C.S. Lewis on a Poetic Method

Edouard Manet, Concert in the Tuileries (1861-2) Oil on canvas. National Gallery, London.

The late Sidney Geist, a sculptor and controversial interpreter of C├ęzanne's art, invited me about 12 years ago to come and see him at his studio in Manhattan. I had spent the past year studying everything about Edouard Manet and was excited to discuss with him some of what I had discovered. Many of his own ideas were so unexpected that more conventional art historians had publicly humiliated him in book reviews and published letters. Some of his claims were, like some of mine, completely off the wall but others, like the 10'-high hidden image of a girl in the Philadelphia Bathers, were unquestionably on the wall. Now was my chance to see what he thought of my own theory, that all Manet's art rather than being inconsistent was composed with exquisite logic. Manet was the only artist I had then studied in such depth so I was unaware that his methods and objectives were common to many other artists from the Middle Ages onwards. Still, it seemed big and Geist, I thought, would like it. He went beserk.

"What do you mean", he said, "that Manet is on the bandstand looking down at the crowd [in Concert in the Tuileries, above]? That's ridiculous. He's there at the edge of the picture in the audience, a self-portrait on the left. How can he be on the bandstand at the same time?"

"Well, it's a mental image." I responded hesitantly. "His easel is on the bandstand looking down at the audience. It's all in his mind. The picture is composed logically....except, given that it's in his mind, it's not logical, if you see what I mean."

Of course he didn't see and, in retrospect, I don't blame him. I tried to explain that all the figures were different aspects of Manet himself whether they were a self-portrait or not.  This all came back to me on reading C.S. Lewis' exploration of how allegory was used by the poets of courtly love in the Middle Ages. You might think that medieval wordsmiths have little in common with Manet but, with some allowance, poetry is poetry in any medium and the methods remain in use over very long periods of time. Lewis is discussing The Romance of the Rose, a medieval "best-seller" by Guillaume de Lorris, when he suddenly switches to a novel by Aldous Huxley to illustrate that Huxley in 1920 used the same method as Guillaume in the early 13th century.

"Mr. Aldous Huxley, whether consciously or not, has revived its [Guillaume's] method. A man and a girl are talking in a conservatory. Instead of representing their conversation directly, the author has chosen to distribute it among a number of attendants whom he allots to each. The attendants represent the various selves, or facets of personality, whom the two lovers contain.........This little jeu d'esprit gives us, in principle, the whole procedure of the Romance of the Rose...The whole poem is in the first person and we look through the lover's eyes, not at him. In the second place he removes the heroine entirely. Her character is distributed among personifications.....Nor is it unnatural for a lover to regard his courtship as an adventure, not with a single person, but with that person's varying moods, some of which are his friends and some his enemies. A man need not go to the Middle Ages to discover that his mistress is many women as well as one, and that sometimes the woman he hoped to meet is replaced by a very different woman. Accordingly, the lover in the Romance is concerned not with a single 'lady', but with a number of 'moods' or 'aspects' of that lady who alternately help and hinder his attempts to win her love.....If she takes no part in the action, it is because her heart is most often the scene of the action."1 It is in her mind.

Does that ring a bell with the way EPPH explains art?


And now for a piece of trivia: C. S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley died on the same day in 1963. Neither received the obituaries they deserved because it was the day President Kennedy was assassinated.


1. C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition (Cambridge University Press) 1936, pp. 147-9

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