The Poetry of Crisis: “The English Poetic Mind”

Charles Williams Book Summary #24: The English Poetic Mind (1932)

UntitledHere we are with another book summary. Today it is CW’s second work of literary criticism: The English Poetic Mind. It was published in 1932 by the Clarendon Press. Hadfield tells us that the substance of this book was originally “delivered as a special course for the City Literary Institute at the London Day Training College in 1931” (Hadfield 109). How amazing it must have been to sit under these lectures, watching the nervous figure pace up and down, listening to him recite (or “spout”) huge cascades of poetry from memory, hearing the constant jingle of keys or coins in his pocket, and feeling the burning charity and energy searing from his eyes. Yet I would imagine the actual content of the lectures would have been a bit hard to follow. It’s hard enough to follow on the page, where I can underline and highlight and dog-ear the pages (I do mistreat my books); how much more difficult must it have been for all but the most astute listeners, when his scintillating ideas went flickering and flashing past in the air.

The ideas in this volume are very profound. The first, most important, is CW’s unique understanding of poetry as a confrontation with The Crisis of Schism. I have written about this idea before: in my series of introductions to his major ideas, and recently, in a post about my own current Impossibilities. Williams claimed that in Shakespeare’s play Troilus and Cressida,

The crisis which Troilus endured [when he found out that his beloved was unfaithful] is one common to all men; it is in a sense the only interior crisis worth talking about. It is that in which every nerve of the body, every consciousness of the mind, shrieks that something cannot be. Only it is. …The whole being of the victim denies the fact; the fact outrages his whole being…. Entire union and absolute division are experienced at once: heaven and the bonds of heaven are at odds. (59, 60)

The English Poetic Mind is an evaluative book. It is about which English poets are good, better, and best. Williams rates poets based on quantity, quality, and complexity of verse, and on how well they express and solve the Crisis in their verse. Towards the very end of the volume, CW finally gives his thesis: “The theme of these studies has been the passing of the poetic genius from its earlier states to its full strength” (200)—thank you for that! Better late than never. But it is a very rigorous standard: “ It [the English poetic genius] achieved its full perfection, perhaps, only once in our literature, in the late style of Shakespeare” (200). That’s a very tough standard, indeed. Only one poet passes. Milton is a close second, Wordsworth almost made it but then failed in the end, and “lesser” poets deserve some mention: Blake, Coleridge, Shelley, Byron, Keats, Tennyson, Robert Browning, Hopkins, Coventry Patmore, Matthew Arnold. Indeed, CW includes this astonishing statement: “outside the three greatest [Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth]—if one had to choose a single poet for the rest of one’s life, there are not many who could rival [Arnold]” (196)! Whacky. I suppose we each have our favorite minor poet whom we elevate above his or her deserving. Ahem.

I want to say again as I have said or hinted elsewhere that CW’s greatest skill, the one at which I marvel, is his ability to see an enormous whole in a single glance. He is in love with statements of universality, totalizing claims about a poet’s entire output. He seems to have read The Complete Works of each poet he discusses in this book—not only that, but to have read them in chronological order, analyzed, understood, digested, and remembered the entire contents. Then he is able to make huge, sweeping generalizations—such as this one: “In Shelley distance is everywhere; in Keats it is nowhere. Shelley is always avoiding the moment; Keats is always closing with it” (176). Always? Always is a lot. But that’s how CW’s mind works: take in all, understand it, and give it all back in an interpretive claim.

In understanding CW’s works of literary criticism, I am indebted to Stephen Barber, who gave an important talk entitled “Charles Williams as Literary Critic” at a conference of the Charles Williams Society in London on 18 October 2008. In it, he reminds us that CW’s literary criticism

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. Poetry, particularly the mature Arthurian poetry, is of course another matter. But [there is a] large bulk of literary criticism compared to the small bulk of mature poetry.

Not only did CW write lots of literary criticism; these writings also contain many extremely important ideas. Williams makes a bold claim to originality in his critical approach: on page vi, he says “I am not conscious of owing any particular debts at all” on the central position he gives to Troilus and Cressida in understanding Shakespeare’s canon. He is more in tune with the tide of his times than many readers realize, and anticipates huge movements that were just about to begin in literary theory.

