Tuesday, March 15, 2005

A Confession

by C. S. Lewis

I am so coarse, the things the poets see
Are obstinately invisible to me.
For twenty years I've stared my level best
To see if evening--any evening--would suggest
A patient etherized upon a table;
In vain. I simply wasn't able.
To me each evening looked far more
LIke the departure from a silent, yet a crowded, shore
Of a ship whose freight was everything, leaving behind
Gracefully, finally, without farewells, marooned mankind.

Red dawn behind a hedgerow in the east
Never, for me, resembled in the least
A chilblain on a cocktail-shaker's nose;
Waterfalls don't remind me of torn underclothes,
Nor glaciers of tin-cans. I've never known
The moon look like a hump-backed crone--
Rather, a prodigy, even now
Not naturalized, a riddle glaring from the Cyclops' brow
Of the cold world, reminding me on what a place
I crawl and cling, a planet with no bulwarks, out in space.

Never the white sun of the wintriest day
Struck me as un crachat d'estaminet.
I'm like that odd man Wordsworth knew, to whom
A primrose was a yellow primrose, one whose doom
Keeps him forever in the list of dunces,
Compelled to live on stock responses,
Making the poor best that I can
Of dull things . . . peacocks, honey, the Great Wall, Aldebaran,
Silver weirs, new-cut grass, wave on the beach, hard gem,
The shapes of horse and woman, Athens, Troy, Jerusalem.

* * *

I just love Lewis's criticism of modern poetry in this poem. I can't stand those people who seem to think you can't be a poet nowadays unless you're a pessimist and write about ugly things. That's the way the modern poets write (I can't think why) but we don't have to write like that. Someone once told me my poetry wasn't poetic because it was easy to understand. Well, I can think of many reasons why my poetry isn't poetic, but that's not one of them. Apparently you have to write like "The Locust Tree in Blossom" to be a modern poet. Grr! It's the new thing to be ugly, in poetry as well as in music, art, and just about everything else.

Although it is interesting how Lewis's own metaphors are also pessimistic ones: a ship leaving shore, the earth floating in space. Still, although they are sad, they are at least beautiful. It's true, pointing out the ugly has its place . . . but beautiful poetry refreshes the soul, and we need more of it.

P.S. If anyone knows what the French in this poem means, tell me!


Santiago said...

I think "un crachat d'estaminet" means something like "tavern spit" or "cafe spit." "Estaminet" is something like a tavern, and "crachat" is something like a wad of spit. But I may be wrong, and I have no idea who CS is quoting.

I've seen it to, what you say, that "the new thing is to be ugly." I used to phrase it differently: There is a perverse tendency to want to believe that the *truth* is ugly. I sometimes see it in a good friend of mine (a psych major), when he insists to me with a sinister smile that love is nothing but chemical reactions in our brains...

Still, I don't blame T.S. Eliot for being sad, and writing depressing early poetry. And after he was "surprised by joy," after he encountered the Incarnation, the change in his poetic vision is dramatic: compare "The Waste Land" to "Little Gidding" or The Choruses from the Rock. Sure, his vision of the future remains bleak, but in the later poems his hope is in more than just ideas (like the "Shantih Shantih Shantih" of the Waste Land) but in a Fact, "the Word," which he writes about beautifully in the Four Quartets.

David Smedberg said...

Lewis is referencing (according to my sources ;-) ) "a poem by Jules Laforgue, a french 'symbolist'. Here is the beginning of the poem:"

L'hiver qui vient

Blocus sentimental! Messageries du Levant!...
Oh, tombée de la pluie! Oh! tombée de la nuit,
Oh! le vent!...

La Toussaint, la Noël et la Nouvelle Année,
Oh, dans les bruines, toutes mes cheminées!...

On ne peut plus s'asseoir, tous les bancs sont mouillés;
Crois-moi, c'est bien fini jusqu'à l'année prochaine,
Tant les bancs sont mouillés, tant les bois sont rouillés,
Et tant les cors ont fait ton ton, ont fait ton taine!...

Ah, nuées accourues des côtes de la Manche,
Vous nous avez gâté notre dernier dimanche.
Il bruine;
Dans la forêt mouillée, les toiles d'araignées
Ploient sous les gouttes d'eau, et c'est leur ruine.

Soleils plénipotentiaires des travaux en blonds Pactoles
Des spectacles agricoles,
Où êtes-vous ensevelis?
Ce soir un soleil fichu gît au haut du coteau
Git sur le flanc, dans les genêts, sur son manteau,
Un soleil blanc comme un crachat d'estaminet
Sur une litière de jaunes genêts
De jaunes genêts d'automne.
Et les cors lui sonnent!
Qu'il revienne...
Qu'il revienne à lui!
Taïaut! Taîaut! et hallali!
Ô triste antienne, as-tu fini!...
Et font les fous!...
Et il gît là, comme une glande arrachée dans un cou,
Et il frissonne, sans personne!...


So far, no exact translation.

Sheila said...

Can anyone translate that for me?

And, while we're at it, if anyone can explain any of the other allusions, that would be nice. The patient etherised on a table is Eliot, of course--but the chilblain, the torn underclothes, tin-cans, and the hump-backed crone are as yet unfamiliar. As you can see, my poetic education is far from complete!