27 June 2012

Charles Williams Summary #1: The Silver Stair (1912)

The Silver Stair was Charles Williams's first published book. It was published in London by Herbert & Daniel in 1912. It is a collection of 84 Petrarchan sonnets on the theme Renunciation of Love. He presented it to his girlfriend, Florence Conway, in January between 1909 and 1911. Hadfield, CW's biographer (until a better biographer be found—that is, until Grevel Lindop produces his magnum opus) suspects it was 1910. Florence read the poems and, perspicacious girl, wondered if they meant he was going to join a monastery. Instead, they became engaged and remained engaged for nine (9!) years while Charles wrestled with the competing claims of the Way of Affirmation and the Way of Negation.

That is the overarching theme of this volume: the relative merits and pains of the Via Affirmativa and the Via Negativa. Williams naturally connected the Way of the Rejection of Images with asceticism. It suggests that his bent was towards Rejection until he met Florence, and that she guided him (consciously or not—perhaps just by her presence? or perhaps by conversation?—we will never know in this life) into Affirmation, which is partly if not wholly why he saw in her his Way to God.

This volume is full of the Negative Way. There is some sense that the Affirmative Way is the Garden of Eden, while the Negative Way is the Garden of Gethsemane; the Affirmative Way is Golden, while the Negative Way is Silver (hence the title—a sacrificial, ascetic stairway to Heaven). Here are the clearest lines about the Gold/Silver dichotomy: 
But if thou choose love, wilt thou have this gift
Fashioned in work of silver or of gold?--
Aureate, bought with toil and holy thrift, 
With filling and with emptying horn and cruse?
Argent, with tears, sad hours, and frustrate hold?--
Or wilt thou enter empty-handed? Choose. 
(from Sonnet XLV, "The two Offerings of Love")
The narrator thinks of the end of love before it even begins. He talks about Convents, Brotherhood, a Monastic Chapel, and abstinence. He claims that the cross rebukes us and makes us turn from earthly love, saying that any who have “put off love for Love’s sake” do the “greater thing.” Throughout the series, the narrator is trying to decide “If I should seek her or should stand aloof,” asking whether God desires marriages or celibacy. He asks, “Shall we reject…Fruition?” And seems to answer Yes when he states that if we chose to enjoy “corporal pleasaunce” we are fools! He desires her, but he also desires “Never to seek her eyes with mine, to touch / Never,” and thinks perhaps it is best if “The Lover will choose locusts & wild honey rather than Dead Sea fruit.” In his most extreme moments, he believes that love must be renounced if Christ is to enter. He believes that “love can be consummated and so grow old and die”—or it can be consecrated to perpetual virginity, which is its true telos. And in the end, the consummation of the love appears to be a commitment to perpetual virginity.

In short, The Silver Stair contains a startlingly clear Via Negativa that contrasts with his later wide-spread use of the Via Affirmativa, but also helps explain lots of the imagery and language of Rejection in the later works.

And yet Charles married Florence in 1917. Of course, biographical criticism is suspect, and I am entirely guilty here of trying to read the Life from the Verse. It's really the Verse that matters. 

The Silver Stair is a gorgeously well-structured volume of verse whose strengths of organization and narrative power have been overlooked due to the derivative pastiche of its rhymes and prosody—but even those have been overstated. It is not the work of a child prodigy, but it is surprisingly mature poetry for a 23-to-26-year-old. CW handles the iambic pentameter deftly, if not with absolute consistency. There are very strong enjambments that work well against the near-regularity of the lines. The tone is almost precisely that of Edna St. Vincent Millay, so I'll need to think about whether that's just how youthful love sonnets in the early 20th century always sound, or if they read one another! The rhymes are skillful, if a little too chimey for my 21st-century ear, and occasionally forced. The images are exact and suited to his subject—quite Dantean, too. There are some poignantly memorable lines:

“How shall he know, how shall his heart be sure
That even unto her his love endure?”—Sonnet XXXI


“I love her. O! what other word could keep
In many tongues one clear immutable sound,
Having so many meanings? . . .
These know I, with one more, which is: 'To weep.'”—Sonnet XXXVIII

Or how about these lines, from Sonnet XXXIII, “Of Love's Enemies—The Cross”—oh, I have to share the whole sonnet!!

In sight of stretched hands and tormented brows
How should I dare to venture or to win
Love? how draw word from silence to begin
Tremulous utterance of the bridal vows?
Or, as the letter of the law allows,
If so I dared, how keep them without sin,
While through our goings out and comings in
That Sorrow fronts the doorway of our house?

It is the wont of lovers, who delight
In time of shadows and in secrecy,
To linger under summer trees by night.
But on our lips the words fail, and our eyes
Look not to one another: a man dies
In dusk of noon upon a barren tree.

That is a very good question. And not shabby poetry, either.

More interestingly still, for scholarship, this sonnet sequence contains the seeds of most of his Big Ideas.

First, these 82 sonnets follow the pattern that CW would later postulate in Outlines of Romantic Theology, in which he theorized that the stages of romantic/sexual love follow the stages of Christ's earthly life. The association is explicit in the sonnets' titles, especially a series near the end entitled “The Passion of Love.” There, “passion” makes reference to Christ's Passion—suffering, death, and resurrection—rather than to the common sense of “sexual ecstasy,” although that meaning is not out of view.

Second, they contain the importance of the City that would grow to enormous significance in his later work. Even little St. Albans, it appears, is microcosm for the Kingdom of Heaven—because Florence walks its streets.

Rather astonishingly, these poems also prefigure some of the ideas he later embraced in The Fellowship of the Rosy Cross. CW uses the words “unmagicked,” “alchemy,” and “hierarchic,” and talks about rites, oaths, and a company. He also mentions “The earth, man’s body” in a foreshadowing of his later body geography.

How this is possible remains a mystery to me, because I do not know whether CW could have read any of the works of A.E. Waite yet at this time. This is partly complicated because I have not yet worked out exactly when CW wrote these poems. He met Florence at Christmastime in 1908; he may have handed her these sonnets only weeks later, in January of 1909. If so, very few of Waite's influential works had yet been published. A few had: An Ode to Astronomy and other Poems (1877); Lucifer; a dramatic Romance, and other Poems (1879); Israfel (1886); The Real History of the Rosicrucians (1887); The Hermetic Museum Restored and Enlarged (1893); The Golden Stairs (1893); Strange Houses of Sleep (1906)--all poems and fairy stories, except for The Hermetic Museum. Obviously this is an area in which I need to do more research.

If CW wrote these poems over the course of the next few years, then he may well have read one of the most important of Waite's early works, and one that had a powerful impact on him: The Hidden Church of the Holy Grail (1909). I suspect, however, that what happened with Williams and Waite follow the same pattern that recurred throughout CW's life: Williams picked up on the merest hint that he encountered in literature, in the church fathers, in theology, or in his own imagination, ran with that idea, created an idiosyncratic doctrinal system out of it—and later discovered something very like in someone else's writings. I think this happened with Kierkegaard. Williams recognized Kierkegaard as a kindred thinker, rather than learning new ideas from him. It happened with the Inklings, especially Lewis. And I suspect it happened with A.E. Waite.

Finally, this sonnet sequence also carries strong hints of the way Williams would live his life according to a myth: he and she are special, above the ordinary common people; he wants to keep her away from his mundane work-a-day life, and yet she transforms that life; people play roles in the grand myth. Throughout his career, CW turned to Arthurian legends as sources for fiction and poetry. His three published collections of Arthurian poetry—Heroes and Kings (1930), Taliessin Through Logres (1938), and The Region of the Summer Stars (1944)—reveal a trajectory from lyric to narrative. He died while beginning to revise the poems into one narrative whole. This move towards narrative is also evident in his private correspondence and in his increasing trend to identify his life, the lives of his acquaintances, and the unfolding history of Europe with the storyline of his myth.

Williams peopled his mythopoetic world with characters modeled after an idealized version of himself. His internal life had been largely shaped by reading A. E. Waite’s occult books and by membership in the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross. Secret societies, rife with hermetic knowledge, teach that the universe develops according to a hidden story only its adepts can “read” and “retell.”

Williams eventually became unable to keep his fictional and work-a-day worlds apart. He nicknamed friends, assigning them roles as characters in his mythology. He compelled them to enact creative, religious, and sexual rituals as performative embodiments of his tale. Finding social interaction difficult, Williams interpreted others through his story, making them conform to his meaning.

Williams also mapped his Creation-Fall-Redemption arc onto European geography, using this linear narrative to interpret World War II. He made meaning inside his poetry that then re-made the world—both private and public—in its own image.

All of this incipient narrative mythologization is inherent in The Silver Stair. Even in 1909-1912 CW was already developing a myth of chivalry. In “He appoints Time and Place for Meeting with his Lady,” the rendezvous does not occur anywhere associated with his everyday life. It seems to be in church. He is already making a myth that lifts her (and himself) above “common” life and people into a mythic existence where everything has a lofty significance. No stranger should contemplate their love, for it is the stuff of legends, of myths, of a romantic theology. No wonder he couldn't renounce it in the end.

A pessimistic—or, rather, critical—interpretation of CW at this point is to say that he believed his religious calling was to the Way of Negation: that he felt called to celibacy, singleness, dedication to poetry, not family. But then the vision rose in him of himself as the center of a great Myth: making great verse, shaping his life into narrative, influencing historical events, remaking everything he touched by the power of his poetry.

And what's a Myth without a beautiful Woman? So he subjected them both to a nine-years' torment of unconsummated love, turning the tension into literature. Then they married, and he could mythologize the whole Bride of Christ story, the father-son story, the family story.

But he didn't. Instead, he fell in love again, with somebody else, and spent pretty much the rest of his life centering the Myth on “Celia” and on their unrequited love. He found a way to make Rejection work, even when he was married: Reject the second Image (or suffer her Rejection), the Other Woman, and turn that tension into literature.

That is a very critical picture, indeed. I am afraid it may be true. Yet there is another possibility.

CW may have believed that, given his high-flying temperament, he needed to submit to the small domestic restrictions of family life and to take of the little cross of bearing Romantic Theology through all its stages: the triumphant joys of courtship, the ecstasy of consummation, the Olivet of daily accommodation and marital strife, the Golgoltha of extramarital affection and a painful fidelity, the comfortable revival of later-life affection and commitment. That is probably what he believed he was doing.

From a literary point of view, it hardly matters what his autobiographical motivations were. Who cares why he married Florence? Yet an examination of the psychology is intrinsic to an analysis of the verse, and vice-versa. I suspect the truth is: both.

CW and the FRC

This is the fifth post in a series about Charles Williams and the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross. You can access the others via this index

Charles Williams, devout Anglican, began reading the works of A.E. Waite when he was in his 20s, probably around 1909. I'm trying to find out if there is more precise information than that. It is known that a fairly early work of Waite's, The Hidden Church of the Holy Grail (1909) had a big impact on Williams. Anyway, Williams and Waite began corresponding in 1915 (Williams sent Waite a copy of The Silver Stair [1912], which I can imagine Waite liking very much, and “getting” more than most readers), then Williams visited Waite at his home twice.

Williams was initiated into the Fellowship on 21 September 1917. He took the ceremonial name “Frater Qui Sitit Veniat,” which seems to mean, in context, “Let he who is thirsty come.” [Well, the “Frater” bit just means “Brother”; everyone in the Fellowship was Frater or Sorore].

While the length and extent of Williams's involvement are still under investigation, it is clear that he attended meetings regularly for ten years, memorized the rituals, and climbed rapidly up the grades. He served as Master of the Temple for two six-month periods. He read many of A.E. Waite's books, even after leaving the F.R.C., and continued to cite from Waite in writings all his life.

He also founded (with some reluctance, or show of reluctance) his own fellowship: the Companions of the Co-Inherence, later on, in 1939. It has many surprisingly Rosicrucian elements about, but was not nearly so formalized as Waite's—at least, as far as we know. Willard claims that Williams's Order survives to this day (276).

