Book Summary #5: Divorce, 1920
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!