24 July 2007

Charles Williams: A Bibliography

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

First, here's an annotated selected bibliography. Then below is a list of all his publications, to the best of my knowledge. Any additions are welcome.

Essential reading in the oeuvre of Williams begins with his startling, convoluted novels, in the following recommended order. War in Heaven (London: Victor Gollancz, 1930) employs the most straightforward plot and straightforward writing style. It opens with this delightful sentence: “The telephone bell was ringing wildly, but without result, since there was no-one in the room but the corpse.” The Place of the Lion (London: Mundanus, 1931) is a fantastic romp with the Platonic archetypes let loose in rural England. Many Dimensions (London: Victor Gollancz, 1930), The Greater Trumps (London: Victor Gollancz, 1932), and All Hallow's Eve (London: Faber & Faber, 1945) explore the powers and limitations of magic (especially two fields in which he personally specialized, Tarot and Kabbala) and the proximity of the noumenal to the phenomenal. Descent into Hell (London: Faber & Faber, 1937) is his prose tour de force. It integrates all of his distinctive themes: substitution, simultaneity, silence, serenity, the unity of body and soul in tension with the dualism of self, and the power of poetry (Williams once employed the name of its playwright-hero, Peter Stanhope, as a pseudonym). The characters discuss timeless Christian doctrines in fresh diction, without platitudes. The pacing of events is admirable, with cycles of intensity alternating with passages of vague visionary stasis and tranquil revelation.
After mastering the sinuous, agile writing style in Williams’s prose narratives, an adventuresome reader should proceed to his remarkable Arthurian poetry: Taliessin through Logres (1938) and The Region of the Summer Stars (1944). These dense, crystalline, lucid volumes of verse were published together with Arthurian Torso (which contains the prose Figure of Arthur and C. S. Lewis’s commentary on the poems) by Oxford University Press in 1954. Lewis offers helpful glosses and an invaluable suggested reading order, as the poems are arranged according to thought-patterns rather than chronology. Williams’s plays, theology, and literary criticism also offer surprising readings of life and literature, due to his perspicacious mind and unique brand of holistic Christian mysticism.
There is only one full-length biographical study of Williams available (Alice Mary Hadfield: Charles Williams: An Exploration of His Life and Work. Oxford UP, 1983), but another is due out in 2008 by Oxford University Press (Grevel Lindop: Charles Williams: The Last Magician; see the writer’s home page for quotes and details). Thomas Howard’s The Novels of Charles Williams (NY: Oxford UP, 1983; San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991) is the essential guide through the spiritual thrillers. The Image of the City, edited by Anne Ridler (Oxford University Press, 1958), is a useful compendium of essays. Glen Cavaliero, Stephen Dunning, and Mary McDermott Shideler have also written valuable studies. The official website of the Charles Williams Society is an indispensable resource for up-to-date information.

Bibliography of all works by and about Charles Williams

· Shadows of Ecstasy. London: Victor Gollancz, 1933.
· War in Heaven. London: Victor Gollancz, 1930.
· Many Dimensions. London: Victor Gollancz, 1930.
· The Place of the Lion. London: Mundanus, 1931.
· The Greater Trumps. London: Victor Gollancz, 1932.
· Descent into Hell. London: Faber & Faber, 1937.
· All Hallow's Eve. London: Faber & Faber, 1945.
· The Noises That Weren't There. Unfinished.

· Three Plays. Oxford UP, 1931. Contains The Witch (1931), The
Chaste Wanton
(1930), and The Rite of the Passion (1929).
· Collected Plays by Charles Williams, edited by John Heath-Stubbs.
Oxford UP, 1963. Contains Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury (1935),
Judgement at Chelmsford (1939), Seed of Adam (1936), The
Death of Good Fortune
(1939), The House by the Stable (1939),
Grab and Grace (1941), House of the Octopus (1945), Terror
of Light
(1940), and The Three Temptations (1942).
· The Masques of Amen House, edited by David Bratman. Mythopoeic Press,
2000. Contains The Masque of the Manuscript (1927), The Masque of
(1929), The Masque of the Termination of Copyright (1930).

· The Silver Stair. London: Herbert and Daniel, 1912.
· Poems of Conformity. Oxford UP, 1917.
· Divorce. Oxford UP, 1920.
· Windows of Night. Oxford UP, 1924.
· Heroes and Kings. London: Sylvan Press, 1930.
· Taliessin through Logres (1938) and The Region of the Summer Stars
(1944). Oxford UP, 1954.

· He Came Down from Heaven. London: Heinemann, 1938.
· The Descent of the Dove: A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the
. London: Longmans, Green, 1939.
· Witchcraft. London: Faber & Faber, 1941.
· The Forgiveness of Sins. London: G. Bles, 1942.

Literary Criticism
· Poetry at Present. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1930.
· The English Poetic Mind. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1932.
· Reason and Beauty in the Poetic Mind. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1933.
· The Figure of Beatrice. London: Faber & Faber, 1943.
· The Figure of Arthur. Unfinished. Published posthumously in
Arthurian Torso (with C.S.L's commentary on Williams's Arthurian
poetry), Oxford UP, 1948.
· The Image of the City and Other Essays, edited by Anne Ridler. Oxford
UP, 1958.
· The Detective Fiction Reviews of Charles Williams, edited by Jared C.
Lobdell. McFarland, 2003.
· Religion and Love in Dante: The Theology of Romantic Love.
Pennsylvania: Folcroft Library Editions, 1974.

· Bacon. London: Arthur Barker, 1933.
· James I. London: Arthur Barker, 1934.
· Rochester. London: Arthur Barker, 1935.
· Queen Elizabeth. London: Duckworth, 1936.
· Henry VII. London: Arthur Barker, 1937.
· Stories of Great Names. Oxford UP, 1937.
· Flecker of Dean Close. London: Canterbury Press, 1946.

· Letters to Lalage: The Letters of Charles Williams to Lois Lang-Sims.
Kent State UP, 1989.
· To Michal from Serge: Letters from Charles Williams to His Wife Florence,
, edited by Roma King Jr. Kent State UP, 2002.
· short story, "Et in Sempiternum Pereant" in The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories, 1986.
· Many of Williams's papers are housed at the Marion E. Wade Center.

Biographies and Studies of Williams and his work:
· Lindop, Grevel. Charles Williams: The Last Magician. (To be published in 2008 by Oxford University Press).
· Howard, Thomas. The Novels of Charles Williams. NY: Oxford UP, 1983; San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991. This is the essential guide!
· Hadfield, Alice Mary. An Introduction to Charles Williams. London: Robert Hale Ltd, 1959.
· Hadfield, Alice Mary. Charles Williams: An Exploration of His Life and Work. Oxford UP, 1983.
· Cavaliero, Glen. Charles Williams: Poet of Theology.Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI, 1995.
· Horne, Brian. Charles Williams: A Celebration. Leominster : Gracewing, 1995.
· Cavaliero, Glen. Diagram of glory: a study of Charles Williams.
· Schkel, Peter, and Charles Huttar, eds. Rhetoric of vision: Essays on Charles Williams. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press; London; Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1996.
· King, Roma Jr., The Pattern in the Web: The Mythical Poetry of Charles Williams. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1990.
· Schideler, Mary McDermott. The Theology of Romantic Love: A Study in the Writings of Charles Williams. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1966.
· Hefling, Charles, ed. Charles Williams: Essential Writing in Spirituality and Theology. Cambridge, MA: Cowley publications, 1993.
· Hopkins, G. W. S. Biography of Charles Williams in The Dictionary of National Biography, 1941-50
· Dunning, Stephen M. and Glen Cavaliero. The crisis and the quest: a Kierkegaardian reading of Charles Williams. Carlisle, Cumbria; Waynesboro, GA: Paternoster Press, 2000.
· Hillegas, Mark R. Shadows of imagination: the fantasies of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1979.
· Frederick, Candice. Women among the inklings: gender, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001.
· Moorman, Charles. Arthurian triptych; mythic materials in Charles Williams, C.S. Lewis, and T.S. Eliot. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1960.
· Urang, Gunnar. Shadows of heaven; religion and fantasy in the writing of C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and J.R.R. Tolkien. Philadelphia: Pilgrim Press, 1971.
· Ashenden, Gavin. Charles Williams: alchemy and integration. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2007.
· Glenn, Lois. Charles W.S. Williams: a checklist. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1975.
· Fuller, Edmund. Myth, allegory, and gospel; an interpretation of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton [and] Charles Williams. Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1974.
· Duriez, Colin and David Porter. The Inklings handbook: a comprehensive guide to the lives, thought, and writings of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, and their friends. St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2001.
· Knight, Gareth. The magical world of Charles Williams. Oceanside, CA: Sun Chalice Books, 2002.
· Reilly, Robert James. Romantic religion: a study of Owen Barfield, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams and J.R.R. Tolkien . Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne; Edinburgh: Floris, 2007.
· Charles Williams Society: Notes on the Taliessin poems of Charles Williams. Oxford: Charles Williams Society, 1991.
· Heath-Stubbs, John. Charles Williams. London: Published for the British Council and the National Book League, 1955.
· Willard, Thomas. "Acts of the Companions: A. E. Waite's Fellowship and
the Novels of Charles Williams" in Secret Texts: The Literature of
Secret Societies.
Eds. Marie Mulvey Roberts and Hugh Ormsby-Lennon.
New York: AMS Press, 1995. pp. 269-302.
· Carpenter, Humphrey. The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and their friends. London: HarperCollins, 2006.
· Cavaliero, Glen. The supernatural and English fiction. NY: Oxford UP, 1995.
· Jacobs, Alan. The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis. HarperCollins, 2005.

Useful webpages:
· The Charles Williams Society
· The Co-Inherence Discussion List
· Article by Thomas Howard in Touchstone Magazine
· Homepage of CW's new biographer!
· Daily blog of CW's Year of Devotional Writing
· Biography by G.W.S. Hopkins
· Bibliography
· Inklings description and members
· Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
· excerpts from books on the Inklings
· Glen Cavliero on the novels
· some of his poems!
· A Beginner's Bibliography of the Inklings
· Creepy account of his occult involvement
· article by Scott McLaren on the early novels
· review of All Hallow's Eve
· influence of Golden Dawn on literature
· Live Journal discussion of the Inklings

Articles on JSTOR that cite CW’s scholarly work:
1. Torrens, James. “Charles Maurras and Eliot's ‘New Life’.” PMLA, Vol. 89, No. 2. (Mar., 1974), pp. 312-322. 15 July 2007.

2. Olson, Paul R. “Theme and Structure in the Exordium of the Paradiso.” Italica, Vol. 39, No. 2. (Jun., 1962), pp. 89-104. 15 July 2007.

3. Firmat, Gustavo Perez. “Descent into "Paradiso": A Study of Heaven and Homosexuality.” Hispania, Vol. 59, No. 2. (May, 1976), pp. 247-257.

4.The Militant Miltonist; or, the Retreat from Humanism. M. K. Starkman. ELH, Vol. 26, No. 2. (Jun., 1959), pp. 209-228.

5. The Existential Oedipus. Richmond Y. Hathorn. The Classical Journal, Vol. 53, No. 5. (Feb., 1958), pp. 223-230.

6. An Interview with Robert Duncan. Jack R. Cohn; Thomas J. O'Donnell; Robert Duncan. Contemporary Literature, Vol. 21, No. 4. (Autumn, 1980), pp. 513-548.

23 July 2007

Charles Williams: Principle Themes

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


We'll begin with a quote from the Charles Williams Society:
Williams was an unswerving and devoted member of the Church of England, with a refreshing tolerance of the scepticism of others, and a firm belief in the necessity of a ‘doubting Thomas’ in any apostolic body. More and more in his writings he devoted himself to the propagation and elaboration of two main doctrines—romantic love, and the coinherence of all human creatures. These themes formed the substance of all his later volumes, and found their fullest expression in the novels (which he described as ‘psychological thrillers’), in his Arthurian poems, and in many books of literary and theological exegesis. His early verse was written in traditional form, but this he later abandoned in favour of a stressed prosody built upon a framework of loosely organized internal rhymes.
From my reading, I believe that CW’s theology and imagination centered on five interrelated points: The Way of Romantic Love, the Arthurian and Grail legends, Co-Inherence, the Doctrine of Substitution, and Self-Surrender/Tranquility.

1. Throughout his life, Williams worked on developing a Theology of Romantic Love. This is most clearly expressed in a posthumously published work, Outlines of Romantic Theology. He wondered what was the nature of the relationship between loving a person and loving the Creator of that person. He believed that “falling in love” could be related to the Incarnation of the Kingdom and that the lifelong interactions of a Christian married couple was an allegory of or corresponded to the events of Christ’s earthly life. Each individual romance tends to follow more or less the same pattern: ecstasy, rejection, agony, despair, a kind of death, and a kind of resurrection. To him, romance was more than an analogy for Christ’s Passion; it was an embodying of that Passion. The events of Christ’s life are lived over in the lives of human beings.

Marital sex, Williams believed, re-creates a sense of order and meaning. Two separate individuals come together and unite their potentialities, restoring the single image of God that was disjunct in their separation. He was obsessed (almost to the point of perversion) with the union of word and flesh (poem and person, creativity and sex). Sex is an act of co-inherence in which the lovers renew their mutual vigour through the most extreme intimacy of physical relationships. Sex is an enactment of affirmation and rejection; sexual union unites human potentiality and restore the single image of God and is an image of the mystical body of Christ.

Part of the divine beauty of falling in love is that it makes the beloved appear as he or she really is (as God sees him/her) and all things are made new. The man finds the vision in the real woman and grows to love her nature more as that vision is clarified. The lovers dedicate themselves to love, which is almost just another name for God, and follow it as their vocation and as their salvation. This leads to a glorious, sacrificial, heavenly renunciation of self. Love is the cause of all action, the union with all life in earth and in heaven.

Because of this Theology of Romance, Dante was CW’s favorite author. He thought that Dante, better than any other writer, understood The Way of Romantic Love and personified it in Beatirice’s role in The Divine Comedy. He analyzed Dante in light of this theme in The Figure of Beatrice. In his own life, CW took “Celia” (Phyllis Jones) as his Beatrice. His affair with “Celia,” he claimed, expressed the words of Christ: “I am come that ye may have life, and that ye may have it more abundantly.”

2. The Arthurian and Grail legends & Human Body. The mystical body of Christ and its physical analogue—actual human bodies—fascinated Williams. He used both the Arthur/Grail legend and the human body as indexes to all his thought, and related all his experiences and inspirations to both. He studied the body as if it were geology: a microcosm of the earth. He believed that morals are incarnate in the joints of the body—although I have very little idea what that could possibly mean!

Love is embodied in the flesh of the lover and realized in the flesh of the lover; thus, each part of the body is significant to lovers. Only lovers see each other’s bodies in the perfection they ought to have, or perhaps have in a spiritual sense; only lovers see that perfect in the bodies. Therefore, each part of the body, to them, shows forth the qualities of love as it ought. This was operative in his affair with Phyllis: “Williams saw in Celia’s wrists and arms indexed entries to an understanding which he searched and found in verse” (Hadfield 205) [huh?]. Each part has meaning and each part relates to all the others; the same is true of the parts of the empire in the Arthurian cycle poems, and the same is true of every believer in the Christian vision of reality.

His Arthurian poetry was accompanied by a map of Europe superimposed with a drawing of a female body, showing how different regions corresponded to parts of her anatomy. He also related the astrological associations of each body part to his “unified field theory” of poetry, legend, and spiritual reality. The body is “an index to other creations.” In “Taliessin in the Rose-Garden,” Williams works out the centrality of this concept. Merlin’s sister, Brisen, stood and her shadow fells across Logres; presumably its outlines correspond to the true kingdom’s borders. Merlin drew the enchanted borders of Logres, and:
The weight of poetry could not then sink
Into the full depth of the weight of glory.
For all the codes his young tongue bore
Taliessin could not think in Merlin’s style,
Nor his verse grow mature with pure fact.

