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
(tune in later for Part 2)
The 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.
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
“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.