Professor Sir Geoffrey Hill framed his valedictory lecture as Oxford Professor of Poetry earlier this month with a discussion of Charles Williams’s 1930 book, Poetry at Present – a fascinating choice because, to me at least, this is the weakest of Williams’s three critical books. Nonetheless Hill managed to fasten on a brief passage about the nature of poetry which he then used as a standard for judging poems, and applied it to the work of Larkin, Edward Thomas and others.
I was delighted – and not merely because he recognised Williams’s brilliant critical acumen, which has been overlooked for so long – but also because he raised doubts about the quality of several of Larkin’s poems, as I have done recently (though with reference to different Larkin poems) in the journal PN Review, in a discussion of James Booth’s recent biography. I’m sure Larkin is currently overrated, good though some of his poems are, and it’s encouraging to find Hill taking the same view.
The lecture is well worth listening to: it winds around and you may think he is rambling, but in fact it all turns out to be very cogent, and his final point is impressive and even devastating. After coming back to Williams, and the perceptive quotation from which he began, Hill quotes the choreographer Mark Morris as saying ‘I’m not interested in self-expression but in expressiveness’. He’s absolutely right.
If you’d like to listen to a podcast of the lecture, just click on this link (from the Oxford English Faculty page) here.
A poetic drama by Charles Williams lost for a century has just been published for the first time, edited by Sørina Higgins. I’m delighted, because The Chapel of the Thorn really is a neglected gem.
Written around 1914, the play, set in the early middle ages, portrays a three-cornered struggle amongst the Church, the Mystic and the Pagan – three forces which were powerful in the early psychology of Charles Williams himself.
Williams would go on to become a successful author of spiritual thrillers – All Hallows’ Eve and The Place of the Lion famous among them; a major poet of the Arthurian mythos; an influential Anglican theologian; and a central member of the Inklings, the group of Oxford writers that included C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, both of whom were his close friends in the late 1930s and during World War 2. But this play was written much earlier, when he was just setting out as a writer.
The Chapel of the Thorn concerns the struggle for possession of a thorn from Christ’s crown and the chapel where it is housed. The chapel, with its relic the thorn, is guarded by a solitary priest, Joachim, and his young acolyte, Michael. The play depicts a battle between mysticism, represented by Joachim; the Church, represented by the local Abbot, Innocent; and paganism, in the form of Amael, a bard and high priest of the old gods.
Untrustworthy Abbot Innocent wants to wall in the chapel, and take the thorn so it will draw pilgrims to his abbey. Idealistic Joachim, the mystic, believing only in the value of direct communion with God and lacking respect for the church hierarchy, wants to keep the thorn at his humble chapel, and has the local villagers’ promise that they will fight to keep the chapel independent. What Joachim does not know is that the villagers are concerned only because the chapel has been built over the tomb of Druhild, a pagan hero who, they believe, will one day rise from the dead. For their Christianity is only superficial. Their values are represented by Amael, the pagan priest and bard.
The Chapel of the Thorn contains some magnificent verse, and to me its crowning achievement is the vivid imaginative portrayal of the pagan Amael. Here’s a clip of the book launch which includes performance of some of the play’s fine poetry:
Amael represents a heroic and brutal world, and he speaks much of the play’s best poetry. He admits that he has performed human sacrifice:
Twice hath my hand lain over mortal eyes,
While, with the incantation of the Fire,
I struck forth human blood upon the stone!
But he can also be modest:
I am a little dust
Blown from the ruined temples of the gods
And troubled by the feet of the white Christ
When he goes through the land.
He wants to lure away Michael, young acolyte of the Christian mystic Joachim, to join him as a pagan wanderer. He asks:
Is it time in youth
To wait upon white altars? Hark, the gods
Sing at their feasting, not as hermits sing!
We servants of the gods have heard their song,
And some of us are mad with their delight,
And some are lords of ships and raids and fire,
And some have crept into the black bear’s den
With a torch and a spear and slain him: but we all
Are heroes, princes, champions!
