Here 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.
Matthew 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).
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)
“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.