Guest Post by Stephen Barber on “Poetry at Present”

A few weeks ago I posted my book summary of Poetry at Present, CW’s first published work of literary criticism. Now here is a guest post by the excellent CW scholar Stephen Barber, on that same book. You can read his excellent article “Charles Williams as Literary Critic” here.

Poetry-at-Present-5441457-5When I started finding out about twentieth century poetry – we called it modern in those distant days – I soon picked up a basic narrative. The century had begun with few poets of real note, possibly only W. B. Yeats though his best work was later. Then along came Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot and they got rid of poetic diction, romantic ideas, and regular metre. Free verse was now the thing, the emphasis should be on the image, and narrative was definitely out. The triumphs of this approach were to be found in Eliot’s The Waste Land and Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley.

There was, of course some truth in this account, which I have simplified to the point of caricature. What I did not realize until later was that it stemmed from one very influential book: F. R. Leavis’ New Bearings in English Poetry, published in 1932. It is hard to convey the dominance this man had over the university teaching of English in the U.K. for many years. Actually, I was never under his spell and reject most of his ideas. But that just shows how dominant they were.

What has this to do with Charles Williams? Well, Leavis’ New Bearings elbowed aside a book which up to then had been doing quite well as a handbook of modern poetry, Williams’ Poetry at Present.

Williams shows us what the world of poetry looked like before the Eliot revolution had really taken hold. One thing we learn from this is the number of good poets whose careers had begun before Eliot or Pound came along. Not just Yeats but also Hardy and de la Mare, whom Leavis does mention, but also A. E., Housman, who was a great name in those days, and Robert Graves. Williams did not consider any Americans – Eliot was naturalized British by then.

His view of these poets was almost the opposite of Leavis. He had, rightly, a good deal of time for Hardy and de la Mare but could make nothing of Eliot, on whom Leavis was quite strong. He also gave a good deal of space to poets who are nearly or wholly forgotten nowadays. It is hard to realize that Robert Bridges, remembered nowadays only for ‘London Snow,’ was then a power in the land, Poet Laureate, and with his poems in the Oxford Standard Authors series in his own lifetime. His Testament of Beauty had a short reign as the leading modern long poem until it was displaced by Eliot’s Four Quartets. I remember seeing discarded copies of it on secondhand book stalls in my student days. Even less remembered is Lascelles Abercrombie, whom Williams once worried he was too influenced by, and from whom he apparently got the idea of writing his Arthurian poems as a series of odes rather than as a single narrative. He also got into the Oxford series.

As for Williams’ criticism, it belongs to the impressionistic school of which C. S. Lewis was also an advocate. This was swept aside in the revolution brought about by Eliot, allied in this with I. A. Richards, which was not only a poetic revolution but a critical one as well. Leavis was a popularizer of this school, which emphasized close analysis and rejected the larger view of people like Williams and Lewis. Nowadays I hope we can see strengths and weaknesses in both approaches and there are of course others as well.

What interests me most about Williams’ criticism are the hints he drops about his own aims in poetry. What about this: ‘If all theological connotation, all dogma, all ordinary piety, could be emptied out of the word religion, then this poetry might be called religious poetry’. Which poetry? Apparently that of de la Mare. But really, more that of Charles Williams – not the poetry he had been writing but that which he would be writing in only a couple of years, the poems of the Taliessin cycle. Or this: ‘But magic and faery, and those old alchemical wisdoms in which [a poet] has found interest, what is their poetic value? It is perhaps the continual suggestion of other possibilities than the normal mind is conscious of’. Which poet’s name did I conceal in this quotation? It is that of W. B. Yeats, and here the remark is true both of him and of Williams’ own poetry, which I see as very much in the line worked out by Yeats.

Of course there are weaknesses, and to my mind these include the curious little poems which he appended to each essay under the equally curious title of ‘End Piece’. Each is a pastiche of the poet discussed, apparently intended as in some sense a criticism. In general they seem to me to fail in each aim, but there is an exception – the brilliant piece on Kipling. Here is the second stanza:

Caesar stood on the ramparts,
hearing how boatmen hear
the calling ghosts at midnight
and rise in haste and fear
those travellers o’er the straits to row;
saying ‘Where the ghosts go Rome may go.’

Williams had picked up from the Byzantine historian Procopius, probably at second hand and paraphrased here by Thelma Shuttleworth, a story that ‘Britain was an island of magic to which came spirits of the dead and other spirits. Fishermen might become aware of shadowy shapes in the boat, and be compelled to row to shore, or hear unseen boats land and then silence.’ And this stuck in his mind, to reappear later in an even more haunting form in ‘The Coming of Palomides’:

Julius Caesar heard of the sea
where trembling fishers are called to row
shadowy-cargoed boats, and know
friction of keels on the soundless coasts.
Julius pierced through the tale of ghosts,
and opened the harbours of the north.

