Wednesday, November 8, 2017

John Wain (III) -- from a tadpole to a young frog


So, the single thing I found most interesting in Wain's account is that at one point he gives the very words with which Lewis invited him to join the Inklings.*

. . .  my getting a First and being elected to a small . . .  Fellowship must have seemed to Lewis to turn me from a tadpole to a young frog, because he beckoned me into the inner bar one Tuesday noon and said, kindly (he was always kind)** but rather formally, 'We meet here every Tuesday at mid-day and in my rooms at Magdalen every Thursday evening: I desire your better acquaintance.' I liked and admired Lewis, though I knew already that his approach to life, and therefore to literature, were not the same as mine, and I thought then and think now that it was a striking piece of good fortune to have one's better acquaintance sought by such a man. . . my relationship with him is not the least of the gifts that Oxford has given me.  

Personae Inklingis
Given my interest is the history of the Inklings, I found this piece a valuable snapshot of the group as it was in its latter days (specifically 1945-1948). For one thing, there's Wain's list of members as they were just before he joined: Lewis himself, Tolkien, Williams, Dr. Havard, 'a couple of Magdalen dons' (whom he leaves unnamed), and Warnie. After Williams died the most significant newcomer was not Wain but Dyson, so the roster wd then have run CSL, JRRT, Harvard, Warnie, Dyson, and Wain.

Wain was deeply impressed by Williams, second only (if indeed it was second) to Lewis.*** Although Wms died before Wain started attending meetings, both here and in his 1962 autobiography Wain asserts that Wms was the most important member of the group and that his absence took a lot out of their discussions. Here's how he phrased it in the Eagle and Child piece:

. . . its personnel underwent two significant changes in the time I observed it. The first was the death of William in 1945. I was, of course, not yet formally admitted to the circle, but I registered the shock it inflicted, particularly to Lewis. Williams was the genius of the group; an unresolved genius, perhaps; a genius, if you will, that never quite came to its real achievement; though on the other hand it could be said that the genius of Williams lay not in what he did so much as in what he was. After he died, something went out of the Inklings.  I think I knew, even at twenty-one, that the group I joined there had a light and warmth rather like those of a gas fire after it has been switched off. The sustaining fuel had been the imagination of Williams. 

Wain then goes on to offer a memorable portrait of Hugo Dyson:

The second change was that Hugo Dyson, an old friend of all the group, came to a Fellowship in Merton in 1945 after twenty years at Reading University . . . and immediately added his presence to the gatherings. No circle of which Dyson was a member could be said to remain the same. He was a raconteur, a barnstormer, a wit if your definition of wit includes knock-down-and-drag-out, a performer to his fingertips. I always felt that he was driven by inward nightmares into an endless routine of conviviality, and indeed his experiences in the First World War trenches had been enough to give a man nightmares for life if he lived a hundred years. The removal of Williams dimmed the radiance of the Inklings' meetings; the accession of Dyson rekindled it, but with a smokier light.

next up: Wain's brief descriptions of Havard and Warnie, and his someone lengthier thoughts on Tolkien

(to be continued)

--John R.
current reading: more of the same three books.

 *or the closest approximation his memory can make of them

**The statement that Lewis was 'always kind' no doubt held true for Wain's relationship w. Lewis himself, though it's not how others of CSL's tutorial students remembered it (e.g. Lawlor, Betjeman, Stanley)

***elsewhere he said he considered C. S. Lewis and Edmund Wilson his role models as critics.


David Bratman said...

Have you read Wain's entry in the Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series? That also has some remarkably candid things to say about the Inklings.

John D. Rateliff said...

Hi David.
I don't remember having read such a piece, so either I've forgotten it or not come across it before (I think the former). In either case I'll want to track down a copy next time I'm up at the university library.
Thanks for the recommendation/reminder.
--John R.

Bruce Charlton said...

@JDR - I make a similar point about the probable personal dominance of Williams in the Inklings, citing several lines of evidence including Wain, in a review of the Lindop biography in Journal of Inklings Studies: