There is an excellent article in the June 19th, 2020 edition of the Times Literary Supplement on the question of statues, and the topical question of their ethics: when to remove, or put up , statues of individuals once admired, now deemed obnoxious. –
The author points out for example that there was considerable opposition, from Irish MPs about the erection of a statue of Oliver Cromwell, in 1895, outside the Houses of Parliament. The statue had to be surrounded by a steel barrier to prevent attacks from the Fenians. The sculptor was Hamo Thornycroft.
Another Thornycroft sculpture, of which I had never heard , is the Poets’ Fountain. It was erected at the end of Park Lane, and depicted Milton, Shakespeare and Chaucer. Erected in 1875 it was (slightly) damaged by enemy action during the Second World War. This was used as an excuse never to put it back. The anonymous TLS author asks “might a new poets’ memorial, including the original trio but adding more by popular vote be welcome? Then again, poets with unblemished reputations also might be in short supply”.
The questions raise any number of mare’s nests. Rudyard Kipling’s IF was voted not long ago to be the nation’s favourite poem – by a long margin. But just imagine what would happen if you tried to add Kipling to Poet’s Fountain! Given the fate of the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford, his chum Kipling – the author not only of IF but of “The White Man’s Burden” would surely be asking for a red paint job before it was even erected. Auden said that “Time that with this strange excuse, pardoned Kipling and his views”… but that was written a very long time ago, and I am not sure Time is making those kind of excuses just at the moment.
Chaucer? My first six weeks of lockdown were spent reading the entire works of Chaucer and I absolutely loved it. But … The Prioress’s Tale? Oh dear. The virulent antisemitism… I know that when Chaucer wrote the tale, there were no Jews in England – they had all been long ago expelled – but even so, it makes your hair stand on end. And then there is the possibly Rolf Harris side to Chaucer: Cecilia Chaumpaigne, daughter of a London baker, was the young person in a case in which Chaucer was accused of “raptus”. Whether this was mere abduction or actual rape, and whether Chaucer fathered a child with this girl remains unclear, but he paid her £10, the equivalent of his entire annual salary as a Customs Collector. You do not pay that sort of hush money unless you have something to hush up.
However much we love the poetry of Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, T.S.Eliot, Ezra Pound , (well I love Ezra’s poetry even if some of you do not!) it is not difficult to imagine the reactions if you started trying to add them to Poet’s Fountain. Obviously, and hooray, – there would be calls for the big trio (assuming Chaucer survived because of all-round genius despite the objections I have raised)…to be joined by women. C.Rossetti, Stevie Smith., Hilda Dolittle (HD) and Vita Sackville-West, three paces forward ! Not to mention Sylvia Plath, of course… Even the thought of it, however, makes me see trouble of some kind ahead. If you had to choose just ONE female poet, I think I’d plump for Charlotte Mew , but there would be howls that she was not well enough known, that she was too sad, and that her ghastly end (drinking a disinfectant called LYSOL) did not provide a suitable role model for young aspirant female poets of today. That line of thinking will lead you to a “popular” choice.
At one of these literary festivals one is kindly asked to, I met Pam Ayres. Loved her. She is an extremely nice woman, and I love her verses, but if you put her on a plinth with Milton and Shakespeare, you would be making a mockery both of her and of poetry itself.
So – a nice idea, but maybe the Poet’s Fountain should remain dry.
If you haven’t read Charlotte Mew, try her. Well, that’s for another Blog maybe.
It will be interesting to see how long it is before someone reads Charles Darwin’s Descent of Man and decides that his statue should be removed from the Natural History Museum. He was not merely, like so many Victorians, profoundly racist. He it was, especially in that disgusting book , who tried to give racism a “scientific” justification .
Writing as a scientist of international renown, Darwin used his reputation to state that the inferiority of “savages” to “civilised” people was an observable fact. He claimed that the size of people’s skulls and their intellectual faculties were correlative (something which every scientist in the world now knows to be nonsense). He rejoiced that the nineteenth century was one “in which civilised nations are everywhere supplanting barbarous nations”. The subjugation of Africa and parts of Asia was the only hope the inhabitants could have of gaining a modicum of “civilisation”. Northern Europeans were superior to all the other races in the world because of their greater energy . The immense Negro and Portuguese element in Brazil, for example, accounted for the fact that Brazil was economically more backward than, say, France.
Although, in the Origin of Species, Darwin was obliged, for his theory to work, to believe that “the American aborigines, Negroes and Europeans” all derived from a common ancestor, this by no means meant they had all evolved subsequently at the same pace.
The sixty year old Darwin looked back to his younger self, who had visited Tierra del Fuego on HMS Beagle. He repeated the claim he had made earlier that the inhabitants were cannibals, which is completely untrue, In his laughably ignorant and wrong-headed reflections on the “evolution” of human language, he says that, whereas the civilised languages have huge vocabularies and complicated grammars, the inhabitants of Tiera del Fuego spoke a language “which scarcely deserves to be called articulate”. What he meant was, he did not bother to learn the Yaghan language which actually has a vocabulary of over 30,000 words. The Descent of Man gives the impression that “savages” of this planet do not really have languages at all, in the civilised sense of the term.
It was the Descent of Man which inspired Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, to evolve his idea of “eugenics”. In his conclusion to The Descent of Man, Darwin said that if the prudent avoid marriage, while the reckless, marry, it was inevitable that “inferior” members will supplant superior members of society. In the hands of Galton and his followers, this led to a fear of “race suicide”. Sidney Webb, for example, founder of the New Statesman, the London School of Economics, and a pioneer of the Independent Labour Party, feared that Britain was “gradually falling to the Irish and the Jews”, which was why, in his newly-founded LSE he established a Professorship of Eugenics.
All these Darwinian views were, of course, adopted wholesale in other parts of Europe. Less than thirty years after Sidney Webb founded the Chair of Eugenics in London, Germany was enacting the Reich Censorship Law, the Blood Protection Law, the Marital Health Law and the Nuremberg Laws for racial segregation, all based on the bogus Victorian science which started life in the gentle setting of Darwin’s study at Down House – now property of the National Trust. Surely they should think seriously about dismantling this seedbed of bogus racist theory?
I was vilified in some quarters, three years ago, when I published Charles Darwin, Victorian Mythmaker, but I do not retract my view that although he was a brilliant naturalist, Darwin’s scientific theories are flawed, many of them are plain wrong, and his socio-political views, dressed up as pseudo-science, have done untold damage to the world.
One of the reasons that Germany’s greatest literary genius, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, is all but unread in the English-speaking world, is the very great difficulty of translating his poetry.
The best of it, arguably, is the lyric verse. Undoubtedly the most interesting is contained in Faust, which displays a vast range of tone, a superfluity of styles and modes – now caustic, now lyrical, now sublimely spiritual, now melodramatic. It is symptomatic of the general English ignorance of Faust that most people, if they allude to it, assume that Goethe repeated the traditional story from Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, of Faust’s “bargain” or “pact”, with the Devil. In fact, it was only after completing a version of Part One of Faust that Goethe got round to reading Marlowe. He totally subverted the original Faust legend, which he had first picked up as a child from watching versions in puppet theatres. His Faust feels in no danger of going to Hell, since he does not believe it exists. In the second part of the drama, Faust makes an imaginative journey back into the ancient world,. He embraces Classicism, and the grinning, nihilistic Mephistopheles is out of his depth when meeting his rivals, the Sirens, the witch Erictho, the Centaur-Mage-Medic Chiron, etc etc
How could we poor English be expected to make sense of it all? One of the moments in our history when we were most likely to do so was in 1949, the bicentenary of Goethe’s birth, when the radio broadcast six totally inspirational episodes of Faust. The translation was by a BBC employee, the poet Louis MacNeice.
A young classics don, Louis MacNeice had joined the BBC as war work in 1941 and he continued to work there until his early death in 1963. His Faust is easily the best translation I have ever found, and although it is not complete (he cut the longer disquisitions on science, for example) it is one which will set you on the path to reading the thing in full and eventually tackling it in German.
Compare and contrast MacNeice’s version of a famous speech – where Faust speaks of being “two souls” at war with one another, with that of Coleridge. (Faust is addressing his student-sidekick Wagner – nothing to do with the famous composer).
You are only conscious of one impulse. Never
Seek an acquaintance with the other.
Two souls, alas, cohabit in my breast,
A contract one of them desires to sever.
The one like a rough lover clings
To the world with the tentacles of its senses;
The other lifts to the Elysian Fields
Out of the mist on powerful wings.
Now Samuel Taylor Coleridge: –
In my bosom
Two spirits are contending, each attempting
To separate from the other. One with strong
But sensual ties is fettering me to earth;
The other powerfully soars, and spreads
Its wings to loftier emprize…
The original German does not have the “Elysian Fields”, but MacNeice perhaps inferred them from the words “Zu den Gefilden hoher Ahnen”, to the fields of higher thought. In German, the Elysian Fields are known as “die Gefilde der Seligen”.
Coleridge only translated a very truncated version of Faust Part One. MacNeice boldly translated the whole work, pruning, as I say, the repetitions and some of the wafflier bit of geological speculation etc .
His finest passages – and they are also among the finest passages in the German – are found in his translations of Part Two, Act II, when Faust was transported by magic to the Pharsalian fields, where Caesar and Pompey had fought their great battle against one another –
But here at Pharsalus was fought a master model
To prove how might opposes greater might and tears
To shreds the lovely thousand-petalled wreath of freedom
While the stiff laurel twists around the royal head.
It is here that Faust really takes leave of the old Nordic, Gothic Christian fantasy of a Devil and embraces, as Goethe did, the Classical. “(The Classical is what I call healthy, the Romantic is sick” as Goethe said in old age to Eckermann on 2 April, 1829).
MacNiece was of course a classicist –
Which things being so, as we said when we studied
The classics, I ought to be glad
That I studied the classics at Marlborough and Merton,#
Not everyone here having had
The privilege of learning a language
That is incontrovertibly dead,
And of carting a toy-box of hall-marked marmoreal phrases
Around in his head.
At Marlborough, incidentally, he had been a contemporary of Anthony Blunt and John Betjeman. Their dormitory chat must have been a cut above the average.
MacNeice was certainly a better classicist than Goethe, , but , with his combination of colloquialisms and the high style, he was able to convey some of the way that in Faust we lurch between the sublime, the satirical, the coarse-grained, the spiritual, the high and the low. While Faust, like Goethe on his Italian Journey, is awestruck,, in a Grand Tourist way to be in the mysterious presence of the ancient world –
Here, through a miracle, here in Greece! I stood
On her soil and felt at once the soil was good
Mephistopheles claims to feel at home among the spirits, monsters, sirens etc of the ancient world; he is actually , Gothic northern grotesque that he is, a bit out of his depth and soon has to revert to rather chippy negativism which does not convince
The Greeks were never up to much! They daze you
With licensed sensuality which betrays you
Into committing sins which look like fun –
Our sins seem gloomy by comparison.
This is the MacNeice who said that
“It’s no go the merry-go- round, it’s no go the ricksaw/All we want is a limousine and a ticket for the peepshow”.
It would be great if the BBC still possessed recordings of the original 1949 radio production of MacNiece’s FAUST. But if not, surely we would all tune in to a revival. Faust must, in its finished form , especially in Part Two be all but impossible to stage. But radio would allow us to fly through the air on horseback with Mephistopheles and to go again with Faust in spirit or dream to the “Classical Walpurgisnight”. Tuned into the radio, we could tap into the experience Faust himself has, as he reconnects with the imaginative, legendary and literary past.
“Shakspeare and the Paradise Lost every day become greater wonders to me” – John Keats wrote to his friend Benjamin Bailey, 14 Aug 1819.
Milton ,the Guardian Spirit of English republicanism, was the brooding archangel who haunted all the English Romantics and whose influence – to use Harold Bloom’s famous phrase – provided the Anxiety out of which their original voice had to be wrestled and discovered.
Keats’s poem “On Seeing a Lock of Milton’s Hair” is of those spontaneous occasional pieces which he produced for his friends, almost as after-dinner recitations. He speaks in a letter to his friend Benjamin Bailey of going to see Leigh Hunt, the origin of Dickens’s Harold Skimpole, “I was at Hunt’s the other day, and he surprised me with a real authenticated Lock of Milton’s Hair.” After he has written the poem out – and it isn’t a very good poem – Keats says,”This I did at Hunt’s , at his request – perhaps I should have done something better alone and at home”. Although not a good poem, it is a good idea for a poem. Keats, a young poet in the year 1818 is suddenly confronted with this relic of another age. As he says in the final line – “Methought I had beheld it from the flood”. He is drawn back into the world of Milton, its long-vanished civil war and religious controversies, and at the same time, he is aware of himself, and his generation, being on the threshold of the modern world, in which most of what Milton believed – except for the unmentionable politics – and took for granted – is to be cast aside forever.
But vain is now the burning and the strife-
Pangs are in vain – until I grow high-rife
With Old Philosophy
And mad with glimpses of futurity.
In a long letter to John Hamilton Reynolds, written four months after he saw the lock of Milton’s hair, Keats wrote
“I must think Wordsworth is deeper than Milton – though I think it has depended more upon the general and gregarious advance of intellect, than individual greatness of Mind – from the Paradise Lost and the other Works of Milton , I hope it is not too presuming to say, that his Philosophy, human and divine, may be tolerably understood by one not much advanced in years, In his time Englishmen were just emancipated from a great superstition – and Men had got hold of certain points and resting places in reasoning which were too newly born to be doubted, and too much opposed by the Mass of Europe not to be thought etherial and authentically divine – who could gainsay his ideas of virtue, vice and Chastity in Comus, just at the time of the dismissal of Cod-pieces and a hundred other disgraces? Who could not rest satisfied with his hintings at good and evil in the Paradise Lost, when just free from the Inquisition and burnings in Smithfield? The Reformation produced such immediate and great benefits, that Protestantism was considered under the immediate eye of heaven, and its own remaining dogmas and superstitions, then,as it were, regenerated, constituted those resting places and seeming sure points of Reasoning – from that I have mentioned, Milton, whatever he may have thought in the sequel, appears to have been content with this by his writings – He did not think into the human heart as Wordsworth has done – Yet Milton, as a Philosopher had sure as great Powers as Wordsworth – What then is to be inferr’d? O Many things..It proves there is really a grand march of intellect”.
It is a very Hegelian letter. Keats is saying that merely by living in the nineteenth century rather than the seventeenth century, Wordsworth has been able to live without the shackles of dogma which still choked Milton’s imagination and understanding. It is remarkable that this letter, written in May,1818, is divided by only fifteen years from a poem that Keats could not possibly have known – Milton by William Blake, which was written in Felpham, a village on the Sussex coast near Bognor during the poet’s not altogether happy sojourn there. (It ended with Blake having an altercation with his patron, William Hayley; and a much more serious quarrel with a soldier, who invaded Blake’s garden, had a row – which resulted in Blake shouting out words which led to his being charged with sedition at Chichester Assizes. Luckily, the old man was acquitted.)
We remember that Leigh Hunt, who produced the lock of Milton’s hair for Keats to admire, was himself sent to prison for seditious libel against the Prince Regent. The liberty of which Milton dreamed had not perhaps come to pass in the England of John Keats and William Blake.
Like Keats in his letters, Blake, though from a very different perspective, takes Milton to task for being hide-bound by old dogmas from which the Reformation, had it been completed, would have set him free. The poem is dense, difficult – in some passages scarcely comprehensible. But the over-all meaning is clear enough. Milton in his reverence for the old God of Sinai had been the slave of the Law, rather than the Prophet of Grace. In this he had failed as a Prophet, and needs, in Blake’s poem, to undergo a sort of purgatory. In one of the most beautiful passages in the poem, Blake sees a lark rise outside his cottage.
Immediately the lark mounted with a loud trill from Felpham’s vale,
And the wild thyme from Wimbledon’s green & empurpled hills;
And Los & Enitharmon rose over the hills of Surrey.
Their clouds roll over London with a south wind: soft Oothoon
Pants in the vales of Lambeth, weeping o’er her human harvest.
