The Personal Heresy
Now reprinted, The Personal Heresy by C. S. Lewis is a necessity. I have read the book seven times this year in the process of preparing for the re-release. The book was first published in 1939, reprinted in 1965, but then it became one of the few Lewis books to go out of print. The August 7, 2008 release of the book by Concordia University Press culminated a two-year process.
A History of The Personal Heresy
In 1924, Lewis addressed the Martlets, an undergraduate Oxford literary society, arguing that the personal life of author James Stephens, a popular Irish author, had little to do with understanding his works. Again in 1930 Lewis addressed the Martlets, this time as an Oxford don, developing his position more fully. In that same year, E.M.W. Tillyard published his major work on John Milton, in which he wrote, “All poetry is about the poet’s state of mind.” To understand Paradise Lost correctly, he stated, one must read it as an “expression of Milton’s personality.”
The first three essays of The Personal Heresy were originally published in the journal Essays and Studies, a periodical of the English Association, in 1934, 1935, and 1936. The first essay was written as a challenge, open to anyone, and the challenge was subsequently taken up by Tillyard, who wrote the response that became chapter two of The Personal Heresy. The exchange continued from there. After the first three essays were complete, three additional untitled essays were added, along with a concluding note by Lewis and a collaboratively written preface by both authors. All of these together comprise The Personal Heresy.
The controversy concluded with a lively debate at Magdalen College, Oxford, on Feb. 7, 1939, the same year the book was originally published. Of this debate, former student of Lewis John Lawlor wrote, “There was a memorable occasion when in the Hall at Magdalen, Dr. Tillyard met him to round off in debate the controversy begun with the publication of Lewis’s indictment of ‘The Personal Heresy.’ I am afraid there was no debate. Lewis made rings round Tillyard; in, out, up, down, around back again—like some piratical Plymouth bark against a high-built galleon of Spain.”
Some of Lewis’s letters provide us with additional perspective on this controversy, showing Lewis to be aware of the potential for a negative view of him, but also showing Lewis to be congenial towards Tillyard himself. Lewis seems to discuss his first essay in a letter of April 5, 1935, to Paul More, stating that he might be pushing Mr. More if he sent him a copy of his essay.
In a letter to Joan Bennett, February 1937, Lewis jokingly refers to this controversy by calling himself a “professional controversialist and itinerant prize-fighter.” Interestingly, there seemed to be no acrimony between the two men, for Lewis wrote about joining Tillyard in contributing chapters for a Festschrift to Sir Herbert Grierson, and on Jan. 25, 1938, Lewis wrote to Frank P. Wilson about meeting Tillyard in London and the two of them lunching together there. There is evidence that, shortly after the publication of The Personal Heresy, Lewis considered the heresy over.
On July 23, 1939, about two months after the publication of the book, Lewis wrote to Owen Barfield, “I quite agree that the Personal Heresy is not important—now! But it was rapidly becoming so. I was just in the nick of time . . . .” But if the personal heresy had disappeared by that time, I’m afraid that it has come back in our day which has drunk so deeply of “the poison of subjectivism.”
The Significance of The Personal Heresy
On Sept. 12, 1940, Jack wrote to Eliza Marian Butler, a University of Manchester professor at the time, stating that the kernel of The Personal Heresy was “Don’t attribute superhuman qualities to poetry unless you really believe in a superhuman subject to support them.” There is a Christian sub-text to Lewis’s position: poetry can do great things only if there is a great God.
Lewis’s position in The Personal Heresy reflects his conviction that objective values are resident in people, places, events, and things, rejecting the relativistic mindset of that age and subsequent ages. It shares with The Abolition of Man (1943) a concern for the undermining of objective value. That is why, throughout The Personal Heresy, Lewis consistently defends the position that literature is about the objects or people or events out there and not about thoughts and feelings inside the writer.
Lewis’s position was further developed in A Preface to Paradise Lost (1942) and reached its culmination in his 1961 work, An Experiment in Criticism. In that work Lewis wrote,
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 sub-individuality. 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, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.
I believe that Lewis has here anticipated the modern approach to literature known as Reader Response as well as the post-modern deconstruction movement, where a text means not what it means, but whatever meaning the reader ascribes to it.
Another lesson from The Personal Heresy is for the pride of the poet, and everyone else’s pride, to be held in check, but, correspondingly, to be able to say with Ethel Waters, “God don’t make no junk.” Lewis both challenges the elitism of some poets and elevates the cause of the common man.
One other note: In his introduction, Bruce Edwards says that reading this book is like taking a tutorial with Lewis (xi). If you ever wished you could have had Lewis for a teacher, you can . . . by reading this book.
A Concluding Thought
With the availability of The Personal Heresy, one can now more easily come to appreciate a piece of writing that both connects to other positions Lewis took and also gives a prime example of this great literary scholar writing within his field. The book is available from Concordia University Press, 11400 Concordia University Drive, Austin, Texas 78726.
Since 1998, Rev. Dr. Joel D. Heck has served Concordia University at Austin as Professor of Theology. He teaches courses in Old Testament, New Testament, Reformation history, and the life and writings of C. S. Lewis. Read more about Dr. Heck.
(1) Christian Herald, Vol. LXXXI, April 1958.
(2) Christopher N. L. Brooke, A History of the University of Cambridge. Vol. IV: 1870–1990. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993, 488.
(3) Patrick Moore, “Sir Fred Hoyle,” Dictionary of National Biography, consulted Jan. 11, 2005, 2-3. Patrick Moore, “Hoyle, Sir Fred (1915–2001)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edn, Oxford University Press, Jan 2005 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/76123, accessed 11 Jan 2005].
(4) New Bodleian Library, MS. Facs. b. 90, p. 63.
(5) C.E.M. Joad, The Recovery of Belief, 32.
(6) C. S. Lewis, “The Seeing Eye,” in Christian Reflections, 171.