The Body Poetic: Arthurian Legends and Metaphysical Anatomy

This is the last in a series of eight posts about the ideas that occur most frequently in CW’s works. You can access each of the others by clicking on the items in the list below:
2. Romantic theology
3. The Two Ways
4. Ritual Objects
5. The Crisis of Schism
6. Mystical Tranquility
7. The City
8. Arthuriana and the Holy Grail

Today we are talking about the last one: his use of Arthurian Legends and his development of a map that involved Europe, a woman’s body, and a symbolic system of virtues and qualities.
The Body Poetic: Arthurian Legends and Metaphysical Anatomy

Charles_Ernest_Butler_-_King_ArthurBefore we get into CW’s own particular, peculiar use of the King Arthur stories, you might want to familiarize yourself with some of the stories, their background, their usage, etc. Here are some links you might find helpful:
List of books about King Arthur
“Arthur, Adapted”
A timeline of King Arthur

Now, back to CW.

Charles Williams was interested in the King Arthur legends nearly all his life. He began keeping a “commonplace book,” a notebook of thoughts and ideas about Arthur, as early as 1912. He first published seven Arthurian poems in 1930, in the volume Heroes and Kings, four more in Three Plays in 1931, and a few others in periodicals or anthologies. In 1930, he published a novel about the Holy Grail: War in Heaven. From 1929 to 1931, he wrote a total of 24 poems on Arthurian themes; he eventually collected these together into a book called The Advent of Galahad, but it was not published during his lifetime. All the extant Arthurian poetry was finally gathered together by David Llewellyn Dodds and published in this volume in 1991. Actually, there are other Arthurian poems still floating around unpublished, and Dodds is working on an official, complete, scholarly edition.

It wasn’t until the last few years of his life, in 1938 and 1944, that Williams published his great masterpieces of Arthurian poetry: Taliessin Through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars. He planned another volume, to be entitled either Jupiter Over Carbonek or The Household of Taliessin, in which he would rewrite all the previous poems into a kind of narrative whole in a new style he was developing. But he died unexpectedly, and the cycle remains unfinished.

Lynton Lamb's map

Lynton Lamb’s map

Anyway, in these poems about King Arthur, Williams transformed the traditional legends to suit his own theology and politics. He had an extraordinarily visual imagination: to him, symbols took on physical form and theological doctrines took on flesh. He applied this incarnational principle quite literally to his Arthurian mythology. He got an artist, Lynton Lamb, to draw an illustration of a female body overlaid on a map of Europe. Here it is:

Williams also related the astrological associations of each body part to his “unified field theory” of poetry, legend, and spiritual reality. The body is “an index to other creations.”


The Body and the Zodiac

Throughout his poetry, Williams talks about each country in terms of which body part it matches up to on the map. In addition, he refers to the countries by their body part’s anatomical function and also by particular spiritual virtues that corresponded to body parts in Rosicrucian thought. Here is a list:
England = the head = reason, logic
Rome = the hands = the pope serving the Eucharist
France = the breasts = the “milk” of learning in the theological universities
Constantinople = the navel = the center, the origin, of the Empire
Jerusalem = the womb = the source
Caucasia = the buttocks = natural pleasure, hedonism, sexuality

Knowing this provides a key to many otherwise unintelligible passages in the poetry. Here are some examples from the Arthurian poetry (as usual, without citations; ask if you want to know where they come from):

The organic body sang together.
(This means that all the provinces or countries of the Empire were in perfect harmony, religious and political unity).

hands of incantation changed to hands of adoration,
the quintuple psalm, the pointing of Lateran:
active and passive in a single mystery,
a single sudden flash of identity,
the heart-breaking manual acts of the Pope.
(This means that Rome turned from pagan rituals to Christian worship, and the Pope performed the Eucharist).

The milk rises in the breasts of Gaul,
trigonometrical milk of doctrine.
Man sucks it; his joints harden,
sucking logic, learning, law,
drawing on the breasts of intelligo and credo.
(This means, then, that the new seminaries are open in France where men can go and study theology).

Though the Caucasian theme throb with its dull ache
make, lady, the Roman motion.
(This means: “Although your bum is sore from sitting, reach out your hands and stand up”!).

lost are the Roman hands;
lost are the substantial instruments of being.
(This refers to the splitting of the Empire, when the Pope in Rome was cut off from England and from Constantinople).

