Charles Williams Summary #3: Poems of Conformity (1917)
The concept of Romantic Theology is very highly developed in this volume, which is dedicated to “Michal,” Williams’s wife–they married the year this book was published. There are poems that clearly describe sex (unusual for Williams, and startling in any of the Inklings), especially the series of Sonnets on pp. 36-41. Consider these powerful lines:
What Love indeed doth us inspire,
What doth our shrinking bodies fire
Till half a sacrifice and half
A triumph, all a sobbing laugh
Teaches how sacrifice may be
It own exceeding ecstasy;
How shall achieve the final Deed?
(“Churches,” p. 69).
Yet the narrator occasionally calls the woman a “virgin” or a “maid.” This suggests that the book contains poems written both before and after their wedding—I remember coming across a comment somewhere in Hadfield that Williams was a “self-described virgin at 30” when he got married.
Why should we spend time pondering the private sexual life of this author? Generally, that is a bad practice. Yet Williams made a religion out of his private sexual life, and it is impossible to interpret his writings correctly without an understanding of that religion, which he called “Romantic Theology.” We will soon be hearing about his book Outlines of Romantic Theology (published posthumously) and later about one of his final masterpieces, The Figure of Beatrice. These are the two works in which he explicitly laid out the early and late forms of this system, although it is implicitly present, arguably, in all his works.
What is this Romantic Theology, and by what logic does it work? I have attempted to chart its progress in The Chapel of the Thorn, The Silver Stair, and Poems of Conformity, and hope to continue tracking its later developments. Here is what I have put together, speculatively:
In his 20s, Williams seems to have gone through a crisis of faith. Specifically, he seems to have questioned the exclusive claims of Christianity. I put forward this suggestion based on the syncretism of Chapel of the Thorn, while I fully realize the dangers of biographical criticism based on a reading of poetry.
Sometime around 1912, it appears that Williams decided “No one can do more than choose what to believe,” and chose to believe in Christianity.
Then he faced another dilemma. Given the exclusive truth of Christianity and its moral injunctions for how to live, he had to choose between the two traditional Ways of honoring God: the Way of the Affirmation of Images and the Way of the Negation of Images. Williams was much more naturally and temperamentally suited, it seems, for the Negative Way. He was “born under Virgo” (Hadfield 3) and thought at times that maybe he had the gift of celibacy and should remain single. Thus, the theme of The Silver Stair is renunciation.
However, he got married. Therefore, at some point between 1912 and 1917, he chose the Way of Affirmation. He then committed himself to being a kind of prophet of this Way, although he really strove to balance the two Ways all his life.
The essence of the Way of Affirmation is that created objects, pleasures, and people legitimately reveal something about God, and can be used (not as objects of worship, but) as objects of joy and pleasure such that our worship passes through the object up to the Creator of that object. People are, indeed, the best “objects,” or icons, of this sort, because only humans are specifically said to be made “in the image of God.”
The best way to get to know Someone invisible is to look at an image of Him. Based on this, Williams went on to say that the absolute best earthly object of this kind of “secondary worship” (that’s what he calls it later, secondary worship) is the Beloved Woman.
In 1917, then, Williams was specifically using Florence “Michal” Sarah Conway Williams as his Object of Secondary Worship, as the icon of his Romantic Theology. By affirming—praising, enjoying, delighting in—her excellences, he was taking steps up the ladder towards God, he believed.
That, so far as I can make out, is the logic of Romantic Theology. I would be glad of corrections, additions, disagreements, etc.
This kind of iconic use of Michal, then, comprises the largest portion of Poems of Conformity. Here are lines that could be taken up as an epigraph of Romantic Theology:
How, though I know him full of grace,
Should I before the God’s young face
Dare kneel or gifts unfurl?
Only I bring them all to thee
Who still, Adored! hast need of me,
Being but a mortal girl!
(“Epilogue,” p. 126).
I wonder if even Dante was ever so explicit! At moments in this volume, the narrative voice seems shocked by how powerful sex is, by how much her physical presence changes him. And yet the longing, the sense of loss even during possession, is also present—as I believe it must be with every thoughtful pair of lovers. Who has not felt, during a kiss or an embrace, the heartbreak and horror of the future time when you will be torn apart? Who does not gird oneself for future grief even in the moment of first vows? As Williams puts it, in the context of remembering Christ’s sufferings even while enjoying the delights of love, “Dear, / Livelong be our entreaty this, / To feel the sword in every kiss” (“Presentation,” p. 46).