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Texas Studies in Literature and Language 44.3 (2002) 324-348

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C. S. Lewis, T. S. Eliot, and the Milton Legacy:
The Nativity Ode Revisited

Charles A. Huttar

In the Ballard Matthews Lectures that he delivered at Bangor in 1941, later published as A Preface to "Paradise Lost," 1 C. S. Lewis undertook to refurbish Milton's somewhat tarnished reputation. One of several lines of defense was directed, in effect though not explicitly, against the provocative remark of T. S. Eliot that Milton, though undeniably a great poet, had had a "bad influence." Milton's poetry, Eliot thought, "could only be an influence for the worse, upon any poet whatsoever," "an influence against which we still have to struggle." 2 After a short chapter in his Preface (9-11) refuting Eliot's claim that only the best practicing poets could speak with authority as critics of poetry, Lewis addressed Eliot's strictures on Milton—failure in "visual imagination" (Eliot, 158), the pursuit of sonority at the expense of thought (159-61, 163-64), and departure from "conversational language" in blank verse (161) as it had been modeled by Shakespeare and his successors. He did so mainly by an appeal to the decorum of the epic genre, though he also claimed for Milton's verse visual and intellectual achievements greater than Eliot would allow. 3

In 1947 Eliot returned to the subject, acknowledging Lewis's contributions to a degree that seems not yet to be fully appreciated. Not only does he refer to Lewis explicitly (Eliot, 168-69), but in saying that "the errors of our times have been rectified by vigorous hands" (165, emphasis added) and in granting the need to acknowledge the prejudices of one's age (167), he alludes obliquely to Lewis's reiterated warnings of the dangers, in any age, of accepting uncritically the assumptions that belong to the spirit of that age (see, for example, Preface, 54-56, 61-63). Eliot's readiness now to find value in the scholar's kind of criticism (166) suggests that he has found Lewis's chapter persuasive (though Lewis is not named); so also when Eliot opines that "a more vivid picture of the earthly Paradise would have been less paradisiacal" (178; cf. Lewis, Preface, 47) or when he speaks of "Milton as, outside the theatre, the greatest master in our language of freedom within form" (183; cf. Lewis, Preface, 79-80). In addition, by his choice to single out for [End Page 324] praise, among Milton critics, Lewis's friend Charles Williams, whose "prolegomenon to Comus" is "the best" (166), Eliot may glance at the similar praise that Lewis accorded Williams in dedicating his Preface to him. But for all that, Eliot essentially repeats his charge concerning Milton's influence, though with some qualifications and with a narrower focus. He is careful to point out that he offers his criticism not as a scholar but as a practitioner of poetry (ignoring a possible third sort of critic, the common reader). "The scholar's interest," he says,

is in the permanent, the practitioner's in the immediate. The scholar can teach us where we should bestow our admiration and respect: the practitioner should be able . . . to make an old masterpiece actual, give it contemporary importance, and persuade his audience that it is interesting, exciting, enjoyable, and active. (166, Eliot's emphasis)

That is said of the practicing poet qua critic. Then Eliot proceeds to the main question, that of Milton's "technical influence" on "the writer of poetry in our own time" (171, emphasis added). He explicitly sets aside, as unprovable, his earlier judgment concerning Milton's bad influence in prior centuries and the prediction that his influence could never be good (172). He does not give up the idea that "the study of Milton could be . . . only a hindrance" to poets of the generation of The Waste Land (182). But times change, and now, twenty-five years later, "the study of his verse might at last be...


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