In such ways Poetry at Present shows us Williams’ poetic workshop and is well worth a read.

– Stephen Barber


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How to Handle the Hallows: proposal for Mythmoot III

MythgardBadge_90x90I have just registered for Mythmoot III: Ever On. This is the Mythgard Institute’s annual conference. Please check it out; I would love to see you there! You can read about my experience last year here, on Curator, where I reviewed both of the first two Hobbit films. The themes of the conference this year are:

  • Tolkien in the 21st century– how Tolkien’s works are being engaged with by new generations of fans
  • Out of this World – Traditional and new angles on fantasy and science fiction
  • A Game of Games– analysis of fantasy/sci fi gaming from pen-and-paper to MMORPGs;

Here is my proposal for a paper on The Chapel of the Thorn:

How to Handle the Hallows:
Editing a 100-year-old play for the 21st century


On June 8th, 2012, I held in my hands a 100-year-old manuscript. No one else had touched it since it was deposited in the archives of the Marian E. Wade center at Wheaton College, Illinois, in 1973. It was The Chapel of the Thorn: A Dramatic Poem—a two-act play by Charles Williams, the oddest Inkling. This little drama is among the earliest of Williams’s works, yet deals with the topic that would fill his writings all the way through his writings: How to handle a sacred relic, or, more metaphorically, how to respond to spiritual realities. In this way, The Chapel of the Thorn is “out of this world” (dealing with the supernatural). It is also a locus of traditional, Christian approaches to fantasy, and more specifically to matters on the edge of Arthurian legend: the Crown of Thorns in this play is a kind of metonym for the Holy Grail, which is in its turn a synecdoche for all objects and actions of Christ’s passion, and characters’ responses to these physical items are revelatory of their eternal salvific or damnatory condition. I intend to describe how I came upon this MS, the process of transcribing it, the story of finding and working with a publisher, the content of the play, its contents and quality, and its ongoing relevance for our times—and thus to take a topic that is out of this world and use it to argue for a reading of the Inklings in the 21st century.


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News: Looking for CSL-related books, movies, and plays

sehnsuchtDear Reader:

As Review Editor of Sehnsucht: The C.S. Lewis Journal, it is my privilege and responsibility to track down all the new books, movies, and theatrical productions related to C. S. Lewis: his life and his works. We desire to be comprehensive in our reviews: to comment on every new and relevant publication or adaptation that has even a tangential connection to the wider field of Lewis studies. Please leave a comment below if you know of any works that fit this description, and I will add them to my list.

Also, I am always looking for additional reviewers. If you are interested in reviewing a work, please leave a comment or contact me at iambic [dot] admonit [at] gmail [dot] com. Let me know your areas of expertise and your credentials, and I will match you up with a book, movie, or play. Many thanks.

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Mythgard: the gateway drug

MythgardBadge_90x90 Dear Reader!

Mythmoot, Midmoot, Mythcon, Mythgard… What is all this?

Recently I have been spamming my friends and family with emails trying to convince them to sign up to take classes at Mythgard Institute. Not to neglect you, dear Reader, I invite you to check out Mythgard Institute, too: it is a beautiful online school where I’ll be serving as a preceptor in the fall. For a couple of years now, this guy named Corey Olsen, “The Tolkien Professor,” has been my hero. He’s a super smart and fun teacher who got sick of the broken academic system and stepped outside to make his own new mode of online education that really works. I’m a huge fan, and hoping for big things from Corey and Mythgard in the future. I thought maybe you would enjoy hearing about this school and what I’ll be doing. Please note that these are my own thoughts; although I work for the University and also volunteer in an outreach capacity, this post has NOT been checked or approved by anybody else associated with Mythgard or Signum. These are just my own promotional ideas, so I take full responsibility for any mistakes or misleading statements.


Corey Olsen, the Tolkien Professor

The Mythgard Institute, a program of Signum University, is a super exciting opportunity for you to take courses in Tolkien, mythology, fantasy literature, science fiction, or modern and classical languages with dynamic, passionate, brilliant faculty members. I think you might find a course that you would love! “But I don’t need an M.A. in Literature,” you say, or maybe you already have one. OK, but there are four different levels of involvement, and I think maybe one might suit your ongoing appetite for personal enrichment and broad learning:

1. Free Courses. There are always free courses and discussions offered as podcasts. You can get these on the Mythgard website or on iTunes. You can watch them live as they happen, or download them later to listen to whenever. The current course is on Frank Herbert’s Dune. There are lots of other cool past classes and podcasts, such as the ones on each book of Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, one on Ender’s Game, and an ongoing one called Riddles in the Dark about the Hobbit films and adaptation. Do check some of them out! They’re great for listening to as you commute, go for run, wash dishes, or work in the garden.

