TTL 3: “The Vision of the Empire” — by Matthew Rettino.

ttl rssHere is Post #3 in the Series on Taliessin through Logres! Please visit the INTRODUCTION to this series first, and here is the INDEX to the other posts in the series.

Today’s post is about “The Vision of the Empire,” and it is by Matthew Rettino.

ProfileBpnicolMatthew Rettino wrote his Master’s thesis at McGill University on the topic of fantasy as a form of modernism. He serves as an editor at Scrivener Creative Review and runs a blog, The Vinciolo Journal, on topics related to history and fantasy.

“The Fall of the Organic Body in ‘The Vision of the Empire’ by Charles Williams”

My first impression upon reading “The Vision of the Empire” in Charles Williams’s Taliessin Through Logres (1938) was that Williams had an evident debt to W.B. Yeats. Williams’s Empire is centered on Byzantium, the subject of Yeats’s famous poem “Sailing to Byzantium.” Both poets also engage intellectually with the idea of having a body that is subject to decay. The power of Yeats’s poem derives from his concern with the transcendence of death and the frailty of the human body through artifice. However, Williams is more concerned with how sin can result in the disjoining of an “organic body” (α.1).Lynton Lamb's map

Williams opens his poem with the image of a harmonious body representing the Empire: “the organic body sang together” (α.1), he writes. This body has many parts that make up a whole, each part singing in unity. Throughout the different regions of the Empire, “the streets repeat the sound of the Throne” (α.4). Here the body politic is united in a social utopia that contains a certain poetic harmony as well.

However, this unity decays. Taliessin sees, at first, spectacular ships in the Golden Horn, Byzantium’s great port. They are “in the mechanism of motion, / rowers’ arms jointed to the imperial oars” (α.18-9), rowing to the eternal rhythms of Byzantium. By the end of the poem, in the same waters, “the single galley hardly moves, / the stiffening mechanic of arms and oars fails” (θ.3-4). The Golden Horn is diminished; “earth’s gold sprinkled over the sea … shines no longer nor lustily gleams” (θ.10-2).

This loss of wealth and grandeur can be attributed to sin. A contradiction between the moral authority of the Roman pope and the Emperor’s will results in the loss of the Emperor’s sanctity, leading to the organic body’s collapse. The poem is quite obscure about this process and perhaps a scholar more attuned to Williams’s personal mythology could tease out his references, particularly those related to his theology of co-inheritance

Certain things are clear enough, however: Rome stands as a moral example to Byzantium. If the Empire is a body, Rome is the hands, where “strength articulated itself in morals / of arms, joints, wrists, hands” (ε.3-4). Byzantium, on the other hand, being the centre of the Empire, is the navel—the axis mundi. Logres, a key setting in the rest of Williams’s work, is the Empire’s head. All parts of the Empire, in fact, correspond to body parts, some more chaste than others.

Unchaste body parts show the potential for corruption. Just after mentioning the redemption of the Crucifixion, through an image of how, “by iron nails the toil was finished in the time of our need” (ε.11), Williams mentions “the sublime circle of the cone’s bottom, the seed-springing surrender,” another image of cone-shaped nails, but this time with a bawdy subtext (ε.12). Williams dangerously mixes the sacred and profane, transforming a symbol of Christian redemption—the very nails used to crucify Christ—into a phallic image that anticipates the “phosphorescent … point of the penis” that appears at end of the poem, after the Emperor has fallen (θ.28).

This bit of innuendo hints at how the organic body, previously associated with the pristine Byzantine Empire, becomes corrupted by lust, leading to the fall of the Emperor himself. The sacred and secular worlds are in a contradiction of authority. Indeed, the Emperor’s “golden palaces pale to the Papal / vesture” (ζ.2-3). The Pope’s moral wealth outshines Byzantium’s worldly glory. The contradiction between church and state leads the speaker to ask, “What was the crossing of the will of the Emperor?” (ζ.4)

olive-tree-cross_400“The Adam in the hollow of Jerusalem” (η.1) has defied the Emperor by giving the people insight into the workings of the Emperor’s mind. This Adam could be Christ himself, the Second Adam who redeemed the first Adam’s original sin, although it is possible the figure stands for someone more presumptuous. This Adam—never just Adam, but the Adam—wants to “grow to the height of God” (η.7). He climbs a tree, perhaps a metaphor for the Cross, and an audience gathers. In him, “they found the terror in the Emperor’s house” (η.12). The Adam is a prophet, or at least a sign pointing to the disharmony within the organic body.

Byzantium soon becomes a state of living death, a world where “the good lusted against the good,” Emperor against Pope (η.14). The Adam’s onlookers observe “on the twisted tree … their body wrying” (η.16). The “joints” of the organic body have “cramped” (η.17) and the Empire itself has begun to dissolve from its utopian unity.

