What books stir your soul?
Which time period of literature or art appeals to you the most? Which stylistic era of music most stirs your soul? Is it the ordered precision of a Bach fugue or the poignant strains of a Chopin prelude? Alexander Pope’s witty epigrams or Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s sublime musicality? The powerful catharsis of a tragedy by Sophocles or the messy psychological accuracy of one by Shakespeare?
C.S. Lewis, in describing the literary taste of his parents, wrote: “Neither had ever listened for the horns of elfland” (Surprised by Joy 5).
The Heraldry of Heaven
The horns of elfland, the blue flower, sweet desire, divine discontent, the heraldry of heaven, Sehnsucht, Joy…. These are all names for a kind of painful yearning or beautiful longing that Lewis felt many times throughout this life, usually stirred by “Romantic” poetry, fiction, or music—or by nature. I gave a talk about this particular kind of Joy last week at Mythgard; you can listen to, watch, or download the talk here.
The Romantic Note
The point I want to make right now is that it wasn’t just all good literature that gave Lewis this strange longing; it was only works with those that have a “Romantic” tone to them, from whatever time period. Chopin would do it for him while Bach wouldn’t, even though Bach’s music might raise the soul to heights of glory and flights of heavenward delight. Bach’s music doesn’t have that sense of incompletion, of fragmentary suggestion, of hints and intimations of immortality. Bach’s music often seems to contain the very eternity of which is speaks, whereas Chopin’s gestures towards the sublime in a way that evokes our yearning for it but does not fulfill the yearning—which thus feeds the longing all the more.
External and Internal
This distinction may be related to the evolution of the “expressive theory of art” as defined by M.H. Abrams in The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition. Bach may be categorized as expressing in his compositions something outside of him: a kind of symmetry and order he observed in the universe, while Chopin might be characterized as expressing feelings evoked in himself (and thus in his listeners) about what he saw in nature.
Complete and Incomplete
This brings me back to the idea of completion and incompletion: Bach’s compositions have a satisfying sense of achievement about them: they are finished in two senses, both polished and complete. Chopin’s have a sense of suggestion, of being only a fragment of so much more. Perhaps I am overstating the case here, and I would love to have composers, music theorists, musicians, and music teachers argue with me here. Let me turn to literary examples. The Canterbury Tales, for all its stated fragmentary nature, does not arouse in its reader that longing for some spiritual beauty beyond itself. It contains all its satisfaction inside itself: its jokes, insults, ideas, and speculations are all self-contained. You put down the book feeling satisfied. You’ve had your meal. But that same author’s Troilus and Criseyde, even though it is a complete work, evokes much more spiritual longing and sense of something more, I think, in its hints and suggestions about heaven, Troilus’s soul, and so forth.
In other words, Troilus and Criseyde could evoke Sehnsucht in readers, while The Canterbury Tales is highly unlikely to do so.
Lewis loved any work that could provoke this longing, and he strove to evoke it in his own readers, too. J.R.R. Tolkien also packed his writings with longing, with the romantic note, with a wild, sweet, painful yearning for something located off in the west, beyond the seas, beyond the world, that is inaccessible and infinitely desirable. The sound of the sea stirs the heart in both of these writers. Long landscapes, distant vistas, shrouded in mist and tinted by twilight, also awaken desire. Autumn, western winds, the cries of geese or gulls, mountain ranges fading off into fog, the distant past paradise or the unattainable future heaven—these are lavished throughout the works of Lewis and Tolkien.
What about Williams?
And what about Charles Williams? Do his works stir up Sehnsucht in the soul of the reader?
I don’t think they do. His books, especially his novels, do fill me with desire, but it is an entirely different desire: It is the longing for holiness. It is the aspiration to become a saint or a mystic. This is worlds away from the autumnal, Hesperian wanderlust aroused by a recitation of “Kubla Khan.” And there are also passages in CW’s writings that raise the heart to heavenly heights, filled with the golden glory of God’s presence or the profound peace of a soul’s submission—but this is in Bach’s category of sublimity, not Chopin’s.
How about for you? Are there any passages in CW’s work that strike you the way this one from Tolkien does?
And it is said by the Eldar that in water there lives yet the echo of the Music of the Ainur more than in any substance else that is in this Earth; and many of the Children of Ilúvatar hearken still unsated to the voices of the Sea, and yet know not for what they listen (Silmarillion 8).
Or the way this one from Lewis does?
The sky was pure, flat gold like the background of a medieval picture….The water gleamed, the sky burned with gold, but all was rich and dim, and his eyes fed upon it undazzled and unaching. The very names of green and gold, which he used perforce in describing the scene, are too harsh for the tenderness, the muted iridescence, of that warm, maternal, delicately gorgeous world. It was mild to look upon as evening, warm like summer noon, gentle and winning like early dawn. It was altogether pleasurable. He sighed. (Perelandra 36).
Is there anything like that in Williams for you? I can’t think of any moments. There is plenty of beauty, but it’s of the more “Classical” kind, isn’t it?
And I think I know the reason. CW didn’t like nature. He was a city man at heart. He did like long walks, but his sight wasn’t very good, so he couldn’t enjoy long vistas of mountains and mist the way CSL and JRRT did. He much preferred to be in the heart of London, among the busses and traffic and crowds of coinherent humans. CSL and JRRT despised cars, trains, pollution, noise, hustle, and bustle. Williams loved all of that. So perhaps that’s why the note or tone of their works is so wildly different.
Or perhaps I’m wrong. Go ahead and prove me wrong. Is there a passage in CW’s works where you hear the horns of elfland?