20 July 2007

Charles Williams: Personality & Influence

This is the third installment in a series:
The Order of the Golden Dawn
Personality & Influence
Writing Style

Watchful, detached, charismatic, young women were devoted to him; he referred to them in terms of endearment (possible bizarre sexual/magical/poetry rituals with them), saintly, radiant, riveting, quiet/loquacious, motivated people to goodness just by his presence. “Walking encyclopedia of literature” (according to Alice Mary Hadfield)
Intellect: ambivalent (negative capability?), experienced & knew & lived texts (didn’t just study them), lived in doubt & uncertainty but chose to believe. His faith was always an assumed or presupposed foundation beneath all his writing, teaching, and thinking. He simply lived and thought as if religion were absolutely necessary and everyday, yet with the supernatural always contingent and proximate. Religion was constantly, consistently relevant. Martin Browne said Williams “set the room aflame. I have never met any human being in whom the divisions between body and spirit, natural and superntarul, temporal and eternal wer so non-existent, nor any writer who so consciously took their non-existence for granted” (Browne, E. Martin. Two in One. Cambridge UP, 1981. p. 101).

As you can see, this bit on personality is more than a little sparse! Any additions are welcome.

Now, this next section is possibly the most important for my current project. I need to trace CW's influence on other writers and evaluate his contributions to literature, theology, literary criticism, etc. My assignment is to "Assess the influence of the writer on the evolution of Christian thought in the context of his or her nationality and ecclesiastical tradition." If you have any information for me, please share it!


People and groups influenced by Charles Williams

1. Alice Meynell
, the good but overlooked Victorian poet and critic. It might be more correct to say she influence him; she and her husband funded the publication of his first book, The Silver Stair, in 1912.
2. W. H. Auden, who reportedly re-read Williams’s extraordinary and highly unconventional history of the church, Descent of the Dove, (1939) every year. Auden found this book very moving and said that the thought of CW was a great help to him in trying times. After they met, Auden said “For the first time in my life [I] felt myself in the presence of personal sanctity” and “in the presence of this man…I felt transformed into a person who was incapable of doing or thinking anything base or unloving” (Hadfield 141).
3. C. S. Lewis, maybe CW's biggest fan. The story of their first interaction is legendary. CW was seeing CSL's Allegory of Love through the press, and was extremely impressed. Just as he was about to write to CSL with accolades, he got a letter in the mail from CSL, expressing accolades for The Place of the Lion! Contrary to popular opinion, the letters did not cross in the mail. CW read CSL's first, then wrote back, and his reply contained the now famous phrase about t"the staff management of the Omnipotence." They corresponded for a few years, then CW was evacuated from London with the OUP to Oxford, where he joined the Inklings. Later CSL managed to get him into Oxford as a guest lecturer even though CW had no degree at the time. Eventually Oxford granted CW an honorary master's degree. CW's influence is visible in CSL's later works, most notably in That Hideous Strength. The True Logres battling “Britian” comes from his Arthurian cycles. CW was also fascinated with Venus, whom Merlin & Brisen invoke; the dance in The Greater Trumps resembles the Great Dance in Perelandra.
4. T. S. Eliot. These two great poets met and talked often; Eliot greatly admired Williams’ Arthurian poetry (as did CSL; I think CW's poetry does the best of what both CSL & TSE were trying to accomplish--Romanticism & obscure intellectualism). Eliot was supposed to contribute to the Essays Presented to Charles Williams after CW's death, but didn't get his article in on time. Eliot wrote the preface to All Hallows’ Eve. He said elsewhere: “What Williams has to give is… the work of imagination, based upon real experience of the supernatural world, of a supernatural world which is just as natural to the author as our everyday world. And he makes our everyday world very much more exciting, because of the supernatural which he finds always active in it” (“The Writings of Charles Williams,” Literary Digest, Spring, 1948).
5. Dorothy Sayers, the other biggest fan. Figure of Beatrice inspired her to read Dante in translation, learn Italian, write about Dante, then finally translate the Divine Comedy herself (although she died before finishing Paradiso--ironically or appropriately enough). She and CSL organized Essays Presented to Charles Williams; contributors included Tolkien, A.O. Barfield, Gervase Mathew, and W.H. Lewis.

Of course, he also taught in London for years and then at Oxford for the last few years of his life. Students at the literary institute & at Oxford felt as if he became a “name,” a legend, a figure of influence. He was an excellent teacher. He inspired his students, for his approach was fresh, clear, humble, and close to the texts under examination. "His favourite words of tutorial criticism were - 'but that's not what he says'” (CW Society). He took his students seriously, respected the individuality of their thoughts, and thought they were his equals. When he lectured and recited, the text came vividly alive and relevant. He had massive amounts of text memorized and recited beautifully (even with a Cockney accent). Some critics say that he preached a sermon on a text; some meant this as a complement, some as an insult. At his honorary MA ceremony, the speaker said that he was a noteworthy poet in Pindaric verse and that he had great acuteness of mind when he lectured, combined with fervour and spirit. He may even have developed a new style of poetry (and I think that his poetry is his greatest accomplishment, followed closely by Descent into Hell and The Place of the Lion).

