The Shapes

A Confession

I am so coarse, the things the poets see

Are obstinately invisible to me.

For twenty years I’ve stared my level best

To see if evening — any evening — would suggest

A patient etherized upon a table;

In vain. I simply wasn’t able.

To me each evening looked far more

Like the departure from a silent, yet a crowded, shore

Of a ship whose freight was everything, leaving behind

Gracefully, finally, without farewells, marooned mankind.

Red dawn behind a hedgerow in the east

Never, for me, resembled in the least

A chilblain on a cocktail-shaker’s nose;

Waterfalls don’t remind me of torn underclothes,

Nor glaciers of tin-cans. I’ve never known

The moon look like a hump-backed crone–

Rather, a prodigy, even now

Not naturalized, a riddle glaring from the Cyclops’ brow

Of the cold world, reminding me on what a place

I crawl and cling, a planet with no bulwarks, out in space.

Never the white sun of the wintriest day

Struck me as un crachat d’estaminet.

I’m like that odd man Wordsworth knew, to whom

A primrose was a yellow primrose, one whose doom

Keeps him forever in the list of dunces,

Compelled to live on stock responses,

Making the poor best that I can

Of dull things… peacocks, honey, the Great Wall, Aldebaran

Silver weirs, new-cut grass, wave on the beach, hard gem,

The shapes of horse and woman, Athens, Troy, Jerusalem.

– C.S. Lewis

Lewis found Mr. Eliot’s Comparison of an evening to a patient on an operating table unpleasant, one example of the decay of proper feelings. He mistrusted, in fact, the free play of mere immediate experience. He believed, rather, that man’s attitudes and actions should be governed by, what he calls in the same poem, Stock Responses (e.g. love is sweet, death bitter, and virtue lovely). Man must, for his own safety and pleasure, be taught to copy the Stock Responses in hopes that he may, by willed imitation, make the proper responses. He found this perfectly summed up in Aristotle’s “We learn how to do things by doing the things we are learning to do.”

(Exerpt from the preface to Poems, by Walter Hooper.)

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The Only Comfort

God is the only comfort. He is also the supreme terror: the thing we most need and the thing we most want to hide from. He is our only possible ally, and we have made ourselves His enemies. Some people talk as if meeting the gaze of absolute goodness would be fun. They need to think again. They are still only playing with religion. Goodness is either the great safety or the great danger—according to the way you react to it. And we have reacted the wrong way. . . Of course, I quite agree that the Christian religion is, in the long run, a thing of unspeakable comfort. But it does not begin in comfort; it begins in the dismay I have been describing, and it is no use at all trying to go on to that comfort without first going through that dismay. In religion, as in war and everything else, comfort is the one thing you cannot get by looking for it. If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end: if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth—only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin with and, in the end, despair.

From Mere Christianity

Compiled in Words to Live By

On Forgiveness, with CS Lewis

“He doesn’t say that we are to forgive other people’s sins provided they are not too frightful, or provided there are extenuating circumstances, or anything of that sort. We are to forgive them all, however spiteful, however mean, however often they are repeated.”

– CS Lewis

The Privilege of Individuality

“Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. There are mass emotions which heal the wound; but they destroy the privilege. In them our separate selves are pooled and we sink back into sub-individuality. But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”

C.S. Lewis (An Experiment in Criticism)

The Spirit of Christianity

Dear Ladies,

Who told you that Christians must not go to the theatre, dance, play cards, drink, or smoke? The “World,” you will remember, is mentioned along with the flesh and the devil. The Flesh means sexual vice (but not marriage), drunkenness (but not drinking) enslavement to indulgent habits (but not [illegible], not smoking just as much) and over-eating (but not enjoying one’s meals). The Devil means occultism and magic in all their various forms (spiritualism, astrology, future-telling, avoiding 13, not walking under ladders). The World means worldly ends and ambition (inordinate interest in one’s career, love of money, snobbery, desire to be in the right set, desire for popularity). Of course any of the innocent pleasures may have to be given up in a particular xtreme: e.g. cards must go if you can’t play without becoming totally absorbed in it and drink must go if you can’t drink without taking too much. But a list of general prohibitions such as you suggest is not in the spirit of Christianity at all: it is more like the old Jewish law, from which, as St. Paul says, we are ‘set free’. The test of an innocent pleasure is whether you can with a clean mind give God thanks for it—as I certainly can for a glass of beer on a hot day but can not for being drunk: can be contended without it. It is not the pleasure but the enslavement to an act is bad. I don’t myself know of a particular actor who has been converted—how shd. I—just as I don’t happen to know of a particular postman who has. But I don’t think that means that I must’ve lost the letter. You write again if I haven’t been clear: meanwhile, all good wishes.

Yours sincerely,

C.S. Lewis

Happiness Lies in Him

Everyone has noticed how hard it is to turn our thoughts to God when everything is going well with us. We ‘have all we want ‘ is a terrible saying when ‘all’ does not include God. We find God an interruption. As St. Augustine says somewhere, ‘God wants to give us something, but cannot, because our hands are full—there’s nowhere for Him to put it.’ Or as a friend of mine said, ‘we regard God as an airman regards his parachute; it’s there for emergencies but he hopes he’ll never have to use it.’ Now God, Who has made us, knows what we are and that our happiness lies in Him. Yet we will not seek it in Him as long as He leaves us any other resort where it can even plausibly be looked for. While what we call ‘our own life ‘ remains agreeable we will not surrender it to Him. What then can God do in our interests but make ‘our own life’ less agreeable to us, and take away the plausible source of false happiness?

~C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain