August 24, 2007

Lewis on Williams

Category: Literature :: Permalink

Although C. S. Lewis delivered the lectures which became A Preface to Paradise Lost at the College at Bangor, he chose not to dedicate the book to the college. Instead, he dedicated it to Charles Williams, in part because his own lectures reminded him of Williams’ lectures at Oxford, lectures on John Milton’s poem “Comus,” but lectures which did more than just impart some knowledge about Milton or the poem because they also focused on the virtue Milton was praising:

The scene was, in a way, medieval, and may prove to have been historic. You were a vagus thrown among us by the chance of war. The appropriate beauties of the Divinity School provided your background. There we elders heard (among other things) what we had long despaired of hearing — a lecture on Comus which placed its importance where the poet placed it — and watched “the yonge fresshe folkes, he or she,” who filled the benches listening first with incredulity, then with toleration, and finally with delight, to something so strange and new in their experience as the praise of chastity.

Reviewers, who have not had time to re-read Milton, have failed for the most part to digest your criticism of him; but it is a reasonable hope that of those who heard you in Oxford many will understand henceforward that when the old poets made some virtue their theme they were not teaching but adoring, and that what we take for the didactic is often the enchanted. — C. S. Lewis, “Dedication: To Charles Williams,” A Preface to Paradise Lost, p. v.

I love this description of Williams’ lectures. Williams didn’t have a degree, but Lewis had managed to get him a chance to lecture at Oxford. Lewis describes the second lecture briefly in the quotation above, but he described it in more detail to his brother in a letter:

On Monday, C. W. lectured nominally on Comus but really on Chastity. Simply as criticism it was superb — because here was a man who really started from the same point of view as Milton and really cared with every fibre of his being about “the sage and serious doctrine of virginity” which it would never occur to the ordinary modern critic to take seriously. But it was more important still as a sermon. It was a beautiful sight to see a whole room full of modern young men and women sitting in that absolute silence which can not be faked, very puzzled, but spell-bound: perhaps with something of the same feeling which a lecture on unchastity might have evoked in their grandparents — the forbidden subject broached at last. He forced them to lap it up and I think many, by the end, liked the taste more than they expected to. It was “borne in upon me” that that beautiful carved room had probably not witnessed anything so important since some of the great medieval or Reformation lectures. I have at last, if only for once, seen a university doing what it was founded to do: teaching wisdom. And what a wonderful power there is in the direct appeal which disregards the temporary climate of opinion — I wonder is it the case that the man who has the audacity to get up in any corrupt society and squarely preach justice or valour or the like always wins? — C. S. Lewis to Warnie Lewis, 11 February 1940, in Letters of C. S. Lewis, pp. 339-339.

Posted by John Barach @ 11:25 am | Discuss (1)

One Response to “Lewis on Williams”

  1. Dan Glover Says:

    Almost like when Charles Williams spoke, the students were hearing John Milton speaking instead of just hearing someone with a completely unsympathetic reading of Milton comment on what they think he ought to have said.

Leave a Reply