Surprised by C.S. Lewis (with a broadsword)

A bit of passion for your subject is no bad thing in a teacher, and I’ve been known to be pretty adamant about the quality of the literature I’m teaching, particularly if it’s Horace or Virgil. But C.S. Lewis took advocacy of the poetry he was teaching to another level again, on the evidence I’m about to present.

Assiduous readers of this blog know that C.S. and I have history: a dubious story about him and the inspiration for The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is repeated under my window ad nauseam by tour guides. But a happier connection is Lewis’ enthusiasm for one of my favourite poems, Matthew Arnold’s Sohrab and Rustum, the story (from the Persian poet Ferdowsi, but reinvented by Arnold as a mini Homeric epic) of the single combat between the warriors Rustum and Sohrab: eventually Rustum slays Sohrab, unaware that Sohrab is his son. I knew that Lewis was fond of the poem because in his autobiography Surprised by Joy he described falling under the spell of Arnold’s evocative scene-setting as a twelve-year-old boy: “what enchanted me was the artist in Pekin with his ivory forehead and pale hands, the cypress in the queen’s garden, the backward glance at Rustum’s youth, the pedlars from Khabul, the hushed Chorasmian waste” (p. 53).

The anecdote that follows is new to me, though. It’s from Humphrey Carpenter’s The Inklings (p. 214), and I owe it to the immensely well-read John Stoker. (I owe the reference to Surprised by Joy to the equally well-read Gail Trimble, I should add.) Carpenter is describing Lewis’ confrontational style of teaching, which divided opinion among his undergraduates (“A few lapped it up, but some very nearly ran away”):

‘If you think that way about Keats you needn’t come here again!’ Lewis once roared down the stairs to a departing pupil. And on another occasion when an Australian student professed that he could never read Arnold’s Sohrab and Rustum, and refused to admit its good qualities even after Lewis had chanted a hundred lines of it at him, Lewis declared, ‘The sword must settle it!’ and reached for a broadsword and a rapier which (according to J.A.W. Bennett, who was there) were inexplicably in the corner of the room. They fenced – Lewis of course choosing the broadsword – and, said Bennett, ‘Lewis actually drew blood – a slight nick.’

Those were the days. I’ve a shrewd idea what the HR Manager would say today if I tried to settle a disagreement about the power of Horatian word placement with a duel. I do actually inflict Sohrab and Rustum on my own students quite regularly, on the pretext that it’s a nice encapsulation of Greco-Roman epic style, but I try to resist the impulse to reenact the story with authentic weaponry when I do so.

Anyhow, here’s a chunk of Sohrab and Rustum that Lewis loved and I love, Rustum wistfully recalling his youthful affair with Sohrab’s mother, and Arnold capturing nostalgia perfectly. If anyone doesn’t love it, of course, I’m afraid I’ll have to see you outside:

                                                      as, at dawn,
The shepherd from his mountain-lodge descries
A far, bright city, smitten by the sun,
Through many rolling clouds—so Rustum saw
His youth; saw Sohrab’s mother, in her bloom;
And that old king, her father, who loved well
His wandering guest, and gave him his fair child
With joy; and all the pleasant life they led,
They three, in that long-distant summer-time—
The castle, and the dewy woods, and hunt
And hound, and morn on those delightful hills
In Ader-baijan.

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About Llewelyn Morgan

I'm a Classicist, lucky enough to work at Brasenose College, Oxford. I specialise in Roman literature, but I've got a persistent side-interest in Afghanistan, particularly the scholars and spies and scholar-spies who visited the country in the nineteenth century.

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