Taliessin’s verse was not mature because he had yet to learn the Way of Exchange. What is “The Way of Exchange?” It is related to the next two themes.

3. Co-Inherence—In the vision described above, Taliessin came to understand Divine Exchange through seeing/perceiving/understanding “the thrice co-inherent Trinity” as a single point. Co-inherence, CW’s central idea, teaches that Christ’s risen life is in each person who accepts Him; therefore, we can share in the divine interrelationship of the Trinity and live as members of one another. This is based on “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). This idea has been called, in theology, “Perichoresis,” or the mutual indwelling and relating of the Trinity. The Eucharist is one of the best moments of experiencing co-inherence; CW thought the Lord’s Supper was more than images, that the elements enter into the body of the worshiper “at the moment of the flesh-death-resurrection”—the worshipper co-inheres at that moment with Christ; the moment of the Anglican sacrament is simultaneous with the moment of Christ’s passion. This is an inherently Inclusive-Exclusive principle, which CW liked to articulate by an esoteric chiasmus: “This also is Thou; neither is this Thou” (this phrase originated in a play entitled The Rite of the Passion in 1929-30).

In 1939, CW (hesitantly) founded an “order” called the Companions of Co-inherence and laid down seven sort of by-laws for them to follow. These statements included: no constitution, formal unity, practicing co-inherence as both natural and supernatural, Christian, contemplation of the Trinity/Madonna/Eucharist/Catholic church, Christ’s sacrifice as the model, and observing church festivals.

4. The Doctrine of Substitution & the Way of Exchange—This is one of the ways that co-inherence can be actively practiced. Everyone participates in physical exchange (I am dependant on the farmers who produce my food; those who go to war die in the place of those who stay home and for whom peace is purchased, etc); we can choose to see these personal/social/political contacts as blessings and practice co-inherence in the strength of Christ’s resurrections. We can make compacts to bear one another’s burdens. These principles can work among the living in any space and time, and also with the dead and the unborn. The clearest explication of “The Doctrine of Substituted Love” comes in the chapter of that title in Descent into Hell, in which Stanhope carries Pauline’s fear for her, so she is no longer afraid to meet her doppleganger. Also, in chapter V of He Came Down from Heaven, Williams gives a non-fiction account of this principle. Williams claims that the mockery hurled at Christ on the cross, “He saved others, but he cannot save himself” was actually the rudimentary expression of a universal principle: nobody can save himself, but we can voluntarily substitute ourselves for others and “carry their burdens” quite literally, even though those burdens may be spiritual, emotional, or medical. Martyrs and the Eucharist are examples of Christ in us and us in Him. Evil was consumed by good when Christ suffered on the Cross, and now our lives can be united to good in Christ’s earthly life.

In the Arthurian poems, this is also called the “doctrine of largesse.” Mordred enacts the opposite: he refused to depend on anyone and turned away from co-inherence to make sure everything worked for himself. The beginnings of substitution are expounded in “The Advent of Galahad.” In the “Founding of the Company” poem in The Region of the Summer Stars, Taliessin and his friends practice the way of exchange.

5. Tranquility, serenity. 7. This is my personal favorite, my homing locus in all his fiction: the sheer serenity of his saintly heroes. In each of CW’s novels, there is at least one character who lives in a great serenity, whose soul has a center of calm. See my previous entry on writing style for a further explanation of these still, peaceful saints. I have not worked out how they achieve this state of imperturbable tranquility and self-forgetfulness. I don't know if this indeed the condition recommended by Christ in the Gospels and by the writers of the NT Epistles. I wonder how it compares to the detachment expressed by mystics and saints of the past? In Descent into Hell, this calm is manifested as the silence out of which poetry grows (Descent p. 180).

Those are CW’s main themes, the theological or philosophical or poetic ideas that, I believe, make him himself and set him apart from all other writers. One other feature of his writing (not sure if it’s really a theme is his Mysticism/Ecumenicism/Universalism… I’m not sure what to call it. Sometimes I agree with Charles Wrenn, who, at one Inklings meeting, “almost seriously expressed a strong wish to burn Williams, or at least maintained that conversation with Williams enabled him to understand how inquisitors had felt it right to burn people…. Williams is eminently combustible” (letter of C. S. Lewis to his brother, 5 Nov. 1939). If not combustible, Williams is at any rate sometimes hovering at or over the edge of orthodoxy—or perhaps he merely sees more clearly than the rest of us, and so sees beyond the dogmas? But an interesting study would be to go further into specific comparisons of his language with that of mystics of all ages and creeds.

There are other, smaller, threads that I ought just to mention in a list here.

· The close interactions of the supernatural and the natural (or the noumenal and the phenomenal) to the point that the two are inextricable from one another.
· The Platonic Forms
· Damnation in the details (Descent p. 145)
· Delight, universal joy; Pauline’s doppelganger = manifested joy.
· The City—a web of exchange-offers; John’s Revelation; Augustine’s City of God. According to CSL, The City = right internal/spiritual arrangement.
· The Ways of Affirmation & of Negation/rejection/negativa—of images, of descriptions of God. God as Love. Practiced the way of affirmation. He eventually sided with the Way of Affirmation; believed that “man could find God in human activities, emotions, and thoughts” (Hadfield 136). He also understood & appreciated the way that said God could not be found in images, because He is behind or above them.
· Good has its own, independent, positive existence, not just as contrasted with evil. But good can be “terrible”; God and Love and Virtue are dangerous. “Christ is not attractive.”
· Oppositions—loved the clash of dogma; tried to be the voice of skepticism; loved those who questioned & debated. “Our experience of good need not, must not, be separated from our experience of evil” However, remember, good has its own, independent, positive existence, not just as contrasted with evil. Inherence of opposites (developed early, in The Silver Stair). Poets need to feel a conflict of sensations, some revolution or subversion, in order to be geniuses.
· Time—simultaneity (Descent p. 132); God & love involved in the events of human lives; Past selves congruent with present experience.
· Magic—From Grevel Lindop’s site: “Charles Williams (1886-1945), a devout Anglican as well as a former member of the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross and a specialist in Tarot and Kabbala.” Uses it in his books; rejects it in All Hallow’s Eve. Shows that magic leads to the dissolution of the self.
· Choice—”One way or the other we all go.”
· Christianity as true myth; Lilith (Descent p. 197, 207).
· The “feeling intellect” draws from the Forms to create the phenomenal world and connect us to the Neumenal (?)
· Naming and ordering of the virtues: Clarity, Speed, Humility, and Courage in Descent; strength, subtlety, speed, innocence, balance, and beauty in Lion. Orders of angelic powers.

Am I missing any essential themes? Let me know if I am!

22 July 2007

Charles Williams: Writing Style

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


Williams wrote in several different genres, including novels, poetry, plays, theology, literary criticism, and letters. His books were not widely read in his own time, primarily because of his confusing syntax, "needless obscurity" (CS Lewis), and sizable episodes that are simply bizarre. Indeed, his writing is very hard to understand, as if it is a private language. However, once a reader struggles through several novels or sizable portions of his verse, that reader begins to understand the language. Once this mastery has occurred, the obscurity melts away—but the bizarre remains, delightful and uncanny as ever.

His most notable works are his seven novels—shocking, glorious, convoluted, startling, unpredictable, obscure prose narratives—characterized as “spiritual thrillers”(T. S. Eliot) or “metaphysical thrillers” (himself). They are really unparalleled. Maybe it’s his sinewy syntax. Thomas Howard calls it “agile.” I think that’s a good word. “Labyrinthine” might work. Thrilling, dangerous, sinuous, and confusing as anything.

