As you know by now, Williams wrote in several different genres, including novels, poetry, plays, theology, literary criticism, and letters. Now that we are moving on from his themes into bibliography and summaries of books, I thought it would be a good time for an extra little post on his writing style.
His books were not widely read in his own time, primarily because of his confusing syntax, “needless obscurity” (C.S. Lewis), and sizable episodes that are simply bizarre. Indeed, his writing is very hard to understand, as if it is a private language. However, once a reader struggles through several novels or sizable portions of his verse, that reader begins to understand the language. Once this mastery has occurred, the obscurity melts away—but the bizarre remains, as delightful and uncanny as ever.
His most notable works are his seven novels—shocking, glorious, convoluted, startling, unpredictable, obscure prose narratives—characterized as “spiritual thrillers” (T.S. Eliot) or “metaphysical thrillers” (himself). They are really unparalleled. Maybe it’s his sinewy syntax. Thomas Howard calls it “agile.” I call it “labyrinthine.” It is thrilling, dangerous, sinuous, confusing, and beautiful.
Here is a sample of his style, from The Place of the Lion. The chapter is called “The Pit in the House.”
Anthony followed, shutting the door after him, and as he turned to step along the landing, found that he stood on a landing indeed but no more that of the simple house into which he had so recently come. It was a ledge rather than a landing, and though below him he saw the shadowy forms of staircase and hall, yet below him and below these there fell great cliffs, bottomless, or having the bottom hidden by flooding darkness. He was standing above a vast pit, the walls of which swept away from him on either side till they closed again opposite him, and some sort of huge circle was complete. He looked down with–he was vaguely aware–a surprising freedom from fear; and presently he turned his eyes upward; half-expecting to see that same great wall extending incalculably high above his head. So indeed it did, but there was a difference, for above it leaned outward, and far away he saw a cloudy white circle of what seemed the sky. He would have known it for the sky only that it was in motion; it was continually passing into the wall of the abyss, so that a pale vibration was for ever surging in and around and down those cliffs, as if a steady landside slipped ever downwards in waves of movement, which at last were lost to sight somewhere in the darkness below. He half put his hand out to touch the wall behind him and then desisted, for such effort would assuredly be vain. It was to the distance and the space that his attention was invited–more, he began to feel, than his attention, even his will and his action.
After this extraordinary passage of mystical perception, Anthony passes on into a deeper state of oneness and exaltation in which he becomes a great Eagle and soars above the Pit.
It is not all like that, of course. There are passages of perfect simplicity or energetic action. That sample is one of his more mystical flights, which leads me to discuss his use of Christianity in his writings.
The Christian faith is “an unstated background” to his novels (Hadfield 101), which means that characters very rarely talk about religion. In only one book do they go to church, and even when they do talk about their faith it would take quite the careful reading to figure out which faith they were discussing. Williams’ prose characteristically avoids and transcends traditional Christian diction.
Also, even though spiritual truths resonate throughout every word of these books, they are not Christian allegories, nor can their plots be as easily related to the Bible as, say, The Last Battle. They function on two levels: “Their underlying structure derived from religion, romantic love, and his work; their superstructure from his interesting the workings of material and magical power; their excitement from the clash between the two” (Hadfield 103).
The beauty of these techniques (of originality and resonance) is twofold. First, these books can be read and loved by anyone, Christian or not. Yet they might serve to invade a jaded, skeptical mind with truth. Second, they offer a new, fresh, timeless diction of dogma—the same old doctrines explained in totally original terminology.
Here is an example from The Greater Trumps. Mr. Coningsby and his sister Sybil are discussing the Athanasian Creed.
Mr. Coningsby had asked if she thought it Christian; and Sybil said she didn’t see anything very unChristian about it–not if you remembered the hypothesis of Christianity.
“And what,” Mr. Coningsby said, as if this riddle were entirely unanswerable, “what do you call the hypothesis of Christianity?”
“The Deity of Love and the Incarnation of Love?” Sybil suggested, adding, “Of course, whether you agree with it is another thing.”
“Certainly I agree with Christianity,” Mr. Coningsby said. “Perhaps I shouldn’t put it quite like that. It’s a difficult thing to define. But I don’t see how the damnatory clauses–“
While that passage directly references Christianity, do you see how it is original? Instead of Sybil’s answering, “To glorify God and enjoy Him forever,” or “To believe in Jesus,” she uses CW’s characteristic terminology of Romantic Theology: Christianity is “The Deity of Love and the Incarnation of Love,” and it is only a “hypothesis,” and one “may not agree with it,” and its greatest problem is its doctrines of damnation. That’s classic CW for you.
His theology is written in a more straight-forward style as to syntax and diction, but is so counter-intuitive and extraordinary as to seem extremely confusing. Most of the time I found myself saying, “He can’t really mean what he seems to be saying, can he?” But he can. Oh, definitely so. For example, in the posthumously published Outline of Romantic Theology he sketches the correspondences between the personal romance of a man and a woman and the earthly life of Christ. He seems to take for granted that this has always been the Church’s position; but I had never heard of it before! There are many occasions on which he pushes Christian truth so far that it sounds like heresy.
Although CW’s novels are both the place to begin when approaching his oeuvre and will probably always carry his reputation, his genius really found its niche in his Arthurian poetry. His poems, I believe, are his greatest works and the only ones that might earn him a place in “The Western Canon” (whatever that is). In Taliessin through Logres (1938) and The Region of the Summer Stars (1944), he unites two story-threads that had previous been more or less separate: The Lancelot & Guinevere tale, and the Quest for the Grail.
These poems should not be read without C.S. Lewis’s guide and commentary, contained in Arthurian Torso (the full text is available online at Questia. The plot (as far as there is one: it’s wandering, non-chronological, mystical, and visionary, but it’s there) follows Taliessin, the poet/bard of Arthur’s court. CW worked his favorite themes into these poems; as a matter of fact, he saw his life and the human body and theology as all indexing together onto/with “The Matter of Britian” (his name for the collective Arthurian legend) in some kind of holistic correspondence.Some of CW’s shorter poems can be found online here, to give you an idea of his dense, crystalline, many-lighted verse. I recommend “Saint Michael” and “Christmas” as closest to his later, characteristic style.
Here is a sample of the heights of glory to which CW’s Arthurian poetry could soar.
Taliessin’s Song of the Unicorn
Shouldering shapes of the skies of Broceliande
are rumours in the flesh of Caucasia; they raid the west,
clattering with shining hooves, in myth scanned—
centaur, gryphon, but lordlier for verse is the crest
of the unicorn, the quick panting unicorn; he will come
to a girl’s crooked finger or the sharp smell
of her clear flesh—but to her no good; the strum
of her blood takes no riot or quiet from the quell;
she cannot like such a snorting alien love
galloped from the dusky horizon it has no voice
to explain, nor the silver horn pirouetting above
her bosom—a ghostly threat but no way to rejoice
in released satiation; her body without delight
chill-curdled, and the gruesome horn only to be
polished, its rifling between breasts; right
is the tale that a true man runs and sets the maid free,
and she lies with the gay hunter and his spear flesh-hued,
. . .
Ah, it breaks my heart to stop there. The entire poem is one virtuousic sentence; do read the whole thing!