They lack nerves, and the tiny interior.

In this poem I recently encountered, the poet doesn’t say whether he himself believes in Platonic forms, only that “they” claim to know that this principle orders the minds of angels, and what the effects of its working is. It’s my understanding that Plato’s idea of forms is not in accord with Christian theology; one writer on the subject claims that “Maximus the Confessor remains to this day the single most important figure in Orthodox cosmological thought,” and that “his doctrine of the logoi of things can in no way be reduced to a static world of Platonic forms.” There is no Huge Principle, but there is Almighty God, the great “I am.”

Another thing I wonder about is the location of the “tiny interior” mentioned; I should think it is more in the heart than the brain, this place where the Maker shares His secrets. Both of my wonderings are based on my slight understanding of philosophy and theology; what I do feel more certain of is that angels are basically very different from humans. Christ took on human nature, because it was we humans who needed His solidarity with us, and His quickening of our dead spirits. But having been created “a little lower than the angels,” we were “crowned with honor and glory.”

Whatever all of the attributes of angel nature may be, it is given to us humans to enjoy the senses and their joys, which in the following poem by C.S. Lewis are seen as guards against the richer angel-type experiences that we could not in our earthiness bear. I see these sensory experiences as much more than that, and where the poet evokes the way they can fill our hearts to overflowing, such as when we “drink the whole summer down into the breast,” isn’t he describing more than a purely sensual experience? Quite possibly a thankful, prayerful heart can know mystical secrets of the trees and stones, as their secrets would be not other than whatever the Creator in kindness might reveal of Himself in and through them – and beyond.

ON BEING HUMAN

Angelic minds, they say, by simple intelligence
Behold the Forms of nature. They discern
Unerringly the Archtypes, all the verities
Which mortals lack or indirectly learn.
Transparent in primordial truth, unvarying,
Pure Earthness and right Stonehood from their clear,
High eminence are seen; unveiled, the seminal
Huge Principles appear.

The Tree-ness of the tree they know — the meaning of
Arboreal life, how from earth’s salty lap
The solar beam uplifts it; all the holiness
Enacted by leaves’ fall and rising sap;

But never an angel knows the knife-edged severance
Of sun from shadow where the trees begin,
The blessed cool at every pore caressing us
— An angel has no skin.

They see the Form of Air; but mortals breathing it
Drink the whole summer down into the breast.
The lavish pinks, the field new-mown, the ravishing
Sea-smells, the wood-fire smoke that whispers Rest.
The tremor on the rippled pool of memory
That from each smell in widening circles goes,
The pleasure and the pang — can angels measure it?
An angel has no nose.

The nourishing of life, and how it flourishes
On death, and why, they utterly know; but not
The hill-born, earthy spring, the dark cold bilberries.
The ripe peach from the southern wall still hot
Full-bellied tankards foamy-topped, the delicate
Half-lyric lamb, a new loaf’s billowy curves,
Nor porridge, nor the tingling taste of oranges.
— An angel has no nerves.

Far richer they! I know the senses’ witchery
Guards us like air, from heavens too big to see;
Imminent death to man that barb’d sublimity
And dazzling edge of beauty unsheathed would be.
Yet here, within this tiny, charmed interior,
This parlour of the brain, their Maker shares
With living men some secrets in a privacy
Forever ours, not theirs.

-C.S. Lewis

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thanks to Fr. Mark Kowalewski for introducing me to this poem.
(said Mr Homegrown)

6 thoughts on “They lack nerves, and the tiny interior.

  1. If I had seen this poem by itself, without your commentary, I probably would have given up after a few lines. The language is thick and the topic (spirit vs matter) has been addressed again and again over the years, centuries. But your raising questions, and then addressing those and related concerns with that “Quite possibly” sentence at the end–that did it for me, gave me a new angle, and incentive. So I looked closely at the poem. I’m glad I did, but even gladder for the way you snuck in that gentle understanding of how the heart can know the “mystical secrets” in nature because . . . God might whisper them now and then. And actually does.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Albert, you are always encouraging. I had that draft sitting around for weeks and I kept thinking it was ridiculous to post something obviously written in such ignorance, even if it is ignorance that we all share. But I didn’t trash it, because it is an interesting poem in various ways, even if it is not great poetry. I’m sure I engaged more at the level of philosophy than poetry on this one, though there is some imagery I loved, like the idea of our “tiny interior.” You might be interested to read my discussion with M.K. in these comments; she raised the issue of the physical location of the heart, which I had not even been thinking about. I’ve been reading some Orthodox articles about that tonight….

      Like

  2. Thank you for sharing this. I was not familiar with Lewis’s poetry; he turns a fine phrase, doesn’t he? I see this as a good example of the danger of poetry. It’s much more dangerous than prose, in the hand of a skilled wordsmith like Lewis, in luring the mind away from truth. I don’t mean to be unkind to Lewis. But I wonder if he means all that he says here. Like you, I wonder if he really means that our bodily experiences are so much inferior? Or are they actually more precious? Scripture is quite clear that angels were created to serve humanity and that they long to look into topics that we have been made privy to. Does Lewis acknowledge that? He seems to, as he says that angels only understand the surface of things.

    But at the end, he says they are richer for their lack, and that human senses are a limiting veil, that God shares a few, tiny secrets with us in a limited way, like a parent to a little child. I don’t know.

    I agree with him about the brain rather than the heart, which is an organ for pumping blood and nothing more. We’ve romanticized it, of course, which is lovely, but don’t you think the brain is the place where God speaks to us?

    Lately, in preparation for a study I’m teaching, I’ve been studying all that Scripture has to say about clothing — the entire topic of clothing or covering. It’s opened up to me layers and layers of spiritual understanding about God and how he is toward us. Lewis, it seems to me, sadly longs to be rid of the “witchery” of our bodies’ senses and how they prevent us from understanding as angels do. Far from it! I’m finding that it is God’s intense desire to clothe us, always clothe us, and he’s chosen these bodies as our perfect clothing. I’d love to chat with Lewis about these matters now!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Mary Kathryn, thank you for a thoughtful response. When I read your comment I realize that I had not seen some aspects of the issues raised by this poem. The brain is a physical part of us, our body, but I was comparing my idea of the metaphysical heart with the more metaphysical, also intangible mind. I can’t imagine that Lewis equated the mind with the brain, so maybe he used the word brain precisely because it is physical, like the senses…? I definitely need to think about all this more.

      But as far as the physical heart being an organ that pumps blood, and nothing more — that is a modern concept. Many cultures and religions throughout history have believed and do believe that the soul is seated in the heart, not the head, and that is the traditional belief of Orthodox and even ancient western Christianity.

      You may not be familiar with Lewis’s work in this genre because it has generally not been considered very good poetry. But a few of his poems have enough poetry along with the philosophy or theology to get my attention 🙂

      Like

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.