As you can see from this brief survey, the mystical body of Christ and actual human bodies fascinated Williams. When two people are in love, he believed, Love is embodied in the flesh of the lover and realized in the flesh of the beloved; thus, each part of the body is significant. Only lovers see each other’s bodies in the perfection they ought to have. Each part has meaning and each part relates to all the others; the same is true of the parts of the empire in the Arthurian cycle poems, and the same is true of every believer in the Christian vision of reality. He layered the Arthur/Grail legend onto the human body and used the resulting physical myth as indexes to all his thought, and related all his experiences and inspirations to both. He studied the body as if it were geology: a microcosm of the earth. He believed that morals are incarnate in the joints of the body—although I have very little idea what that could possibly mean!

Finally, Williams related all this to events in his time. At the end of his King Arthur myth, the Empire falls apart. England gets separated from the rest of the Empire: an isolated island. This means the head gets chopped off of the body. Without England, the Empire became headless and brainless. This is exactly the image Williams uses for Hell: he created a country or state, not on the map, called P’o-L’u, ruled by a headless emperor.

Just one year after the publication of Taliessin Through Logres, England would face Hitler’s Luftwaffe, and suffer isolation from Europe under the torments of the blitz. It was during the horrors of World War II that CW wrote The Region of the Summer Stars, in which the headless Emperor of the reversed hell almost wins. Almost, but not quite: his poetry ends with hope of a sacred re-union.

About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is Editor-in-Chief of the Signum University Press. She holds a Ph.D. in English from Baylor University. Dr. Higgins is currently co-editing a volume on the ethical turn in speculative fiction with Dr. Brenton Dickieson and previously edited an academic essay collection entitled The Inklings and King Arthur. She is also the author of the blog The Oddest Inkling, devoted to a systematic study of Charles Williams’ works. As a creative writer, Sørina has a volume of short stories, A Handful of Hazelnuts, forthcoming from Signum’s own press. Outside of academia, Sørina enjoys practicing yoga, playing with her cats, cooking, baking, podcasting, gardening, dancing, and ranting about the state of the world.
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28 Responses to The Body Poetic: Arthurian Legends and Metaphysical Anatomy

  1. Ann Ahnemann says:

    Very useful, Sorina! I never understood CW’s ‘body’ or exactly what it meant. Brava!


  2. David says:

    It is worth adding that Williams also uses P’o-L’u in his last play, The House of the Octopus. Stephen Medcalf suggested that that ought to be taken together with the late Arthurian poetry (I have not looked up exactly how he put it, and one could consider how complementary and how distinct the uses are, but they are certainly worth looking at together, or side by side).


    • Sørina Higgins says:

      Yes. That is one of many examples of how CW saw his mythology as a totalizing scheme into which all of his works, all of his friendships and relationships, his job,and European history all fit. I’ll have to write more about that ages from now, when I get to discussing “The House of the Octopus.” Thank you!


  3. David says:

    In the course of a comment on the second of this interesting and rewarding series of eight posts, Joe R. Christopher said, “I wish a full edition of Williams’ poems to Jones would be published; as it is, we have only ten of “A Century of Poems for Celia” [in the back of _The Masques of Amen House_], for example.”

    I have not now stopped to look up just how much Gavin Ashenden’s quotations and discussions improve this situation where the “Century” is concerned, but that collection of poems certainly has some things inviting consideration in the context of the development of the Arthurian retelling. For example, there is a sort of tripartite imagery with respect to Phyllis Jones, of which two parts are the figures Celia and Circassia. And in the “Advent” poetry, Taliessin speaks “of the High Prince under the image of a dead Byzantine royalty”, the Princess Caelia, while in the later poetry “the hill where Coelius Vibenna’s lamp / twinkled” – the Celian Hill – is decidedly, if discreetly, in the background. Also in the ‘Advent ‘poetry, and continuing for a while as that gives way to the later poetry, Williams refers to “Circassia” where he will later refer to “Caucasia”: see both the ‘Advent’ and the intermediate “Prelude”.


  4. Beautiful poetry and inspirational, since I am in the process of writing more of my own. I really must look into CW’s work .


    • David says:

      There are lots of good poems to try, first, in the 1938 volume, if you don’t just want to start at the beginning and read on. Four of the five examples quoted above come from “The Vision of the Empire”, there, and that is probably as good a one as any to sample. (I find resisting ‘worriting’ about baffling bits can be a problem, but no more than with someone like T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, Edith Sitwell, or even Yeats or Wallace Stevens, sometimes, and enjoying what strikes you while ‘faring forward’ is probably the best response in such cases, if you will excuse unsolicited advice!)


