The Soul Divided from the Body: “Divorce,” 1920

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 are 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.Divorce

Book Summary #5: Divorce, 1920
 Part One
(tune in later for Part 2)

Divorce is Williams’s third volume of poems, his third published book. The title requires explanation (especially as this book appeared three years after CW’s marriage!). He is not referring to the dissolution of marriage bonds. Rather, he is referring to the soul’s divorce from the body and from its earthly ties as death approaches. Specifically, this book is dedicated to Charles’s father (“and my other teachers”), as Walter Williams struggled with the onset of blindness and physical decline. The first (long, complex) poem in the book tells that this father “taught me all the good I knew / Ere Love and I were met” (p. 7). His father taught him:
–the terms of fate,
The nature of the gods, the strait
Path of the climbing mind,
The freedom of the commonwealth,
The laws of soul’s and body’s health,
The commerce of mankind
(p. 8)–
in other words, the seeds of most of CW’s distinctive doctrines and th
emes. His father taught him how to debate, how to doubt, and how to consider all sides of an argument:
I will of doubt make such an art
That no dismay shall move
Sufficient bitterness of heart
For unbelief in love
(p. 49).
 But at the time of writing, this great teacher is failing:
Now, now the work all men must do
Is mightily begun in you…
Now, now in you the great divorce
Divorce, sole healer of divorce…
Divorce, itself for God and Lord
By the profounder creeds adored….
(p. 9).
and he goes on to associate this “Divorce,” death, with the Holy Spirit, because it heals the rift between body and spirit, between soul and God. Death = the Holy Spirit? That is vintage CW oddness right there on page 9, in poem one.
Later, in “Advent,” he writes that while Christ was incarnate on earth, he was “from his heaven divorced” (p. 94), which seems to explain away at least some of the weirdness.

There are several major themes in this book: War, True Myth, Romantic Theology, and the City.


 Since this book was published just after World War I, it was presumably composed during the war or its immediate aftermath. Meanwhile, CW stayed safely at home, thanks to poor eyesight and a neurological disorder that caused shaking in his hands. He was in mental and emotional agony over the friends who went to war in his place and (he thought) died for him.

After the poem to his father, CW includes several war poems in the book. They cover a wide range of topics and emotions surrounding war, loss, and death. He mourns the loss of his friends. He praises death in a strange Novalis-like mood of sehnsucht nach dem Tod. He laments
the crisis of Schism
. He layers historical and contemporary wars and legends on top of one another, part of his signature idea of the contemporaneity of all times. He remembers conversations with his lost friends and watches their “ghostly blood” run down on the London street to stain the feet of pedestrians. He telescopes geography so that he is drawn into the killing fields of France with them while he sits at home in London. These are powerful war poems that should be examined in context of those by his more famous contemporaries.

One of my favorite poems in the collection is “In a Motor-bus,” in which the bus turns into his coffin– “Narrow and long my coffin is, / And driven lumberingly, / As I go onward through the dark / And Death goes on with me” (P. 110). It’s powerful and memorable, and picks up on that theme of strange longing for Death. It’s pretty much just sheer terror in this poem, but the strong meter makes the poem itself enjoyable.

The six-part sequence “In Time of War” ends with this brief lyric, “For a Pietà”:
Sorrow am I, though none has seen my tears.
To me for comfort all men’s childhood ran;
To me men’s dolour piously uprears
This image, where I mourn, not men, but man.
I am that which lives when in your darkest hour
Not heroes only, but their hopes, have died.
I am the desolation, and the power
Of patience; I await what shall betide
(p. 19).
In this difficult verse, I seem to see CW’s distinctive identification of the Christian’s life (
and death) with the life and death of his Lord dramatized yet again.

There is an amazing poem entitled “On the German Emperor,” in which CW seems to say that England is just as guilty as her foes, and to both give and ask pardon.


I have written about “true myth” before, here and here. Inklings scholar Holly Ordway talks about it in this podcast. Several people talk about the idea in this article on C.S. Lewis. It is such an important concept that perhaps I should have added it to the list of major themes in Williams, or I should devote a full post to it in future. Put very, very simply, True Myth is the idea that all the myths that preceded the birth of Christ, and those that originate in cultures that do not know the Gospel, point to or foreshadow the Christian story in some way. This concept was very important to Lewis, Tolkien, and Dyson, and played an important part in Lewis’s conversion to Christianity. You can read about it here. Longer excerpts from Lewis’s letters to a friend about this topic are available here. Please let me know of other resources on this topic and I’ll collect them for a later post.

