In the letters between C.S. Lewis and Arthur Greeves (most of them by Lewis) the 149th comes as Lewises reply to Greeves. Greeves had just undergone literary rejection, and though we do not have the letter that broke the news to Lewis, it is plain that Greeves had suffered a great blow. Lewis sympathized in a stern way. With his reply, he sent Greeves a bit of his journal in which he noted down his great struggle with the same sort of rejection and the awful despondency it brought on.
The despondency, in part, was due to the investment made. Lewis and Greeves had already cultivated connections and hoped for nothing so much as to become successful writers. All their correspondence is about books: they talk about contents, they talk about bindings and editions, they have a constellation of pleasures in common all around books. So Lewis writes to Greeves in 1930 and reminds him that he himself has gone through the same: has been rejected, has been despondent, has been subsequently accepted, and has still failed because the book bombed. He is a literary failure, he concludes, and he tells Greeves sternly: you must be prepared to accept this too before you can get on with your life.
Pause and reflect on that: in 1930 he was resigned to literary failure. He knew he could not stop writing, but now he had given up on success.
I know you’re looking through this letter for some scrap of commendation of your literary merit, Lewis says (or something like that) as he writes to his depressed and greatest friend. “But don’t you also see that I mustn’t give it?” That, after all, is not how mortification works.
After the letter itself comes the bit from Lewises journal. Lewis searches out his heart on the matter of his own devastating rejection in a strange and logical way. He rejects false conclusions and finally settles on one thing: he is disappointed because he wants to have the rank of poet for himself. One of the observations he makes that most struck me was that he notes that even if an angel were to tell him his poem was the best written ever but will never be acknowledged as such by mankind, he would have to admit he would still be disappointed. This, along with the recollection that he was truly happy writing the poem when only the object was in view, leads him to conclude in a way that begins to formulate some of the ideas that would later characterize his understanding of humility. He concluded that the subject has somehow eclipsed the view of the object of his endeavors. He was not content as he ought to have been to see what he saw, he wanted to be known as the person who saw such things.
He has footnotes, perhaps written for the benefit of Arthur Greeves, in his journal entry. He mentions in one of them Kant’s equalizing notion that we ought only to want for ourselves what we might universally desire for everyone else. This excludes the notion of pre-eminence, of course, which one cannot universalize. Lewis needed to mortify that sentimentality, Ambition; he needed to focus on the object and refuse to let the subject eclipse that view. That lesson led to a pretty good book eventually: Surprised by Joy.
Curious, isn’t it?
And here is one of the most unsentimental of all our poets, with a poem that I think says something much the same:
The Thread of Life
The irresponsive silence of the land,
The irresponsive sounding of the sea,
Speak both one message of one sense to me: —
Aloof, aloof, we stand aloof, so stand
Thou too aloof bound with the flawless band
Of inner solitude; we bind not thee;
But who from thy self—chain shall set thee free?
What heart shall touch thy heart? what hand thy hand?—
And I am sometimes proud and sometimes meek,
And sometimes I remember days of old
When fellowship seemed not so far to seek
And all the world and I seemed much less cold,
And at the rainbow’s foot lay surely gold,
And hope felt strong and life itself not weak.
Thus am I mine own prison. Everything
Around me free and sunny and at ease:
Or if in shadow, in a shade of trees
Which the sun kisses, where the gay birds sing
And where all winds make various murmuring;
Where bees are found, with honey for the bees;
Where sounds are music, and where silences
Are music of an unlike fashioning.
Then gaze I at the merrymaking crew,
And smile a moment and a moment sigh
Thinking: Why can I not rejoice with you ?
But soon I put the foolish fancy by:
I am not what I have nor what I do;
But what I was I am, I am even I.
Therefore myself is that one only thing
I hold to use or waste, to keep or give;
My sole possession every day I live,
And still mine own despite Time’s winnowing.
Ever mine own, while moons and seasons bring
From crudeness ripeness mellow and sanative;
Ever mine own, till Death shall ply his sieve;
And still mine own, when saints break grave and sing.
And this myself as king unto my King
I give, to Him Who gave Himself for me;
Who gives Himself to me, and bids me sing
A sweet new song of His redeemed set free;
He bids me sing: O death, where is thy sting?
And sing: O grave, where is thy victory?