Though deeply conflicted about Romanticism, C.S. Lewis believed that the Romantics at least asked the right questions and found the right answers. But he also held that they failed to grasp the greater picture of things, which only Christianity truly understands.
Somewhat famously, as described in Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis believed that he had come to reject Romanticism during his college years, after having embraced it fully as a younger man. His revulsion of Romanticism came when he witnessed an insane (and, according to Lewis, possibly possessed) man fall into writhing convulsions, a man who had flirted with the occult and had profoundly wanted the romantic to be real. “It had been my chance to spend fourteen days, and most of the fourteen nights as well, in close contact with a man who was going mad,” Lewis wrote. “He was a man whom I had dearly loved, and well he deserved love.” As Lewis’s unnamed friend descended into hideous depths, Lewis became increasingly repulsed by what the man had stood for and flirted with. “I thought I had seen a warning; it was to this, this raving on the floor, that all romantic longings and unearthly speculations led a man in the end.”
One of Lewis’s college friends, Nevill Coghill, who was also a colleague of Lewis at Oxford as well as a member of the Kolbiters and the Inklings, believed that Lewis had never lost his faith in Romanticism, whatever he might proclaim. “His tastes were essentially for what had magnitude and a suggestion of myth: the heroic and the romantic never failed to excite his imagination and although, at that time, he was something of a professed atheist, the mythically supernatural things in ancient epic and saga always attracted him,” Coghill noted. “Here again his feeling for the Classics fed his romanticism and the gods were realities for him in the imaginative world, though he rejected God in his philosophical and practical worlds, at that time.”
Lewis came to soften his views somewhat, mostly, it seems, because of the later influence of Charles Williams upon him. To Lewis, however, Romanticism sought after real things in its latent sacramentalism, but, he feared, it perverted the sacramental into something pantheistic. Romanticism, as such, for Lewis, was a rival and second-hand substitute for Christianity.
What indeed can we imagine Heaven to be but unimpeded obedience. I think this is one of the causes of our love of inanimate nature, that in it we see things which unswervingly carry out the will of their Creator, and are therefore wholly beautiful: and though their kind of obedience is infinitely lower than ours, yet the degree is so much more perfect that a Christian can see the reason that the Romantics had in feeling a certain holiness in the wood and water. The Pantheistic conclusions they sometimes drew are false: but their feeling was just and we can safely allow it in ourselves now that we know the real reason.
Yet, Lewis admitted, in early correspondence with Williams, 1936, that there were certain aspects of Romanticism he not only accepted but actually embraced. Indeed, he claimed, he lived in a neighboring province to the Romantics. “I hope you will find that where I talk of the value of the gods and, above all, of their death and resurrection, I speak much more confidently than I ever do of the Celestial and Terrestrial Cupids: there I am on my own ground. That’s where I live,” Lewis explained. What exactly did he believe about Romanticism that still attracted his own interest?
Put briefly, there is a romanticism which finds its revelation in love, which is yours, and another which finds it in mythology (and nature mythically apprehended) which is mine. Ladies, in the one: gods in the other—the bridal chamber, or the wood beyond the world—a service incensed with rich erotic perfume, a service smelling of heather, salt water etc. But this distinction is a little complicated by two facts. While writing about Courtly Love I have been so long a student of your province that I think, in a humble way, I am nearly naturalised.
Further, Lewis believed that the Romantics were correct in believing “imagination as a truth-bearing faculty, though not quite as the romantics” comprehended it, as he wrote in a letter to T.S. Eliot. Again, as Lewis understood them, the Romantics asked the right questions and found the right answers, but failed to grasp the greater picture of thing, which only Christianity truly understood. Amazingly enough, this last observation came three months before Lewis accepted Christianity as his own faith, though he was clearly moving in that direction.
In continuing agreement with the Romantics and against many of the literary critics—especially those who embraced a materialistic rationalism—Lewis believed that things such as poetry did not reveal the personality of the poet as much as they spoke a language at once human and universal, a collective mythology and storytelling. As such, those who enjoy the poetry enjoy a shared imagination. It is worth quoting Lewis at length here, for his thoughts are subtle in accident but explicit in form.
