In this phase of the life of The Oddest Inkling, I am posting summaries of each of CW’s books 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 #6: Windows of Night, 1924
(tune in later for Part 2)
Windows of Night is Williams’s fourth volume of poems and his fourth published book. Although he is 29 years old in 1924, his poetry is still immature. It is still fraught with archaic vocabulary, stilted rhythms, and inaccurate diction. It suffers from all the obscurities of his later verse without having the saving grace of soaring vision that rescues the late poetry.
Yet this volume is worth reading. It has some gems of thought that are both valuable on their own terms and useful for understanding the growth of Williams’s ideas. However, it does not contain as much of the latter as I expected. Approaching a work written in 1924, coming to it with my knowledge of his life, I expected to see material directly related to the following topics:
1. his marriage to Florence “Michal” Conway (they married in 1917)
2. their only child, a son named Michael (born in 1922)
3. his work at the Oxford University Press (he started work there in 1908)
4. his years of membership and leadership in the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross (1917-c. 1927)
5. his “Platonic” (or “Dantean”) love affair with Phyllis Jones (whom he met in 1924).
But there is very little on these topics; none at all on Phyllis. The omission of Phyllis I take to be evidence that these poems were completed and collected before 1924, making their way through the stages of publishing over the course of that year. Each of the other four topics mentioned above does appear in a few poems, so I will discuss each of these themes in three individual posts over the next three days, taking the wife and child together.
But meanwhile, what, then, is this volume of poetry “about” (as far as poetry is “about” anything. Remember: a poem should not mean, but be)?
Much of it is theological in nature. The narrative voice expresses that fear of eternity that runs through most of his early work and which Stephen Dunning discusses in The Crisis and the Quest (refer to this bibliography for more information on that work). Quite a few offer up something disturbingly like dualism (see, especially, “Antichrist”) and one is a Black Sabbath hymn of praise to Satan (“Witchcraft,” pp. 114-116).
There are several poems about the simultaneity of all times, an important theme that gives originality to his best novels. One of these is “The Window,” from which the volume draws its title. That poem begins:
Put out the candles, friend, while I unclose
The window of our thought upon the night,
Time, and the world, where London, light by light
Twinkles away into an unknown end
And darkness at the edge of Being flows
As this poem proceeds to explore a terrifying “everlasting silence” that looks down out of a “black and vacant heaven” (ll. 13-14), it ranges through time, space, meaninglessness, and work. While the narrator speaks of works of the past, he feels “dead fingers touch / The foot that juts from our year’s ledge, and clutch / About our ankles” (ll. 66-68). He thinks how his own thoughts are founded on Plato’s and those of so many minds before. He hears all previous poems playing at once in his own meters. Of the dead past, he cries: “It is not past, it is not dead! it moves, / It stirs with life; all that men were they are” (ll. 133-34). As the narrator and the friend continue to talk, they find that their words and thoughts take them to the very edge of chaos where all existence is torn apart and flung into nothingness, where souls fall forever, conscious for eternity, longing to die—again that theme of a horror of eternity. The poem ends by wrenching the thoughts back to everyday realities, pleasures, and works of art as an antidote to madness: “Here lies my Herrick, in the farther room / They are playing Grieg; come in, let us attend” (ll. 179-180).
There are many poems about sleep and insomnia—a theme to which I can relate! There are explorations of coinherence, such as “Domesticity,” which also brings in the idea of the simultaneity of all times. “Domesticity” and “Prisoners” ponder the negative side of coinherence, in which someone else suffers that I might have joy. This book contains his noted poem “To the Protector, or Angel, of Intellectual Doubt,” which proposes that Faith and Doubt are twin sisters who are necessary to one another’s existence. I explore that idea in a previous post about the Crisis of Schism. Sin plagues him, too, in a haunting poem called “A Dream” (pp. 122-23), in which he meets sin in a house, and now, in waking life, is always terrified of entering any house for fear of meeting Sin there.
There is a fascinating one called “Theobalds’ Road” that postulates a multiverse.
There are several about poetry and the power of poetry and poets. (Stay tuned for a future post on Williams and Doctor Who, in which I will explore the power of words!). Now let us explore two major topics in this book: family life and work life.
