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 #4: Poems of Conformity, 1917
(tune in later for Parts 2 and 3)
It contains more variety of forms than his first book, The Silver Stair, which was a sequence of 84 sonnets. He still uses fairly conventional meters in this second volume, but handles them deftly. In fact, the more I read these early works, the more I like them simply as poems. (The less I like some of their content, but that is a different story). Until fairly recently I agreed with scholars who dismissed these early books. In fact, I wrote in a paper once:
His early volumes (beginning with The Silver Stair in 1912 and culminating with Heroes and Kings in 1930) are frequently called “pastiche” (see, for instance, Dunning 113), and employ rigid, archaic, juvenile rhyme schemes and metrical patterns.
Now I am not so certain. These are fairly skillful poems. They are not wildly original, and when one compares them with what T. S. Eliot was writing at the time—this is the year “Prufrock” was published—Williams does not come out looking very good. There are hints of Shelley, Herbert, Wordsworth, and Shakespeare, but I think this collection is more on the side of allusion than imitation.
Poems of Conformity was published in the same year that Williams got married and that he joined the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross. However, I do not have the exact chronology of these events precisely mastered. Here is what I know:
* February 1915: CW tells Alice Meynell that he can’t write poetry
* May 1915: friend Harold Eyers killed in action in WWI
*20 May 1915: CW writes a poem memorializing Eyers
* 12 April 1917: CW marries Florence “Michal” Sarah Conway
* June 1917: Ernest Nottingham killed in action in France
* July 1917: Poems of Conformity published
* 21 September 1917: CW joins A. E. Waite’s Fellowship of the Rosy Cross
I am missing the chronology of the writing, compilation, and revision of Poems of Conformity. Hadfield tells us that Williams submitted the MS to the publisher Elkin Matthews, who had turned it down. (Hadfield narrates, interestingly, that “In a temper, Charles threw it aside and marched out of the office at five-thirty”—but neglects to say on what day this particular 5:30 tantrum occurred; Hadfield 25). Then Fred Page (Williams’s office mate) sent it to OUP, who took it up. But Hadfield does not tell us when this happened.
Nowadays, publishing takes a long time. For example, I finished writing the first draft of Caduceus in October of 2009; it was rejected all that spring, then I resubmitted it in the fall of 2010, it was accepted in March of 2011, and the book was finally published in February of 2012. I do not know if a similar schedule applied in the 19-teens—or, quite probably, that since CW worked for OUP, they may have rushed his book through on a fast track. I also do not know how much revision he may have done between rejection and acceptance, and then again after acceptance.
Why does it matter when he wrote the poems, when the book was first rejected, then accepted? Because of the relationship of the interpretation of these poems to the date of deaths and a wedding.
There are several major themes in this book: War, Romantic Theology, the City, and True Myth.
Williams had to write about war: World War One was raging at the time, and Harold Eyers and Ernest Nottingham, mentioned above as killed in action, were two of his closest friends. The poem entitled “May 20th 1915” is clearly meant to memorialize Harold. But the chronology of the writing of the book would also determine whether he had time to memorialize Ernest as well. Here is the poem:
Beating heart and climbing brain,
Roaming foot and searching tongue,
Get no more of loss or gain,
For the soul hath gone along.
Now of all fine things on earth,
Tales and tastes and towns to see,
Less of wealth hath less of worth
For our double poverty.
In a beggared lane we go,
Palsied of the better hand;
Purposes none else can show
Are for ever hidden land.
O the songs we shall not sing!
O the deeds we shall not do!
O the robbed hours that shall bring
In your thought’s place thought of you!
Now the past is robbed also;
You, being gone from us and all,
With the ghostly years shall grow
Fainter and phantasmical.
And of us inconstant, you
Shall have like inconstant mind,
In so many ventures new
Slipping us you leave behind–
With the town which you espied,
Where it yet on earth shall be,
Built about you on each side,
The Republic’s liberty;
As you say her, rising far
To the great design of man,
As you heard her to her war
Call by ban and arrière-ban;
As your pledges you redeemed,
Serious and gay unthrift,
To the politic you schemed:
All magnificent in gift!
Only once, if aught awake
Still in you of death or pain,
For our loving’s ancient sake,
O remember me again!
O courageous, new in power,
Heavened afar from earth and me,
In my own departing hour
Knit again our federacy!
I have been reading John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War and Tolkien’s letters, and I have just reached the moment when one of JRRT’s best friends, Rob Gilson, was killed on the Somme. So the poignancy of these young men’s senseless deaths is very much with me.
Tune in tomorrow for a discussion of the next big theme: Romantic Theology.