Grevel Lindop

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

CHARLES WILLIAMS IN PAPERBACK

I’ve just received the first paperback copies of Charles Williams: The Third Inkling. Very exciting. Pleasant too for readers, because they can now get the book for a sensible, indeed pretty modest, price: £12.99 for a 490 page biography with 36 glossy plates.

My first copies, with Aslan the Lion – the white lion trophy is the Mythopoeic Society’s Award for Inklings Scholarship, which the book won when it came out

The hardback was a handsome book, but at £25 you couldn’t expect many people except Williams fanatics to buy it. It has sold well enough but I suspect mainly to libraries, and those Inklings enthusiasts who couldn’t bear to wait!

I’m also pleased that Williams’s fame has developed since I wrote the book. I was keen to make this astonishing character and his remarkably rich work known to far more people, and this seems to have happened.

Stephen Barber has edited a new collection of his essays, The Celian Moment, from Greystones Press; Sørina Higgins has edited his remarkable unpublished verse drama The Chapel of the Thorn for Apocryphile a handsome new hardback edition of his novels is in progress; and Apocryphile has reissued the poems of Taliessin through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars in the USA.

And John Matthews and I have edited his Arthurian poems – comprising all the poems on the Arthurian mythos which he published during his lifetime – for publication in the near future, with an essay by each of us.

Williams is increasingly being recognised as the remarkable writer, teacher and esoteric figure which he was, taking his rightful place alongside his more famous but less bizarre friends, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.

GRATITUDE for 1964

Over the holidays I found myself remembering earlier Christmases, and realising how important Christmas 1964 had been for me – and how grateful I am to my parents for making it so.

I was 16 then, and my parents had got into the way of asking me what presents I’d like for Christmas. Extremely kind of them, and kinder still not to turn a hair when I asked for some fairly unusual things – especially unusual in those days, I suspect!

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Threefold magic: here they are, battered but still in use

What they gave me, and what I must have asked for, though I don’t recall the asking, was: (a) a set of Tarot cards; (b) a copy of The Golden Bough; and (c) a copy of Robert Graves’s The White Goddess.

They gave me all of them, and with the enthusiasm of youth – and a youth still in the process of discovering, or making, a self, I wrote my name in all of them. Three different versions of my name, in fact. With the date. And that’s how I know that all these wonderful things arrived at that particular Christmas.

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Those gifts led to a great deal. I’ve been interested in Tarot ever since, and at some periods of my life reading Tarot on a regular basis. It helped me to appreciate Charles Williams’s novel The Greater Trumps far more deeply than I could otherwise have done. And I’ve just had the honour of reviewing Cherry Gilchrist’s excellent book Tarot Triumphs for Quest magazine in the US.


As for The White Goddess, I sat up reading it every night between Christmas and New Year, utterly enchanted and fascinated. It made me want to read Robert Graves’s poems. I hadn’t read any modern poetry before, but together with The White Goddess those poems got me hooked. I wanted to write poems too. Graves’s books made me a poet, setting me on course for a lifetime. And in the 1990s I edited The White Goddess, working at Graves’s former house and getting to know the wonderful Graves family, and many Graves scholars. Again, life-changing.

And Frazer? I have to admit that I’ve only read The Golden Bough right through once. It doesn’t quite have Graves’s verse and excitement. Nor do I wholly believe Frazer’s theories about the universal dying-vegetation-god cult any longer. With Ronald Hutton, I suspect that it’s our own secret religion, more than that of the ancient world. But how we need it! I’ve dipped into The Golden Bough many times to find details related to Graves, TS Eliot and other authors and things. And I really, really will try to read it once more in this life!

Nice to see that in 1964 you could buy a new 756-page hardback for thirty-five shillings! That’s £1.75p in today’s money, or about $2.15.

But what great foundations for an imaginative life! Blessings on my kind and understanding parents who listened to me and gave what Yeats might have called ‘the right twigs for an eagle’s nest’. I may be more of a jackdaw, but I’m still busy trying to build that nest, 42 years later. Happy New Year, all blessings to you, and may all your gifts prove as fruitful as these did for me!

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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‘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.