LOST KEY, LOST LETTER:
In his final chapter of Williams and the Arthuriad, Lewis presents his argument that Williams was one of the great writers of his time. Lewis bases this claim on three factors, which he calls Wisdom (by which he means the degree to which a poem makes us think), Deliciousness (by which he means aesthetic pleasure—e.g., delight in its word music), and Strength of Incantation (by which he means world-building; the creation of a compelling secondary world [Torso 190–191]). Judged by these criteria, he believes that Williams’s Arthuriad “abounds and even excels” in the first category, ‘Wisdom’ (193); that although marred by too much sprung rhythm Williams “produced word music equalled by only two or three in this century and surpassed by none” (194–195); and that he excels at ‘Strength of Incantation,’ so much so that like it or not, his explicitly Christian, Grail-centric Arthurian world is like a taste you can’t get out of your mouth (198)—an unfortunate analogy, I think, but Lewis’s point is that Williams’s conception of the grail is so compelling that even atheists reading these poems would find themselves deeply moved by Williams’s inclusive vision of Christianity therein. Such has not proved to be the case.
We should recognize that Lewis was, with great and characteristic generosity, staking his own reputation—which at that time was enormous from Screwtape and wartime broadcasts (he had even appeared on the cover of Time!)—on trying to make the case that his late friend was not just a good poet but a great one, in fact one of the greatest poets of his time. He reaffirmed this point in his Preface to Essays Presented to Charles Williams, in which he declared that
Taliessin through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars . . . seem to me, both for the soaring and gorgeous novelty of their technique and for their profound wisdom, to be among the two or three most valuable books of verse produced in the century. (EPCW vi-vii; emphasis mine)
History, as it turns out, has not agreed. Oscar Williams’s widely influential anthology A Pocket Book of Modern Verse, “from Walt Whitman to Dylan Thomas” as the tag-line puts it (1st publ. 1954, with many subsequent reprints), used in classrooms everywhere for decades, includes over a hundred poets, but you will not find Williams’s name among them. The same is true of The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse (1973), which was compiled by Philip Larkin, who had known and liked Williams. Larkin took great pains to make his anthology truly representative, seeking out new poems and poets rather than simply updating some earlier anthology—for example, he includes one of C.S. Lewis’s poems (“On a Vulgar Error”), which he found in the Hooper-edited collection. Yet there are no poems by Charles Williams anywhere to be seen. Far from being ranked among the top two or three, outside of Lewis alone he is never ranked in the top ten, or top twenty, or even top hundred. If Tolkien is today on the point of entering the Canon of Literature, then Williams signally failed to do so and is remembered today, seventy years after his death, only as a moderately obscure novelist of low-key supernatural thrillers and as a friend of Lewis and Tolkien.
There is much to admire in Williams’s career—he was a self-made man who worked his way up from proofreader to senior editor at one of the world’s most respected publishing companies. Like Lewis a fast writer, he produced the whole of his acclaimed Introduction to the World’s Classics edition of Milton in a single weekend, with time left over to review a few detective novels as well (Michal 81; see also 76–77). He wrote one good play (Terror of Light) and two or three interesting novels (War in Heaven and The Greater Trumps the best among them). If he failed as a poet—and the evidence is very good that he did so fail [Note 21] —it lies mainly in his wanting both to encode his inner life into his poems and at the same time working to keep others from finding out details about that life by withholding the key to that dark allegory. I would argue that he belongs not on the same shelf as Tolkien and Lewis, authors with whose works he had little in common, [Note 22] but rather alongside Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, and A.E. Waite. It seems unlikely he will ever be remembered as more than a minor figure from the mid-twentieth century, but he will not utterly vanish from view, thanks to his being known as an Inkling, to his being selected as one of the Seven Authors whose papers make up the Wade Center, and to his being singled out as one of the three key authors to which this Mythopoeic Society is devoted. The choices, made decades ago, by Humphrey Carpenter, Clyde Kilby, and Glen GoodKnight have assured that Williams’s name will not wholly be forgotten.
21 When T.S. Eliot calls your work “some of the most obscure poetry that was ever written” (Carpenter 109), it’s a pretty good sign that something’s gone seriously wrong so far as communicating with your audience goes. I am grateful to Dr. Carol Zaleski for sharing with me some pieces in which Eliot discusses Williams’s work, confirming Carpenter’s summation.
22 The best evidence that Lewis and Tolkien ultimately had little influence on Williams, although he enjoyed their company, is that no figure corresponding to Lewis or any other Inkling was added to Williams’s Arthurian mythos between Taliessin through Logres, published just as he was getting to know them, and The Region of the Summer Stars, written during a five-year period when he was meeting with them weekly.
APPENDIX A: HOW TO READ WILLIAMS’S ARTHURIAD
For those who might want to read Williams’s poems but have been put off by their oft-repeated description as ‘obscure’ or ‘difficult’ or ‘impenetrable,’ I would like to offer the following advice.
First, the obscurity and difficulty of Williams’s poems have been much exaggerated, until they have reached legendary proportions. They’re no more difficult than reading Eliot or Pound, and a good deal easier than the later Joyce of Finnegans Wake. If you can read The Cantos or The Waste Land, then you can read this.
Second, I strongly recommend you not follow Lewis’s advice in Williams & the Arthuriad (96), where he advocated interweaving poems from the two main books (Taliessin through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars) into the sequence of events in Arthur’s reign, its internal chronology. The problem with Lewis’s approach is that the two books are quite distinct in style, with the first comprised of a number of short lyric pieces from a lot of different points of view while the second is longer narrative pieces that expand upon major concerns within that tale. Most importantly, the opening poem of the first book, “Prelude” (TtL 1–2) presents a quick overview culminating in the failure of the Arthurian experiment and the withdrawal of mythic Britain (‘Logres’), leaving behind only England. This is bookended by the closing poem of the second volume, “The Prayers of the Pope” (RSS 46–55), which transforms that disaster into a eucatastrophe, with the forces of evil entrapped and forced to withdraw along with the supernatural forces of good. “The Prayers of the Pope,” especially the lines (53–54) concerning the defeat of the Headless Emperor (a sort of King in Yellow/Cthulhu figure) and his octopoidal minions, is by far the best of all Williams’s Arthurian writing, but it depends for its effect upon all that has preceded it.
As for trying to puzzle out all the symbolism and autobiographical allegorical elements, my advice would be to simply sit down and read, putting aside for now any worry about what stands for what in the overall allegory underlying the story.
Any good allegory (e.g., The Faerie Queene, Pilgrim’s Progress) should stand up on its own merits as a story. You can always look up the references afterwards to try to work out the referents, but to do so while reading takes you out of the story and breaks any secondary belief. Think of it as like coming across a word you don’t know while reading a story and, rather than stopping to look it up in a dictionary, making an educated guess from context and continuing to read, coming back at the end to try to work out the referent. Williams made this stage more difficult than it needs to be by not providing a clear gloss to explain who various characters in the poems stand for, but it’s still possible to identify the main characters and grasp the main outlines of his story just by reading the poems.
Then read it again. A second reading will enable you to see some of the patterns and make some of the connections; you’ll then know what happens if not why. If you find you enjoy them, then press on and re-read as you would any other poetry you read for pleasure and not an assignment. If not, rest with a clear conscience that you gave it a fair trial and found it wanting.