Such a passage gives us imaginative experience. In having that experience we do come to share or enjoy a new kind of consciousness, but that consciousness is not the consciousness of any single individual. And it will be plain that the passage I have chosen is only one of a very large class. Wherever we have traditional poetry there will be epithets and metrical devices which are the offspring of no single human temperament; wherever we have ancient poetry at all, there will be language which was commonplace to the writers but which time has turned into beauty; wherever we get misunderstanding—as in the common, beautiful, mistranslation of Virgil’s lacrimae rerum—there will be poetry that no poet wrote. Every work of art that lasts long in the world is continually taking on these new colours which the artist neither foresaw nor intended. We may, as scholars, detect, and endeavour to exclude, them. We may, as critics, decide that such adventitious beauties are in a given case meretricious and trivial compared with those which the artist deliberately wrought. But all that is beside the purpose. Great or small, fortunate or unfortunate, they have been poetically enjoyed. And that is enough for my purpose. There can be poetry without a poet. We can have poetic experience which does not consist in sharing the ‘personality’ of a poet. To be encrusted with such poetless poetry is the reward, or the penalty, of every poem that endures.
What allows us to understand such things, however, comes from our ability to understand what is universally true within a specific—that is, in time and space—moment. As in architecture or thought, context reveals the most important part of a thing. Without it, everything remains merely an abstraction. In other words, the poet expresses himself—as all individuals do—but the success of his expression comes from his ability to understand universal things and “in their power of telling us what things are severally to be seen from those angles.” Again, critically, Lewis speaks at length in separating the materialist from the non-materialist.
The personal dogma springs from an inability which most moderns feel to make up their minds between two alternatives. A materialist, and a spiritual, theory of the universe are both equally fatal to it; but in the coming and going of the mind between the two it finds its opportunity. For the typical modern critic is usually a half-hearted materialist. He accepts, or thinks he accepts, that picture of the world which popularized science gives him. He thinks that everything except the buzzing electrons is subjective fancy; and he therefore believes that all poetry must come out of the poet’s head and express (of course) his pure, uncontaminated, undivided ‘personality’, because outside the poet’s head there is nothing but the interplay of blind forces. But he forgets that if materialism is true, there is nothing else inside the poet’s head either. For a consistent materialism, the poetless poetry for which I contend, and the most seemingly self-expressive ‘human document’, are equally the accidental results of impersonal and irrational causes. And if this is so, if the sensation (Professor Housman has told us about it) which we call ‘enjoying poetry’ in no case betokens that we are really in the presence of purpose and spirituality, then there is no foothold left for the personal heresy. All poetry will indeed suggest something more than the collision of blind forces; but the suggestion will, in every case alike, be false. And why should this false suggestion arise from the movements in the things we call brains rather than from any other movements? It is just as likely to arise from historical accidents of language, or from printers’ errors. If, on the other hand, something like Theism or Platonism or Absolute Idealism is true—if the universe is not blind or mechanical, then equally the human individual can have no monopoly in producing poetry. For on this view all is designed, all is significant. The poetry produced by impersonal causes is not illusory. The Muse may speak through any instrument she chooses.
For Lewis, though, there really was no choice in the matter. After all, he argued, “if the world is meaningless, then so are we.”
In 1944, Lewis reevaluated his own views on Romanticism in his long introduction to the third edition of Pilgrim’s Regress. There existed, he feared, at least seven forms of Romanticism: adventure stories, fabulistic stories, stories dealing with “Titanic” characters, macabre and surrealistic stories, egoism and subjectivism, revolts against civilization, and those loving natural things. Only, really, in the last of these categories could one firmly place what is normally defined as Romantic in the sense of the Romantic authors of the early nineteenth century. To these, Lewis added an eighth: desires and “intense longings,” especially unfulfilled ones. “What I meant was a particular recurrent experience which dominated my childhood and adolescence and which I hastily called ‘Romantic,’” he revealed in his introduction, “because inanimate nature and marvellous literature were among the things that evoked it.” Further, Lewis admitted, he equally disliked those who countered all Romanticism and those who thought every form of depravity was justified by Romanticism. The good man, he believed, must walk between these two extremes. “In art, we find on the one hand, purists and doctrinaires, who would rather (like Scaliger) lose a hundred beauties than admit a single fault, and who cannot believe anything to be good if the unlearned spontaneously enjoy it,” he explained. “On the other hand, we find the uncritical and slovenly artists who will spoil the whole work rather than deny themselves any indulgence of sentiment or humour or sensationalism.”
When it came to Romanticism, Lewis was deeply conflicted.
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The featured image is “Traveler Over The Mist Sea” (c. 1817) by Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.