Charles Williams: The Third Inkling.
THE CHAPEL OF THE THORN: A DRAMATIC POEM. Charles Williams. Edited and Introduced by S0rina Higgins. Berkeley: Apocryphile Press, 2014. 147 p. ISBN 978-1940671536. $16.95
CHARLES WILLIAMS HAD THIS MUCH in common with the poststructuralists whose theories came to dominate literary criticism in the late middle decades of the twentieth century: he did not believe that the biographical details of a poet's life could elucidate the poetry she or he wrote. Criticism must, he argued, "explain poetry by poetry [...] because poetry is a thing sui generis" (Lindop 193). Whatever heights of brilliance Williams achieved in his own literary criticism, in this at least he was almost certainly wrong. This outstanding and meticulously researched biography by Grevel Lindop sheds not only new but astonishing light on Charles Williams as poet, novelist, and literary critic; as occultist and Christian; and as editor and publisher. Most extraordinary, however, are the revelations brought to light--and these for the first time since Williams's untimely death in the spring of 1945--about his life as a husband, a father, and especially a lover.
Under Lindop's skillful pen, Williams's development as a literary figure seems to flow naturally and engagingly from the details of his everyday life. On the very first page, for example, Lindop draws a line between Williams's poor eyesight in early childhood and his later bookishness. Because Williams could never see as well as most, he turned naturally to the kinds of texts and abstractions that he could draw nearer to himself. Consequently, Lindop writes, "The physical world would always be, for him, a little unreal" (5). For the reader, however, Williams's childhood comes into sharp focus. St. Albans, where Williams grew up, comes as much to life on the pages of this biography as it does in Williams's own novels. Lindop also underscores the importance of Williams's adolescent friendships as he unfolds the ways in which a shared exposure to Coventry Patmore's "literary brew of religion, poetry, and sex" (31) came to exert a lifelong influence on his prolific imagination. Indeed, one might even say that the entire narrative arc of Lindop's book points persuasively to the fact that Williams spent the whole of his life working out in one context or another the mysterious connection between sexual love, theology, and literature. These ideas, at the very core of Williams's identity as a writer and as a man, were present from the beginning.
Unlike virtually every other scholar before him, Lindop does not shy away from describing in great detail Williams's formative involvement in A.E. Waite's Fellowship of the Rosy Cross or his decidedly unusual relationships with women. By the time Williams met his future wife Florence Conway, he was already intellectually committed to the idea that a mysterious spiritual relationship existed between sexual and creative energy. Indeed, Lindop provides ample evidence that Williams experimented and came to rely on his frustrated sexual desire for Florence--what Williams termed "renunciation"-- in order to write his first substantial poetic work: The Silver Stair. After Williams married Florence, however, it soon became obvious that she could no longer serve in the role of unattainable muse. "Why the devil," Williams wrote in a letter in 1925, "does anyone ever get married? What does marriage, and its consequences do for any human but cause disappointment, misery, disillusion, unhappiness, strife, tumult, weariness, boredom, sickness, malevolence, hatred, cruelty, stubbornness, anger, torment?" (87). Without a muse, Williams was miserable. What Florence was for him during their courtship, she could never be in their marriage. The fact that he had a young son and needed money to pay the bills only made things worse. Williams needed a new muse.
Lindop's descriptive analysis of Williams's confusing, intense, chaste, and remarkably protracted relationship with Phyllis Jones, the librarian at Oxford University Press where Williams worked as an editor, is a major highlight of the book. When Phyllis met Williams she was, in Lindop's words, "blonde, pretty, lively and twenty-two years old" (123). Williams, on the other hand, was greying and almost forty. To escape the cacophony of his home, he spent countless hours at work and became steadily more involved in Waite's Fellowship of the Rosy Cross. Waite's order, meanwhile, fed Williams's imagination and sharpened his ideas about the relationship between religion, sex, and poetry. Around this time he also finished a draft of a book on what he called romantic theology. Phyllis--or Celia as she became known in the elaborate mythology Williams constructed around her--became the centerpiece of his creative universe, appeared in his novels, informed his poetry, and eventually broke his heart when she slept with one of his colleagues at the Press. Williams was shattered. But he insisted on believing that what he had seen in her before, what was now ruined, somehow remained utterly inviolable. It was she, and it was not she: a paradox that came to inhabit the very core of Williams's theology. And yet, however special Phyllis may have been, he nevertheless went on to develop similar relationships with other young women as well.
Readers of this review might wonder why there has been no mention of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Although Lindop begins the book with a dramatic retelling of Williams's famous 1940 lecture on Milton's Comus at Oxford University in the company of Lewis and Tolkien, these men in fact played no real part in Williams's life until his ideas were all but set. And though Lindop is able to show in several places how Williams influenced them, the influence Lewis and Tolkien exerted on him was far less consequential. After all, Williams knew nothing of Lewis until 1936 when he read a manuscript draft of The Allegory of Love (a title Williams came up with in place of Lewis's more awkward and obscure The House of Busirane). Lewis and Williams liked and admired each other. Tolkien, by contrast, had reservations about Williams--not least because he resented Lewis's affection for him. Here, then, is the one problem with this otherwise outstanding book: just as Williams retitled Lewis's manuscript and thereby helped ensure its commercial success, it is not difficult to imagine Oxford retitling Lindop's book in the hope of broadening its appeal. But Charles Williams was so very much more than the "third" Inkling. Anyone who picks up this book expecting only that will be either disappointed, or, one can only hope, pleasantly surprised when this biography does what all good biographies of literary figures must do: plant in the reader a desire to turn to the literary works themselves.
SORINA HIGGINS'S COITION OF WILLIAMS'S "DRAMATIC POEM" or play The Chapel of the Thorn might be just the place to begin. In this beautifully produced quarto-style volume, the reader will find the play itself, a lengthy and informative introduction by Higgins, as well as a preface by Lindop and an essay by David Llewellyyn Dodds. One of Williams's earliest works, The Chapel of the Thorn was completed around the time he published The Silver Stair in 1912. Set in the Middle Ages, the play anticipates in some remarkable ways Williams's novels War in Heaven, Many Dimensions, and The Greater Trumps. Like these later works, the poem is constructed around a struggle for a sacred relic imbued with mysterious and sacramental power. Guarded by a mystical priest and his acolyte in a humble chapel, the relic is also claimed on behalf of the institutional Church by a local abbot who wishes to use it to draw pilgrims to his abbey. In the shadow of so powerful an antagonist, the priest manages to enlist the help of the local villagers who promise to hinder the abbot--not because they revere the relic as a sacred object in its own right, but because the chapel itself is constructed over the tomb of a pagan hero. The play is mostly made up of a series of debates that take place between those who represent variously the mystical, ecclesiastical, and pagan perspectives. In the end, Williams refuses to resolve these differences for the reader perhaps because, as Lindop argues in his biography, Williams found ways to sympathize with all three. Anyone familiar with Williams's novels will doubtless find great pleasure in poring over this play and seeing how the major themes that dominate those narratives are already active in this fascinating work.
Although it has become commonplace for reviewers routinely to declare that the book or books they are reviewing are indispensable, in this case it is really true. No one working on Williams in any serious way will be able to make much progress without reading Lindop's biography. Similarly, The Chapel of the Thorn demonstrates just how important a poet's early works can be to our overall understanding of her or his development. Scholars and enthusiastic readers of Williams should be grateful to both Lindop and Higgins for these outstanding publications.
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|Title Annotation:||The Chapel of the Thorn: A Dramatic Poem|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2016|
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