An Introduction to Amen House

The next several works by CW that I’m going to be summarizing were all written during his happiest years of work at Amen House, the London Offices of Oxford University Press. I have written before about how important his workplace was to Williams. He made it the center of his life: it was probably more important to him than his family, church, the F.R.C., or his lecturing. This at least was true for the mid-1920s and early -30s: an intensely emotional phase in CW’s life.

AmenHouse

Amen House

There were at least five reasons that Amen House was the main focus of CW’s mental and spiritual energy during this decade or so.

First, he found meaning and fulfillment in his work. It was not so much the editing itself (he had to perform many tedious tasks and do a lot of hack-work), as the fact that he spent his office hours among books and bookish people: he had to read an enormous amount of literature and talked books and poetry all day long.

Second, and directly related to that, were the friendships that he cultivated at OUP. He found many like-minded people there and forged deep relationships with them. He was a dynamic force at the center of the social network there, driving people to work, talk, and live to their utmost. He gave each of his friends a title and a role to play, then wrote dramas (“Masques”) that they actually performed in these personas.

amen_house library

The Library at Amen House

Third, he was allowed to write his own creative stuff during business hours, and churned out his poetry, fiction, biographies, book reviews, and other pieces in odd hours at his desk. He used the library at Amen House for his own person research as well as for looking up facts necessary in his editorial capacity.

Fourth, he loved order, hierarchy, organization, and interaction. He found all of these at the Press, in a kind of glorious chaos superimposed over an underlying order. He loved his boss, Sir Humphrey Milford, and seems to have simultaneously submitted himself graciously to that man’s orders and also rather twisted the whole Firm around his little finger, shaping them to his personality and will.

Fifth, Phyllis Jones. I have already written about CW’s relationship with Phyllis briefly (in this post about his life) and will do so again. For now, just remember that he fell in love with Phyllis soon after her arrival at the Press in 1924 and continued to adore her to some extent for the rest of his life.

Now, in order to understand the works that CW wrote during this time period, you need to know a little bit about his co-workers, the names he made up for them, and the ways he fitted them into his personal mythology. Therefore, this post serves as an introduction to the following texts, to be summarized over the next few weeks:
– “A Century of Poems to Celia”
– “Amen House Poems” and An Urbanity
The Masque of the Manuscript
 – A Myth of Shakespeare
 – The Masque of Perusal
 – The Rite of the Passion
 – The Masque of the Termination of Copyright

Here, then, is an introduction to the characters CW assigned to his colleagues at Amen House.

Tityrus = CW himself, the Introducer of the Masques.
Phillida or Celia = Phyllis Maud Jones, the librarian, CW’s second love interest, the social center of life at the Press. She is also increasingly the spiritual center of the Masques, serving a kind of sacramental function.
Caesar = Sir Humphrey Milford. He appears to have been the perfect boss: intelligent, a good leader, a perfect gentleman, kind, solemn, understanding, and tolerant. As Bernadette Lynn Bosky writes in her introduction to The Masques of Amen House, “Besides cherishing Milford’s friendship, Williams honored the Publisher for what he represented: order, right work, the hierarchical head who bears his office with majesty and satisfaction but not personal pride.”
• Colin = Frederick Page, CW’s first friend at the Press (he got CW a job there back in 1908), and his office mate. Perhaps his closest friend in the ordinary human sense of the word “friend,” which is not often applicable in CW’s case (“disciple,” “colleague,” “rival,” or “inspiration” is more often accurate!)
• Alexis = Gerry Hopkins, nephew of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, expert in French literature, and rival for the love of Phyllis Jones. He and CW were close friends and managed to continue cordial relations after the awkward love-triangle debacle.
• Dorinda = Helen Mary Peacock, a German literature specialist, head of Production, and a rather imposing personality.
• Thyrsis, The Master of the Music = Hubert J. Foss, composer and musician, head of the music department, and probably the most accomplished and famous man in his own right from among this motley collection. Note that these Masques were set to music, which Foss composed.
• The Singer = Dora Stevens, who does not otherwise come into the story of CW’s life much.
• The Manuscript / The Book / The Thought = Nina Condron, who also does not otherwise come into the story of CW’s life much.
• Perigot = an unidentified colleague; the character is a forerunner of Periel in Descent Into Hell.

AmenHouse bombed

Amen House bombed by the Germans in 1942

Keep these characters in mind as you read the next several posts about The Masques of Amen House and the associated poetry. Enjoy!

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About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is a writer, English teacher, and Inklings scholar. Sørina serves as Chair of the Department of Language and Literature at Signum University and teaches English at King's College and Lehigh Carbon Community College. She has published two books of poetry, "The Significance of Swans" and "Caduceus."
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3 Responses to An Introduction to Amen House

  1. Pingback: Office Drama: The Masques of Amen House part 1 | The Oddest Inkling

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    “He made it the center of his life: it was probably more important to him than his family, church, the F.R.C., or his lecturing. This at least was true for the mid-1920s and early -30s” – a bold first sentence, somewhat moderated by the one that follows.

    One easily has such a vivid impression of the Amen House period, that it takes some combing of Mrs. Hadfield’s two books to find the means of shading the total picture more finely – with respect to family (his and Michal’s parents, all still living after the OUP move, and Edith Williams), old friends, and new (like Nicholson and Lee on the one hand, and, later, the Pellows on the other), Church-life (the St. Silas the Martyr Church link from the Williams Society site helps a bit, here), teaching (from 1922-23 on), and the OUP at Amen Corner from June 1908 till the move, with Fred Page (who recruited him), Humphrey Milford (from 1913), Helen Peacock (from 1916), and the six other men with whom he and Page shared an office, and whom Page called “a very merry crew”, for example. Reminiscences in the Newsletters, now available on the Society site, help fill in the picture vividly, and perhaps Grevel Lindop’s biography will do so further.

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  3. Pingback: Office Drama: The Masques of Amen House part 2 | The Oddest Inkling

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