“Nor Fish Nor Flesh”: Gerry Hopkins Tells All

Life is far stranger than fiction. Life narrated in fiction in even stranger. You might not believe the following story (I scarcely do myself), but it is “true,” in some sense or other. Ready?


Phyllis Jones

Sometime around 1926, CW fell in love with Phyllis Jones. There followed a few years of a passionate office romance, casting all of their coworkers as actors in a myth of earthly harmony. CW’s good friend Gerry Hopkins (nephew of the poet) was particularly involved, performing in CW’s plays and sharing in their daily life at OUP.

It appears that Phyllis returned CW’s love for a time, but the affair was never sexually consummated. After a while, she may have become overwhelmed by his literary outpouring in her direction, and began to cool towards him a bit. According to Hadfield, in 1929 she “began to slip from him,” and for the next two years all his plays are about “the death of love.” Yet he continued to pour out passionate letters, poems, plays, and novels to or about her until at least 1942, fictionalizing their (largely imaginary) relationship in an enormous variety of genres and permutations.

In August of 1930, Phyllis broke her leg in a horseback-riding accident, there were medical complications, and her health and life were in serious danger. In the period of intense emotion surrounding her injury, CW found out that Phyllis and Hopkins loved each other.

Phyllis had rejected CW—a middle-aged, married man—and chosen Hopkins—another middle-aged, married man. Clearly, her rejection of CW was not on moral grounds. The horror of her misplaced passion nearly drove CW mad. The only way he could deal with it was how he dealt with everything: by writing about it. “Letters to Phyllis poured out of him,” and he turned his agony into, of all things, a new literary theory. He called it “the Celian moment”: what Barbara Newman describes as “a trope for ideal love, or the revelation of divine beauty through the vision of the beloved,” or more particularly, through the second beloved woman (the first, Florence, corresponds to Beatrice; the second, Phyllis/Celia, corresponds to Dante’s “lady at the window”).

Nor FishAnd then in 1933, another shocker: Gerry Hopkins “staggered” CW by publishing Nor Fish Nor Flesh, a novel about himself, Phyllis, and Charles!

I have recently finished reading the novel, and I too am “staggered.” It’s an astonishing piece of work. What’s so shocking about it? Here are a few points.

The first shocker: I now feel as if I know Charles Williams far, far better than I did before. Hopkins’ portrait of him is vivid and unforgettable, as told by the Hopkins’ character, Ralph Giffard. The Williams character is named Peter Meriden, and he is a painter (not a poet). He is small, ugly, long-armed, large-headed, and bursting with a passionate energy that is almost inhuman. He fixes his attention on an object with extreme intensity, focusing his vital forces with all the discipline acquired from a decade of occult practice. Here is the most remarkable passage about his transference of energies:

Peter Meriden was standing, his back to the view and to the startled, suddenly distracted observer upon the terrace. His head was tilted backward; his arms hung loosely. He was gazing at something upon the house wall, and his back showed the intensity of a pointing dog. Every nerve, every muscle, seemed tense: he made not the slightest movement, staring upwards…. Never, [Ralph] thought, had he seen so intense a degree of absorption. The window above seemed to be drawing, almost physically, every quality of active life from the watcher’s body. Meriden’s mouth was sightly open, his eyes intent beneath a bending frown. But just as, seeing the man’s smile for the first time, Ralph had been made aware of a double process, a systole, as it were, and diastole of the spirit, so now it seemed to him that the frozen gaze, drawn from the body by its object, was, in its turn grasping, possessing, mastering the very materials, stone, glass, and fabric, taking into the receptive self an essence that it needed as the lungs need air or the stomach food. It was extraordinary, that gaze, and rather frightening, and after a moment Ralph turned away, treading carefully, almost shamefacedly, as though he had been spying inadvertently upon a privacy. (p. 28)

Meriden is an embarrassing and difficult friend, with wild mood swings and lavish public displays of emotion. At one point, he and his friends go out for an evening of dinner and theatre, and he nearly ruins the whole thing by having a sulky fit because the Phyllis character (Perdita Joan Croft) won’t wear the dress he wants her to wear. But then once they are all out together, he puts on a ridiculous, childish show of voluble enjoyment:

…in the Tube he began a flow of conversation which continued almost without interruption until the curtain rose nearly two hours later upon the detective drama he had chosen as the evening’s crowning pleasure. The change in his mood was as complete as it was unexpected. At each stage of their advance he became progressively more cheerful, bursting head foremost through the daunting rattle of the train, astounding the brasserie where they ate beneath the rumble of Piccadilly Circus, disquieting the rather solemn ladies of the pit queue, who lifted frightened eyes from their books and papers, and pulled their camp stools rather ostentatiously away from the vociferous and gesticulating invasion. (p. 82-3)

While waiting in line to get into the theatre, Meriden starts a loud and totally socially unacceptable conversation about the symbolic meanings of homosexuality.

