Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Charles Williams: The Lost Letter (part eight: Appendix D)

So, here's the final bit of my Williams lecture, which I hope folks have enjoyed. It was an interesting, immersive process to write it, and I was unsure what reception it might get at the MythCon. I was much relieved when it went down well.

For this posting on the blog I've resisted the urge to go back and improve the piece, though there are some addendum I might add. 

In any case, here's the final Appendix plus the bibliography.



When Lewis says that he ranks Williams’s Arthuriad (by which he means both Taliessin through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars considered together as one work) among the “two or three” best books of poetry of the century, the phrasing implies, to me at any rate, that Lewis had specific works in mind and, if asked, could readily have named them. As it turns out, we can identify one of the other works Lewis rated as highly as he did Williams’s Arthuriad, because he uses almost exactly the same terminology of praise to describe it: Edith Sitwell’s Sleeping Beauty (1924). Lewis wrote in 1955
I must read the Taliessin cycle again. I hope I shall still put it easily top of the only three modern long poems that I admire. The other two are Edith Sitwell’s Sleeping Beauty and W. Penn Warren’s (an American) Brother to Dragons. The Sitwell is v. fantastic and musical, the Warren grim and realistic. [Note 33] (CSL, letter of 27/9/55; Collected Letters III 650)
That would seem to be that, except that Robert Penn Warren’s book was first published in 1953, and thus Lewis could not have been thinking of it when writing his praise of Williams in 1947. Other possible contenders, predating the Penn Warren, might be Robert Frost, whom we know Lewis greatly admired [Note 34] but whose work can hardly be thought of as a ‘modern long poem,’ or perhaps W.B. Yeats, the poet who influenced him the most (Spirits in Bondage, Lewis’s first book, being quite a good imitation of Yeats, in manner if not in message)—but again, someone not known for working in the long poem form.
Reading the Sitwell, however, raises doubts, because far from a hidden masterpiece it turns out to be word-salad: page after page of doggerel worthy of the great William McGonagall himself (he of ‘the bridge of the silvery Tay’).
Like crystal-clear wysteria
After the storm’s hysteria . . .

The farm-pond, fruitish-soft and ripe
Was smooth as a daguerreotype (36)

Individual lines are likewise remarkable for their inanity:
Wanders a little cold pig-snouted breeze (50)
The crude pink stalactites of rain (91)
stars like empty wooden nuts (93)
If Lewis is putting this forward as the stuff of greatness, and ranking it with Williams’s work, then we are left with two possibilities.
The first is that Lewis was an absolutely hopeless judge of poetry, savoring Sitwell’s gibberish and the “thicket of obscurities” (to again borrow the Zaleskis’s apt phrase; Fellowship 433) that make up the Taliessin poems while querulously denouncing the great poets of his era like Eliot, or Pound, or Dylan Thomas, or Auden. If I may be heretical for a moment, given Lewis’s implacable opposition to Modernism and disdain for most of the great poets of his lifetime, it is perhaps fortunate after all that he never gained the chair of Professor of Poetry. Although it would have raised his prestige within the university and increased his income, it would also have given him a platform from which to denounce modern poetry in favor of writers like Sitwell and Williams, which in turn I believe would have done serious damage to Lewis’s own standing as a critic.
The second possibility is that Lewis is putting us on: that praising Sitwell and Williams is like declaring McGonagall the greatest poet of his time. We know that Lewis savored unreadable authors precisely for their ineptitude (most famously Amanda McKittrick Ros and her Irene Iddesleigh), but I have to say if he anywhere gives any hint that he is ever less than sincere in his admiration for Williams, both as a person and as a writer, I missed it.

