February 18, 2009
C.S. Lewis and Thomas Merton: Poetic Affinities -- by Ron Dart
It is a rare day, indeed, when C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) and Thomas Merton (1915-1968) are breathed in the same breath. There are many who bow low to Lewis, and many others genuflect to Merton. Both men, for different reasons, have an ample following. Is it even possible to think of these men as having anything in common?
We do know that Lewis was quite fond of Merton. John Brown did a thesis at Union Seminary on race relations in the 1960s, and in a letter to Merton, he had this to say. “I am rather ashamed to admit that you are the first Roman Catholic writer that I have read seriously, and then only on the recommendation of C. S. Lewis, who in a letter not long before he died, stated that he had discovered your writing, and found it quite the best spiritual writing he had come across in a long time”. Merton replied to Brown (August 7 1968). “Thanks for your kind letter. I am certainly happy to think that so sound a judge as C.S. Lewis found something to like in my writing” (The Road to Joy: p. 369) . Merton’s interest in Lewis, though, can be traced back to a book review he did of The Personal Heresy in 1939.
Thomas Merton had finished his MA in English Literature at Columbia University in 1939. The thesis was on William Blake. ‘Nature and Art in William Blake: An Essay in Interpretation’ was a rather interesting read of Blake that few would approve or accept today. Northrop Frye’s magisterial book on Blake, Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake (1947), had not yet been published. But, Merton was very much in the thick of literary criticism at the time, and he was ahead of his time with his interest in Blake. Merton was primed and pumped to do his PH.D., and G.M. Hopkins held his attention. It seemed, from a certain perspective, that Merton was well on his way to becoming an academic and professor. A few more years of solid work on Hopkins, and a thesis behind him, and Merton would be well set on a solid vocational path.
C.S. Lewis, in the 1920s- 1930s, had serious concerns about both the poetry and literary theories of T.S. Eliot. Eliot was editor at the time of one of the most influential literary magazines: Criterion. Lewis sent Eliot an essay to be published in Criterion that reflected his worries. Lewis’ essay, ‘The Personal Heresy in Criticism’ took both Eliot and Tillyard to task in the way they interpreted Dante and Milton. Lewis thought that it was inappropriate to use an author’s writing to learn more about the author. A poem should be studied in and for itself not as a door into the soul of the creator. Lewis sent the article to Eliot in 1931. Eliot refused to publish the essay. The issue, though, would not go away. In fact, the personal heresy took on a fuller and more animated life. The essay was, finally, published in Essays and Studies in 1934. More articles rolled off the pens of Tillyard and Lewis, and they were published in Essays and Studies in 1935 and 1936. Is poetry merely a form of veiled autobiography? Lewis would have none of it. Tillyard thought there was some truth in the suggestion. The essays were finally published as The Personal Heresy: A Controversy (1939). Merton realized this was a book that had to be reviewed.
Merton studied at Clare College, Cambridge from the autumn of 1933 to the spring of 1934. Merton might have heard of Lewis at the time, although Lewis was at Oxford. Merton did a full course on Dante when at Cambridge, and Lewis was immersed in the Medieval-Renaissance era and Dante. Lewis was, obviously, a few decades ahead of Merton on the journey. Lewis was to have a profound impact on the renewal of the Classical catholic tradition to which Merton would turn as he followed the lead of prominent Roman Catholic thinkers such as Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson. There is no doubt that there were important affinities between Lewis and Merton. Merton’s turn to the Cistercians in 1941 as his monastic family very much reflected a turn to a Medieval and Classical notion of the Roman Catholic tradition.
The fact that Merton decided to review The Personal Heresy (1939) in The New York Times (July 9 1939) does need to be heeded, and the fact that Merton, for the most part, sided with Lewis against Tillyard needs to be noted, also. The main points of Merton’s review do need to be briefly summarized. The review has been republished in The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton (1960).
Merton had completed his MA on Blake, but he was also a poet, novelist and interested in literary criticism. This meant that he was reading and pondering some of the more pertinent theories and ideas of the time in the 1930s. There is no doubt, given Merton’s area of interest, that Tillyard and Lewis articulated different and at odds views in the area of literary criticism. Merton was the novice, and Lewis-Tillyard the opposing Abbas.