What I find fascinating about Williams is that he seems to have come to this belief, that all other myths point to the Christian story, independently of the other Inklings, as it appears in his work long before he met them. I have not worked out where he “got” the idea, although he was perfectly capable of reasoning (and imagining) something like that out for himself. I wrote about this before, in one of my posts on Poems of Conformity, in which he makes Mary into a fertility goddess. This is essentially True Myth working backwards, and comes dangerously close to saying that Christianity is merely an amalgamation of previous religions, rather than the fulfillment of them.

This theme is not as obvious or ubiquitous in this book as in some others, but does make appearances. For instance, in a poem entitled “Politics,” Williams writes:
One God the doctors of the schools,
With Rabbi and Imam,
Teach to my heart one mistress rules
In a transfigured calm
(p. 47).
Yet this is arguably relativism or pluralism, not True Myth.

Another example, where True Myth meets Romantic Theology (of which more later), is “Love is Lost.” In this poem, Love is personified as the goddess Venus. This is a common theme in both Classical and modern verse, but in the context of all of Williams’s work, he takes it one step further. Wherever he writes “Love” with a capital L, he means Christ.

So in his previous book he made Mary into a fertility goddess; in this book, he makes Jesus into the goddess of Love!

Come back later to read about two other major themes in Divorce, “Romantic Theology” and “The City.”

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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11 Responses to The Soul Divided from the Body: “Divorce,” 1920

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Who would not be intrigued into trying Divorce after this? (A good moment to recall that Dame Helen Gardner preferred C.W.’s earlier poetry?)

    Meanwhile, a scattering of notes and queries:

    Walter Williams: Accent on ” onset”? In a letter about Christmastide 1927, C.W. comments on him “yearning” to “discuss the Budget” (then the responsibility of Chancellor of the Exchequer Winston Churchill). C.W. later tantalizingly remarked on his father’s “very strong feeling for the Jewish tradition” which “to some extent” he passed on to him. Anything Kabbalistic here, long before C.W. met Waite?

    “For a Pieta”: compare Book I of Chesterton’s “Ballad of the White Horse”(1911)?

    Re. “this is arguably relativism or pluralism”, why?

    “This is essentially True Myth working backwards, and comes dangerously close to saying that Christianity is merely an amalgamation of previous religions”: which “this” exactly, and why?

    “Love is personified as the goddess Venus” and “he makes Jesus into the goddess of Love!”: compare Lewis on Venus in The Faerie Queene in “Neoplatonism in Spenser’s Poetry” (1961)? (I clearly must reread “Love is Lost”!)


  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Ah, my lazy haste! But so it would also go in any conversation, before I could rummage among the books…

    Anne Ridler notes (Image, p. xii), “Walter Williams never became totally blind, although hw could not see to read for some years before his death in 1929.” Mrs. Hadfield (Introduction, pp. 12, 210 (note 1) ), allows us to see he was born in 1849.

    I would hold that in “Divorce”, while Divorce indeed seems identified with the Holy Spirit (stanza 14), though is also said to knit “the riven Three” Persons of the Trinity, C.W. also clearly says (st. 11) that the “chill dividing waters” of the “everlasting source” of “the great divorce” beginning in Walter run “more deeply” than death. The Trinitarian imagery of stanza 14 might reward more discussion…

    It is the Trinity Who gives the deepest context in “Politics”, though the speaker recognizes that “Rabbi and Imam” teach “One God” (while failing to teach ‘One God in Three Persons’). This is, in effect, further developed in “Advent”, that heroic – pentameter couplets – play with the matter of Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, where (pp. 92-93) “Our Lord Mohammed” includes “Moses, and Milton” among “the pledged champions of that Unity” – playing with the characterizations of Milton as less than an orthodox Trinitarian.

    A more shocking stanza in “Politics”, to my way of thinking, is that calling the First French Republic, declared two days after the defeat of the Duke of Brunswick at the battle of Valmy in 1792 (on what, with the passing of 94 years, would become C.W.’s birthday, 20 September), the “first free nation” (st. 2), when we all know the United States had declared independence in 1776, which the Treaty of Paris recognized in 1783.

    Rereading, I find “Love is Lost” is a dialogue between two or three voices, where “Love” is not “Venus” but Amor or Eros (or, if you like, Cupid) – in that way it is more like Lewis’s Till We Have Faces than Spenser’s Garden of Adonis. But C.W. is playing in a characteristic way with the mythology, different from Lewis’s. The third voice (sts. 3-6) not only says Love will be found “where the maids pass”, in the “chaste company” of “Cynthia, ever vestal”, but seems to endorse “tales” which aver that “vestal Cynthia” is in fact his mother and that “His famed [that is, something like ‘widely reputed’] mother / Venus” was in fact “his kidnapper”.


