Love and the City: “Divorce,” 1920

In this phase of the life of The Oddest Inkling, I am posting summaries of each of CW’s books in chronological order. This is part 2 of a discussion his book Divorce. You can read part 1 here. Divorce

Book Summary #5: Divorce, 1920
Part Two

I have written about CW’s Theology of Romantic Love before—in this summary of his 1917 book Poems of Conformity, in this discussion of his principle themes, in this summary of his 1912 volume The Silver Stair, in my report on transcribing The Chapel of the Thorn at the Wade Center, and in several of my academic papers on Williams. I will continue to talk about this concept in future posts and papers.

In brief, this is the doctrine that the romantic, sexual love of another human can be used as a step on the ladder towards loving God. In Divorce, in the sonnet “For a Cathedral Door” (p. 71), Williams writes of love that “I reach heaven by so pure a stair.” He takes this even further in the same poem when he warns himself about the “dangerous” truth that “Almost my love for me is church enough.” I have written elsewhere about how Williams seems to misapply this doctrine.

In Divorce, written during the first few years of his difficult, complex marriage, Williams is still using his wife’s personality, love, and person as the locus of his spirituality. In “To Michal: After a Vigil,” he either equates her body with the elements of the Eucharist or claims that her true nature is revealed by the light of the Elements, or perhaps both (pp. 26-27). In “Politics,” he claims that truth is “Taught, Fair, to all in deity, / And taught to me in you!” (p. 48). This sounds, on the surface, as if other people need direct revelation of God, but that he only needs Florence. He tells her in “After Marriage” that “The gospel your bright forehead told” (p. 58). This inversion of syntax needs unpacking; it could perhaps be paraphrased: “your bright forehead told me the gospel.” As a side note, the persona he will use later in his Arthurian poetry is named Taliessin, which means “Bright Forehead.”

In “To Michal: On Disputing outside Church,” there is an anticipation of his novel The Greater Trumps. That novel ends with what appears to be heresy. The saintly character Sybil says that a crazy lady thought Nancy was “Messias.” “O!” Nancy’s father exclaimed. “And is Nancy Messias?” “Near enough,” Sybil answered. “There’ll be pain and heart-burning yet, but, for the moment, near enough.”

In other words, in the action of the novel, the character Nancy has taken the role of Christ. The poem “To Michal” ends:
thou shalt feel
A day, a sennight hence, what tempters fled
From those hot prayers. Thy foot there crushed his head,
Smile if the dragon’s claw here tore thy heel. (p. 72).
Apparently Williams’s wife Michal, too, is “Messias,” or at least “near enough.”

Near enough, indeed, that at the end of the next poem, “On leaving Church”: “I rise, I genuflect, I turn / To breakfast, and to you!” (p. 77)–not that he is bowing to her, but that his bowing to Christ leads naturally into his relationship with her. I find that very lovely.

There is more content in Divorce on the theme of Romantic Theology, lots more. Michal seems to shift from identification with Christ to identification with Mary in the “Commentaries,” for instance.

But let you proceed to the next theme in Divorce:

The idea of the City runs through all of Williams’s work. Here are some thoughts about “The City” on the website of a Benedictine Order, and here is my previous post about The City in CW’s works. Williams used the image of an orderly, harmonious city as an emblem for Heaven and for God’s orderly, co-operative kingdom on earth. This idea is being developed in Divorce. In “Ghosts,” he requests that the departed would:
Your heavenly conversation turn
Some while in aid of me,
That I may now, in these dark ways,
Glimpse of your city see. (p. 25).
In “House-hunting” (p. 28-29), he turns the ordinary domestic activity of looking for a new flat into an adventure “In the high town which is eternity,” again mapping earthly life onto heavenly. “Celestial Cities” (pp. 30-31) plays out the identification even more clearly, and lays the groundwork for what Lewis would explore in That Hideous Strength: the idea that underneath or co-existing with the earthly, human “England” is a heavenly, divine “Logres.” Williams puts it like this: “…through the streets of London / The streets of Sarras shine.”

In addition to the themes of War, True Myth, Romantic Theology, and the City, there are a few other topics in Divorce that I should mention.

* There are hints of the later Arthurian poems. For instance, in “Ballade of a Country Day,” (p. 20-21) all is well “If Sarras be, if Sarras hold the Grail.” (This reads like Williams’s slightly less catchy version of Browning’s “God’s in His Heaven / All’s right with the world”).
* The “Chant Royal of Feet” (p. 107) foreshadows “A Vision of the Empire” in its praise of body parts.
* There is a foreshadowing of All Hallows’ Eve in “Ghosts,” in which “I at the next corner met / With you whom once I loved” (p. 24).
* The poem “Ballad of Material Things” suggests that the Devil fails in his schemes because he is not incarnate–which led me to query in the margin, “What about Merlin?” Wasn’t Merlin supposed to have been fathered by the Devil?
* In addition to the title, “Divorce,” there is one other moment that seems to have influenced C.S. Lewis’s novel The Great Divorce. In “Dialogue between the Republic and the Apostasy,” The Voice of the Republic says:
Chooses he? I at ending shine, a God.
Refuses? But a dream I pass away.
Accepts? The heavens shall be his native sod.
Rejects? He treads but clay. (p. 40).
As you may recall, The Great Divorce turns out to have been a dream.
* There are poems for and against Universalism (pp. 42, 44)
* There are expositions of the Way of Exchange (p. 45)
* In the middle of the book are three “Experiments” with free verse that do not sound like Williams at all.