‘E.M.W. Tillyard and C.S. Lewis—A Spirited Debate on Poetry’ can be read at a variety of levels. Merton had done his MA on Blake, and Blake had certainly engaged Milton, and Merton walked the extra mile to situate Blake within aspects of the Medieval heritage. This meant that Merton could not but read Tillyard and Lewis. Tillyard had published two significant articles on Milton and literary theory, and Lewis had more than won his academic stripes with the publication of The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition (1936). Merton flags this reality at the beginning of the review of The Personal Heresy.
Merton notes that ‘it is Mr. Lewis who dominates the whole subject’, and ‘Mr. Tillyard seems only to be presenting a mere foil for Mr. Lewis’ ideas’.
What, though, is the core of the issue? Merton summed it up succinctly.
‘Reconstructing verses into personalities and using the images of poetry for the experiments of psychoanalyis constitute heresy….its value as poetry cannot be judged in terms of Freud or the history of language’. Tillyard, for example, in his work on Milton, had suggested that Milton’s description of Satan ‘was really describing himself’.
Merton did lean, therefore, towards Lewis and his position, but he was also willing to recognize that Lewis might have gone too far with his notion, and Tillyard had spoken some truth. ‘Some poems, however, cannot fail to communicate a vague idea of their author’s personality’. This is Merton at his nimble and supple best, weighing and evaluating, unwilling to be an uncritical ideologue. Merton makes it clear that the poetry of Milton, Donne, Blake, Swinburne and Marvell are the products of different personalities and dispositions, and the poetry does say something about the authors.
Merton recognizes, in the controversy, that Tillyard does ease off from his position ‘under pressure of Mr. Lewis’ arguments, but he does arrive at an interesting definition of his position’. Tillyard does argue that there are ‘mental patterns’ that do say something about that poet’s personality, and these patterns are embodied in the poems. This means that Tillyard is more interested in something deeper in the poet’s soul than the mere details of biography. Merton has certainly, in the review, heard both Lewis and Tillyard well. He has refused to take uncritical sides in the debate. Both men, as literary critics, were onto something, and Merton wanted to know just what these literary directors had to say.
The core of the book seems to hinge on the meaning of “personality”, and the relationship of the ‘mental patterns’ of a poet, the poems of the poet and the deeper significance of personality. Lewis in his logic chopping way might have missed some of the more oblique yet insightful aspects of Tillyard’s thought just as Tillyard needed to deepen his definitions of poet, personality and poem. Merton’s review, in a thoughtful manner, attempted to synthesize Lewis and Tillyard rather than doff to the one and dismiss the other. This approach speaks much about Merton’s more dialogical and dialectical way of knowing. There is much more to Lewis-Merton affinities than a delving into the details of literary criticism.
Merton completed his controversial Peace in the Post-Christian Era in April 1962, but the Abbot General of the Cistercian order, Dom Gabriel Sortais, banned the book from being published. Peace in the Post-Christian Era probes the historic peace and war traditions within Christianity and leans in the dovish direction. Most Merton scholars are convinced the title for the book was drawn from Lewis’ “De Descriptione Temporum”. When Lewis took the position of Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English Literature at Cambridge University in 1954, his inaugural lecture was called ‘De Descriptione Temporum” (A Description of the Times’). Lewis suggested in the lecture that Western Culture was moving into a ‘Post-Christian era, Christians and Classical pagans might have more in common with one another than both would have in common with non-religious secularists in such a Post-Christian world. Lewis had, of course, argues the same point in Abolition of Man and The Last Battle.
It has been suggested and cogently argued that Lewis’ coining of the term, Post-Christian, was at the heart and centre of Merton’s use of the neologism in Peace and the Post-Christian Era. Patricia Burton’s compact and convincing essays on the topic, ‘Editorial Note Concerning Thomas Merton’s Peace in the Post-Christian Era’ and ‘Forbidden Book: Thomas Merton’s Peace in the Post-Christian Era’ (The Merton Annual: Volume 17, 2004) makes the case of Merton borrowing from Lewis. George Kilcourse argued further in ‘Thomas Merton on the Challenge of the Post-Christian World’ (The Merton Journal: Volume 15, Number 1: Easter 2008), that Merton dipped his bucket deeply in the well of Lewis’ thought in his use of Post-Christian.
