C.S. Lewis gets straight to the point in his first lines, particularly with the first two words ‘angelic minds.’ Readers will discern immediately that Lewis is going to discuss the concept of experience from the viewpoint of supernatural non-human beings such as angels. Readers may also guess, by comparing this idea to the poems title ‘On Being Human,’ that he intends to go on to compare this idea with our experience of the world from the implied lowliness of mankind’s perspective.
Students may wonder where the latter implication comes from, and in this, at the beginning of the poem at least, C.S. Lewis is no help at all in referring to a mysterious ‘they’ who apparently hold that angels use intelligence alone to comprehend the forms of nature, not needing the added senses enjoyed by more sensate humankind. Some readers may be reminded here of the fierce battles between the angels and demons of Milton or the ‘arrows of desire’ of Blake. Indeed the nature of love and its forms was thoroughly explored and analysed elsewhere in the Four Loves by C.S. Lewis himself. As he outlines his argument in the next few lines, readers are left wondering which way Lewis is going to go with this.
They may wonder which dimension of experience the poet will say is best – intelligence or sensory experience? Here, the idea of an enigma or puzzle gives the poem drive and suspense as students read on to find out what happens next. Initially C.S. Lewis presents, and continues to develop, the theory that those with purely spiritual, non sensual minds can unerringly discern crucial timeless truths, ‘the verities’, through intelligence alone, without recourse to the five senses. Humans either lack knowledge of these truths or have come to learn them indirectly through the implied less satisfactory means of sensual experience. Truths of nature seem to be given particular weight by Lewis here as he tells readers of ‘earthness’ and ‘stoneness’ that can be perceived by angels from their clear uncluttered viewpoint – uncluttered by the supposed inferior extraneous baggage of mortal sensate feelings and experiences.
Both in Lewis’s use of the word ‘unvarying’ and in his use of the word ‘unerringly’ in the opening lines, some readers may pick up echoes of the Roman Catholic belief in the infallibility of the Pope and the unwavering adherence to doctrine of the Roman Catholic church – even in the face of calls for relaxation and modernisation by common popular dissent. This serves to reinforce the notion of the fundamental nature of ancient truths. Being human, Lewis seems to ponder, may result in a clouding of the vision of fundamental principles by a veil or a muddled fog of distracting sensual experiences. It is at this point that the reader may perceive a divergence in Lewis’s view with that of the poets, theologians and philosophers of the ‘they’ in his initial lines. In his list of the understanding of the notion of ‘being,’ of existence, ‘being human’ is left out!
The angels appear to understand the scientific principles of the beauty of nature, the properties of a tree for example, or the evaporatory properties of the sea, but their achievements in the field of understanding human existence are not mentioned. C.S. Lewis then sketches, with exquisite delicacy, the human experience of the blissful coolness of shade as relief from the blistering unrelenting glare of the sun and, next, the severance of sun from shadow where the trees begin. This use of the word ‘severance’ also serves to mark the point where Lewis breaks faith temporarily with the ‘they’ of the first lines as he introduces humor, remarking that an angel has no skin and therefore (presumably) no conduit for the sense of touch.
Then follows a series of ravishing images, deftly painted by Lewis, of the ‘drinking-in’ of experiences of nature’s loveliness – such as the sweetness of a peach basking in the warmth of a sunlit wall or the delightfully natural fragrances of the countryside. Here Lewis picks up again the comical atmosphere that underlies the conversational narrative style of the poem, adding that angels are unable to appreciate the delights of the fragrance of the field, new mown hay, the sea smells and the therapeutic incense of wood smoke. With humor he bluntly posits that an angel has no nose!
The poet then appears to struggle between two possibilities – firstly that angels get the best deal as they are not burdened with the five confusing senses. Conversely, he wonders whether humans are the better off of the two beings. After all, they are guarded from the shock of perceiving the whole of existence ‘the heavens’ at once, because mankind’s distracting senses obscure the truth of it.
Crucially, in terms of understanding Lewis’s own opinion on the subject, the poet draws attention to the way in which God himself may want us to have one small area of our personalities devoted to appreciating the environment through our senses. Perhaps in so doing we are the better able to comprehend the sheer scale of the wonders of nature and sense that He has provided for our happiness. The angels with their cold intelligence may be unable to profoundly appreciate, thank and love God to the full. Indeed, some lines from the Roman Catholic church service, ‘The Mass’, may spring to mind when reflecting upon the benefits this ‘being human’ has in our relationship with God – the lines refer to a Christ ‘who humbled himself to share in our humanity.’ As Lewis puts it, we ‘share a privacy that is forever ours, not theirs.’