Grevel Lindop

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

Geoffrey Hill (1932-2016)

Geoffrey Hill, who died last Thursday, was a magnificent poet – and sometimes a difficult one. He produced lines that haunted you, perhaps because they contained so much questioning, as well as so much music.

Geoffrey Hill

Sir Geoffrey Hill

His early books, King Log and For the Unfallen, contained poems that were truly haunting. The very first poem of his first collection was – perhaps – about the difficulty of religious belief but also about the fact that we need myth and see miracles all around us. Its lines and rhythms enacted what they talked about:

 

Against the burly air I strode,

Where the tight ocean heaves its load,

Crying the miracles of God.

Reading that, you can feel the battering of the wind against your face. You can feel the mass of the sea sliding and beating against the land. And then you notice the questions too: is it ‘I’ who am ‘crying the miracles of God’? Or is it the ocean?

There are lines that fascinate, full of magic even if you don’t understand them:

…And made the glove-winged albatross

Scour the ashes of the sea

Where Capricorn and Zero cross…

It was years before I realised that this referred to the Tropic of Capricorn and longitude zero, an actual place (it’s a remote spot in the South Atlantic). But what magical lines!

My favourite book was perhaps Tenebrae, and its sonnet sequence An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England. A sequence full of the most beautiful images: ‘Where wild-eyed poppies raddle tawny farms’ ‘horseflies siphon the green dung’; ‘the crocus armies of the dead/rise up…’ Hill combined a profoundly questing intellect with a wonderful gift for phrases and images; and yet he questioned and reflected on the meaning of every word he used. He used language so well because he didn’t trust it.

GeoffreyHillAtCWsGrave

Geoffrey Hill at the grave of Charles Williams in Oxford

 

When he heard I was writing a life of Charles Williams, a writer about whom he was enthusiastic whilst clearly also seeing his faults, he was immensely encouraging, but he didn’t stop at encouragement. He laboriously copied out – by hand – all of Williams’s annotations in a copy of Kierkegaard he owned, and sent them to me. He heralded the book in the opening words of his valedictory lecture as Professor of Poetry at Oxford; and when it came out he reviewed it in the TLS – a quirky, impartial review, whose opening words were ‘I welcome the appearance of this book though not unreservedly.’ – a sentence that made me laugh aloud, it was so characteristic.

And he sent me the wonderful photograph I reproduce here, of himself at Charles Williams’s grave. He looked like Merlin, whose voice he had used in one of his earliest poems: ‘I will consider the outnumbering dead:/For they are the husks of what was rich seed…’

I met him two or three times. He was kind, genial, funny, and quite without self-importance. As great a man, I think, as he was a poet.

GEOFFREY HILL LECTURES ON CHARLES WILLIAMS

Lindop.25.jpg

Charles Williams, poet and critic (1886-1945)

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.

images[1] (3)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.

CHARLES WILLIAMS: THE THIRD INKLING

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.

Lindop.25.jpg

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.