Saturday, 20 March 2010

Robert Conquest on Charles Williams

Note on Charles Williams; praise for Robert Conquest

Note. My book Origins of the Underground was partly a search for links between the poetry of the 1940s, which went underground, and the 'underground' poetry of the 1960s. This note describes a link which I missed. This piece also expresses praise for a Movement poet, albeit not his poetry.

Earlier this week in an Oxfam shop I uncovered a lost link between two eras - Charles Williams' "Taliessin through Logres" bears striking resemblances to 'Czargrad' by John Riley. This sort of doesn't count because Williams was a [forgettable] poet and wasn't a proper New Romantic. Even if he seems to have belonged to an organisation suspiciously like the da Vinci Code.

(reply by Harry Gilonis)
I could have given you a free hardback copy this w/e, had I known you wanted one. I suspect I'm the only kid on my block to have the twin vol of that and "Region of the Summer Stars".

There's something persuasive about one or two of the poems - I would recommend, for example, the poem (title escapes me) with the extraordinary display of a Christian/neo-Platonist view of the universe refracted through the contents of a flower-garden, which is held on the page and then critiqued and dissolved by Guinevere's remark "Has my lord dallied with poetry among the roses?" - which prefigures her dalliance with Launcelot, which will lead, in a quasi-Eve-like way, to the loss of this latter Eden...

And there's something gloriously Lovecraftian about the octopoids, and the Headless Emperor in P'o-lu!
You could also link that Catholic critique of capitalism (following Pope Leo XIII's 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum (On Capital and Labour¹) which, employing Thomistic natural law theory, proposed economic models dedicated to the common good, and inspired agrarian and co-operative movements - it leaves its traces on Gill and Jones, as well, perhaps, on Brian Coffey) to the Williams poem on the introduction of coinage to Logres:

They had the coins before the council.
Kay, the king's steward, wise in economies, said:
"Good; these cover the years and the miles
and talk one style's dialects to London and Omsk.
Traffic can hold now and treasure be held,
streams are bridged and mountains of ridged space
tunnelled; gold dances deftly across frontiers.
The poor have choice of purchase, the rich of rents,
and events move now in a smoother control
than the swords of lords or the orisons of nuns.
Money is the medium of exchange." <<

(back to AD's voice) This passage bears an odd resemblance to a passage in John Holloway's The Landfallers (1962), which I do not think is indicative.


When I saw Williams' poem (standing in an Oxfam shop, flicking through it) I had a flash of Riley's poem - it was just the same gestalt. The link is not too hard to work out. I am not sure Riley even read Williams (1886-1945) - he was attuned to the same weirdly static and elaborate Byzantine symbolism. Writing about King Arthur, the basic British myth, is likely to get back to the Empire because Arthur was evidently a subject of the Empire and this is in early sources. Then, he must have been 5th century, and after the 3rd century the Empire actually meant Byzantium. So the 'Byzantium' thing is easy to reach for the staple Arthurian myth area. And then - Riley doesn't mention Arthur.

I win few points for noticing this because Williams was such a bad poet. I don't think anyone registers a vote for Williams any more although Harry Gilonis turned out to have all his books when I emailed him about it.

There is another angle on Williams. If you look up the 1957 volume of Essays in Criticism that has the celebrated attack by Charles Tomlinson on the much-hated New Lines, you will also see an essay by Robert Conquest on Williams, entitled 'Art of the Enemy'. If you take a few minutes off from Proper Research to see what Conquest had to say, you find that he has read Williams’ interminable poems and identified in them strong elements of beating fantasies and a preoccupation with women’s buttocks. 'Pleasure in and justification of corporal punishment are found throughout.' He cites

the hazel of the cattle goad, of the measuring rod of the slaves' discipline.

