19 March 2013

Charles Williams Summary #4: Divorce (1920)

Divorce is Williams's third volume of poems, his third published book. The title requires explanation (especially as this book appeared three years after CW's marriage!). He is not referring to the dissolution of marriage bonds. Rather, he is referring to the soul's divorce from body and from its earthly ties as death approaches. Specifically, this book is dedicated to CW's father (“and my other teachers”), as Walter Williams struggled with the onset of blindness and physical decline. The first (long, complex) poem in the book tells that CW's father “taught me all the good I knew / Ere Love and I were met” (p. 7). His father taught him:
--the terms of fate,
The nature of the gods, the strait
Path of the climbing mind,
The freedom of the commonwealth,
The laws of soul's and body's health,
The commerce of mankind (p. 8)--
in other words, pretty much the seeds of all of CW's distinctive doctrines and themes. He taught him how to debate, how to doubt, how to consider all sides of an argument:
I will of doubt make such an art
That no dismay shall move
Sufficient bitterness of heart
For unbelief in love (p. 49).
But at the time of writing, this great teacher is failing:
Now, now the work all men must do
Is mightily begun in you...
Now, now in you the great divorce
Divorce, sole healer of divorce...
Divorce, itself for God and Lord
By the profounder creeds adored.... (p. 9).
and he goes on to associate this “Divorce,” death, that heals the rift between body and spirit, between soul and God, with the Holy Spirit. Vintage CW weirdness right there on page 9, in poem one.

Later, in “Advent,” he writes that while Christ was incarnate on earth, he was “from his heaven divorced” (p. 94), which seems to explain away at least some of the weirdness.

There are several major themes in this book: War, Romantic Theology, the City, and True Myth.

Since this book was published just after World War I, presumably composed during the war--while CW stayed safely at home, thanks to poor eyesight and a neurological disorder that caused shaking in his hands, in mental and emotional agony over the friends who went to war in his place and, he thought, died for him. This story is dramatized in an amazing graphic novel,>Heaven's War
, that tells the story of how this substitution haunted Williams, and how he later made a [fictional!] substitution of his own in exchange for Lewis's life. I found this graphic novel very moving.

But back to Divorce. After the poem to his father, CW includes several war poems in the book. They cover a wide range of topics and emotions surrounding war, loss, and death. Mourning the loss of his friends. Praising death in a strange Novalis-like kind of sehnsucht nach dem Tod mood. Lamenting the Schism. Layering historical and contemporary wars and legends. Remembering conversations with his lost friends and watching their “ghostly blood” run down on the London street and stain the feet of pedestrians. Telescoping geography so he is drawn into the killing fields of France with them.

The six-part sequence “In Time of War” ends with this brief lyric “For a Pietà”:
Sorrow am I, though none has seen my tears.
To me for comfort all men's childhood ran;
To me men's dolour piously uprears
This image, where I mourn, not men, but man.
I am that which lives when in your darkest hour
Not heroes only, but their hopes, have died.
I am the desolation, and the power
Of patience; I await what shall betide. (p. 19)
In this difficult verse, I see CW's distinctive identification of the Christian's life (and death) with the life and death of his Lord dramatized yet again.

One of my favorite poems in the collection is “In a Motor-bus,” in which the bus turn into his coffin-- “Narrow and long my coffin is, / And driven lumberingly, / As I go onward through the dark / And Death goes on with me” (P. 110). It's powerful and memorable, and picks up on that theme of strange longing for Death. It's pretty much just sheer terror in this poem, but the strong meter makes the poem itself enjoyable.

I have written about CW's Theology of Romantic Love before—in this summary of his 1917 book Poems of Conformity
, in this discussion of his principle themes, in>this summary of his 1912 volume The Silver Stair, in my report on transcribing The Chapel of the Thorn at the Wade Center, and in several of my academic papers on CW. I will continue to talk about this belief in future posts and papers.

In brief, this is the doctrine that the romantic, sexual love of another human can be used as a step towards loving God. In Divorce, in the sonnet “For a Cathedral Door” (p. 71), Williams writes of love that “I reach heaven by so pure a stair.” He takes this even further in the same poem when he warns himself about the “dangerous” truth that “Almost my love for me is church enough.” I have written>elsewhere
about how CW seems to misapply this doctrine.

