What’s Wrong with the World

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Austin Farrer, C.S. Lewis, and the craft of words

From Austin Farrer's eulogy for C. S. Lewis:

A familiar prayer in commemoration of benefactors declares that God is to be praised as well in the dead as in the living; and to praise God in the dead is to honour the excellence of his handiwork in them. It is no business of ours to sit in judgment or to strike the balance of merit; how much of the virtue we praise was the gift of fortune, how much the product of effort or self-discipline is a question with which we have nothing to do. God is the supreme cause of every positive effect, whatever the means he employs to bring it about; we glorify the Creator when we mark the glory in his creature.

Every human being is a marvel, for is it not a focus into which the world is drawn? Yet minds differ vastly in force or range, and spirits in life or feeling; and the first thing I am moved to say about the man we commemorate is that he had more actuality of soul than the common breed of men. He took in more, he felt more, he remembered more, he invented more.


He gave without stint, to all who seemed to care for them, the riches of his mind and the effort of his wit; and where there was need, he gave his money. I will not say what I know about his charities. When he had entered into any relationship, his patience and his loyalty were inexhaustible. He really was a Christian--by which I mean, he never thought he had the right to stop.

From Lewis himself, on the literary experience, from An Experiment in Criticism:

Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realise the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realise it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison.

My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through the eyes of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented. I regret that the brutes cannot write books. Very gladly would I learn what face things present to a mouse or a bee; more gladly still would I perceive the olfactory world charged with all the information and emotion it carries for a dog.

Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. There are mass emotions which heal the wound; but they destroy the privilege. In them our separate selves are pooled and we sink back into subindividuality. But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.

Two things strike me about this pair of quotations. First, there is the reference in Farrer to a human mind as a "focus into which the world is drawn," which echoes Lewis's image of the value of literature--that it allows us to see through many eyes. Farrer implies that Lewis himself fulfilled that function for his readers of allowing them to see through the eyes of another, and that other, a man of exceptional genius, imagination, and insight.

Second, there is the beauty of the writing in both quotations (though Lewis's is the greater). If you read much writing by men of that generation, or those generations--those Edwardians, those late Victorians, even those mid-twentieth century men, particularly the British, you learn to recognize the style. The grace of the parallelisms, the flow, the apt word choice, the concision. There is nothing else quite like it. Presumably they learned it from their stern schoolmasters and tutors and drank it in with their own literary reading from authors older still, whose writings were then distilled in the minds of inky and sometimes deeply unhappy boys trained in the discipline of classical learning. Something of the same flavor can be found in the work of authors as completely different in thought as Lewis and Bertrand Russell. We shall not see its like again.

For the language, to our endless and bitter loss, has been debased just in the years since Lewis died, and still more in the years since he was educated.

I want to urge that here there should be, though there seldom is, a place for common action between those of differing ideological and political persuasions: Let us attempt to preserve and to recover the English language. This will have to involve, on the left side, the abandonment of what is known as political correctness and sensitivity training. Try to teach your students and your children to write like the writers of sixty and more years ago, and let the ideological chips fall where they may as far as "offensive" language use, for if you do so, you will be one of the guardians of what is good, beautiful, and valuable in itself. It will have to involve, on the right side, an abandonment of analytical attempts, however tantalizing, to relate the undeniable fact that much (though not all) of the blame for the debasement of the language falls on the left to some grander scheme, some seemingly profound description of the liberal mind and its corrosive effects. If you find allies--in organizations such as the National Association of Scholars, for example--men of the left who nevertheless love the language and are willing to defend it and restore it among the young, welcome them, work with them, and let the ideological chips fall where they may as far as categorizing your allies. For if you do so, you will be one of the guardians of what is good, beautiful and valuable in itself.

Blessed are those guardians, for whether they recognize it or not they shall see the face of God in language and in the human spirit. Blessed are those guardians, for they shall know that their work is not in vain, though much be lost.

Comments (6)

What a marvelous meditation to read just a few days before the teaching load begins again! Thanks for posting this, Lydia; it's an encouragement to a teacher of writing and literature.

Thank you, Beth. May your tribe increase.

Lydia and Beth,

I second your responses to each other - may both of your tribes increase!


Something of the same flavor can be found in the work of authors as completely different in thought as Lewis and Bertrand Russell. We shall not see its like again.

For the language, to our endless and bitter loss, has been debased just in the years since Lewis died, and still more in the years since he was educated.

C S Lewis, Bertrand Russell, John Bagnell Bury, and many another 19th and early 20th century writer of fine English prose probably no longer has a wide audience of educated readers able to both understand what they wished to communicate and to appreciate the elegant style and lucidity of their writings.

Maybe John Carey is right to blame the "new phenomenon" of mass culture for the decline of eloquence and simplicity in prose addressed to the "common reader". He conjectures that until mass culture supplanted it, a natural aristocracy acted as sole guardians and transmitters of timeless values by literary and other forms of artistic expression. And for a long time, these custodians of the English language delayed its debasement. But vulgar journalism and liberal democracy have been allies in the coarsening of a cultivated sensibility which, according to intellectuals, they should be the exclusive proprietors.

(I do not think many Americans would be at ease with the phrase, "natural aristocracy".)

I certainly think that there is in a sense a kind of elitism involved in the notion of preserving the English language. And I agree that "too many words" can help the debasement of the language.

But the elitism can be one that is intended to be passed on in the education of the young, where there is no particular reason why "the young" should mean only "the aristocratic young." English teachers bear the burden, here. And one of the burdens they bear is that of being prescriptive, of teaching rules, and of valuing the beauty of the language. Unfortunately, not only has prescriptivism become gauche in the academic world, insofar as it survives it survives mostly for _ideological_ reasons rather than for any reasons of elegance and style. All manner of fads such as "journaling" and the silliness of just "getting the kids to write" (like "just getting them to read") without regard for _what_ they write or _what_ they read have come into play here, and the educational establishment, with its never-ending faddishness, is very gravely to blame. An overemphasis on creativity is also a great problem. Reading AP English prep. books is a real eye-opener, here. While they do require at least _basic_ grammar and spelling, a great deal of colloquialism, lack of organization, and lack of grace is tolerated and even encouraged in the name of "having your own distinctive voice" to catch the attention of the testers.

It would be entirely possible for middle-class young people and even lower-class young people to be taught to write well insofar as it is possible for them to be taught anything. Of course, the latter condition is becoming increasingly difficult to fulfill in our increasingly anarchic schools. But unfortunately, even in better schools where teachers and students are not getting beaten up, etc., the _goal_ appears not to be any longer to teach students to write excellent English prose, where "excellent" has aesthetic, prescriptive, and traditionalist overtones.

In education, as in religion, too often the guardians are now the wolves.

I used to own a book by Austin Farrer: The Essential Sermons (Cowley Publications). I found these sermons to be eloquent, lucid, and deeply "catholic." It is heartening to see that Dr Farrer has not been forgotten!

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