An utter and unanticipated reversal takes place, in which “hot ashes / fall from unseen volcanoes” (θ.13-4), an image that suggests how the source of the destruction is about as obscure as Williams’s theological references. The Emperor walks “brainless” with “indecent hands hidden under the cope, / dishallowing in that crimson the flush on the mounds of Caucasia” (θ.20-22). His concealed hands suggest how he is ashamed of his own body, like Adam after the Fall. Sexuality is implied symbolically by the added blush to the Caucasus, a mountain range previously described as “chastities of ranged peaks” (β.5). Now that they are stained, it can be surmised that innocence has fled the Emperor and his Empire.

Improbably, the Emperor is punished by a set of “heaven-sweeping tentacles” (θ.23) that drag him to the hell of “antipodean Byzantium” (θ.26), a land named “P’o-lu” (θ.33), a fishy and vaguely Lovecraftian demise if I ever heard of one. The poem concludes with a prayer that calls blessings again upon the organic body, which has been lost, but, one hopes, has not vanished completely. The speaker laments the passing of this metaphysical unity and security—a particular crisis of not only Fallen, but modern humanity. The speaker prayerfully awaits the hope that the organic body might still survive “beyond P’o-lu” (ι.17), but this prayer is fundamentally a recognition of the absence of its immediacy.

 

 

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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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6 Responses to TTL 3: “The Vision of the Empire” — by Matthew Rettino.

  1. Pingback: TTL 3: “The Vision of the Empire” — by Matthew Rettino. « The Vinciolo Journal

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    The comparison with Yeats’ poetry about Byzantium makes me think it might be worth mentioning Williams’s essay on Yeats from the beginning of the same decade in Poetry at Present, a reprint of which is scanned in the Internet Archive:

    https://archive.org/details/poetryatpresent00will

    I think I remember reading that Yeats had responded positively to it! The book is also of interest for a quotation from Thomas Hardy in the essay on his work, which may well have formed part of the background for this poem and the map and further use of the Europe-Empire-body imagery. (It is also curious for the fact that the little list of works with the Masefield essay does not include his then-recent Arthurian works!)

    Going a little further afield, Sir Geoffrey Hill makes Poetry at Present the starting point for his very interesting last lecture as Professor of Poetry at Oxford, a recording of which is available online:

    http://www.charleswilliamssociety.org.uk/geoffrey-hill-on-charles-williams/

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  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thank you for the striking perspective of “The Adam’s onlookers” with reference to section Eta! Perhaps Taliessin as visionary is the onlooker (or especially so?) – a possibility which your noting things “Taliessin sees” suggests. Curiously, there was a magazine publication earlier in the same year as the book came out, 1938, of five of its poems – in earlier versions! And the title of the one corresponding to this is explicitly ‘Taliessin’s Vision of the Empire’. (Christendom (A Journal of Christina Sociology), 8 (March 1938), pages 19-30.) Even when spelling that out has been revised away by Williams, you raise an interesting question or two about this poem and others in the book. Which poems purport to be by Taliessin, and which seem to be, implicitly? And, what may Taliessin the poet be doing with the experience of Taliessin the visionary in a given instance?

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Ach! Not ‘Christina Sociology’, but ‘Christian Sociology’! – and I thought I had reread before hitting “Post Comment”!

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  4. Thank you for all these thoughts, Matthew! It’s super great to get another perspective on this poem.
    I have a bunch of follow-up questions that I hope will spark discussion.
    1. You write: “A contradiction between the moral authority of the Roman pope and the Emperor’s will results in the loss of the Emperor’s sanctity.” I never noticed that before, and I must admit I’m still not seeing it now. Can you show me where that’s discussed and persuade me of it?
    2. You said that some of the body parts are “more chaste than others” and you refer to “unchaste body parts.” I think that is the exact OPPOSITE of what CW believes. He firmly believes that all body parts are equally chaste. He goes to great lengths to try to present a redeemed vision of the buttocks, for instance, and spends some time talking about the holiness of defecation in “The Coming of Galahad.” The loins are very holy in his mythology. So I’m not convinced that there are “unchaste” body parts in his anatomical empire.
    3. You say that this corruption leads “to the fall of the Emperor himself.” Really?! Did it, and I missed that? That seems awfully huge, and I don’t see it. Can you persuade me? I mean, of course, there’s the anti-emperor–the headless one who moves backwards on the bottom of the sea, “indecent hands” under his cope. He’s what God looks like to us when we look at God through our fallenness, through evil, rather than through good. But I don’t see the true Emperor falling. You mention this other Emperor, this reverse-doppleganger, but you don’t make clear that it’s someone else: it is, essentially, the devil, the obverse of God, the negative of the Emperor Himself. You also mention the Emperor being punished by the tentacles, but we need to make clear that’s the OTHER Emperor, the evil one, the bottom-of-the-sea negative.
    4. I never noticed the contradiction of church and state. I always thought they were unified throughout these poems. But I’m kind of tone-deaf to political matters, so I probably missed it.

    I look forward to your responses to these thoughts!

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  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I imagine I must have seen someone discuss it before in relation to the Williams-Lamb end-paper map, yet I don’t at all remember having done so, when we encountered a reproduction from Sebastian Münster’s Cosmographia universalis in a second-hand bookshop today (my wife pointing it out to me): see the Wikipedia article, “Europa regina”!

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