Los listens to the cry of the poor man, his cloud
Over London in volume terrific, low bended in anger.
This is the poem which most people now a days only know from its dedicatory lines – “And did those feet in ancient time/Walk upon England’s mountains green.” Blake wanted a revolution based upon a wholesale Hebraism. He imbibed Thomas Paine, but he despised the cheap and easy way in which revolutionaries ignored their debt to the Everlasting Gospel. The incantatory lines need to be read aloud. Don’t worry too much if some of Blake’s invented mythology is confusing,the first time you read it. Get hold of a good annotated edition, such as W. H., Stevenson’s,published by Longman’s. The poem concerns the most fundamental things possible: how to we lose the tyranny of selfhood, without losing individuality? Cults and religions offer a path, but in all cases they are operating power – the dark Satanic Mills. . Satan had made himself into a plausible God and “destroyed the Human Form divine”. Only by seeking God in Humanity, and abandoning “Natural religion” can he understand “eternal Annihilation; that none but the living shall/Dare to enter”. It is complicated, but at the same time as simple as larksong. “The imagination is not a state: it is human existence itself”.
The Letters of John Keats are the extraordinary mirror of a soul, a picture of a great genius responding to impressions, and discovering the nature of his art – discovering, as a mature mind but a touchingly young person what it was that he wanted to do. The Letters are all the more striking, because they belong, so many of them, to the period before Keats came to write the very great works which made his name immortal – the Odes, and the Eve of St Agnes.
It is not possible to say anything new about Keats. We can merely rejoice in his existence.
His poems have been picked to bits by academics, many of whom have had clever-clever insights, but few of whom, I think , have really enlarged our sense of Keats’s achievement. I except from this the very remarkable book by John Jones,, first published in 1969, John Keats’s Dream of Truth. And the works of textual scholarship such as Miriam Allot’s fine edition of his poems in the Longman’s series. I am not an expert on Keats, merely one who finds myself reading his poems and letters repeatedly and always with an enriched enjoyment. And also a sense which grows, as I become older and two of my children are already much older than Keats was when he died, that human lives are not to be measured in time. I am not meaning here to enter the debate of how Keats would have developed as a poet had he lived a full span. That is pointless. But I think you do have a sense in the letters that here was a man of exceptional wisdom and that, tragic – indeed unbearable – as his story is – it is a story of completion rather than of incompletion. His life and achievement were so much fuller than those of us who have lived twice as long as he did.
In his letters, Keats returns repeatedly to the liberating power of the Imagination. He wrote to his friend Benjamin Bailey
“what might be regarded as his creed, one of the greatest of his letters and one which can fairly be used as a key by which to read his poetry.”
Keats is referring to the Eighth Book of Paradise Lost when he says,
“The Imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream – he awoke and found it truth. I am the more zealous in this affair, because I have never yet been able to perceive how any thing can be known for truth by consecutive reasoning – and yet it must be.Can it be that even the greatest Philosopher ever arrived at his goal without putting aside numerous objectionsa. However it may be, O for a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts! It is a ‘Vision in the form of Youth’ a Shadow of reality to come – and this consideration has further convinced me for it has come as auxiliary to another favourite speculation of mine, that we shall enjoy ourselves here after by having what we called happiness on Earth repeated in a finer tone and so repeated”.
I do not think that we need take Keats’s words as mere words. When his brother Tom died, some fifteen months after this letter to was written, Keats wrote to his surviving siblings George and Georgiana – “The last days of poor Tom were of the most distressing nature; but his last moments were not so painful, and his very last was without a pang. I will not enter into any parsonic comments on death – yet the common observations of the commonest people on death are as true as their proverbs. I have scarce a doubt of immortality of some nature or other – neither had Tom”.
Like Blake, though in a very, very different way, Keats does not need the parsonic religion to confirm his sensations, to confirm the felt life which the Letters so sublimely and so spontaneously record.
“ I am certain of nothing but the of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination – What the imagination seizes as beauty must be Truth – whether it existed before or not – for they are all in their sublime, creative of essential Beauty.”
In my next Blog, I should like to speak a little of Keats and Blake, two London poets.
