Arthurian Commonplace Book, c. 1912-1923

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 #3: Arthurian Commonplace Book, c. 1912-c. 1923??

The Arthurian Commonplace Book is a notebook in which Williams scribbled his thoughts about the Holy Grail and the Arthurian legends for about a decade. It is kept in Oxford University’s Bodleian Library; unfortunately, the Marion E. Wade Center does not have a copy for us Americans to consult. I have a copy by the extreme generosity of Williams scholar David Llewellyn Dodds, who stayed up all one night scanning the pages and emailing them to me (following permission from the CW Estate, of course).

So what is this book? What does it contain, and what are its major ideas?

Those are not easy questions to answer. First, the “Commonplace Book” is just a collection of Williams’s ideas as they came to him, jotted down on the small pages of this notebook as little chunks of text. There is certainly no narrative, no organizational scheme.

There are quotes from and references to an enormous variety of authors. These testify to both the breadth of his reading and the rather haphazard manner in which he chose his sources; quite different from his public-school contemporaries with their orderly, approved reading lists. All the Classics are represented: Homer, Plato, Virgil, Augustine, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, and Blake. Coventry Patmore and G.K. Chesterton are heavily represented. The Victorians make a good showing: Kingsley, Arnold, Sir Walter Scott, E. Nesbit, Andrew Lang, and Robert Browning. As one would expect, there are many adapters of and commentators on the Arthurian materials, including Malory, Tennyson, Longfellow, Swinburne, Hillaire Belloc, Sebastian Evans, Jesse Weston, James Frazer, and others. Then there are church historians, histories of Europe (notably Gibbon), and philosophers ancient and modern in several languages. There is also an impressive selection of occult histories and texts: A.E. Waite, Yeats, Evelyn Underhill, W. W. Westcott, and Arthur Machen.

There are several ideas about the possible organization of Williams’s projected Arthurian cycle. He originally intended to structure the sections of his poetic series like this:

Book I: Arthur
Book II: Tristram—fated love
Book III: Lancelot—sinful love
Book IV: Perceval—human love
Book V: Galahad—Divine love.

Later on, he pondered dividing up the sections and naming them after various women. The relationships are not obvious to me. Let me know what you think of this list:
Tristram—
I. Iseult of Ireland
II. Elaine
III. Morgan le Fay
Lancelot—
IV. Iseult of the White Hands
V. Morgause of Orkney
VI. Nimue
Galahad—
VII. Blanchefleur
VIII. Guinevere
IX. The Mother of God.

He also intended to include nice, neat lists of the various knights and their relationship with The Table. What is most interesting to me about this schematizing urge is that Williams did not end up following any of these. While scholars have argued for various organizations within Taliessin Through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars, none is obvious, and there certainly is no naming or titling scheme going on. There is nothing neat, tidy, or clear about the poems as they finally emerged, and their internal organizations or narrative development are also obscure.

In other words, Williams was far more organized in conception than in execution. Indeed, I would go so far as to suggest that his brilliant, profound ideas are actually obscured by much of his poetry, rather than expressed by it.

Some themes do emerge in a reading of these notes, and Williams’s random jottings are far less random, and far more profound, than another’s might be. There again the systematizing urge appears, even though he did not end up following it. I would say that the biggest idea that these notes reveal is the desire to find the essence of all things: the true nature of Love, the true nature of History, the essential personality of each country or geographical region, the true character trait of each person. This goes hand-in-hand with the occult longing for correspondence between all things: for holism, for synthesis. I am reminded again of the words of Ellic Howe, as quoted in Modern Alchemy by Mark Morrisson: Howe described the Golden Dawn as “an ingenious construction of arbitrary relationships between different symbolical systems.” In spite of the fact that he should have written “among” instead of “between,” this seems to me a very accurate description of Williams’s attempts, during this phase of his life, to map everything onto everything else.

For instance, there are many places throughout these notes in which he says that Galahad = the Virgin Mary. That does not make sense to my mind. I cannot even wrap my head around the idea of using Galahad as a symbol for Mary, much less that there are somehow spiritually or literarily the same. Yet that is how his mind worked. He saw everything as related to everything else, and he wanted his Arthurian poetry to reveal that deep structuring. I am afraid that it fell far short of his design.

