Grevel Lindop

Poet, biographer, critic, essayist and writer on just about everything

CHARLES WILLIAMS: Restoring a Lost Poet

For too long, the major poetry of Charles Williams has been hidden away – obtainable only in expensive or rare second-hand editions. But that is about to change. I’ve just finished working through the proofs of The Arthurian Poems of Charles Williams – which I’m editing with Arthurian and Celtic scholar John Mathews.

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The book will contain the full texts of Williams’s two major collections – Taliessin Through Logres (1938) and The Region of the Summer Stars (1944) – together with all the other poems on Arthurian themes that Williams published during his lifetime.

At last, readers new to Charles Williams (1886-1945), or those who know only his remarkable spiritual thrillers (War in Heaven, The Place of the Lion, All Hallows Eve and the rest) will be able to sample these remarkable, deeply original and thrillingly vivid poems on the Arthurian world and the Grail, which have been almost unobtainable for so long.

Holygrail[1]

‘The Damsel of the Sanct Grael ‘ by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The poems are deeply original. Portraying Logres – Arthurian Britain – as an autonomous kingdom within the Byzantine empire, they depict the establishment of the kingdom, many of the most dramatic events of its history (Merlin’s summons to Arthur to become king; the Battle of Mount Badon; the achievement of the Grail; the madness of Lancelot; the Table’s fall through the treachery of Mordred; and much more) in a wholly original modern style.

The poems are challenging at times – they use a modernist style as demanding as that of T.S. Eliot or the late W.B. Yeats – both of whom admired Williams’s writing, though Yeas probably knew only his prose. But they open world of magic and vision to the reader. As critic Naomi Royde-Smith wrote at the time, the poems, if you let them work on your imagination,

become at once lucid and alarming. They take on the concrete value of a popular ballad…the efficacy of a rune. The mind cannot escape from them. In sleep they return, not with the echoes and remembered imagery of their own themes, but evoking other shapes and other associations. It is as if, steeped in the lore of Taliessin, the poet had acquired a bardic gift and, whether he knew it or was involuntarily possessed by it, had exercised it in the physical inspirations and respirations proper to the full exercise of his manifestly occult prosody.

The Arthurian Poems of Charles Williams will be published first as an e-book, and later, we hope, as a physical volume. It won’t be available for some months yet but we are moving on steadily towards publication. It’s another step, following my biography Charles Williams: The Third Inkling, towards bringing Williams back into the mainstream as an important and indeed central twentieth-century writer.

WHO WAS CHARLES WILLIAMS?

Ever since I began writing Charles Williams: The Third Inkling, people have been asking me ‘Who was Charles Williams?’

Well, I wrote the biography to make him better known, so the question is fine with me. It’s exactly what I want people to ask.

As my title suggests, he was one of the group of Oxford writers known as the Inklings – the other most important members being C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Owen Barfield. Charles Williams attended the group regularly during World War Two, when his workplace – the London office of Oxford University Press – was evacuated to Oxford to avoid the bombing.

But Williams was more than that. He was, I believe, a major poet, with a brilliant sequence of poems on the Arthurian legends. In fact he was the major English Arthurian poet of the twentieth century.

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He was also a pioneering author of supernatural fiction. His seven novels, cast as thrillers but with serious messages, all concern the breaking through of the spiritual dimension into daily life in extreme ways – demonstrating that, as TS Eliot said, for Williams ‘there was no barrier between the spiritual and material worlds’.

Williams was both an influential Anglican theologian and deeply involved in the occult – a member of a secret Rosicrucian fraternity, The Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, and in contact with magicians of the Stella Matutina, an occult group descended from the more famous Order of the Golden Dawn.

Lindop.22.jpgLess dramatic but also important is the fact that Williams was an influential publisher. He worked his way up from humble proof reader to senior editor at OUP, running the World’s Classics series and the Oxford Standard Authors. As such, he more or less decided which books would be regarded as classics by the reading public, and had a huge effect on public taste. And he pushed ahead the project of publishing the Danish philosopher/theologian Søren Kierkegaard in English, at a time when Kierkegaard was unknown in Britain and America.

As a hugely popular and charismatic lecturer at Oxford during the war – a job he did alongside his publishing work – he inspired a whole generation of future teachers, and poets including Philip Larkin, Sidney Keyes, John Heath-Stubbs and Kingsley Amis.

In my biography I explore all these areas but also take the reader into the secret world of Williams’s occult rituals and magical activities, and his intense and complicated love-life, which was also wrapped up with the bizarre practises arising from his involvement with magic.

I hope you will enjoy Charles Williams: The Third Inkling and find it as exciting to read as I did to research and write. It’s a dramatic story full of new information, much of it from interviews with people who knew Wiliams, or from archives never before opened to scholars. If you’d like to buy the book at 20% discount, just go to www.oup.com/uk and use the code TREVNT14 at the checkout.

Otherwise just click on the poanel at top right on this page and it will take you straight to Amazon, where you can order it for immediate delivery.