His voice was loud enough to carry beyond their own particular group, and a shudder, an almost audible gasp, seemed to reach them from the closer couples…. A sort of horrible fascination seemed to keep their neighbors within earshot of the discussion…. Ralph, on the outskirts of the talk, could see clearly the prurient curiosity, the fascinated distaste, in the eyes of the waiting crowd, and the sight infuriated him. (p. 86, 87)

Here is another moment that seems characteristically CW. Ralph and Meriden have a passionate argument about their attitudes to the past, and:

It was Ralph’s first experience of a characteristic that was later to be constantly a matter of amusement and not infrequent embarrassment, of the other’s forgetfulness in argument or in a thought’s first onset, of place and occupation, so that he would stop in a crowded street (once, with his foot on the step of an omnibus that jerked away impatiently and flung him nearly in front of a following taxi), in the middle of a meal, amidst the polite conversation of strangers, to follow out the implications of a point, or to vocalise an enthusiasm. And at such moments, restless though his mind seemed to be, and his paintings all of a rush, he would show an odd immobility, sitting or standing without movement while the fit was on him. Beyond half-humorous resentment at the social complications in which, as a result of this eccentricity, he was apt to find himself involved, Ralph found himself by degrees growing fearful of this intensity of thought and partly envious of it. (p. 50-1)

Yes, of course: I know it’s fiction. I’m struggling here with a particular mental process that I want to share with you. I’m both a scholar (of sorts) and a creative writer (of a few sorts) myself. I recently wrote a novel in which the two main characters were loosely based on myself and one of my best friends, just to get a grounding for their two personalities, and then the characters took off and did their own thing. The people in the book are no longer me and my friend, by any means. But as I read Nor Fish Nor Flesh, I felt like I knew for certain, at any given moment, which bits were fiction and which bits were actual memories of Hopkins’ interactions with CW. I felt like I could mark sentence by sentence which ones he made up and which ones were taken “from the life.”

Obviously, that’s a dangerous interpretation for me to make. I’m basing Hopkins’ writing process off of my own, for one thing (and everybody’s process is different), and I’m making historical judgements about things that are undocumented. But wait! They are not entirely undocumented. We do have testimonies by CW’s other friends about what he was like. Hopkins’ descriptions, made lively and thorough in this fictionalized context, match up to the more prosy accounts given of him by his contemporaries: Lewis, Eliot, Auden, Hadfield, Lang-Sims, Heath Stubbs, and others. And there are his own writings, published and unpublished, including private letters. So there is some historical evidence for his personality that we can put against this novel and see what rings true. Combining that with my own inside look at writing fiction, then, made me fairly confident about what was a realistic description of CW and what was modified for the sake of the story.


Several other elements astonished me. There is surprisingly explicit hermetic content; was Hopkins, too, in a secret society? I do not know. The novel is a meta-novel: a commentary on the process of writing novels, and a condemnation of the making of life in to art, as if that is to objectify and commodify life. There is no Christian content, and absolutely zero guilt for adultery, as least for the sexual part of it; there is a little bit of compunction for the emotional infidelity.

The unflinching accuracy (or putative accuracy) of Hopkins’ self-analysis and self-condemnation is startling. His character is introspective to a fault, and loses the girl in the end because he is in love with the past and cannot see the present. It is a good novel in its own right: not great, certainly not flawless, but a good novel, with sharp psychological analysis. Its biggest blemish is structural unsoundness: the book begins as an investigation of a remarkable friendship: Hopkins’s character is overwhelmed by Williams’, and the book sets out to explore their relationship. Yet after the interposition of the love story, the friendship tale never returns. Yes, I know it’s based on nonfiction—but one must make sure to shape the story in a literary way. Instead, the Williams character simply drops out of the narrative almost completely. He makes one notable appearance (at the equivalent scene to Phyllis’s riding accident), then is never seen again. This is disappointing to a Williams fan, but also just a literary letdown: since the novel is interesting in its own right, even if it weren’t about Williams, it should have stayed true to its own beginnings and followed through with a well-rounded structure.

Here’s another big shocker: the Phyllis character (Perdita) apparently never knows that the Williams character (Meriden) is in love with her! It seems she never has the slightest hint. He paints her portrait, tries to help her develop her own mediocre artistic talents, attempts to further her career, and makes sacrifices for her comfort, but the thought that he loves her never seems to cross her mind. The Hopkins character doesn’t know it until very, very late in the book, and even then Meriden’s confession is merely a subtle lamentation over the impossibility of anyone’s ever loving him. It is nothing like the story we get from CW’s perspective: his declared, partially and temporarily returned, life-long, literary, romantic passion. CW’s love (if that’s what we can call it) for Phyllis was arguably the defining event of his adult life (if we consider Florence and the FRC as part of his formative years). Not only did Phyllis know about it: everyone knew about it! His whole workplace was in on the open secret. The only person who didn’t know was Florence, and she found out sometime in or after 1930. By 1933, then, the whole world knew. CW’s office-mates had performed the Masques in which his love grows visibly. He had already published Many Dimensions, whose female protagonist (Chloe) is modeled on Phyllis. So Hopkins appears to have downplayed and silenced CW’s love, perhaps to try to protect his friend’s feeling, perhaps in a desire for vengeance, or perhaps out of a kind of self-deception that his friend didn’t really love the girl as much as he did.

One of the biggest astonishments is contained in the title, Nor Fish Nor Flesh. What in the world does that mean? There is no explanation given in the text. Images of fishes are absent. Nobody meditates on that metaphor.

It seems that this phrase, “Nor fish nor flesh,” is perhaps a somewhat common British saying. It appears in a play by Thomas Heywood (c. 1570-1641), talking about whether something is a fish or not: One character says: “It is nor fish nor flesh,” and another responds: “Nor good red herring.” In this work by Ruskin, it is used in parallel with a book being “neither Scotch nor English,” i.e., neither one thing nor another. In this random chat forum, somebody accuses of Anglican of being “neither fish nor flesh”; I assume this means neither Catholic nor Protestant. And in this awful racist discussion, somebody says that “Turks” are “nor fish nor flesh” because they are both/neither “eastern” and/nor “westernized.” Anyway, you get the idea.

