On Charles Williams: ‘An effort to avoid Cant’

by David Llewellyn Dodds

Stephen Barber, ed., The Celian Moment and Other Essays by Charles Williams (Carterton, Oxon.: The Greystones Press Ltd, 2017) [xxviii + 132 pages]: paperback 12.99 pounds sterling. Humphrey Carpenter, author of The Inklings (1978), once told me something to the effect that he thought anything published by Charles Williams would be worth reading – I think in the context of all his book reviews and other short prose works. I have gone on agreeing, during the decades of reading him that followed. And Stephen Barber’s enjoyable and rewarding new selection offers the reader – whether unacquainted, familiar, or assiduous collector – something more deliberate and weighty than just ‘anything by Williams’, however attractive even that might have been. And his fine, deft 16-page introduction is so engaging you may not at first consciously reflect on the depths of its thought and erudition.

His book is described on the website of his Press as “The first collection of Williams’s literary essays for over fifty years”. The previous collection was by Williams’s friend, Anne Ridler, The Image of the City and Other Essays (London: OUP, 1958). It contains over 40 items, not only literary, filling 195 pages, and has an additional book(let)-length introductory essay of 63 pages which is probably still the single best general introduction to Williams. (It is available in paperback reprint for $18.95. Between these two, came Jared Lobdell’s more specialized, complete paperback collection of The Detective Fiction Reviews of Charles Williams, 1930-1935 [Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2003], still in print for $29.95.)

Mr. Barber’s book is complementary to Mrs. Ridler’s, with none of its ten essays included in the earlier collection. Only someone with access to a great library such as the Bodleian or the British Library and a copy of Lois Glenn’s Charles W.S. Williams: A Checklist (1975) in hand could readily duplicate reading most of the works collected here – though with much less ease and without the advantage of Mr. Barber’s wealth of lucid annotation. Two of the essays, however, are not listed in Dr. Glenn’s bibliography, the first because it was published as by Phyllis M. Jones, with Mr. Barber noting it bears “all the marks of Williams” and concluding, “it seems he ghosted this for her”. The last, not “about literature but the political situation” in late 1941, was only “unearthed in the course of research for his indispensible biography of Williams” by Professor Grevel Lindop.

Mr. Barber’s introductory essay, benefitting from this latest and fullest biography, complements the late Mrs. Ridler’s with the public cognizance of things she could not mention under the eye of Williams’s widow, Florence Conway Williams, nicknamed Michal. For, if his wife was in many ways as Beatrice to his Dante, Phyllis Jones was as ‘the Lady at the Window’, and not simply that.

That first “ghosted” essay, here entitled ‘The Office of Criticism’, is also the earliest included, and an excellent choice to let the reader plunge into the delights of Williams’s critical prose. It is also one of the five of the ten essays which are introductions to books. The third through the ninth essays are arranged “in chronological order of subject”: Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, John Webster (the playwright, not the scholar of things ‘occult’), G.M. Hopkins, Yeats, and T.S. Eliot. The introduction illuminates their contemporary critical contexts, not least with reference to two of Williams’s first three published books of literary criticism, Poetry at Present and especially The English Poetic Mind – happily both available in the Internet Archive, together with the third, Reason and Beauty in the Poetic Mind. The essay on Henry V is a superb complement to what is written in the latter two about Shakespeare. The Virgil one is splendid, too, and makes me, at least, wish someone would scan for the Internet Archive the retelling, The Story of the Aeneid, which it introduces. The richest is also the longest (pp. 39-68), the 1941 pamphlet, Religion and Love in Dante: The Theology of Romantic Love (also included in A.M. Hadfield’s 1990 edition of his early Outlines of Romantic Theology, available in paperback reprint for $18.95, and variously, second-hand). I was struck by its exposition of the imagination of love in intercession. “The New Life had been about the love of Dante for Beatrice, but the Comedy is about the love of Beatrice for Dante. She is made aware of his peril by the intervention, through St. Lucy, of the Mother of God; and she immediately acts. All that follows depends on her.” Perhaps the most curious one (but well worthwhile) is an late 17th-/18th-century-style four-sided dialogue on Eliot’s Four Quartets. (As an aside, the Inklings and this period provide a subject that would reward more attention in its own right.)

