‘sound judge’ on the important issues. Merton reviewed Lewis’ The Personal Heresy, and he was both convinced by Lewis’ use of ‘Post-Christian’ and committed to articulate the Christian faith in a way that could meaningfully speak to those the lived in such times.

~ Ron Dart
found here clarion journal

Monday, October 28, 2013


What happened is, we grew lonely
living among the things,
so we gave the clock a face,
the chair a back,
the table four stout legs
which will never suffer fatigue.

We fitted our shoes with tongues
as smooth as our own
and hung tongues inside bells
so we could listen
to their emotional language,

and because we loved graceful profiles
the pitcher received a lip,
the bottle a long, slender neck.

Even what was beyond us
was recast in our image;
we gave the country a heart,
the storm an eye,
the cave a mouth
so we could pass into safety.

~ Lisel Mueller
 from Alive Together
with thanks to writers almanac

As she told Karen DeBrulye Cruz, “I write a lot of poems that have tension between what is going on now in society and what has always been there. My poems are much concerned with history. The message is obvious. My family went through terrible times. In Europe no one has had a private life not affected by history. I'm constantly aware of how privileged we (Americans) are.”

notes from poetry foundation

Friday, October 25, 2013

a letter from Fred

nothing arrived

~ Villagers

with thanks to endwell road

Monday, October 21, 2013

the unknown self

So much of what delights and troubles you
Happens on a surface
You take for ground.
Your mind thinks your life alone,
Your eyes consider air your nearest neighbor,
Yet it seems that a little below your heart
There houses in you an unknown self
Who prefers the patterns of the dark
And is not persuaded by the eye's affection
Or caught by the flash of thought.

It is a self that enjoys contemplative patience
With all your unfolding expression,
Is never drawn to break into light
Though you entangle yourself in unworthiness
And misjudge what you do and who you are.

It presides within like an evening freedom
That will often see you enchanted by twilight
Without ever recognizing the falling night,
It resembles the under-earth of your visible life:
All you do and say and think is fostered
Deep in its opaque and prevenient clay.

It dwells in a strange, yet rhythmic ease
That is not ruffled by disappointment;
It presides in a deeper current of time
Free from the force of cause and sequence
That otherwise shapes your life.

Were it to break forth into day,
Its dark light might quench your mind,
For it knows how your primeval heart
Sisters every cell of your life
To all your known mind would avoid,

Thus it knows to dwell in you gently,
Offering you only discrete glimpses
Of how you construct your life.

At times, it will lead you strangely,
Magnetized by some resonance
That ambushes your vigilance.

It works most resolutely at night
As the poet who draws your dreams,
Creating for you many secret doors,
Decorated with pictures of your hunger;

It has the dignity of the angelic
That knows you to your roots,
Always awaiting your deeper befriending
To take you beyond the threshold of want,
Where all your diverse strainings
Can come to wholesome ease.

~ John O'Donohue
art by Gedő, Ilka

Sunday, October 20, 2013

to Holderlin

We are not permitted to linger, even with what is most
intimate.  From images that are full, the spirit
plunges on to others that suddenly must be filled;
there are no lakes till eternity.  Here,
falling is best.  To fall from the mastered emotion 
into the guessed-at, and onward.

To you, O majestic poet, to you the compelling image,
O caster of spells, was a life, entire;  when you uttered it
a line snapped shut like fate,  there was a death
even in the mildest, and you walked straight into it; but
the god who preceded you led you out and beyond it.

O wandering spirit, most wandering of all!  How snugly
the others live in their heated poems and stay,
content, in their narrow smiles.  Taking part.  Only you 
move like the moon.  And underneath brightens and darkens
the nocturnal landscape, the holy, the terrified landscape,
which you feel in departures.  No one
gave it away more sublimely, gave it back
more fully to the universe, without any need to hold on.
Thus for years that you no longer counted, holy, you played
with infinite joy, as though it were not inside you,
but lay, belonging to no one, all around
on the gentle lawns of the earth, where the godlike children had left it.
Ah, what the greatest have longed for: you built it, free of desire,
stone upon stone, till it stood.  And when it collapsed,
even then you weren't bewildered.

Why, after such an eternal life, do we still
mistrust the earthly?  Instead of patiently learning from transience
the emotions for what future
slopes of the heart, in pure space?

~ Rainer Maria Rilke
from Uncollected Poems
translated by Stephen Mitchell

Sunday, October 13, 2013

surprised by evening

There is unknown dust that is near us 
Waves breaking on shores just over the hill 
Trees full of birds that we have never seen 
Nets drawn with dark fish.

The evening arrives; we look up and it is there 
It has come through the nets of the stars 
Through the tissues of the grass 
Walking quietly over the asylums of the waters.

The day shall never end we think:
We have hair that seemed born for the daylight;
But at last the quiet waters of the night will rise 
And our skin shall see far off as it does under water.

~ Robert Bly

the gate of heaven is everywhere

~ Cynthia Bourgeault

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Sophia in Nature - Robert Bly interviewed by Roar Bjonnes

Roar Bjonnes is editor of Prout Journal.The nature of the discourse is in poetic terms.

Bly: According to the Gnostic religion, Sophia looked down upon this planet of ours and decided to descend into it. She entered inside the stones, the trees, the birds, and the water. She went into fire and air. This is the story of Sophia.

Bjonnes: This reminds me of the Tantric concept of Shakti.

Bly: Yes, exactly. Sophia--like Shakti--is an active, powerful force, all-encompassing and all-pervading energy in nature. 

Bly: The ecology movement, then, is a response to the inability of the capitalist world to understand that Sophia is also in the rain-forest  Through the loss of the story of Sophia, the Christian Church has given permission to the capitalists to destroy nature. This was done partly by translating the word "Sophia" as "wisdom". This destroys the story and takes away the feminine quality. There have been many such errors in translating the Old Testament, and we are suffering from those mistakes today.


A scent of ripeness from over a wall.
And come to leave the routine road
And look for what had made me stall,
There sure enough was an apple tree
That had eased itself of its summer load,
And of all but its trivial foliage free,
Now breathed as light as a lady's fan.
For there had been an apple fall
As complete as the apple had given man.
The ground was one circle of solid red.

May something go always unharvested!
May much stay out of our stated plan,
Apples or something forgotten and left,
So smelling their sweetness would be no theft.

~ Robert Frost
from The Collected Poems
found at writers almanac

Friday, October 4, 2013

see ourselves as we are

Relationship is the mirror in which we can see ourselves as we are. All life is a movement in relationship. There is no living thing on earth which is not related to something or other. Even the hermit, a man who goes off to a lonely spot, is related to the past, is related to those who are around him. There is no escape from relationship. In that relationship which is the mirror in which we can see ourselves, we can discover what we are, our reactions, our prejudices, our fears, depression, anxieties, loneliness, sorrow, pain, grief. We can also discover whether we love or there is no such thing as love. 

J. Krishnamurti
from Mind Without Measure