It would take a perspicacious reader indeed to interpret the main character’s love of the past as an indication that he doesn’t fit with either nature (fish) or humanity (flesh). I only have any idea what it means because of this passage in CW’s Taliession Through Logres, published in 1938. The poet, Taliessin (one of CW’s alter-egos), is singing a song about his mysterious origins and his ambiguous identity:

It is a doubt if my body is flesh or fish,
therefore no woman will ever wish to bed me
and no man make true love without me.

In the Arthurian poetry, Taliessin and Blanchefleur fall in love, but dedicate themselves to celibacy. She joins a convent. His love, then, is a kind of rarified spiritual passion that transmutes the desires of the flesh into the desires of the spirit. He is neither fish nor flesh: he doesn’t belong to either this world or the other exclusively, but serves as a kind of mediator between then. He is an initiate of both of the Two Ways: practicing Negation in his relationship with Blanchefleur, but practicing Affirmation in his making of poetry. He is also, as CW himself, the poet of Romantic Theology: therefore no one is ever truly in love without having something of Taliessin in themselves.

Wait, so CW stole those lines from Hopkins’ title? Or was CW’s poem “The Calling of Taliessin” already circulating in draft among his friends as early as 1933, and Hopkins saw it? Who is making fun of whom? Is Hopkins mocking CW by using a line of his own poetry against him? Or is CW gently mocking himself by appropriating the title of the novel?

I don’t know. And I don’t know how to find out.

Any ideas?

About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is a PhD student in English and Presidential Scholar at Baylor University. She also serves as Chair of the Language and Literature Department at Signum University, online. Her latest publication is an academic essay collection on "The Inklings and King Arthur" (Apocryphile Press, December 2017). Her interests include British Modernism, the Inklings, Arthuriana, theatre, and magic. She holds an M.A. from Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English. Sørina blogs about British poet Charles Williams at The Oddest Inkling, wrote the introduction to a new edition of Williams’s "Taliessin through Logres" (Apocryphile, 2016), and edited Williams’s "The Chapel of the Thorn" (Apocryphile, 2014). As a creative writer, Sørina has published two books of poetry, "The Significance of Swans" (2007) and "Caduceus" (2012).
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40 Responses to “Nor Fish Nor Flesh”: Gerry Hopkins Tells All

  1. Well, this is surprising. What an intriguing write up. And so the CW character builds, and builds, and builds. And what is Hopkins’ motivation? To tyrannize tyranny, or to fictionalize fiction? I don’t know.
    I think “neither fish nor flesh” means an unevolved amphibious creature–someone/thing who/that lives in two worlds but is at home in neither (neither pisces nor mammal). It’s something my grandmother would have said before calling me by my uncle’s name (then my father’s, then my other uncle’s).


  2. Dmitry Medvedev says:

    Wow. Very interesting indeed… It’s a pity this novel is not available except from a handful of libraries.
    The primary meaning of “nor fish nor flesh” is certainly idiomatic, but in “The Calling of Taliessin” Williams could also have other things in mind. For example, he uses fish/flesh imagery in another poem of his Arthurian cycle, “The Fish of Broceliande”, where a fish picked by Bors from a stream merges with Elayne’s body and literally moves through it (as odd as it gets…). I do not feel qualified enough to go any further at the moment, but it seems to me that the subtle connection between Williams’ own poems is more likely here than a conscious quote from Hopkins (or the other way round), especially since Hopkins uses the phrase in its common form as an idiom and probably intends no other meaning. I haven’t read the novel, so I cannot say how the idiom could be used in its contents, but there must be some connection, I guess?


  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    A vivid impression of the novel – hurray! And an interesting discussion about what might be “a realistic description of CW and what was modified for the sake of the story.”

    My 1929 COD (book, not fish…) gives only “neither fish, flesh, nor good red herring, thing of indefinite character”, while in his Dictionary of Modern Usage (1926: 1950 reprint of 1937 corrected reprint), Fowler only gives “Neither fish nor flesh nor fowl” in illustrating the use of ‘Neither’, without any comment on its meaning!

    I wonder if the other expression, ‘cold fish’, with its suggestion of a lack of sexual passion, might be involved in Hopkins’s use (if it refers to Meriden)? Here, we might compare ‘Taliessin’s Song of the Unicorn’, which we know began as a pair of sonnets given to Phyllis Jones (Margaret Douglas’s typed transcription of which is in the Wade).

    ‘The Calling of Taliessin’ was called, in its earlier version, ‘The Working of Porphyry’, and was first drafted by mid-September 1941. Taliessin was prominent in the Advent poems of the late 1920s-early 1930s, including ‘Taliessin’s Song of the Myths’, which draws on old Welsh sources, but does not mention fish: even to establish the likelihood of a (conversational?) reference before 1933, we would probably have to comb Welsh sources in translation which C.W. might have known.

    It is fascinating how much more impressive the Williams character, as depicted by the Hopkins character, is, than the Hopkins character himself (as I remember it) – Meriden seems more the real artist, while Ralph sets out to write a really literary novel, at last, this time – and subverts it, again.


    • Sørina Higgins says:

      Yes, David, exactly. The Hopkins character hates himself for sacrificing life and passion for mediocre art, but goes ahead and does it anyway.

      I’m sure that “cold fish” (sexually frigid/indifferent) is in view, and could apply to both men in the story, as neither achieves any lasting happiness in love.