I’ve been reading some of the Oxford World’s Classics paperbacks, and wondering whatever happened to OUP. Dud, boring introductions, inadequate notes, and shoddy book-production seem to be the norm. The experience makes me yearn for the pocket-sized blue volumes, often printed on India paper, which were one of the glories of OUP in happier days. The man largely responsible for the punctilious editing, and the sound choice of editors and introducers, was Charles Williams.
Charles Williams (1886-1945) was a cult figure , and remains so. The word “cult” here is used to signify a figure who can not easily be judged by conventional standards. His seven novels, compulsive reading for their adepts, fail all the normal tests by which one would judge the merits of a work of fiction. They are ill-constructed, often very carelessly-written, and the characters are either so lightly drawn as to be indistinguishable from one another, or etched in crude caricature. Yet there is nothing else quite like them in English literature, and you can see why C.S.Lewis pressed them upon his friends, why J.R.R.Tolkien, no great reader of modern fiction, found them compelling, and why T.S.Eliot – like Williams a London publisher with an adherence to the high party of the Church of England – believed himself to have borrowed from one of them – The Greater Trumps – a key image in The Four Quartets – “At the still point of the turning world”.
By a similar token, Williams’s poetry is avidly read by his admirers, and you can see why. The early stuff, written under the dire influence of Alice Meynell , Francis Thompson and other “Nineties” Catholics, would make a normal reader cringe, and the later stuff, when he had discovered Eliot and modernism is not technically good, it is memorable. It has a certain “something” which no other twentieth century poet quite has. In his autobiography, the current Provost of Eton College – William Waldegrave – expressed his regard for it.
And then there is the Christian apologetics. The Forgiveness of Sins – dedicated to the friends of his last years, that Oxford groups of C.S.Lewis’s cronies known as The Inklings – is hastily written and seldom sticks to a point. He Came Down from Heaven suffers from some of the same faults. The Descent of the Dove, however, (“A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church”) is indeed short – my paperback copy is a mere 214 pages and covers everything from the Day of Pentecost to the twentieth century. It is without any parallel. You could compare it to Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man, but it is much more peculiar, much more wide-ranging, and, to me at least, more memorable. It is a work of – this is the only word which fits – genius. The same word, I should submit, odd, and sometimes inaccurate as it is, belongs to The Figure of Beatrice in Dante. Reading this, you can see why Williams was, as well as being a writer and a publisher, a teacher of great renown. In his London days, he was a spellbinding lecturer on visits to schools, and at evening classes. When the aerial bombardment of London moved Williams – – and the Oxford University Press who employed him – to Oxford – he gave lecturers in the Divinity Schools. Several of my older friends heard them and all recollected the same sensations – at first amusement at Williams’s expense – his grotesque monkey-like face, his strong cockney vowels, his histrionic gestures – and then, after only a few moments, enchantment. No one had spoken in these terms before to this generation of students. Poetry, on this man’s lips, was a living fire. The stuff of English verse – Milton on Chastity – Wordsworth on the Sublime – was a burning reality for Williams.
No surprise, then, that Williams was an electrifying personality who had a “cult” following in an almost literal sense. Though a married man and a devout Christian, he had a series of young women in his life with whom he played slightly off-colour masochistic games, and to whom he gave mystic nicknames culled from the Mabinogion, Arthurian legend or the Bible. Even his long-suffering wife Flo had to be renamed Michal.
So, where does one “place” Williams? How much of his prolific output has survived the test of time? What was the exact truth behind all the stories of his “disciplining” his handmaidens and groupies? In his personal life was he a flawed saint, or simply a creep? No wonder Williams has been the subject of a number of biographical studies. It was certainly time, however, for him to be reassessed by someone with the patience to make access to all the archival material, to read what survives of his prodigious correspondence and to re-read the books with critical acumen and with intelligence. Williams was fortunate that Grevel Lindop , a former Professor of Romantic Literature at Manchester University in Britain, stepped forward with a thorough, profound and sympathetic study. This is a portrait which portrays warts and all, but it is never cruel. One seldom reads the biography of a writer without feeling a certain sympathy for their life-partner, and for Michal Williams, our sympathy is going to be stronger than for most. Yet one also feels in these pages, the extreme pathos of Charles Williams’s life. For those Christians who continue to look to Williams as a Master, this book will be a tragi-comic reminder that grace is purveyed to us in frail earthen vessels.[2 Cor. 4:7]. To those who prefer to view him in a more secular light, they will surely find in Williams a ripe example of that contrast, delineated so well by T.S.Eliot, between the “man who suffers” and “the mind which creates”.
