Poems of Conformity, 1917

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
Part One
(tune in later for Parts 2 and 3)

Poems of Conformity is Williams’s second volume of poems.conformity

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.


The Tea Club and Barrovian Society: Tolkien, Wiseman, Smith, and Gilson

Tune in tomorrow for a discussion of the next big theme: Romantic Theology.

About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is a PhD student in English and Presidential Scholar at Baylor University. She also serves as Chair of the Language and Literature Department at Signum University, online. Her latest publication is an academic essay collection on "The Inklings and King Arthur" (Apocryphile Press, December 2017). Her interests include British Modernism, the Inklings, Arthuriana, theatre, and magic. She holds an M.A. from Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English. Sørina blogs about British poet Charles Williams at The Oddest Inkling, wrote the introduction to a new edition of Williams’s "Taliessin through Logres" (Apocryphile, 2016), and edited Williams’s "The Chapel of the Thorn" (Apocryphile, 2014). As a creative writer, Sørina has published two books of poetry, "The Significance of Swans" (2007) and "Caduceus" (2012).
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3 Responses to Poems of Conformity, 1917

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Mrs. Hadfield introduces that paragraph on page 25 of Exploration, “Charles wrote to the Meynells […] cheerfully about a sudden proposition by the O.U.P.” and her note identifies “C.W. to Wilfrid Meynell, 21 February 1917” (note 30, p. 237); on page 27, she quotes “a letter to Alice Meynell accompanying a copy of Conformity” which her notes date as “3 July 1917” (notes 33, 34, p, 237). This would suggest that only a little over four months after telling them of the proposition to publish it, he was able to send a copy! She also writes (p. 25) that C.W. “asked Alice Meynell’s help in the final choice of poems to be included” (was that in the same 21 Feb. letter?). Mrs. Hadfield’s Introduction (1959), as well as giving the more vivid details that “Fred Page stayed behind until everyone had gone” and then “retrieved the manuscript” from “the office wastepaper-basket”, also notes that Humphrey Milford consulted Professor Saintsbury as well as Sir Walter Raleigh about it (p. 41): presumably these consultations were concluded and recommendations made before 21 February 1917.

    On page 24 of Exploration, she says, “Fred Page was called up into the Army Pay Corps in February, and by October was near Ypres.” This comes between quotations from letters of 14 July and 9 November 1916 (notes 25 and 27, p. 237), which would suggest she means Page was near Ypres in October 1916, before Field Marshall Haig’s decisions in May 1917 which would lead to the Third Battle of Ypres a month later. If so, Page’s rescue of the MS. must have preceded February 1916 (unless being “called up” did not entail stopping work immediately).

    Now, as Holy Luck would have it, C.W. gave Fred Page a holograph MS. of Poems of Conformity, and the Pages passed this on to their old friend for his son, Stephen Medcalf. No-one I have yet succeeded in contacting seems to know the current whereabouts of this MS. – it is not in the Wade, Bodleian, or Williams Society collections – nor have I discovered what, if any, provision Stephen Medcalf made for it, whether before death or in his will (which I have not seen).

    Fortunately, however, Stephen Medcalf not only lent me the MS. on one occasion, but very kindly allowed me to photocopy it for purposes of my research. Now, with permission of the Williams Estate, I will be scanning those photocopies for deposit in the Wade, Bodleian, and Williams Society collections (soon, I hope!). I once collated the MS. with the book as published, and while I will not take the time before finishing this comment to look up the results (or the MS.), one detail worth mentioning is that the biggest difference is that the MS. does not, and the book does, include poems drafted in the Commonplace Book.


  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thanks to Lindon Huddlestone’s thesis on C.W., I know Poems of Conformity was reviewed in the TLS on 12 July 1917, on page 335.


  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I just noticed that several different copies arr scanned at the Internet Archive!


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