The Silver Stair was Charles Williams's first published book. It was published in London by Herbert & Daniel in 1912. It is a collection of 84 Petrarchan sonnets on the theme Renunciation of Love. He presented it to his girlfriend, Florence Conway, in January between 1909 and 1911. Hadfield, CW's biographer (until a better biographer be found—that is, until Grevel Lindop produces his magnum opus) suspects it was 1910. Florence read the poems and, perspicacious girl, wondered if they meant he was going to join a monastery. Instead, they became engaged and remained engaged for nine (9!) years while Charles wrestled with the competing claims of the Way of Affirmation and the Way of Negation.
That is the overarching theme of this volume: the relative merits and pains of the Via Affirmativa and the Via Negativa. Williams naturally connected the Way of the Rejection of Images with asceticism. It suggests that his bent was towards Rejection until he met Florence, and that she guided him (consciously or not—perhaps just by her presence? or perhaps by conversation?—we will never know in this life) into Affirmation, which is partly if not wholly why he saw in her his Way to God.
This volume is full of the Negative Way. There is some sense that the Affirmative Way is the Garden of Eden, while the Negative Way is the Garden of Gethsemane; the Affirmative Way is Golden, while the Negative Way is Silver (hence the title—a sacrificial, ascetic stairway to Heaven). Here are the clearest lines about the Gold/Silver dichotomy:
But if thou choose love, wilt thou have this giftThe narrator thinks of the end of love before it even begins. He talks about Convents, Brotherhood, a Monastic Chapel, and abstinence. He claims that the cross rebukes us and makes us turn from earthly love, saying that any who have “put off love for Love’s sake” do the “greater thing.” Throughout the series, the narrator is trying to decide “If I should seek her or should stand aloof,” asking whether God desires marriages or celibacy. He asks, “Shall we reject…Fruition?” And seems to answer Yes when he states that if we chose to enjoy “corporal pleasaunce” we are fools! He desires her, but he also desires “Never to seek her eyes with mine, to touch / Never,” and thinks perhaps it is best if “The Lover will choose locusts & wild honey rather than Dead Sea fruit.” In his most extreme moments, he believes that love must be renounced if Christ is to enter. He believes that “love can be consummated and so grow old and die”—or it can be consecrated to perpetual virginity, which is its true telos. And in the end, the consummation of the love appears to be a commitment to perpetual virginity.
Fashioned in work of silver or of gold?--
Aureate, bought with toil and holy thrift,
With filling and with emptying horn and cruse?
Argent, with tears, sad hours, and frustrate hold?--
Or wilt thou enter empty-handed? Choose.
(from Sonnet XLV, "The two Offerings of Love")
In short, The Silver Stair contains a startlingly clear Via Negativa that contrasts with his later wide-spread use of the Via Affirmativa, but also helps explain lots of the imagery and language of Rejection in the later works.
And yet Charles married Florence in 1917. Of course, biographical criticism is suspect, and I am entirely guilty here of trying to read the Life from the Verse. It's really the Verse that matters.
The Silver Stair is a gorgeously well-structured volume of verse whose strengths of organization and narrative power have been overlooked due to the derivative pastiche of its rhymes and prosody—but even those have been overstated. It is not the work of a child prodigy, but it is surprisingly mature poetry for a 23-to-26-year-old. CW handles the iambic pentameter deftly, if not with absolute consistency. There are very strong enjambments that work well against the near-regularity of the lines. The tone is almost precisely that of Edna St. Vincent Millay, so I'll need to think about whether that's just how youthful love sonnets in the early 20th century always sound, or if they read one another! The rhymes are skillful, if a little too chimey for my 21st-century ear, and occasionally forced. The images are exact and suited to his subject—quite Dantean, too. There are some poignantly memorable lines:
“How shall he know, how shall his heart be sureThat even unto her his love endure?”—Sonnet XXXI
“I love her. O! what other word could keepIn many tongues one clear immutable sound,Having so many meanings? . . .
These know I, with one more, which is: 'To weep.'”—Sonnet XXXVIII
Or how about these lines, from Sonnet XXXIII, “Of Love's Enemies—The Cross”—oh, I have to share the whole sonnet!!
In sight of stretched hands and tormented browsHow should I dare to venture or to winLove? how draw word from silence to beginTremulous utterance of the bridal vows?Or, as the letter of the law allows,If so I dared, how keep them without sin,While through our goings out and comings inThat Sorrow fronts the doorway of our house?
It is the wont of lovers, who delightIn time of shadows and in secrecy,To linger under summer trees by night.But on our lips the words fail, and our eyesLook not to one another: a man diesIn dusk of noon upon a barren tree.
That is a very good question. And not shabby poetry, either.
More interestingly still, for scholarship, this sonnet sequence contains the seeds of most of his Big Ideas.
First, these 82 sonnets follow the pattern that CW would later postulate in Outlines of Romantic Theology, in which he theorized that the stages of romantic/sexual love follow the stages of Christ's earthly life. The association is explicit in the sonnets' titles, especially a series near the end entitled “The Passion of Love.” There, “passion” makes reference to Christ's Passion—suffering, death, and resurrection—rather than to the common sense of “sexual ecstasy,” although that meaning is not out of view.
Second, they contain the importance of the City that would grow to enormous significance in his later work. Even little St. Albans, it appears, is microcosm for the Kingdom of Heaven—because Florence walks its streets.
