On Sehnsucht & Longing (C. S. Lewis & the Romantics)

On Sehnsucht & Longing (C. S. Lewis & the Romantics) August 4, 2017


Sehnsucht (Träumerei [dreaming]) (c. 1900), by Heinrich Vogeler (1872-1942) [public domain / Wikimedia Commmons]


[compiled and edited by Dave Armstrong; uploaded on 11-13-01]


[Joy, or Sehnsucht is a] . . . wistful, soft tearful longing.

(Matthew Arnold, On the Study of Celtic Literature, New York: Macmillan, 1907, 117-118)

[Joy, or Sehnsucht is] a special kind of longing . . . surrounded by a misty indefiniteness which seems essential to its very nature . . . it encompasses not only . . . Germanic longing . . . but also the more turbulent, passionate aspiration associated with what [Matthew] Arnold calls “Celtic Titanism” . . . At times one sees it clearly, at other times it seems to recede before one’s eyes . . . Thus, the exploring of this mystery has turned out to be a quest in itself. . . .

For many writers it is simply there and they make no attempt to explain it. Some of them – especially poets like Wordsworth and Traherne – have expressed this attitude primarily as an ecstatic desire for union with nature; some have spoken of a “sweet melancholy” which seems to have no cause. . . .

In several places Lewis has referred to the state of mind under discussion as Sehnsucht . . . the German word has overtones of nostalgia and longing not to be found in any English word . . . The crucial concept in defining this attitude is best expressed in English by the word “nostalgia.” Even though Sehnsucht may be made up of several different components or appear in different forms (melancholy, wonder, yearning, etc.), basic to its various manifestations is an underlying sense of displacement or alienation from what is desired. . . .

The wonder of spring . . . may bring feelings of ecstasy which cause the individual for the moment to transcend himself . . . Such moments are rare; they may come with a mounting sense of grandeur in the presence of natural beauty or with piercing sweetness on hearing a certain strain of music . . . an experience of “enormous bliss,” of being transported to awesome heights which make the close-by world seem far away. The individual feels that he is becoming one with the universe and desires an even closer union. We find this note frequently sounded by poets of the Romantic Revival – especially Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats – and by the American Transcendentalists – notably Emerson and Whitman. . . .

Not infrequently the locus of melancholy is fixed upon someone who is loved but does not return love, or on some ideal person who has died, or upon some golden time which is no more – the glory of Greece, the grandeur of Renaissance Italy, the mystic charm of the Middle Ages . . . the pursuit of the unattainable . . . The dreamer keeps on creating better worlds – in other places, among different people, etc. This motif is found in German literature as the search for the Blaue Blume [the blue flower] . . . A sense of separation from what is desired, a ceaseless longing which always points beyond – this then is the essence of the attitude I have attempted to describe.

(Corbin Scott Carnell, Bright Shadow of Reality: C. S. Lewis and the Feeling Intellect, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1974, 13, 12, 13-15, 19-20-23)

It was a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what? . . . Before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased. It had taken only a moment of time; and in a certain sense everything else that had ever happened to me was insignificant in comparison. The second glimpse came through Squirrel Nutkin; through it only, though I loved all the Beatrix Potter books . . . it administered the shock, it was a trouble. It troubled me with what I can only describe as the Idea of Autumn. It sounds fantastic to say that one can be enamored of a season, but that is something like what happened; and as before, the experience was one of intense desire. And one went back to the book, not to gratify the desire (that was impossible – how can one possess Autumn?) but to reawake it. And in this experience also there was the same surprise and the same sense of incalculable importance. It was something quite different from ordinary life and even from ordinary pleasure; something, as they would now say, ‘in another dimension’ . . . [it was] an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy . . . anyone who has experienced it will want it again . . . I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world.

(C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1955, 16-18)

Joy is distinct not only from pleasure in general but even from aesthetic pleasure. It must have the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing.

(C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1955, 72)

O we can wait no longer,
We too take ship O soul
Joyous we too launch out on trackless seas.
Fearless for unknown shores on waves of ecstasy to sail.

(Walt Whitman, Passage to India)

But often, in the world’s most crowded streets,
But often, in the din of strife,
There rises an unspeakable desire
After the knowledge of our buried life;
A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
In tracking out our true, original course;
And many a man in his own breast delves,
But deep enough, alas! none ever mines.
Yet still, from time to time, vague and forlorn,
From soul’s subterranean depth upborne
As from an infinitely distant land,
Come airs, and floating echoes, and convey
A melancholy into all our day.

