Friday, September 12, 2008

The Personal Heresy: C.S. Lewis and Poetry

C.S. Lewis wanted to become a great poet. His first book, Spirits in Bondage, published in 1919 when Lewis was 20, was in fact a book of poetry published under the pseudonym Clive Hamilton.

Lewis continued to write poetry throughout his life, often publishing his poems under various pseudonyms such as Nat Whilk (meaning, roughly, "I know not whom," aka, anonymous).

Being a literary scholar, Lewis certainly developed specific ideas about poetry and its interpretation. A series of essays published between 1934 and 1936 later resulted in the publication of The Personal Heresy in 1939, which features interaction between Lewis and E.M.W. Tillyard, a Milton scholar.

The term "the personal heresy" is one used by Lewis to oppose the idea that poetry needs to be understood in light of the personality of the poet. Tillyard held the view that "All poetry is about the poet's state of mind."

Lewis wrote, "When we read poetry as poetry should be read, we have before us no representation which claims to be the poet, and frequently no representation of a man, a character, or a personality at all."

In other words, poetry does not necessarily reflect the personality of the poet. A poet may, for instance, develop a persona in order to capture a particular mood or idea that the poet may not necessarily agree with.

I am not a professional literary scholar, but merely wanted to provide some background. The Personal Heresy has been out of print since 1965, but has recently been reissued by Concordia University Press, edited by Joel Heck, author of Irrigating Deserts: C.S. Lewis on Education. Here's a link to a brief interview with Heck about the reprinting of The Personal Heresy.

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