Monday, March 7, 2016

Charles Williams: The Lost Letter (part seven: Appendix C)

So, getting near the end now, here's the third of the appendices. Again I've given it a post of its own since I consider it a major point. 

This section might well have been called "Williams and Larkin" and provides a glimpse into the way Wms came across to those who were not won over by this eccentric charisma. After all, not everybody who goes to a literary lecture is pleased to find himself or herself to captive audience of a sermon instead.



C.S. Lewis compared Charles Williams to an angel, [Note 27]  while T.S. Eliot said meeting him was like being in the presence of a living saint. [Note 28]  I think, in view of the evidence that has emerged through letters and memoirs in the years since his death, some of which has been highlighted in this paper, that this characterization is, in the words of Lewis Carroll, “a sentiment open to doubt.”
Clearly Williams had some sort of personal magnetism that tremendously impressed some people: Lewis, Sayers, Auden, Wain. But whatever it was, it does not survive him; no trace of it carries over onto the printed page of his works. Perhaps it lay in the fact that Williams was filled with a sense that his life was significant, that what happened to him was terribly important. Thoreau may have thought most of us lead lives of quiet desperation, but such was not the case with Charles Williams, who sincerely believed he was the greatest poet since Dante, as well as a major Christian thinker who had found a way to set right what he saw as an imbalance in Christian thought and practice (between what he called ‘the Way of Affirmation’ and ‘the Way of Negation’) dating back almost two millennium. Then too there was his habit of referring to himself using the royal We (“The restoration of Milton criticism to its proper balance is but a side-accident of Our existence; not Our chief affair”), usually reserved for kings, archbishops, or God Himself. [Note 29]  And something of that enormous inner confidence seems to have greatly impressed some who met him, especially those who got drawn in and became part of his Company, while others remained unswayed and simply thought him pleasant company for an afternoon in a pub.
Perhaps Humphrey Havard put his finger on it when he described Williams as ‘a charming man’ (Havard interview 24) who listened to you with complete attention: “you were . . . attracted to him because he was so receptive to what you had to say” (ibid. 35). And just as clearly some people were immune to the spell: Havard himself, who called Williams’s poetry “of an obscurity beyond belief” (Havard, “Philia” 216); Tolkien (whose opinion of Williams changed greatly over the years); [Note 30]  and Warnie Lewis, all of whom enjoyed Williams’s company without having a high opinion of his work.
Lewis rhapsodizes about how rapt Oxford’s undergrads were at Williams’s lectures and how they hung on his every word (e.g. Collected Letters II.345–346), where what he sees as receptive fascination might just as easily be stunned incredulity. As it happens, we have a contemporary account from one of those students which gives a more plausible portrait of Williams than that projected by Lewis. Philip Larkin, who would eventually emerge as the great poet of his generation but was then an Oxford undergraduate, knew and liked Williams as a pub pal but had a very low opinion of his work. In Larkin’s words,
we [Larkin and his friend Bruce Montgomery, author of the famous quote ‘there goes C.S. Lewis; it must be Tuesday’] [Note 31]  had lunch in the King’s Arms with Charles Williams, who drank and wheezed and talked and beamed and produced proofs of his new poems and handed them round. I admire Charles Williams a good deal as a literary critic, and as a ‘Pillar of the Swiss’, as Dylan Thomas would spoonerise, but I don’t give a [expletive] for his poetry. This I endeavoured to conceal. (letter of 19 October 1943 to Kingsley Amis; Larkin Letters 79)
We can add to this contemporary account another from many years later, when Larkin came to read Carpenter’s The Inklings:
I have just got round to The Inklings, as it has come out in pback. Funny lot they were — Chas Wms crazy as a coot, bit gamey too. His lectures were always full of the wildest misquotations; the one
‘Tis chastity, my brother, chastity,
That fortress build by Nature herself
Against infection, and the hand of war . . . †
may be apocryphal, but I have personally heard him declaim ‘Oh, blind, blind, blind, amid the blaze of noon’.†† (letter of 13th March 1981; Larkin Letters 643)
†as Thwaite, editor of Larkin’s collected letters, points out, the first line here comes from Milton’s Comus, while the second and third lines are from Shakespeare’s Richard II; Williams has run them all together as if a single quote from a single source.
††again, Thwaite gives the correct reading as ‘Oh dark, dark, dark,’ again from Milton (Samson Agonistes).
From this emerges the idea of Williams as a somewhat comic figure: a funny little man who constantly misquotes poetry; good company over a drink but a terrible poet. This portrait is so different from that promulgated by Lewis et al. that the question arises whether any evidence exists to support it. And, as it turns out, the answer is an unqualified yes. For one thing, we also have to remember that Williams was not just an outsider at Oxford, a lover of poetry rather than an academician or scholar, but spoke in a Cockney accent, very much out of keeping with the usual Oxford manner. Carpenter briefly mentions “his curious accent” (Carpenter 102) and Lang-Sims “his odd accent” (Lang-Sims 31) but neither elaborates. Lewis calls it “rather a cockney voice” (Collected Letters II 501). E.L. Mascall is more specific in ‘Charles Williams as I Remember Him,’ in which he says as Williams read them the opening lines of Paradise Lost came out something like this:
Of that forbidden tree, ’ose moral tiste
Brort death into the world and all our wow . . .
Sing, ’eavenly muse, that on the sicred top (Mascall 2, emphasis mine)
while Wordsworth, as filtered through Wms, came out as
my heart leapt up when I be’eld a rinebow in the sky (ibid 3)