The influence of the occult generally and the F.R.C. specifically can be seen in all of Williams's writing in one way or another. Some are obvious: The Great Trumps, for instance, is all about the Tarot cards. There is a Black Mass in War in Heaven. There is a rather Waitean, or perhaps anti-Waitean, sorcerer in All Hallow's Eve who engages in all kinds of nasty supernatural practices, including fashioning an eidolon or false body in which he brings back the souls of two dead women. Portals, grades, sacral objects, pentagrams, hidden meanings, powerful words, and ceremonial rituals abound throughout his works.

Even in the highly theological Arthurian poetry, mysteries, magic, secrets, and operative words aboud. Taliessin practices magic in “The Queen’s Servant.” Saying, “Know by Our sight the Rite that invokes Sarras” (l. 40), he makes roses and golden wool appear in the air, then weaves them into a garment for a freed slave. In this poem, the magic spell is a “blessing” (l. 56), an act of holy “Art-magic spiritual” (l. 62).

So, what did Williams really believe about magic? Did he ever actually practice incantations, spells, and so forth, during his years in the F.R.C.? Well, remember that Waite split the Order over the question of magic: Waite desired to pursue the path of mysticism, not magic. Therefore, it is unlikely that anyone in the F.R.C. was performing a black Sabbath or other obviously “magical” rituals. However, there is an historical distinction between goetia or “black” magic and magia or “white” magic (thanks to Stephen Barber for a conversation about this), and many of the rituals and practices of the F.R.C. might look an awful lot like magic to the ordinary Christian. Fortune-telling, for instance, or at least some kind of divination with Tarot cards, continued in Waite's Fellowship.

And Williams? In his forward to Witchcraft, Williams explains that he “saw the magical dimension as not necessarily other than the world we already know” (Hadfield, “Charles Williams and his Arthurian Poetry” 65-66)—which suggests a possible real-life application of magic outside of the poetry. Yet he “came to regard magic as repulsive and corrupting [and consistently used] his extensive knowledge as a source of symbolic imagery for the evil in the mind of man” (Brewer 65). Magic is usually (although not always) a symbol for evil throughout his novels. All of this suggests that Williams did not recommend the actual practice of magic by Christians. Maybe.

Two questions remain. If Williams was never in the Order of the Golden Dawn, why have very good scholars and very close friends of his been confused on this point? Well, because Williams himself SAID he was in the Golden Dawn. Why on earth did he say that, if it wasn't true? There are [at least] three possible reasons:
  • He was faithfully keeping his oath of secrecy to the F.R.C. He never spoke the name of the actual society he joined, thus maintaining fidelity to his vows even after he lft.
  • The Golden Dawn was more prestigious than the F.R.C. and Williams wanted to overemphasize his connection with Yeats, Underhill, and others, to bolster the impression that he was a great magical poet among other great magical poets, sharing their secret knowledge, wielding with them great spiritual power.
  • Williams hated schisms. He wrote the East-West schism of 1054 out of his poetic, mythologized church history in the Arthurian poems. Perhaps he wanted to emphasize continuity with the earlier Order, rather than the schismatic distinctives of the particular, localized Fellowship he actually joined.
All of this leads to the final question: Why did he leave? Willard writes that “No one knows why he stopped attending” (273). Well, no. But one may guess. I have my own theory, as I'm sure others have theirs (which I would love to hear).

My theory is that Williams learned all there was to learn in the F.R.C.—all the hidden knowledge, all the holy secrets, all the facts and fancies and systems of symbolic imagery—and discovered that this gnosticism had no substance. Or, to put it another way, that what lay at the deep root of all these supposed “secrets” was, quite simply, only—only!—public Christian doctrine after all.

Perhaps I'll post more on that another time. For now—your thoughts on CW & the FRC?

26 June 2012

A.E. Waite's Occult Tradition

This is the fourth post in a series about Charles Williams and the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross. You can access the others via this index

Arthur Edward Waite was a poet-scholar who dedicated his life to acquiring the liturgies of many secret societies. He probably joined more secret societies than any other individual person. His goal was to discover and/or reconstruct a “secret tradition” that he believed was a deeper form of Christianity than that practiced in churches or taught in the Bible. It would provide a higher enlightenment, a true knowledge, a kind of Gnostic (but embodied) path to “real” spirituality. This secret tradition, he thought, had been passed down verbally from one keeper of secrets to another, and had become dispersed among various occult/hermetic traditions, texts, and practices.

It appears that Waite thought he could master this “secret tradition” by learning all the words of all the secret societies. I find this fascinating: that secret spiritual knowledge and power should reside in the combination of just the right words. So he kept collecting the “Rites”—that is, the liturgies, the ceremonial words—of all the societies he joined: Masonic, Rosicrucian, Golden Dawn.... His idea was to sift through these, then write his own ritual, which would be The One Rite that would express/contain/embody/reveal that Secret Tradition (I don't know what the right word is--so I'm obviously no occult Master--or else I hide it well).

As he went along, he also climbed up the power structures of the Orders, especially the Golden Dawn. Around the turn of the Twentieth century, the Order of the Golden Dawn went through a power struggle. This partly had to do with personality clashes, with power plays, and with corruption at the highest levels. But there is also some indication that the Golden Dawn was torn over Waite's emphasis on mysticism vs. Aleister Crowley's and Yeats's and others' insistence on practical magic. R. A. Gilbert, Waite's biographer, wrote that “The two offshoots—the one magical and the other mystical—of the old Golden Dawn continued in uneasy harmony for three years.” (Gilbert 120-121). These differences eventually led to a split.

On the 9th of July, 1915, Waite “consecrated the Salvator Mundi Temple of the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross” (Gilbert 123). Waite's Order was supposed to be Christian and mystical, rather than pagan and magical, and it combined elements from Masonic, kabbalistic, alchemical, and Tarotic tradition in its rituals.

It was Waite's Rosicrucian society that Williams joined in 1917.

Tomorrow: tune in for a summary of Williams's involvement in the F.R.C.!

25 June 2012

Glen East Workshop Report #3

Sorry for the hiatus between report #2 and this final report. I had another conference to prepare for and attend.

See Report #1 and Report #2. Here is the continuation...

On Friday afternoon, Erin McGraw, who taught the fiction class, read her short story "The Penance Practicum," about an experienced, self-confident priest who teaches at a seminary and a shy, awkward priest-in-training who is one of his students, and their role reversal when the rubber meets the road.

In the evening after supper, there was a "live reading" of Arlene Hutton's play As It Is in Heaven, about a Shaker community in Kentucky whose world is turned upside down when some newcomers arrive claiming unusual spiritual experiences. At the end everyone sang along for the Shaker song "Simple Gifts."

That was followed by evening worship and then another open mic night with poetry, fiction, memoir, and song. A great variety of wonderful stuff, including two singer-songwriters who performed at the piano their renditions of a couple of old Negro spirituals, which they wrote as assignments for the songwriting class. I neglected to mention a couple of the more memorable ones from the first open mic night on Monday evening: one guy read some poetry and did juggling. We were hoping he'd do them simultaneously (he could have if he'd memorized the poetry), but he didn't. Dale Fincher, an actor, recited a well-known poem (I forget which one now) and an excerpt from C.S. Lewis's Screwtape Letters -- very well performed.

The Silent Auction began Friday afternoon as well, and we were encouraged to peruse the tables of things and experiences being offered, and bid on them through the rest of the week. The funds raised would go to support Image's programs. There were original works of art, books, CDs, a retreat, etc. Lauren Winner auctioned off two pairs of her signature funky retro glasses. Someone whose husband works for NPR offered a personal tour of the NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C. (I won that item and am looking forward to planning a trip to D.C. at some point to claim my prize!)

Saturday afternoon, Frederica Mathewes-Green, a warm and engaging Orthodox speaker, gave a presentation on Icons. It was scintillating. She explained a misunderstanding about praying with icons. You don't stare at the icon, hoping to be transported in some trance-like way into the presence of God through them; rather, you come into the room where the icons are, close your eyes and pray, just as you would pray any time. They are companions, like the photos of ancestors you might have on your wall. She led us through some of the history of icon painting, from the ancient Jewish icons in the synagogue at Dura Europos (Syria), to early Christian art in the Catacombs, mosaic icons, through the Iconoclasm Controversy and right on up to the present. One influence along the way was the Coptic Fayoum mummy portraits, painted on wooden boards. She also noted that the earliest depiction of Christ crucified is graffiti making fun of it, ca. 200 AD. It wasn't until the 6th century that the first Christian art depicting the crucifixion emerged, and images of Christ finally looked like we see him depicted in art today. The most fascinating icon she told us about was the famous Christ of Sinai icon. She covered the left side of his face and then the right, showing us that each side has a completely different expression. One side is more penetrating, offering diagnosis. The other side is listening, patient. It is quite an unsettling experience, looking at it. Frederica told us about someone who, upon looking at this icon, said, "I feel that he's looking into my soul, and I didn't even think I had a soul." She also gave her most tweeted quote of the week at this point: "Everyone wants to be transformed, but nobody wants to change." The three "greatest hits" of iconography are the Christ of Sinai, the Rublev Trinity, and the Theotokos of Vladimir, which has the Virgin Mary and the Christ child cheek-to-cheek. Overall it was a very enlightening talk.

Saturday evening featured a concert by the folk-gospel duet Welcome Wagon, consisting of a pastor and his wife, Vito and Monique Aiuto. They'd been teaching the songwriting class for the week. I skipped the concert because I was too tired, but came back for the final evening worship.

This is as good a time as any to sum up the five evening worship times. Gawain de Leeuw, an Episcopal priest, led us in simple and moving prayers. Various people read Scripture. Singer songwriter Jan Krist played guitar as we sang a different hymn or worship song each evening ("I Love to Tell the Story", "Lord of the Starfields" by Bruce Cockburn, "Be Thou My Vision", "Grace That Is Greater than All Our Sin" sung to a new tune by Brian Moss, and "Now Thank We All Our God"); she also performed one of her own songs each night, including one she'd written during the week to accommodate her lower and reduced voice register due to a sore throat. Kathleen Norris gave brief homilies each evening. I've already mentioned the first in my Report #1. Tuesday she focused on the word Thanks, and gave a meditation on Salt. The poems she read that night were "Matthew 5:13-16" by David Craig, "Planting Onions" by Jane Flanders, and "Primary Wonder" by Denise Levertov. Wednesday, the word she focused on was Trust, and she spoke on Ps 16 which we'd read. The poems she shared were "Green Apples" by Ruth Stone, "Beulah" by Ohio poet Lynn Powell, and "Serenity" by Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral. Friday we had a reading from the Book of Wisdom, and Kathleen gave us some wisdom from women of wisdom, including Evelyn Underhill, whose feast day it was (June 15), and the Desert Mother Amma Matrona who said "We carry ourselves wherever we go; we cannot escape temptation by mere flight." The poems she read that night were "The Very Self" by Rafael Campo, "A Short Testament" by Anne Porter, and her own "Lavonne's Mantlepiece" (sic) from "Three Wisdom Poems". Finally, on Saturday, Kathleen spoke on Love. What God wants of us is love. That's simple, but our life's task is learning to love. She ended with the poems "Echo" by Christina Rossetti, "The Higher Arithmetic" by David Dwyer (Kathleen's late husband), and her own "The Wedding in the Courthouse".

After worship, we were treated to a slide show of candid photos people (including the pro photographer from SPU that Image brought along) had taken throughout the week. There were closing remarks and thank yous. The works of art produced by the students in the Assemblage and Figure Painting classes were on display: pieces of whimsy and profundity, expertise and skill acquisition.

There followed a farewell reception back in the lounge of the dorm. We imbibed good wine, had good conversations, and sang along to Alissa Wilkinson playing classic sing-along songs on the piano such as Billy Joel's "Piano Man" and The Beatles' "Hey Jude". (Those of us singing couldn't remember all the lyrics, so we looked them up online on our handheld devices and sang from those; a first for me.)