  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Just found another 1929 COD gloss under ‘red’: “of ambiguous indefinite nature”. Might the title have multiple references, including to the novel itself (for example, neither achieved art, nor merely pot-boiler; neither fully fiction, nor allegorically minute roman-a-clef)?


  5. Dmitry Medvedev says:

    I am not a native English speaker but, I might say, it is a very common saying in Russian language (the same phrase – literally “neither fish nor meat” – meaning “of ambiguous nature”, “neither this nor that”). It would be instantly recognized as idiomatic with all possible connotations (usually slightly negative) by any native Russian speaker. It is also used in other languages to the same effect: “ni chair ni poisson” in French, “weder Fisch noch Fleisch” in German. Maybe in English it is not as common now as it used to be… Honestly, I would never think that this phrase was in any way unusual or needed a special dictionary lookup.


    • Sørina Higgins says:

      It’s not so much that the phrase is unusual, as that it would be interesting to know whether:
      a) both Hopkins and Williams used this phrase in common speech, so neither was drawing from or referring to the other in any special way, or
      b) Hopkins used it in the title of his novel first, and CW lifted it as a kind of gentle self-parody in the Taliessin poetry, or
      c) Williams used it first in drafts of his poems and/or in conversation with Hopkins, and Hopkins used it rather cruelly in his novel title.


  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Dear Dmitry Medvedev,

    Thanks! Interesting if it is much the same (and not rather an analogous) idiom in different languages: what might that suggest as to common source, or specific borrowing?

    It would be interesting to see how common it is, and if this differs between, say, England and the United States, or different dialects or regions within them, and how its familiarity has, or has not, changed with the years. And are there changes of nuance?

    My impression of it, is that it is not uncommon, yet still somehow vivid.

    Further questions, as to why exactly Hopkins selected it as a title, can involve literary playfulness and allusiveness, including the matters of shared and private meaning Lewis discusses in his commentary in Arthurian Torso.

    There are, of course, always dangers of ‘over-reading’ – wanting to find more in, and get more out, than were (probably) intended.


  7. Dmitry Medvedev says:

    At least one of the mysteries solved, I think… Williams’ phrase in “The Calling of Taliessin” is a direct quote from the Welsh text Hanes Taliesin (The Story of Taliesin):

    “I shall be until the day of doom on the face of the earth;
    And it is not known whether my body is flesh or fish.”

    It is included in Lady Charlotte Guest’s translation of The Mabinogion.
    Obviously, it has nothing to do with Hopkins.

    Let me once again give a word of caution against biographical criticism. Particularly with Williams it can be very misleading.


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Thank you for doing this bit of the ‘homework’ for all of us! (I used to know a lot of the Taliesin context by heart, but even that’s got fuzzy – it may amuse you to read my paper on C.W., David Jones, and Vernon Watkins’s various uses of the Taliesin figure and verse in the Charles Williams Society Newsletter, No. 28, Winter 1982, now available online at the Society’s site.)

      I think the source could ‘cut’ in different directions: being such a standard reference point, and given that C.W.’s first ‘Taliesin’-using poem, about bringing his wife breakfast in bed and published in Windows of Night had already been shown to Pellow in 1921 and C.W. had attempted to publish it separately, it is possible that a playful shared use of Taliesin material was part of the OUP scene even before the mov to Amen House – all of which pre-Advent-poetry ‘play’ is, of course, arrant speculation!

      Your caution is well-sounded, yet the pointed interweaving (for anyone ‘in the know’, as many Amen House folk would have been) of public and private in the life, works, and thought of C.W. is one of the most fascinating and frustrating things about pondering them and him!

      An interesting plausible example in the drafts leading up to “The Calling of Taliessin” in final form involves line 62 of the poem as published. What ends up as “I was thrall ro Ceridwen and free in the manger of an ass”, was, in four earlier surviving versions, “I was thrall to Gomorrah and free of the manger of the ass.” ‘Gomorrah’ presumably refers to C.W.’s original (so far as I can discover) development of ‘Gomorrah’ as distinct from ‘Sodom’ in Descent into Hell. So, this would be a ‘public’ reference to his own earlier work. But what might this ‘sin of Gomorrah’ and Wentworth’s experience there very plausibly have to do with C.W.’s own experience with Jones? And what are the implications of applying them to Taliessin – in this of all poems?!


      • Dmitry Medvedev says:

        That part of “The Calling of Taliessin” where he speaks of his lineage is almost entirely based on a verse from Hanes Taliesin which has these lines:

        “I have seen the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah;

        I have been with my Lord in the manger of the ass;”

        So, ‘Gomorrah’ in Williams’ draft comes from Hanes Taliesin in the first place. The only thing that would suggest a reference to Descent into Hell is the discarded ‘Sodom’. But since it was merely a draft, Williams might not have had any clear intention to link Gomorrah to his own experience with Jones or even to Wentworth’s story. After all, he also mentioned Gomorrah in The Descent of the Dove in a completely different context. We stand on a very shaky ground here.


        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          I would say, ‘pretty thoroughly speculative’ – if that is necessarily “very shaky”, I would not as readily say.

          I’ve dug into my notes a bit further.

          What I take to be the earliest version is a holograph of “The Working of Porphyry” (as the poem was then called), where the line reads:

          I am thrall to Gomorrah and free of the manger of the ass

          while in a TS. with autograph corrections, still so entitled, it becomes:

          I was thrall to Gomorrah and free of the manger of the ass

          which survives though a TS. of “The Calling of Taliessin” with autograph alterations,

          a carbon copy of that TS. with independent autograph alterations,

          and a carbon of a different TS. with independent alterations.