The accusation of constantly misquoting is curious, given that both Lewis and Eliot lay stress upon Williams’s facility with spontaneous and accurate quotation. In Lewis’s words, “Before he came I had passed for our best conduit of quotations: but he easily outstripped me” (EPCW xi), while Eliot even emphasizes the accuracy of such quotes: “he could declaim long quotations from one or another of his favourite poets, for his memory for poetry was prodigious and accurate” (Eliot, Introduction to All Hallows’ Eve xii; emphasis mine). But support for Larkin’s description of this personality quirk exists as well: in one of his last letters to Lang-Sims Williams quotes Shakespeare but again gets it wrong. [Note 32]

27 “not a feminine angel in the debased tradition of some religious art, but a masculine angel, a spirit burning with intelligence and charity” (EPCW ix).
28 “He seemed to me to approximate, more nearly than any man I have known familiarly, to the saint” (Carpenter 107). That statement was written in 1945 as part of a posthumous tribute (ibid 271) but Eliot had expressed the same opinion during Williams’s lifetime: in a 1940 letter to his wife Williams reports that Eliot had written him saying he thought Williams was “in a direct course towards beatification” (letter of 17 December 1940; Michal 101). 
29 Williams to Raymond Hunt, letter of 29 March 1941, cited in Carpenter (181, 274). Lang-Sims says that Williams used the royal We only when speaking as the head of the Order (Lang-Sims 37), but this is not altogether the case, as any reader of To Michal from Serge will discover. 
30 I have written elsewhere of Tolkien’s and Williams’s friendship, in my essay “‘And Something Yet Remains to be Said’: Tolkien and Williams,” first delivered at Mythcon XVI in Wheaton (July 1985), included in the Proceedings of said conference, and later published in Mythlore #45. 
31 Their reason for seeking out Williams was that each had written a first novel† and each hoped that Williams, who worked for a publisher, might read and recommend it (Larkin Letters 86–87). Montgomery’s The Case of the Gilded Fly was published, under the pseudonym of ‘Edmund Crispin,’ the next year (1944), while Larkin’s Jill was published the year after (1945). It is not known if Williams played any role in their publication, but presumably not, since Larkin makes no mention of any such aid. 
†the famous quote appears in the fourth novel in the series, Swan Song (1947), p. 60 
32 Williams writes, in his letter of 31 August 1944,
Shakespeare defined our proper limits when he wrote ‘no more than with a pure blush thou mayst come off withal’ (Lang-Sims 81)
Glen Cavaliero, in his endnotes to Lang-Sims’s little book (Lang-Sims 89), provides the actual quotation:
Williams is presumably (mis) quoting Shakespeare’s Celia. “. . . love no man in good earnest; nor no further in sport neither, than with safety of a pure blush thou mayst in honour come off again.”(As You Like It, act I, sc. 2, lines 27–29)


N.E. Brigand said...

So would Williams be an example of what Harold Bloom terms a "strong poet", who works by "misreading" his predecessors?

John D. Rateliff said...

Dear NEB:

Yes indeed; he took from others and made it his own, which is pretty much the essence of Bloom's distinction.

One thing I found interesting but wound up leaving out of the published piece (because even I can't fit everything in) is CSL's cheerful admission that his memory for exact quotes isn't that accurate -- which is certainly not the impression I got from people's memoirs about his extraordinary memory re. poetry.

The following comes from a 1959 letter to Derek Brewer:

"Haven't you discovered yet that I'm not a Scholar but only a Learned Man.
Lor' bless you, I can't edit any more than I can audit. I'm not accurate" [COLLECTED LETTERS III.1099]

--John R.