For decades, I have loved reading sophisticated literary biographies and the personal diaries of famous writers and painters. This post outlines some thoughts prompted by reading, in close proximity, a biography of Edgar Allan Poe and C. S. Lewis’ diary. However, not everything I read is so substantial. During the sixteen-years I lived as a hermit on the edge of the Great Canadian Wilderness, I also acquired a taste for books written by people living in out of the way places. One of England’s great cat-lovers, Derek Tangye, became a surprise favourite. Tangye, an ex-newspaperman writes simple charming accounts of his life in Cornwall. He and his wife Jeannie lived in “Minack,” an ancient stone cottage perched atop a cliff on Cornwall’s south coast. They grew flowers for the London markets – and kept cats.
What follows is one of my own diary entries. The comparison of Poe and Lewis is interesting in that it reveals some of the common life-patterns discerned by recent research into the lives of creative individuals. The entry also illustrates how the mind of a thinker like me integrates all of its experiences; even the most trivial. To put things in context, here is a segment of my reading database showing the books I was reading at the time.
All My Road Before Me: The Diary of C. S. Lewis / C. S. Lewis – Edited by Walter Hooper
A Cat in the Window / Derek Tangye
C. S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table / Various – Edited by James T. Como
Edgar A. Poe: Mournful & Never-ending Remembrance / Kenneth Silverman
The Gates of Ivory (not finished yet) / Margaret Drabble
Writing Down the Bones / Natalie Goldberg
Thursday, December 31, 1992
Finished the last 80 pages or so of Edgar A. Poe today. As I read this book, I have been contrasting, in my mind, Poe and C. S. Lewis. Oddly enough, a passage from Derek Tangye’s A Cat at the Window keeps coming back to me. Tangye is describing how his cat Monty was traumatised by a savage encounter with a dog while on strange ground. He writes: “Monty’s memory of Judy [the dog], had he been human, might have been eradicated on a psychiatrist’s couch; but as it was, the rage he felt against her simmered inside him, erupting in an explosion at intervals during the rest of his life. He was determined to fight a ceaseless battle of revenge.” It occurs to me that this is precisely what Poe spent most of his life doing.
The interesting thing is the striking similarity of the early years of Lewis and Poe. Both men lost their mothers while still children, both had difficult relationships with remote, affluent fathers (in Poe’s case it was a stepfather) who failed to supply adequate funds when their sons were dependent on them. Both were sent away to schools where they were extremely unhappy. Lewis, after a stint in the British wartime army, moved in with an older woman (Mrs. Moore) and her daughter, the woman being the mother of a friend killed in WW I. Poe does virtually the same thing, living with an aunt and her young daughter after serving in the U.S. army for a couple of years. Both men were afflicted by terrible poverty while in university. Both went on to become writers, both became devoted to their adopted families.
But there the similarity ends.
Lewis eventually got a good education and a fellowship at Oxford. He inherited half of his father’s estate, settled comfortably into a life-long home on the outskirts of Oxford and became a famous tutor and prolific writer. While he did not marry until his later years (after the death of Mrs. Moore) he seems to have led a stable, happy, and productive life with “D” and her daughter Maureen substituting as his family. I should mention that after some confusion as a young man he became a Christian. Nowhere are there any signs of prolonged, intense, mental anguish, although he was eager to abandon his tutorial duties at Oxford when offered the professorship at Cambridge.
Poe was unable to get a complete university education and was later disinherited by his stepfather. Unlike Lewis, things never got any better for Poe; he spent his whole life in extreme poverty. He seemed unable to stick with anything, constantly quitting editorial jobs or getting fired after personality conflicts with employers. Like Monty the cat, Poe had a penchant for remembering slights and insults and then exploding with outrage at some later time; seeking revenge was frequently the motivation for his actions. He had a severe, recurring drinking problem. In fact, everything about him and about his life conveys the impression of constant, severe psychological distress.
What accounts for the huge difference in the lives of these two men after such similar beginnings? The answer seems to lie in the story of Monty the cat. Lewis was able to forget the wrenching death of his mother, the long years of grinding poverty, and his dissatisfaction with his father. He put it all behind him, found inner peace, focused on making his way in the world, and did well. Poe, apparently, was never able to get past the grief of losing his mother at an early age, nor was he able to forgive his stepfather for disinheriting him. Unable to forget, he was crippled by recurring bouts of depression, frequent explosions of anger, and festering resentment. All this undermined his efforts to achieve success as a writer thus condemning him to perpetual poverty. One wonders what Poe’s life might have been like had he been able to forgive and forget.
Was it Christianity that enabled Lewis to overcome his past, or was he inherently capable of leaping the hurdle? I think the case can be made that he was fully functional even before his conversion to the Christian faith. He studied hard for his degrees; marked high school papers to earn extra money; and wrote, although not copiously – but then he did have a pretty full plate early on, reading English in one year, then acclimatizing to his fellowship position. Based on the contents of his diary during the period 1922-1927 it is clear that Lewis had a sound if not total understanding of himself. The most telling argument for the positive contribution of his religion comes from the fact that Lewis did not become a prolific writer until after his conversion. And by his own admission he was not happy in the years prior to it.
Poe was not a religious man, being fascinated by the supernatural rather than the spiritual. What comes through strongly in the Silverman biography of Poe is his complete lack of self-knowledge. Poe seems to have exhibited a lot of unconscious behaviour, much of it destructive. His work is permeated by recurring scrambled references to his stepfather’s surname and to his dead mother. How much of this was he consciously aware of? To me, a lot of his writing seems artificial, a kind of posturing. Serious conflicts within the man are clearly visible in his personal correspondence, his professional writing, and in his erratic behaviour. Perhaps religion would have made a difference for Poe in that it might have freed him from some of his conflicts. Prior to psychology, religion must have been the most reliable source of comfort for troubled minds.
Looking over my previous entry it occurs to me that I have moved, or am moving, from being like Poe towards being like Lewis – without the religion. In other words, I have been “saved” by psychiatry. That I used to be just like Poe is undeniable. Now I find myself learning, as Natalie Goldberg put it in Writing Down the Bones, “to trust my own thoughts and feelings.”
At 9 o’clock, I watched the “Prime Time News.” By 11:15, I was in bed reading a few pages of Margaret Drabble’s The Gates of Ivory before dousing the lights. Not exactly an exciting New Year’s Eve, but that’s the way I like it.