A Preface to "Paradise Lost" by C. S. Lewis (Oxford University Press, 1942)
When C. S. Lewis writes a preface, it isn"t just a few pages stuck on the front of a book. His A Preface to "Paradise Lost" is itself a book. It's not one we have in our large collection of books by and about Lewis, but I was able to find it in PDF form and read it on my Kindle.
Confession: I have not read Milton's Paradise Lost. I'm sure my education is the worse because of that omission, and I could certainly see books that my teachers did inflict on me that Milton should have replaced. When, if ever, it will climb to the top of my current, very long reading list, I don't know. But at least now it is on my radar, and I know that I am better prepared for having read Lewis first.
I only have two quotes, not because there isn't much more of value in the book, but because the format made it a lot harder to keep track of them.
How are [the] gulfs between the ages to be dealt with by the student of poetry? A method often recommended may be called the method of The Unchanging Human Heart. According to this method the things which separate one age from another are superficial. Just as, if we stripped the armour off a medieval knight or the lace off a Caroline courtier, we should find beneath them an anatomy identical with our own, so, it is held, if we strip off from Virgil his Roman imperialism, from Sidney his code of honour, from Lucretius his Epicurean philosophy, and from all who have it their religion, we shall find the Unchanging Human Heart, and on this we are to concentrate. I held this theory myself for many years, but I have now abandoned it. ... How if these are not really the most important elements in the actual balance of the poem we are reading? Our whole study of the poem will then become a battle between us and the author in which we are trying to twist his work into a shape he never gave it.... I do not say that even on these terms we shall not get some value out of our reading; but we must not imagine that we are appreciating the works the old writers actually wrote.
Fortunately there is a better way. Instead of stripping the knight of his armour you can try to put his armour on yourself; instead of seeing how the courtier would look without his lace, you can try to see how you would feel with his lace; that is, with his honour, his wit, his royalism, and his gallantries... To enjoy our full humanity we ought, so far as is possible, to contain within us potentially at all times, and on occasion to actualize, all the modes of feeling and thinking through which man has passed. You must, so far as in you lies, become an Achaean chief while reading Homer, a medieval knight while reading Malory, and an eighteenth century Londoner while reading Johnson. Only thus will you be able to judge the work "in the same spirit that its author writ"....
We must therefore turn a deaf ear to Professor [Denis] Saurat when he invites us "to study what there is of lasting originality in Milton"s thought and especially to disentangle from theological rubbish the permanent and human interest." This is like asking us to study Hamlet after the "rubbish" of the revenge code has been removed, or centipedes when free of their irrelevant legs, or Gothic architecture without the pointed arches. Milton's thought, when purged of its theology, does not exist. Our plan must be very different—to plunge right into the "rubbish," to see the world as if we believed it, and then, while we still hold that position in our imagination, to see what sort of a poem results.
This puts me in mind of the way I've heard that actors prepare for their rôles: To play Richard III one must as much as possible become Richard III. I see why acting can be a spiritually dangerous profession! I read recently of an incident where actor Michael Weatherly was accused of making sexually inappropriate comments to one of his coworkers. No matter what one might think of his supposed comments, I don't see how anyone can be shocked that he might say something inappropriate given thirteen seasons of total immersion in the NCIS character Tony DiNozzo—whose stock-in-trade was just such language and actions.
In all but a few writers the "good" characters are the least successful, and every one who has ever tried to make even the humblest story ought to know why. To make a character worse than oneself it is only necessary to release imaginatively from control some of the bad passions which, in real life, are always straining at the leash.... But if you try to draw a character better than yourself, all you can do is to take the best moments you have had and to imagine them prolonged and more consistently embodied in action. But the real high virtues which we do not possess at all, we cannot depict except in a purely external fashion. We do not really know what it feels like to be a man much better than ourselves. His whole inner landscape is one we have never seen, and when we guess it we blunder. It is in their "good" characters that novelists make, unawares, the most shocking self-revelations. Heaven understands Hell and Hell does not understand Heaven, and all of us, in our measure, share the ... blindness. To project ourselves into a wicked character, we have only to stop doing something, and something that we are already tired of doing; to project ourselves into a good one we have to do what we cannot and become what we are not.
It is worth noting that elsewhere Lewis praises George MacDonald for being that very rare writer who can portray goodness much better than evil.