One of the books that cut C.S. Lewis’ critical teeth is The Personal Heresy: A Controversy. The book is a debate with Cambridge professor Dr. E.M.W. Tillyard over questions about the role of the poet in how the reader appreciates his or her poetry. Lewis saw the “Personal Heresy” creeping into the world of poetry, especially in book advertisements promising readers that they can know the poet through the poetry. Lewis finds this idea in Tillyard’s scholarly work, Milton, and so writes an essay in 1933 taking Tillyard to task. Tillyard responds in kind, and throughout the 1930s the two controversialists create six essays discussing the question. They published the essays in 1939, followed by a public debate, which we no longer have.
The Personal Heresy as an idea is a little bit slippery. I would encourage the reader to find Bruce Edwards’ introduction—also available here—to the reprinting of The Personal Heresy (2008; edited by Joel Heck). Edwards explains the Heresy in this way:
Put directly, “the personal heresy” is Lewis’s ingenious label for a critical stance he found “heretical” to good literary practice, namely, the unwise notion that poetry is first and foremost the “expression of the poet’s personality.” What follows from such a premise, Lewis avers, is that a reader of a poem becomes oblivious to “seeing what the poet sees” in favor of unearthing and assembling fragments of the poet’s psyche. I read to know the poet, not the poem. What follows from this heresy, Lewis postulates, is that the brand of criticism most likely to be fruitful in illuminating the poem will be prohibitively biographical or psychoanalytical. And for Lewis this is anathema. Speculating on “What the poet is really saying” becomes superior to what he or she has actually said. The lines of the poem itself would be invariably lost to what’s read between them.
In his most sublime image, Lewis asks whether, when we read the poem, we see the poet’s eyes, or see through the poet’s eyes, seeing what the poet sees: do we get to know the poet, or what the poet is describing?
Some of these matters are quite practical, and it is these matters that quickly get left behind in the debate. A personality that is discovered in the poem may be the poet’s personality, or may be one created for the sake of the poem (I think Lewis is getting at this on p. 9). In this way, Lewis argues that we can only meet the poet in a “strained and ambiguous sense” (9). Even if there were to be an authentically personal poem—I have tried writing poetry that is my genuine sentiment or experience—the real poet cannot be all that is contained in that poem, and has probably moved past whatever struggle or feeling or thought was captured in the poem when it was written, so is no longer “that man.”
I still struggle by the end of the book to know how much of a poet’s personality comes through in poetry—Lewis admits some—and why poetry is so distinguished from other forms of writing and expression. Lewis admits (p. 61) that there are genres that are valued for what they tell us of the author’s personality—letters, for example. But what about fiction? Can we tell things about C.S. Lewis from his own books? I suspect we can.
Lewis resists addressing this because, for him, fiction is about pretending with the author. We pretend a character is real, a problem is plausible, a scene is before us, and thus we are in a compact of pleasurable deceitfulness with the author. Personal truth cannot emerge from that contract, Lewis might argue. I’m not sure I agree on this point: I can imagine an author writing a sexy book without being sexy himself, but I cannot imagine him writing a truly witty book without any sense of humour. It is hard for me to imagine that Lemony Snicket isn’t a funny Daniel Handler, or that J.K. Rowling is actually dull and unintelligent, or that Paulo Coelho is a crass commercialist who cares nothing for personal growth. By contrast, it is in Lewis’ fiction that we best see his wit and imagination. And even in these essays, as Joel Heck points out in his review, these debaters remain gentlemen, in the mutual company of co-admiration and critique.
I agree, though, that we can’t leave behind the poem for the poet: we learn from the poem that the tree is green, regardless of the hue of the poet’s eyes. But why must we compost the cream because the milk has curdled? Can we not slowly gain a sense of the poet while throwing ourselves into her poetry?
Moreover, I think that we are in an era where we recognize the various “worlds” of literature. Tillyard and Lewis are debating the role of “text”—for Tillyard we should consider “author” in the text; Lewis is much more interested in the “audience” and the text itself. As these gentlemen are debating, though, the world of continental criticism is moving further in this conversation, considering the distance between audience and author, the way texts are formed by language, ideology, and society, and the way that both audience and authors are formed in their respective worlds. While a generation of critics asks whether there is even an author in the text, or whether readers are free to read, I think we can now see that all the aspects that are the experience of literature, as captured by this chart by Kathryn Hume:
As the book carries on, it seems to move away from these central questions to a consideration of the definition of poetry and Lewis’ concern for Poetolatry—the worship of the poet. Even if I have hesitations about Lewis’ argument, I think his principle of close reading of the text is quite good, and his warning about over-reading the autobiographical elements is a good warning—though we are now in an age where these lines are blurred.
And, especially, we get to see Lewis test the debating waters. He is about to jump in without restraint during WWII as he begins working with the Socratic Club at Oxford and writing controversial books and essays. In this way, The Personal Heresy is, at least, good practice for the private Oxford don for when he becomes a public intellectual in a very few months after its publication.
Note: My own copy of The Personal Heresy is an OUP paperback imprint in 1963, so page numbers may not match. And sorry the chart is a little crooked–it is a copy from Kathryn Hume’s excellent book, Fantasy & Mimesis (1984), p. 23.