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.
Book Summary #5: Divorce, 1920
(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 themes. 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.”