The play’s poetry, and its rich, conflicted blend of Christianity and Paganism, shows many of the elements and dynamics which would eventually shape Charles Williams’s major Arthurian poems, written some twenty years later.
For anyone interested in Williams, or in the depiction of mysticism and paganism in the early twentieth century, The Chapel of the Thorn is essential reading. Sørina Higgins’s elegantly-produced edition includes an essay by David Llewellyn Dodds, and a Preface based on material from my forthcoming biography of Williams, Charles Williams: The Third Inkling, due later in 2015, which will give the full biographical context of the play and its composition, and suggest why it was abandoned.
I’m celebrating, because this week I sent off the final draft of my biography of Charles Williams to Oxford University Press – and a new collection of poems to Carcanet Press. Both, I hope, for publication in autumn 2015.
Charles Williams reading aloud: E.G. Pierce, 1936
I’ll talk about the poems in a future post. This time I’ll concentrate on the Charles Williams biography. It will be called Charles Williams: The Third Inkling because Williams was a central member of the Inklings, the informal group of Oxford writers whose best-known members were C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.
Charles Williams – poet, dramatist, writer of metaphysical thrillers, critic, theologian, biographer, occultist and amazingly charismatic lecturer – lived from 1886 to 1945 and is far too little known. His life is a fascinating one, and much of his work is well worth rediscovering.
And Williams is a writer to be reckoned with. Ruth Rendell nominated his metaphysical thriller All Hallows’ Eve as her favourite book on BBC Radio 4; Sir Geoffrey Hill in his Clark Lectures called Williams ‘a great critic’ and his book The English Poetic Mind ‘a critical masterpiece’; C.S. Lewis said of Williams’s Arthurian poems, ‘they seem to me, both for the soaring and gorgeous novelty of their technique and for their profound wisdom, to be among the two or three most valuable books of verse produced in the [twentieth] century’.
Charles Williams had an extraordinary life, and thanks to newly-opened archives containing thousands of letters, and more than twenty interviews with people who knew him, I have been able to trace his life in vivid – and, I think, highly readable – detail. We follow him from the poverty of his childhood in London, through his rise from humble proof reader to senior editor at the Oxford University Press, where he had a long and painful love affair with a colleague; we trace the gradual development of his poetic talent, alongside his involvement with Rosicrucian occultism – where the book allows you into the secret initiatory rituals Williams underwent – and on to wartime Oxford, where he becomes a close friend of Lewis and Tolkien and completes his remarkable late flowering as the twentieth century’s major poet of Arthur and the Grail.
Through good luck and the generosity of private owners, the book will reproduce almost forty drawings and photographs of Williams and his associates, many never published before and some only recently discovered. (Just as a taster, I’ve put one on this page – a drawing of CW reading aloud, by E.G. Pierce – a fine drawing never before reproduced as far as I know.) The book will answer many questions: it will clarify at last what his relationship really was with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn; and it will recreate, from Williams’s own notes, much of the famous lecture on Milton’s Comus which led C.S. Lewis to exclaim that Oxford University’s Divinity School ‘had probably not witnessed anything so important since some of the great medieval or Renaissance lectures.’
Williams is the missing centrepiece from the story of twentieth-century British literature. At the start of his career he was associating with Edwardian poets Alice Meynell and Robert Bridges; later his closest friends included not only C.S. Lewis and Tolkien but T.S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas; he was an inspiration to young poets of the World War II generation like Sidney Keyes, Drummond Allison and John Heath-Stubbs; and he drank in the Oxford pubs with Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin. It’s an astonishing story.