Before I close, let me say something else about the Arthurian Commonplace Book. The pages that I have are proceeded by an intelligent introductory essay by David Llewellyn Dodds in which (among other things) he provides all known information about the possible dates during which Williams wrote in this notebook. Dodds has also enriched the Commonplace Book by exhaustive notes. He has taken the time to track down the source of nearly every quote or reference in his MS: a labor of much time and very great love and care. He is currently seeking a publisher who is interested in producing an edition of the Commonplace Book, and I do hope he finds one soon. While this text is mostly for the specialist, there are enough of us specialists to make it worth printing!

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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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26 Responses to Arthurian Commonplace Book, c. 1912-1923

  1. This would make a fantastic digital humanities project/publication, for which I’d be happy to provide institutional support.

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    • Sørina Higgins says:

      David Dodds, what do you think? Do you want to talk to Michael Paulus about publishing the Commonplace Book digitally?

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  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I am currently in contact with a publisher, which may result in not only a print version but an ebook version as well.

    Having worked a lot on John Donne before turning my attention to Williams, I have been intrigued by DigitalDonne: The Online Variorum, though I have not in fact worked with it much as yet. Might that be an example of what you’re suggesting?

    Having noted DigitalDonne, which is the online component of the Indiana UP Variorum Edition of the Poetry, I must add that I have no idea how a digital project/publication of the Commonplace Book would ‘sit’ with the current publishing trajectory – indeed, that is not only for me to say.

    In any case, one fascinating development complementary to the Commonplace Book is how many works consulted by Williams are now available online at the Internet Archive. For one example, G.R.S. Mead’s essay, “Some Mystical Experiments on the Frontiers of Early Christendom” which C.W. knew in its original magazine publication, is now available there as reprinted in his Quests Old and New (1913). For another, Robert Hugh Benson’s The Necromancers (1909), which might be somewhat cheekily described as a proleptic C.W. novel by someone else!

    Meanwhile, the best taste of the Commonplace Book available is still that found in The Image of the City (1958).

    Incidentally, speaking of valuable projects, does anyone know what has become of the late Charles Moorman’s concordance of Williams’s Arthurian poetry?

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    • Sørina Higgins says:

      A concordance of CW’s poetry! Wow. No; I have sought through World Cat in vain.

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        When I was in touch with him (years ago!) he could not find a publisher for it, but offered to look things up in it for me, if I needed to trace anything. Happily, there is a professorship named in his honor at his old university, but I have not yet tried to locate his papers…

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        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          Professor Michael Salda, Charles Moorman’s successor at his old university, has now very kindly searched through his papers in the library there. They are listed as going up to 1970, and Professor Salda confirms the accuracy of that: papers relating to later published work are as absent as – alas! – any evidence of the concordance.

          Happily, he has also most kindly provided me with suggestions and possible leads for continuing the search for Charles Moorman’s ‘post-1970’ papers, especially the concordance.

          I will try to get cracking, and will keep the readers posted!

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  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    This might be as good a place as any to note that the young lover of The Silver Stair could be considered as the first of the young people who are not so obviously tending one way or another and who are emphatically faced with a very significant choice who are characteristic of Williams’s fictional works, and that Michael in The Chapel of the Thorn might be the second. But in the finely worked out sonnet sequence, the lover is the only such figure studied, while The Chapel is full of figures whom John Pellow calls “types or embodied attitudes” who present various responses, not least to the Thorn.

    With Williams’s pondering his projected Arthurian Grail epic in the Commonplace Book, this approach is enormously expanded and enriched by the consideration of various traditional figures, both men and women, from the Matter of Britain.

    But years of pondering, which produce another volume of poetry, Poems of Conformity, including ‘borrowed’ poems drafted in the Commonplace Book, do not produce the epic. Williams apparently returns to The Chapel and an attempt to revise it in 1924, does not certainly succeed at this, but, in July 1925, within five days of Pellow’s notes in his diary on The Chapel, embarks on a sensational novel, which in its later, revised form, Shadows of Ecstasy, is in many ways closer to The Chapel than any other of Williams’s works, and is characterized by a panoply of figures and their varying responses.

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  4. I do hope you are able to publish this in both print and electronic book formats. Let me know when I can pre-order!

    What I am thinking of is an online digital archive, such as the Walt Whitman Archive (whitmanarchive.org/), or a digital archival publication, such as the New York Public Library’s Biblion apps (exhibitions.nypl.org/biblion/). There are quite a lot of options and platforms available for providing dynamic and open access to materials, enabling engagement beyond what a traditional book format (p or e) can accommodate. It would be good to keep such options in mind as you secure and transfer publication rights.

    Please do contact me via email at paulusm@spu.edu if you would like to discuss this further.

