Clive Staples Lewis’s first published book was Spirits in Bondage, a collection of poetry, published shortly after he returned to Oxford following his service in World War I. His second was a narrative poem. He wanted to be a poet. But eventually he realized he had more talent in other areas – medieval literature, for starters, and his career took a different path. But he always loved poetry. He always wrote poetry. So when he was describing the difference between masculine and feminine, it was quite natural that he should turn to a poetic metaphor.
“Malacandra affected him like a quantitative, Perelandra like an accentual, metre.” When I first read those words, I attached little significance to them – it had been years since I worked with the actual terminology involved in poetic metre. But when I looked up the terms, it was another “aha” moment. No, those aren’t terms most of us work with on a regular basis, even people who work regularly with poetry. The term quantitative metre refers to that used in ancient Greek and Latin poetry, where the feet were determined based on the literal length of the sounds – a long syllable versus a short syllable; the amount of time it took to say the sounds. The stress pattern of the words made no difference. English poetry, by contrast, is based on accentual metre, which is based on the stress pattern. The feet in accentual meter are based on which syllable of a word is stressed, or accented. We use the long/short terminology with vowels today, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it takes us longer to say cape than cap. And both would be stressed, being single syllable nouns. Than actually takes longer to say than either cape or cap, so the pattern of “cape than cap,” would be exactly opposite in quantitative metre than in accentual. Short, long, short, vs. stressed, unstressed, stressed – at least in normal usage. I may be wrong, but that’s what I gather from my reading.
Now, I am not a linguist. I took my two years of German in college – and yes, I did dream in German a few times, thank you very much. I also took a year or so of seminary-level Biblical Greek. I never studied poetry in either, at least not that I can remember. But I can imagine that it would be impossible to translate the effect of the sound of the words – the music of the language – from a language with one pattern to that of the other. I suppose German to English would be easier, since the languages are related and they both use the accentual metrical pattern. But ancient Greek or Latin to English? Impossible! (A bit off topic, but fun, is that in the same introduction I mentioned last week, Marguerite Wilkinson humorously described an early attempt to “translate the beloved hexameters of Homer into English hexameters. When I failed I trembled on the verge of the perilous thought that it was not altogether my own fault. The English language was quite unlike the Greek in quality.”)
Lewis regularly read Latin and Greek poetry in the original language. He was familiar with the difference in sound, in mouth feel, of the rhythmical patterns of poetry in each. I love what he wrote to his friend Arthur, after he had finally mastered Greek grammar enough to enjoy reading it, about the Iliad, “Although you don’t know Greek & don’t care for poetry, I cannot resist the temptation of telling you how stirring it is. Those fine, simple, euphonious lines, as they roll on with a roar like that of the ocean, strike a chord in one’s mind that no modern literature approaches. Better or worse it may be: but different it is for certain.” (September 26, 1914)
“Better or worse it may be: but different it is for certain.” That, I think, is the point Lewis was making with this comparison. Masculine and feminine are distinct. They can’t be translated the one into the other. They aren’t dependent on one another for their existence, or for their uniqueness. They are, given the previous descriptions, equally beautiful, equally moving, but in a different way. They strike different chords. They are different and untranslatable.
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