100 Love Poems: “A Century of Poems for Celia” (1926-27)

Charles Williams Summary #8: “A Century of Poems for Celia” (1926-27)

Charles Williams might justly be called one of the greatest English poets of married love: after all, he used his courtship of his wife as the basis for his “Romantic Theology” (which I wrote about here and here). But then in March of 1924, something happened that rocked his world and changed his writings and beliefs forever.

Phyllis Jones

Phyllis Jones

Phyllis Jones joined the staff of Oxford University Press as the librarian at Amen House, and Williams fell in love with her. Although (or perhaps because) they never had a physical affair, Williams’s love for her remained intense and passionate all of his life: Bernadette Lynn Bosky writes that “it had precisely the intensity of passion that is sometimes heightened by such frustration, seen in so much courtly love poetry.” Although they never sexually consummated their love, it was not strictly “Platonic,” as Bruce Charlton explains in this post. His love for Phyllis survived through her fling with another of his colleagues, his wife’s discovery of his emotional infidelity, and Phyllis’s two marriages. He called her “Phillida” (a version of her name that he used for her public persona), “Circassia” (a name related to the mild S&M relationship he wanted to persue with her), and “Celia” (her divine image, her use as a step along a Dantean Via Affirmativa). He took her as his Muse: the “second image” of God who inspired many of his greatest works. I have written before and will probably write again about Phyllis herself and about their relationship; today I want to focus on one of CW’s works: A Century of Poems to Celia.

Williams wrote this cycle of 100 poems to Phyllis Jones during the most intense period of his love for her, probably 1926-27. There are sonnets and other stanzaic forms, all addressing her in the third person in the strong rhymes Williams favored in this period. They range from the playful to the passionate and the jealous. They chart the course of CW’s falling in love and somehow reconciling himself to this second love. They were written before the later heartbreak, when Phyllis turned to Gerry Hopkins as a lover instead of CW.

Unfortunately, I have not been able to read all the poems. They are kept in the Bodleian Library, and Heaven only knows when I will be able to get there again.

Three selections from the poems have been published (to my knowledge):

In The Masques of Amen House (The Mythopoeic Press, 2000):
• I. “On Alexis’s latest Novel”
• VII. “On some occasional poem”
• VIII. “Postscript to the Urbanity”
• XXXI. “On Amen House and the friends of Amen House”
• XXXIII. “On her flirting with Alexis”
• LVI. “At a Rehearsal of the Masque”
• LVII. “With the Sonnets concluding the Masque”
• LVIII. “on the proposal that, in a second Masque, she should present the soul in ecstasy, and on her objections”
• XCIX. “On Caesar”
• C. “In the Library”

In Charles Williams: Alchemy and Integration by Gavin Ashenden (Kent State UP, 2014), the following poems are mentioned and/or quoted, some with titles, some without:
• The prologue
• II. “On a thwarted invitation to lunch: also, on a question about the Rosicrucians”
• XIX.
• XXIV. “On having left her suddenly”
• XXXIII. “On her flirting with Alexis” [that is, Gerry Hopkins]
• XXXIV. “On a Letter Warning Her to Be Careful Lest She Came to Shipwreck”
• XXXVI.
• XXXVIII. “On the Word ‘My’”
• XLVIII. “On Her Names”
• XLIV.
• XLIX.
• L. “On Possibilities” (an exposition of “The Circassian State”)
• LII. “On a Morning Meeting”
• LIII. “On Her Forgetting Certain Pencils”
• LIV. “On the Wars of Circassia”
• LVI. “At a Rehearsal of the Masque”
• LVII.
• LVIV. “At Mass on Ascension Day”
• LXVIII. “On Her Growth in Grace”
• LXX. “On an Unexpected Departure”
• LXXI. (untitled)
• LXXII. “Daydreams”
• LXXIII. “On Her Practice”
• LXXIV. “On a Gesture of Affection”
• LXXVIII. “On Her Past”
• LXXXII.
• LXXXIII. “On the Knowledge of Love”
• LXXXIX. “On Looking Forward”
• Epilogue
I believe that a few others are discussed in Women Among the Inklings: Gender, C. S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams by Candice Fredrick and Sam McBride, as discussed in this article by Joe Christopher, “A note on Charles Williams’s Phillida.”

OK, well, that’s a lovely list——but what are the poems about? What do they reveal about CW’s relationship with the woman he called “Phillida,” “Circassia,” and “Celia”?

