Here is Post #15b in the Series on Taliessin through Logres! I don’t usually do two posts per poem, and this isn’t particularly the most important poem in the series or anything, but Ben Utter’s earlier post and this one are a perfect case-study in how two readers can approach a poem differently and both approaches can be extremely fruitful. And Ben’s post is an introductory approach, and then Yannick’s takes us into additional themes, etc, on another read-through. Enjoy!
Today’s post is by Yannick Imbert.
Yannick Imbert is professor of apologetics at the Faculté Jean Calvin (Aix-en-Provence, France). He has published several articles on Tolkien and the Inklings, as well as on other cultural issues. Tolkien was the subject of his Ph.D. work at Westminster Theological Seminary, with a dissertation entitled “Who Created the Stories Anyway”: A Reformed Perspective on Tolkien’s Theory of Faërie. He is also a regular contributor at Visio Mundus, a blog dedicated to the interaction of apologetics and culture.
XV: THE ASCENT OF THE SPEAR
I first met Taliessin and the cohort of Arthur’s knights when I was quite young. The pages of the Encyclopedia Universalis opened up a world of imagination and possibilities where realms and songs came clashing together. I was but a boy and that was enough. Then later I read Stephen Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle, especially Taliessin and Merlin. There I discovered the connections that could be made by the imaginative writer – Atlantis, The Grail, the Bard, Christ. I have never been too much interested in the historical dimension of Taliessin, Arthur and the Grail. What has always fascinated me precisely this: through symbols and words, through worlds and signs, realms of affirmations can be revealed.
And then I came to Williams. I cannot say that Williams has transformed the way I see the world. Not even transformed the way I read and write poetry. But he nourished a love for the re-creations promised in the Grail. Poetizing the possibilities. Actualizing the rhymes. In his use of the Matter of Britain, this is what I found in Williams. And it is also what I found in “The Ascent of the Spear.” When I read, re-read, this poem, I always stop at the title Williams chose. Why this “ascent.” Why the “spear”? What is Williams creating here?
The background story itself is not complicated. A young girl is in the stocks. Not an unusual sight in days as these. I have no interest in deciding whether this young girl is the same as the slave-girl who had fallen in love with Taliessin. Of course if she was, there could be an interesting connection to make about the pride of nonreciprocal love. Maybe even there could be something to be said about Williams’s personal “love gone wrong” in that matter.
Taliessin, the Bard, the Poet, the man of Arthur’s Victory approaches. From then on, Williams blends two in one, Taliessin and the slave-girl; the slave-girl and the chamberlain. Williams’s use of images and sounds certainly is crucial. But so is the overall significance of the expression “ascent of the spear.” The future ascent, renascent self, of the slave-girl, hangs on her unity with Taliessin, on both their “inflexible heads”. Pride comes as the core of the poem. It is pride that unites them in a common plight. Pride reclaimed; or the folly of pride. Taliessin comes as one who has been, seen, sung. The slave-girl remains as one who is abandoned to herself until the Poet reveals herself. Rage, vengeance even is not her own self. Rather, it is “a sin worse than the rage.” It is pride. With or without guilt, it is arrogance.
That is where Williams, I think, strikes to our hearts in Taliessin. There, in this poem, is Williams’s vision of the soul. Of our souls. I resonate with that sharp discernment of the Bard. I run, I hide under guises of excuses a pride that comes only through.
And we, enslaved in the face of the world, try to hang on to a thread of self that is not ours. We argue: “We do amiss – if we –” If we, what? We do not know. And Williams does not care. At all. What did the slave-girl think? What was her emotional state? Williams, by contrast to the fascination of our age for introspection, does not poetize much about this. No. Rather, he cares about what she does. What she says; in a way, who she is. Williams takes us from the slave-girl in the stocks to the slave-girl who meets the Spear. Why does she accept Taliessin? Again, we do not know. It remains a mystery of forgiveness.
What Williams wants me to know, now what he invites us to… is the move towards Rome – Logres, Byzantium. The spiritual realm. Even now Taliessin chants the words of promise: “Though the Caucasian theme throb with its dull ache make, lady, the Roman motion.” Williams’s fusion of imperial images is at first difficult to follow. Especially if we are not familiar with his notion of the organic body of the female-empire. The Caucasus is not merely the place of origin of the slave-girl, it is also the place of fertility and chastity. But Williams never separates physical and spiritual. While the Caucasus signifies the fertility of the body, it is also symbolic of the perfected order transformed through the Roman motion of baptism. It holds the promise being re-ascended to heaven.
I finally had it.
The Ascent of the Spear.
The ascent of forgiveness; the spear of forgiveness. In this poem I can now see the promise of forgiveness that Williams talks so much about in He Came Down from Heaven. The slave-girl capitulates to the ascent of forgiveness. Taliessin exhorts her to “lay on the spear-shaft; climb gently” and so move upward towards restoration. Given Williams’s familiarity with literary devices and images, could Taliessin’s spear be a sign of the Holy Lance? Could the spear with which the ascent of forgiveness is promised by Taliessin be the Lance of Christ’s death, the one that according to the legend gives sure victory? It could. It may.
From “assent and ascent” the slave-girl accepts the Steward’s grace. There it is again. The Ascent of the Spear, the ascent of forgiveness descended “unto us.” In this last part of the poem, Williams again unites the dialogue of the slave-girl and Taliessin and have us be witnesses of the Steward’s brilliant promise.
Assenting to Williams’s poetized grace, I turn to the Bard and accept the challenge of Marathon’s race, and the triumph to come.