The Christian faith is “an unstated background” to his novels (Hadfield 101); which means that characters very rarely talk about religion, in only one book do they go to church, and even when they do talk about their faith it would take quite the careful reading to figure out which faith they were discussing. Williams’ prose characteristically avoids and transcends traditional Christian diction. The beauty of this technique is twofold. First, these books can be read and loved by anyone, Christian or not. Yet they might serve to invade a jaded, skeptical mind with truth. Second, they offer a new, fresh, timeless diction of dogma—the same old doctrines explained in totally original terminology. See, for example, Descent Into Hell p. 188-189, or just about any chapter of The Greater Trumps. Also, even though spiritual truths resonate throughout every word of these books, they are not Christian allegories, nor can their plots be as easily related to the Bible as, say, The Last Battle. They function on two levels: “Their underlying structure derived from religion, romantic love, and his work; their superstructure from his interesting the workings of material and magical power; their excitement from the clash between the two” (Hadfield 103).

His best known (and best) novels are probably Descent into Hell and The Place of the Lion. In each novel, sacramental objects or powers break loose, expand into a swirling chaos, develop outward from some central vortex, and threaten vast—even universal—temporal or spiritual destruction. Salvation and preservation are achieved by the imperial mastery of a woman or man who steps into the center of the danger and by the voluntary, intentional surrender of her or his person, desires, and volition to the divine will. In Shadows of Ecstasy, that center is not an object, but a person—Nigel Considine—and his insidious “gospel”; although there is a lavish set of jewels that figures prominently in the drama. In War in Heaven, Many Dimensions, and The Greater Trumps, respectively, the focal point is an object of legendary or sacramental significance: the Holy Grail (which Williams spells Graal after the French fashion), the Stone out of King Solomon’s crown (who is called, by the Muslims in this tale, Suleiman the Great), and the original set of Tarot cards corresponding to mysterious dancing chessmen. The Place of the Lion employs great animals who turn out to be the visible manifestations of nine Platonic archetypes who also happen to be the nine orders of angelic beings according to the Medieval hierarchy. Great stuff!

With each new choice of nucleus, Williams seemed to be reaching further and further behind the veil of material reality, searching for the ultimate Power that created and guides it. Each symbol corresponded to some sacred core of existence beyond itself, some mystery even more closely associated with transcendence. Behind the Grail is its keeper, Prestor John, who is somehow identified with the Grail itself and all true believers and Christ Himself. Behind Solomon’s magical chunk of original matter is his signet ring, which contains or is the divine light that made the universe. Behind the tarot cards, and even behind the dancing images, is the Fool, who moves and does not move, and who is the meaning of all things. Even the Platonic archetypes are only orders of angels, fairly far down the ladder of celestial promotion according to Dante, answerable to the Unity, the Three-In-One.

Yet each of these powers is mastered by a human being. Williams grants his heroes or saints—Isabel Ingram, Archdeacon Julian Davenant, Chloe Burnett, Anthony Durant, Sybil and Nancy Coningsby, Peter Stanhope, Margaret and Pauline Anstruther, Betty Wallingford, and Lester Furnival—a profound serenity that might be called “the peace that passeth understanding.” I will comment more on this tranquility in the post on themes; but for now, let me just say that this is the center of his books for me.

Although CW’s novels are both the place to begin when approaching his oeuvre and will probably always carry his reputation, his genius really found its niche in his Arthurian poetry. His poems, I believe, are his greatest works and the only ones that might earn him a place in “The Western Canon” (whatever that is). In Taliessin through Logres (1938) and The Region of the Summer Stars (1944), he unites two story-threads that had previous been more or less separate: The Lancelot & Guinevere tale, and the Quest for the Grail. These poems should not be read without C.S. Lewis’s guide and commentary, contained in Arthurian Torso (the full text is available online at Questia). The plot (as far as there is one: it’s wandering, non-chronological, mystical, and visionary, but it’s there) follows Taliessin, the poet/bard of Arthur’s court. CW worked his favorite themes into these poems; as a matter of fact, he saw his life and the human body and theology as all indexing together onto/with “The Matter of Britian” (his name for the collective Arthurian legend) in some kind of holistic correspondence. The Doctrine of Exchange is operative: Galahad’s household was the ideal civilization of the True Logres where reciprocal love and the bearing of one another’s burdens were practiced. He names the Divine Trinity “the zenith of exchange,” as He/They is/are the quintessential example and locus of exchange, inhabiting and co-inhering with one another. Christianity as true myth comes in, as well, when Taliessin hears of this story and travels to Byzantium to discover its truth and applicability. Some of CW’s shorter poems can be found online here, to give you an idea of his dense, crystalline, many-lighted verse. I recommend “Saint Michael” and “Christmas” as closest to his later, characteristic style.

His theology is written in a more straight-forward style as to syntax and diction, but is so counter-intuitive and extraordinary as to seem extremely confusing. Most of the time I found myself saying, “He can’t really mean what he seems to be saying, can he?” But he can. Oh, definitely so. For example, in the posthumously published Outline of Romantic Theology he sketches the correspondences between the personal romance of a man and a woman and the earthly life of Christ. He seems to take for granted that this has always been the Church’s position; but I had never heard of it before! He believes that romantic, sexual love is the best way on earth to understand Christ’s work and the nature of God.

That’s all I can think to say right now. Your additions are more than welcome!

Does anyone have a description of his plays for me? And how about his literary criticism?

21 July 2007

Sacred Choral Music

Cross-posted from a recent post of mine on the Image Journal Forum, in response to someone who was asking for recommendations of choral music, particularly masses or Orthodox music.

Essential complete works (my favorites marked with an asterisk):
*Bach B Minor Mass
*Bach St. Matthew Passion
Bach Magnificat
*Bach Christmas Oratorio
Bach Cantatas (there are nearly 200 of them, so check out this site for a listener's guide and specific recommendations)
Beethoven Missa Solemnis
*Beethoven Mass in C
*Brahams Ein Deutsches Requiem (German Requiem)
Dvorak Stabat Mater
Fauré Requiem
*Gounod Messe Solennelle De Sainte Cecile (St. Cecilia Mass)
*Handel Messiah
Haydn The Creation
Haydn Nelson Mass
Mendelssohn Elijah
Monteverdi Vespers
*Mozart Requiem
Mozart Coronation Mass
Mozart Mass in C minor
*Orff Carmina Burana (the only non-sacred music in the bunch, but a great piece, which would be on most lists of essential choral music)
Rachmaninoff Vespers
Rutter Gloria
Schubert Masses No. 2, 3, 4, 6
*Tallis Spem in alium
*Tallis Complete English Anthems
Vivaldi Gloria

Here is a stellar recording of selected shorter sacred choral works, absolutely sublime, probably among the top 5 CDs in all my collection:
Agnus Dei

A remarkable CD, Officium, performed by Jan Garbarek with the Hilliard Ensemble, blends haunting polyphonal sacred choral music with a solo saxophone voice. Beautiful.

And for your Orthodox ear, not choral music per se, but these are the big three contemporary Orthodox composers, known as the "Holy Minimalists":
Arvo Pärt
John Tavener
Henryk Górecki

If you want to stick with just masses/choral music from among them, try
Arvo Pärt's Berliner Messe, Magnificat, and De Profundis, all available (among other works) on this CD.

Sorry I don't have a great familiarity with older Orthodox choral music. You might find this blog post, by someone who seems to know what he (or she) is talking about, of use.

See also Top 10 Choral Works to Start Your Classical Music CD Collection (includes a couple of works I wasn't familiar with).

20 July 2007

George Herbert & the conundrum of Christian poetry

I've taken a little break from posting on CW while I work on a paper for school. Here are some bits; rather a controversial thesis, I think, and not one I necessarily like.

Sonnet (I)

My God, where is that ancient heat towards thee,
Wherewith whole showls of Martyrs once did burn,
Besides their other flames? Doth Poetry
Wear Venus livery? only serve her turn?
Why are not Sonnets made of thee? and layes
Upon thine Altar burnt? Cannot thy love
Heighten a spirit to sound out thy praise
As well as any she? Cannot thy Dove
Out-strip their Cupid easily in flight?
Or, since thy wayes are deep, and still the fame,
Will not a verse run smooth that bears thy name!
Why doth that fire, which by thy power and might
Each breast does feel, no braver fuel choose
Than that, which one day, Worms, may chance refuse?

