Today’s post is by the great Grevel Lindop, author of the brand-new biography Charles Williams: The Third Inkling.
Grevel Lindop is a poet, biographer, and salsa dancer. He read English at Oxford University and taught for 30 years at Manchester University. You can read more about him on his website, and check out his books on Amazon.
IX. TALIESSIN IN THE SCHOOL OF THE POETS
This seems a particularly obscure poem, even within Charles Williams’s work; but perhaps one has that feeling about any of his later poems when it is closely examined!
I believe it owes much to Williams’s own experiences of lecturing: even before he taught at Oxford, he was well known as an inspiring lecturer, and the ‘young poets, lucent-eyed’ would be, on one level, the young literary people who thronged his lectures, not least young practising poets like Anne Ridler (a regular attender) and Dylan Thomas (occasional).
So Taliessin comes through the city of Camelot (London viewed as its mythical counterpart in Logres) to the school, which is perhaps located in St Paul’s Cathedral: ‘Paul’s and Arthur’s door’ because Arthur was crowned there; or at least Malory says ‘whether it were Powlis or not the Frensshe booke maketh no mencyon’ but it was ‘the grettest chirch of London’. In the ‘school’ – perhaps a grand lecture-room not unlike the Divinity School at Oxford – the floor mosaic shows Phoebus Apollo, god of poetry (for this room at least retains its ancient pagan emblems, even if we are in a Christian cathedral) trampling the Python, the monstrous serpent which dwelt on Mount Parnassus; killing it, Apollo celebrated by playing his lyre and uttering a celebratory ode, thus becoming god of music, and in some accounts, of poetry also.
Taliessin’s shadow ‘lapped’ the image of the god: that is, he becomes temporarily identified with the god to a certain extent. He can be the god’s spokesman. The students turn their eyes from the old texts they are studying in manuscript (‘skins of runes and vellums of verse’) to someone who can speak living words to them. The lecturer, to put it in modern terms, will bring the texts to life. They turn their eyes to ‘the brass of a man’, I think, because Taliessin is not divine or perfect, and so not gold; he is human, mortal, imperfect, and therefore mere brass – a metal resembling gold but not the same. Taliessin ‘searches the dark’ – the obscurities – ‘of Phoebus’ style’ – the god’s means of communicating, his words (oracles perhaps) but also with the implication of a stylus or pen, usually present when Williams uses the word ‘style’ in a poem.
The students are young: they are full of seething emotion (‘their hearts ached’) and they fin d the work difficult (‘their thoughts toiled’). Taliessin uses his imagination (‘butterfly fancies’) to search for a suitable image, and finds indeed the golden dust of butterflies’ wings, which he suggests must like all things be ‘weighed’ – clearly impossible in the material world, just as it’s impossible to measure the light on the nape of a neck (Williams’s typical observation of a divine radiance in a physical detail of the body) or the swaying shadow of a hazel. But all these must and can be measured in poetry, where the ‘hazel’ implies measurement, the poetic measure or meter as much as anything.
He proceeds to depict a kind of Vitruvian figure: the human body perfectly proportioned, envisaged within a geometrical sphere (‘the radial arms’ point-to-point’ etc) measured by the usual hazel rod (but also, since it is ‘Swung…over thighs and shoulders’) with a hint of flagellation, which for Williams was linked to the discipline of poetic inspiration. Suffering is necessary to poetry (the rod will be stained with ‘gules’ – red – by the blood of the heart, whose steel will be softened once suffering has ‘intinctured’ it – alchemically softened it in preparation). But, he says, those who can go most deeply into the blossom of poetry (like bees?) are those who ‘fly the porphyry stair’ – not in the sense of running away from it, but by flying up the staircase. The porphyry stair is the body, especially its central energy column, with its porphyry/purple flesh and blood; it is also the staircase in the Emperor’s palace at Byzantium; the Empire being of course within each one of us. But it is also the ‘staircase’ of the Kabbalistic Tree, whose levels we must ascend to approach union with the Divine.
