Charles Williams’s Multiverse

Doctor Williams

Doctor WHO?

I’m re-reading (or at least skimming through) CW’s early volumes of poetry in preparation for my keynote speech at the Taylor Colloquium in about a month. I’m struck anew by how powerful some of these early poems are, once the good ones are weeded out from among the mediocre, archaic, overblown ones. Here’s a magnificent one in which the narrator’s sweetheart gets lots in a multiverse–or at least, his thinks she could have been–fore-echoes of Pullman or Doctor Who, perhaps?


Theobald’s Road

There must be many Theobald’s Roads in the universe;
Images of images; almost, not quite, identical;
A little above, a little below, slanting across, here but not quite here;
Visible, tangible–but to me invisible, intangible.

I look for her hat: I wait, she has not come.
It is hardly time indeed, and it’s pleasant to wait;
But a little laughter sounds in my mind–a stranger
Laughing there: ‘You fool, she’s waiting already.

‘Time has many turnings, and Time and Space
Multiply infinitely between them this crowded world.
By mere chance she, coming out of the house to-day,
Just where two were co-incident, entered the other.

‘You can wait as long as you like, you will never meet her.
She is gone for ever, as you from that other world
Where she now is waiting have vanished,–unless hereafter
Some shock may hurl you across into that world’s reckoning.

‘There–twenty years hence or thirty, who knows how long?–
Again you shall meet, unhappy, desolate, old;
You, knowingly translated, shall see a face
Where something moves that moved long since in your mind.

‘It shall be there the only familiar thing
After those years’ long absence: if she shall know you
What will she say or do? . . . But as for the doctors,
They may call it loss of memory, they may call it madness.’

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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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14 Responses to Charles Williams’s Multiverse

  1. Charles Huttar says:

    An interesting thematic connection here with the relationship of Lester and Richard in All Hallows’ Eve. In which early book of poetry may this be found?

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Not Poems of Conformity or Divorce (both conveniently scanned at Internet Archive): I’ll have to dig for Windows of Night to check it…

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      It also reminds me somehow of Williams’s version or variation of Ronsard’s ‘Quand vous serez bien vieille’, also translated by Yeats (and how many others, I wonder?) – but I can’t remember if he ever published that, and, if so, under what title?

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      It further makes me think of Heine’s ‘Doppelgänger’ (set by Schubert) – how good was C.W.’s German, and do we know if he knew that (as well as Shelley)?

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Windows of Night it is: pages 52-53. As is ‘After Ronsard’ (p. 71), as the eighth of ‘To Michal: Sonnets after Marriage’. I’m not sure why the first made me think of the second, maybe just age, the passage of years – and vividness of memory – as features of each?

        I’m not sure how miscellaneous or ordered the contents are, but ‘Theobald’s Road’ does strike me as to a certain extent ‘juxtaposed’ with the two, longer poems which follow, also in quatrains (rimed abcb): ‘Antichrist’ (pp. 54-57) and ‘Faerie’ (pp. 58-60) – and, I think, also the one after these, as well, ‘Counsels of Perfection’ (pp. 61-63, also in quatrains rimed abcb).

        ‘Antichrist’ (starting off a bit like ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ – ?), seems, as a whole, reminiscent of Blake’s ‘The Clod and the Pebble’, and seems, too, perhaps like an ‘ancestor’ of the myth of the Fall in section Eta of ‘The Vision of the Empire’. Here, the lovers flee each other, having seen the other as monstrous and looking to enjoy hostility.

        ‘Faerie’ is an imagination of a consciousness a lot like that of Lionel Rackstraw will be in War in Heaven, coming to a fear of a sort of Doppelgänger and Lilith-like deception – perhaps even a fear of ending up like Wentworth in Decent into Hell? In contrast to the sudden loss of ‘Theobald’s Road’, here is regular presence, but a phantasmagorical fear it is illusory.

        ‘Counsels of Perfection’ has, like ‘Antichrist’, a mediaeval cast to it, in contrast to the contemporary-seeming ‘Theobald’s Road’ and ‘Faerie’. Its “wedded lovers” go always consciously and confidently together, with “the bride” here speaking to the “preaching friar” who views them “With a high air and insolent”: “One is the road of pilgrimage / We follow”, and “the law” is seen to be “Love that is He and is ourselves / And all the bonds between!”