They reveal much. Without reading the entire series, I cannot say just how much. The selections, along with Gavin Ashenden’s discussion in Alchemy and Integration, tell a lot.

First of all, I learned that CW was not fooling himself about what kind of love this was. Previously, I thought that he kind of tried to hush up the emotional affair even to himself, persuading himself that his love for her was non-romantic. No such thing. This was a full-blown romantic, sexual (but unconsummated), passionate, adoring, idolatrous love. As Ashenden puts it, this poetic cycle “does not allow for any obvious demarcation between the spiritual and the erotic.” He wrote in poem LVIII: “you are all and all are you,” and in poem LVII:
Your perfect movement gave Him what He sought,
a gateway for His entrance; all His power
found in your swift and unpossessive thought
room for its range—you loosed the happy hour.
All else is His: this only must be given,
a will, a place, an opening fit for heaven.

I was surprised by the extent of the passion and the blatant nature of the idolatry. I thought he would have tried to bottle that up. But no: CW worshiped Phyllis for those few years and continued his adoration at least until 1942 (as Ashenden proves by quotations from a series of unpublished letters from CW to Phyllis): “the Celian experience dominated his personal life and his poetic and imaginative thinking from 1926 to 1942”. Perhaps he continued to love her all the way until his death in 1945.

In short, CW knew what he was doing. He was unfaithful to his wife, and he did it with gusto.

I am also shocked at how little guilt appears in these lines. He begins by saying “I will choose out a hundred poems for you / of all I have written since our love was new,” without trying to hide or apologize for the adulterous love. He praises her in no uncertain terms, calling her “princess,” “daughter of Maia,” “the centre which is you,” and enumerating her physical beauties. He asks her out on dates.

I am saddened to see that CW apparently did not fight against this adulterous love, nor did he take any practical steps to try to separate himself from her. Instead, he spiritualizes their love, justifying it by equating it with his love of God. He goes so far as to say that she “shall save the inmost places of Mansoul” (LIV). As someone who fancied himself a spiritual director, and as Michal’s husband, he ought to have put safeguards around his heart. And if he could not help falling in love, he could at least have acted appropriately. But no: he wrote her poems, he wrote plays for her to act, he modeled the heroines of his novels after her, and he wrote her passionate letters for years and years and years. It would have been wiser to ask for a transfer of workplaces, get another job, move away——and stop writing to her.

He was, then, very human, and very flawed.

But they are good poems. Not as good as his later work, but good poems nonetheless. They are well aware of their literary forebears and show a deft handling of line and allusion. They are psychologically astute, while still maintaining a kind of mythological distance from their subject that CW always build between himself and his subject matter.

I hope to read the whole series one day. If I do, I’ll plan to post about it here.

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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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4 Responses to 100 Love Poems: “A Century of Poems for Celia” (1926-27)

  1. Dmitry Medvedev says:

    I believe, it wasn’t quite as simple as that… There are hints of at least some sense of guilt scattered across CW’s letters to his wife, although the affair with Jones is never explicitly mentioned (as far as I remember). “The Figure of Beatrice” is also, in some sense, an attempt to make amends (whether successful or not is a different question).

    If I may recommend, there is an excellent essay “Charles Williams and the Companions of the Co-inherence” by Barbara Newman (I think it can be found in the internet somewhere, free of charge), which offers a very sober and balanced view of CW’s affairs with women (and also some valuable notes about his idea of co-inherence). I would like to quote the last two paragraphs in full:

    “In short, Williams as a spiritual master had his flaws. But, as I have remarked
    elsewhere, if by “saintliness” we mean moral perfection, then saints
    by definition do not exist. Over against his temptations, not always resisted,
    we may set Anne Ridler’s remark that in Williams’ company people often “felt
    themselves to be better people than they really were—and not only better, but
    more intelligent.” That in itself is the mark of a rare holiness. The attraction
    Williams exercised, and continues to exercise, stems finally from his ability to
    make the world he saw so vividly—the web of “interchanged adoration, interdispersed
    prayer”—as visible to the mind’s eye as it was to his own visionary
    spirit. Those who glimpse the vision will be perennially drawn to the practice.
    In any case, biographical criticism can go only so far. For a man who lived
    his myths and mythologized his life so absolutely as Williams, he was surprisingly
    aware of those limits. A character in Descent into Hell wonders whether
    Stanhope’s “personal life could move to the sound of his own lucid exaltation
    of verse,” but does not try to find out, and in The Figure of Beatrice Williams
    observes, “We do not know if, or how far, Dante himself in his own personal
    life cared or was able to follow the Way he defined, nor is it our business.”
    With such skeptical charity we may leave the matter. Late in his life, Williams
    wrote to a friend: “My own muddles are written over the earth and heaven,
    but I take refuge in God and the Order, and hope, under the Mercy, to smile at
    them all in the end.”