2. Course Packs. You can buy course packs for past classes at ridiculously reasonable prices and watch them at any time, doing the reading at your own pace. Look at some of these cool classes! How about a class on Sherlock Holmes, or on Harry Potter? You won’t find those in most stuffy academic departments.

fall 20143. Audit a class. You can enroll in an upcoming Master’s-level course as an auditor, which means you get to watch or listen to the classes live (or download them later), but you don’t have to do the writing. That way you can have the involvement of a full student (participating in the in-class discussions if you want) but not have to take exams. Yay!

But these classes start in just one week, so take a look quick! The Fall 2014 courses are: Lewis & Tolkien (taught by Dr. Corey Olsen), Science Fiction Part I (taught by Dr. Amy Sturgis), and Roots of the Mountain: Fantasy Before Tolkien (taught by Dr. Douglas Anderson).

4. Earn Credit. Finally, you can take courses for credit! You could take just one, or you could decide this is the time to re-invent yourself and get a whole M.A. in literature online! — watch out, because this stuff is addictive. Listen to just one podcast, and you might find yourself sliding down the slippery slope into full-blown graduate level studies! Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

SignumBadge_300x90If you do take a class, please mention that I referred you (I get a discount when I have friends sign up). And spread the word!

MI_SorinaHiggins2So what will I be doing?

I’ll be on the faculty, serving as a preceptor. Each course is taught by a faculty team: one lecturer and several preceptors. The preceptors lead discussion groups and work with the students on their writing. So I will be precepting for the Lewis & Tolkien course. I’d love to see you there!

Do write and ask me any questions you may have. Cheers.


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The Oddest Inkling at Mythcon part 4: Two Panels and Ten Costumes

costume1Sunday was the last week of Mythcon, so this is my last summary post (but not my last summery post, d.v.). Tomorrow I’ll put up something about Mythgard, and then next week we will have a guest post on Poetry at Present, and the following week will be War in Heaven week! Sorry it’s taken me so long to blog Mythcon; I’ve been struggling with my debilitating migraines again this week. But do stick with this post; all the cool stuff about costumes comes at the end. ;)

Sunday morning, instead of going to church (!), I went to one paper: Kris Swank on “Harry Potter as Dystopian Literature”. Kris is a Mythgard student, and this paper was an excellent example of the living, loving, intelligent ways Mythgard people treat texts.

Then in the afternoon, we had the two panels I was involved with.


Faith and Fantasy panel

The first was the Fantasy and Faith conversation that I posted about when it was happening. The members of this panel were Chip Crane, myself, Carl Hostetter, and Lynn Maudlin. We asked: How does fantasy “fit” with faith? Can fantasy writing effectively express or affirm faith? How or when does it fall short of doing so? Tolkien, Lewis, and Williams are known for their Christian faith, and all three took distinctive approaches toward expressing it (or not) in their fiction. Are these writers successful in their approach? You can listen to a recording of the panel here.


Panel on the Inklings and King Arthur

The second was the “Inklings and King Arthur” panel I’ve been talking about for ages. Here is the description:

The 2013 publication of “The Fall of Arthur” complicated the generic complexities of Tolkien’s work: how does Tolkien’s Arthurian poem fit into the palimpsest of Arthurian legends? how does it map onto Middle-earth? How does it interact with Arthurian works by other Inklings? This panel was presented at Mythcon 45. It represents “The Inklings and King Arthur,” an upcoming academic collection edited by Sørina Higgins. The panelists — Yannick Imbert, Christopher Gaertner, Benjamin Shogren, and Brenton Dickieson — discuss Lewis, Tolkien, Williams, Barfield, Arthurian source materials, MacDonald, and Chesterton.

You can listen to a recording of this panel here, but two of the presenters’ voices did not get picked up by my phone, so you might want to fast-forward through those bits.

Both panels  seemed to be well received, with good questions and discussion afterwards.

arthurOK, but now let’s get to the fun stuff! In the evening, we had a banquet, then the Mythopoeic book Awards, the Masquerade Costume Presentation, a Clerihew Contest, the Not-Ready-For-Mythcon Players, and a late-night Bardic Circle. Only a few people showed up in costume; there were 10 in the “Masquerade.” Chris Gaertner won the day with his King Arthur costume: he even made the local paper. I do think Chris and I made a good angry brother-and-sister costume team (I was Morgause), and Doctor Who stopped by for a visit!  costume2

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