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.


Annelise Holwerda said...

You've got me: these will be high on my list of must-to-reads.

I haven't read any Williams... Are these able to stand alone as the first thing (perhaps along with the scholarship on them that you mention), or do you suggest reading something else of his first?

Iambic Admonit said...

They are absolutely NOT able to stand on their own, as a first thing or anything else! They are horrifically obscure and would be really difficult poetry even if you didn't have to know classic literature, esoteric magic, and CW's personal mythology to get them!

So, no, don't start there by any means. Start with his 7 novels ("Metaphysical thrillers" is a better genre label). I recommend "The Place of the Lion" first. I think I have a recommended reading list posted somewhere; I'll hunt up the link.

Iambic Admonit said...

OK, here's the post with the recommended order: I see that I actually suggested starting with "War in Heaven," then "Place of the Lion," then on from there. "War in Heaven" does have the most straight-forward plot. And it was published first. So, either would do. And HAVE FUN!! These books will CHANGE YOUR LIFE!!! I'm super happy you want to read them. Yay!

Annelise Holwerda said...

Ditto to yay! Seems this might take a while... But the effort of such intricate and many-layered background to a work, and a writer, must be a good deal of why you say it's so brilliant. I really look forward to this :)

Iambic Admonit said...

Annelise: I'd love to hear comments on your progress as you read these books! I think you will really, really love them, seriously. I rate CW higher than CSL or JRRT now, yikes!

Abigail McBride said...

I would actually recommend reading the poetry first, Mrs. Higgins, because as a reader I actually lost a lot of my appreciation for CW after reading the POTL. Remembering his poetry, however, keeps it in my mind that he is an excellent writer. That depends on what approach is taken in regards to literature: greater understanding or greater love (I'm not sure if that's exactly the right word...). In order for greater understanding I would recommend the books first. For greater love I would recommend reading the poetry and then going back to the books. Just my partially developed thoughts.

I would also add to your analysis of the poetry that almost just as important is the lyricism and golden images that CW skillfully brings forth in the reader's imagination. Though the poetry may not be fully understood, it is still capable of captivation. The overall history of the mythology can be glimpsed through the flow of his poetry though the particulars are hard to grasp.

Annelise Holwerda said...

What a commendation!

In light of what Abigail says, I'm all for reading beauty in poetry that I'm yet to properly know... And then delving back through understanding, to come back to it with the first reading always holding the filled-up second one. What do you think?

Iambic Admonit said...

Abby: Very well said! I suppose a potential reader needs to consider (in addition to what you said about understanding vs. aesthetic appreciation [that's NOT what you said; I'm interpreting and interpolating]) whether she responds more intuitively to narrative or lyric. Now, not all the poems are strictly lyrics, of course; some are (or contain) narratives, and they add up to a narrative as a whole (at least in CSL's recommended reading order), but they seem to strike the reader as lyrics, especially because of what you so beautifully described: "lyricism and golden images."

So, some readers respond more readily to plot, others to (for lack of a better word) evocation. The poems have both, but the plot elements are less readily accessible. But, hum, perhaps that could be said of the novels, too....

So here's what you need to do Annelise: clone yourself, then have one clone read the novels first, poetry second, and have the other clone read poetry first and novels second, then join the two (like the glorious doppelganger scene in "Descent into Hell" which might be one of the greatest moments of creative insight CW ever had) and report back!

Iambic Admonit said...

Here's another thought. Maybe it's hard to go to the novels after reading the poetry, because the poetry is the greater achievement. But if one reads the novels first, then it's only up from there!

Annelise Holwerda said...

Well, I have my happy last exam of the semester tomorrow, which gives a perfect opportunity to pop into the library and have a look.

Short of dividing myself any further, I might borrow 'War in Heaven' to have an introduction to a new acquaintance... And maybe begin to dip into the poetry after that, listening as well as I can, while also reading on in your path around back to it. Whither then, I cannot say :)

Annelise Holwerda said...

I think the novels I'm reading mustn't be very much like the versions promised- or else your CW's poetry is golden in the extreme! I read 'War in Heaven', and liked it. Now I've read the first five-and-something chapters of 'The Place of the Lion', and I can't believe this book was actually written! On first reading it's really delightful.

The over-the-top thrill might be part of my newness (well, directly...) to Williams, but this is the sort of fiction that takes away almost any desire ever to write well, since the shadow of things ahead is so good to read- and there's a really decent hoard yet to wander through :) I'm going to stand by the quality of the books- and probably not sleep much tonight!

Thanks immeasurably already for the introduction. Much enjoyed :)

Garrett said...

Taliessin! I am embarking on a journey studying these poems as part of a summer research grant and I would love to hear your thoughts and musings on them. Do you have a favorite?

Annelise, War in Heaven was also my first Williams novel and being a lifelong fan of the prophetic books of William Blake, the glorious celebration of the mass scene at the end of the book set into motion what has been an ongoing addiction to Williams' novels, criticism, and theology. Descent into Hell is without a doubt the one most frequently called his finest achievement, and on a literary standpoint I would tend to agree, although Place of the Lion is my favorite. Its also the book that inspired Lewis to write Williams a "fan letter" which began their lifelong friendship.

On a side note, I feel obligated to share this generous site with any lover of Williams. It contains his daily devotional "The New Christian Year" completely reprinted online in blog format.

Iambic Admonit said...

Garrett (or is it Gareth?? :) --
Thank you for your comment. I think "Taliessin's Song of the Unicorn" must be my favorite. And yours?

I would love to 'talk' with you more about your studies, your grant, etc. Would you like to email me? iambic dot admonit at gmail dot com.