(Matthew Arnold, The Buried Life)

I have learned to look on nature . . . [as] a presence that disturbs me with the joy of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused, Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, And the round ocean, and the living air, and the blue sky, and in the mind of man: a motion and a spirit that impels all thinking things, all objects of all thought, and rolls through all things. Therefore am I still a lover of the meadows and the woods and mountains; and of all that we behold from this green earth . . . well pleased to recognize in nature and the language of the sense the anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse, the guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul, of all my moral being.

(William Wordswoth, Tintern Abbey, 1798)

All joy (as distinct from mere pleasure, still more amusement) emphasises our pilgrim status; always reminds, beckons, awakens desire. Our best havings are wantings.

(C. S. Lewis, Letters, 5 November 1959)

In speaking of this desire for our own far-off country, . . . I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you – the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both . . . Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things – the beauty, the memory of our own past – are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited . . . . Here, then, is the desire, still wandering and uncertain of its object and still largely unable to see that object in the direction where it really lies . . . Heaven is, by definition, outside our experience, but all intelligible descriptions must be of things within our experience. The scriptural picture of heaven is therefore just as symbolical as the picture which our desire, unaided, invents for itself . . .

(C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, a sermon preached at Oxford, June 8, 1941)

He groped for the doorless land of faery, that illimitable haunted country that opened somewhere below a leaf or a stone.

(Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward Angel)

The experience is one of intense longing . . . This hunger is better than any other fullness; this poverty better than all other wealth. And thus it comes about, that if the desire is long absent, it may itself be desired, and that new desiring becomes a new instance of the original desire . . . The human soul was made to enjoy some object that is never fully given – nay, cannot even be imagined as given – in our present mode of subjective and spatio-temporal experience.

(C. S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress, Preface, para. 12-13, 17)

. . . fits of strange Desire, which haunt him from his earliest years, for something which cannot be named; something which he can describe only as “Not this,” “Far farther,” or “Yonder.”

(C. S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress, London: Sheed & Ward, 1933, 11)

What is universal is . . . the arrival of some message, not perfectly intelligible, which wakes this desire and sets men longing for something East or West of the world; something possessed, if at all, only in the act of desiring it, and lost so quickly that the craving itself becomes craved.

(C. S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress, bk. 8, ch. 9)

Northernness had a quality of aesthetic exaltation about it which Lewis had not found in Christianity and which he was seeking in the occult. Where religion had failed, Wagner and Norse mythology were able to awaken that strange excitement which at times he had experienced in his childhood.

(Carnell, ibid., 42)

The Celtic origin seems never to have affected my imagination which is Germanic through and through – Norse mythology having been my first love and perhaps my strongest.

(C. S. Lewis, in Chad Walsh, C.S. Lewis: Apostle to the Skeptics, New York: Macmillan, 1949, 2-3)

From at least the age of six, romantic longing – Sehnsucht – had played an unusually central part in my experience. Such longing is in itself the very reverse of wishful thinking: it is more like thoughtful wishing.

(C. S. Lewis, Narrative Poems, Preface to Dymer [1950], para. 5)

[the quality found in George Macdonald’s Phantastes was] the quality of the real universe, the divine, magical, terrifying and ecstatic reality in which we all live . . . what I learned to love in Phantastes was goodness . . . The deception is all the other way round – in that prosaic moralism which confines goodness to the region of Law and Duty, which never lets us feel in our face the sweet air blowing from “the land of righteousness.”

(C. S. Lewis, preface to George Macdonald: An Anthology, New York: Macmillan, 1948, 21-22)

Lewis’s Platonism is unmistakable . . . Lewis found in Platonism a comprehensive way to reconcile reason’s dialectic with the reasons of the heart. To settle for anything less than such a reconciliation, he felt, would be to betray his experience of art, mind, and the everyday world.

(Carnell, ibid., 67)

Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don’t understand but in the dream it feels as if it had some enormous meaning . . . a lovely meaning too lovely to put into words, which makes the dream so beautiful that you remember it all your life and are always wishing you could get into that dream again.