33 Robert Penn Warren, whose first name Lewis seems not to have known despite his avowed admiration for his verse, is better known as the author of All the King’s Men (1946) and for his participation in the anti-Civil Rights manifesto I’ll Take My Stand (1930). Brother to Dragons tells the story of a lurid murder of a slave by a cousin of Meriwether Lewis (and nephew of Thomas Jefferson) and its consequences. The work was heavily revised in 1979, but it would have been the original version, published in 1953, which Lewis praises so highly. 
34 Not only do Lewis’s letters make occasional appreciative comments about Frost (e.g., Collected Letters III.462, 469, 1224), but Lewis expressed deep regret when, owing to a slipped disk, he missed a chance to see Frost in person: 
I am most disappointed. He is one of the few living poets for whom I feel something like reverence (855)
Furthermore, as Jason Fisher recently discovered (Lingwe, post of 8 April 2015), when Lewis had the chance to propose two authors for the Nobel Prize, the two he chose were Tolkien and Frost. Given the high regard in which he is known to have held his old friend Tolkien, this confirms his high opinion of Frost as well. 

Carpenter, Humphrey. The Inklings: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Their Friends. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979.
Carroll, Lewis. The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits. 1876. Facsimile edition. New York City: Mayflower Books, 1980.
Cavaliero, Glen. ed. "Charles Williams on Taliessin Through Logres." Gnomon. issue number one (Fall 1965). 37–45.
—. Introduction and Notes. Letters to Lalage: The Letters of Charles Williams to Lois Lang-Sims. Kent and London: Kent State University Press, 1989. 1-14, 87-89.
Crispin, Edmund (Bruce Montgomery). Swan Song. 1947 New York: Felony & Mayhem, 2006. [Gervase Fen series]
Dodds, David Llewellyn, ed. Arthurian Poets: Charles Williams. Woodbridge & Cambridge: The Boydell Press, 1991.
—. “Continuity and Change in the Development of Charles Williams’s Poetic Style.” In The Rhetoric of Vision: Essays on Charles Williams. Ed. Charles A. Huttar and Peter J. Schakel. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 1996. 192-214.
Donne, John. Meditation XVII. Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. 1623. https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Meditation_XVII. 9 July 2015.
Dorsett, Lyle W. "The Biographies of Charles Williams: Some Suggestions". Canadian C. S. Lewis Journal (No. 85, Spring 1994). 25–48.
Eliot, T.S. Introduction. 1948. In All Hallows’ Eve. By Charles Williams. 1945. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981. xi–xviii.
Fisher, Jason. “More on Tolkien and the Nobel Prize.” 8 Apr. 2015.
22 Aug. 2015.
Gilbert, R.A. The Golden Dawn: Twilight of the Magicians. Wellingborough, Northamptonshire: The Aquarian Press, 1983.
—. A.E. Waite: Magician of Many Parts. Wellingborough, Northamptonshire: Crucible, 1987.
Glyer, Diana Pavlac. The Company They Keep: C. S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community. Kent, Ohio: Kent State UP, 2007.
Hadfield, Alice Mary. Charles Williams: An Exploration of His Life and Work. New York & Oxford: Oxford UP, 1983.
Havard, Robert E. (‘Humphrey’). Oral history interview with Dr. Lyle W. Dorsett, July 26th 1984. Totland Bay, Isle of Wight.

