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 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”
• 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”
• XXXVIII. “On the Word ‘My’”
• XLVIII. “On Her Names”
• 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”
• 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”
• LXXXIII. “On the Knowledge of Love”
• LXXXIX. “On Looking Forward”
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.