Anyway, in Divorce, written during the first few years of his (difficult, complex) marriage, Williams is still using his wife's personality, love, and person as the locus of his spirituality. In “To Michal: After a Vigil,” he either equates her body with the elements of the Eucharist or claims that her true nature is reveal by the light of the Elements—or perhaps both (pp. 26-27). in “Politics,” he claims that truth is “Taught, Fair, to all in deity, / And taught to me in you!” (p. 48)--he doesn't need God, he just needs Florence!--but forgive my levity. He tells her in “After Marriage” that “The gospel your bright forehead told” (p. 58), with an inversion of syntax that needs unpacking; “your bright forehead [an anticipation of Taliessin?] told me the gospel.”

In “To Michal: On Disputing outside Church,” there is an anticipation of his novel The Greater Trumps. That novel ends with what appears to be heresy. The saintly Sybil says that a crazy lady thought Nancy was “Messias.” “O!” Nancy's father exclaimed. “And is Nancy Messias?” “Near enough,” Sybil answered. “There'll be pain and heart-burning yet, but, for the moment, near enough.”
In other words, in the action of the novel, the character Nancy has taken the role of Christ. This “To Michal” poem ends:
thou shalt feel
A day, a sennight hence, what tempters fled
From those hot prayers. Thy foot there crushed his head,
Smile if the dragon's claw here tore thy heel. (p. 72).
Apparently CW's wife Michal, too, is “Messias,” or at least “near enough.” Near enough, indeed, that at the end of the next poem, “On leaving Church”: “I rise, I genuflect, I turn / To breakfast, and to you!” (p. 77)--not that he is bowing to her, but that his bowing to Christ leads naturally into his relationship with her. That's actually very lovely!

There's more of this sort of thing, lots more. Michal seems to shift from identification with Christ to identification with Mary in the “Commentaries.”

The idea of the City runs through all of CW's work.>Here are some thoughts about “The City” on the website of a Benedictine Order
. Basically, CW used the image of an orderly, harmonious city as an emblem for Heaven (that's an oversimplification). This idea is being developed in Divorce. In “Ghosts,” he writes to those departed that:
Your heavenly conversation turn
Some while in aid of me,
That I may now, in these dark ways,
Glimpse of your city see. (p. 25).
In “House-hunting” (p. 28-29), he turns the ordinary domestic activity of looking for a new flat into an adventure “In the high town which is eternity,” again mapping earthly life onto heavenly. “Celestial Cities” (pp. 30-31) plays out the identification even more clearly, and lays the groundwork for what Lewis would explore in That Hideous Strength—the idea that underneath or co-existing with the earthly, human “England” is a heavenly, divine “Logres”--CW puts it like this: “...through the streets of London / The streets of Sarras shine.”

I have written about “true myth” before, here and here. Inklings scholar Holly Ordway talks about in>in this podcast
. Several people talk about the idea in this article on C.S. Lewis.

  • There are also hints of the later Arthurian poems in such pieces as “Ballade of a Country Day,” (p. 20-21) in which all is well “If Sarras be, if Sarras hold the Grail” (CW's slightly less catchy version of Browning's “God's in His Heaven—All's right with the world”). The “Chant Royal of Feet” (p. 107) foreshadows “A Vision of the Empire” in its praise of body parts.
  • There is a foreshadowing of All Hallows' Eve in “Ghosts,” in which “I at the next corner met / With you whom once I loved” (p. 24).
  • The poem “Ballad of Material Things” suggests that the Devil fails in his schemes because he is not incarnate—which led me to query in the margin, “What about Merlin?”
  • In addition to the title, there is one other moment that seems to have influence C.S. Lewis's The Great Divorce. In “Dialogue between the Republic and the Apostasy,” The Voice of the Republic says:
    Chooses he? I at ending shine, a God.
    Refuses? But a dream I pass away.
    Accepts? The heavens shall be his native sod.
    Rejects? He treads but clay. (p. 40).
  • There are poems for and against Universalism (pp. 42, 44, expositions of the Way of Exchange (p. 45)
  • In the middle of the book are three “Experiments” with free verse that don't sound like himself at all. In fact, they sound more like MY poetry than his! Very ood indeed.

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