18 June 2010
The Arthuriad of Charles Williams
Last week I finally finished reading Charles Williams’s Arthurian poetry (well, those contained in the two volumes published during his lifetime). I had begun reading them in 2007 while researching for and writing my entry on Williams for the Encyclopedia of Christian Literature. You can reference my series of posts on that topic here. The Encyclopedia, by the way, is now available. I look forward to seeing it; it has had a long and painful gestation and delivery and I’m not sure won’t prove a rather deformed child after all that. But I digress.
Now, when one reads a poem, especially one as dense as Williams’s, one doesn’t just read them. They are not like a novel, nor even like an academic work of nonfiction. You’ve got to live with them, turn them over and over, examine them inside and out. I typed them up as I went along, read C. S. Lewis’s notes on them, and began reading what other people have to say about them. I have a long, long road ahead of me before I achieve “full” understanding (if that’s ever possible), but at least I have the poems in my bloodstream now.
And that’s where poetry like that lives. It becomes vital, pulsing, essential, visceral. It is no longer an historical tale, nor a musical experience. The woods of Broceliande, that liminal place of making, is now the locus of my poetic generation: that foggy place in the middle of the mind where poems are conceived. Lancelot’s lycanthropy (we would think of it as the condition of being a werewolf, only his lasts nine months and does not come and go with the moon) is all those times I am blind with confusion, the madness of sorrow, the myopia of self-pity or betrayal. It is how I felt last week when I found someone I loved dearly had been lying to me and was living a life of horror underneath a smooth moral veneer. I howled in the forests of Nimue, wild without understanding. Arthur’s pride is all of ours: my career for me, not me for a vocation; my talents to serve me, not me to serve with my talents.
I still think that these are among the greatest poems ever written. But I am a bit more doubtful about their vision. First, because they are unfinished—that is, Williams published two books of Arthurian verse in his lifetime, but did not live to complete the entire cycle that he envisioned. So the cycle is incomplete, and therefore the mythology is, too. Second, because I have learned more and more about Williams’s life, which was far less than admirable. This is all the more disturbing because he set himself up to be admired: he occupied the position of a religious master whom disciples were to imitate and emulate. All the while he had a double life—not exactly secret, but covered and rephrased in a language of sanctity to disguise its inherent lack of health and of godliness. But as one scholar friend reminded me: This keeps me from idol-worship. As a reader of Williams’s novels, I was almost ready to fall at his feet. The insight I now have into his life has prevent me from worshiping him through his poems: for they are, otherwise, that glorious. Please read them! It’s worth the very, very hard work.