    Best regards,
    Michael

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  5. wow. this is brilliant. i had no idea this existed. am now going to lie awake at night thinking about these potential organizational schema.

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  6. Steve Hayes says:

    I wonder if it could be made available in a database format, such as askSam, where it would be much easier to llok up things and follow themes. It seems to be it would be good to have a notebook in the format of what is, essentially, a note-taking program.

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  7. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Michael,

    My belated thanks for your examples and your invitation and address! I will hope to be in touch before long, but I find myself suddenly strangely busy (as well as characteristically disorganized) at present! I cannot say more about the publication picture, yet, but will no doubt be mentioning it here, when I do know more.

    Steve Hayes,

    Thank you (however belatedly as well) for your comment – I will try to look into it, too!

    Going back to Robert Hugh Benson, who has also received some attention in the comments to Brenton Dickieson’s Place of the Lion post, it is worth noting that his autobiographical Confessions of a Convert gives some vivid glimpses of a world Williams (though 15 years younger) presumably knew, where the Church of England is concerned. For those who like ‘multi-tasking’ – or just being read-aloud to – it, and several other of his books, are available at LibriVox.org (which, copyright laws being what they are, also has a lot of other books published during the first 30 years of Williams’s life). Two of these offer something interesting (though I am uncertain how unusual for that period), a sort of pair of alternative possible future histories. One of these, we know Lewis knew, though, writing more than three decades after it was published, he said “the Dawn of All (the only one I can remember having read) never meant much to me.” The other, Lord of the World (recently recommended, and more recently still referred to in a sermon, by Pope Francis!) I suspect Williams knew. Without too many spoilers, I think one of the Popes in it contributed to the development of the Pope in his later Arthurian poetry. Benson was also connected with Evelyn Underhill (see, for example, Williams’s introduction to his edition of her letters), who was not only a scholar of (Christian) mysticism, but (in one sense or another) a precursor of Williams as novelist – and, at one point, a member of the Golden Dawn and defender of magic!

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  8. Pingback: Time to Grow Up, Boy: Transitioning at Heroes and Kings | The Oddest Inkling

  9. I only just found out about your site after purchasing the Chapel of the Thorn. I am an Arthurian expert with many books to my name and a Charles Williams fan of many years. I have tudied his ArthurIan cycle many times over the years, was a friend of Lois Lang-Simms and know Grevel Lindop well. I’m interested in the Commonplace Book, which I remember combing though in the Bodlian years ago. Is there a publisher yet? If not I would love to add it to my own ebook publishing company, Mythwood Books. Would David Llewellyn Dodds like to discuss this if he does not have a publisher?

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    • Lovely to hear from you! Thank you for your comment. David, what do you think? Want to talk to John about this?

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Sørina,

        Thanks for drawing this to my attention!

        If my French were better, I might know if this is an example of ’embarras de richesses’!

        The folks at the Mythopoeic Press have been very kind and encouraging in their response to my approaching them, but (mea maxima culpa) I have still not sorted out all the formalities of my submission to them.

        And, therefore, wisely or not, I have never yet taken up Michael Paulus’s kind and knowledgable (and already toddler-aged!) offer to discuss his suggestions, etc.!

        And now, John Matthews comes kindly inquiring – for which, thank you!

        (I had just been thinking, with Grevel Lindop’s biography only a hundred-some-odd days away, whether I should indulge in waiting till I read it, to tune my Introduction to all I will no doubt learn, there, before trying to set anything like ‘finishing touches’ on it… In any case, I want to go through Aren Roukema’s “A Veil the Reveals” (JIS, Vol. 5, No. 1, April 2015) with my edition open next to it, to see if I ought to footnote and/or discuss all the new F.R.C. dates in Williams’s life in comparison with dates found in The Commonplace Book, before thinking ‘done is done’!)

        In gratitude to John Matthews and deference to the good people of the Mythopoeic Press and Michael Paulus, I suppose I should try embark on a three-way discussion as soon as possible…

        In any case, I need to ‘get my act’ together (including making sure all the latest corrections to the text which I have, thanks to Eric Rauscher, are made in good order!).