          So, I would venture that the revised earlier version is not exactly “merely a draft”, having been produced by revision to survive at least three further distinct opportunities of further revision, before in fact still later being further revised to the published version.

          The “was” of the first revision certainly softens the drastic present tense of “I am thrall to Gomorrah”, but even in the past tense, this is quite a different thing from having “seen the destruction…”. So, both the distinction of Gomorrah from Sodom and the thraldom are definite Williams touches in using his ancient Welsh source material – as, for that matter, is the being “free of the manger”.


          • Dmitry Medvedev says:

            The use of “is” in the first draft and its subsequent change to “was” is certainly striking… It would be interesting to compare the drafts in full, at least the account of Taliessin’s lineage.

            I must admit that I am not very familiar with Williams’ Arthurian poetry. I’ve been focusing more on his prose, hoping to pay more attention to the poetry some time later, but the discussion here has certainly revived my interest, for which I have to thank both you and Sorina.


    • Sørina Higgins says:

      Thank you for this, Dmitry! That’s great. I really appreciate your looking this up for us. I’ll have to see if I can get a copy of Guest’s translation.

      A few little points:
      First, on my blog here, I use this as a space for speculation, ideas, casual conversation, etc. I don’t apply the same rigor I do to scholarly writing. This is a forum for exactly the kind of chat we are having, and I find these conversations extremely productive! I thank you, David, and others for joining me in discovering more and more about CW’s works. Also, I am trying to bring his life and works more fully into the popular consciousness. So therefore I will frequently indulge in something like biographical criticism, or more like light biography.

      Yet I don’t see this particular point (about the novel’s title) as biographical criticism; I see it as source criticism. I would like to know where each author got the phrase and what valence it has in their works. So knowing that CW got it directly from the Mabinogion is a huge piece in the puzzle, but not the whole thing: Did Hopkins, then, get it from common speech; i.e., was it a phrase in popular use? Or (as seems more likely to me), did he choose the popular phrase because he knew CW was working on a poem that used the Mabinogion, and therefore CW and the Welsh poem were his indirect sources? The meaning of the phrase shifts slightly depending on which of these is true. But I’ll work my way down through the rest of the comments below and then reply again. Thanks!


      • Dmitry Medvedev says:

        Dear Sorina,

        I still think that it is more likely that Hopkins used it simply as common phrase.

        victorialadybug mentioned Shakespeare in the comment below, so searching for this phrase with different word spellings might produce more results. For example:

        “The Vidasme of Chartres, with his wife and familie, is come into England uppon a snuffe, having shewed himself in this last action neither fishe nor fleshe.” (Queen Elizabeth and Her Times – A series of original letters edited by Thomas Wright)”

        “For the Lordes Spirituall they may well be called soe, for indeede they are neither fishe nor fleshe, but what it shall please their earthly God the Kinge to make them.” (somewhere in the reports of the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts)

        I also found this exact phrase “nor fish nor flesh” used as a title in The Montreal Gazette – May 24, 1941. “Neither fish nor flesh” is discussed in Reading Eagle – Dec 5, 1965:

        “Q: What is the meaning of the saying about “neither fish nor flesh”? A: The expression issued, colloquially, about someone or something not belonging to a specific class, or about a person lacking convictions of wavering in his opinions. Even in Shakespeare’s time “neither flesh nor fish” was proverbial and through the centuries several variants have been used…” etc.

        And there is a whole paper about the proverb, discussing its origins and variants in different cultures:

        P.S. Of course, I am also very interested in CW’s personality, as well as his works, and I am happy to discuss his personality in context of his works. It’s just that on a deeper level I always try to keep the two separate. Honestly, I would keep even the discarded drafts separate from the final work, but of course every reader should make his own decision about what to take into account when reading CW’s works and what to discard. It’s very individual, I guess.


        • Sørina Higgins says:

          Thank you again for more excellent research! That’s how to do it. 🙂 And I appreciate your perspective very much. There are times that life and work must be kept separate. CW makes that difficult to do, I think, because of how much of his work makes references to his private life, but I don’t suppose it’s impossible.


          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Following up on the postscript, it is interesting to compare C.W.’s theoretical practice in The English Poetic Mind (1932) and Reason and Beauty in the Poetic Mind (1933), where (as I remember it), for example, he considers what one would normally think of as autobiographical poetry by Wordsworth as about a character named ‘William’, and ‘God’ as distinctly a character in Paradise Lost.

            One might also extrapolate from the discussion about the two late Arthurian volumes. Are they distinct works? Are the contents of both, parts of one greater whole? Does neither of these ways of putting it sufficiently cover the reality?

            Extrapolating, how do ‘Myth’, private occasional Taliessin poetry, and ‘public’ Taliessin poetry interrelate?


  8. As an American myself I almost never hear the phrase. I’ve heard “Neither fish, nor flesh nor fowl” a few times when I was young. The second time I ran across it was in the Henry IV, Part 2 when Falstaff is referring to Mistress Quickly in a derogatory way.

    Considering what I’ve read of CW in this post, perhaps the title is just an honest assessment of CW’s odd place in the world – he is both of the world and not truly a part of it. An outsider who never really fits in. But I’m no scholar.


    • Excuse me. Henry IV, Part 1. Sorry about that.