However, the title essay (from the text of which that title is plucked: a title we learn Williams had also contemplated using for a collection in 1935) may compete for ‘most curious’ in a different sense. It is the introduction to an anthology commissioned by Victor Gollancz, The New Book of English Verse, a deliberate complement to both the Oxford Book of English Verse and The Golden Treasury of English Songs and Lyrics, which had Lord David Cecil, Ernest de Selincourt, and E.M.W. Tillyard as “Associate Editors”. (Also published in the U.S. by Macmillan, it is one of Williams’s six editions of other people’s poetry, and, at 828 pages one of the longest of them, and seems a worthwhile book of its sort.) Mr. Barber notes, in general, “In a few places I have deleted a few sentences which refer to other parts of anthologies and collections not reprinted here.” But he does not disguise the practical elements, and, so, unavoidably partly miscellaneous character, of this essay.

With reference to the editorial decision-making involved in selection, Williams says, “The effort to correct the inevitable prejudice of single minds by an association of judgement is an effort to avoid Cant”. (One might see this as applying to Williams’s critical work in general, and his characterization of our exchanges as at once ‘hierarchical and republican’, where the greatest expert may learn from the insight of the humblest inquirer.) This launches a lively discourse on Cant as “the great and everlasting enemy of Poetry, and, like other lasting enemies of the Good, all but omnipotent” – which subsumes another on “the skeleton in man’s mind”, and leads to the statement that “the greatest moments of art are […] when we can certainly know that ceremony and intensity exist at once”. Attending to “certain moments of clarity” in this process in English verse down the ages, he says, “since Marlowe there is a sense in which the clarity of Restoration lyric is the most potential” and comes to deem this the “Celian moment […] which contains, almost equally, the actual and the potential”. The reader must be left to judge the persuasiveness of this intriguing analysis in his full working out of it in the further course of the essay.

Not unaided, however, as Mr. Barber has a very interesting discussion of it in terms of both a ‘Modernist’ poetics (comparing Pound, Joyce, and Eliot) and “a much older tradition of symbolism, one which goes back through the medievals to Plato.” But he also notes “that Celia was his pet name for Phyllis Jones”, saying “he is both concealing and revealing his devotion to her.” He goes on to elucidate an allusion to Shelley and a criticism by Lewis of the work alluded to, which he says “is also implicitly a criticism of Williams.”

In the course of doing so, he mentions that “Williams wrote to, and about, Phyllis Jones, a large body of private poems praising her in very similar terms.” This includes the Century of Poems for Celia, some of which are included in David Bratman’s edition of his public Oxford University Press staff entertain­ments, The Masques of Amen House (Mythopoeic Press, 2000), with more in the Rev. Dr. Gavin Ashenden’s Charles Williams: Alchemy and Integration (2008). There, it and they are discussed at length, together with this essay and the anthology it introduces, about which Williams says some astonishing things in a letter to Jones quoted in full. These include “there is hardly a page without some description of you”, and, “there is nothing of beauty or goodness or intelligence from beginning to end that does not mean to me something of you”. In He Came Down from Heaven (1938), Williams writes that it cannot “very easily be maintained that Dante was a striking example of New Testament monogamy, considering the extent to which his imagination concentrated itself on one woman while he was married to another” – about which I have elsewhere remarked, “Something like this, too, was (and for the reader, is) a practical problem in Williams’s life.”

And, it seems to me, emphatically (if by no means exclusively) so in this essay. The problem is, indeed, more complicated still, as the list of “names of many femininities” in songs leading up to ‘Celia’ not only include two other names associated with Jones, “Dianeme” (in an early unpublished poem-sequence) and “Chloe” (the character reflecting her in the novel, Many Dimensions), but two clearly associated with other young women, “Stella” and “Ianthe” (concerning whom, see Grevel Lindop’s biography, The Third Inkling: ‘Ianthe’ on pp. 219-20, 231, 236, and 238). Perhaps I’m over-reading, but such knowledge can cast a creepy-ominous shadow over things like the observation about Beatrice in the Dante pamphlet, fine in itself, that “whatever Dante’s need requires her to be, that, subject to God, she becomes.”

Differently curious (to take up that word again) is the short final essay, here, “Ourselves and the Revolution”, for a collection edited by C.A. Dawson, Russia and the West (1942). It would be interesting to know more about this collection, and, indeed, to be able to read all its entries, as we have recently been aided to do by Fr. Aidan with What the Cross Means to Me (1943). And I would love to get a good sense of its broader immediate context, after the end of the Nazi-Soviet Pact and the beginning of the Anglo-Soviet alliance. For example, I’ve seen George Orwell quoted in his diary for 3 July 1941 saying, “One could not have a better example of the moral and emotional shallowness of our time, than the fact that we are now all more or less pro Stalin. This disgusting murderer is temporarily on our side, and so the purges, etc., are suddenly forgotten.” Yet in his 17 August 1941 ‘London Letter’ to the American Partisan Review, we find Orwell writing, “All the hideous controversies about the purges, the Five Year Plans, the Ukraine famine, etc., have simply passed over the average newspaper-reader’s head” and ending, “I never thought I should live to say ‘Good luck to Comrade Stalin’, but so I do.” In the same article, Orwell speaks of when “the Russian campaign is settled one way or the other, i.e. when Hitler is in Moscow or the Russians show signs of invading Europe”.