For instance, he does not commit the intentional fallacy; he is interested in the personality, consciousness, etc. contained in the poetry, not with whether those are the personality, consciousness, etc. of the poet himself. And he anticipates the world-changing dictum “il n’y a pas de hors-texte” that Derrida wrote in 1967). I could quote many passages to illustrate this. Here are a few:

Love poetry is poetry, not love; patriotic poetry is poetry, not patriotism; religious poetry is poetry, not religion. But good poetry does something more than allude to its subject; it is related to it, and it relates us to it…. It reminds us of a certain experience, and by its style it awakes a certain faculty for that experience…. This sensuous apprehension of our satisfied capacities for some experience or other is poetry of the finest kind. (3)

“…the great things of poetry exist purely and simply in their own right, and independently of man…the chief impulse of a poet is, not to communicate a thing to others, but to shape a thing, to make on immortality for its own sake.” (5)

A poet’s “value lies in, and only in, the poems he writes—not in what he means by them” or by autobiographical considerations (9).

Whether or not an experience actually happened to the poet “is interesting to the biographer but unimportant for poetry. [Wordsworth’s] poetry is here concerned to discover, to express, to define, a particular state of being…a form which is a trouble not to its own or our dreams, but to its own and our life.” (26)

There are many others. And there are many, many more points I could take from this book. Yet I am writing a blog post, not an academic paper. So I’ll close with a few other observations on The English Poetic Mind, and invite you to add your own observations or questions in the comments below.

There is a theme of imagination and power running through this book. I know I’ve said somewhere else (don’t remember exactly where) that I think CW’s personal vice was a lust for power. All throughout this book, he equates imagination with power, which might explain his drive to read, study, and write great poetry: It was a means to power. Power over nature, over people, over self, over the spiritual realm? Of this, I am unclear. Also: If poetry refers to nothing outside of itself, how then could the power be power over anything but over poetry itself? Perhaps that is all. Perhaps that is enough.

And yet CW ascribed real meaning to poetry, after all. Towards the end of the book, he discusses poetry’s two tasks:

1) Poetry exists to reveal the architecture of the universe and of ourselves—to show the patterns, relations, and systems of interrelated symbolism between all that is and ourselves and the divine.

2) But then… Poetry exists to reveal how that architecture is overthrown, tumbled down into chaos. How the pattern is marred, the symmetry destroyed, the interrelated systems thrown out of synchronization.

In other words, to show God’s handiwork in Creation and humanity’s undoing of that work I the Fall.

In closing, let me quote Stephen Barber again. In discussing both The English Poetic Mind and the next work of Lit Crit, Reason and Beauty in the Poetic Mind, Barber said: The fundamental idea behind these books is to treat English poetry as if it were a single individual.” It is the “mind,” the “genius,” that ostensibly wrote all English poetry, that CW is examining in these pages.

And how does he sum up that single mind? What does that one psyche think about? Well, here it is: “To begin with a flea and end with God is almost the habit of English verse” (207). That’s it. That’s what English poetry has done, in CW’s view, from before Shakespeare until his own times. And it is, arguably, what CW’s own poetry does—although it usually starts with a girl rather than a flea. Think about that for a minute.

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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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16 Responses to The Poetry of Crisis: “The English Poetic Mind”

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    An inviting taste of (shall I say) ‘quite a book’ – hurrah!

    I clearly need to read Stephen Barber’s paper again (which, I might add, is conveniently available at the Williams Society website by clicking “Articles” on the homepage and scrolling down). The observation you cite from it makes me think (to risk jumping from one obscurity to another!) of Eric Voegelin’s talking of the symbolic “complex of consciousness-reality-language”. I’d have to reread him, too, to rediscover what-all he means by that, but what it got me thinking here, was, how the consciousnesses or minds of different people are related to each other by means of a shared language. There is an ‘English mind’ because minds share English, and things said in English. (I wonder if Owen Barfield might add, it is a ‘poetic mind’ because ‘language’ is so inherently ‘poetical’ – if I am remembering his book, Poetic Diction, correctly.) When “good poetry […] reminds us of a certain experience, and by its style […] awakes a certain faculty for that experience” that “certain experience” is ‘of something’ (and so in some sense ‘reality’) but it is also already (almost) always related to language. But the language that is ‘arranged’ in the form of “good poetry” does something distinct to it and with it. And, it does that differently (however similarly, too) in different languages. Maybe Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” comes in here in a distinctive way within different languages, too.