—. “Philia: Jack at Ease.” In C. S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table and Other Reminiscences. Ed. James T. Como. New York: Macmillan, 1979. 215-228.
Hunt, Raymond. Letter to Margaret Douglas, 2nd March 1942. Wade Center Charles Williams collection, folder CW 299.
Lang-Sims, Lois. Letters to Lalage: The Letters of Charles Williams to Lois Lang-Sims. Kent and London: Kent State UP, 1989.
Larkin, Phillip, ed. The Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973.
—. Selected Letters of Philip Larkin, 1940–1985. Ed. Anthony Thwaite. London: Faber & Faber, 1992.
Lewis. C. S. The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis. Ed. Walter Hooper. Volume II: Books, Broadcasts, and the War: 1931–1949. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004.
—. The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis. Ed. Walter Hooper. Volume III: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy: 1950–1963. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2007.
—. Preface. Essays Presented to Charles Williams. Ed. C. S. Lewis. London: Oxford UP, 1947. v-xiv.
—. Williams and the Arthuriad. In Arthurian Torso. Ed. C. S. Lewis. London: Oxford UP, 1948. 93-200.
Mascall, Eric L. “Charles Williams as I Knew Him.” In Charles Williams: A Celebration. Ed. Brian Horne. Leominster, Herefordshire: Gracewing, 1995. 1-5.
Rateliff, John D. “‘And Something Yet Remains to be Said’: Tolkien and Williams.” Mythlore 12.3 (#45) (1986) 48–54. Previously appeared in Proceedings of Mythcon XVI, Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL, 1985. Ed. Diana Pavlac (The Mythopoeic Society: 1985). 271–86.
Ridler, Anne. Editorial comments on “Notes on the Arthurian Myth.” In The Image of the City and Other Essays. By Charles Williams. Ed. Anne Ridler. London: Oxford UP, 1958. 175-179.
Sitwell, Edith. The Sleeping Beauty. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1924.
The Taliessin Poems of Charles Williams, by Various Hands. Ed. Anne Ridler. Oxford: The Charles Williams Society, 1991. [Annotations and glosses of Williams’s poems; includes excerpts from Answers for C. S. Lewis].
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. Rev. ed. Ed. Humphrey Carpenter, with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.
—. “Our Dear Charles Williams.” In The Inklings: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Their Friends. By Humphrey Carpenter. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979. 123-126.
Warren, Robert Penn. Brother to Dragons: A Tale in Verse and Voices. New York: Random House, 1953.
Williams, Charles. The Advent of Galahad. Ed. David Llewellyn Dodds. In Arthurian Poets: Charles Williams. Woodbridge & Cambridge: The Boydell Press, 1991. 163-251.
—. Answers for C.S. Lewis. Unpublished. Wade Center, Charles Williams manuscript collection, CW MS-2.
—. The Figure of Arthur. In Arthurian Torso. Ed. C.S. Lewis. London: Oxford UP, 1948. 5-90.
—. Heroes and Kings. Illustrated by Norman Janes. London: The Sylvan Press, 1930. [Privately printed limited edition (300 copies).]
—. “Notes on the Arthurian Myth.” In The Image of the City and Other Essays. By Charles Williams. Ed. Anne Ridler. London: Oxford UP, 1958. 175-179.
—. Poetry at Present. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1930.
—. The Region of the Summer Stars. London: Nicholson & Watson, 1944. [PL: Editions Poetry London series]
—. Taliessin through Logres. London: Oxford UP, 1938.
—. To Michal from Serge: Letters from Charles Williams to His Wife, Florence, 1939–1945Ed. Roma A. King, Jr. Kent & London: Kent State UP, 2002.
Williams, Oscar, ed. A Pocket Book of Modern Verse: English and American Poetry of the Last Hundred Years from Walt Whitman to Dylan Thomas. New York: Washington Square Press, 1954.
Zaleski, Philip and Zaleski, Carol. The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.


N.E. Brigand said...

Isn't Sitwell one of Lewis's targets in "The Pilgrim's Regress"?

John D. Rateliff said...

Good point. I don't remember one way or the other and would have to go back and check on that. Have to say though that the prospect of going back and looking at PILGRIM'S REGRESS again fills me with extreme reluctance, given that I think it's one of his worse books, so I might not get around to it anytime soon.

On the other hand if I remember rightly he does lambast Yeats in DYMER and later made a public apology for that, Yeats having been the major influence on CSL's early poetry (the SPIRITS IN BONDAGE era). So an attack on a poet in his early books might not equate to a lifelong disdain for that poet's work (such as he had for Eliot's poetry).

--John R.

David Doughan said...

John, maybe of interest: there's a letter in this week's (8 April) Times Literary Supplement by Olivia Byard about Anne Ridler and CW. She is not complimentary about Williams.

David Doughan