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  2. Sørina Higgins says:

    Dear Dimitry:

    Yes, you are correct: the matter is not quite that simple, and Newman’s article is excellent. Here is a link to the full text: https://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/spiritus/v009/9.1.newman.pdf.

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  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thank you for the post, including its links – I had not read Joe Chridtopher’s article before! – and now the Barbara Newman link, too!

    It is worth noting that there is a typed transcription of The Century in the Wade (which is all I have ever seen, so far).

    It is also worth reminding your readers of Mrs. Hadfield’s report (Exploration, p. 117) that, in 1933, “Gerry Hopkins staggered Charles (a rare feat) by publishing, also with Gollancz, Nor Fish nor Flesh, a novel which was clearly about Gerry, Charles, and Phyllis. Charles spent several ten minutes in my Library in emphatic disclaiming, correction, and wrath.” If it is a roman-à-clef, it is also a novel, so one cannot easily pronounce on the boundaries between any real-life material and its fictionalization, but it is well worth reading – and would be, simply as a novel, in my experience. I read it in the Bodleian, and have no idea how hard or easy it is to get access to a copy outside such a copyright library.

    The Hopkins character is the narrator, but it is not (as far as I recall – I have not looked up my notes!) set in a business establishment where the Williams character is a fellow worker.

    But maybe Williams was still staggered by finding it too thinly veiled – for he himself had already published the Arthurian poems in Heroes & Kings about which he wrote to Phyllis (Exploration, p. 82), “though the poems are not what I could have wished, still Tristram does derive from your Circassian and inscribed hands, and Lamoracke from a not unworthy fantasy of you, and the first Palomides is a lament for you, and the Percivale was written at your request, and the Taliessin is an aspiration for you.”
    To get the full impact of these remarks, see the poems in my Arthurian Poets edition (pages 196-204, 228-30, 205-08, and 225-27), or in Heroes & Kings with illustrations!

    Perhaps most striking in this respect, is the creation of the Princess of Byzantion character and the naming her with “Caelia” – a variant of the tripartite-naming characteristic of The Century – and the further designation of “a dead Byzantine royalty.”

    As one of the Century poems spells out, the three names Celia-Phillida-Circassia all name Phyllis Jones, but do so in terms of specific aspects of her. Here, we may note an article about his Arthurian poetry published by Williams in April 1941 and reprinted by Anne Ridler (Image, p. 181): “The use of the word Caucasia is another example of development. The word was originally ‘Circassia’; it came, of course, from the harems of the Arabian Nights, and I had used it lightly in certain allusions to frank non-significant sex affairs. But presently the use of that word became impossible for several reasons; it refused to bear the weight with which I wished to charge it. Fortunately that other word Caucasia offered itself. […] That it referred (anatomically) more particularly to the buttocks was a late development.” We can see this Arthurian geographical use of Circassia in both the Advent of Galahad “Prelude” and the intermediate “Prelude” (my ed., pp. 165-66, 255-56). Presumably the “certain allusions” mean or include those of The Century. It is curious to see Charles Williams talking about anything as “non-significant”!

    I share the sadness and disappointment you express in your fourth-last paragraph. Michal Williams wrote in a letter to Pellow of 14 July 1960, that a few hours before his death, Williams had been very distressed and said to her that she didn’t know his unkindness to her and he had no time to put things right.

    Reading your saying that you were “shocked at how little guilt appears in these lines”, I was reminded of Lewis’s observation in Arthurian Torso (Eerdmans, p. 344 = ed. 1, p. 160): “The figure of the wolfish Lancelot is important because in a work devoted to the glorification of the flesh he is one of Williams’s few expressions of the dangers of concupiscence.”

    Your post makes me think I need to look again more carefully at how much Williams’s relation with Phyllis Jones may have contributed to his treatment of Lancelot and Guinevere. Might the concupiscence and mad ferocity of Lancelot as developed long after the Commonplace Book consciously reflect Williams’s awareness of his own? And what of the fathering of Galahad (which your quotation from “poem LVII” partly put me in mind of)?

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  4. Sørina Higgins says:

    I just now finished reading “Nor Fish Nor Flesh”!!! And it has certainly staggered me. Whew. I will blog about it very soon.

    Like

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