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.
When 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