A reflection on "Romantic Christianity" (part two), by Tim Summers

In my most recent reflection I explored the idea of “Romantic Christianity” as embodied in CS Lewis; in particular his treatment of “peak experiences” of transcendence in nature (the preoccupation of Romantic poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge) as a kind of Christian revelation, and his finding significance in childhood and its experiences (again like the above two poets, and also Blake).

Last time I focused mostly on peak experiences. On Lewis’ account these involve desire –desire for something impossible to name but seemingly remembered from childhood, wrapped in nostalgia, and always just out of view. And investigation is like peeling an onion: for when we try to analyse the experience we are half-remembering (say our reaction to a landscape on an early family holiday), it turns out that this too was an experience of desire and not of the "thing in itself" (whatever that might be: the thing ultimately desired).

Lewis believes that the thing ultimately desired, always just out of view, is the heaven promised in the Gospel. For if such a feeling of desire (Lewis calls it "Joy") is universal, there must be something to satisfy it. If the nature of this desire can be put into words at all, as Lewis attempts in his 1941 sermon "The Weight of Glory", it is a desire to merge with beauty, to become a part of it, finally to "get in". So Lewis thinks that this is what heaven may in fact be like.

Today I'll talk about the other main aspect of Romantic Christianity: childhood.

Lewis' view of childhood as visionary, bringing intuitions of the spiritual world that will haunt our later life, is a more orthodox or Christianised version of a theme in Wordsworth, much of whose early poetry has to do with childhood and its peak experiences – "spots of time" as Wordsworth calls them. The ideas are finally developed into a sort of theological doctrine (I am not sure to what extent symbolic and to what extent literally meant) in the mature lyric of 1807, “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”.

You can read it here, and I recommend you do. Suffice to say (spoiler alert) that the trajectory of the poem anticipates Lewis: the adult poet loves nature, but recalls an earlier time when he loved it more, experienced it in a visionary way. "But yet I know, where'er I go, / That there hath past away a glory from the earth." His transition from childhood to adulthood has left only the memory of the earlier vision (or as Lewis would put it, the earlier desire).

The Pansy at my feet

Doth the same tale repeat:

Whither is fled the visionary gleam?

Where is it now, the glory and the dream?

Here ends his description of the problem. The rest of the poem constructs the theology which is Wordsworth's solution. “Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting” and “trailing clouds of glory do we come / From God, who is our home.” So: before birth we were in heaven, and we are born with the residual perception of an immortal, which fades (for the time being) as we grow up. Thus from the visionary character of childhood we have the “intimations of immortality” of the title. The child is thus a "Mighty prophet! Seer blest!" and Wordsworth ends on a note of joy because, implicitly, his argument has led him to a conclusion which, in its heterodox Romantic way, is Christian-ish: that the paradise lost (an Eden preceding the poet's birth) will be regained at death.

So one intimation of immortality from childhood, for Wordsworth and thence Lewis, is its visionary character. Another one is more plain but perhaps more familiar to all of us. It is the sense of "me-ness". I am sure you know what I mean: the feeling of always having been this particular self with its unique insights and experience, which are just too rich and personal to be turned off like a light. I think this idea pervades Lewis (including in the Narnia books), but it is best expressed in another predecessor who influenced him: Leo Tolstoy.

Here is a passage from The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Tolstoy’s dying judge Ivan Illyich is aware of his mortality as a theoretical possibility, as a matter of logic, but cannot really believe it as an emotional matter. Surely he will not die!

“All his life the example of a syllogism he had studied in Kiesewetter's logic – ‘Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal’ had seemed to him to be true only in relation to Caius the man, man in general, and it was quite justified, but he wasn't Caius and he wasn't man in general, and he had always been something quite, quite special apart from all other beings; he was Vanya, with Mama, with Papa, with Mitya and Volodya, with his toys and the coachman, with Nyanya, then with Katenka, with all the joys, sorrows, passions of childhood, boyhood, youth. Did Caius know the smell of the striped leather ball Vanya loved so much? Did Caius kiss his mother's hand like that and did the silken folds of Caius's mother's dress rustle like that for him? Was it Caius who had rioted like that over the cakes and pastry at the Law School? Was Caius in love like that? Could Caius chair a session like that? And Caius is indeed mortal and it's right that he should die, but for me, Vanya, Ivan Ilych, with all my feelings and thoughts for me it's quite different. And it cannot be that I should die. It would be too horrible.”

You can easily make Ivan's reflections your own. Speaking for myself: how could I, Tim with all my unique feelings and memories – Mum by the jar of sugared almonds in the hall of our first house, the rusty old plough at the farm that was like a motorbike, that boiled sweet smell that our Auntie Nelly always had – how could I (and with me all these special things) possibly disappear? “Like tears in the rain” – for Blade Runner fans. All instincts rebel against it.

I think that from our birth to our death we feel that we remain essentially the same person and that we are immortal. Is that feeling simply a byproduct of our origins, a delusion that was necessary for survival? It is certainly possible – but Lewis would say no. This feeling, like the desire he calls Joy, points towards something real. Lewis says that all of life is a shaping of our soul for its eternal destination: we are becoming “a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare” (“The Weight of Glory”). For him there is in each life the story arc of a paradise which is lost but which may be regained.

And death will bring us face to face with what has been here with us all along.

Tolstoy, less consciously theological, conveys this more ambiguously but also more directly, in Ivan Ilyich's dying words. “So that’s what it is! What joy!”

The above image is a portrait of William Wordsworth in 1804.