(C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, ch. 7)

You may have noticed that the books you really love are bound together by a secret thread. You know very well what is the common quality that makes you love them, though you cannot put it into words . . . Even in your hobbies, has there not always been some secret attraction . . . – something, not to be identified with, but always on the verge of breaking through, the smell of cut wood in the workshop or the clap-clap of water against the boat’s side? Are not all lifelong friendships born at the moment when at last you meet another human being who has some inkling (but faint and uncertain even in the best) of that something which you were born desiring, and which, beneath the flux of other desires . . . you are looking for, watching for, listening for?

(C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, New York: Macmillan, 1938, 145-146)

Although we associate fairy tales with children, faerie is probably the most complex conveyor of the Sehnsucht archetype. And compared to . . . quests, distant hills, exotic gardens, the Utter East, music of a special kind – the world of faerie is perhaps the most potent awakener of longing. Lewis says it stirs and troubles the child, to his advantage, “with the dim sense of something beyond his reach and far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new dimension of depth” (Of Other Worlds [New York: Harcourt Brace, 1966], p. 29). . . .

Lewis believes . . . that in its imaginative appeal the myth conveys meaning that cannot be conveyed in any other way . . . Myth appears to have its own inner life, secret from our conscious minds.

(Carnell, ibid., 91, 108-109)

About the best poetry, and not only the best, there floats an atmosphere of infinite suggestion. The poet speaks to us of one thing, but in this one thing there seems to lurk the secret of all. He said what he meant, but his meaning seems to beckon away beyond itself, or rather into something boundless which is only focused in it; something also which, we feel, would satisfy not only the imagination, but the whole of us.

(A. C. Bradley, Oxford Lectures on Poetry, London: Macmillan, 1909, 26)

Great art is the arrangement of the environment so as to provide for the soul vivid, but transient values . . . something new must be discovered . . . the permanent realization of values extending beyond its former self.

(Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, New York: Macmillan, 1926, 290-291)

You have stood before some landscape, which seems to embody what you have been looking for all your life; and then turned to the friend at your side who appears to be seeing what you saw – but at the first words a gulf yawns between you, and you realise that this landscape means something totally different to him, that he is pursuing an alien vision and cares nothing for the ineffable suggestion by which you are transported . . . All the things that have deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it – tantalising glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. But if it should really become manifest – if there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself – you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say ‘Here at last is the thing I was made for.’ We cannot tell each other about it. It is the secret signature of each soul, the incommunicable and unappeasable want . . . which we shall still desire on our deathbeds . . . Your place in heaven will seem to be made for you and you alone, because you were made for it – made for it stitch by stitch as a glove is made for a hand.

(C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, New York: Macmillan, 1938, 145-148)

Lewis retained his faith in the basic validity of Romantic literature because he believed it was compatible with a Christian ontology. The sense of nostalgia cannot be valued for itself, at least not for long. Sehnsucht has genuine meaning only in an ontology which has a place for it. . . .

That we have appetites suggests we will find food. That we get drowsy suggests that sleep exists. That we respond to melody suggests that men will devise music. That we are haunted by unquenchable longings points to a goal for that longing – in eternity if not in time. I find in C.S. Lewis’ understanding of Sehnsucht a parallel to Anselm’s ontological argument, Lewis’ most significant contribution to Christian apologetics, and an important clue for understanding literary history.

(Carnell, ibid., 158-159, 163)

If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.

(C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, bk. 3, ch. 10)

We do not want merely to see beauty . . . We want something else which can hardly be put into words – to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it. That is why we have peopled air and earth and water with gods and goddesses, and nymphs and elves.

(C. S. Lewis, Transposition and Other Addresses, 1949)

. . . quivering and ecstatic aspirations which absorbed his whole being, infinite yearnings, stabbed with the threat of tragedy and shot through with the colours of Paradise. One of our race, if plunged back for a moment in the warm, trembling, iridescent pool of that pre-Adamite consciousness, would have emerged believing that he had grasped the absolute: for the states below reason and the states above it have, by their common contrast to the life we know, a certain superficial resemblance. Sometimes there returns to us from infancy the memory of a nameless delight or terror, unattached to any delightful or dreadful thing, a potent adjective floating in a nounless void, a pure quality. At such moments we have experience of the shallows of that pool.

(C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength)


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