  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    As far as I can quickly determine, the idea of Cynthia (= Artemis or Selene or Diana or Luna) as the virgin mother of Love has no traditional source in antiquity. (Lewis Richard Farnell, The Cults of the Greek Cities, vol. II (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896) – available at Internet Archive – has an extensive treatment of Artemis, which C.W. could, but of course need not, have known.)


  4. Pingback: Love and the City: "Divorce," 1920 | The Oddest Inkling

  5. Sharon says:

    I’m fascinated by his poem accusing England of being as guilty as Germany. Did he say what for?


    • Sørina Higgins says:

      Thanks for asking! Here’s the poem:

      Pardon, you ruined bodies of our war,
      That we less wrath than consolation find
      In thinking upon that dire emperor,
      Who loosed all mankind’s pride upon mankind
      For since he bears our sins and we bear his,–
      So dread the cousinship of flesh and bone,–
      This bloody spectacle none other is
      Than Love in us betrayed and quite undone.
      O dark design of comfort! –Him, we know,
      Love turns to meet and in quick arms to fold;
      We too, ’tis seen then, may be greeted so,
      Us too Love’s pardon may be swift to hold.–
      Pardon we dared not trust till lo, it showers
      Upon this deed, which is but like to ours.

      Now THAT is a confusing poem. I think he is saying that we are all interrelated, and therefore we all bear one another’s sins, rather than saying specifically that England is just as guilty as Germany for World War One. Of course, the kings of England and German were closely related by blood, as well as by deed, so they literally share a “cousinship of flesh and bone.” But the language does seem to suggest that he feels England bears equal responsibility for the War, too.


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Line 4 makes me think of the ‘war-guilt clause’ (Article 231) of the Treaty of Versailles (28 June 1919): “The Allied and Associated Governments affirm and Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.” And, for that matter, of Article 227, which begins, “The Allied and Associated Powers publicly arraign William II of Hohenzollern, formerly German Emperor, for a supreme offence against international morality and the sanctity of treaties.”

        The Wikipedia article on Wilhelm II refers to the interesting-looking essay by N.J. Ashton & D. Hellema, “Hanging the Kaiser: Anglo‐Dutch relations and the fate of Wilhelm II, 1918–20”, Diplomacy & Statecraft, Volume 11, Issue 2, 2000, pp. 53-78 (and available online).

        Perhaps (I have not read it, yet!) it illuminates the first and last paris of lines of the sestet (ll. 9-10, 13-14). For, how do “we know” so concretely “Pardon […] showers/ Upon this deed” and “Love turns to meet and in quick arms to fold” Wilhelm?

        The exact phrasing of line 4, however, not only assigns a specific guilt of ‘loosing’ but points to universal sinful human pride and its culpable dangers when “loosed” and so given opportunities to act.

        Ans an interesting comparison may be with the late, unfinished poem from 1944, “The Taking of Camelot” (which I include in the Arthurian Poets C.W. volume, pp. 283-85). There, Taliessin experiences the terrible weight of justified killing as nonetheless killing, the taking of the life of a brother human.

        Perhaps the deepest sense of lines 7-8 and 14 is that since God the Son became Man, anything we do to any of His fellows-in-the-flesh we do to Him (cf. St. Matthew 25:31-46). And I wonder if line 8 is intended to include a reminder of Judas betraying Christ with a kiss, in the context of the Christ-life imagery with which C.W. is so often working (so, “in us”)? If so, perhaps lines 9-10 are also meant to recall Jesus’s question in St. Matthew 26:50 in its full, loving weight, “Friend, wherefore art thou come?”

        And yet, even if all that were true, it is, as you observe, not an easy poem!


  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I have gone on puzzling about “we know”, both the “know” and the “we”. Is this (primarily) a way of saying something like ‘no sin need separate anyone from the saving love of Christ’? Of sayng that ‘Salvation is accomplished, and the (former) Emperor can be saved’? That this is somehow easier to believe of another? And when the sins of another are (as far as one can see) enormous or drastic, and yet one believes this, one can then more easily believe it of one’s own so clearly known sins, as well? “We” – especially in lines 11 and 13 – could then include both ‘the English’ and each and every one of us.

    I wonder again if line 10 has a specific allusive reference (or more than one)? It makes me think of the father in the parable of the prodigal son (though I do not see quite how “turns” would fit in, there). It might in any case imply a conditional: ‘we know that… if he believes and repents…’ This would fit well with the matter of the “Dialogue between the Republic and the Apostasy” (preceding this sonnet, with one poem in between), which I just noticed seems to be echoed by C.W.’s remarks about the Temptation of Christ in chapter two of Outlines of Romantic Theology (1924).


  7. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I just noticed that a copy is scanned in the Internet Archive.


  8. Pingback: Love and the City: “Divorce,” 1920 | The Oddest Inkling

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