  5. brandonyoung says:

    Wow! Finally!


  6. brandonyoung says:

    Finally permission to explore Inklings and Astro-theology! This is an excellent post! As above, so below. 7 is THE number! Ancient Egypt (and other cities) was built around this idea of Man (meaning HuMANity–not sexist). Oh, I’m so excited! Now maybe I can post my ideas on this topic, which is the heart of all mythology. Love it!


    • Sørina Higgins says:

      Great, Brandon; please do post on that topic. Perhaps we can have a lively, fruitful discussion. I would argue that Christianity is the heart of all mythology (being the only one that’s TRUE), and that all the others are symbols, echoes, foreshadowings, resonances, pieces, spin-offs, etc. But I look forward to reading your views.


  7. David says:

    brandonyoung saying ‘Astro-theology’ somehow got me thinking about both the planet references and the (heraldic) star references in the 1938 volume, the “summer stars” and the Zodiacal-human (body) references in the 1944 volume, and what they may or may not have to do with the “Angelicals” in the earlier novel, The Place of the Lion. (Time to get reacquainted with the commentaries on the poetry, among other things!)


    • Sørina Higgins says:

      There is no commentary on the poetry. There is a volume of “notes by various hands,” but they are nearly as cryptic as the poems themselves. I’d love to read your ideas about matching up the Angelicals to the zodiacal-anatomical-virtuous map of the Arthurian poetry.


      • David says:

        Thanks for the encouragement! (Now only the work remains to be done…)

        In saying ‘commentaries’ I was thinking of the “various hands”, but also Lewis’s in Arthurian Torso, Roma King’s book, and wondering what other longer and shorter works might come to mind (and hand)…


  8. David says:

    Thinking out loud: “Taliessin in the Rose-Garden” seems partly to re-express the account of the Fall in “The Vision of the Empire”, section Eta, in terms of the zodiac. How far is this account anticipated in The Place of the Lion, with Berringer as an Adam-figure (‘answered’ by Anthony as a different Adam figure – with Damaris in some sense “the Eve in the Adam”?)? And how far do the heraldic animals of Arthur’s knights of, for example, “The Crowning of Arthur”, parallel the “Angelicals” of the novel, even as there is a sort of Arthurian (re)enactment if the Fall? (Ah, the ever-present danger of “nearly as cryptic as the poems themselves”…)


  9. David says:

    “of the Fall” (!)


  10. Sørina Higgins says:

    OK, I see what you mean. I wonder if a much more literal, straight-forward identification would be possible, though? If each sign of the zodiac matches up to part of the body, and each part of the body matches up to a virtue, and each Angelical matches up to a virtue, shouldn’t it be at least theoretically possible to match up each Angelical to a sign of the Zodiac? (a good Rosicrucian would be delighted)


    • David says:

      One problem is that, according to Marcellus Victorinus, there are “nine zones” which though “divided into a trinity of trinities” are “yet after another fashion” “four without and four within, and between them is the Glory of the Eagle”, though, again, not unconfusingly, a “dragon which is the power of the lion is accompanied also by a ninefold order of spectres”. Whether one takes nine simply, or nine plus nine “spectres”, with “dragon” included (as “lion” seems to be in the “Celestial Benedictions”), or added on, one ends up with some total that does not obviously, easily, correspond to a traditional zodiacal twelve.


  11. David says:

    Hmm… while we are at it, should we also take account of each “station on the Sephirotic Tree” (to quote Williams’s reference to “The Death of Palomides”), the ten sephirot (with eleven names, sometimes), and the Adam Kadmon or ‘Sephirotic Man’?


    • Sørina Higgins says:

      🙂 As Mark Morrison says in “Modern Alchemy,” the occult is “an arbitrary system of symbolism.” So perhaps things match up when it’s convenient, and don’t when it isn’t.


      • David says:

        It would be interesting to compare with Williams how systematic Golden Dawn and Fellowship of the Rosy Cross attempts at matching things up were, for example. Williams seem both to have strong systemizing urges (if that is not too idiotic a way of putting it), and to enjoy a free play of mind, which is not averse to ‘taking liberties’.

        I suspect there is a lot of disgreement among arbiters about how arbitrary which bits of symbolism are. (Again, the little book by Michal (and presumably Charles) Williams about Christian Symbolism is interesting in this context.)


        • Sørina Higgins says:

          I can say only that I concur with all you have so well articulated there.
          Would you like to do a guest post on the book “Christian Symbolism”? If so, please email me: iambic [dot] admonit [at]gmail[dot]com.


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