Charles Williams Book Summary #28: Reason and Beauty in the Poetic Mind (1933)
Here on The Oddest Inkling, we are in a bit of dry phase in the book summary series—or at least, that’s what I thought before I began writing these posts. There are no novels, plays, or poetry collections for a while: it’s mostly biographies and literary criticism. And yet, I find that reading the literary criticism is not only expanding my mind; I’m finding it surprisingly profound and compelling. CW was a brilliant thinker. Every time I read a book of his, in this chronological read-through, that I had not previously read cover-to-cover, I find my admiration of his mind deepening. What a terrible shame that the oddities and infelicities of his style prevent his ideas from reaching a larger audience.
Reason and Beauty in the Poetic Mind is an awesome book. I mean that in both the shallow popular sense and in a deeper sense. It was published in 1933 by Oxford University Press at the Clarendon. It contains a preface and a series of ten essays, each on a poet or group of poets, exploring how Reason and Beauty function in their poetry. And each essay is wildly original and deeply insightful. There are critics who milk one profound insight for their whole lives, squeezing careers and acclaim out of one really great thought about literature. Here, there are at least a dozen such life-sized insights, since there is at least one in each essay, and the chapters on Milton and Shakespeare contain several.
The preface sets out the book’s task—and here in Reason and Beauty I find myself tempted, for the first time, to do what everyone always wants to do with C.S. Lewis, but hardly ever with Williams: to quote huge swathes of text and paraphrase the rest, instead of doing real analysis. It’s that good. He comes closest in this book, of the three works of lit crit I’ve blogged on so far, to using memorable phrasing and writing really clean, quotable sentences. In other words, his style is improving! He was editing the poems of Hopkins around this time, and that did worlds of good for his style.
Anyway, in the preface he explains that this work is somewhat of a word-study, or really more of an idea-study, examining the poets’ “explicit use of those two words [Reason and Beauty], or of their implicit attention to them” (v). Please do read the eight main points (8!) listed in the preface, then go back and read them again after you’ve read (and marked up) the whole book. The entire scheme becomes very clear then. There are 4 points about Reason and 4 points about Beauty, and you will be pleasantly surprised to see how neatly he fits them together.
I won’t take the time here to tell you all the gems of insight contained in this book. I think it will be enough to point out at least one from each chapter, so that you get an idea how valuable and progressive Reason and Beauty in the Poetic Mind is. If you were to read just one of CW’s works of literary criticism (leaving The Figure of Beatrice aside for a moment, as it is arguably as much theology as literary analysis), I would recommend this one. I know not everyone will agree. I know even the great Geoffrey Hill thinks more highly of the first two volumes, Poetry at Present and The English Poetic Mind. But for now, my money is on this one.
The first chapter alone is magnificent. It sets itself that most slippery of tasks: to define what poetry is, and to delineate the difference(s) between poetry and prose. I think it does so with aplomb and is remarkably satisfactory.
In the first chapter, Williams also sets out a strange psychological idea, that of the three types of “present,” and parallels them with three “selves” put forth in poetry. I must confess to not following these distinctions through the examples he gives, but am impressed by it nevertheless (or maybe therefore?).
Chapter Two, on Wordsworth, is worth the price of the book. I think every freshman English major should read this chapter—with a paraphrase handy, maybe! Its main tenant is that the persona is not the poet.
Chapter Three is on Marlowe, specifically on Tamburlaine, and here CW claims that poets face an impossible task: describing Beauty. This is impossible, he says, because Beauty defeats poetry’s power of expression.
In Chapter Four, he says the Alexander Pope failed as a poet because he did not follow Reason far enough—he set out reasons, reasoning, but then let them drop and didn’t pursue them to their greatest possible logical extreme—and because he did not marry the Skeleton.
Marry the Skeleton? Wait, what?
Right. We can’t get through a CW book without being taken up short by one completely unexpected image or another. The Skeleton is the whack across the head here. He appears throughout Chapter IV and again on pages 173, 175, and 185, in case you want to chase him. In chapter IV, Williams writes that
A book of some interest might be written upon English literature through the ages under the title of The Skeleton—how the Elizabethans bragged about it and the Jacobeans intellectualized it, and the Augustans shut it up, and the earlier Romantics, in the excitement of finding it was there, let it partly out… (48)
and he goes on. Then, just in case you were getting some tidy notion of what the Skeleton is, he says it is not “sex problems or political problems” and not “a guardian of rather superior intellectual society” even though people have treated it that way (48). But:
Every age, like every poet and every man, has the skeleton that it deserves; the life of the skeleton is its own double life, and marriage with the skeleton is perhaps after all the wisest intercourse with it—meaning by that all that marriage involves of intimacy and of strangeness, of friendship and hostility, of freedom and captivity, and something like a new life. (48-9).
