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:
I. Iseult of Ireland
III. Morgan le Fay
IV. Iseult of the White Hands
V. Morgause of Orkney
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!