Written as a response to an article which criticized G.K. Chesterton as being ‘dated’, C.S. Lewis takes up his pen to defend the virtue of Chesterton’s writing, and in the process, outlines a bit of his own point of view on the ‘period’ element in literature.
"The truth is that the whole criticism which turns on dates and periods, as if age-groups were the proper classification of readers, is confused and even vulgar. […] It is vulgar because it appeals to the desire to be up to date: a desire only fit for dressmakers. It is confused because it lumps together the different ways in which a man can be ‘of his period’.
A man may be of his period in the negative sense. That is to say, he may deal with things which are of no permanent interest but only seemed to be of interest because of some temporary fashion. Thus Herbert’s poems in the shape of altars and crosses are ‘dated’; thus, perhaps, the occultist elements in the Celtic school are ‘dated’. A man is likely to become ‘dated’ in this way precisely because he is anxious not to be dated, to be ‘contemporary’; for to move with the times is, of course, to go where all times go. On the other hand a man may be ‘dated’ in the sense that the forms, the set-up, the paraphernalia, whereby he expresses the matter of permanent interest, are those of a particular age. In that sense the greatest writers are often the most dated. No one is more unmistakably ancient Achaean than Homer, more scholastic than Dante, more feudal than Froissart, more ‘Elizabethan’ than Shakespeare. The Rape of the Lock is a perfect (and never obsolete) period piece. The Prelude smells of its age. The Waste Land has ‘Twenties’ stamped on every line. Even Isaiah will reveal to a careful student that it was not composed at the Court of Louis XIV nor in modern Chicago.
The real question is in which sense Chesterton was of his period. Much of his work, admittedly, was ephemeral journalism: it is dated in the first sense. The little books of essays are now mainly of historical interest. […] But Chesterton’s imaginative works seem to me to be in quite a different position. They are, of course, richly composed. […]
So in the stories. Read again […] The Man Who Was Thursday. Compare it with another good writer, Kafka. Is the difference simply that the one is ‘dated’ and the other contemporary? Or is it rather that while both give a powerful picture of the loneliness and bewilderment which each one of us encounters in his (apparently) single-handed struggle with the universe, Chesterton, attributing to the universea a more complicated disguise, and admitting the exhilaration as well as the terror of the struggle, has got in rather more; is more balanced: in that sense, more classical, more permanent?”
C.S. Lewis, ‘Period Criticism’ - originally published as ‘Notes on the Way’ in Time and Tide, Volume XXVII (9 November 1946)
Excerpted from C.S. Lewis Essay Collection: Literature, Philosophy and Short Stories (Harper Colllins: London, 2000) pp 80 - 81