Poems of Conformity, part 3

Yesterday and the day before I posted Part One and Part Two of my discussion of Poems of Conformity. Here is part three.

Charles Williams Summary #3: Poems of Conformity (1917)

In this book, Williams starts to move from from a narrative microcosm to a diagrammatic microcosm—this requires some explanation. Let me pause to explicate what I believe are the two central poems, and what I mean by this use of “narrative” and “diagrammatic” should then become clear[er]. 

The most important poem in this book for the concept of Romantic Theology is “The Christian Year” (pp. 72-77). In this poem, Williams develops even more clearly an idea that he first put forward in The Silver Stair. This is the idea that each human marriage follows the narrative pattern of Christ’s life on earth. In “The Christian Year,” Williams goes through the following incidents:
* Annunciation
* Conception
* Mary’s Pregnancy
* Nativity
* Adoration of the Shepherds
* Adoration of the Magi
* Flight to Egypt
* Return to Nazareth
* Presentation in the Temple and Simon’s Prophecy
* Crucifixion
* Burial
* Resurrection
* Road to Emmaus
…and in each description, he makes clear that this event is being re-enacted in the lives of the lovers. For instance, in the Crucifixion and Burial sections, two voices converse, thus:

“Surely his death had end when once he died?”
“Always, in all men, is he crucified!”
“Of old he rose: shall he not rise in us?”

and later:

“Estrangèd grow our hearts; cold, cold our will.”
“Aramathean Joseph felt that chill.”

Perhaps most beautifully, here are the lines about marriage vows matching up to the Nativity:

…the Child brought forth within
This silver-lanterned shelter of our skin,
Where whispers rustle like heaped straw; our hands,
Serving that Innocence for swaddling-bands,
Clasp the invisible Immanuel thus:
Lo, the Lord’s glory is come in to us!

This seems crazy. 

Who thinks that Jesus gets born in them when they fall in love? What if you fall in love more than once? (Williams had to face that problem later). What about if you fall out of love—not just in the normal way, when every marriage has to transition from an erotic power to serious companionship and mutual labor, but in a fatal, divorcing kind of way? These are serious problems. Of course, the potential charge of idolatry is also a serious problem.

Williams may have gotten some aspects of this idea of Romantic Theology as Way of Affirmation was from his reading in the Occult. There is a Hermetic principle, formulated in the “Emerald Tablet” that was not written by Hermes Trismagistus, called the principle of Correspondence. In Madame Blavatsky’s translation, this principle is: “What is below is like that which is above, and what is above is similar to that which is below to accomplish the wonders of the one thing.” In short, “as above, so below.” As in Heaven, so on earth. Or, vice-versa, then: what is on earth reveals what is in heaven. Especially one’s girlfriend. 

It seems likely that Williams would have encountered this principle already, because he had certainly been reading books by A. E. Waite at this point. Indeed, only two months after the publication of Poems of Conformity, Williams joined the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross.

Lynton Lamb's mapWhat did I mean, then, by moving from a narrative microcosm to a diagrammatic one? The narrative microcosm is the idea that each pair of lovers re-enacts Christ’s life. The diagrammatic idea is just in its infant form in The Chapel of the Thorn, The Silver Stair, and Poems of Conformity. It is the concept he would develop later, in which each part of the human body matches up to a country on the map of Europe, and all of those match up to certain virtues or qualities of God’s kingdom on earth. 

The other central poem, “The Repose of Our Lady: A Dirge” (pp. 106-110) is not so much about Romantic Theology. Instead, it is about that other fascinating topic, True Myth. Williams (characteristically) approaches the topic of True Myth in an odd way.

He makes Mary into a fertility goddess.  

I kid you not:

To her more made than to Demeter suit;
In the ploughed field the busy corn struck root
By Her; with great fish seas grew populous,
And little ponds with stickleback and newt.
. . .
…barnfowl and herd she blessed
With chick and calf, and the wild beast with cubs.
. . .
She is the mother of flocks and corn heaped high,
She is the mother of all fertility…
. . .
Sunshine her smile, her spread hand rainfall gives:
But on her deep breasts Love that ever lives,
Refreshing all worlds, making all things new,
Throve, who eternally and ever thrives.