-- George Herbert

Their Other Flames:
The destabilization of devotional verse
in “Sonnet (I)” by George Herbert

Herbert sent this sonnet to his mother in 1609 or 1610; he was sixteen years old (Stull 134). This gift was designed to reassure his mother of his pious intentions. He wrote to her about his New Year’s Resolution:
But I fear the heat of my late ague hath dried up those springs by which scholars say the Muses use to take up their habitations. However, I need not their help to reprove the vanity of those many love-poems that are daily writ and consecrated to Venus; nor to bewail that so few are writ that look towards God and heaven. For my own part, my meaning—dear mother—is, in these sonnets, to declare my resolution to be, that my poor abilities in poetry shall be all and ever consecrated to God’s glory. (Walton)
In practical terms, this decision meant he would write devotional poetry to and about God rather than amatory poetry to and about women. However, a close critical analysis reveals that this sonnet implicitly—and perhaps unintentionally—posits an imaginary perfect woman to fill its love-poetry vacuum, seeks to secure the poet’s eternal fame, and effectively supplants God. In spite of himself, then, Herbert—or his narrator—suggests that “devotional poetry” is an oxymoron, because it actually appropriates divine creative power.

There are four themes woven together in this sonnet, expressed by means of four metaphors—fire, pagan deities, the ocean, and death—and each one signifies both surface piety and substantive self-aggrandizement. This tension between ostensible moral platitude and authentic critical stance is embodied in the series of quasi-rhetorical questions of which this poem is comprised. By means of the implied answer to these questions, Herbert offers at least three tentative hypotheses of why devotional poetry is impossible, which can also be read as theoretical views of poetry at large.

After that introduction, I'm omitting the body of the paper & jumping down to the conclusion, with just one chunk of evidence for my claims/

. . . The final statement of the death-and-immortality theme (in lines twelve through fourteen) unites it with inspiration and love: “Why doth that fire, which by thy power and might / Each breast does feel, no braver fuel choose / Than that, which one day, Worms, may chance refuse?” Paraphrased, this says: Lord, since every human being feels passion burning in his or her insides by Your design and creation, why don’t we poets choose You as the motivation for and subject-matter of our poems, since You are going to last a whole lot longer than women, who will only die and, in their repulsive final corruption, might even be rejected by worms? In an effort to slough off any remaining commitment to amatory pursuits, the narrator tries to persuade himself that women, though beautiful and desirable now, will one day be so disgusting that even worms might scorn to touch their decaying bodies.

However, another interpretation is possible. Perhaps the putative woman is so perfect, so beautiful, so incorruptible, that even worms do not dare to violate her! In that case, the woman is immortal—and so will his poem be, if he dedicates it to her.

The narrator’s attempts to sublime or transfer erotic love into religious zeal have actually worked to metamorphose a devotional poem into an amatory sonnet. In that transformation process, God has also undergone a conversion. In the final couplet (“…braver fuel choose / Than that, which one day, Worms, may chance refuse”), the speaker recommends God as a better fuel than women for the flames of passion or inspiration. This metaphor suggests not only that God serves the poet’s purposes, but also that God is consumed in the process. There is very little of God left by the end of this analysis, into which a reader is forced by the rhetorical questions.
It is precisely that series of destabilizing rhetorical questions that undermines the moral the narrator set out to teach. He asks: Where is that ancient heat? Does poetry wear the uniform (or form) of Venus? Does poetry serve Venus? Why aren’t sonnets made of God? Why aren’t lays sacrificed to God? Can’t God’s love sound His own praise better than a woman[’s]? Can’t the Holy Spirit fly faster than pagan deities? Won’t devotional verses be better or more famous than secular poems? Why doesn’t poetic inspiration choose God for its subject rather than women? The ultimate answer is: Because “devotional poetry” is an oxymoron.

This sonnet is framed as a rant by one poet to God, but functions as an injunction from one poet to all others. The subversive answer to his own questions—pious poetry is impossible—raises a larger problem: Why? Herbert offers at least three tentative hypotheses to explain why poetry cannot be devotional, which can also be read as theoretical views of poetry at large.

...and then follows a whole long bit about the literary criticism-type statements that can be extrapolated from this conclusion...

A conflicted attitude towards the value and power of poetry, especially virtuosic displays in secular forms, permeates much of Herbert’s writing. His work “is the product of a combined verbal dexterity and religious devotion” (von Ende 173), and this coy sonnet secures both the poet’s devotion and his reputation, while making sly statements about the motivations for poetic creation. The putative dedication of poetry to God assures his status as devout Anglican (and later priest in the Church of England after he gave up secular ambitions), while ostensibly repudiating poetry in the paradoxical locus—in situ in a sonnet—serves to highlight his literary skill. The use of secular forms and the destabilizing, undercutting effect of the poem’s actual message assures the poet’s fame and immortality. By shaping lacunae into the silhouette of a woman, the poet claims creative power, supplants God, and ensures the death of the devotional poem. Whatever contributions Herbert may later have made to the development of devotional sonnets, this is not one of them.

But I don't really like this conclusion, because I love Herbert, and I think that he wrote some really good devotional poetry later on! However, I do think that he articulates the central problem of Christian writing: How to write about God, since it's pretty much impossible to do. What do you think?

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?

16 July 2007

Charles Williams & the Order of the Golden Dawn

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

Since our dear friend CW was a Rosicrucian or a member of the Order of the Golden Dawn for at least a few years, maybe longer, I decided I need to do a little research on what that society was. The following information is garnered and edited from several different websites, listed at the end of a Wikipedia article. I would be grateful for any additional information and/or corrections.

The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was a magical order of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, practicing a form of theurgy and spiritual development. It was probably the single greatest influence on twentieth century western occultism. This organization promotes the teachings of the original Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a magical fraternity founded in London in 1888 by Dr. William Wynn Westcott and Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers.

It was based in part on an elusive set of cipher documents. The Golden Dawn is based on the Secret Doctrine which was taught to the initiates of the priesthood in the temples of the past, which formed the Lesser and Greater Mysteries of Egypt, Chaldea, Greece, etc. This arcane science was the original fount from which have sprung all the various exoteric religions of the ages and in which the Founders of those religions were well versed. Concepts of magic and ritual that became core elements of many other traditions, including Wicca, Thelema and other forms of magical spirituality popular today, are drawn from the Golden Dawn tradition. The stated goal of the corporation is educational, spiritual, and philosophical. In the Ancient Mysteries the knowledge of the Lord of the Universe, the knowledge of Man and his relation thereto, as well as the sub- and super-human beings, the unseen laws operating in both the Macrocosm and the Microcosm were made practical by the detailed knowledge of how to develop the latent powers in man and how to control, dominate and operate non-human beings and forces. The Initiate of the Mysteries was therefore not only a sage but a powerful magician who could at will bring to pass seeming miracles. By reason of their wisdom and power they became great spiritual beings transcending the human stage of evolution, and achieving that alchemical transmutation of the base metal of the lower and material nature into the pure gold of the spiritual, and fixing this by the influx of the divine spirit itself, becoming Christoi—possessors of the Stone of the Wise, the Elixir of Life, the Summum Bonum. Initiation into the Esoteric Order of the Golden Dawn is the mystical doorway to deep esoteric knowledge and the power of the magi of light.

