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:
* Mary’s Pregnancy
* Adoration of the Shepherds
* Adoration of the Magi
* Flight to Egypt
* Return to Nazareth
* Presentation in the Temple and Simon’s Prophecy
* 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?”
“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.
What 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.