    Before I flounder around any more in too much of a Mr. Obvious fashion, I’ll just add that I enjoyed hearing Geoffrey Hill’s remarks on Williams’s criticism in his valedictory lecture as Professor of Poety at Oxford, thanks to the recording also available via the Williams Society website.

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  2. I first read “The English Poetic Mind” at the age of 29. Perhaps it is important that, at about the same time, I was falling in love with a chiefly classical actress—or perhaps not. But when I read it then, and when I have read it since, just for a moment, there has come a sudden flash in which I actually understand, all in one piece, Shakespeare’s mature style. It is an experience that generally reminds me of the last few stanzas of the “Commedia”. (“A Myth of Shakespeare” does something similar.)

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  3. “I know I’ve said somewhere else (don’t remember exactly where) that I think CW’s personal vice was a lust for power… Power over nature, over people, over self, over the spiritual realm? Of this, I am unclear. Also: If poetry refers to nothing outside of itself, how then could the power be power over anything but over poetry itself? Perhaps that is all. Perhaps that is enough.”

    I feel like a child here, chiming in with small, immature nothings during a discussion of those who certainly know much more about the subject than I do. But the idea of power for CW surely came most powerfully (sic) from Wordsworth, with his “… huge and mighty forms…”, which played such a prominent role in CW’s fiction. Shadows of Ecstasy is full of the power of poetry, and was the single most powerful (and damning) indictment of my own poetry-less education.

    Perhaps CW’s fascination with power could be likened to Peter Stanhope’s, more so than Nigel Considine’s, and that CW desired a power that might release his own inner poetry. His discussion in The English Poetic Mind is a ‘powerful exploration of power…’ To see what Shakespeare achieved, to see what Wordsworth almost achieved – to understand what it was they accomplished, might be to wish for the power to ascend to comparable heights. To hear, to understand Afternoon of the Faun is to revere it; and to want to write music of equal power.

    Is that lust? I don’t know… I don’t think so. For me, at least, it’s more an acknowledgement of a lack of the necessary power, than anything else… ‘I am what I am’, in the words of an all too despised, spinach-gulping philosopher… but it hasn’t stopped me from writing music, after all.

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Well (if I may be so bold), you certainly don’t seem “like a child here, chiming in with small, immature nothings” – I’ve just enjoyed the three posts at your blog which “Charles Williams” brings up, and would recommend them as a complement to Sørina’s here as encouragement to try (or to reread) The English Poetic Mind.

      What you say there and here bring Shadows of Ecstasy and The English Poetic Mind lucidly together, as well as Roger Ingram (in Shadows, though you don’t explicitly name him) and Peter Stanhope.

      To blather a bit, where Williams and Shakespeare are concerned, I note the first draft of Shadows was finished by the end of August 1925. A Myth of Shakespeare was published “in April 1929” (says Mrs. Hadfield; Lois Glenn gives “1928” – ?). Sir Edmund Chamber’s William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems (2 volumes) appeared in 1930 (the “Preface” to vol. I is dated “July 1930”), and Mrs. Hadfield reports the Williams first suggested and then carried out his abridgement of that work “in 1931-32”, though it did not appear as A Short Life of Shakespeare with Sources until 1933. Somewhere in the midst of that the matter The English Poetic Mind was delivered in some form as a course in 1931, while (according to Mrs. Hadfield) he told a friend on 28 June 1932 he would “think [it] out” as a book while on holiday (while Glenn records a review of it published on 23 July 1932 – ?). One month later, 28 July, a much-rewritten version of Shadows of Ecstasy was delivered to Gollancz, who published his novels. (He had put it at least temporarily aside almost exactly two years before, after having submitted an earlier version to Gollancz and discussed it with him.) Like his Chamber’s abridgement, it appeared in 1933 (Glenn records a 16 February review). By August of that year, he had begun writing Descent into Hell in some form (the ‘Mr. Samile as dope-pedlar’ form? I don’t know, nor about Stanhope at this stage, when both Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral and Williams’s Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury were variously several years in the future). In sum, lots of attention to Shakespeare between 1929 and 1933, with both The English Poetic Mind and Shadows of Ecstasy as we know it having appeared by then. (To which we ought to add, Reason and Beauty in the Poetic Mind, for which Glenn records a review as early as 16 December 1933.)

