Wordsworth wrote an endless poem in blank verse on” the growth of a poet’s mind.”  I shall attempt a more modest feat for a more distracted age: a blog, “Things which a Lifetime of Trying to Be a Poet has Taught Me.”

NOTE:  Starting in July, 2020, Dr. Williams’s poetry blog will  be moving to http://www.thefivepilgrims.com.  Watch for it there!

Plato started a conversation in The Republic that is still ongoing.  Fortunately for us, Sir Philip Sidney was one of the participants.



Plato banned the Poets from his state,

Yet said, if one could make a sound defense

In lilting verse with cogent arguments

That they do more than merely imitate

An imitation and dissimulate,

He’d take them back again.  And ever since

Our best minds have been trying to convince

His cautious Guardians of their mistake.


Sir Philip Sidney laid a firm foundation

In his divine “Defense of Poesy”:

The Poet gives us Virtue’s exaltation

More strong than History or Philosophy,

Concretely shows through his imagination

Not just what is, but more:  what ought to be.

Sir Philip Sidney

Remember: for more poetry like this, order Dr. Williams’s collected poetry, Stars through the Clouds, 2nd edition (Lantern Hollow Press, 2020) at https://smile.amazon.com/dp/173286800X?ref_=pe_3052080_397514860!  And look for Williams’ very latest books: Deeper Magic: The Theology behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis (Square Halo Books, 2016), An Encouraging Thought: The Christian Worldview in the Writings of L. R. R. Tolkien (Christian Publishing House, 2018), and The Young Christian’s Survival Guide: Common Questions Young Christians Are Asked about God, the Bible, and the Christian Faith Answered (Christian Publishing House, 2019)!  Order from the publisher or Amazon.


The Adventure of Reading

A poster one sees in Kenya proclaims, “Literacy for Improved Food Production!”  I don’t doubt that improved food production is a worthy goal and literacy can help attain it, I told the students of St. Philip’s Secondary School in Kitale. But there is so much more to reading than that!  Reading makes available three things that are hard to access without it: the Word of God, the world of ideas, and the world of imagination.

The Word of God
The Word of God

The Word of God contains the personal revelation of the Creator of the Universe, including His wisdom, His commandments, His love, and His plan for the salvation and eternal fulfillment of His creatures.  The world of ideas gives us the cumulative experience and thinking of the human race as it follows or rebels against the Word of God in its history, its science, its philosophy.  The world of imagination shows us the stirrings of the human spirit, stimulating our own spirits to make creative applications of what we learn from Scripture, history, and science.

The World of Ideas
The World of Ideas

Any of the three worlds to which reading gives us access—Scripture, Ideas, Imagination—can expand the mind in such a way as to facilitate things yet undreamt of (including better food production).  When we combine them together, their capacity to do so is increased exponentially.  So pursue the adventure of reading with all your might, both in school and out of it!  It was Newman’s Idea of a University recycled impromptu for an African context: not a bad exhortation for Americans, either.

William Shakespeare: A Citizen of the World of the Imagination
William Shakespeare: A Citizen of the World of the Imagination

Remember: for more commentary like this, go to https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/ and order Stars Through the Clouds, Inklings of Reality, and/or Reflections from Plato’s Cave, Williams’ newest books from Lantern Hollow Press: Evangelical poems and essays in pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.  And look for Williams’ very latest book, Deeper Magic: The Theology behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis, due out Sept. 30, 2016, from Square Halo Books!

Donald T. Williams, PhD



Wordsworth wrote an endless poem in blank verse on” the growth of a poet’s mind.”  I shall attempt a more modest feat for a more distracted age: a blog, “Things which a Lifetime of Trying to Be a Poet has Taught Me.”

The greatest explanation of why poetry matters is Sir Philip Sidney’s magnificent “Defense of Poesy.”  Sidney defends poetry against those who could see no place in the curriculum for “lies.”  The end of learning, he says, is virtuous action.  The Philosopher writes about the ideal, but does it so abstractly, is so “misty to be conceived,’ that “a man may wade in him until he be old before he find sufficient reason to be honest.”  The Historian, by contrast, writes concretely and tells a story we can relate to—but he is limited to what actually has been.  He cannot talk about what ought to be, the ideal, without departing from his expertise as a Historian.  “But now doth the peerless poet perform both”:  Like the Historian he speaks concretely and tells a story, but like the philosopher he is not limited to what has been but is free to talk about the ideal.  Here I try to add the Theologian to Sidney’s framework.

The Poet
The Poet


Tending to Show that Theology

Is Indeed the Queen of the Sciences


Philosopher:  a man who tries to shave

With Ockham’s Razor by the flickering light

That shines behind his back in Plato’s Cave.

He’ll know that’s what he’s doing if he’s bright;

He may take Pascal’s Wager if he’s brave

(Fides quaerens intellectum), and he might

Thus feel his chains fall off and leave that place

And know the sunlight full upon his face.