Rather astonishingly, these poems also prefigure some of the ideas he later embraced in The Fellowship of the Rosy Cross. CW uses the words “unmagicked,” “alchemy,” and “hierarchic,” and talks about rites, oaths, and a company. He also mentions “The earth, man’s body” in a foreshadowing of his later body geography.
How this is possible remains a mystery to me, because I do not know whether CW could have read any of the works of A.E. Waite yet at this time. This is partly complicated because I have not yet worked out exactly when CW wrote these poems. He met Florence at Christmastime in 1908; he may have handed her these sonnets only weeks later, in January of 1909. If so, very few of Waite's influential works had yet been published. A few had: An Ode to Astronomy and other Poems (1877); Lucifer; a dramatic Romance, and other Poems (1879); Israfel (1886); The Real History of the Rosicrucians (1887); The Hermetic Museum Restored and Enlarged (1893); The Golden Stairs (1893); Strange Houses of Sleep (1906)--all poems and fairy stories, except for The Hermetic Museum. Obviously this is an area in which I need to do more research.
If CW wrote these poems over the course of the next few years, then he may well have read one of the most important of Waite's early works, and one that had a powerful impact on him: The Hidden Church of the Holy Grail (1909). I suspect, however, that what happened with Williams and Waite follow the same pattern that recurred throughout CW's life: Williams picked up on the merest hint that he encountered in literature, in the church fathers, in theology, or in his own imagination, ran with that idea, created an idiosyncratic doctrinal system out of it—and later discovered something very like in someone else's writings. I think this happened with Kierkegaard. Williams recognized Kierkegaard as a kindred thinker, rather than learning new ideas from him. It happened with the Inklings, especially Lewis. And I suspect it happened with A.E. Waite.
Finally, this sonnet sequence also carries strong hints of the way Williams would live his life according to a myth: he and she are special, above the ordinary common people; he wants to keep her away from his mundane work-a-day life, and yet she transforms that life; people play roles in the grand myth. Throughout his career, CW turned to Arthurian legends as sources for fiction and poetry. His three published collections of Arthurian poetry—Heroes and Kings (1930), Taliessin Through Logres (1938), and The Region of the Summer Stars (1944)—reveal a trajectory from lyric to narrative. He died while beginning to revise the poems into one narrative whole. This move towards narrative is also evident in his private correspondence and in his increasing trend to identify his life, the lives of his acquaintances, and the unfolding history of Europe with the storyline of his myth.
Williams peopled his mythopoetic world with characters modeled after an idealized version of himself. His internal life had been largely shaped by reading A. E. Waite’s occult books and by membership in the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross. Secret societies, rife with hermetic knowledge, teach that the universe develops according to a hidden story only its adepts can “read” and “retell.”
Williams eventually became unable to keep his fictional and work-a-day worlds apart. He nicknamed friends, assigning them roles as characters in his mythology. He compelled them to enact creative, religious, and sexual rituals as performative embodiments of his tale. Finding social interaction difficult, Williams interpreted others through his story, making them conform to his meaning.
Williams also mapped his Creation-Fall-Redemption arc onto European geography, using this linear narrative to interpret World War II. He made meaning inside his poetry that then re-made the world—both private and public—in its own image.
All of this incipient narrative mythologization is inherent in The Silver Stair. Even in 1909-1912 CW was already developing a myth of chivalry. In “He appoints Time and Place for Meeting with his Lady,” the rendezvous does not occur anywhere associated with his everyday life. It seems to be in church. He is already making a myth that lifts her (and himself) above “common” life and people into a mythic existence where everything has a lofty significance. No stranger should contemplate their love, for it is the stuff of legends, of myths, of a romantic theology. No wonder he couldn't renounce it in the end.
A pessimistic—or, rather, critical—interpretation of CW at this point is to say that he believed his religious calling was to the Way of Negation: that he felt called to celibacy, singleness, dedication to poetry, not family. But then the vision rose in him of himself as the center of a great Myth: making great verse, shaping his life into narrative, influencing historical events, remaking everything he touched by the power of his poetry.
And what's a Myth without a beautiful Woman? So he subjected them both to a nine-years' torment of unconsummated love, turning the tension into literature. Then they married, and he could mythologize the whole Bride of Christ story, the father-son story, the family story.
But he didn't. Instead, he fell in love again, with somebody else, and spent pretty much the rest of his life centering the Myth on “Celia” and on their unrequited love. He found a way to make Rejection work, even when he was married: Reject the second Image (or suffer her Rejection), the Other Woman, and turn that tension into literature.
That is a very critical picture, indeed. I am afraid it may be true. Yet there is another possibility.
CW may have believed that, given his high-flying temperament, he needed to submit to the small domestic restrictions of family life and to take of the little cross of bearing Romantic Theology through all its stages: the triumphant joys of courtship, the ecstasy of consummation, the Olivet of daily accommodation and marital strife, the Golgoltha of extramarital affection and a painful fidelity, the comfortable revival of later-life affection and commitment. That is probably what he believed he was doing.
From a literary point of view, it hardly matters what his autobiographical motivations were. Who cares why he married Florence? Yet an examination of the psychology is intrinsic to an analysis of the verse, and vice-versa. I suspect the truth is: both.