The Magical Order of the Golden Dawn is an initiatic order descended from the Esoteric Order of the Golden Dawn established in 1888. The Order is a non-denominational spiritual order and aspirants are encouraged to use their own spiritual path as part of their rituals and meditations. The Magical Order teaches candidates how to contact and work with both their Guardian Angels and Spirit Guides. There are five levels? manifestations? persons? of The Creator:
1. The Creator of All That Is (Spirit)
2. The Creator Incarnate in Your Mind (Air)
3. The "Father" aspect of the Creator (Fire)
4. The "Mother" aspect of the Creator (Water)
5. The Creator Incarnate in your Body (Earth)
While some Golden Dawn traditions believe there is one and only one name for each aspect of deity, experience teaches us that any name you choose will work just as effectively as any other name. Your intention is far more important that the name you assign to the Divine. But you may certainly memorize the Aramaic, Buddhist, Christian, Druidic, Egyptian, Greek, Hebrew, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Norse, Pagan, Wicca or any other Divine names of your choice.

So how could CW, a good Anglican, be a member of this quasi-occult organization?

Members of the Golden Dawn have a profound respect for Christianity, and are in no sense hostile to the Roman Catholic Church, nor yet to the other forms of Christian belief, provided that on the more Unitarian side they do not too far gravitate towards Atheism. They especially consider that the Roman Catholic Church has resolutely preserved in its Ceremonies the August Symbols of the Divine Wisdom. The ancient Rosicrucians had to be Christians, unlike modern occultists, who have a rather disturbed relationship with the figure of Jesus Christ. The modern occultist identifies him with a highly illuminated Man or a metaphorical Force or divine essence that is totally abstracted from the Person called Jesus of Nazareth.

Related terms:
[caveat lector: I have not read all these website; proceed at your own risk]

The Western Esoteric Tradition
The August Order of the Mystic Rose
Tarot (relevant for The Greater Trumps
Temple of Isis Holy Mother (Greater Trumpsagain)

Biography of Charles Williams

In connection with my work for the upcoming Encyclopedia of Christian Literature, I'm continuing to write a series of posts about Charles Williams. Keep an eye open for thoughts, ramblings, and other installments each day or so for a while. These are pretty much just notes right now, rather than smooth lucid brilliant prose [like I usually write, right?]. I would be delighted to read your feedback on these posts, especially if you notice errors, omissions, or other inaccuracies. Projected topics include:
The Order of the Golden Dawn
Personality & Influence
Writing Style

Charles Walter Stansby Williams (20 September 1886 - 15 May 1945), British

Charles Williams was born on 20 of September, 1886, in North London (Islington). His father, Richard Walter Stansby Williams, was a clerk, then later opened a stationary store. Later in life, Richard lost his sight. Charles's mother's name was Mary; he had one sister, Edith, who was three years younger than himself. They were Anglicans. His first education outside the home came at St. Mary Magdalene. In 1894 the family moved to St. Albans, where he attended the Abbey School. He was confirmed in the Anglican church on 27 March 1901.

In 1903 Charles was awarded a scholarship to University College, London, but had to drop out after two years because his parents could not afford to keep him in school. He secured a job at a Methodist bookroom in London in 1904, and then began work at the Oxford University Press on 9 June 1908; he remained with the Press for the rest of his life. He worked his way up from a proofreading assistant or reader, to ______________ [what? does anyone know?]. In 1908 he met and fell in love with Florence Conway; they carried on a romance for nine years before they finally married on 12 April 1917; Charles was 30, Florence was _____________ [how old?]. During those years of courtship (CW was unfit for service in WWI [_____________ why? does anyone know?]), Charles wrote two books of complex love poetry, involving themes of renunciation and the theological, sanctifying power of love. Apparently Florence mocked him for loudly reciting poetry in public; he nicknamed her “Michal” (after King David’s wife; see II Samuel 6:14-23) and the nickname stuck. She even referred to herself by that nickname.

Williams was a member of the Salvator Mundi Temple of the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, an offshoot of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, for either four-five years or for his entire adult life, according to various sources. Through this mystical associate, he met Evelyn Underhill and William Butler Yeats. [keep your eyes open for an upcoming post on Rosicrucianism and the Golden Dawn].

In 1922 Charles and Florence's only child, Michael, was born. Charles began to lecture through the London County Council at the Holloway Literacy Institute on literature in the evenings in 1924 [?] and continued until 1939. The Press moved to Amen House in 1924. This same year, Phyllis Jones joined the staff of the Press as librarian—and Charles fell in love with her. For the next nineteen [can anyone confirm that number?] years, Phyllis was his muse, his subject-matter, the index to all his ideas, and the center of his theology of Romantic Love. One of the centers, because he intentionally continued to nurture his marriage to Florence (and, as far as we can tell, never consummated the relationship with Phyllis, thus remaining at least physically faithful to Florence). Williams believed that marriage follows the pattern of the earthly life of Christ, including the times of temptation, crucifixion, and death. He developed this idea in Outlines of Romantic Theology, published posthumously. Charles struggled to use both his marriage and his emotional affair as ways of sanctification. But Phyllis, whom he names Celia, was his chosen image, the symbol and embodiment of his Arthurian cycle--to which he related all the events of his life and poetry. Sometime in 1926 or ’27 he wrote a volume of poems, The Century, about/to Phyllis. They also carried on an extensive, intellectual, passionate, affectionate correspondence. She eventually began a love affair with another married man, Gerard Hopkins, who also worked with Oxford University Press, then in September of 1934 married Billie Somervaille, then divorced him two years later and returned to the Press and to Williams’ company.

The Oxford University Press was evacuated from London to Oxford in 1939. Williams moved there, leaving Michal and Michael in London. Michael often came to stay with his father. Williams joined C. S. Lewis’s informal group, The Inklings, with whom he shared manuscripts and ideas. His influence can be felt in Lewis's later work, especially That Hideous Strength. Lewis adored, almost worshipped him; Tolkien was a bit more suspicious and possibly jealous of Lewis’s ardour. Through Lewis's manipulation, Williams gave a guest-lecture at Magdalen College, Oxford University, on Milton's Comus on 29 Jan 1940. He finally received an honorary MA from Oxford 18 February 1943, and later became a member of the Dante Society. Williams was only a member Lewis's unofficial society for six years, when he died unexpectedly in 1945 [__________ of what? does anyone know?]. Lewis tells the poignant tale: Lewis was on his way to a meeting of the Inklings, heard that Charles was in hospital, and decided to stop and visit him on the way. Upon arrival at the hospital and enquiring after CW, Lewis was told that CW had just died that morning.

12 July 2007

The Myth of Memory (short version)

For the July poem of the month I posted a long poem, and Rosie correctly pointed out that "less is more"; the poem seemed both repetitive and wandering. Inspired by her critique and by an upcoming contest asking for poems of 40 lines or fewer (and assisted most ably by my long-suffering roommate), I've revised it. Voila:


I finally learned to dive,
and found joy hovered there:
a sphere of longing sublimed with the lake.
Below me, an indeterminate color hung
like shadows cast on grass;
above, desire quivering in a sunlit circle.

Well-mouth, cave-mouth, it shone:
compelling, fixing my imagination
on its unknown and unlabeled hues.
That strange, inviting light held me;
I crystallized, became the prism,
casting scattered shafts
from each toe and finger, every hair.
Is it that light I long for in my dreams?

In an underwater limbo
suspense and longing intermingled.
Delicious, like a taste;
refreshing, as if I drank and it were pure;
wet and pulsing like the act of love.
That unity in isolation seemed
the archetype of other, severed, pleasures:
I swam submerged and drowning in desire.

What did I want? Not that muddy lake,
that real dive split in fragments by my five
unpracticed senses, spluttering in fact.
Not to catch the fascinating disc of sunlight
on the surface. Not to stay and drown;
no, not to stay and contemplate.
Fish do not live suspended in a state
of constant wonder—or perhaps they do.
Maybe that explains the lack of eyelids,
always awake, always in sudden shock.

Everything that happens goes too fast.
I never felt desire while I dove.

And yet, I read my recollections
as if feelings will be real,
as if every ecstasy will be itself
and every moment, lingering.
I live like longing will be unified and re-embodied
in the consummation and consecration of desire.

~ Admonit

11 July 2007

The Bible as [also/only] Literature

My last BreadLoaf summer is slipping by.... If you would like to read more about classes, lectures, etc., you can take a look at Cafe Cobblestone, the blog my roommate Teresa is keeping of this summer.

