On Being Human by C.S. Lewis

‘On Being Human’ is incredibly unique and fascinating as it deals with both the physical and the spiritual realm as compared to one another. The speaker mentions angels and humans multiple times throughout the poem, making distinctions between them. He does not deny that angels are superior beings in some respects, and yet he also uses intense imagery to point out that there are many wondrous experiences that are reserved for human beings alone. Although human beings are not able to fully comprehend the spiritual realm, there are certain experiences that are theirs alone to have. He acknowledges that sometimes simple pleasures guard human beings against fully understanding the spiritual world. Yet, he also claims that these pleasures are God’s gift to human beings.

On Being Human by C.S. Lewis

 

Summary

‘On Being Human’ by C.S. Lewis presents the differences between angels and human beings by using several images and metaphors.

‘On Being Human’ by C.S. Lewis beautifully talks about how the angels lack the essential qualities that humans possess throughout their lives. The angels, cherished with divine grace, can deduce the meaning of every form of life on earth by only using the slightest of their intelligence. In contrast, a human has a heart that can feel, and the mind to take pleasure in living. Angels can’t get the sensual pleasures that rejuvenate the human soul. At last, the poet ironically refers to the illusory nature of the senses and glorifies the mind in which the trust between a man and the Almighty takes place.

You can read the full poem On Being Human here.

 

Analysis of On Being Human

Stanza One

Angelic minds, they say, by simple intelligence

(…)

Huge Principles appear.

‘On Being Human’ by C.S. Lewis refers to the spiritual realm, speaks of Angelic minds in the first stanza.  The term,  “they say” suggests that the speaker has a different view on the spiritual realm than most.  He begins ‘On Being Human’ by explaining the beliefs of most people.  Most people seem to believe that the angels, “unerringly” can discern all of the archetypes or specific kinds of beings. The angels are also thought to be able to discern “all the verities” or the truth of certain principles or beliefs when it comes to eternal things. These are all things that mortals do not directly observe but rather learn indirectly through doctrine and religious beliefs.

The speaker continues to describe the common beliefs about angelic beings, that they are “transparent in primordial truth” or able to fully understand what exists infinitely, the unvarying truths that are fundamental to all that exists. These angels are generally acknowledged to have “high eminence” or superiority to mortals. They understand the beginnings of all fundamental truths. The whole of the spiritual realm is “unveiled” to them. They can understand the formation of all fundamental truths and realities.

 

Stanza Two

The Tree-ness of the tree they know-the meaning of

(…)

Enacted by leaves’ fall and rising sap;

In the second stanza of ‘On Being Human’, the speaker gives a few examples of the truths that the angels are known to understand. For example, the “tree-ness of the tree” and life within the trees. They can understand the way the sun works with the plant life and the way the leaves fall and the sap rises. This example of something concrete and simple, a tree, allows the reader to form images with which to connect the speaker’s abstract thoughts. Though he is talking about something simple and concrete, he is also speaking in the abstract, for he suggests that only those in the spiritual realm understand “tree-ness” or what it is that makes a tree, a tree.

 

Stanza Three

But never an angel knows the knife-edged severance

(…)

-An angel has no skin.

In ‘On Being Human’ by C.S. Lewis, there is a shift with the first line of the third stanza. Thus far, the speaker has been relaying all that “they say” about the angels. He has explained that angels are supposed to be superior beings who understand all that has been from the beginning of time. The secrets of the universe are made clear to the angels.

Here, with the first line, the speaker enters in with his thoughts and opinions. He claims that an angel has never known the way the sun shines through the trees to create a “knife-edged severance” which warms “every pore” and caresses the skin. For “an angel has no skin”. This is the first instance in ‘On Being Human’ in which the speaker suggests that a human being has something that an angel does not. A human being can experience a walk through the forest where he comes across a place where the sun shines through the trees and warms his skin. This is something an angel never could experience. This experience is reserved for human beings.

 

Stanza Four

They see the Form of Air; but mortals breathing it

(…)

An angel has no nose.

In ‘On Being Human’ by C.S. Lewis, again, the speaker makes a distinction between humans and angels in the fourth stanza. While an angel may be able to “see the form of air” only a human can breathe it in and “drink the whole summer down into the breast”. This last line allows the reader to remember a time when he breathed in sweet summer air. The refreshing feel of it is like drinking summer. The speaker seeks to bring the reader into the realization of the sweet experiences only human beings can have.