Williams clearly contemplates the second of these alternatives, referring to the “great thing that is, when this is written, still advancing across those plains and may (if it is ultimately victorious) advance a very great deal nearer”, and saying, of the thought of the English and Russian allies, “If the languages are still to be distinct and mutually incomprehensible I do not much doubt which will survive. It will not be ours.” These observations are framed by his saying, “The whole, and only, question is whether we can keep liberty and yet create security”, and, “Even between America and Russia the English may still have a place. But then we must mean both freedom and security; we must speak of tradition and of the Revolution; and we must speak freshly and credibly.”

The context of “security” here is his discussion of ‘insecurity’: “Insecurity means that you do not know how you are to pay for food and shelter, either for yourself or your family. It is, outside extreme physical pain, the worst experience of man”. If he boldly (and, to my mind, dubiously if not naively) says, “The new Government of Russia did its best to ensure that at least [man] should not be hungry. They created a totalitarian State for that purpose – whether they succeeded or not”, he also says, in recalling and generalizing his own experience, “One hung – a child – over the abyss of being ‘thrown on the streets’ […]: by the thin thread that might be cut […] even by the Revolution itself.” Part of the context, here, which it would be good to explore further, is indicated by the next sentence: “‘There are,’ said Chesterton long since, ‘three kinds of men in England – fools, knaves, and revolutionaries.'” How rooted is Williams in the appreciations of G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc for ‘revolution’, with what personal differences? And how does he compare with Tolkien and Lewis in this, or something similar?

Williams says, “I have seen the Hammer and Sickle fly over Oxford” – much as Orwell notes, in his 1 January 1942 ‘London Letter’, “An enormous hammer and sickle flag flies daily over Selfridge’s, the biggest shop in London.” Stephen Barber notes that already in 1938 Williams “also brought his sympathy for the revolution to his poetry: in ‘The Calling of Arthur’, King Cradlemas has ‘tears for the poor’ but no help and the people ‘draw up the hammer and sickle’, the flag of the post-revolutionary Soviet Union. Williams’s willingness to accept an anachronism to make his point speaks for itself.” I think we can go a step further. Merlin, calling Arthur to become king, here, tells both that “mallet and scythe are silent; the children die” and that already “the south / is up with hammer and sickle”. Between these, he addresses Arthur as “spring moon”, and urges, “Draw now the tide, […] the people ebb, draw up the hammer and sickle”. In addition to Yevgeny Kamzolkin’s 1918 Soviet design, the hammer and sickle were variously in use in the 1930s – by the Nazis, too, for example, with perhaps their appearance (together with other gear) on some German banknotes from 1874 on, in the background. How much Williams knew of such varied uses, I do not know, but the coat of arms of the Austrian Republic since 1919 offers an interesting parallel to his poetic use – there, a republic, here, a national monarchy (within the Empire) retrieving the symbols from the totalitarians and restoring them as an image of proper ‘revolutionary’ attention to liberty and security.

If you want to whet your appetite, The Charles Williams Society website offers other fine examples of Stephen Barber’s work as well as of Williams’s (both in the “Quarterly Archives” and elsewhere). I wish it also offered a category for typos noted and corrected, especially when I read R. Prokop’s remark in an Amazon review of my edition of Williams’s Arthurian Poets. Lacking that, I note here the five I encountered in The Celian Moment: p. 10 “every poem included should he>be of poetic importance”; p. 14 “more than one or>of my courteous associates”; p. 52 “the lovers of their own selves, or even flee>the soul against itself”; p. 55 “novena>no-one speaks”; p. 69 “a patriotic play or>for the First Chorus knows”.

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David Llewellyn Dodds, in addition to editing Charles Willliams’s Arthurian poetry, has edited the Arthurian poetry of John Masefield and served as President of the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society and Curator/Warden of the old Lewis house, The Kilns. His most recent publication is “‘Tolkien’s Narnia’?: Lit., Lang., Saints, Tinfang, and a Mythology – or two – for Christmas” in Tolkien Among Scholars: Lembas Extra 2016 (Tolkien Society Unquendor). He is currently working on editions of Charles Williams’s early Arthurian Commonplace Book and previously unpublished cycle of Arthurian poems, The Advent of Galahad.

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