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  2. johnrob1270 says:

    Was CW a Time Lord??? 😉

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  3. scififan1940 says:

    The deep heartbreak in this poem reminds me very much of the novel “Portrait of Jennie” by Robert Nathan which was made into a very interesting film, though not quite as effective as the novel. The characters existing in two different time streams temporarily share a single reality at different moments in their lives, similar perhaps to the classic “Tom’s Midnight Garden”.

    The short story “The Love Letter” by Jack Finney does something similar in creating bridges between two eras. It, too, resonates with the feeling in the poem.

    Both the short story and the novel were made into films. “Portrait of Jennnie” (1948) is a reasonable success thanks to the very fine acting of the cast. But the film based on “The Love Letter” is far inferior to the story.

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Thank you for all the references/reading and viewing recommendations! You make me think of a series I somehow missed for most of my life until a moment of good hap in the Oxfam second-hand bookshop in the Turl in October last, Lucy M. Boston’s Green Knowe series, of which I have read The Chimneys of Green Knowe (1958: U.S. title, Treasure of Green Knowe), and, after that, seen the 1986 BBC television version of The Children of Green Knowe (1954). These, too, are concerned (like Descent into Hell) with the meetings and interactions of different eras in the same place. They strike me as remarkable for both joy and heartbreak.

      The separate times streams or worlds of ‘Theobald’s Road’ and which you mention remind me of the work of H. Beam Piper, though I cannot immediately think of instances of comparable mood, there.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. scififan1940 says:

    You are welcome. And thank you for mentioning the “Green Knowe” books. As a matter of fact I have missed them too! It’s high time I remedied that situation and have downloaded them for my Kindle–they are quite inexpensive.
    I have often wondered what Charles Williams might have produced had he decided to write for children. He had such an extraordinary spiritual sensitivity. But perhaps of the Inklings, only C.S. Lewis had the gift to create Art in that specific genre. Tolkien certainly didn’t. While “The Hobbit” is not a poorly written book, it is not truly great children’s literature; Tolkien spends far too much time talking down to his audience. Lewis started uncertainly but as the series progressed it became something very, very great indeed. And it was adult-inclusive. I agree with his belief that great children’s literature gave even more to adults because they brought greater life experience to the story.
    So, did Charles Williams have the temperament to deal with the special disciplines required by children’s literature?

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      An interesting question well posed!

      We know he read children’s literature when he was a bit older at the least: he quotes E. Nesbit’s The Amulet in the Arthurian Commonplace Book, and he could not have begun to read it in its original appearance in The Strand Magazine* until May 1905, when he was eighteen – though of course he may not have read it until it appeared as a book in 1906 (the last Strand installment was in April, when he was 19), and he may have first read it later still.

      Might he, if he tried writing for children, have begun by drawing on Nesbit, as to varying degrees Tolkien does in Roverandom (begun when told aloud in 1925, written in some form in 1926, revised and finally submitted to Unwin in 1936) and Lewis in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe?

      Would he have done a lot of something like the tour de force (third-person) Adrian’s-eye-view passage in War in Heaven? (That would out-Bastable a Bastable, I expect!)

      Bruce Charlton said in a recent blog post discussing his novels, “All Hallows Eve is the most novelistic and flowing – presumably because it was written with the benefit of the Inklings criticisms and advice.” What might have happened if he had lived on, the Inklings continued, and he heard – and discussed – Narnia as it came along? All Hallows’ Eve and The Great Divorce are interesting to juxtapose – might C.W. have tried his hand at children’s fiction after Lewis embarked upon his, and benefited from their discussions? In those terms, it does not seem so unlikely that he might have tried – but what it would have been like…?

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      • scififan1940 says:

        Thank you very much; your answer is interesting and so intriguing! Further, it underlines the lost possibilities of his untimely death.

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        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          [I’ve been trying, for some reason unsuccessfully, to post a version of the following comment:]

          Yes… I just struck in reading in Bruce Charlton’s review of Diana Pavlac Glyer’s Bandersnatch his reference to “Hugo Dyson’s de facto veto on reading Lord of the Rings while he was present during the 1945-7 period, which Glyer believes led to the end of the group”. Williams, by contrast, had borrowed and the read the typescript of the whole thing as far as it went, and Tolkien found his response after doing so encouraging. So, indeed, who knows what-all lost possibilities?

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          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            [Maybe my previous lack of success came from trying to explain the asterisk after The Strand Magazine which was there because I had meant to say in a footnote that I had just encountered an index for that magazine at Internet Archive (what a time machine, available to all!). I also attempted to supply where exactly it could be found, which is the address of the Archive followed by “/details/TheStrandMagazineAnIllustratedMonthly”.]

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