Here is Post #5 in the Series on Taliessin through Logres! PPlease visit the INTRODUCTION to this series first, and here is the INDEX to the other posts in the series.
Today’s post is by David Llewellyn Dodds.
David Llewellyn Dodds is editor of both the Charles Williams and John Masefield volumes in Boydell & Brewer’s Arthurian Poets series (and recommends Masefield’s Badon poem too). He is currently editing Williams’s Arthurian Commonplace Book and his largely-unpublished 45-poem Advent of Galahad cycle for publication.
V. Mount Badon
The Battle of Mount Badon appears in many early Arthurian works, but then there is a period of silence on this subject until Tennyson takes it up again. As Sam Boyer notes, “Tennyson is the first major author to begin working with Badon material again after several centuries.” Indeed, he goes back a thousand years to Nennius, the first source to connect Badon with Arthur, and has Lancelot recount how he fought with Arthur in the 12 battles which Nennius lists, culminating with Badon:
on the mount
Of Badon I myself beheld the King
Charge at the head of all his Table Round,
And all his legions crying Christ and him,
And break them.
(Tennyson, ‘Lancelot and Elaine’, lines 284b-316a)
Williams pasted a clipping of this passage from onto p. 122 of his Arthurian Commonplace Book.
In ‘Mount Badon,’ Williams continues and elaborates this mix of Christian Roman and mediaeval details. The visionary traveller, Taliessin, has become the “king’s poet” and “his captain of horse.” Arthur called to be king, to unite, act, and build, is strategist as well as warrior, bidding Taliessin to hide his force, delegating to him to decide when and where to use it. Taliessin watching things apparently not going well, awaits guidance in “a passion of patience.” This Providential guidance comes by a new deference and indirection.
Taliessin sees the blind poet, Virgil, seeking how to express the victory of Augustus over Antony and Cleopatra at Actium – and then finding “the invention of the City by the phrase” (through the intervention of Apollo, depicted at the center of the prophetic shield Vulcan made for Aeneas, in Book 8, 675ff.). Taliessin is shown by Virgil “the place for the law of grace to strike” at Badon. With him charging at their head, “the household of Taliessin” are depicted as the “golden candles” of the first chapter of the Apocalypse of St. John, in two verse paragraphs full of imagery from that chapter and chapter 19, until with the victory of Arthur’s forces, the hair of the Logos “drew the battle through the air up threads of light.” The “heart of our lord Taliessin determined the war” – and he properly kneels to the king, whose “mind had bidden” his place and free responsibility to act.
I think Williams is playing with the Sortes Virgilianae (noted in his Arthurian Commonplace Book, p. 14), the seeking of direction (in the words of Sir Philip Sidney) by “the chanceable hitting upon” significant verses in Virgil’s work, but here with Taliessin deferentially seeing across time and space Virgil’s very “invention” of the right words. Virgil’s poetic recording of one historical victory enables Taliessin’s decisively contributing to another. Virgil (though unconsciously) guides Taliessin here in a way comparable to the way he guides Dante in his Comedy. This apparent immediate benefit across centuries also has a certain resemblance to Pauline Anstruther’s encounter with her ancestor John Struther on another Battle Hill, in Descent into Hell (1937). Here, only the later person benefits, though five poems further on, Taliessin will sing of an analogous encounter to the benefit of Virgil.
I also think Williams’s use of Actium here is in keeping with what he would say two years later of Augustus as a “personal symbol” of an “image of the City” in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra: “It is the peace and union of men which he represents and sustains”. Two later reviews are also worth comparing. In one, Williams notes Virgil “had to support a Government […] of which he sometimes disapproved”, and that “such poetry must be doubly accurate, to the facts known and the structure imagined.” In the other, “The pietas of Virgil was a part of and an image of a greater. The poem presented a city; the Maid-Mother’s son was the foundation of all cities, and especially of his own – descendentem de coelo a Deo” (Rev. 21:2).
I think that for Williams Virgil’s “invention” is a discovery and an imaginative representation of truth about Augustus Caesar’s victory and Rome – which transcends their betrayals of it. And that the victory at Badon is similarly imagined as participating in the Apocalyptic victory. While one can see how some readers might mistake it for an uncritical or dishonest triumphalist glorification of Byzantine Christian Britons and near-demonization of Saxons, I think it is subtler than that. I wonder if it is also the first hint of his astonishing addition to the Arthurian story which he would state clearly in the preface to The Region of the Summer Stars (1944) as “the argument of the series”: “the expectation of the return of Our Lord by means of the Grail and of the establishment of the kingdom of Logres (or Britain) to this end.”
If Arthur and those who are his, continue true to “the foundation of all cities”, the fullness of that Apocalyptic victory may soon take place. The next poem shows Arthur’s disastrous failure to do so. And what of the Saxons? It is interesting that in his Commonplace Book, Williams notes that Deusdedit (who died in 663) was the first Archbishop of Canterbury “of English origin” and ponders the possibility of introducing him “as an acolyte or page to Dubric” (p. 135). But no such continuity was worked out in the late poetry.
One of the chief distinctions between the Britons and the Saxons in the poem is that, in contrast to British royal strategy with its delegations and deferences, among the Saxons “neither for charge nor for ruse could the allied crews / abide the civilized single command.” I suspect Williams is engaging in some ironic retrospective criticism, here. For, it was not until 26 March 1918 that the Allies during the First World War would submit to there being a single command, in the person of Ferdinand Foch. (And the Supreme War Council had only been formed on 27 November 1917.) This forms a striking theme in Ford Madox Ford’s tetralogy (which Williams knew), perhaps most strikingly in the record of General Campion’s thoughts in No More Parades (1925: Part III, ch. 2), which can be interestingly juxtaposed with ‘Mount Badon’: “For himself he was absolutely in favour of a single command, and in his opinion, too, it was indispensable to any sort of conclusion of hostilities at all. The whole of military history, in so far as it concerned allied operations of any sort – from the campaigns of Xerxes and operations during the wars of the Greeks and Romans, to the campaigns of Marlborough and Napoleon and the Prussian operations of 1866 and 1870 – pointed to the conclusion that a relatively small force acting homogeneously was, to the nth power again, more effective than vastly superior forces of allies acting only imperfectly in accord or not in accord at all. Modern development in arms had made no shade at all of difference to strategy and had made differences merely of time and numbers to tactics. To-day, as in the days of the Greek Wars of the Allies, success depended on apt timing of the arrival of forces at given points, and it made no difference whether your lethal weapons acted from a distance of thirty miles or were held and operated by hand; whether you dealt death from above or below the surface of the ground, through the air by dropped missiles or by mephitic and torturing vapours. What won combats, campaigns, and, in the end, wars, was the brain which timed the arrival of forces at given points – and that must be one brain which could command their presence at these points, not a half-dozen authorities requesting each other to perform operations which might or might not fall in with the ideas or the prejudices of any one or other of the half-dozen…”
Sam Boyer provides an very interesting detailed overview, with sample texts, here (our differences in interpretation of Williams’s poem will be evident).
The Williams prose quotations are from the title article and two Virgil-related reviews in The Image of the City and Other Essays, ed. Anne Ridler (London: OUP, 1958), pp. 95, 124-36.