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Well noticed! This may be a place (Henry IV, Part 1, Act III, Scene 3 – lines 127-28 in the Riverside Shakespeare) where many of us have encountered the expression, and been struck by it – but without necessarily remembering the place!


  9. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Dear Dmitry Medvedev,

    I came to Williams, perhaps unusually, by way of a prior interest in things Welsh and things Arthurian (though I later rediscovered that I had met him, enjoyably, in the notes to Dorothy Sayers’s Dante, without having made the connection!).

    I have thoroughly enjoyed collating every poem draft I could find, especially here because of the inherent interest of the old Welsh Taliesin sources, but have never yet made much public use of it, in this case, beyond the 1982 article I mention above.

    Looking at examples such as the revision of the already-published “Divites Dimisit” into “The Prayers of the Pope”, it is interesting to wonder if, had he lived, he might have further revised even things published in book-form, once he had supplemented them with new poems about other details of the story.

    But, since he did not, all the drafts surviving do remain steps toward the published product. So, one question is, how best to enable people to follow those inherently interesting steps for themselves. Another is, how much interest in doing so is there likely to be, to justify what sort of publication.

    A full critical apparatus under the final text, showing all older variant readings and revisions, is one possibility. The drafts, or some of them, set out in parallel columns might be better in this case. (Or some combination of both approaches).

    Given the special interest of the striking Welsh Taliesin poetry in the first place, maybe a partial edition of the relevant section(s) of “The Calling of Taliessin” would be a good idea in any case.

    There is a lot of good activity at the Williams Society website at the moment, with a late Arthurian fragment followed by the full text of a difficult-to-obtain early play, “The Myth of Bacon”, being separately ‘reprinted’ from earlier publication in the Quarterly.

    Perhaps I should inquire about the possibilities of a new, online edition, there, where the relevant part of “The Calling of Taliessin” is concerned.

    Meanwhile, I would heartily recommend to anyone who has enjoyed the early Welsh Taliesin poetry as conveniently found in the Guest Mabinogion or Patrick Ford’s The Mabinogi and Other Mediaeval Welsh Tales (1977), or Williams’s use of it, or both, to try David Jones’s extended use of it in In Parenthesis (1937), and Vernon Watkins’s use in seven poems (six of which are included in the 1978 selection, Unity of the Stream, edited by Gwen Watkins).


  10. Dmitry Medvedev says:

    Oh, CW’s books about the poetic mind (see David’s comment above) could become a topic for a whole new discussion… I might mention that in Russian literary criticism there is a popular term “lyrical hero” (I don’t know if there is an analogous term in English) which basically means the identity of a character in poetry as distinct from the author himself (actually that is one of the first things they usually teach kids at school about poetry). When the author says “I” in a poem this “I” can never be completely identified with the author, precisely because it becomes a new and at least to some extent independent character. In that sense, there is no purely “autobiographical” poetry as such (or at least this kind of poetry would not be considered true Poetry). It is interesting to note that this term first appeared in an article by Yury Tynianov in 1920s.

    It would also be interesting to know if Williams’ ideas expressed in the “English Poetic Mind” had predecessors in English literary criticism. For example, there must have been a lot of discussion about the character of Shakespeare’s sonnets and its relation to the author himself.

    Blake’s poem is probably worth mentioning in this context, as it is somewhat similar to “The Calling of Taliessin” in its treatment of the role of the poet:

    Hear the voice of the Bard,
    Who present, past, and future, sees;
    Whose ears have heard
    The Holy Word
    That walk’d among the ancient trees;

    Does Blake mean the Bard to be himself, or is it more like a platonic idea of the Poet, a “concrete abstraction” to which Blake himself relates by being an “instance” of that general idea, a poet? Similarly, Williams’ could of course identify himself with Taliessin, but it is because the character of Taliessin is meant to be greater, more general than Williams himself, not lesser. He is very much similar to Blake’s Bard. If Williams had intended to create Taliessin as simply a mirror image of himself, if he had even started with this idea, that would be exactly the sin of Gomorrah, by the way…

    This is all of course also purely speculative.

    Well, anyway let’s not get carried away, especially because I am not sure I can adequately explain in plain English everything I mean to say on the subject. Sorina’s post is about something quite different after all, but I hope we will have a chance to come back to this discussion sometime later, perhaps in the context of CW’s literary criticism.


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      “CW’s books about the poetic mind […] could become a topic for a whole new discussion… ” – and I am sure they will, when the posts-to-come get there, chronologically – as, indeed, your very last sentence suggests.

      To continue a little further, here, in a meandering way, Stephen Barber’s essay, “Charles Williams as a literary critic”, posted under “Articles” on the Williams Society site is well worth (re)reading. Among other things, he considers, in various ways, Williams in comparison with “the New Criticism”. M.H. Abrams in his entry on “New Criticism” in A Glossary of Literary Terms (1981 ed. 4) notes it as being “directed against literary critics’ prevailing concern with the lives and psychology of authors and with literary history.” Among points of view and procedures common to many “New Critics”, he notes that a poem “should be treated as such – in Eliot’s words, ‘primarily as poetry and not another thing’ – and should be regarded as an independent and self-sufficient object.” I don’t know how closely Yuri Tynianov’s thoughts about the “lyrical hero” may compare with this, but your pointing it out reminds me of ‘New Critical’ things I learned in the course of my formal education (1960s-80s), including to (be able to) consider the “I” as ‘the speaker’ (who is not – necessarily – ‘ the author’).