Williams will never cease to surprise and amaze me. 

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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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5 Responses to Poems of Conformity, part 3

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Searching for Evelyn Underhill just now at the Internet Archive brought up 48 titles (among which various apparent duplicates). Browsing, or even combing through a few, might be a good way to see what sources for Christian mystical Christ-Life imagery (etc.) C.W. may have known. (Of course, Underhill also had her entanglements with the occult (orders, and thought)…)

    Could one view the “Dirge” as a sort of rhapsody on exegeses of Genesis 3:20 as prophetic: “And Adam called the name of his wife Eve: because she was the mother of all the living.” The Blessed Virgin Mary as the ‘second Eve’ is more fully the ‘Mother of All Living’ as she is the Mother of God, of God the Son, One of the Persons of the Life-giving Trinity, Creator, Sustainer of all. And as “figlia del tuo Figlio” (‘daughter of her own Son’, as Williams delights to quote Dante’s way of putting it), she prays to Him for all. So, one could also see Williams, here, as between George MacDonald’s writing about the miracles of Our Lord and Lewis recalling that in his popular philosophical book, Miracles.

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  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Theodore Maynard, in his 1919 essay, “The Poetry of Charles Williams” (available at Internet Archive), seems to share your perception with respect to the development of the Christ-life formulation. He says that, in “The Silver Stair, this discovery, only half-conscious as yet, was only hinted at; in poem after poem of the later book the idea was worked out”. He also quotes Williams that he “was startled to find it […] an exact correlation and parallel of Christianity.” Which “it”? Maynard glosses, “the road of human love” (as one of the “many roads to faith”).

    With respect to your perception of Williams as “moving from a narrative microcosm to a diagrammatic one”, one interesting question is, how far was it (1) clear to Williams and (2) clearly communicated by him, that there was no simple parallel chronological sequence, ‘gone through’ only once and ‘in order’, between the events of Christ’s earthly life and those experienced along the road of human love.

    Another point is, that at least as it relates to the Arthurian poetry from the Commonplace Book ‘epic’ plans in the nineteen-teens, to the Advent attempt in the late nineteen-twenties and early thirties, and on into the late poetry, the “diagrammatic” has a strong “narrative” element. Not only that of the Arthurian stories, with the Grail Quest seen as central, but of those stories related to Salvation history, with the Dolorous Stroke related to the Fall, and so looking forward to a Healing of the Wounded King related to the Redemption. Probably the best place for the reader to get (or refresh) a sense of this is Anne Ridler’s selection and discussion of Arthurian prose in The Image of the City (1958).

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  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    It is interesting to note that Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, with the title given as “Mary, Mother of Divine Grace, Compared to the Air We Breathe”, was published by Orby Shipley in Carmina Mariana, Second Series (1902) with an acknowledgement that he got it from H.C. Beeching’s A Biik of Christmas Verse (1895), and includes the lines

    Merely a woman, yet
    Whose presence, power is
    Great as no goddess’s
    Was deemèd, dreamèd;:who
    This one work has to do—
    Let all God’s glory through

    and also

    Of her flesh he took Flesh:
    He does take, fresh and fresh,
    Though much the mystery how,
    Not flesh but spirit now
    And makes, O, marvellous,
    New Nazareths in us,
    Where she shall yet conceive
    Him, morning, noon, and eve;
    New Bethlems, and he born
    There, evening, noon, and morn—
    Bethlem or Nazareth,
    Men here may draw like breath
    More Christ and baffle death;
    Who, born so, comes to be
    New self and nobler me
    In each one, and each one
    More makes, when all is done,
    Both God and Mary’s Son.

    Williams could have seen it in either collection long before writing the Silver Stair sonnets (though I think we only know for sure that he first knew other of Hopkins’ poems when he was “round about twenty” as they appeared in volume 7 of the 1906-07 edition of Alfred Miles’ Poets and Poetry of the Nineteenth Century, one of which he quotes, apparently from memory, in his Arthurian Commonplace Book).

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  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    My apologies: Book (not Biik!), no comma after “presence”, and only a colon following “dreamèd”.

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  5. Pingback: The Sould Divided from the Body: "Divorce," 1920 | The Oddest Inkling

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