Charles Williams Book Summary #16: Poetry at Present (1930)
In 1930, CW published his first work of literary criticism: Poetry at Present. He had recently released A Myth of Shakespeare, which was his first market success (on a very modest scale), and then Poetry at Present did fairly well, too. Four of the poets in the book wrote to him to thank him for his evaluation of their work. It looked like he might be gaining a literary reputation at last (he was, after all, in his mid-forties), although not for his poetry, as he wished. In retrospect, this is no surprise, as he had not yet found his poetic voice. That was about to happen—but more on that anon.
Poetry at Present was an introduction to eighteen English poets who were alive at the time of writing and whom Williams thought would stand the test of time as “great” poets, including Thomas Hardy, Robert Bridges, A. E. Housman, Rudyard Kipling, W. B. Yeats, G. K. Chesterton, and T. S. Eliot. The other eleven you have probably never heard of, nor has anyone else since. This, of course, raises the question of CW’s literary judgment—but who can rightly judge of the future reputations of his or her contemporaries? Our eyes are blinded by being too close to the subject. We cannot see the big picture.
Each chapter of Poetry at Present gives an overview of a poet’s work—in CW’s obscure and privatized prose style—observing both the poet’s big ideas and his or her techniques.
(“Her” techniques are discussed only once; Edith Sitwell is the sole woman considered in this book, and she is lumped in with her brothers Osbert and Sacheverell; have you ever heard of them?)
Then each chapter ends with a poem of CW’s own, imitating the style of the poet in question and picking up his ideas.
Now, that’s odd: ending the chapters of a work of literary criticism with the critic’s own poems? Yet it seems to have worked well in this case: Hadfield records that these poems, along with the relative success of the book as literary criticism, actually helped to forward CW’s reputation as a poet, too.
The poems are curious, because they serve a meta-textual function: They are texts commenting on texts, or they are pieces of literary interpretation that are themselves subject to literary interpretation. Writing about writing. Poems about poems. I find them to be decent, good, but certainly not great, poems: about on the level with most of CW’s early poetry. Technically proficient, with interesting ideas, but forgettable and, ultimately, mediocre.
And what about the chapters of criticism? When I think of CW’s body of work, I tend to think of his literary criticism last. I think of his novels, poetry, theology, and plays long before I remember that he wrote several volumes of professional literary work under his own name and did much more work anonymously for Oxford University Press. Stephen Barber writes: “this is a considerable body of material; he actually wrote far more literary criticism than theology and of the rest of his work only the novels form a comparably important body of work,” besides the poetry, that is. Barber goes on: “And in fact some of Williams’s other books which present themselves as being about other matters in fact contain literary criticism.” CW was intensely involved in reading and commenting upon the literature of the past and of his own time. The extent of his reading is astonishing; when he comments upon any writer, he gives the impression of having read, understood, absorbed, and digested the entire body of that writer’s work. (Whether he really had done so, and whether his commentary proves his expertise in all fields, will need to be examined on a case-by-case basis). However this may be, his breadth of reading is very broad, and his depth of commentary astonishing. He takes whole swathes of verse in a single judgment, and his use of superlatives and terms of universality is quite pervasive; everybody is an “only” or a “best,” “most,” “least,” or “worst,” or who “never” has “not” a “single” line of such-and-such. For instance:
Of all the modern poets there is only one whose verse is always full of the voice of battle, and that is” (can you guess who?) “Mr. [G. K.] Chesterton…. Everything is spoken of in terms of war, either actual or potential…. Mr. Chesterton and Mr. Housman hold up between them all the philosophies; man conquers or he endures. (emphasis added).
In spite of these rather extravagant claims, and in spite of what I find to be a very annoying kind of late-Victorian indirectness of diction and meandering syntax, CW’s evaluations are thoughtful enough to be worth consideration—especially if we apply them to his own poetry, rather than to that on which he is commenting. Scholars have commonly noted that CW seems to be writing about his own verse rather than that of whoever’s name appears at the head of a chapter, as if by applying his personal standards to another poet, his readers will turn and consider his own literary value. In this vein, he talks about theology vs. propaganda, the use of fairy and the occult and the alchemical, Romantic Theology, anatomical geography, and the Crisis.
So is it a good book? Well, that evaluation is beyond me. It is not a compelling book. I would never have read it if I were not determined to read straight through CW’s oeuvre for the purposes of this blog. In fact, I have not finished reading it yet. The style is slow, privatized, and confusing. Many of the poets have fallen out of our reading lists. But it is both a commentary on and a sample of its times. CW wrote, of Robert Bridges, that “literature nowadays is never unselfconscious.” A dissertation could be based on examining the truth and implications of that claim, and CW’s works could take pride of place in the profundity of their self-consciousness. Yet their very vanity, their very inward-looking gaze, is in a way a complement to the reader. All of CW’s works begin psychologically speaking in medias res; they assume that the reader is in the same place, mentally and spiritual, as the narrator (who is very much an alter-ego figure). This is frustrating, as I venture to suggest no 21st-century reader can start from the same point as CW in 1930. But it is also somewhat stimulating. The reader is invited into a world full of spiritual heights and depths, peopled with geniuses and spirits, in which the line between the natural and supernatural has been withdrawn. This sense is strong in his novels; I feel it here, too, in the literary criticism. CW assumes you have read every he has and have gone through the same thoughts regarding that reading, and he is merely recording the obvious progress of every thinking mind on the subject. He makes startling claims in the calmest tones and sweeping gestures without a flicker of an eyelash. In this way, reading even his most boring literary criticism is a somewhat thrilling experience. I feel, as a reader, as if he is saying the opposite of Sherlock’s “What must it be like in your funny little brains? It must be so boring!” CW is saying that it is very exciting inside his brilliant enormous brain, and assumes you are right there inside with him. It’s a wild world in there.