It is not enough to make sense

C. S. Lewis, introduction to Studies in Words, 1960:

I am sometimes told that there are people who want a study of literature wholly free from philology; that is, from the love and knowledge of words. Perhaps no such people exist. If they do, they are either crying for the moon or else resolving on a lifetime of persistent and carefully guarded delusion. If we read an old poem with insufficient regard for change in the overtones, and even dictionary meanings, of words since its date—if, in fact, we are content with whatever effect the words accidentally produce in our modern minds—then of course we do not read the poem the old writer intended. What we get may still be, in our opinion, a poem; but it will be our poem, not his. If we call this tout court ‘reading’ the old poet, we are deceiving ourselves. If we reject as ‘mere philology’ every attempt to restore for us his real poem, we are safeguarding the deceit. Of course any man is entitled to say he prefers the poems he makes for himself our of his mistranslations to the poems the writers intended. I have no quarrel with him. He need have none with me. Each to his taste.

And to avoid this, knowledge is necessary. Intelligence and sensibility by themselves are not enough. This is well illustrated by an example within my own experience. In the days of the old School Certificate we once set as a gobbet from Julius Caesar

Is Brutus sick and is it physical
To walk unbraced and suck up the humours
Of the dank mourning

and one boy explained physical as ‘sensible, sane; the opposite of “mental” or mad’. It would be crass to laugh at that boy’s ignorance without also admiring his extreme cleverness. The ignorance is laughable because it could have been avoided. But if that ignorance had been inevitable—as similar ignorances often are when we are dealing with an ancient book—if so much linguistic history were lost that we did not and could not know the sense ‘mad’ for mental and the antithesis of mental-physical to be far later than Shakespeare’s time, then his suggestion would deserve to be hailed as highly intelligent. We should indeed probably accept it, at least provisionally, as correct. For it makes excellent sense of the passage and also accounts for the meaning it gives to physical by a semantic process which—if we did not know chronology ruled it out—we should regard as very possible.

So far from being secured against such errors, the highly intelligent and sensitive reader will, without knowledge, be most in danger of them. His mind bubbles over with possible meanings. He has ready to hand un-thought-of metaphors, highly individual shades of feeling, subtle associations, ambiguities—every manner of semantic gymnastics—which he can attribute to the author. Hence the difficulty of “making sense” out of a strange phrase will seldom be for him insuperable. Where the duller reader simply does not understand, he misunderstands—triumphantly, brilliantly. But it is not enough to make sense. We want to find the sense the author intended. ‘Brilliant’ explanations of a passage often show that a clever, insufficiently informed man has found one more mare’s nest. The wise reader, far from boasting an ingenuity which will find sense in what looks like nonsense, will not accept even the most slightly strained meaning until he is quite sure that the history of the word does not permit something far simpler. The smallest semantic discomfort rouses his suspicions. He notes the keyword and watches for its recurrence in other texts. Often they will explain the whole puzzle.