In short, I recommend that you check out this book if you are a fanatic about 20th-century British poetry. If not, hang on until we get to the novels!

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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7 Responses to Love and the City: “Divorce,” 1920

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    This ought to whet the literary appetite of non-fanatics of 20th-c. poetry, as well, with all its interesting detail and proposed connexions with later prose fiction!


  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    To follow up on the proposed connexions, a bit.

    In his “Preface” to Essays Presented to Charles Williams (1947), Lewis says, “in his earlier poems I, for one, so not see any promise of what he finally became” – before going on to make a very apposite, amusing quotation from one of them a couple pages later! So, we can wonder what he read of them, and when, exactly, but must also entertain the possibility that subject matter found in them may have come up in conversation, as well. In any case, the comparative approach you seem to suggest where That Hideous Strength is concerned is surely likely to be rewarding.

    With respect to C.W.’s own fiction, I would add the value of bringing together the “Ballad of Material Things” and the abandoned draft of a novel he was working on from c. April 1941 to at least late July 1943, about the Devil trying to beget Antichrist in the flesh, abandoned in favor of All Hallows’ Eve by September 1943. What is apparently the latest draft of it was published in Mythlore (1970-72) mistakenly extending the title of chapter one to the whole novel, “The Noises That Weren’t There.” Would he have been as rich and (in)famous as Ira Levin, if he had finished it? Or would ot have had ‘connoisseur’ qualities which would not have captured the ‘Rosemary’s Baby market’?

    As a ‘what about Merlin?’ footnote: an interesting question! Both C.W. and Lewis choose against any such possibility in practice, without (as far as I recall) ruling it out in every sense as possibility. Would C.W. have know the Jewish demonological lore (handily sketched by Gershom Scholem in Kabbalah (1974) ) about demonic-human procreation? Or would he have held to the Christian demonological explanation of demons only receiving as succuba to inpart as succubus as a sort of malevolent autonomous artificial-insemination-clinic?


  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I am glad you touched on a fascinating Arthurian element prominent in Divorce: the use of “Sarras” as the location of the Grail.

    In The Chapel of the Thorn (MS p. 101), Innocent says,

    Out of us poor in spirit God shall make
    New earth and heaven; there shall of us be built
    The city whose name is over all names else,
    Rome, Salem, Sarras, Zion, City of God!

    As far as I can recall, no further explanation of “Sarras” is given anywhere in that “Dramatic Poem”. Eight years later in Divorce – after studiously keeping his Arthurian Commonplace Book without beginning his Grail Epic all those intervening years – C.W. makes “Sarras” thematic – or at least a recurrent image, from the last stanza of “Divorce” (p. 10) on, sprinkled throughout the volume (pp. 20-21, 30, 32, 97). It is used, however, without any further details of Arthurian reference.

    The very specific local reference of Chorley Wood (p. 20) gives way to a vivid visual evocation of Sarras as “mid town” of an “eternal vale” – again, without further explanation, and cut short by the “If” of the refrain. (Whether the village of Sarratt not so far from Chorleywood Common has anything to do with this, I do not know.) Curiously, imagery in some ways similar to that associated with Sarras and the Trinity in the late poetry, is in “Advent” (p. 91) distinctly disassociated from Christ: “Some few unfruitful isles of rocky law,/Whereon wrecked sailors hardly dwelled”.


  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    To your interesting consideration of the Petrarchan sonnet “To Michal: On Disputing outside Church” in comparison with The Greater Trumps, can be added the possible enriching ambiguity of the (old) Latin Vulgate translation of Genesis 3:15, ending “ipsa conteret caput tuum, et tu insidiaberis calcaneo ejus” which the Douay-Rheims Bible renders, “she shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel.” The imagery in the poem could be (primarily) either Messianic or Marian, depending on which version of the verse comes to mind. (Perhaps the “madonna” of the first line plays with this – the term borrowed from ‘my lady’ to ‘The Madonna’ here possibly reflecting the latter.)


  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Is it worth noting that the saying sighed in Latin by the king’s poet at the end of “Taliessin in the School of the Poets” 18 years later, is here the subject and (with a variation) the refrain of “Commentaries – V”: “Sweet Jesus, be to me not a Judge, but a Saviour”?

    And the sonnet you rightly list under “expositions of the Way of Exchange”, “On the German Emperor”, seems to me worth comparing with “Divites Dimisit” (interestingly inscribed, “For Michal, in memory of the darkness, 1914-17”) and its revised expansion as “The Prayers of the Pope”.


  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I will also just ‘plug’ two of my favorite poems in Divorce: “Office Hymn For the Feast of St. Thomas Didymus, Apostle and Sceptic” and the sonnet, ” ‘Thy Will be done’ ” responding, with an allusion to Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven”, to ” ‘I prayed for you’ – From a letter.”


  7. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    With reference to those who are not, a well as those who are, fanatics about 20th-century British poetry, it is interesting to note that in 1942 Norman Nicholson (better known and respected as a poet in some circles today than C.W.) put together a slender paperback for Penguin’s “Pelican Books”, An Anthology of Religious Verse: Designed for the Times. (It includes on the half-title page the notice, “For the Forces. Leave the book at a Post Office when you have read it, so that men and women in the services may enjoy it too.”) Among the many poets whose work is included are not only Auden, Eliot, Dylan Thomas, D.H. Lawrence, and Allen Tate, but Ruth Pitter, Anne Ridler, J. D.C. Pellow, and Charles Williams – who is represented not only by selections from his Cranmer play and Taliessin through Logres, but also from Poems of Conformity and Divorce.


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