Two days ago, I posted the first half of my summary of The Silver Stair. Today, I discuss the major themes that are present in this early work of poetry.
This early sonnet sequence, written when Williams was in his 20s, contains the seeds of most of his Big Ideas.
First, these 82 sonnets follow the pattern of Romantic Theology that Williams would later postulate in Outlines of Romantic Theology, in which he theorized that the stages of sexual love follow the stages of Christ’s earthly life. The association is explicit in the sonnets’ titles, especially a series near the end entitled “The Passion of Love.” There, “passion” makes reference to Christ’s Passion—suffering, death, and resurrection—rather than to the common sense of “sexual ecstasy,” although that meaning is not out of view.
Second, they contain the importance of the City that would grow to enormous significance in his later work. Even little St. Albans, it appears, is microcosm for the Kingdom of Heaven–because Florence walks its streets.
Rather astonishingly, these poems also prefigure some of the ideas he later embraced in The Fellowship of the Rosy Cross. Williams uses the words “unmagicked,” “alchemy,” and “hierarchic,” and talks about rites, oaths, and a company. He also mentions “The earth, man’s body” in a foreshadowing of his later anatomical geography.
How this is possible remains a mystery to me, because I do not know whether Williams could have read any of the works of A.E. Waite yet at this time. This is partly complicated because I have not yet worked out exactly when Williams wrote these poems. He met Florence at Christmastime in 1908; he may have handed her these sonnets only weeks later, in January of 1909. If so, very few of Waite’s influential works had yet been published. A few had: An Ode to Astronomy and other Poems (1877); Lucifer; a dramatic Romance, and other Poems (1879); Israfel (1886); The Real History of the Rosicrucians (1887); The Hermetic Museum Restored and Enlarged (1893); The Golden Stairs (1893); and Strange Houses of Sleep (1906). These are mostly poems and fairy stories, but The Hermetic Museum and The Real History of the Rosicrucians could have given Williams some occult terminology and imagery even this early on. I would appreciate any information on this point.
If Williams wrote these poems over the course of 1909-1911, then he may well have read one of the most important of Waite’s early works, and one that had a powerful impact on him: The Hidden Church of the Holy Grail (1909).
I suspect, however, that what happened with Williams and Waite follow the same pattern that recurred throughout Williams’s life: Williams picked up on the merest hint that he encountered in literature, in the church fathers, in theology, or in his own imagination, ran with that idea, created an idiosyncratic doctrinal system out of it—and later discovered something very like in someone else’s writings. I think this happened with Kierkegaard. Williams recognized Kierkegaard as a kindred thinker, rather than learning new ideas from him. It happened with the Inklings, especially Lewis. And I suspect it happened with A.E. Waite.
Finally, this sonnet sequence also carries strong hints of the way Williams would live his life according to a myth: the man and the woman in the poetic sequence are special, above the ordinary common people; he wants to keep her away from his mundane work-a-day life, and yet she transforms that life; people play roles in the grand myth. Throughout his career, Williams turned to Arthurian legends as sources for fiction and poetry. His three published collections of Arthurian poetry—Heroes and Kings (1930), Taliessin Through Logres (1938), and The Region of the Summer Stars (1944)—reveal a trajectory from lyric to narrative. He died while beginning to revise the poems into one narrative whole. This move towards narrative is also evident in his private correspondence and in his increasing trend to identify his life, the lives of his acquaintances, and the unfolding history of Europe with the storyline of his myth.
Williams peopled his mythopoetic world with characters modeled after an idealized version of himself. His internal life had been largely shaped by reading A. E. Waite’s occult books and by membership in the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross. Secret societies, rife with hermetic knowledge, teach that the universe develops according to a hidden story only its adepts can “read” and “retell.”
Williams eventually became unable to keep his fictional and work-a-day worlds apart. He nicknamed friends, assigning them roles as characters in his mythology. He compelled them to enact creative, religious, and sexual rituals as performative embodiments of his tale. Finding social interaction difficult, Williams interpreted others through his story, making them conform to his meaning.
Williams also mapped his Creation-Fall-Redemption arc onto European geography, using this linear narrative to interpret World War II. He made meaning inside his poetry that then re-made the world—both private and public—in its own image.
All of this incipient narrative mythologization is inherent in The Silver Stair. Even in 1909-1912 Williams was already developing a myth of chivalry. In “He appoints Time and Place for Meeting with his Lady,” the rendezvous does not occur anywhere associated with his everyday life. It seems to be in church. He is already making a myth that lifts her (and himself) above “common” life and people into a mythic existence where everything has a lofty significance. No stranger should contemplate their love, for it is the stuff of legends, of myths, of a romantic theology. No wonder he couldn’t renounce it in the end.
A pessimistic–or, rather, critical–interpretation of Williams at this point is to say that he believed his religious calling was to the Way of Negation: that he felt called to celibacy, singleness, dedication to poetry, not family. But then the vision rose in him of himself as the center of a great Myth: making great verse, shaping his life into narrative, influencing historical events, remaking everything he touched by the power of his poetry.
And what’s a Myth without a beautiful Woman? So he subjected them both to a nine-years’ torment of unconsummated love, turning the tension into literature. Then they married, and he could mythologize the whole Bride-of-Christ story, the father-son story, the family story.
But he didn’t. Instead, he fell in love again, with somebody else, and spent pretty much the rest of his life centering the Myth on “Celia” and on their unrequited love. He found a way to make Rejection work, even when he was married: Reject the second Image, the Other Woman (or suffer her Rejection), and turn that tension into literature.
That is a very critical picture, indeed. I am afraid it may be true. Yet there is another possibility.
Williams may have believed that, given his high-flying temperament, he needed to submit to the small domestic restrictions of family life and to take of the little cross of bearing Romantic Theology through all its stages: the triumphant joys of courtship, the ecstasy of consummation, the Olivet of daily accommodation and marital strife, the Golgoltha of extramarital affection and a painful fidelity, the comfortable revival of later-life affection and commitment. That is probably what he believed he was doing.
From a literary point of view, it hardly matters what his autobiographical motivations were. Who cares why he married Florence? Yet an examination of the psychology is intrinsic to an analysis of the verse, and vice-versa. I suspect the truth is: both.