Tuesday, March 23, 2010

C. S. Lewis: "On a Vulgar Error"

I first encountered the following poem in Philip Larkin's The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse.  Larkin's selection of poems was published in 1973, and it was criticized by many as being too "old-fashioned."  Given Larkin's sense of humor, one gets the feeling that he likely set out to provoke exactly that type of response.  In any event, here is the poem - which stands on its own (but it is easy to understand why Larkin would like it):

        On a Vulgar Error

No. It's an impudent falsehood.  Men did not
Invariably think the newer way
Prosaic, mad, inelegant, or what not.

Was the first pointed arch esteemed a blot
Upon the church?  Did anybody say
How modern and how ugly?  They did not.

Plate-armour, or windows glazed, or verse fire-hot
With rhymes from France, or spices from Cathay,
Were these at first a horror?  They were not.

If, then, our present arts, laws, houses, food
All set us hankering after yesterday,
Need this be only an archaising mood?

Why, any man whose purse has been let blood
By sharpers, when he finds all drained away
Must compare how he stands with how he stood.

If a quack doctor's breezy ineptitude
Has cost me a leg, must I forget straightaway
All that I can't do now, all that I could?

So, when our guides unanimously decry
The backward glance, I think we can guess why.

C. S. Lewis, Poems (1964), page 60.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

While searching for this poem I came across a question: what diction (I take it this means metre) is it? Iambic pentameter of course, but while we smile at the questionner's ignorance we can also sympathise with her. Iambic pentameter was the natural means of expression in English for three centuries from "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day" through "The proper study of mankind is man" to "If I should die think only this of me." So if Lewis had written "So when our guides unanimous decry" we would all have felt at home. Instead he puts a comma after "So", a gratuitous trochaic inversion, and "ly" after "unanimous", a gratuitous extra syllable. Here and elsewhere the scansion is so wayward that it has the effect of a modern poem and it makes us nostalgic for the old rhythms. Conceivably that was Lewis's intention but he would have fulfilled it better if he had taken the trouble to write in the way of the old craftsmen like Brooke, Pope and Shakespeare.