Today’s post is by Jenn Raimundo.
Jennifer Raimundo has been an Inklings enthusiast for the better part of her life. After realising that there will always be more to learn about this merry band of brothers, she began her formal education in Inklings and Classical Studies through an M.A. in Language and Literature at Signum University. In addition to being a student, she serves as Institutional Planning Lead at the University. While not doing work or school, Jenn is probably traipsing around the world, drinking coffee and listening to music and learning to love God more like how He loves her.
Hesperus is Phosphorus, and Is Not:
The Crux of Light and Lyric in ‘The Star of Percivale’
‘The Star of Percivale’ is an admittedly odd poem. It seems disjointed, ambiguous, and strangely religious. At first glance, reading from the title doesn’t help us at all. A star is casually referenced only twice in the poem’s nine stanzas, and Percivale is by far the least prominent character in the poem’s plot. Despite its apparent irrelevance, though, ‘The Star of Percivale’ sits at the centre of Taliessin through Logres and, as far as I can tell, at the very heart of its story.
A quick review of the poem shows how disjointed it feels. The first stanza shows Percivale playing a harp and a star arises. The next three stanzas show Taliessin, the king’s poet, singing along. A tired servant girl hears their song and rushes to the singer, falling at his feet in worship. Taliessin gently rejects that worship and instead sings her to her feet. Another shift occurs in the following two stanzas. Dubric the Archbishop meets this servant girl through the morning and they talk about their mutual light and joy. Dubric intimates that their state of soul comes from being ‘hurled’ into ‘Percivale’s world’s orbit.’
The scene suddenly breaks again. It is time for the Eucharist. The day-star vanishes. The lords of Camelot speak of war all the way to the altar. Meanwhile, Taliessin has a vision of ‘sweet joy’ given directly via a new earth and of ‘indirect joy of substitution’ granted via a new heaven fused with that earth. A final whiplash brings us back to the thoughts of the Arthurian court as they take the elements. Lord Balin seethes with ‘a causeless vigil of anger,’ King Arthur narcissistically contemplates his reflection in the elevation, and Lancelot sees the Host only to find in them the ‘ghost of the Queen.’ The end.
Well, that was strange.
And why is it called ‘The Star of Percivale’ again?
That was my reaction, too. But Williams always has a point, and the little perseverance anyone exerts in this text will be abundantly repaid. The main thing to remember is to not give up on the title. Instead, let’s follow the day-star all the way home.
Before we explore the star in the poem, however, it will be helpful to explore the day-star in one of the main texts and traditions Williams draws from in this poem: the Bible. Three biblical passages prominently feature this morning star. The first is in Isaiah 14, where Satan is called Lucifer, the fallen day-star. At the end of the Bible, Revelation 22 gives us another morning star reference, but this time the Morning Star is Jesus, telling His Bride of His return. The last reference sits neatly between the others, in 2 Peter 1:19: ‘And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.’ Here we find the word of God shining like a lamp until Christ the Word of God, the day-star, arises in the heart of believers. Please note the extremes of these morning stars and the word reference lodged between them.
Now, back to the poem’s star.
The ‘star’ of Percivale is, in fact, the planet Venus which (who?) in the morning is called ‘Phosphorus’ and in the evening is called ‘Hesperus.’ For the sake of simplicity, I’ll just spill the beans: in Williams, Phosphorus = Percivale. And again, note the extremes: morning and evening.
The first stanza shows Percivale practically calling up this star by playing his harp beside ‘the magical western door in the king’s hall’ in Camelot, which serves as the bridge between rational creativity and the fleshly world in Williams’ geographic mythology. Putting it all together, Percivale represents the potential, creative force of the abstract imaginary world. He pictures part of the Image that the world needs to know.
But more is required than light and music and abstraction, and thus enters Taliessin’s voice. This interplay between light and lyric quietly dominates the poem, and listening readers can enjoy how the poem’s abrupt narration is supported by a melodic flow in metre and syntax—just as Percivale’s harp undergirds Taliessin’s voice. This, too, is important, and explains the next scene.
For it is under the influence of this Phosphorus light and Taliessin’s inspired voice that a servant-girl experiences proper worship—a self-giving, self-denying, self-sacrificing love. ‘Lord…take me for thine.’ At first, the maid’s worship is misdirected to the singer himself, Taliessin, but through Taliessin’s redirection that love is indirectly directed at Christ, because Christ is the object of Taliessin’s worship. The song Taliessin sings likewise exemplifies proper worship. He first shows humility negatively by rejecting the girl’s worship and then affirmatively by singing of how the Emperor’s vision is greater than Taliessin’s voice and the Emperor’s kingdom greater than any king stewarded with its rule. This is proper worship. This is knowing Christ’s glory, the day-star.
Our star-gazing is confirmed when the Archbishop tells the maid that their light and joy comes from being hurled into Percivale’s orbit, that is, the orbit of Venus-as-Phosphorus. Phosphorus gives light and inspires joy, and each is inherent to the worship of Christ’s glory, whether indirectly (like the maid’s experience through love) or directly (like Taliessin’s experience through word). It is the Morning Star telling of glory to His Bride. How very Revelation 22.
Again, from this point of view we see a natural flow into the poem’s next scene. Percivale no longer harps and the image of the day-star itself has vanished. We are leaving song and star, but the word they birthed together lives on. For what is centred between the Venus lights? The altar. At that altar, where the Eucharist is, there are two ways. Taliessin—highlighted here by Williams as the king’s nuncio (holy ambassador) and logothete (rational word-giver)—experiences joy at the Eucharist. The word’s prophet celebrates the word’s presence, and for a brief moment readers see someone appreciating the Incarnation. Because Taliessin through the word worships well, the word shines, even though Phosphorus has gone and Hesperus is yet to come. How very 2 Peter 1.
But Williams does not let us forget that we are yet in a dark place. The lords of the court have approached the same altar, and they have chosen another way. Poetically, their ‘fights’ contrast with the centred altar’s ‘lights,’ and, rejecting the sacrament, they demonstrate the vilest of improper worship: Anger, Pride, Lust. And this improper worship, this rejection of the Word and embrace of self-serving thoughts instead, will destroy the kingdom. It’s bad enough that seething, savage Balin strikes the Dolorous Blow. It’s worse that Arthur, the man whom the joyous archbishop must crown king, loses sight of the Word that is to feed him in the light of his own face (a painful contrast with the light of the Morning Star, that Morning Star that makes ‘the kingdom greater than the king’). But dreadful beyond words is Lancelot’s loss, for he only sees the ghost of a woman where he could have seen the substance of God. At the altar, between Phosphorus and Hesperus, Camelot could fall.
How very Lucifer.
Thus the poem is left between the two lights of Venus, caught between the potentials of the Star of Percivale. Romantic Theology has been showcased in the servant-girl, the Incarnation through Taliessin’s lyrical worship, and Christ’s glory through Percivale’s light. But deadly sins stand amidst this theme of worship, and our story reaches its breath-holding turning point. What will happen, you ask? Keep reading.
And don’t forget to follow the Morning Star.