Wednesday, June 26, 2019

C.S.Lewis on Obscurity in Poetry

Reading David Jones, the complicated question of obscurity: what it is, how you deal with it, what effect it has on reading and value, is never far away.

Here’s C.S.Lewis, discussing the Arthurian poetry of Charles Williams and teasing out different categories of ‘obscurity’.  He describes four types, admitting that the boundaries between them can be blurred.  Endearingly, he wrote: ‘the extreme indulgence towards obscurity which characterizes the taste of modern readers is not very likely to last’. He was writing in 1948. 

1)    Obscurity may come from slovenliness of syntax. Poets, as well as prose writers, may construct sentences which are difficult to construe. Lewis calls this kind of Obscurity a vice. His example from Williams is ‘‘‘who fly the porphyry stair’ is intended to mean ‘who fly up the porphyry stair’. But by the nature of the English language it cannot do so. This is a bad fault.’
2)    Obscurity may be deliberate. No poetry worth the name can be perfectly translated into prose. But the poet may choose to write poetry which makes not perfect translation but any translation impossible. This is legitimate. 
3)    Privatism. This occurs when the reader, however sensitive and generally cultivated he or she may be, could not possibly understand the poem unless the poet chose to tell something more than he has done in the poem. Lewis’ example is that he has been told he is wasting his time trying to puzzle out lines in a poem because the explanation lay not in the poem but in events which had occurred in his informant’s house. ‘In so far as the poem was addressed to a circle of friends such privatism is a not a literary fault at all; in so far as the poem was exposed without warning for sale in the shops it seems to me to be simply a way of ‘obtaining money under false pretences’. He goes on to state that ‘if I do not desire a law against this form of cheating, that is only because such a law would be too difficult either to frame or administer. The thing involves such a blend of dishonesty, puerility, and discourtesy, such a denial of ‘co-inherence’ such a reckless undermining of the very conditions in which literature can flourish, that no punishment such criticism can inflict would be sufficiently severe.’ 
4)    Unshared background. Lewis’ uses the Waste Land as his example. If you have never read Dante or Shakespeare certain things in that poem will be obscure to you. ‘But then, frankly, we ought to have read Dante or Shakespeare, or at least the poet has the right to address only those who have’.  Williams assumes you know the Bible, Malory and Wordsworth pretty well, and have at least some knowledge of Milton, Dante, Gibbon, the Mabinogion and church history. Lewis sees this as legitimate. But when Williams assumes that you know ‘Heraclitus as quoted by W.B Yeats’ or Eliot assumes you know ‘From Ritual to Romance’ the difficulties are becoming less obviously legitimate. However, as he points out, the things referred to are accessible. You could read RtoR. This is not the same as selling a poem which only works for those who know ‘the colour of your nurse’s hair, the jokes of your preparatory school, or the favourite sayings of your aunt.’ ‘Yet is it obvious that there will come a point at which you use in your poetry scraps of your own reading so intrinsically unimportant and so very unlikely to be shared by the best readers [if any] that you have become guilty of privatism’.

The point where 3 becomes 4 is obviously harder to define than problems of syntax. But I wonder. How many readers do you need to share your background before you're free of the charge of  'privatism'? And i wonder how many poets, with established reputations, have been guilty of privatism, and got away with it because no one was willing to admit they couldn't understand the poems but were too intimidated by reputation to admit their own educated incomprehension? 


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