        Tangentially, I wonder if John Matthews knows that, so far as I know, he is (indirectly?) responsible for as much of Charles Williams’s late Arthurian poetry as is now available in Dutch translation – as quoted in one of his books? (At least one – I saw it in a bookshop, did not think I needed to buy it in Dutch translation, preferring originally English books in English, but cannot remember which – De Heilige Graal? or Elementen van Arthur-mythologie?…)

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        • John Matthews says:

          Dear David Llewellyn Dodds, Thank you for responding. This does seem to be the time for a reawakening of wider interest in Charles Williams. I’m happy to offer any advice I can, along with my renewed offer to publish the Commonplace Book as an ebook via Mythwood Books if required. In any case I need to get my hands on a copy as part of my own continuing studies on his work. Though it is still very early days I’m testing the water regarding a TV documentary on CW, but am awaiting Grevel’s biography. Delighted that at least a few lines of the Arthurian poetry made it into Dutch! That must have been Elements of the Grail In think. Should you wish you can reach me via the email address stored on this site.

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          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Thank you again! With respect to your needing to get your hands on a copy as part of your own continuing studies on Williams’s work, Eric Rauscher (of the Mythopoeic Society) got some sort of photographic copy of the whole original from the Bodleian. (As you probably know, Grevel Lindop wonderfully came into possession of something similar.) The added value of my edition is my having tried (not always successfully, alas) to have tracked down and footnoted every work Williams refers to or quotes. As you are so kind as to offer any advice you can, I will contact the representatives of the Williams Estate: perhaps I could let you see it, in its not-quite-finished state, and you could ‘return the favour’ by saving me at the last minute from any howlers I may have committed, by pointing them out.

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            • I might be able to get one from the Bodleian but to be honest it would be even more wonderful to get a look at yours. Also would obviate the necessity of going via the estate (purely a matter of time consideration, my intentions are purely honourable!). I’d be most happy to point out anything you might have missed if i spot it. I remember several strange notes CW had made that puzzled me even then, so I suspect your comments would be helpful to me also. I would, of course, treat this with absolute secrecy, but it would also help with any future publishing possibilities that might come into being to see what is involved. If that seems good to you, please email me at Graal@aol.com and I will supply a postal address if you do not have the text in digital format. May I take this opportunity of saying how immensely valuable your own collection of Williams’ early Arthurian poetry has been.

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              • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

                Thank you! I have now written the Estate to see if I can lend you a copy of the draft in its current form to read through and get a sense of, enabling you thereafter to forward any suggestions or corrections you think appropriate. I will hope to be in contact via the Graal email address, soon!

                Thank you, too, for your kind words about the selection of Williams’ early Arthurian poetry in my edition! I could kick myself for never yet having followed up with the edition of the complete ‘Advent of Galahad’ poems promised there. And, alas, there has never been a corrected Arthurian Poets series/Arthurian Studies reprint. R. Prokop in his Amazon review is justly swingeing about one of the typos I let through, but there are others. (I used to run off an initial list of errors and their corrections, and go round tucking it into copies I encountered on library shelves, but I really need to proofread the whole thing again and see where I can get the results posted for ease and convenience online – perhaps here and/or at the Williams Society site.) Further in that vein, I am baffled by both R. Prokop and R. N. Wightman noting in their reviews the absence of Lynton Lamb’s end-paper map of the Empire in the copies they purchased. I’ve never seen a paperback or hardbound copy without it, and don’t know what can have happened! (N. Anderson notes, in his reply there, that it is in the copies sold by Amazon, so, who knows?) Fortunately for those who find there way here, Sørina has reproduced it more than once!

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                • Glad to know we have at least a chance at this. I would love to bring off the publication of an ebook of the Commonplace Book and – who knows – a new edition of the Arthurian poems, fully revised and corrected and with the Advent of Galahad poems included. But most of all I wish to look properly at the book with Williams’ thoughts. He has had a considerable influence own own writing – both as a poet and Arthurian expert, and I never lose an opportunity to promote his work. I even taught a weekend study course on his poetry a few years ago, which was quite a success. I did notice the absence of the all important map in your edition of the poems – last least in my copy. Fortunately I have the original edition which includes it. I will keep my fingers crossed that you may be permitted to show me your work – if only as a student of the great man’s work rather than as a potential publisher.

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                  • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

                    To spare any interested reader too much of a cliffhanger, I have now heard that, on behalf of the Williams estate, they are happy to confirm that they have no objection to my sharing my draft edition with you!

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                    • Brilliant. You have my email address if you can send it that way, if not email me anyway and I’ll give you an address to mail it to. I’m really delighted. Now, about publication…..

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  10. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Given the rather Carrollean “Mouse’s Tale” effect of a series of replies, I begin again according to a further custom!

    I tried e-mailing via the “Graal” address: do advise me, if it failed to arrive!

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