What RC is getting at is much more complex. He is saying that idealistic systems involve punishment at some point because human subjects do not conform to them, and the more unreal the system the more it has to preserve its patterns by repressing deviance. Williams was plunged in fantasy and mystical speculation and the inherent flimsiness of these dreams was buttressed by the dwelling on beating and discipline. The repression of the physical tier was not thorough, and this theme keeps emerging throughout his Arthurian poems. He has a round bottom as a symbol of balance in the State, because it has two curves; and has hills symbolising that. The hazel wand is at once the rod of correction and the standard of straightness:

Merlin grew rigid; down the implacable hazel
(a scar on a slave, a verse in Virgil, the reach
of an arm to a sickle, love’s means to love)

where the disciplining of a slave is again the function of a rod but this rod is also the canon (canon, literally a reed), the model of a correct verse line as in Vergil. The word hazel recurs many times in Taliessin through Logres. Conquest is saying that a political system which is not an organic development from inside a society will need intense punishment systems to keep itself upright: the Gulag Archipelago, in fact. ('Merlin grew rigid' presumably just means Merlin grew stiff; which may also define what love’s means to love is, another ‘rod’.) Williams was a fantasist but he is akin to mystical idealists in politics. The more perfect the society Lenin imagined, the more people had to die or be put in camps because they did not conform to the ideal. I think Conquest is perfectly right about this, and one of the signs of an organic political order is that it has a low crime rate, especially for political and ideological crimes. This argument is part of the network of ideas behind the favouring of empiricism, which is a word with an extremely complex set of notions behind it. Conquest is using Williams as a proxy for communist literature, and this also directs the attack at English writers, suggesting that a democratic attitude has to be worked for.
Conquest perceives a kind of poetry which jumps off from exalted speculation and writes something which is not experience. It encounters thousands of practical problems (because it is not based on tentative, learning, advances helped by Tradition) and takes authoritarian and damaging steps to fix these problems. In outcome it may fail as poetry but this can be covered up by clique fashions, by imperious Theory which instructs people that the poetry works although it does not. This poetry has an inorganic feel, it has patterning but lacks credibility. So far Conquest. I find his arguments convincing, but I also think great poetry can come out of speculation and writers with a detailed formal imagination can produce poems directly out of that creative thn air. Abstract and arid poetry exists but each poet has the right to have their poetry tested by the cognoscenti and enthusiasts of the day. Conquest was probably more involved with Soviet poetry than with English poetry, and the inorganic and fake quality was after all not rare in the kind of poetry the Soviet institutions were circulating in the 1950s. As a view of things in 1957, Conquest’s essay has a lot going for it. He was trying to answer the question “why didn’t absolute power in the Soviet realm produce the perfect State” which is better than not even asking the question. In 1957, people like EP Thompson and John Berger hadn't realised that Sovietland wasn’t the perfect State.
Any ideal pattern has the problem of what to do when other people don’t agree with it and cross its lines. But the problem of how to deal with people who don’t share/relate to the symbolism and currents of your poem is very different from being a dictator thinking what to do with citizens who don’t play the roles you have so attentively devised for them.

Williams was not really a 40s poet although his two main volumes were published in 1938 (Taliesin through Logres) and 1944 (The Region of the Summer Stars) and he was certainly writing about myth.

There is another issue, whether Williams was an orthodox Christian or an occultist believing in definably heterodox ideas. I found on-line a review by Rowan Williams in the TLS of a book about C. Williams. He was a friend of AE Waite and so was interested in the Rosicrucians (in this version) and the Tarot, NOT the Golden Dawn. So the body symbolism in Williams' poetry derives from mystic interpretation of the body as developed in the Kabalah and picked up by Waite. It is not clear to me whether he was an occultist who sounded Christian on occasion. He founded a mystic group called ‘The Companions of the Co-Inherence‘. Sounds a bit da Vinci Code. It would be interesting to know if their rites involved discipline.
‘Lloegr’ is Welsh for ‘England’ and this appears in French Arthurian romances as ’Logres’ (with a king, Locrine). Taliesin was a late 5th C/early 6th C Welsh poet whose poems we still have, in the Book of Taliesin. One line from the later accreted poems in it is ‘bro ser haf’, the region of the summer stars, the name of Williams’ other book of Arthurian poetry. It’s a beautiful line. Don’t ask exactly what it means.