Later he identifies the Skeleton with Coleridge’s “nightmare Life-in-Death” from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. And then at least he calls it “the living skeleton of anguish.”
For the moment, I will save you time (although I do encourage you to look into this matter and challenge me on it; I am by no means settled on this description/interpretation) and tell you that in this book at least, the Skeleton appears to be Despair, or, more particularly, perhaps the Schism of which CW writes so much through his works. I plan to come back and revisit this idea later, when I write about Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury, in which the Skeleton appears as an important figure. Enough for now.
To continue: Chapter Five follows up on that theme, for it discusses Hope and Despair in the works of Spenser, Bunyan, Milton, and Dante. He believes that Milton was a better poet than Spenser because he faced the full horror of despair without hope (in the character of Satan). Dante was a greater poet than either because he understood identity, which goes beyond the limitations of “symbol” or “allegory.” Beatrice is not a symbol of God or an allegory for salvation, CW argues (anticipating his later, great works on Beatrice): she IS salvation. She IS Christ to her lovers. See also the ending of The Greater Trumps, in which Nancy’s dad asks about his daughter: “Is Nancy Messias?” And her aunt Sybil replies, “Near enough.”
In Chapter Six, he argues that Keats also fails to achieve full poetic greatness, because he puts Reason in a drowsy state that will not face death—or, as he puts in the preface, “the abandonment of the intellect by Keats in the Nightingale and the Urn.”
And then comes Shakespeare. Chapter Seven overlaps strongly with CW’s previous book The English Poetic Mind, which I hope you remember was centered on the idea of the Schism, the Impossibility, the Crisis of doubled or split identity. That idea is reiterated here, developed, and applied to the discussion of Reason. In Troilus and Cressida, Williams says, Beauty no longer equals truth (as it did in Keats), and this is an unbearable Schism. In other words, since Cressida was Beauty (to Troilus), she therefore was Truth to him; her infidelity, then, was an impossibility that occurred, thus tearing a rift in Reason itself. For him, Unity was destroyed in Schism.
And I think I will hardly go on. Chapters Eight (on Milton) and Nine (on Shakespeare) are the greatest chapters in the book, and deserve extended study on their own. I will try to carve out time to write individual posts on those two chapters. If I don’t, that will be a terrible loss—unless it pushes you to read and study those two chapters yourself in great detail. Please do. The one on Milton, especially, should be much more widely known. I would assign it in any class on Milton from now on if I had a choice, and I hope that you would, too.
But I did want to point out something crazy, in case it escaped your notice. Did you catch it, above? In the chapter on Troilus, Williams suggests that Shakespeare was responding to Keats.
Wait just a minute there. Shakespeare, responding to Keats? But Shakespeare died in 1616; Keats was born in 1795. How on earth could Shakespeare be responding to Keats?
Well, maybe not on earth. And yet CW is writing about our writing and reading of poetry on earth. There’s that odd, inspiring archnature intruding again: for Williams, all times are at once and all times are simultaneous. In the big chapter on Milton, he writes:
Wordsworth had sung (‘like a lark’—the Prelude!) of sublimity. Milton had, so to speak, taken him at his word and produce an even greater effect of sublime glory….[then talks about whether Milton had a sense of humor.] In such company, Milton with them [angels and Christ] and we with Milton, one does not laugh. It is a sublime gravity, but it is gravity. But Shakespeare refused to allow gravity to have it all its own way.” (130-31).
Wordsworth did something first, then Milton replied, then Shakespeare responded? Dear CW, you’ve got it all backwards. But there it is. He is not really writing about individual poets and what they did in their historic time periods. He is writing about the Muse, if you like, the presiding spirit of poetry, and the things it did through/in/by poets at various times. The times are irrelevant; what matters is the development of the ideas.
Now what do you think of that?
Oh, I forgot to talk about the title! Well, I did tell you to study the chapter on Shakespeare. I’ll just say that he claims that Shakespeare’s body of work covers everything. Yes, everything. He says that poets really should think about whether they ought to write anything at all any more, because he has done it. There you have it.