A Footnote to All Prayers
by C.S. Lewis
He whom I bow to only knows to whom I bow.
When I attempt the ineffable name, murmuring Thou,
And dream of Phaedian fancies and embrace in heart
Symbols (I know) which cannot be the thing Thou art.
Thus always, taken at their word, all prayers blaspheme,
Worshipping with frail images a folk-lore dream.
And all men in their praying, self-deceived, address
The coiniage of their own unquiet thoughts, unless
Thou, in magnetic mercy, to thyself divert
Our arrows, aimed unskillfully, beyond desert;
And all men are idolaters, crying unheard
to a deaf idol, if Thou take them at their word.
Take not, O Lord, our literal sense. Lord, in Thy great
Unbroken speech our limping metaphor translate.
There are few poems that have meant as much to me as this one. I hesitate to say much about the poem directly, because I think it does a fair job of explaining itself (you will have to look up the “Phaedian” reference on your own) if you are willing to put a little work into reading it closely several times. But there are a few peripheral ideas that I feel would be helpful to establish a context for the poem; there are several concepts underlying this poem that Lewis would have had in view as he wrought this work.
Lewis’s philologist friend and fellow ‘Inkling’ Owen Barfield writes in Poetic Diction (go find this book and read it!) that:
“…one of the first things that a student of etymology–even quite an amateur student–discovers for himself is that every modern language, with its thousands of abstract terms and its nuances of meaning and association, is apparently nothing, from beginning to end, but an unconscionable tissue of dead, or petrified, metaphors. If we trace the meanings of a great many words–or those of the elements of which they are composed–about as far back as etymology can take us, we are at once made to realize that an overwhelming proportion, if not all, of them referred in earlier days to one of these two things–a solid, sensible object, or some animal (probably human) activity. Examples abound on every page of the dictionary. Thus, an apparently objective scientific term like elasticity, on the one hand, and the metaphysical abstract, on the other, are both traceable to verbs meaning ‘draw’ or ‘drag.’ Centrifugal and cetripetal are composed of a noun meaning ‘a goad’ and verbs signifying ‘to flee’ and ‘to seek’ respectively; epithet, theme, thesis, anathema, hypothesis, etc., go back to a Greek verb, ‘to put’, and even right and wrong, it seems, once had the meanings of ‘stretched’ and so ‘straight’ and ‘wringing’ or ‘sour’.”
What Barfield is saying here is that metaphors are not simply ‘poetic trappings,” but the foundation for all of human speech—but we have become so familiar with these metaphors (as well as historically removed from their original usages) that we cease to recognize them as such. Thus, we all rely on metaphors on a daily basis, although for the most part we remain ignorant of our great debt.
It is impossible to overstate how central metaphors are to the entirety of our lives, for all of human experience is shaped by metaphors. We humans are built in such a way that we make connections between the visible world of the senses and the invisible world of the spirit by the use of language; we are able to understand what we have not seen by the things which we have seen. Metaphors give flesh to that which is abstract. It is a shocking thing to realize that one cannot actually think without metaphors, for they are the very heart of meaning. I remember being blown away when one night at the dinner table my infant son Ransom, who was just learning how to talk, picked up a piece of broccoli from his bowl and held it up to me saying, “Look, it’s like a tree!” There is an incredible amount of sophisticated understanding at play in such a simple sentence. And notice back how in order to even argue my point about the importance of metaphors I was forced to ultimately use a body metaphor in order to communicate my point–and you probably weren’t even aware as you read that you were consuming a metaphor (there’s another one). They are everywhere, and we use them constantly (another one: metaphors are tools).
Metaphors live and grow in the realm of the imagination, because they are essentially a visual way of forming knowledge; we can picture that which is invisible by comparing it with something tangible. The fuel for the imagination is the pictures that it receives from the world around it, for the imagination can only re-arrange (we are sub-creators) the images that it receives from experience. Try to imagine a new color; it’s impossible. Thus, nature–being the very manifestation of God’s own matchless imagination–provides mankind with the metaphors necessary to understand Him who is otherwise beyond our comprehension.
The danger is that we must beware that we do not mistake the metaphors and the pictures for the actual things themselves–they are only a partial way of expressing that which is otherwise inexpressible for us. As essential as they are, our “limping” metaphors are not perfect; no one metaphor can completely express all of reality, especially in the hands of such desperately broken creatures as ourselves.
When I was a child I remember distinctly a deep, deep longing to be understood. Even as a boy I recognized intuitively the way that even the best words somehow leave so much out–how futile it was to hope that I would be able–through the use of words–to ever make myself completely known. Anyone who has ever tried seriously to write poetry has experienced this sense of loss. Though I did not understand it then, I saw that there was only One who would ever be able to transcend the glittering clothing of words that both binds and frees us. I love this poem because it is an ever-necessary reminder that I am fully and completely reliant upon the grace of God–and not even my fumbling, crippled prayers can separate me from His great love. He hears and understands our “groanings,” which are so often truly “too deep for words.”