      I don’t know to what extent this, carried to an extreme, may have helped lead to the ‘disappearing author’ (etc.) popular in the later stages of my schooling, but I suppose it could be taken, extremely, to render any autobiographical statement impossible, the statement becoming an artefact in which there is a ‘speaker’ or ‘ lyrical hero’ (!).

      Williams’s Taliessin (to speak in terms of one of him or them!) was a figure in his poetry and putative author of some of the poems. As such, I agree he”is meant to be greater, more general than Williams himself, not lesser” and that I do not think Williams “intended to create Taliessin as simply a mirror image of himself”. But Williams also wrote letter in persona Taliessin. And, proceeding further, when he was rubbing a sword on a young lady’s bottom, was that ever in persona Taliessin as well – or might it have been? Might the public poetry in some way on some level even be propaganda or apologia for such things? These are among the sorts of questions I seem to find myself confronted with. Where “exactly the sin of Gomorrah” might come in, is one to weigh among them as well.


      • Dmitry Medvedev says:

        Thank you so much for all the information! Stephen Barber’s essay is indeed remarkable. I was familiar with some of Eliot’s critical writings, but I didn’t know about “New Criticism”, so this is also a very useful reference for me.


    • Sørina Higgins says:

      Dmitry: Yes, we will get to the literary criticism in due course, d.v., and not too long from now, as I’ve reached the late ’20s in this chronological blogging, and the criticism appears in the early ’30s.

      When I am teaching poetry, I usually use the terms “narrator” or “persona” to refer to what you translate as “lyrical hero.” I like your term. That’s good. Yes, I always train the students to separate the persona from the poet, even when the work is putatively autobiographical. The very act of writing something down fictionalizes it. Therefore, it is fruitful to compare the known facts of someone’s life with his poetry or novels, methinks.


  11. Joshua Pong says:

    Thanks, Sorina, for that interesting piece on “Nor fish nor flesh”. I have no idea who copied from whom and with what motive. The phrase in itself aroused this thought in me at sight. Fish represents fasting and therefore the negative way whilst flesh represents satisfaction and therefore the positive way. True love must involves self-denial, but paradoxically, the very self-denial is also on a higher level a self-affirmation. He who loses life (for Christ’s sake) shall find life.

    All human or natural loves have at its core divine love. But in order for that divine love for the beloved to realize itself, all the illegitimate elements that attend the rising of love in us must be purged away (self-denial) and in the very act of purging one is also realizing God’s love, the Christ-self or one’s true or ideal self.

    Romantic love with a person other than one’s spouse must be purged of all the feelings and desires peculiar to that love in its natural condition before it can reveal the divine love which is the core of all loves. When that is done,
    “no woman will ever wish to bed me
    and no man make true love without me.”


    • Sørina Higgins says:

      Thank you for this, Joshua. I am tracking with you until your last paragraph. I understand what you are saying about the Affirmative Way in your second paragraph (although it must be noted that more than half of the church fathers would disagree with you), but I lost the train of your logic in the last paragraph. Is it possible to purge a romantic love of its romantic elements? Isn’t it better to flee from and fight that love? Is that final state of which you speak humanly possible? And how, then, are you interpreting the two lines of the poem? If one does that purging of which you speak in order to remain faithful to the spouse, then wouldn’t the spouse still want the bedding at the end? Thanks!


      • Dmitry Medvedev says:

        I think I understand Joshua’s line of thought (even in the last paragraph – but it probably should be discussed in the context of “The Figure of Beatrice” and, to some extent, “Letters to Lalage”), but I would say that fish and flesh here represent the spiritual and worldly, rather than the affirmative and negative ways (not quite the same thing), and Taliessin in his speech is concerned more with the role and nature of poetry and the poet than directly with romantic love.

        C.S.Lewis in “Williams and the Arthuriad” mentions that passage:

        “The passage is thus to be read with a kind of double vision; with one eye on the Welsh legends about Ceridwen and her cauldron and the other on the cosmic history of the Heavenly Muse – a wonder whose origin is unknown, whose native region is the summer stars, who was a spectator of creation, and has shared (beyond or before time) in the travail of Redemption. At the close we descend sharply to the poet, the individual human vehicle of the Muse. He is in this world an oddity; there is something about him too numinous for ordinary human flesh – ‘therefore no woman will ever wish to bed me’. This will become important later in the poem. According to Williams the poet is not, except by accident or in some peculiar mode, a lover, or at least not a successful lover; he is the cause of love between others, the Hymen to nuptials he does not himself enjoy.”

        But, although I largely agree with Lewis on this, I might say that the structure of the phrase itself “it is a doubt if my body is flesh or fish” suggests that it could be not “neither”, but in some sense “both”. But I have to ask native speakers – is such understanding of the phrase indeed acceptable?


        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          Probably not irrelevant here, is Williams’s one selection from St. John Climacus in The New Christian Year (which I copy from Tom Wills’s very handy, indexed online transcription, linked at the Williams Society site):

          “I know a man who, when he saw a woman of unusual beauty, praised the Creator for her. The sight of her lit within him the love of God . . . It was marvellous to see how what would have been the undoing of another became for him supernaturally a crown of victory. If such a man is always and in all cases capable of such feelings and such conduct, he has already partaken of incorruptibility even before the general resurrection.”