Williams’s father and mother were poor. During the early infancy of Williams and his sister Edith, the father, a clerk with literary aspirations, went blind, and an uncle set them up in a small shop at St Alban’s, a cathedral town twenty miles north of London. They sold artist’s supplies, it being hoped that lady water-colourists, coming to paint the Abbey and the surrounding Hertfordshire countryside, would keep them afloat. This was scarcely the case, and money was always tight. Charles was a clever child, and after local schooling, he and a friend were sent at the very early age of 15, to University College London, in Gower Street. Williams studied literature under some legendarily distinguished scholars – W.P.Ker, of Epic and Romance fame, R.W. Chambers, and, Latin classes were taken by no less a figure than A.E.Housman, which might account for the fact that though Williams’s English is often wonky, his Latin, when he breaks into it, is rather good.
Money ran out, so Charles Williams was obliged to leave University without taking a degree and to take any paid work he could find. He started as a packer in the Methodist New Connection Book Room in London’s Holborn. By a lucky break, a friend who had met him at a debating club found him a post as a proof-reader at the London branch of the Oxford University Press – in Amen Court, near St Paul’s Cathedral. The friend, Fred Page, and he, read aloud to one another the complete works of Thackeray, whose proofs they were seeing through the Press. Williams was to stay at OUP for the rest of his days.
He continued to live at home in St Alban’s and to worship at the Abbey. It was there, helping with the tea for Sunday School that he met Flo Conway, a young trainee schoolteacher, who was to have the great misfortune of becoming his wife. He bombarded her with bad poems, which pursue the themes which would run through all his life’s work. “All soft passion and all sweet content”, he told her, were manifestations of the Holy Ghost. “All lives of lovers are his song of love..The silver and the golden stairs are his, The altar His, yea His the lupunar”. Lindup wonders whether Flo – soon to be Michal – was aware that the lupunar is a brothel . Thinking of this later in Lindup’s narrative, I wondered whether brothels played a part in the story . Lindup makes no such speculation, but he never explains why Michal and Charles Williams, who lived modestly in a small flat all their married lives with only one child, and who had (apparently) no extravagances were – even when Williams had become a highly-esteemed editor at OUP – everlastingly on the breadline. Clearly Williams was spending his money on something other than his home. Perhaps Williams was simply too generous in charitable giving : that is more than possible. But one does wonder about the lupunar – an extraordinary image to use of God ].
As well as books and religion, magic and arcane rituals were always a part of Williams’s strange imaginative life.
To read The Descent of the Dove is to experience something of what it must have been like to hear Williams declaiming to London evening classes, or to the Divinity School of wartime Oxford. There is the shocking and deliberate oddity. Jesus Christ is referred to as Messias, and the pronoun which describes Messias in the first few pages of the book is not “He” but “it”. Only when Messias has “vanished in his flesh; our Lord the Spirit expressed himself towards the flesh and spirit of the Disciples. The Church, itself one of the Secrets, began to be”. The reader who had hoped to have a gentle ride in the train finds herself in one of the helter-skelter at a fairground. She is going to be swooped down, lifted up, turned upside down, and spun in the air before landing.
A recent re-reading of the extraordinary book made me see that it is a poet’s book. Of St Paul, Williams wrote,”to call him a poet would be perhaps improper (besides ignoring the minor but important fact that he wrote in prose). But he used words as poets do; he regenerated them. And by St Paul’s regeneration of words he gave theology first to the Christian Church”.
