Sunday, May 31, 2015

Charles Williams' Tirade

So, I've been reading Ch. Wms' wartime letters, written from his Oxford 'exile' to his wife back in London (TO MICHAL FROM SERGE, ed. Roma King [2002]). This is a book I've had for quite a while but not gotten around to reading before; now seemed a good time, as background to my piece on Williams and Lewis for this summer's MythCon.

For the most part, it's quite drab (so far; I'm only about a third of the way through it), and references to the Inklings are disappointingly few to be found -- e.g., at one point he mentions that "on Thursday evenings I come in late from Magdalen" (p. 63) and at another "the only time I was out after 11 was when I went to Magdalen, and Magdalen is off in the vacation unless occasionally" (p. 74).

Which made the following passage, appearing on p. 75, all the more remarkable. Note that 'Sir Humphrey', 'Sir H.', and 'Milford' are all the same person, Wms' boss at the Press; 'Jock' is another Oxford Univ. Press employee. 'Eliot' is T. S. Eliot, who is mentioned relatively frequently in the letters and with whom Wms was occasionally in contact.


Oxford, July 4th 1940
This will be a shorter note because I have been reading a MS for Sir Humphrey. Also because I am in a towering rage. The MS was about Milton and attacked Eliot. Sir H. remarks to Jock that he has given it me, & Jock says: "O he won't like it! Eliot is his great idol" & Sir H.: "Ah, but he is a great Miltonian too -- & which will win?"  Milford told me this and I said in extreme irritation: "I suppose it doesn't occur to either you or Jock that one might decide on purely critical principles, not on anything else?" And anyhow -- Eliot my great idol! I admire him very much; I like him immensely; but my idol!! All these people pretend to be cultured & read criticism, & after three years they . . .  it is unendurable. Yet I have said, exactly & carefully, in place after place, what I thought & what I meant . . .  One might as well talk to -- Germans.*  Well . . .  I am better now. But it is tiresome. If it had not been for our determination over the years, I should say I was misunderstood. But that is hell's own path -- to indulge that kind of nonsense; I will die first. At the same time it would be nice to have a little accuracy even in a publishing house, even among the Whigs of a dying culture. Really, darling, in these things I have tried to be accurate & careful, &
this blather of incompetent imbecility . . .

NO! I really am better-tempered. I have fought without allies in these things all my life, & I shall go on fighting -- "I did say this; I did not say that." One would think it simple, but the Oxford Press are incapable of understanding it. All right, but I shan't compromise or retreat. As you have once or twice hinted with some justice -- when I am arrogant, I am arrogant. Now you disagree with me over Eliot, but you don't say silly things about what I think about him. Idol, indeed! All that Jock knows of either of us would go on a pin's head and leave three-quarters of it empty.

Bless you for listening to that tirade . . .


*and remember, Wms wrote this during a nasty patch in WWII.

--I find this passage fascinating, and rather baffling. What is it that Williams finds so objectionable? Is it the implication that he's a disciple of Eliot's, not his peer? Having his autonomy as a critic called into question? Something else entirely? And what precisely is the "little accuracy" he sets so much store by? For that matter, why the odd phrase "Whigs of a dying culture" to characterize the two men? Anyone with more insight into Williams' mental processes care to explicate?

--John R.

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