The tagline for the Glen Workshop is "A week can change a life." Let it change yours some year. Look for future Glen Workshops (Glen West in Santa Fe, or Glen East in South Hadley, MA) at

EDIT: I forgot to include a link to the last video post card that Image created:
Philip Maurer

The Order of the Golden Dawn

This is the third post in a series about Charles Williams and the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross. You can access the others via this index.

First, what about the Golden Dawn? The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was, or is, a magical secret society that combines elements from many traditions into a syncretistic ritual. It was founded in the 19th century. It claims some relationship with the Rosicrucian, or Rosy Cross, tradition. I am unclear as to what its relationship with Rosicrucianism really is, and would be happy of information on this point. I do not know whether it is a revival, a continuation, or a splinter group of Rosicrucianism, or, on the other hand, whether it incorporated Rosicrucian content into its syncretistic whole.

There are varying stories of its ultimate origins of the Rosicrucian tradition. Here are the two most common. First, the Order traces its beginnings to one Christian Rosenkreuz, who may or may not have been an actual 15th century personage. Several texts attributed to him are extant, which are claimed as the founding documents of the Order. Second, a more general legendary tradition is based on the supposed writings of Hermes Trismegistus, who may have been an Egyptian, Greek, or Roman deity.

In any case, what did members of the Golden Dawn actually do? Of course, this is a difficult question to answer, since its rituals and practices are officially secret. But here is what I have been able to learn. They probably used, studied, practiced, or otherwise engaged in:
astral travel
the Sephirotic Tree
spirit communication

So, they engaged in many practices that have traditionally been shunned by Christians, but which claim a long secret partnership with Christianity.

There were many famous members of one or another branch of the Golden Dawn throughout its later 19th-century and early 20th-century days, including Aleister Crowley, W.B. Yeats, Algeron Blackwood, Arthur Machen, and Evelyn Underhill.

24 June 2012

Sources for CW & the FRC

This is the second post in a series about Charles Williams and the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross. You can access the others via this index

I learned the Williams information from six sources, and have been reading around in all kinds of random sources for the Golden Dawn/Rosicrucian stuff, including dear old wikipedia:

Ashenden, Gavin. Charles Williams: Alchemy and Integration. Kent State University Press, 2007. Print.

Brewer, Elisabeth. “Charles Williams and Arthur Edward Waite.” Seven vol. 4 (1983). 54-67.

Cavaliero, Glen. Charles Williams: Poet of Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983. Print. 


Gilbert, R. A. A. E. Waite: Magician of Many Parts.Bath, UK: Crucible, 1987. Print. 


I strongly recommend all of these works. Each covers different material and they are quite complimentary.

Ashenden's focuses on the long history of hermeticism, especially alchemy as a spiritual practice, then relates this to Williams. It is learned and comprehensive.

Cavaliero's is a more specific study of Williams and takes a positive approach to his Christianity. It is an excellent study of the Arthurian poetry.

Dunning's quite obviously originated as a dissertation, and is sometimes a bit forced in its comparisons of Williams and Kierkegaard. However, it is an intelligent philosophical study of one of the most important themes in Williams's writing: his use of a particular “Crisis of Schism” as a form of literary theory. Dunning's argument turns on a Kierkegaardian distinction between religions of Transcendence (in which God is separate from His creation) and Immanence (in which God dwells in people to some extent): Christianity, so Dunning argues that Kierkegaard believed, must be only the former; occult religions are the latter, and to the extent that Williams was an occultist, so far his beliefs were contrary to Christian truth. I have a bit more work to do to wrap my head around all the details of this argument and to fully understand this book—and discover whether or not I think it is a correct reading of Williams. In any case, it has an excellent appendix on Williams and Waite.

Gilbert's book is a disorganized, non-chronological, confusing biography of A.E. Waite (Williams's occult mentor). But it's the only bio of Waite I know about, and has a very useful chapter on Williams and Waite.

King's I haven't yet read all the way through, but it's an excellent poetic study and has a very helpful section on Williams and the Rosy Cross.

Charles Williams & the FRC

Years ago, I wrote a post about Charles Williams and the Order of the Golden Dawn. An anonymous commenter recently reminded me of something that I have learned in the intervening time and have been intending to post about.

In that post, I ignorantly perpetuated an error about Charles Williams that is of long duration and has been widely repeated.

Charles Williams was never a member of the Order of the Golden Dawn. Instead, he was a member of the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross. What follows in this series of posts is a brief history of his involvement, including a bit of back-story that discusses the relationship and differences between those two groups. I've divided it into several posts and will index them here as I post them, in case you want to jump to a certain section.

20 June 2012

4th Review of CADUCEUS

M.E. Hitchcock has graciously reviewed Caduceus on amazon. Here is the complete review:

A book worth reading more than once

This beautiful little book is completely full of love. There is a love of words and of learning, a love of place and family, a love of myth and legend, of love itself, of symbolism, and most importantly (to me) a love of presence and (most importantly to the author) a love of God.

There is a lot to see here in this deceptively thin volume. I read through it one sunny Sunday and was moved by so many images. I let it sit for a few weeks and two images haunted me still: a sexy drop of oil poised to drip and end bliss, and climbers dwarfed by then killed by the earth and the ice and the winds and the Voice of God which has made them.

But haunt isn't the right word either. These images persisted and lived in me. They became part of me somehow. I have remembered them not as something I read, but as something that happened to me. There is no higher praise I can give a poem.

The prologue promises and the book delivers on a wide variety of voice, subject, and complexity. there ought to be at least one poem in here that just instantly makes sense for each reader. And each poem is of a very high level of craft, so whatever specific one grabs you, you can be sure that the others are just as good, if you've a will to understand them.

The epilogue is a beautiful little offering of humility to both Higgins' God and her art. This is a humility that is in each poem and thus this is an author that does not get in her own way at all.

18 June 2012

Wade Report #3: Themes

As you know from my previous report, I spent several days at the Marion Wade Center transcribing an unpublished play by Charles Williams. The play is entitled The Chapel of the Thorn, and Williams completed it on August 24th, 1912. If you have any questions about this play, please comment below or email me: iambic dot admonit at gmail dot com.

So, what's the play about? 

The Chapel of the Thorn is set in Britian in an unspecified period that feels like the liminal historical space after the withdrawal of Rome -- i.e., in the 500s, right around the same time as the setting of Williams' later (highly anachronistic) Arthurian poetry. The main plot takes place just outside of the Chapel where the Crown of Thorns is kept--a very precious Christian relic. Several people are vying for control of this relic: the priest who keeps it, the Abbot, and King Constantine. Some want to keep it where it is, some to build a wall around it, some to move it to a nearby abbey for safe-keeping. 

But there's a catch. The local pagans also venerate this spot -- attending Christian services and participating in all Catholic rites -- because their heroic semi-divine figure, Druhild of the Trees, is buried right under the Chapel. These pagans first express a willingness to fight against Abbot and King to preserve the Chapel in its place; later, however, they withdraw their support. 

Not much happens by way of exterior action, as is common with Williams. The drama is nearly all spiritual, as characters find their true natures revealed through their responses to the Thorn and the dispute. This is consistent with his use of other sacred or powerful objects in his later fiction and poetry: in his published works, the Grail, a magical stone, the Platonic archetypes, a verse play, or a work of art serve as catalysts of spiritual revelation and change. 

There is one dynamic character, however, who serves as a source of real drama in The Chapel of the Thorn. His name is Michael, and he is an acolyte at the Chapel. He finds himself torn between his priestly father, Joachim, and a pagan priest-bard, Amael. Michael hates prayers and Christian rituals. In the end, he leaves the Church and goes off to travel as Amael's harp-bearer, embracing paganism and poetry. 

This leads to a discussion of the themes that pervade this early work.

First, there are some themes that I was not surprised to find in an early Williams work. There are hints of his later doctrines of coinherence and exchange. One character says that the priest, Joachim,grows old "with a greater weight / Than all his days upon him, for he bears / The times of twain his brethren, they who died / In the great plague, last followers of his creed” (15). Their deaths were given in exchange for his life, and he bears the burden of this substitution. Notice that this is a more negative view of exchange than we find in his later works. 

There is a little bit of discussion of concepts of sacred vs. secular: speculations whether there is a division or a unity between these two spheres of life. Similarly, there is the theme of church vs. state (secular vs. sacred power), whether a unity of these powers is necessary or dangerous. 

Most strongly, Williams' later doctrine of Romantic theology pervades these pages. The pagan villagers believe that they have been taught just such a doctrine by Joachim: they believe that every love, every lust, every desire is a way towards God. They have a practice of buying female slaves as concubines, and have somehow come to believe that this practice brings them closer to the divine. They are later chastised by the Abbot, but there is no narrative voice to take sides in this debate, or any other. 

Which leads me to a discussion of the themes that were a surprise to me. They all fall under what I can only call a startlingly strong sympathy for the non-Christian perspective. Several characters speak a kind of pluralistic relativism, and various forms of syncretism, relativism, and universalism permeate the text. Indeed, the play ends with a stirring dual anthem: the priests chant Christian texts in Latin while Amael and the villagers sing a rousing ballad to Druhild. A woman gets the last word, praising the Virgin Mary for healing her son. But the overwhelming sense of the ending is indeterminate. Pagan and Christian sing to their gods. The Christian song is indecipherable and unoriginal; the pagan song is folk poetry rather than high verse. The Christian song is high poetical Latin; the pagan song is a lively rhythmical ballad. Which one wins? 

Nobody wins. Or both win. Which leads me to wonder whether this was a phase in Williams' life when he was raising all kinds of spiritual questions, facing doubts, pondering the truth of Christianity, and considering agnosticism or syncretism/relativism. In his one published work from this same time, The Silver Stair, the narrative persona is struggling to decide between the Via Affirmativa -- the positive way, the Way of the Affirmation of Images -- and the Via Negativa -- the negative way, the Way of the Rejection of Images. In this case, the affirmation or rejection relates to romantic, sexual love. He decides in favor of Affirmation. In 1917, Williams married Florence Conway. He nicknamed her "Michal." They had one son, whom they name Michael. Hm. 

There is no external evidence that Williams went through an experience of conversion, like Lewis, or dedication, like Tolkien. But I wonder if the evidence of this play suggests that he did go through a serious period of doubt that resolved itself more slowly and less dramatically than Lewis's. Internal evidence suggests that he did.

14 June 2012

Sweeney Todd in the Lehigh Valley

Here is a press release from the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival:

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street Opens Friday; features two Broadway stars in its leading roles at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival

Center Valley, PA – The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s 21st season opens Friday with Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and features William Michals and Dee Roscioli, two prominent Broadway actors, as Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett respectively.
William Michals starred in last year's PSF season as Emile DeBecque, fresh off the Tony Award winning landmark Broadway revival of South Pacific. Michals returns this summer to take the title role in Sweeney Todd, the famed barber of Fleet Street. Michals' credits include both the Beast and Gaston in the Broadway’s Beauty and the Beast, and the national tours of Les Miserables (Javert), The Scarlet Pimpernel (Chauvelin), and The Music Man (Harold Hill). 
Dee Roscioli is an Easton-area native known for her long run as Elphaba in the hit musical Wicked on Broadway, as well as the Chicago, San Francisco, and national touring productions. She will play Mrs. Lovett, the meat pie-making accomplice of Sweeney Todd who sparks their diabolical plan. Ms.Roscioli’s national tour credits also include the principal role of Grizabella in Cats.
Based on an adaptation by Christopher Bond, Sweeney Todd tells the story of a barber who has returned to London after 15 years in a penal colony. Working with his landlady, Mrs. Lovett, Sweeney plots his revenge upon the Judge who falsely convicted him and destroyed his family. Sweeney Todd meshes a masterful plot of thrills and unexpected turns together with a beautiful yet haunting score to create a musical experience unlike any other.
Following last season’s stellar production of South Pacific, Dennis Razze returns to direct a spectacular cast: in addition to Michals and Roscioli, Broadway veteran Christopher Coucill returns to PSF as the antagonistic Judge Turpin. Michelle Sexton, who has been featured in opera and theatre companies across the country, plays the mysterious Beggar Woman.
The cast also features Dave Schoonover as the devious Pirelli, Paul Louis Lessard as Jonas Fogg, Evan Harrington as The Beadle, and David Garry as the Bird Seller. Katie Wexler, aDeSales alumna plays Johanna, and James Stapb plays the love-struck Anthony Hope.
            Vincent Trovato returns to PSF as the music director and conductor of Sondheim’s thrilling score. Steve TenEyck has designed the grim, London setting for the show. Eric T. Haugen is the lighting designer. Lisa Zinni, whose New York credits include Hair and Rent has designed the costumes. Martha Ruskai designed wigs and make-up. Erin Hurley choreographed. The sound design has come from Matthew Given, PSF’s resident sound designer and production manager. Robin Grady serves as production stage manager.
            Sweeney Todd opens June 15 on the Main Stage of the Labuda Center for the Performing Arts on the DeSales University campus in Center Valley and continues through July 1.
            The performance times are at 7pm Tuesdays, 8pm Wednesdays through Saturdays, with matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm (excluding Saturday, June 16th). One Sunday evening performance is offered at 7:30pm on June 17.
            Single ticket prices range from $25 to $55. Single tickets, subscriptions and packages that include tickets to Sweeney Todd are available at and by contacting the Box Office at 610.282.WILL [9455].
            The 2012 season also includes three plays by Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing (July 11-August 5), The Tempest (June 20-July 15), and King John (July 25-August 5). Also in the line-up is Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (July 19-August 5), and two children’s plays, Shakespeare for Kids (July 25-August 4) and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (thru August 4).
            The Production Sponsor of Sweeney Todd is Alvin H. Butz, Inc. The Season Sponsor is The Rider-Pool Foundation. The Associate Season Sponsors are Linda Lapos and Paul Wirth, Lutron Electronics Company, Inc., and the Harry C. Trexler Trust. Season Media sponsors are The Morning Call and Service Electric Cable TV & Communications.
            The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival at DeSales University is the Official Shakespeare Festival of the Commonwealth and a professional, not-for-profit, theatre company. An independent 501 c 3 organization, PSF receives support from DeSales University and relies on contributions from individuals, government agencies, corporations and foundations. PSF is a constituent of the Theatre Communications Group (TCG), the national organization for the American theatre, and a member of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, Lehigh Valley Arts Council and the Shakespeare Theatre Association.