He also talked on the radio, preached, and spoke publicly to students at the literary institute & at Oxford, librarians, the Student Christian Union, students at secondary schools & universities other than Oxford, medical students, nurses, and members of the armed forces.

CW's first publication was The Silver Stair, which appeared in 1912. It was a series of love poems (sonnets??) written to Florence soon after they met. For the rest of his adult life "he wrote, lectured and conversed with a tireless and brilliant energy. In that time he produced, apart from anthologies, a number of prefaces, and a rarely interrupted series of reviews, over thirty volumes of poetry, plays, literary criticism, fiction, biography, and theological argument" (Charles Williams Society). In his professional work, he produced the following:
- Critical introduction to Gerard Manley Hopkins
- Introduction to the letters of Evelyn Underhill (1943; also Anglican &
Member of Golden Dawn)
- Series of Kierkegaard's works in English (as editor? or just supervior
of the OUP editor? ... not sure). This was very influential in
bringing Kierkegaard's work and thought into English
scholarship/philosophy. Kierkegaard was pretty much unknown in
England; indeed, the only other English translation of Kierkegaard's
work in 1936 (in the Bodleian library catalogue) was published in
America by Princeton University. He also lectured on Kierkegaard and
may have been the first person to do so in all England.
- Several books about poetry: The English Poetic Mind, Reason
and Beauty in the Poetic Mind
, The New Book of English Verse (editor),
a volume of Shakespeare criticism, The English Poems of John Milton
(introduction), The Figure of Beatrice, and Poetry at Present.

Yet his writing was (and is!) very difficult to understand due to what CSL always called "needless obscurity"; CSL never stopped berating him about it (even after CW's death, in letters to Sayers and others). I wonder two things:
1. What is so great about Williams? (I can speculate, and probably will at a later date)
2. Why isn't he more popular now? (Although there seems to be a rise in his popularity going on even as we write....)


What other influences did CW have?

What do you think are the elements of his lasting legacy? How has he affected literature in general or Christian literature particularly?


Iambic Admonit said...

I've just found out several facts from the helpful folks over at the co-inherence list.

- CW also lectured once The Sorbonne University in Paris
- He was not the editor of the Kierkegaard series, "but he did oversee the editors or have a role in encouraging the process and thus became quite familiar with the
author's works at an early stage for English speaking audiences" (Tom Wills)
- "CW was never a member of the Golden Dawn. He was, instead, a member of the F.R.C., Waite's group which was a variant of the whole Roscicrucian thing. The linking of GD ideas to those of the FRC is generally a mistake- they were both esoteric, and shared common rootes, but they were distinct. Williams would have been horrified to be associated, however distantly, with Crowley." by "DDD"

I would love more information on the last point by anybody who understands the Golden Dawn and Rosicrucianism.

Rosie Perera said...

What's so great about Williams?
Why isn't he more popular now?

Same answer to both questions:
He's difficult to understand.

There's a richness there which takes long, painstaking work to uncover. At first all you are faced with is strangeness. Many people are turned off, so they don't dig deeper. I was, when I first encountered him. But I'm realizing that he's worth spending more time with, because people I admire (C.S. Lewis, Loren Wilkinson, Sorina Higgins) have all found something in Williams that is worth reading him for. I confess that I haven't yet put the time into him that I need to and wish to in order to understand him better, but your excellent series is calling me toward reading more of his novels and rereading the ones I've read -- after I finish my Wangerin article, and a few other things...

Iambic Admonit said...

I totally agree with you, Rosie, and yet... and yet... James Joyce is super duper famous, and he's way more difficult to understand. I think there must be two factors keeping CW from either popularity or literary fame. The obscurity keeps him from being widely known, and (unfortunately) his literary flaws keep him from academic/scholastic honor. He's just not quite as skillful as, say, Joyce (crazy man!), but I do think he's more skillful than Lewis, so maybe my answer doesn't answer....

Rosie Perera said...

"James Joyce is super duper famous, and he's way more difficult to understand." Well, that keeps a whole industry of literary critics employed, so it probably contributes to his lasting success. He also influenced a generation of writers to do the kinds of things he pioneered, such as stream of consciousness writing. CW, for whatever reason, didn't have nearly as much influence on other writers.

Williams' "literary flaws keep him from academic/scholastic honor." I'll trust you on that (not having grasped his literary strengths well enough to begin understanding his faults). I bet his faith probably contributes to his obscurity, too, since none but the most extraordinary Christian writers make much headway in the secular academic/scholarly world, and he's too difficult for the popular audience to snap him up on their own. Joyce, while he was brought up a Catholic, pretty much repudiated that, didn't he? Portrait of the Artist is the story of him growing up into his own identity which involves worshiping his art instead of God, if I remember correctly.

As for Christian writers not taking up Williams as a role model, it's probably his weirdness and dabbling with the fringes of what appeared to be the occult that kept them away.

BTW, I meant to mention, in a comment to one of your previous posts, that we have Regent College Publishing to thank for bringing the novels of Williams back into print. And that's quite likely at the request of Loren Wilkinson who wanted students of his classes to be able to buy them at the bookstore. Eerdmans' earlier editions of some of them are still available new, but Shadows of Ecstasy, All Hallows' Eve, The Place of the Lion, and The Greater Trumps are only available in the Regent reprint.