The idea that Williams was writing a critique of the capitalist system, for example in the bizarre metaphor of gold coins as ’dragons’ (because they had a dragon symbol of the king on them? as Uther was ’pendragon’ with a title of authority) is tantalising. However, I think the answer is probably ‘yes’ but his views are not interesting because they are valid inside a fantasy (and not outside). In around 1940, there were many flavours of Christian anti-capitalism. I just don’t think Williams is the most nourishing one.
It is hard to get across just how bizarre Williams’ poems are. But think, he was living in Oxford from 1939, when the Oxford University Press moved its base from London to there. In Oxford were Tolkien and CS Lewis - other Christians interested in myth and the Middle Ages. If we connect Williams with the mythic fantasies of Tolkien and Lewis we will be close to the core of his work without even reading it. The plan was escapism and the writing is a kind of vacant fantasizing which forms curious patterns but essentially fails to resemble reality. This is why the inclusion of material about economics, distribution, good government, etc. has so little credibility. It is very remote from the real Middle Ages and even the real Middle Ages has very little relevance to the problems of the 1940s. The programme of purposive fantasy spinning as a form of contemplation has to be taken for what it is and not as a form of political thinking. The themes of morality and beauty are to the fore in Taliessin through Logres etc. and the idea is that thinking about beautiful things is close to experiencing beauty.

The empire’s sun shone on each round mound
doubled fortalices defending dales of fertility.
The bright blades shone in the shape of the province
The stripped maid laughed for joy of the province
founded in the base of space,
in the rounded bottom of the Emperor’s glory.

This physiological vision is present too in the Villain:

Phosphorescent on the stagnant level,
a headless figure walks in a crimson cope

His guard heaves around him; heaven sweeping tentacles
stretch, dragging octopus bodies over the level;

Inarticulate always on an inarticulate sea
beyond P’o L’u the headless Emperor moves,
the octopuses around him; lost are the Roman hands;
that are the substantial instruments of being.

The tentacled Evil Emperor seems to rhyme with the Yog Sothoth myth of the horror writer HP Lovecraft and in fact this part of the story is lovecraftian. HPL’s mythology was based on Arthur Machen who was in the Golden Dawn along with Williams (to be exact Williams was a member of the FRC, ‘Fellowship of the Rosy Cross’, a successor organisation led by AE Waite, from 1917 until at least 1928, according to the website of the Charles Williams Society). I am uncertain whether he knew Machen. Occultists not uncommonly debouched into horror fiction, and we can compare Williams also to MP Shiel. The same website says that Williams ‘spoke of himself as having belonged to the Golden Dawn’ and had a sword, one of their liturgical objects; so perhaps he belonged to the GD and followed Waite into the FRC. ...

swung be the measuring hazel wand
over thighs and shoulders bare,
and grace-pricked to gules the field
by the intinctured heart’s steel;
but best they fathom the blossom
who fly the porphyry stair.

The core image seems to be the hazel wand as a source of accurate measure but also via its role in punishment as the teacher of measured behaviour to people; so that ‘pricked to gules’ means ‘whipped to blood’. ‘heart’s steel’ seems to point to the heart (as pumping the blood) which is hardened by the castigation. (Steel also means measure, as in Steelyard.) The word hazel, already seen in the quote about chastising a slave, is obsessively repeated. It is hard to think Conquest was wrong about this.


  1. These are some of the most ignorant comments about Charles Williams' Arthurian poetry I've ever read. Clearly not understanding Williams' overlaying the Arthurian with the Christian "myth," those who don't (or don't wish) to understand Williams' mystical Christian faith are reduced to calling him a "bad" and "crap" poet. Not grasping his profound understanding of the Incarnation, Byzantium and such imaginative places are rendered as "literal" and flat rather than imbued with the teeming life that Williams saw. Calling him "obsessed with women's buttocks" because he makes a reference to a stick used to beat slaves (and, likely, women's buttocks now and then as well) is absurd. Why must so many who purport to enjoy poetry impose their own sensibilities on the poet's own sensibility rather than trying to find--albeit perhaps an impossible task for the shallowly educated--new, uncharted depths in their understanding of things by asking instead what an image or analogy or metaphor meant to the poet?

  2. this is a really childish reaction. you are going to hate yourself in the morning.