      What Sørina quotes about “good poetry” reminding “us of a certain experience, and by its style it awakes a certain faculty for that experience” seems to me to fit with what you say about ‘power’ – including the power of the poet to produce poetry that so ‘”reminds” and thereby “awakes a certain faculty”, develops “capacities” and ‘power(s)’ in the reader. As does her quotation about Wordsworth.

      In your posts, you attend to Williams’s attention to Ariel in The English Poetic Mind, to which we might well explicitly add Roger’s in Shadows of Ecstasy. In your Shakespeare post you write, “Ariel might be taken as a depiction of what could await us, as we progress through humanity, into something other – something more.

      “That some might become frightened by such a thought is understandable, but (I think) mistaken. Do not go about your life, praying to a higher power, or trying to connect to a higher plane of awareness, of existence, if you cannot recognize that level when it’s presented to you in other than your familiar, comfortable language.”

      Yet there seems to me something both mysterious and odd about that attention of Williams and Roger to Ariel. What is this “something other” which seems more distinctly ‘other’ than “something more”? What have Shakespeare’s distinct imagination of Ariel as ‘non-human’ and a desire not to be able to enter into that imaginatively, but to be… . non-human’? (If that is indeed somehow involved!)

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Sorry! “What have Shakespeare’s distinct imagination of Ariel as ‘non-human’ and a desire not to be able to enter into that imaginatively, but to be… ‘non-human’ to do with each other?”

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        • My grasp on what it is that Shakespeare ‘meant’ by Ariel is tenuous, at best. But I liken it to any number of phrases found throughout the literature: that ‘undiscovered country’, or ‘huge and mighty forms, that do not live like living men’, or any number of other phrases that CW would apparently rattle off from memory, but I must have before me before I will dare quote.
          I also liken it to that overwhelming urge that some of us have to see what is over the next rise, or around the next corner. If it were not too late for me, given current technology and my age, I would gladly travel to the stars. It is not an urge that is conducive to the survival of humanity, from an earth-bound viewpoint… still…
          Yes, ‘good’ poetry does awaken in me a certain capacity, or faculty, for heroism or the like, but so does good literature, which came first for me And so does music, which came earliest of all. Music awakened my capacity for the heroic, the profound and the anguished, and that capacity led to the discovery of the same power in other realms.
          Poetry is a struggle for me, because I was never exposed to it during my education, under the tutelage of an “apostle”, as I was guided (at times, kicking and screaming all the way, it’s true) into the arcane secrets of Music.
          Now, don’t make too much of that last sentence. I like a good turn of phrase as much as the next guy. There is no secret cabal, guiding the affairs of the world from deep with the labyrinthine fugues of JS Bach. Debussy was not some secret Grand Master. But I found the number of musicians who seemed to have no idea of what power they were using, and mostly, abusing (or diminishing, as it turns out) to have been astonishing. And ultimately, profoundly saddening.
          And thus we have that word again – power.
          There is power in Music. I would dare say ALL music. I heard a large group of people in China gathered to sing the old songs of Mao, with nostalgia. Given what I know of their history, but what has been (probably) kept from them, I found the fact of it to be interesting, sad and slightly disturbing, all at the same time. But the single aspect that caused the greatest surprise was that this was ‘good’ music. It was powerful music. As one who was baptized by powerful music, I recognize and salute it when I hear it. And now I saw the depth to which Mao had gone to ensure his people’s compliance. It was a sobering moment, to see the power of music co-opted toward a ‘greater’ goal.
          It’s a power that, once found(or recognized), can never be forgotten, or relinquished.
          It’s true that I am no longer a practicing musician. But the power remains. And I find it elsewhere. On those ‘good’ days, when I can get out of my own way, I find it everywhere. Is this recognition of power, this search for it, to be considered a vice, a lust after power? Perhaps. But not as the world would see the phrase ‘a lust for power’. I would not use it (how could you use Ariel?) for personal gain. I would use it to show you that power; and to show any and all others what it is they ignore – perhaps to their peril, but most certainly to their diminishment. I would live within that power, because my life without it is so very much poorer.
          So many words, and so much trouble, over what for some is surely a simple, every day matter. But I must come to it in the way which works for me. I must explore after my own fashion.
          CW’s writing, for me, is a signpost along the way. An arrow, that says ‘here is a path that leads to what you are looking for’. Being the under-educated, powerless and weak thing that I am, I need all the arrows I can get.