Michal & Michael
Charles Williams and Florence Conway met in 1908 and married in 1917. For an account of those years and the origins of her nickname, please refer to my biographical post about those years.
Florence has to endure some harsh criticism and unkind portrayals in Windows of Night. Even in “To Michal: Sonnets after Marriage” her soul has a quality of “childishness,” she gives in to “childish angers,” and has an “intent simplicity” and a “joyous and impetuous infancy.” In the third of these sonnets, “Apology for Neglect,” the narrator calls her eyes “angry lights,” and it turns out that she is furious because he hasn’t kissed her for an hour. “On Domestic Government” is a particularly nasty one in which women only pretend to be submissive to men (who have “heavier minds”!) so that men get to do the harder work and women don’t have to trouble themselves with decision-making!
However, one of the most beautiful poems in the book is written to and about her. It is called “A Cup of Water,” and it describes how she wakes the narrator in the middle of the night to ask for water, and by doing so, unconsciously interrupts a tormenting train of thoughts that had been torturing him. In doing so, she becomes an emblem of Christendom herself, “riding…mighty and lovely, with naked blade” (ll. 17-18). She also enables him to sleep, at last: after her request:
Slumber was there, and Love, and an end to thinking;
Only I saw, remote and far in the night,
Our mother Christendom pausing from war and drinking
A cup of water—and sleep came down on the sight.(ll. 35-36).
There is also one that seems like a sketch for the later poems on Bors and Elayne in the Arthuriad: “To Michal: On Bringing her Breakfast in Bed,” and one on raising his hat to her, and another ironic one on her near approach to perfection. Some of the “Sonnets after Marriage” are also just beautiful love poems: “On her singing the Gloria” and “In her Absence” are the most lovely and kind.
“In Time of Danger” is a long poem about Michal giving birth to Michael. It is beautiful, mythological, and layered with symbolism. In it, the narrator fears that he will lose his wife’s love when the baby comes between them, but the poem ends in glorious exaltation as the baby Michael meets his “brother,” Jesus, in a heavenly throne room. This is followed by a series of poems “For a Child” that are as tender as any parent could desire, though deepened by CW’s peculiarities of mind.
And Florence gets the last word: the final poem, “Last Thoughts before Sleep” (p. 152), starts out rather shockingly, as the narrator lists the possible moods his wife might be in when she wakes up:
the saucy quean,
The mother of my soul, august and mild,
The passionate lover, the fixed friend, the keen
Woman of affairs, the absurd and humorous child? (ll. 1-4).
But it ends kindly, claiming that night is “the time to think great things” (1. 11)because she is beside him.
Oxford University Press
Windows of Night is framed by two long poems dedicated to Sir Humphrey Milford, the Editor of the London branch of Oxford University Press, where CW worked. The first poem, “Prelude,” bears the dedication “To H.S.M.” The penultimate poem is simply entitled “To a Publisher.” These poems praise Sir Humphrey highly with that adoration near worship that CW expressed in all his references to his boss and dramatized in The Masques of Amen House. These Masques are plays he wrote for and about his co-workers, to be performed in the publishing house office. Several of them were actually performed—but more on them anon, in their rightful place. Here is a sample of the kind of language CW uses about Sir Humphrey in Windows of Night:
These meditations, since your care
Sustains unharmed my household stair,
And the peace where they grow,
Take, the poor symbols of your due;
All verse, and more than verse, to you,
With her and God, I owe. (“Prelude” p. 13)
So it is thanks to God, Florence, and Sir Humphrey that CW can write poetry. Or, to put it another way: given knowledge of CW’s later life and writings, it could be argued that he uses his wife, his boss, and even God as objects on which to found his poetry, or as occasions to inspire poetry. He certainly was capable of such troubling objectifications, as he subordinated all people and all things to his concept of heirarchy—and really, as I have argued elsewhere, this system of hierarchy was but the theological buttress that upheld his lust for spiritual and creative power.
Be that as it may, the next-to-last poem in the book is also to Sir Humphrey, and is a beautiful vision of a procession into Heaven in which publishers have a place of honor. This poem prefigures CW’s Masques, the plays he would write just a couple of years later for his colleagues at OUP to perform. More on those in their rightful place.
Come back again for a second post about Windows of Night later.