It will be no surprise to readers of Williams’s biography, that almost as soon as he has begun his story, he alludes to St Cyrpian, Bishop of Carthage in the third century, censuring the custom of early Christian tantric sex – or whatever it was – the custom of men and women sleeping together without full union. It was a custom eventually outlawed by the Synod of Elvira (305) and the Council of Nicaea (325). Williams quotes Tolstoy’s appallingly cynical The Kreutzer Sonata – “but then, excuse me, why do they go to bed together?”, adding, so characteristically,”even Cyprian and Tolstoy did not understand all the methods of the Blessed Spirit in Christendom”.
Presumably, here we find a clue to what Williams got up to, or tried to get up to, with the succession of women with whom he had passionate office romances, or intense schoolgirl “crushes”. Phyllis, the equivalent in his life of Dante’s Beatrice, was dubbed by a furious Michal Williams, “the virgin tart”. There was a little mild sadism – spanking with a ruler, writing poetry on their hands with a pencil – there was kissing, and holding and squeezing, but nothing further. It is typical if, in so behaving, Williams believed himself to be guided by a custom outlawed by the Church of the Mediterranean in the early fourth century. Equally typical, incidentally, is the haste with which he wrote, and failed to revise, his paragraphs about the Council of Nicaea : in one paragraph, we read, “at Nicaea more than three hundred bishops met”. In the next, we meet “the adorned figure of the Emperor, throned among the thirty score of prelates”. True six hundred is “more than three hundred”, but clearly he intended by thirty score to mean three hundred.
Because he saw the Holy Spirit at work throughout history, Williams wrote only positively of the figures who crossed his pages. It was his contention that Our Lord the Spirit never allowed the men and women who formed institutional church to lose the central Thing – their belief that “My Eros is Crucified” and the Belief that “Another is in Me”.
The Roller Coaster swoops the reader from the conversion of Mohammed to Monotheism, to the coronation of Charlemagne in three pages. (“Where the King of the Franks had come in, the Emperor departed”). The medieval Papacy, in its violent persecution of heresy is almost the only human behaviour in the whole book to be censured. And here he chooses to do so not in his own words but in lord Acton’s, “It cannot be held that in Rome sixteen centuries after Christ men did not know murder was wrong”. Proportionately, however, the high Middle Ages in the West receive the most space in his journey – with great emphasis being placed upon the rediscovery of the neo-Platonists . Abelard “like Origen, like Montaigne, is one of those figures whom Christendom has never felt quite certain, and yet from whom Christendom has derived much energy”. The same could be written of Williams himself. Due weight is given to the literature of the Middle Ages – above all to the popularity of the Grail legends (spelt Graal, naturally), to the dream literature, to the mystics and to Dante. “Dante had written for all the world, and all the world has neglected seriously to study him.” One of his novels, describes the strange after-effect, as it were, of two martyrdoms in a town which is obviously St Albans, at the time of the reformation. In one of these , a Protestant goes joyfully to the flames during the reign of Queen Mary and in another, a Jesuit priest is taken to London to be tortured and killed. Both , we are given to understand, are possessed by the Holy Spirit, and the chapter of The descent which deals with the reformation are especially strong in their passionate sympathy both for Calvin and for St Ignatius Loyola. In the chapter on the eighteenth century, we read of Voltaire’s Ecrasez L’Infame – “Christendom will be unwise if ever she forgets that cry, for she will have lost touch with contrition once more”. Similarly, Williams hears the roaring wind of the Spirit in the writings of Kierkegaard. “He has turned Catholics into agnostics for they have not been able to bear that synthesis of reconciliation which which cannot be defined except in his own books. He has turned agnostics into Catholics, for they have felt in him an answer of the same kind as the question, an answer as great as the question. Most Christian answers too agnosticism seem not to begin to understand the agnosticism; they seem to invoke the compassion og God. In Kierkegaard one feels that God does not understand that kind of compassion”.
As this quotation shows, Williams’s exposition of the faith is a good deal more troubled and more troubling than that of his friend C.S.Lewis in Mere Christianity. He ends the book with the persecution of the Church in revolutionary Russia. One longs for him to dictate another chapter, perhaps on an Ouija board during a séance of one of his spookier admirers , describing the strange condition of Christendom in our own day where, in Western Europe, its reversal looks perilously like terminal decline, and where, in the Middle eastern lands which gave it birth, its persecution threatens to end in total extinction.