The Silver Stair, 1912

In this phase of the life of The Oddest Inkling, I am posting summaries of each of CW’s books, one book per week, in chronological order. These will be punctuated by related posts on themes, events, and people in his life as they relate to those books or to where we are on his timeline, or by news announcements.

Book Summary #2: The Silver Stair, 1912
Part One
(tune in later for Part 2)

Silver StairThe Silver Stair was Williams’s first published book. It was published in London by Herbert & Daniel in 1912. It is a collection of righty-four Petrarchan sonnets on the theme Renunciation of Love. He presented it to his girlfriend, Florence Conway, in January between 1909 and 1911 (Hadfield suspects it was 1910). She read the poems and, perspicacious girl, wondered if they meant he was going to join a monastery. Instead, they became engaged and remained engaged for nine (9!) years while Charles wrestled with the competing claims of the Way of Affirmation and the Way of Negation.

That is the overarching theme of this volume: the relative merits and pains of the Via Affirmativa and the Via Negativa. Williams naturally connected the Way of the Rejection of Images with asceticism. This book suggests that his bent was towards Rejection until he met Florence, and that she guided him (consciously or not) into Affirmation, which may be part of the reason that he saw in her his Way to God.

Edward_Burne-Jones_The_Golden_Stairs

Edward Burne-Jones, “The Golden Stairs”

This volume is full of the Negative Way. There is some sense that the Affirmative Way is the Garden of Eden, while the Negative Way is the Garden of Gethsemane; the Affirmative Way is Golden, while the Negative Way is Silver (hence the title—a sacrificial, ascetic stairway to Heaven). The narrator thinks of the end of love before it even begins. He talks about Convents, Brotherhood, a Monastic Chapel, and abstinence. He claims that the cross rebukes us and makes us turn from earthly love, saying that any who have “put off love for Love’s sake” do the “greater thing.”

Throughout the series, the narrator is trying to decide “If I should seek her or should stand aloof,” asking whether God desires our marriages or our chastity. He asks, “Shall we reject…Fruition?” He seems to answer Yes when he states that if we chose to enjoy “corporal pleasaunce,” we are fools. He desires her, but he also desires “Never to seek her eyes with mine, to touch / Never,” and thinks perhaps it is best if “The Lover will choose locusts & wild honey rather than Dead Sea fruit.” In his most extreme moments, he believes that love must be renounced if Christ is to enter. He believes that “love can be consummated and so grow old and die”—or it can be consecrated to perpetual virginity, which is its true telos. At the end of this poetic cycle, the narrators seems to claim that the consummation of love equals a commitment to perpetual virginity.

In short, The Silver Stair contains a startlingly clear Via Negativa that contrasts with his later wide-spread use of the Via Affirmativa, but also helps explain much of the imagery and language of Rejection in the later works.

And yet Charles married Florence in 1917.

The Silver Stair is a gorgeously well-structured volume of verse whose strengths of organization and narrative power have been overlooked due to the derivative pastiche of its rhymes and prosody—but even those have been overstated. It is not the work of a child prodigy, but it is surprisingly mature poetry for someone in his early 20s. Williams handles the iambic pentameter deftly, if not with absolute consistency. There are very strong enjambments that work well against the near-regularity of the lines. The tone is almost precisely that of Edna St. Vincent Millay, but I do not know if they read one another. The rhymes are skillful, if a little too exact and occasionally forced. The images are precise, suited to his subject, and very Dantean in nature. There are some poignantly memorable lines:

“How shall he know, how shall his heart be sure
That even unto her his love endure?”—Sonnet XXXI

Or:

“I love her. O! what other word could keep
In many tongues one clear immutable sound,
Having so many meanings? . . .
These know I, with one more, which is: ‘To weep.’”—Sonnet XXXVIII

Let me share the entirety of Sonnet XXXIII, “Of Love’s Enemies—The Cross”:

In sight of stretched hands and tormented brows
How should I dare to venture or to win
Love? how draw word from silence to begin
Tremulous utterance of the bridal vows?
Or, as the letter of the law allows,
If so I dared, how keep them without sin,
While through our goings out and comings in
That Sorrow fronts the doorway of our house?
It is the wont of lovers, who delight
In time of shadows and in secrecy,
To linger under summer trees by night.
But on our lips the words fail, and our eyes
Look not to one another: a man dies
In dusk of noon upon a barren tree.

How should I dare to venture or to win Love in sight of the torment of the Cross? That is a very good question–and not shabby poetry, either.

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About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is a writer, English teacher, and Inklings scholar. Sørina serves as Chair of the Department of Language and Literature at Signum University and teaches English at King's College and Lehigh Carbon Community College. She has published two books of poetry, "The Significance of Swans" and "Caduceus."
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5 Responses to The Silver Stair, 1912

  1. Sam T. says:

    Interesting, it seems like he’s already well on his to be wrestling with the paradoxes of the Christian life in this poetry that he so well voiced later in life. Gathering from this post, several sections in the Figure of Beatrice echo a lot of what he was struggline with in these poems, though it seems in the Figure of Beatrice that he has found or at least considers some way of according the two ways when in love. Maybe the maturity of love is the knowledge of its loss and rejection in any form that gives light to the reality of the God-ness of romantic love and its ultimate affirmation. The way he wrestled with this stuff makes me think I’ve only begun to really consider the depths of the two ways. It may be that he would never have been able to voice the Way of Affirmation so well if he had not known and felt inclined so deeply to the Way of Negation first.

    And the last poem, wow.

    Like

  2. I have gained so much from your reflections on the tension between the vias affirmativa & negativa in the work of Charles Williams. As I was reading this posting my first reaction was to be reminded of Dante’s Vita Nuova & then you spoke of Dante’s influence. I confess that when I first read the Vita Nuova I wanted to say to Dante, “Tell her that you love her and marry her!”It reminded me so much of those adolescent crushes, being in love with love and yet how can I deny the fact that ultimately this crush was transformed into the wonder of the poet’s relationship with Beatrice in the Paradiso?
    One final thought: I note that you illustrate your blog with Burne-Jones’ “The Golden Stairs” & I am fascinated by the relationship of the the golden & silver stairs. I am currently working with a church (All Saints, Wilden in Worcestershire, England) in which all of the windows were designed by Burne-Jones and made by the William Morris factory. It is the only church in the country in which every window was designed by him. He was related by marriage to the industrialist who built the church. One of the things I would like to do would be to develop something to help worshippers & visitors “pray” the windows as icons. If you or your readers know of any material that would help me do that I would be most grateful.

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Fascinating! I see
      http://www.achurchnearyou.com/wilden-all-saints/
      with a vivid historical note, links to
      http://www.cofe-stourport.org.uk/
      which includes a post on the Burne-Jones windows with a brief description of them. Is there a convenient online ‘gallery’ of photos of them all which you can recommend?

      The description mentions “Visitors will realise from the dates that the windows were produced after the death of Burne-Jones and this is not at all unusual. The designs were still available and it is not unusual to find similar designs in other churches.” The earliest date listed is 1902, the latest 1914, ‘bracketing’, as it were, Williams’s meeting Florence Conway, falling in love, writing the cycle, and getting it published – so, very much contemporary art by way of context!

      Williams goes on to develop ‘silver’ imagery in a big way with respect to his treatment of Percivale in his late Arthurian poetry.

      Like

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Sørina,

    If this does not get people keen to (re)read The Silver Stair, I don’t know what would!

    Like

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