Lewis did describe the post WWII times as Post-Christian. Both Lewis and Merton keenly realized that the times were out of joint, and Christians could no more appeal to either the premises or worldview of either Christianity or Christendom. If Christians were ever going to meaningfully address the reality of the Post-Christian West at a serious and substantive level as public intellectuals, a serious rethinking had to be done on how such a dialogue would take place. Both Lewis and Merton, to their credit, were at the centre of this rethinking process, and this is why they still act as mentors and models of how to think and live the Christian journey in the post-Christian world.
Lewis had a great admiration for Merton. He thought Merton was the best writer in the area of spirituality he had come across in a long time. Merton had a great admiration for Lewis. He thought Lewis was a ‘sound judge’ on the important issues. Merton reviewed Lewis’ The Personal Heresy, and he was both convinced by Lewis’ use of ‘Post-Christian’ and committed to articulate the Christian faith in a way that could meaningfully speak to those the lived in such times.
C. S. Lewis and Thomas Merton both have their followers, though they tend to be of different ideological stripes. Reading them together can give Christians a fuller picture of the faith.
William Van Ornum
Although they both lived in the same era and wrote about what was important in Christianity, the lives of C. S. Lewis and Thomas Merton ran on parallel paths that never crossed. Each produced their main literary works in the period between 1945 and 1963, and there are many similarities and contrasts in their lives and thinking. Last week we looked at Merton’s work; now it is time to look at Lewis and Merton together.
C. S. Lewis was born in Ireland in 1898. Like Merton, he experienced the death of his mother early in his life, was sent away to boarding school, and had to figure out as a young man how he would deal with a World War. Similar to Merton, he was drawn to an academic career, but was more successful in finding one than was Merton. C. S. Lewis became a don at Oxford and then at Cambridge. He died on November 22, 1963. We are approaching the 50th anniversary of his death, the remembrance of which will no doubt be eclipsed by thoughts on President John F. Kennedy, who died earlier on this same day.
Lewis and Merton were both atheists in their early life. Each had a strong conversion experience where they felt God had sought them out, drawing them into his loving arms. Lewis wrote about this in an early book called Surprised by Joy.
Unlike Merton, Lewis was drawn toward writing fiction and fantasy. He was nurtured by regular meetings with J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, besides being one of the translators of the original Jerusalem Bible. Lewis wrote the charming set of stories about Narnia. He also wrote a science fiction trilogy, which began with the book, Out of the Silent Planet.
Merton was a pacifist. Lewis went into the British army and defended his country in the trenches of France. He captured 60 German soldiers and marched them back to the British camp.
There are many exceptions, but Christians of a progressive bent have been drawn toward Thomas Merton because of his emphasis on social justice and confronting evil in the world. His books have also drawn many people to become interested in Cistercian monasticism. The book of his which is similar to Lewis’s Surprised by Joy is The Seven Story Mountain.
Persons tending toward what the press likes to call conservative Christianity, traditionalism, and even evangelical Christianity are frequently drawn to C. S. Lewis. Whereas Merton pushed his version of Catholicism outward into the world and even into Eastern religions, Lewis looked within and believed that the most important elements of the faith were those which guided each person’s belief and daily actions.
Lewis’s Mere Christianity encapsulates the main doctrine of all the different Christian branches. In some ways, it is a “common cause” of traditional Christian doctrines. For Lewis, it was important to emphasize the Incarnation, Ministry, Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ, as well as all aspects of the Apostle’s Creed. He asserted that these were all real events that occurred in historical time and were not merely metaphors or helpful guidelines for living (as many liberal Christians in Europe were implying at the time, and as many do today).
Merton confronted social evils – especially nuclear war and racism. During World War II, when the Nazi Germany threatened his homeland, Lewis introduced his own thinking, which said that the way people treat each other each day in their own home and in their own neighborhood might be the most important actions of all. These ideas came out in the form of a letter from one devil to another in his masterpiece, The Screwtape Letters. He was criticized for not putting criticism of the Nazis at the top of his hierarchy. Nevertheless, during World War II he was a strong voice on the BBC, presenting succinct apologetics for the basic doctrines of Christianity. It would be interesting to speculate on his views concerning abortion.