William of Ockham
William of Ockham


Historian:  He deals in documents,

And what he cannot find there he invents.

As long as it fits in with and makes sense

Of what we have of solid evidence,

It’s called “interpretation,” and he prints

It up.  In this there is no vain pretence

As long as we can tell the difference.



The Poet is a wielder of that Word

Which clothes the unformed thought and makes it seen,

Which sings the silent thought and makes it heard,

Which tells us how to say the thing we mean.

Sir Philip Sidney said it long ago

In his divine Defense of Poesy:

Philosophy’s business is to seek to know

Not just what is, but that which ought to be,

Truth in its very essence, plain and bare

(Though he may leave it hanging in the air);

History can tell us how, below,

The truth has fared and still is apt to fare;

The Poet’s language teaches us to care.

A Theologian
A Theologian


The Theologian has to be all three:

The logos, the divine philosophy

Which was incarnate in our history

Must still be fleshed with words to make men see.

The Theologian simply has to be

All three.

Remember: for more poetry like this, go to https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/ and order Stars Through the Clouds! Also look for Inklings of Reality and Reflections from Plato’s Cave, Williams’ newest books from Lantern Hollow Press: Evangelical essays in pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.  And look for Williams’ very latest book, Deeper Magic: The Theology behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis, due out Sept. 1, 2016, from Square Halo Books!

Donald T. Williams, PhD


Review: Shadowlands

I’ve been getting a lot of questions lately about the upcoming movie about the friendship between C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien.  Universally my correspondents are hoping that it will “do justice” to the real men and their story.  Every indication is that it will be as loosely “based” on the real people as the earlier movie Shadowlands, about the romance between Lewis and Joy Davidman, was–which is to say, very, very loosely.  For example, Tolkien will apparently have trouble finishing LOTR not because of his perfectionism but because of PTSD unresolved from WWI with accompanying “psychotic dreams.”  (The film will be set in 1941.)  Nonsense, balderdash, fishfuzz, and horsefeathers!  To help with realistic expectations, I resurrect my old review of Shadowlands.

The Chronicler of Middle Earth
The Chronicler of Middle Earth



This review was originally published in The Lamp-Post 29:2 (Sum. 2005, pub. June, 2007): 18-20.

One of the most significant movies of 1993 was “Shadowlands,” the story of the marriage of C. S. Lewis and Joy Davidman. It is a wholesome family movie and a rich experience, with excellent performances by Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger as “Jack” Lewis and Joy. Any new interest it stirs in Lewis and his writings will be all to the good; but viewers should remember that they are watching, not history, but historical drama. They are not the same thing, and in this movie especially it is important to be aware of the difference.

C. S. Lewis
C. S. Lewis

Historical drama always distorts history in the interest of simplicity and theme. Characters are conflated and time is compressed (“Turning the accomplishment of years / Into an hourglass,” as Shakespeare put it) to make the presentation accessible to the audience. This is unavoidable and is to be expected as part of the genre. In “Shadowlands,” for example, Douglas Gresham’s brother David disappears altogether, and events that took place over eight years are compressed into what appears to be only one or two, as the ten-year-old Douglas who meets Lewis at the beginning appears to be the same age at the time of his mother’s death instead of being a young man in his teens. None of this should bother us. The real problem comes in the simplifications of the story for the sake of the movie’s theme, for they conspire to create a serious distortion of the man that C. S. Lewis actually was.

“Shadowlands” is the story of a stuffy, self-assured, emotionally sheltered ivory-tower British intellectual who is “humanized” by his relationship with the brash young American divorcee who storms into his life. It begins with Lewis lecturing church ladies groups on the meaning of pain, “God’s megaphone” to reach a deaf world, and ends with a chastened man who “no longer has any answers” after experiencing the pain of loss himself. Some reviewers I have read show no knowledge that the movie depicts people who actually lived. So far as that portrait of Lewis goes, they are ironically right.

Lewis lecturing to the RAF in WWII.
Lewis lecturing to the RAF in WWII.

This false impression of Lewis is created, not merely by simplifications, but by blatant historical inaccuracies as well. The ivory tower in which the early Lewis is sheltered is created partly by omission. We never see the avid hiker who enjoyed nature with gusto (a figure prominent in Lewis’s diary) until after the marriage. Joy accuses Lewis of being surrounded by intellectual inferiors so that he “never loses” the debates he relishes. Yet the friends who were his intellectual peers—people like J. R. R. Tolkien, Owen Barfield, Dorothy L. Sayers—are conspicuous by their absence in the film. Lewis did not always see eye to eye with these friends (who were much more important parts of his life than the colleagues portrayed). His long friendship with the anthroposophist Barfield was jokingly referred to by them as “the great war.” But there are plain falsehoods as well as omissions. When the movie-Lewis takes Joy to see the Mayday celebration at the Magdalen Tower, he admits to her that he had never been before; he just never saw the point. But the real Lewis had been—on May 1, 1926, according to his diary—and apparently enjoyed it.