I owe great debts of gratitude to innumerable people who have helped with the work, including former friends and students of Charles Williams (notably the late Lois Lang-Sims), Williams scholars including David Llewellyn Dodds, and the trustees and archivists of the Bodleian Library at Oxford and the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College, Illinois, the two libraries that hold the major share of Williams’s papers. I was generously supported by both an Invited Visiting Scholarship at St John’s College, Oxford, and a Clyde S. Kilby Research Grant from Wheaton College, Illinois. The Charles Williams Society and the Society of the Inner Light also gave generous support. The many others who helped in so many ways are acknowledged in the book.
There’s much more to say, and of course there’s more work ahead = copy-editing queries, proofs to correct, indexing, and so on – but right now I’m heaving a big sigh of relief and looking forward to Christmas! I hope you have a wonderful holiday and a very happy New Year.
On Monday Iwent to Canterbury for the funeral of Lois Lang-Sims. It was a beautiful service, held in the ancient crypt of the Cathedral – the ivory-white stone of the Norman columns polished by the touch of thousands of hands over almost a thousand years, the carvings of birds, animals and plants on the capitals as crisp and vivid as ever, and the whole quiet contemplative space lit by candles.
Like most people, I knew Lois first of all as a follower of Charles Williams (1886-1945), the poet and theologian whose biography I have just finished writing. For Lois, who died on March 11 at the age of 97, was perhaps the last of Charles Williams’s ‘disciples’ – those who, for a time, took him as their spiritual teacher. She will be known, therefore, to many people as the co-author of Letters to Lalage, in which she added her own commentary and reminiscences to Williams’s letters to her, written in 1943 and 1944.
But Lois was more than simply a follower of Charles Williams. She was a writer and spiritual seeker of considerable stature. Another of her teachers was the Buddhist scholar Marco Pallis with whom, as with Williams, she eventually broke – for Lois was nothing if not independent-minded. One of the first English people to become aware of the sad plight of the Tibetan refugees who fled to Nepal and northern India after the Chinese invasion of 1959, she helped to found the Tibet Society, the first charity dedicated to helping them, becoming a friend of the Dalai Lama and other senior Tibetan lamas.
Her Tibetan adventures are depicted in a beautifully-written volume of autobiography, Flower in a Teacup. This, and an account of her earlier life in A Time to be Born, form one of the finest British autobiographies of the twentieth century and richly deserve to be reprinted. Having worked as a guide for visitors to Canterbury Cathedral, she was also the author of Canterbury Cathedral: Mother Church of Holy Trinity, a discursive account of the Cathedral, its history and its significance, as well as of One Thing Only: A Christian Guide to the Universal Quest for God and The Christian Mystery: An Exposition of Esoteric Christianity.
I met her in 2001, when I went to record her memories of Charles Williams. She lived then in a care home in Hove, where, as a devout mystical Christian, she spent much of her time in prayer and contemplation. She was surrounded by her books, and by the photographs of people from her childhood who had become, for her, archetypal figures of deep spiritual significance: her mother and father, her beloved nurse ‘Old Nan’, and an adored elder brother who had died during her infancy.
She was still beautiful; and her mind was clear and incisive, as it remained to the end. We stayed in touch, and she eagerly read every draft chapter of my biography of Charles Williams, responding with helpful comments and fascinating discussion. She continued to write essays, and to read widely. Biography was her favourite genre: she was something of an expert on Gandhi’s life, and in the last few months was carefully reading Ian Kershaw’s recent life of Hitler, developing her own theories about the psychological forces which had led Gandhi to good and Hitler to terrible evil.
Towards the end she grew too weak to write, so we talked on the telephone. (I like to think that she was able to read the final chapter of my book about Charles Williams, which I sent her on 13 February.) Asked about her health in those last months, she would exclaim ‘Oh, I’m crumbling away! But don’t worry, my dear, I’m looking forward to death. I really can’t wait!’
Hypersensitive, opinionated and argumentative at times, she nonetheless radiated love and intelligence. I found her a delight and an inspiration. And she has probably left much literary work greatly deserving of publication. I hope that a late essay of hers, ‘The Simplicity of Faith’, will be published in Temenos Academy Review in 2015.