Lewis saw physical and mental pain as sometimes being humanly insurmountable but spiritually efficacious. He believed that the way one deals with these could bring about changes of character and grace and prepare the Christian for union with God in the next life. He would be classified by theologians as a supernaturalist, as he focused a great deal on the meaning of the true reality of heaven and hell. In the book The Great Divorce, he imagined what the spiritual universe of heaven, hell, and purgatory would look like – with a bit of British humor thrown in besides.
Lewis wrote in a humble and down-to-earth style that reached the reading public in Europe and the United States. In 1948, he appeared on the cover of Time magazine.
Both Lewis and Merton struggled with the meaning and issues of physical and emotional intimacy and a relationship with a particular other. Merton’s struggles led him directly back into monastic life. Lewis became married in the middle 1950s; by 1960, his new wife succumbed to cancer.
This led Lewis to write about his unimaginable grief. He poured out his heart in a book published under a pen name. A Grief Observed continues to be read today by persons whose lives have been disrupted by the deaths of those whom they love.
After his wife died, Lewis’s health and vitality diminished. He died at the age of 65, in the presence of his lifelong best friend and brother, “Warnie” Lewis. Like St. Paul, he ran the race to the finish. Merton died at the age of 53 in Asia before he could say everything he wanted to. We can only speculate how Merton’s theological thinking would develop – many have written and currently write about this.
C. S. Lewis has been a favorite author of Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Pope Benedict, in one of his books on the life of Christ, cites Lewis on one of the early pages and gives Lewis a footnote of credit. I have no doubt that Merton’s work influenced the 1983 pastoral letter of the American bishops on nuclear war.
I have found that alternatively reading C. S. Lewis and Thomas Merton brings together some of the often perceived disparities between what we call traditional versus progressive Catholicism. (And Lewis himself was a Protestant!) These authors bring out paradoxes in bas relief and offer intriguing thoughts and meditations.
Both authors continue to inspire study by others. There is an international Merton Society as well as a section of Bellarmine College in Kentucky where Martin’s papers now reside. Lewis’s papers are conserved at Wheaton College in suburban Chicago. Both in the United States and in Britain there are C. S. Lewis societies. The one that meets in New York City has monthly talks in a parish hall where tea and dessert is always served. Spiritual pilgrims visit the monastery in Kentucky where Merton lived, as well as the 8-acre estate called “The Kilns” outside of London were C. S. Lewis lived.
These are great spiritual writers whose books and letters illuminate the issues that were percolating before Vatican II and in the years directly afterward. They may be especially insightful because they were written before 1970 and the divisive hot button issues which have captivated many Christians since then.
William Van Ornum is Professor at Marist College and Director of Research for the American Mental Health Foundation in New York City.
Of the theological virtues Faith, Hope, and Love, St. Paul writes that the greatest of these is Love. Our Lord also said so when He was being questioned by the scholar of the law and gave us the Two Greatest Commandments, both of which are based on love; the love of God and the love of neighbor.
It sounds pretty easy, and in theory it is. But in practice? Well of the two, loving God is relatively easy, but loving our neighbors can be downright challenging. That is, for me anyway. Wouldn’t it be neat to attend a lecture by Thomas Merton on this virtue? Thanks to YouTube, you can!
I came across this video last year around Thanksgiving. What jostled my memory of it is the chapter on charity that I just read in Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis for the YIMC Book Club. Merton was in charge of teaching theology to the novices at the Cistercian Abbey in Gethsemani for a time, and these lectures were recorded from talks in the early 1960s. The subject matter? St. Bernard of Clairvaux and man’s ultimate vocation: to love.
I was intrigued to hear Merton’s voice. And he sounds like one of my favorite professors from college. Listening to him, I have the impression that he was a pretty tough grader. A professor who doesn’t put up with any nonsense and assumes you will come to class prepared. But then, at the beginning of the lecture that follows, he puts everyone at ease by saying,
In a monastery, you don’t have to get anyplace!
I hope you enjoy this clip as much as I did. You can go direct to YouTube and see part two of this lecture as well. If you have about 20 minutes to listen to them both, you’ll come away with a deeper impression of Thomas Merton. And you will gain more insight on our true vocation. These lectures led me also to learn more about Bernard of Clairvaux: Abbot, Confessor, Doctor of the Church.
The School of Love? Take it away Father Louis!!