A Second Excerpt from “The Personal Heresy” by C. S. Lewis: Importance vs. Taste


Try to plainly tell a literary sort your opinion of poetry, and most likely you will be shouted down unless you can produce some very recent theorist to support your views. No one but a member of the currently approved elite is held to be able to reason or think or feel effectively about literature; it has been removed entirely from the orbit of the person of common intelligence.

C. S. Lewis, one of the most brilliant and no-nonsense thinkers in the last century, ran into the same problem. His contempt for it is more politely expressed than my own but is perhaps all the more enjoyable for that.

I have put in my own paragraph breaks for ease of reading.

Where the (instructed reader) is to be found may be indicated by the contrasted stories of Mr. A and Mr. B.

Mr. A had never read a line of poetry till he came to Oxford. There he suddenly found himself, on the strength of a few introductions, in a literary set. A world of first editions, ‘movements’, periodicals, and gossip about great contemporaries, burst on him with the suddenness of a tropic dawn. He became a reader of poetry in three weeks and a poet in six. He met one of the great. He saw himself in print.

He is now a free-lance journalist, living in the heart of the movement, keeping well up to date, reading every one, meeting every one, reviewing every one, being reviewed by everyone; and he knows, if possible, even more about the future of literature than about its present.

Mr. B, on the other hand, has never, I am afraid, read anything beyond the first page except because he liked it. He developed this habit at about the age of ten, and he had discovered most of the English poets, on wet days, before he was fifteen. He lived in an unliterary family and never dreamed that his taste for poetry was a ground for commendation. He has learned to like some of the moderns, but he reads only the ones he likes.

I never could drive into his head the concept of ‘importance’ in poetry. He always wants to know if it is good, and whether I think he would enjoy it. He can’t read many reviews; indeed – if it is not incredible – he once found a favourable review of a book of his own too dull to finish. He is very ill informed.

If I wanted to find out what is going I should certainly ask Mr. A. But in sheer criticism, Mr. B. is the man for my money.

– C. S. Lewis


  1. Mr. B’s not reading “anything beyond the first page except because he liked it” reminded me of a person I mentioned previously, John Ciardi (one-time poetry editor of the magazine “Saturday Review,” now defunct). In describing how he managed to sort through all the submissions, he said that he would gather the poems together, read only the first line of each one, and make two piles–those he would give a second reading and those he would reject immediately. I’m sure that was a “Mr. B type” approach to his day job.

    But on another note, your essays on Madeleine L’ Engle cannot be accessed on this blog, so there is no longer a forum for discussing it’s merits since the thread at Eclectic Orthodoxy has been closed. (Besides, the comments there seemed to get rather far away from her poems.) Any chance of reposting the complete essays here, or do you handle agreement not to?


    • No, it’s perfectly all right for me to post them here. Let me get back home from vacation in a couple days and I’ll do that. It would be nice to have that sort of discussion.


  2. And here’s a third character for this scenario: I ‘ll call her Mrs. C., ( as discussed in the paragraphs below selected from an interview with Jane Hirschfield)

    ” . . .something I’ve long thought about. How there are poems that have never been published, poems I’ve never read and that perhaps no one but their writers have read, which still have the capacity to change the world.

    ” ‘The Poet,’ from my fourth book, The Lives of the Heart, is directly about that. It envisions a woman writing—someone who may not have any of the good luck you and I share, who may not have access to journals or books, who may scarcely have enough electricity to power a single light bulb, or have paper, a chair, a pen—and it recognizes that what she is writing may well be the poems I most need. Even if I will never see them, that can be so, . . .

    “What provoked that comment in Ten Windows, though, was a Cavafy poem, “For the Shop.” It describes a jeweler who keeps his most astonishing pieces hidden, selling only trinkets and baubles. Cavafy himself, during his life, sewed his poems up into private booklets and gave them only to a few friends. ”

    ( – http://www.divedapper.com/interview/jane-hirshfield/ )

    Liked by 1 person

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