 

Stanza Five

The nourishing of life, and how it flourishes

(…)

—An angel has no nerves.

In the fifth stanza of ‘On Being Human’ by C.S. Lewis, the speaker continues to list things that only humans experience. The smell of “the field new-mown” and the smell of the sea and the smoke from the “woodfire” are all things that seem to “whisper Rest”. These smells, along with the ability to rest, are things only humans can experience.

The speaker continues to talk about the wonder of smells. He acknowledges that memories are often brought about by a smell. This experience of a smell bringing a pleasant memory to mind is an experience that only a human can have, for “an angel has no nose”.

The poetic persona then claims that although angels may be able to understand how life flourishes and although they understand death in a way that humans cannot, only a human being can enjoy a hill, an “earthy spring” or “the dark cold bilberries”.

In the next few lines, the speaker continues to describe that which only humans can experience, such as a “ripe peach” when it is “still hot” from the southern sun, a full “tankard” (beer mug) with a foamy top, and the delicate lamb (probably in the form of food, since the rest of this stanza refers to food), a new loaf of bread just out of the oven, porridge, and “the tingling taste of oranges”. All of these delicacies are things that the speaker believes only humans can experience.

Whereas, “—An angel has no nerves” this line stands on its own and serves to cause the reader to think about what life would be like without the nerves to feel everything that we feel.

 

Stanza Six

Far richer they! I know the senses’ witchery

(…)

Forever ours, not theirs.

In the last stanza of ‘On Being Human’ by C.S. Lewis, there is another shift. Although there are many things that only a human can experience, the speaker still concludes, “far richer they!” when referring to the angels. He says that he knows the “senses’ witchery”. This is an ironic thing for the speaker to say, considering that thus far he has described all of the senses which a human has and an angel has not.

In previous stanzas, he referred to these senses as a source of pleasure that only human beings get to experience. Now, he refers to these senses as having “witchery”. This suggests that somehow, his senses and the pleasures of smells, sights, sounds, tastes, and feelings bewitched him. He claims that these senses somehow guard humans “from heavens too big to see”. Thus, he implies that humans’ senses and pleasures keep them from seeing what is too grand for them to see. He claims that “imminent death” would come to any man who was exposed to the “sublimity” or the grandeur and beauty of heaven. This is why he calls it a “barb’d sublimity”. Though it is great in splendor, it is too great for a man to look upon without imminent death being the result.

There is yet another shift in tone with the last four lines of ‘On Being Human’. The speaker claims, once again, that there is something very unique and special about the human experience. He says that within the human mind, which he calls “this tiny charmed interior” the “Maker” or the God of the universe “shares with living men some secrets in a privacy” that forever belongs to human beings, not to angels.

 

Historical Context

‘On Being Human’ becomes entirely more meaningful in light of C.S Lewis’ life story. Though he grew up with a religious background, he became a staunch atheist. Many of his beliefs and views were formed by the beliefs and theories of Sigmund Freud. Years later, after trying to disprove the existence of God, C.S Lewis claimed Christianity, claiming that it was supported by logic and evidence that he could not counter.

After claiming Christianity, he wrote many essays in refute to the writings of Freud, which he once believed in. C.S Lewis did not become a Christian because of a spiritual revelation or because he saw an angel or anything of the kind. He became a Christian because as a philosophy, he sought to find out the truth, and he believed that Christianity was logically sound. So sound that he could not refute it, try as he might. This makes this particular poem fascinating because it was written by someone who had studied the philosophy of the spiritual realm. It was not written by one who was prone to believing in spiritual things, but rather by someone who would rather have denied the spiritual, but in the end, could not.

One specific quote by C.S Lewis, found in his most popular work of nonfiction, says,

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the foolish thing that people often say about him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

This reveals a part of why C.S Lewis chose to follow the Christian faith, and it gives much insight into On Being Human, for it provides the platform by which to understand the way that C.S Lewis thinks and how he comes to conclusions about certain things. Therefore, his conclusions alluded to in On Being Human concerning the spiritual world, become much more credible when one understands that he is a philosopher who comes to conclusions based on logic and evidence rather than wishful thinking.

 

Similar Poetry

Like ‘On Being Human’ by C.S. Lewis, here is a list of poems that also present the contrast of spiritualism and worldliness.

You can read about 10 of the Best Poems about Life here.

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Allisa Corfman
About
Allisa graduated with a degree in Secondary Education and English and taught World Literature and Composition at the high school level. She has always enjoyed writing, reading, and analysing literature.
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