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          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            To be brief and too-little-digested, this makes me think both of Lewis’s attention to Sehnsucht and the experience of ‘joy’ and of his Experiment in Criticism. It also makes me think of attention to ‘the sublime’. And of Tolkien’s poem “Mythopoeia”. ‘Something’ is ‘given’ in the creation, in perception of ‘it’ or ‘such things’, in imaginative (‘subcreative’) working with ‘it’/’them’. The ‘lust’ (in the sense “passionate enjoyment or desire” [COD, 1929 ed.]) for ‘such’ is clearly distinct from any lust to abuse ‘such’, as the ‘power’ of such is distinct from its abuse.

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        • My turn for apologies. My long reply, below, belongs to your initial reply, above.
          Fat fingers, it seems…
          See, I don’t look at it as Ariel being so much ‘non-human’, as it is that Ariel has become more than human. Was it CW who said that Ariel was so much human that s/he had come out the other side? Ariel has run the good race. And moved on.
          No longer necessarily human. But other…? The next step? Perhaps.
          What do the power to imagine, and the desire to be have to do with each other?
          Why do we wish to fly? Why do we pursue works of profound beauty? Why do we reach for the stars?
          One must first imagine what it is we want, before we can begin to make it real.

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      As if I hadn’t gone on too long already, a lot of other examples of ‘engaging with the non-human’ in the fiction of those years just came swimming into mind:
      Prester John (if he’s human!) and the Graal;
      Chloe and the Stone;
      Foster and the Lion, Dora and the Snake, and, differently, Anthony and the Eagle;
      Wentworth and the succuba (Lily?), and Pauline and the figure Periel.

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  4. Dmitry Medvedev says:

    The word “power” has several meanings: power as energy, power as a capacity for something, Power as a supernatural being or force, etc.. It is not necessarily about personal influence or control, it does not have to be “over” something or someone. Most of the times that Williams mentions some kind of “power” in the book, he is consciously referring to Wordsworth, and every time the word’s meaning should be examined separately, because Wordsworth himself used it in a variety of contexts. It is Wordsworth who associates imagination with power in the first place, not Williams.

    I would say, somewhat ambiguously, that Williams was attracted to the idea of power (in all its meanings). It certainly was a vivid interest, but I would not call it “lust”, at least not until there is more evidence (a few more months before The Biography finally arrives…).

    Slightly off topic, but if one wants to get an impression of what Williams’s lectures could have been like, I believe Sir Geoffrey Hill’s Oxford lectures may provide a close enough approximation (they are easy to find with Google). “Powerfull” is probably a good word to describe them… Hill actually mentions Williams’s critical writings in his final lecture (“The English Poetic Mind” – very briefly, “Poetry at Present” – in more detail), but do yourself a favor, listen to all the other lectures as well, it is an unforgettable experience.

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Your last remark is very much on-topic in the sense of implicitly addressing this book originally “delivered as a special course”!

      The Wade Center has lots of Williams’s lecture notes, and some lectures written- (and typed-) out ‘reading’-style, and at least one set of sermon notes I know of – appropriately enough, for Pentecost. (All very, if variously, interesting, as far as I’ve seen – or, in a couple cases, prepared for publication, which hasn’t happened yet.) But, how were they delivered? Did he have more and less formal styles of lecturing (or lay-clerk-preaching)?

      Grevel Lindop’s blogpost announcing his sending off the final draft of his Williams biography includes this about that book: “it will recreate, from Williams’s own notes, much of the famous lecture on Milton’s Comus which led C.S. Lewis to exclaim that Oxford University’s Divinity School ‘had probably not witnessed anything so important since some of the great medieval or Renaissance lectures.’ ”

      But, I don’t remember encountering anyone talking much about how he went from lectures to book-text (where we know about it, and, if he might have elsewhere, and what might be clues of this) – indeed I don’t think I have ever tried to think about the matter, till now. Thanks for provoking the thought!

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  5. That’s it.
    I’m done.
    Wordpress has taken my power from me.
    (8^)>

    Make of the order of my replies what you will…

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  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Fascinating to be reading the new Lewis-Barfield “Great War” Writings edition in comparison with Williams’s approach to poetry here at about the same time, and before either of them had met him!

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  7. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I feel like I’ve mentioned this before, but maybe not: a copy is scanned at Internet Archive.

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