One of the classes I'm taking is "Milton & the Bible." For the first three weeks, we're studying only the Bible -- a necessary result of the Biblical illiteracy of most modern students, but also a rich look at the history of the texts themselves and the "issues" with which Milton himself would have grappled. We've covered a lot of ground already (today was our last day on the Hebrew Bible, otherwise known as the Old Testament), some of it very hard for me to encounter. There's lot of "higher criticism", which puts the composition of most books much later than the traditional dates, thereby eliminating predictive prophecy and reflecting an emergence idea of the Jewish religion; textual redaction, which suggests alternative readings and ostensibly discovers errors or omissions or additions in/to the earliest MSS; and generally disrespectful language describing an insecure, cruel, fickle, anthropomorphic God projected or created by the uncivilized imagination of a primitive people. [I forget why I signed up for this class...] Hard stuff for an Evangelical/Fundamentalist/whatever-I-am to swallow (even though I am of the more open brand that likes to question and study and hear and consider).

But wait! Today reminded me why I signed up for this class, why classes like this are valuable & necessary & inspiring. Today was a day of breathless beauty. I am whirling, inspired and confused by the new idea the professor presented to us. The class is taught by Jeffrey Shoulson, who is a teacher at the University of Miami, and has written several books, including Milton & the Rabbis.

Now, here's the idea he shared today. It's essentially that the Bible is only literature -- but wait! Don't pass judgment yet. We were reading Ezekiel's first vision, the one that's usually called the vision of the Chariot or something like that. You can read it here: Ezekiel 1:4-28.

Blake's illustration of Ezekiel

We talked about what it meant when Ezekiel ate the scroll, which had "woe" written on it, and then the scroll tasted sweet -- not bitter, as one would expect woe to taste. Prof. Shoulson suggested that this is a microcosm of all the ways in which Ezekiel (and, to some extent, his listeners & readers) thought he knew what the message meant/contained, but was surprised by the actual [sensory] experience of the message. The experience of the vision, then, is more important than any interpretation of it. This was a mystical moment, yes, but not any particularly quantifiable or definable moment. Yet there is a whole tradition of Jewish mysticism, older than even that of the Kabbala, based on this vision. I think it's called Merkava ("Chariot") mysticism . But Prof. Shoulson said this is a misunderstanding of that passage, or at least that it is an allegorical reading, and that all allegorical readings are non-helpful in approaching mystical or transcendent moments. He said it is designed to be approached as just a vision and not a set of symbols designed to point beyond themselves. A vision is an experiential moment, not an interpretive locus. We should read vision as vision, and text as event. This is what is suggested by the eating the scroll event: word becomes flesh, flesh becomes word.

There are other moments in Scripture that express God's glory in terms of a chariot, of natural phenomenon, of enthronement, or of worship in the temple service, such as Psalm 104, Ps. 68:4, Ps. 11:4, Isaiah 66:15, Habakkuk 3:8-13, and Exodus 20:4-5. Ezekiel refers to all of these (windstorm, lightening, living creatures, wheels, a throne), yet he seems to subvert traditional visionary identifications by never naming "The Chariot." The vision itself is unnamed, and Ezekiel attempts to overwhelm his listeners/readers with an excess of detail that serves to be anti-iconic. Ezekiel avoids the containment of God in any single image; thus, his vision has no specific source or referent.

Furthermore, translating an allegory leads to loss: extracting the kernel of meaning leaves you with only the kernel. Some quality of the text as mystery is magical, significant, and opening it with an interpretive key leads to loss due to simplification and definition. [NB: I think this is why my beloved Inklings used story & myth, not allegory, to suggest and hint and show spiritual truths, rather than creating a symbolic puzzle to be decoded piece by piece.] Therefore, Shoulson said, we should approach the text of Ezekiel as literary and lyrical, but not expository or discursive. Indeed, this might be a good way to approach the entire Bible.

The underlying idea is that you can't substitute anything for the visionary experience itself. It doesn't mean anything but itself. You can't make a little interpretive table and say "the wheels - such-and-such, the creatures signify so-and-so." The meaning of the vision is nothing beyond what it is. Ezekiel grapples with transcendence and ineffability and inadvertently starts a poetic tradition of showing the non-referential quality of visionary encounters. The presence of anthropomorphic and bestial metaphors for God do not suggest that He is like that, but just emphasize that these images are all the visionary was left with. Ezekiel piles on the details, but the more he says, the less we know. The very act of writing comes smack up against this insoluble problem of the ineffable. Ezekiel thinks he will write something and then it comes out differently. Over and over he writes phrases like "it seemed" or even "it seemed like a resemblance of"; his vision is a vision of a likeness or a likeness of a vision. It is a vision of the undepictable, of the thing that eludes full rational grasp; the attempt to represent in language something beyond language.

The Scripture, then (or at least the visionary bits), is the constant struggle to represent the unrepresentable, to express sublime inexpressible experience.

So those are basically my class notes from today. But now I would like to speculate on some of the larger implications of this idea. Let me emphasize that the following thoughts are my own, and were not stated in class today. However, I do think think that these conclusions naturally follow from the above ideas, and are implied by such a literary reading of the Scripture. The implication is twofold.

1. The Bible is only a literary text, with no particular discernable theological meaning or correspondence.
2. The Bible is a literary as well as a theological text, and should be enjoyed in all of its ambiguity, symbolism, mystery, and indeterminacy.

The first of these suggestions is, to me, heretical, and I won't follow it any further. The second, however, has interesting implications. Wouldn't it suggest that, if vision is only vision and means nothing beyond itself, that all of the debatable passages of the Bible are really and truly struggling with representation, and all of our conflicting interpretations are likewise attempts, rather than definitive interpretations?

I don't know. The suggestion scares me. What do you think? Do you think there's any possibility that, rather than paedo-baptists drowning baptists and Catholics massacring Calvinists and Calvinists burning Unitarians, maybe we should look at the text more like a 19th century poem, whose meaning is rich and true but not necessarily determinate, or may be not singular, or at least not simple.

Of course this can go too far. Could it be a solution to Christian divisiveness, or is it heresy?

08 July 2007

Charles Williams & Synaesthesia

Synaesthesia: A Key to Charles Williams & The Meaning of Life

This is the abstract for a paper I hope to write someday. Do you have any ideas of a conference or periodical that might be interested in a paper like this? I'm limited to the NorthEastern US for the moment, or else I'd submit to that CW conference in England!

ABSTRACT: Synaesthesia, according to the OED, is “the production of a sense impression relating to one sense or part of the body by stimulation of another sense of part of the body.” Derived from the Greek for blended feeling, it is used as an analogy: a figure of speech in which the data of one sense is interpreted in terms of another. This is how Charles Williams wrote, and perhaps how his often befuddled readers can better comprehend the meanings and patterns in his apparent obscurity. In his fiction, Williams always connected natural/phenomenal events with supernatural/ archnatural/ noumenal realities in a direct, startling, and physical way. Thus, the Platonic Archetypes manifest themselves as visible animals; the power of the Tarots creates tangible dirt; intellectual corruption has a hideous odor like decay.
This is mode of operation is not foreign to the Christian church. The sacraments are synaesthetic: physical water, bread, and wine correspond to intangible events and realities. Christ Himself made the ultimate synaesthetic statement: “He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35). How can coming assuage hunger and believing quench thirst? Only synaesthetically.
The incarnation itself was a synaesthetic figure of speech—“The Word became flesh.” Perhaps all material existence is analogous to the higher plain of reality in which we will have our sins literally washed away, ingest Christ, and co-inhabit one another. Williams called this co-inherence. His labyrinthine prose is an attempt to hold the interrelations of every perception with every sense: sacramentally, synthetically, synaesthetically.

