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by Scott Dodge

Flying on the back of Fledge (formerly known as Strawberry, the used up cab-pulling horse), on assignment from Aslan, over the newly-created land of Narnia, Digory said to Polly, “I wish we had someone to tell us what all those places are.” Polly responded, “I don’t suppose they’re anywhere yet.” She continued, “I mean, there’s no one there, and nothing happening. This world only began today.” To which Digory replied, “No, but people will get there… And then they’ll have histories, you know.” Speaking in what I can only imagine a bit sharply, Polly said, “Well, it’s a jolly good thing they haven’t now… Because nobody can be made to learn it. Battles and dates and all that rot.”

As with so much of his writing, C.S. Lewis here says a lot by writing very little. In this brief passage from the first of the Chronicles of Narnia, The Magician’s Nephew, Digory and Polly expound two very different ideas of education.

One arising from experience and the other from imagination, prompting me to call to mind Mark Twain’s timeless quip that he never let his schooling interfere with his education.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

He writes at Καθολικός διάκονος, where this post was first published.

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8 replies to this post
  1. Aristotle, in his On Poetry, book IX says: "poetry, therefore is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular."

  2. This is true, Peter, as far as it goes, but is also misleading. I have been having this conversation ever since graduate school, when my love for literature was tugging against my love of history with a very practical implication: in which field should I get a Ph.D? One of my professor colleagues challenged me by saying, "What is the last truly great work of history you have read?" His point, of course, was that great works of poetry are not all that infrequent compared with works of history, and that there has never been a work of history that compares with Shakespeare or Dante. Later on, my friend and mentor Gerhart Niemeyer brought up the same quotation from Aristotle that you use. But upon my question, "What did Aristotle mean by 'poetry,'" Gerhart admitted that it included verse, plays, music–and probably, if there had been Greek novels, Aristotle would have gladly included them. In other words, Aristotle was talking about works of the imagination, as opposed to (and I don't think there is necessarily an opposition) works of reality. But even if I were to grant Aristotle his definitions, the problem is, when transferring this opposition to education, it is necessary for even the writers of "poetry" to know history, or they devolve into solipsism or nihilism just as do so many "philosophers" who also tend to deny or ignore history.

  3. Dr. Wilson, your post just begs me to introduce you to the epic poem Wimmera, published by my father, Homer. Wimmera is a historical account of a real place, a "locale in the cosmos" as the working title was called. To quote the back cover "replacing the battles of heroes and gods with the struggle of mortal humans with time and space, Wimmera re-invents the epic. All the classic elements are there but they are now democratic, and ours." Wimmera demonstrates that there is no possibility to dilute the "real" from the imaginative, unless we venture to present the inhuman. It is a true history of Australia's wild which is at once imaginative and impossible to recount outside of the poetic form. It is certainly an epic poem that does exactly what you say poetry ought to do.

  4. Willson, please, with two "ells," or just call me John, which, like Peter, is a good name.

    I have looked up Wimmera. It seems that it is rather hard to find, and rather expensive. I'm very intrigued by what he apparently attempts to do, although I must say I hope he didn't "re-invent" the epic. Where is the best place to find it?

  5. Dr. Willson, sadly it does seem to be available only in Australia. Rest assured, the re-invention bit is, I think, the publisher's idea of what passes as marketing. There was a short television spot made of it where you will hear some of the poem read:

    However, I prefer its more tragic components, two samples of which I present below:

    it is enough to know anything at all
    looking up at the moon at the right moment
    you may observe the lakes the blotchy marshes
    the seas you have yearned for here
    and find a clovis point a scapula a hammerstone
    in the phosphorus light of dawn
    glimmering in earth's moment of sunlight
    borrowed of silicates and comets
    of shadows planetesimal penumbras oblate
    as all the things of this earth are
    echoing in the whorls of unhearing ears
    etched on the retina of unseeing eyes
    here is your rain and your rain god
    in the moisture-motions of egg and spore and sperm
    their delicate hydrostatic tensions
    as pagan as sunrise
    The second fragment:
    there is water enough in the lithosphere
    grief has tears
    all that grieving you do is not in vain
    the confusion and the pain
    change the way the seasons themselves
    know change
    the way they sense the dryness of soil
    the depth of the root withering
    bringing with it a wish to be leaving all this
    once and for all behind
    and upon some road wander down
    into the eternal daze of the wombat and the wallaby
    to hear some strange sound underfoot
    the flintlock of rush and unmoving streams
    a woosh in the high trees of the kestrel's wings
    the speed at which a sound vanishes
    being much slower than that at which it arrives
    there is enough water he says
    grief has tears
    and there are graves to be kept
    the names cleaned of rust and verdigris
    the dead to be tucked back in
    and told another story
    and kissed goodnight again
    there is enough water
    never enough

  6. Thank you for the "fragments." Since I am one of about six living persons to have read Melville's "Clarel," do you think that reading "Wimmera" might make me the only living person to have read both of them? Seriously, you have made me interested, and I will try to find a copy.

  7. I'm sure my dear old Dad will be happy to hear that someone put Wimmera and Melville in one sentence. I hope that, if you manage to find it, you enjoy it. I can never be sure when I recommend it that my obvious bias is not overshadowing literary objectivity. It's not even that we are family, but in Wimmera I find so much that is a reflection of me, that to reject it would be like rejecting my own self.

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