Today’s post is by Elise Erikson Barrett.
Elise Erikson Barrett is a singer/songwriter, writer, editor, and daytime manager of things philanthropic. She blogs about music, widowhood, parenting, and creative spirituality at www.elisebarrett.com.
In his Williams and the Arthuriad, C.S. Lewis says bluntly about “The Sister of Percivale,” “This is perhaps the most difficult poem in the whole cycle and I am far from claiming that I have mastered it” (Williams & Lewis, 322). He tackles the verse regardless, wrestling with sections, sharing illuminating notes and lines from letters Williams wrote him about the work. Abruptly, however, he says, “But there is still something more in the poem which I have not understood (325).” And then he simply changes the subject.
Lewis’ perplexity reminds all of us that these pieces are expansive and thick. If Williams’s friend and literary colleague felt that there was more in this poem than he had managed to plumb, we should none of us worry if we find – or fail to find – less or more than a neighbor, less or more than what we seek, in these pieces.
Taliessin, lying on a wall under a lightning-lit July sky, is at the center of this poem, but his centrality is a centrality of positioning and viewpoint, not a centrality of subject. He is “between” (hall and horizon), and in a lovely phrase, “idleness cure(s) sloth” as he crafts verse.
From the poet’s vantage, held by the wall between earth and sky, hovering in the vertical plane, he is able to see an ontological (and perhaps sacramental?) drama shudder into being below and above him, east and west of him.
Below Taliessin, and eastward (toward Caucasia) in the mythology Williams has been establishing throughout the cycle, there is a woman-slave. She works strong, and in her power is sensuality, the lightning/morning illuminating and emphasizing her scars born how? of whip or sword, Taliessin speculates.
This woman is a paradox. While her other-owned, scarred back seems tracked geographically with the contours of Caucasia, “the horizon in her eyes was breaking with distant Byzantium.” She swings a handle, hard, from her hips; yet the creaking handle pulls Lancelot’s voice into the space. She is marked with earthiness; and spiritual orderliness and beauty fill her vision. Williams will not allow us to settle into the facile dualism of flesh=bad/spirit=good. This woman, this slave with her cross-hatched back and powerful hips, is fully sensual, and fully admirable.
Taliessin, held liminally on his wall, shows this to us: he responds to this woman’s presence with a heart “swollen” with wonder. Watching her, he “play(s) with a line” that centers the poem even as the poem revolves around the watching poet:
Logres centre, can we know what proportion
bear the radii so to the full circumference everywhere?’
For Williams, geography matters, as other writers in this series have said so well. “Hell is inaccurate,” he said once to Lewis, and he noted that “God is a circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference nowhere” (quoted in Curtis, 60). From this moment on, the poem’s moving circles are coalescing into shape: circle beyond circle, arc meeting arc.
The slave woman bears in herself intimations of the worlds on both sides of the horizon – the hints of west as well as east, of Byzantium as well as Caucasia. But the trumpet heralds the moment that will bring the image to fruition.
Watch her arm: and remember the arm of Elayne, the passageway for the fish of Broceliande to plumb fathomless depths; remember the arm of queen Iseult, marker of distance between what she was and what she was meant to be; and see now the arm of the woman-slave as it bears the water:
A round plane of water rose shining in the sun;
she steadied the handle, the strain ceased; her arm
balanced the line of the spine and reached for the gain.
[The trumpet sounds, leaping “level with the arm,” “round with breath as that with flesh.” Circle upon circle; roundness upon roundness; equally rounded with spirit as with body; breath and flesh steadying in the round plane of the water…]
Here, now, is the center verse of the poem:
“The sound sprang aloft from the western gate;
a new fate had ridden from the hidden horizon;
its luck struck as her shoulders took the weight of the water.”
A three-dimensional baptism, this moment as the hidden horizon explodes into the sensual horizon, a new future striking as she is weighted with the water.
The arcs meet. The circle is completed.
In her other outflung arm the sound doubled; she cast
one look at herself in the drawn flood and passed…
She takes the weight of the round water, the round sound doubles, she sees herself imaged.
And the doubling is revealed by Taliessin’s observation –
As she at her image Taliessin at the double grace
gazed in the yard; hemispheres altered place;
there first and then he saw the rare face of Blanchefleur…
Horizon had no lack of horizon; the circle closed;
the face of Blanchefleur was the grace of the Back in the Mount.
Williams subverts his own imagery here: rather than the slave-woman and Blanchefleur representing two arcs that close to create a bifurcated circle, their glories, united in the moment when the horizons strike under the water’s weight, become one whole glory. Blanchefleur’s face is the grace of God’s back when Moses pressed himself into the cleft of the Mountain as God’s glory passed by. The east and west, Caucasia and Byzantium, horizon and horizon, face and back, sensuality and spirituality, are no longer arcs whose gravities tug at and hint toward one another, differentiating further in proximity; this circle is now a sphere, and all the binaries have united to create the rounded space that is the proper home for God.
Taliessin shows us that the slave and the princess are one: as he had ridden in his vision the “smooth slopes” of the “curved bottom of the world,” he had taken Hesper as guide; now he addresses Blanchefleur as “transit of Venus.” “The stress of the scar ran level with the star of Percivale,” and this will, in the end, be the guide to the Grail.
Read this loveliness aloud:
‘Blessed is the eyed axis of both horizons,
And the wheel that taxes the hips and generates the sphere.
And illumination that waxes in the full revolution.’
This sphere, this lightning-lit, scar-tracked, gold-curved unity-in-motion, this is God’s dwelling place.
“There in the throat” of Blanchefleur, embedded in the oneness of spirit and flesh, in the incarnate places, “her greeting sprang, and sang in one note the infinite decimal.” Asymptote, infinitely approaching, nearer all the time. (Is the unity, then, incomplete? Have we seen just a foretaste or an intimation of the to-be-made-real?)
The imagery is baptismal, water making newly one what was divided in the fall; it is Marian, flesh and spirit joined hostlike as the unicorn horn rives the willing heart; it is incarnational, human and divine uniting in the center of the sphere. It is all of these, and probably more –
And perhaps we might imagine that God, the circle “whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference nowhere,” is pleased to dwell in this rounded lovely unity of fate-pierced horizons, joined round water to sound, sign to grace.
(And still… “there is still something more in the poem which I have not understood…”)
Charles Williams and C.S. Lewis: Taliessin Through Logres / The Region of the Summer Stars / Arthurian Torso: One-Volume Edition. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974.
Jan Curtis: “Charles Williams’s ‘The Sister of Percivale’: Towards a Theology of ‘Theotokos’,” in Quondam et Futurus, Vol. 2, No. 4 (Winter 1992), pp. 56-72.