Excerpt from ‘The Personal Heresy’ by C. S. Lewis: The Only Hope for Poetry
In this book, chapters alternate in authorship between Lewis and a Dr. E. M. W. Tillyard. It is a debate over the question of whether the poet’s personality is what is expressed in a poem, as poem.
At the end of his last chapter, Lewis decides to explain his views on what poetry actually is – on what the poet is. He does what any good definition writer should do – rather than seeking the highest and most rarified example of what he’s defining, he is careful to draw the boundary so that all genuine members of the group are included.
He says that in his day, there’s a need to move against “poetolatry” which might be defined as a tendency to think and talk about poets and poetry as divine. Or, divin-ish.
He warns that if something isn’t done, poetry will disappear. His manner of bringing poetry back down to earth does not echo Wordsworth’s, whom he accuses of trying to describe poetry in completely non-poetical ways. In other words, he feels that the common reader actually wants to be talked to in an “interesting” way – that is, with a special or poetic diction.
The truth is that the value of literature, as of other utterances, has always been pretty well understood by the great mass of readers. Of any utterance, whether conversational or poetical, our first demand is that it should be interesting. I am afraid we cannot make it more definite than that. It may be interesting for all sorts of reasons; because it is so funny, because it is so true, because it is so unexpected, or because it does just what we were expecting so well, because it carries us away from daily life into such fine regions of fantasy, or because it brings us back to our immediate surroundings with such a home-felt sense of reality. I know that different things interest different people. It cannot be helped. That is interesting simpliciter which interests the wise man. And in the second place, we demand that an utterance, besides entertaining, charming, or exciting us for the moment, should have a desirable permanent effect on us if possible – should make us either happier, or wiser, or better. There is nothing ‘moral’ in the narrower sense about this, though morals come into it. It is all of piece with what we want in other departments of life: a man wants his food to be nourishing as well as palatable, his games to be healthy as well as enjoyable, his wife to be a good companion and housekeeper as well as a pleasing sexual mate. I conclude, then, that the old critics were perfectly right when they demanded of literature the utile and the dulce, solas and doctryne, pleasure and profit. All attempts to produce a neater or more impressive scheme have, in my opinion, failed. The only two questions to ask about a poem, in the long run, are, firstly, whether it is interesting, enjoyable, attractive, and secondly, whether this enjoyment wears well and helps or hinders you toward all the other things you would like to enjoy, or do, or be.
The value of a poem consisting in what it does to the readers, all questions about the poet’s own attitude to his utterance are irrelevant. The question of his ‘sincerity’ or ‘disinterestedness’ should be for ever banished from criticism. The dyslogistic terms ‘insincere’, ‘spurious’, ‘bogus’, ‘sham’, &c.; are mere emotive noises, signifying that the speaker is unwilling to keep silence, but has not yet discovered what is wrong with the poem. Unable to answer the real question , ‘What, in this series of words, excites a feeling of hostility which prevents enjoyment?’ he invents answers to the irrelevant question, ‘What was the poet’s state of mind when he wrote.?’
The most characteristic contents of literary utterances are stories – accounts of events that did not take place. The primary value of these is that they are interesting. But why they interest, and in what different ways, and what permanent results they produce in the reader, I do not profess to know. Oddly enough, criticism has discussed this very little. Between Aristotle and the modern mythographical school of Miss Maud Bodkin, Professor Wilson Knight, and Professor D. G. James, we find almost nothing. It is in this direction, I suggest, that critical effort can be most profitably expended.
It will be seen that the tendency of my theory is, in some degree, to lower that status of the poet as poet. But that is because I think the only hope for poetry now lies in lowering his status. Unless he speedily returns to the workmanlike humility of his great predecessors and submits to the necessity of interesting and pleasing as a preliminary to doing anything else, the art of poetry will disappear from among us altogether. It may be that in the past we took too little pains to hear the difficult tune that some new poets were playing; but we have now learned our lesson too well. The Ugly Duckling has stuck too deep in our minds, and we are afraid to condemn any abortion lest it should prove in the end to be a swan. It is high time to remember another story in Hans Anderson which teaches a lesson at least equally important. It is called The Emperor’s New Clothes.
– C. S. Lewis