Today’s post is by Benjamin Utter.
Benjamin D. Utter (@liberapertus), a naturalized Narnian, received his M.A. in English from Wake Forest University and his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota. He lives with his wife and daughter in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he teaches history and Latin at the Episcopal Collegiate School. He enjoys rock climbing and triathlon as time allows.
No one, to my knowledge, has argued for “The Ascent of the Spear” as an example of Williams at his best. The circumstances of my writing about it here may attest as much; slow as I was to respond to Sørina’s APB for everyone to pick a favorite poem, I was left (and justly so) to poke about among the leftovers. This was one of those conspicuous few.
But I am glad to have the chance to write a few words about it, because re-reading it has convinced me that it actually captures well a few of the things that first captivated me about William’s poems.
There’s a reason that this poem comes in for special mention on this very blog as a case in point of William’s “damned obscurity.” Newcomers to Taliessin Through Logres can find in that post a badly-needed explication of several of the poem’s less accessible images, but I come to praise Williams, not to annotate him, which is just as well, since it is very difficult to assess it independently of “The Star of Percivale,” which precedes it, and “The Sister of Percivale,” which follows it. (For an excellent close-reading of the tryptic, I suggest Roma King’s The Pattern in the Web, pp. 75-83).
Suffice to say here that the poem describes Taliessin’s encounter with a slave girl who is being publicly pilloried for fighting with another slave girl. In a move that reminds me a little of Christ and the woman accused of adultery (John 8:1-11), Taliessin intervenes to silence her jeering critics. In a slight variation from the story of Christ and the woman, the king’s poet settles in to give her a little sermon before arranging her release from the stocks. Most of the poem is made up their conversation, as Taliessin gently urges her to drop her defiance and acknowledge her offenses, both civil and spiritual, so that she can accept grace.
I tend to agree with David Llewellyn Dodds that “anyone who wants to know how worthwhile Williams’s poetry is should try ‘Mount Badon,’ ‘The Calling of Arthur,’ ‘The Crowning of Arthur,’ or ‘The Prelude’ (Dodds 3). Those poems soar in exhilarating arcs across the breadth of the Empire. The intimacy of “The Ascent of the Spear,” by contrast, can feel a little oppressive, and re-reading this poem made me realize that Williams is at his most off-putting when writing dialogue. Certainly it will not attract praise for its verisimilitude. Leaving aside the question of whether “relatability” is a virtue worth aspiring toward, this is dialogue most people are in no danger of relating to:
By Taliessin’s side a demure chamberlain spoke:
‘The High Steward to the king’s poet: the Lord Kay to the lord Taliessin:
if who sits here be his friend,
her fetter is his to keep or end.’
‘Nor mine,’ the king’s poet said, ‘to prefer. Sir,
she is, of force, at hand: ask her,
and do, either way, a grace of thanks to my lord.’
The messenger glanced. Celestialling the word,
her colour a deference still,
her voice adored and implored: ‘Lord, what choice?’ Who:
‘True; yet if the king’s servant and yours could speak,
he might hold it for heaven’s best skill
to treat the world’s will but as and at the world’s will.’
‘They will say—’ she began; and he:
‘—either way; they will use to call either side
pride (to stay) or fear (to go).
Do they—do we—know? Love and do what you choose.’ (ll. 48-63)
This is writing that will, if nothing else, renew your gratitude for punctuation. One might charitably describe the passage as both demanding and rewarding close reading; still more charitable might be to supply the editor for which it might seem to cry out. It is hard enough to keep a clear line on who is saying what to whom, to say nothing of what it all portends.
All that said, I love this passage and the others like it in the poem. Say what you will about it, there’s no denying that it portends a great deal. Its sound might make you furious, but it signifies something—even if what that something is isn’t always easy to figure out.
I think it was this suggestive, allusive quality that I found so alluring when I began reading these poems, the sense of something just out of sight, of much more meant than said. Plenty of authors can set an otherworldly mood through description, but it was Williams’s dialogues that nudged me through the looking glass. Do his characters speak “unnaturally”? Of course, and it’s that very quality that defamiliarizes the ideas they convey, helping them to succeed where, say, conversations between allegorical figures in medieval morality plays might fail (as my students have assured me they do. I have my own ideas on that point). Readers may quibble over whether or not his characters, freighted with so much symbolism, live and breathe, but at least they never say what you’d expect them to say. That, at least, has been my experience. Offhand, I can think of only a handful of writers, including Mary Butts and Shirley Jackson, who can give me the same sense of something peripheral and imminent, but while their stories impart a sense of the uncanny, or of madness, Williams’s poems convey . . . what to call it? Looming transcendence?
For Roma King, the broken syntax of Taliessin’s exchange with the slave girl gives “[t]he impression . . . of a mind grasping after meaning that eludes language [ . . . . ] The importance, however, is that both poet and girl understand each other in spite of the inadequate speech” (80). Returning to this poem, which utterly baffled me when I first encountered it, I find at last an understanding between poet and reader, as well.
I’m already over my allotted word limit, but I have to add that the playful, powerful tension between “assent” and “ascent” is one of my favorite instances of paradox, in a poetic cycle teeming with them: By yielding, the slave is liberated; by humbling herself, she rises. The poem’s concluding allusion to heroic tragedy (“O new Pheilippides, that stumble was Marathon won. / Remains but the triumph’s race to run”) suggests that she is one of those who, as in the Oliver Wendell Holmes poem, “have known / The cross without the crown of glory!” Her victory is in her defeat; her life deriving from her death to herself.
Others have found this repugnant. I have written elsewhere [in the forthcoming Inklings and King Arthur] about the fact that Williams’s imagistic use of slavery, bondage, punishment, and—in the following poem, “The Sister of Percival”—scars, prompted one critic to declare that “the psychology of totalitarianism—of hierarchy and of sadism—is the essential of his work and ruins it irretrievably” (Conquest 55). I strongly disagree with that criticism, but I am also struck by how risky it is for Williams, how simply audacious, that in a poetic landscape abounding with kings, emperors, ecclesiastical authorities, nobles, and knights, he chooses an abject slave girl to demonstrate the folly of pride.
Coming in at fifteenth of the twenty-four poems in Taliessin Through Logres, “The Ascent of the Spear” is not quite at the midpoint of the cycle, but it might serve to divide the casual reader of Williams (if there is such a thing!) from the devotee. Or perhaps it would be better to say that although “Spear” would serve as a rather unlikely door through which to enter the broader world of the poems, such readers as consent to stoop through it might very well find themselves, like the slave girl herself, elevated.
Cavaliero, Glen. Charles Williams: Poet of Theology. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans,
Conquest, Robert. “The Art of the Enemy.” Essays in Criticism VII, no. 1 (1957): 42–55.
Dodds, David Llewellyn, ed. Charles Williams. Arthurian Poets. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 1991.
King, Roma A. The Pattern in the Web. Kent and London: Kent State University Press, 1990.