The most serious distortion of history comes at the end of the film, when a chastened Lewis seems to repudiate faith in general and the now seemingly glib pronouncements of The Problem of Pain in particular, saying that he no longer has answers—only life. It is as if the scriptwriters had read only the first half of A Grief Observed, which records Lewis’s real struggles in accepting Joy’s death from cancer, and not finished the book. Some distortion of history is inevitable in the transition from the real world to the stage or screen, but this distortion is inexcusable, for it reverses the real meaning of everything that happened.

Lewis in happy times.
Lewis in happy times.

A Grief Observed ends not with the repudiation of The Problem of Pain but with a reaffirmation of its content that adds to it the depth of a faith that has now been severely tested. Here’s how the book ends: “She said, not to me but to the chaplain, ‘I am at peace with God.’ She smiled, but not at me. Poi si tornio all’ eternal fonatana (‘So she turned to the eternal fountain’).” The last words are a quotation from Dante’s Paradiso, the moment when Beatrice turns from the task of helping Dante to the vision of God back to re-absorption in the contemplation of that vision herself. Such was Lewis’s final conclusion about the meaning of his wife’s death. Joy’s last words were, “I am at peace with God.” The real Lewis died that way too, on the day President Kennedy was shot.

I am glad that I have seen “Shadowlands,” and I recommend that you see it too. It contains some of the truth about the Lewises’ relationship; it wonderfully helps us to visualize the setting and the culture in context of which these things occurred; and the portrait of Lewis’s brother, Warren, is delightfully true to life, judging from Warren’s own published journals. But we must see it, not as reality, but as an often distorted interpretation of reality.

For the reality, the following are indispensable. Primary sources: C. S. Kilby, ed., Brothers and Friends: The Diaries of Major Warren H. Lewis (Ballantine, 1982); C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (Macmillan, 1940—source of the early lectures in the movie); C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (Seabury, 1961); Warren H. Lewis, ed., The Letters of C. S. Lewis (Harcourt Brace, 1966); Douglas Gresham, Lenten Lands: My Childhood with Joy Davidman and C. S. Lewis (MacMillan, 1988); and Walter Hooper, ed., All My Road Before Me: The Diary of C. S. Lewis, 1922-27 (Harcourt Brace, 1991). Secondary sources: Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper, C. S. Lewis: A Biography (Harcourt Brace, 1974); George Sayer, Jack: A Life of C. S. Lewis (Crossway, 1994)—but not A. N. Wilson’s biography, exploded as tendentious fiction by eyewitness Douglas Gresham.
Let us hope that the movie-renting public will be intrigued enough to discover the real Lewis, who, in Aslan’s Country now as he did in life before, probably finds all this attention a source of great amusement.


Donald T. Williams, PhD, is R. A. Forrest Scholar and Professor of English at Toccoa Falls College in the hills of NE Georgia.  For more of his work on Lewis and Tolkien, order his book Mere Humanity: Chesterton, Lewis, and Tolkien on the Human Condition (Nashville: Broadman, 2006) or check out his works at Lantern Hollow Press.

Exhilarating Early Moderns: Marthambles

Today’s installment is a story about a fantastical disease mentioned very briefly in two passages of historical fiction discovered by presumably maniacal linguists, settled over three posts in probably the dustiest and least-frequented corner of the internet and now delivered to you by an insane intriguer who has the time and concentration to look up “Marthambles”.

The cantilevering conundrum occurred first here then later here and finally here. The issue at hand was the origin of the Marthambles, which I should say from the start is only a “popular collective term for any number of divergent symptoms or diseases noted and treated by a mountebank.” So if you’ve got a case of them, now you know where to look for treatment.

The word has appeared twice in print this century. In the first case, it was used by Dorothy Dunnett in her 1971 novel “The Ringed Castle”:

Marthambles Dunnett

… And in 1978 by Patrick O’Brian in “Desolation Island”:

Marthambles POB

Mark Liberman of “Language Log” puts forth the dreadful accusation, in various permutations, that O’Brian nicked the term from Dunnett and then claimed to have discovered it himself in some crumbling 17th century pamphlet.

The happy truth, though, is that both authors discovered the term on their own.

O’Brian was first exposed to the disease in a 1675 booklet called “The Quacks of Old London”. And Dunnett got a whiff of it in a 1960 publication called “Doctors and Disease in Tudor Times” – note the biased decision to thus title all 16th-century Europeans, Marthambles-ridden or no.

You might logically conclude that the moral of this story is to begin writing your literary memoirs post-haste. But really it is an exhortation to do your research. It is cruel to leave such scanty literary evidence for your devoted readers of centuries to come – but it is crueler still to neglect such delightful details in the first place.

"... Sixth and lastly, I am an ass."  Remember, too, children, that there is a limit to healthy self-reflection and self-effacing prattle.
“… Sixth and lastly, I am an ass.” Remember, too, children, that there is a limit to healthy self-reflection and self-effacing prattle.