Four Chaps

There were two men, of all the men of that century, brought together in my awareness by influences upon me and my interests: T.S. Eliot and C.S. Lewis. One was classical, the other romantic. One served Apollo and the other Dionysius. But even to say it is to note that this really is not it, though it is true enough.

I wonder, trying to sort out a difference between then, was that the great difference. Groping, I want to say that Eliot was somehow more public-minded. I don’t think that’s entirely off, but I don’t think it expresses exactly the difference. Can I say Lewis had no interest in helping the public?

So what is it then? (It is probably that I do not know enough, but let me keep groping–that is after all the whole point of this blog.)

I think private judgment counted for more with Lewis. When he set out to write fiction, he set out to provide the world with more of the things he wished it had, that he liked. When Eliot set out to write poetry, he did not want to give it more of something he wished it had in the same way. It is a mistake to assume that Eliot utters private statements, to read too much of his tortured biography into his works–in the sense of taking his work as just a putting on display what has happened to himself. He was more public-minded in the sense that he wanted to speak for many. And he spoke for his age.

Lewis spoke in his age, but he did not speak for his age. And perhaps there I’ve managed to put my finger on something. It shows how great was Eliot’s achievement in speaking to his age in the voice that speaks for his age. Plenty have spoken in the voice of the age and said nothing. Plenty speak to the age with the sound of their own private stream (curious, delightful, mordant, useful, many things). I think that’s what Lewis did, who had no qualms about speaking of himself and did so more than once. And he wished to speak to a lot more than for. But Eliot’s voice is the voice of many waters and so it commands particular attention, speaking for his age first and then speaking to it.

It seems to me like the difference between Donne and Herbert. Herbert retires, gives up what he could achieve in the world. Donne never does that, never gives that ambition up, hoping in a public way to be useful. I don’t get the sense that Eliot felt the same way as Donne, that he all his life pursued advancement and public place; you can’t characterize Donne’s life as a successful struggle for resignation which is what can be said of Eliot’s. But Eliot spoke with the voice of his age, just as Donne did.

Did Donne? I think so–though mine is not informed enough to rise above opinion. Is not his voice the Jacobean voice? His expression that of the sensibility of his age? Does not his age speak in his sermons and meditations, the man who had a life-size drawing of himself wrapped in his shroud made not long before he died? You know what they did with that drawing? Had it carved and set in St. Paul’s cathedral where you can still find it today.

Didn’t Herbert, then? No. Of course, any man who speaks in his time speaks with the sound and style of his time. So did Lewis. But Herbert speaks in the private way and not the public way. His sensibility is less centered in his times than is Donne’s. He is more peripheral to his age than Donne. Nobody made of his eccentricities a monument as if those eccentricities said something about them all the way they did with Donne.

Nor would Eliot have been pleased at such for himself. There is, you know, a statue of Lewis in Belfast. Doesn’t the very idea sound wrong? His memorial is a series of books for children which will be read as long as there are reading humans on this planet. It may last longer, that memorial and even the memory. Because for Eliot to be remembered, you need a higher learning and an audience better prepared.


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