This Kabbalistic emphasis his clearer in the next staza, where Taliessin talks of the ‘throne’. The stair’s head is Kether, the highest sephira; the ‘measures’ are the paths on the sephirotic tree, drawn through ‘sapphire-laced distances’ perhaps because they are pictured as coming literally down from heaven. The jewel-joint-justiced throne is again the sephirotic tree; no matter how far we are from its highest point, still we are gathered to some extent into the divine mercy and justice: Williams was fascinated by the idea of the asymptote, something which approaches nearer and nearer but never reaches, and I think the ‘nth’ is a reference to this idea: far away, we are never totally absent; close at hand, we never quite arrive.
The ‘right and left newel’ are the twin pillars of the tree, the columns of Justice and Mercy. The joints and centres which are jewels are the sephirot. Each is a centre – Williams uses ‘moment’ as a noun, as if in engineering – and each point involves both an experience and an active force: love is desert (in the sense of merit or reward owed); sight is a sense of direction, prompting movement; and so on. The Acts of Identity – the process of creation – issues from this, as laws and commands issue from an Emperor. These processes apply just as much in distant, northern Logres as in Byzantium and the east: when a hazel nut falls from the ‘uncut hazel’, it obeys gravity and falls in a straight line according to universal laws of physics symbolised by the ‘cut hazel’.
Taliessin proceeds to talk of Virgil’ epic: he speaks of Aeneas’s first view of Italy from the ship; he speaks of Virgil’s vision of the underworld. (The falcons counterpoint this, as previously the doves had counterpointed the young poets’ emotions). His exposition inspires the students to see living meaning and value in the poet’s lines: the ‘darkened glamour’ (remember the etymological history of that word, from grammar to grimoire, all of which Williams is aware of) takes colour what has been metallic becomes ‘multilinear red’ – it is now flesh and blood, living meaning, for the students.
The poet stands by the ‘sovereign chair’ which is now equally the bardic chair mentioned in stanza 4; the sephirotic tree; and the Emperor’s throne; and he speaks of the death of Virgil, which Williams has written about elsewhere. Tendebantque manus [ripae ulterioris amore] is from Virgil’s Aeneid VI, 314: ‘And they were holding out their hands with longing for the other shore’ – These are the dead who long to take Charon’s ferry across the dark river to the land of rest. Williams seems to imply a new meaning for the line: he surely has in mind that the dead need us, that they stretch out their hands in love [amore] to us for our help through our thoughts, prayers and actions in co-inherence. (In a letter I saw only very recently, to Dorothy Rance, Williams writes ‘all my life, my most intimate loves (excepting always my wife & son) have been consistently removed. I knew two men in my younger years; they were killed in the last war. I knew two after that war; they both died before this.’) Reading that line of Virgil’s, I am sure Williams must have thought of his friends Harold Eyers and Ernest Nottingham, both killed in the First World War. We have perhaps not recognised how much the emphasis on co-inherence owed to Williams’s sense of the need for communion with the friends he had lost so early.
As this sense of the whole human community comes to mind through the understanding of poetry, culminating in that line, the whole of humanity is seen timelessly – in a passage which like many things in this poem is strongly redolent of Blake – as one figure, the ‘crowned form of anatomized man’, who is the ‘diagram’ – a word Williams is almost unique among poets in always using positively – the image – of ‘the style’ – the manner of proceeding, but also the instrument of communication, the pen or stylus – of the Logos, the divine word, which is seen in the metal, the human base metal which is now living and full of blood (‘crimson’) as it undergoes an alchemical process of transmutation.
The young hearers, in a wonderful phrase, are ‘breathless explorers of the image’: has anyone coined a finer expression for young readers and poets? (I suspect also an echo of Yeats’s ‘All Souls’ Night’.) The students, even in their inspired state, continue to ‘study precision’: their task is still to work at exactness of technique and observation. But Taliessin/Williams turns inward, praying ‘Sis salvator, Domine’ – ‘Be a savior, O Lord’ – recognising the ultimate powerlessness of humanity without divine grace: as a teacher he can offer glimpses of a higher reality, but has no power to bring them into being. He needs salvation as much as any.