          (I do not know whose translation this is, or C.W.’s immediate source: the reference is to The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 14 “On Chastity”, paragraph 60, which is on page 62 of Archimandrite Lazarus Moore’s 1959 translation, a pdf of which is linked from the Wikipedia article on St. John’s book. Both the Archimandrite and Fr. Norman Russell in Dr. Colm Luibheid and his 1982 translation identify the “man” in question as St. Non(n)us, Bishop of Heliopolis.)

          Both the particularity and the force of the experience Joshua Pong suggests (if we compare Williams’s ‘experience’ of Phyllis Jones, or Palomides’s experience/perception of Iseult in the late poetry), seem distinct from (though not unrelated to) St. Nonnus’s experience. I don’t think it is a question of purging “a romantic love of its romantic elements” in the full sense of the latter – it is purging it of any possibility of what, in other circumstances, would be its legitmate matrimonial spousal physical consummation. (A widow or widower later marrying such a beloved would be an exception to that: this may be what happened in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s case, though it is long since I have read a biography of him. Perhaps Jacob and Rachel would be an exception of another sort.)

          My (American) ‘native speaker’ perception is that such understanding of the phrase – as possibly somehow referring to ‘both’ rather than ‘neither’ – is indeed acceptable. (I think the “good red herring” version of the saying parallels this possibility in a sense. I do not recall what might have been fairly easily available to Williams in trying to go into the details of the Welsh source translated in the Guest volume, if he had wanted to.)


          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            I have been reading up on the saints included in the C of E Diocese in Europe Prayer Diary for June, including St. Etheldreda. She is described in the Book of Common Prayer calendar (where only her translation in October is observed) – the copy I have to hand happens to be inscribed “1933”- as a ‘Virgin’. She remained a virgin through both her marriages (she married again after being widowed): when, upon ascending the throne after 12 years of wedlock, her second husband wished to go back on his agreement and consummate the marriage, she strongly objected – in which she was supported by St. Wilfrid – and her husband eventually consented to her becoming a nun.

            Having said in my comment, “it is purging it of any possibility of what, in other circumstances, would be its legitmate matrimonial spousal physical consummation”, it suddenly occurred to me, with Queen St. Etheldreda in mind, that it was equally purged of the possibility of a simultaneous second, chaste, unconsummated marriage: any such form of bigamy or polygyny is equally excluded.

            Reading about that holy virgin queen, has made me keen to return to Moyra Caldecott’s Etheldreda, a historical novel about her which I started but somehow got distracted from finishing, which in turn reminds me to commend to your prayers her son, Stratford Caldecott, who is dying of cancer, and his family.


  12. Stephen Barber says:

    I have just picked up on this conversation. A few thoughts: Lady Guest’s version of the Mabinogion was the only one in English until after Williams’ death and was readily available to him in the old Everyman series. He must have gone to it after following up Tennyson’s one reference to Taliessin. He kept Tennyson’s spelling: all the early sources give him only one ‘s’. I have read Nor fish nor flesh though some time ago and it’s very hard to get hold of. I agree with those who think the title is proverbial but also that Williams accepted it as applying to himself as wanting an idealized love whose strength is in its frustration. His model in this was Dante and, like Dante, he was also aware of the temptations in it. Dante showed this in the dream of the siren (Purgatorio 19) which Williams drew on in Wentworth’s relation to the succubus, the false Adela, who appears in Chapter 8 of Descent into Hell. (The comparison was made by Dorothy Sayers in her translation and at greater length in her essay ‘The Cornice of Sloth’.) Another writer who drew on Guest’s Taliesin was Robert Graves in The White Goddess.


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      I agree that the Everyman edition seems the likeliest source for Williams (but see also my paper noted above, p, 4 and note 2 on p. 11: I presume he could have encountered other editions – and Pughe’s 1833 translation of the story of Taliesin – in the British Museum).

      In the copy of the Everyman I have to hand (bearing on the back of the title-page “First Edition, March 1906 / Reprinted May 1906”) – a copy of which is also scanned at the Internet Archive – it is on page 428 that Lady Charlotte Guest notes that “the translations of the poems now published are extracted” from “a translation, by the late Dr. Owen Pughe, in the fifth volume of the Cambrian Quarterly” with, however, “the necessary alterations being made where the text differs materially.” She also notes the publication of the part of the tale “(untranslated) in the Myvyrian Archaiology”. Only the 1870 reissue of the latter is scanned in the Internet Archive, but the former is happily also scanned there (dated “June 1, 1833” on p. 382).

      In the 1870 reprint, the relevant lines in Welsh (p. 24) are:

      Ni wyddis beth yn y cnawd
      Ai cig ai pysgawd

      while in the 1833 version we find (p. 372)

      ni waddis vy ngnawd;
      ai cig ai pysgawd.

      translated as:

      my body it will not be known
      whether flesh or fish.


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        It is worth noting that ‘cnawd’ means ‘flesh’, not ‘body’, and ‘cig’ specifically means ‘flesh meat’ (‘cig oen’, for example, is ‘lamb’ while ‘oen’ is ‘a lamb’).

        In William Morgan’s 1588 translation of the Bible into Welsh, St. John 6:55 begins, “Canys fyng-hnawd i sydd fwyd yn ddiau”, whereas St. Matthew 26:26 ends, “hwn yw fyng-horph”. Without the initial mutations, then, we have ‘cnawd’ (= ‘flesh’), ‘bwyd’ (= ‘food’, or, KJV ‘meat’), and ‘corph’ (modern spelling ‘corff’ = ‘body’, whether analogous to or borrowed from Latin ‘corpus’ I am not philologist enough to know without further digging).


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