Making A Myth: “Amen House Poems”

Charles Williams Summary #9: “Amen House Poems” and “An Urbanity”

Before reading this post, I recommend that you read these:
All’s Fair in Love: CW’s life 1908-1939
Torn by Doubt: CW’s “Crisis of Schism”
An Introduction to Amen House

In this phase of the life of The Oddest Inkling, we are exploring CW’s life and works in the 1920s and early 30s. This is the decade of his most intense love for Phyllis Jones. He poured out poems and plays in this period, then began writing the novels whose female protagonists are modeled on Phyllis. Several of these are included in the book entitled The Masques of Amen House, published by the Mythopoeic Press in 2000.

Around 1927, CW wrote a long poem entitled “An Urbanity,” upon an occasion when several members of the OUP Amen House staff were away, traveling. It is addressed to “Phillida,” which was one of CW’s many nicknames for Phyllis, a kind of representation of her public self. It is a friendly poem, suggesting a deep social connection and a kind of special intimacy between CW and Phyllis, but it is not yet a love poem. He does call her “my dear,” but he had a habit of calling many young ladies “my dear” and “princess” and other terms of endearment.

This long monologue uses the same nicknames for their colleagues that are used throughout the Masques—Caesar, Dorinda, Alexis, Colin—but the portraits of the characters are more serious than the high comedy of the Masques. One stanza shows how much CW loved his coworkers:

If we had chanced to make mankind,
Phillida, we should have inclined
to limit the chief types to seven
(since music hath its separate heaven)
these five and us two…

[that is, Williams, Jones, Milford, Hopkins, Peacock, Page, and another colleague named Norman Collins].

The overall impression of “An Urbanity” is of a happy, busy, fulfilling work life where the friendships are so close nothing else is needed. The intimacy between “Tityrus” (CW himself) and “Phillida” might be occasion for some comment if it were the only poem CW wrote to Phyllis, but I do not think that one would suspect the depth of his passion from this poem along. I’m not sure he yet suspected it himself when he wrote this—either that, or he was keeping it under wraps, since the poem was printed and passed around Amen House, to the delight of many readers. It is possible that Florence may have acquired a copy. Hadfield reports that CW wrote a letter to Phyllis soon after “An Urbanity,” and that it, too, is friendly and bordering on intimacy, but without any of the later passion. So it seems this poem is a glimpse into those few moments of deep friendship before CW knew he was in love with Phyllis—in other words, the time when he ought to have fled from her in order to preserve emotional fidelity. But who would do so in his place?

The other “Amen House Poems” included in the volume The Masques of Amen House cross that line. There are several “Sonnets on The Masque of the Manuscript,” and the second refers to Phyllis as “my heart” and dedicates the plays to her. The first calls his friends “divinities” and says that the five of them (leaving out Norman Collins, I assume, as he has no part in the plays) make up a sacred pentagram. This is a glimpse of the occult imagery that will play such a huge role in the Masques themselves—of which more anon. There are other such references throughout these poems: mention of Christian Rosycross, a “sacred unity.” The cycle of ten sonnets ends with another reference to the “pentagram, O you five-pointed star” with which it began.

Then there are several other occasional poems: alternative prologue and epilogue to the Masque of the Manuscript, other pieces dedicated to members of the dramatic cast of characters at Amen House, and even some later works (such as “1917-1939,” addressed to Milford). They are strange, beautiful poems: what must his coworkers have thought of this bizarre, inspired, hermetic poetry dedicated to them? They are a tiny glimpse into CW’s work life, love life, and social life in the 1920s and 30s. Do read them!

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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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One Response to Making A Myth: “Amen House Poems”

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    If I may contribute something to the general discussion of the dates of events and writings in this context, I will note (as I more briefly did in my Dictionary of Literary Biography entry: 153, pp. 319-20) that, in a much later letter to Raymond Hunt (now in the Wade), Williams embarked on a “sketch of an autobiography” which included reference to his falling in love with Phyllis Jones and in which he identified what he called their “great period” as being from September 1926 to April 1927: “After that, everthing went wrong – except, of course, the Holy Ghost.” He also points in this “sketch” to Chloe Burnett, in the novel Many Dimensions, as a reflection of Jones, though “not very close.”

    I am intrigued by the plurals in your reference to “the novels whose female protagonists are modeled on Phyllis.” The first drafts or versions of what were later published as Shadows of Ecstasy and War in Heaven were both written before September 1926 – though the first of these was certainly later revised, and it is conceivable the second was, too. I tend to think of Roger and Isabel in the first and the Rackstraws in the second as more analogous to the Williamses than anything else. It would – or will, in due season – be interesting to read which female protagonists other than Chloe you are thinking of, and why.

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