WILLIAM MICHALS, Sweeney Todd, appeared in the leading role Emile DeBecque in the recent landmark revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific at Lincoln Center. The Broadway and concert star made his Broadway debut as The Beast in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, and later returned to play Gaston in the same production. His career includes leading roles asJavert in Les Misérables, Billy Flynn in Chicago, Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha, Harold Hill in The Music Man, and the title role in The Phantom of the Opera. A recipient of the prestigious Anselmo Award, he also earned recognition by Chicago’s Jefferson Award for his portrayal of Chauvelin in the national tour of The Scarlet Pimpernel. Audiences across the country have enjoyed him as Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music, and as Billy Flynn in Kander & Ebb’s Chicago.
DEE ROSCIOLI, Mrs. Lovett, recently completed her run as Elphaba in the National Tour of Wicked. Prior to the tour, she appeared in Wicked on Broadway, after closing the record-breaking Chicago production and performing the role in cities across the US. Ms. Roscioli holds the distinction of having played Elphaba in more performances than any other actress. Additional NY credits include The 24-Hour Musicals, Murder Ballad (Workshop, Manhattan Theatre Club), Dedalus Lounge (Interart Theater Annex), Therapy Rocks (NYMF). National tour: Cats (Grizabella). She recently workshopped Bobby Cronin's Welcome to My Life, and Liberty.
CHRISTOPHER COUCILL, Judge Turpin. PSF:  Man of La Mancha, King Lear, 1776, Hamlet. Broadway:  The Graduate, Kiss Me Kate, Annie Get Your Gun. Philadelphia:  Body Awareness (The Wilma), Crazy for You (The Forrest), Annie Get Your Gun (The Prince), Silverhill (InterAct). Regional:  McCarter, Arena Stage, Hartford Stage, Shakespeare & Company, The Huntington, Boston Shakespeare Company, Dallas Theatre Center, and many others. Television:  Deadline, Law & Order, One Life to Live, O Pioneers!, Margaret Mead:  An Observer Observed.
DAVID GARRY, Birdseller. Broadway/Tour: Company, Sweeney Todd. Off-Broadway: Roadshow, Beowulf, Mirete, Miss Liberty. Regional: Merrily We Roll Along,Cincinnati Play House, Camelot and My Fair Lady, John W. Engeman Theatre; South Pacific, The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival; Ragtime, The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts; Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat, Arkansas Repertory Theater; Carnival!, Paper Mill Playhouse
MATTHEW GIVEN, Resident Sound Designer, Production Manager, PSF. Fifth season as production manager and ninth season as resident sound designer at PSF. PSF designs include: A Winter’s Tale, King Lear, Dracula, Romeo and Juliet (’10), and The Mystery of Irma Vep. Other regional: The Orlando Shakespeare Theater, The Centenary Stage Company, and Arcadia University. M.F.A. in sound design from Ohio University.
EVAN HARRINGTON, Beadle Bamford. Broadway: Avenue Q (Brian) and The Phantom of the Opera (Ubaldo Piangi). National tours: The Music Man, Phantom and Camelot. Others: 30 Rock (Roy), Mary Zimmerman's Candide (Grand Inquisitor/Orator), Into the Woods (Baker).
PAUL LOUIS LESSARD, Jonas Fogg. NY: NYMF’s Open The Dark Door as Peter – Outstanding Individual Performance Award. Regional: Mary Sunshine in Chicago (Northern Stage); Chantal in La Cage Aux Folles (The Maltz Jupiter Theatre); Cliff in Sunset Boulevard (Portland Center Stage); the Young Fool in Big River (Music Theatre of Wichita). Many NY Concerts including Lincoln Center and Birdland. University of Michigan. London Dramatic Academy.
PATRICK MULCAHY, PSF Producing Artistic Director. Since assuming leadership in 2003, Mr. Mulcahy has led PSF’s return to artistic excellence and financial stability, rebuilt the professional company of artists, and achieved increasing national recognition for the Festival. Further accomplishments include PSF’s first-ever award from the National Endowment for the Arts, and attracting a company of artists including winners and nominees of the Tony, Obie, Emmy, Outer Critics Circle, Drama Desk, Jefferson, and Barrymore awards to the Festival, growth in all income areas, a 50% increase in annual attendance, and the expansion of the number of Actors’ Equity contracts per season.
As a professional director, actor and fight director, credits include Broadway, Off-Broadway, regional theatre, television, and radio. Mr. Mulcahy has acted with Angela Basset, Peter MacNicol, Hal Holbrook, Joan Cusack, Don Cheadle,Anne Meara, Milo O’Shea, Cynthia Nixon, Tony Shaloub, Bradley Whitford, and others at the New York Shakespeare Festival, Hartford Stage, Roundabout Theatre Company, Great Lakes Theatre Festival, Syracuse Stage, and the Walnut Street Theatre. He served as a fight director for Tom Hulse and Timothy Busfield in A Few Good Men on Broadway and for Off-Broadway productions starring John Savage, John Mahoney, Marcia Gay Harden, and Patrick Dempsey. He directed Oscar nominee Vera Farmiga in The Real Thing, and, for PSF, directed Hamlet (2011), Antony and Cleopatra (2009), The Winter’s Tale (2007), Henry IV, Part I (2005), The Tempest (1999), and acted in and served as fight director for The Taming of the Shrew (1998) and Julius Caesar (1997). As Head of Acting at DeSales, Patrick directed ten productions for Act 1, including I Hate Hamlet, The Grapes of Wrath, The Foreigner, and The Diary of Anne Frank. He holds an M.F.A. from Syracuse University.
DENNIS RAZZE, Director; Associate Artistic Director, PSF. Chairman of the theatre department of DeSales University and a founding member of PSF. Lastsummer, he directed PSF’s production of South Pacific and more recently, Act 1’s sold out hit musical Anything Goes. He has directed many of PSF’s acclaimed productions including A Funny Thing…Forum, 1776, Cyrano de Bergerac, My Fair Lady, Amadeus, Man of La Mancha, The Taming of the Shrew, Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and As You Like It. Razze also composed musical scores for PSF’s Cyrano, The Tempest, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He was awarded Certificates of Merit from the American College Theatre Festival for his direction of Fiddler on the Roof, Oklahoma! and The Music Man and he was the guest director for Lehigh University’s production of The Music Man at Zoellner Arts Center in 2003.
DAVE SCHOONOVER, Pirelli. Tours: Young Frankenstein (Dr. Frankenstein u/s), Cats (Tugger). Regional: Annie (Rooster), Pirates! (Huntington, upcoming at MUNY). BFA UWSP.
MICHELE SEXTON, Beggar Woman, has performed extensively with opera companies, theaters and music festivals throughout the U.S. and Europe. Nationally- Opera: Des Moines Metro Opera, New Jersey Opera Theater, Bohème Opera, Natchez Music Festival, Springfield Regional Opera, Shaker Mountain Festival. Leading soprano in La Traviata, La Bohème, Carmen, Don Giovanni (Anna), Marriage of Figaro (Countess), Falstaff, Romeo et Juliette, Die Fledermaus. Theatre: Fiona-Brigadoon; Laurey-OKLAHOMA!, Hope-Anything Goes, Isabel-Scrooge, Nimue-Camelot. Manhattan School of Music-BM, MM.
JAMES STABP, Anthony Hope. PSF: Sailor (South Pacific), Bernardo/Lucianus (Hamlet) DeSales: – Lancelot (Camelot), Reuben (Joseph...) and Sailor (Anything Goes).
STEVEN TENEYCK, Set Designer. Design work in theatre, dance, opera, performance art and live event has been seen both nationally and internationally. Companies include Tacoma Opera, Syracuse Opera, Florida Grand Opera, Minnesota Opera,Tri-Cities Opera, Syracuse Stage, TACT ­NYC, Big Art Group NYC, Pacific Performance Project, The Kitchen Theatre Company, The Hangar Theatre, Merry-go-Round, Ensemble Theatre, and The Herson Group Ltd. Beyond his freelance work, Steve teaches lighting design at Ithaca College and received his M.F.A. from the University of Washington in Seattle.
VINCENT TROVATO, Musical Director/Conductor. PSF: 1776. He has musically directed many national and area productions. In 2010 he contributed arrangements and orchestrations for the Muhlenberg College premiere of An American Tragedy, a new Charles Strouse musical. He also provided arrangements and accompaniment for Sandy Duncan's one-woman show Free Fall at the Berkshire Theatre Festival. Vincent recently made his debutwith the Pennsylvania Sinfonia Orchestra, offering a program of Broadway and Operetta repertoire.

KATIE WEXLER, Johanna. PSF: Mary (Pride and Prejudice), Martha Jefferson (1776). Act 1 credits include Dot (Sunday in the Park), Reno Sweeney (Anything Goes), and Guinevere (Camelot).
LISA ZINNI, Costume Designer. PSF: Antony and Cleopatra, Amadeus, The Man of La Mancha, My Fair Lady, The Imaginary Invalid, The Mystery of Irma Vep, Charley’s Aunt, and A Midsummer Nights Dream Associate Costume Designer for the Broadway, National Tours and international Companies of both RENT and HAIR. Design credits include productions Off Broadway, NY Musical Theatre Festival, NY Fringe Festival, Kef Theatrical Productions, Ars Nova, The Arden Theatre Company, Orlando Shakespeare Theatre, Syracuse Stage, The Cape Playhouse, Riverside Theatre in Vero Beach, and Bristol Riverside Theatre. MFA Penn State, BA DeSales.