Now here's just a funny poem of mine that's related to today's topic, for your reading enjoyment

Sonnet LXXVI

The grass begins to green, but still the trees
stand dull and hueless. One bright blue jay flings
extraordinary sky-and-white, like sea-
foam curling wave tips, past my car and sings
a silent tune of color contrasts, sharp
as sunlight, smooth as oceans, sudden as
this fleck of sparrow-flutter on the tar
consuming crumbs: a brown and brave ménage.
“Move, birdies! Move!” I cry; the quick flock moves
in time, and Spring’s still free to seed the earth
with sparrow blossoms and bold blue jay blooms,
with fields of waving teal and seas of dirt:
brown on brown and blue on brown have wings;
I can hear them fly and I can see them sing.

~ Admonit

06 July 2007

Descent into Hell

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I'm writing a little piece about the life, work, themes, and significance of Charles Williams. I have just finished reading (and in some cases re-reading) his seven novels. I'm studying at Middlebury College's BreadLoaf School of English for the summer, finishing my Master's Degree, so my non-class-related reading has been slim. However, this Charles Williams project is due at the end of July, so I'll have to fit him in & you'll probably be reading a bit about him here until then. For now....

Review of Descent into Hell by Charles Williams

William Blake once wrote: "For every thing that lives is Holy" (in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell); and yet, Christ made division between subjects of the kingdom vs. slaves to the darkness when He said: "He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left" (Matthew 25:33). In Descent into Hell, Charles Williams sees beyond that fundamental opposition, which is a byproduct of temporal reality, into the deeper truth where those contradictory ends of a rope join and are one. That juncture might be expressed thus: "'Everything is permissible'—but not everything is beneficial. 'Everything is permissible'—but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others" (1 Cor. 10:23-24). Or it might be put into a narrative in which one character carries another's fear for her, introduces her to life under the Mercy of the Omnipotence, and teaches her how to carry others' burdens. Then when she tries to reach out and save a man who has chosen despair and death, the mentor can say:
'I think he has seen the Gorgon's head that was hidden from Dante in Dis,' he said. 'Well. . . Pray for him.'
...'But, Peter, ought I to do anything?'
'You can't do anything unless he choose,' he answer. 'If he doesn't choose. . . . Pray. Good-bye. Go in peace.' (Descent into Hell p. 214)

But let me go back a bit and recount something of the story of this spiritual thriller first, then explain this quote in context.

As he usually does, Williams creates several threads and traces them throughout this story, weaving the most shockingly incongruent narratives together into something so true it must be beautiful. The first thread is that of "The Play." A great poet (the best since Shakespeare, and maybe as good as The Bard), Peter Stanhope, has just finished his latest play, and his little uppity home community ("Battle Hill") is about to begin its first rehearsals. Stanhope and his profound, visionary, masque-like art stand in colorful, quiet contrast to his neighbors -- efficient sinners -- and their various brands of hubris. Towards the end of the book, this thread draws with it an astonishing aesthetic: art comes from silence. Speech is born out of and in silence. Every word, line, gesture, and action works with and in an undiminished silence. That silence is the stillness of the peace that passes understanding, the peace of death into life.
The second thread is that of a doppleganger. Yup. A ghostly or spiritual double. This is the double of a young lady named Pauline, and it scares the Hell out of her, literally. Or, more accurately, it scares her out of the way to Hell in which all self-directed people walk in their active or passive refusal of Mercy. This copy of herself has haunted her since childhood. It is her secret terror, the unbearable sickening agony that drives her into houses, into company, out of solitude, for fear she will meet it and have to look it in the face. But, Mercifully, her fear is taken from her so that she can face it -- face herself -- look straight into the eyes of her own shining and glorious joy. How? By means of Williams's signature theme: a startling exposition and application of redemption he calls The Doctrine of Substitution or The Way of Exchange. As easily and tranquilly as if her were offering her a ride home, Stanhope offers to take her fear and carry it for her. And does. But read the book to find out how and to read the language in which Williams frames and signifies this profound working-out of Atonement between human beings.

Yet even before her glorious salvation from the terror of her double, Pauline is a thoughtful person. A "real" person, unlike the other chattering superficialities who people the book. One of those chatterers, our third thread, is a pretentious little actress named Adela. Adela is unremarkable. She is a rotten actor, but aspires to the directorship. She is a pretty, plumb, nice little devourer; all her existence is directed inward, to feed her petty desires and pettish pleasures.
But that doesn't seem so bad, does it? She sounds like just an average person. Exactly. So it takes another character, Lawrence Wentworth, to show just how damnable -- literally -- average selfishness can be. Wentworth has a crush on Adela, but she is "going steady" with a brawny and handsome realist named Hugh. Wentworth fantasizes about her, and gradually trains his spirit to feed itself on its fantasies to the exclusion of reality. In a parallel, but antithetical, move to the assimilation of Pauline's doppleganger, Wentworth creates a succubus out of his own imagination and establishes an erotic relationship with that being of nothingness. He retreats more and more into his own lurid, sordid realm of bodily and mental perversion, climbing down down down a rope towards a Hell of his own making. Damnation is in the details neglected or the others selves rejected in favour of a bloated and worshipped self.
Similarly, an unnamed workman, worn out with a life of ill treatment, commits suicide by hanging himself with a rope very like the one down which Wentworth is climbing in his mind. It just so happens that the man hangs himself from Wentworth's house -- before it is built. The dead man, in the past, and Wentworth, in his sullied mind, stand elbow to elbow unaware of each other. What? you say. Yup again. Here is one of Williams' hallmarks: Simultaneity -- the simultaneity of disjunct times in a single location. There is another character from the past occupying the same Hill. He is Pauline's ancestor, and he was burnt to death at the stake by Bloody Mary some 400 years earlier. Pauline hears about his martyrdom, and so the threads are drawn together. Stanhope suggests that she can carry her ancestor's fear for him, notwithstanding the intervening centuries.

And here I am, having fallen into the trap of simply retelling the book rather than reviewing it. Descent into Hell really is CW's best book. Place of the Lion remains my favorite, due to a personal fondness for the eternal frolicking of Platonic archetypes, but Descent is, I believe, the best crafted. In it are all of his pet doctrines, his distinctive themes: Substitution, Simultaneity, Silence, Serenity, timeless Christian truths retold in complete freshness without the diction of dogma, The Unity of Body & Soul in tension with the Dualism of Self (which St. Paul described as Old Man & New Man), and the power of poetry. The pacing of the book is admirable, with cycles of intensity alternating with passages of vague visionary stasis and tranquil revelations unfolding. The characters, at least the main ones (Stanhope, Pauline, Pauline's grandmother Margaret, and -- to a lesser extent -- Wentworth) are better drawn than most. His characters tend to be, not exactly caricatures or 2-dimensional, but a little too drawn to type. The minor ones in this book are, too: Adela, Lily Sammile, Hugh, and Williams does tend to introduce extraneous characters rather without preparation and sometimes with follow-up. If I were to make one complaint, it would be a strange one: The book goes on too long. Not in number of pages, not in interest, but the structure feels a little impaired to me. I felt the same in All Hallow's Eve, as if there were another half of a book tacked on after a natural stopping-point. But I understand what Williams is doing here. One stopping-point would be right after Pauline faces her doppleganger and offers her joy to the martyr in exchange for his fear. That would be like ending a Jane Austen novel at the wedding. But Williams needs to show what happens after the wedding. Does the couple get along? What happens after the honeymoon glow fades? Do they have children? Likewise, we need to know if Pauline's new marriage to the Omnipotence will be faithful and fruitful. We need to watch her little dips and doubts and then her victories. We need to know that an author can create, describe, and follow a truly good characters on past her change of heart.
And, sadly, we need to watch Wentworth's descent. That, after all, is the title of the book. And as much as we -- and Williams -- would like all human beings to be saved, exclusion and choice are worked, for whatever reason, into the fabric of this creation. The Devil is in the details. Each little choice, of whether to go out or stay in, of how to spend your time, of what books to read, is a step Further Up and Further In or another hand-over-hand on the rope into Hell. And that's just the way it is. Why it is that way would be another book. Or would it?