TTL 21: “The Death of Palomides.” — by Charles Huttar

ttl rssHere is Post #18 in the Series on Taliessin through Logres. Please visit the INTRODUCTION to this series first, and here is the INDEX to the other posts in the series. This is part 2 of a 3-part series on Palomides by Charles Huttar; you can read Part One here and Part Two here.

CAH at Wade

Background painting of Clyde Kilby by Deborah Melvin Seisner

The Saracen’s Journey:
Charles Williams’s Palomides Suite
Part 3
by Charles Huttar

Charles Huttar is Professor of English Emeritus at Hope College.  He is co-editor of The Rhetoric of Vision: Essays on Charles Williams and the author of numerous essays on the Inklings, most recently “How Much Does That Hideous Strength Owe to Charles Williams?” (Sehnsucht 2015). When not writing he may be gardening or working KenKen.

palomidesCharles Williams in 1927 called Palomides “one of the great Arthurian figures who awaits his due in verse.”[1] Eleven years later he filled that gap himself with three poems tracing the course of Palomides’ life, of which “The Death of Palomides” is the last. The first of the three (discussed earlier) traces his literal journey as a young prince from Persia to Britain, seeking fame and honor, together with his exposure to a succession of competing principles that might reveal the meaning of life—Manichean dualism, Greek rationalism, Islamic submission, and Christian mystery—to none of which, however, is he yet ready to make a commitment. Even when his poetic gift enables him to express Trinitarian insight through his glimpse of Queen Iseult’s beauty, he remains fixated on mundane selfish ambitions. In the second poem we find a middle-aged Palomides, weary of the way of life he has chosen and imprisoned in the “cave of his own skull,”[2] finally in desperation deciding to accept Christian baptism. What that means he barely understands—he “believes unbelievingly,” Williams explains in a note.[3]

Now, uncounted years later (once more), presumably quite a few years since “The Departure of Merlin” precedes it—at any rate, nearing the end of his earthly life—Palomides is stirred by memories, not, in this instance, of any of his renowned deeds of knight-errantry, but of things of greater moment. It is natural for us to wonder how far he has come in the years since that spiritual infancy.[4] Have the insights he expresses in this poem come as the product of steady growth or are they reached only now as he passes his life in review? And are they enough? Williams offers, as we shall see, but slender hints.

manypathsOne such insight has to do with the whole concept of progressive stages in one’s life. “Once the paths were interminable” (line 29), and he considered worldly achievements to have become approved by virtue of his new status. He was (to adapt a phrase of Williams’s) the New Man but still on the Old Way. At some point he discovered, though still walking “those terminable paths,” that they “are only paths” (36); he learned to say with St. Paul that he had not yet arrived but still strove toward the goal.

He has, of course, learned to say the Lord’s Prayer: glory, kingdom, power (2-3). By the end of the poem he is learning to pray it.

He had long ago (“Before His Christening,” lines 89-90) decided to be content to “look a fool before everyone.” In this poem, he again willingly embraces that self-image (line 48). He goes further, cataloging his failures (45-47)—which do not now matter. He accepts Lancelot’s forgiveness—one more humiliating blow—and understands it as a welcome into the community of the christened. He is learning to imitate Christ in kenosis.

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Monsalvat/Monserrat, photo by Charles Huttar

His memories include important new details about his travels: fighting his way across northern Africa with the Muslim armies until they gain a foothold in southern Spain, but then leaving to pursue his own agenda in a month-long journey north, almost to the Pyrenees. Williams uncharacteristically alludes here to a variant Arthurian tradition, kept alive in Wagner’s opera Parzival, which places the castle guarding the Holy Grail on the rugged mountain of Monsalvat—today better known as Montserrat, the site of a centuries-old Benedictine monastery. There, on the plateau beneath this mountain, the young traveler finds hospitality for a night with two relics of the Jewish diaspora, old men of the priestly clan. Despite his carefully guarded this-worldly bent (“scornful of my secret attention,” line 18), Palomides cannot resist being captivated by their evening devotions, chants which, though far from understood, seem to call into question truths that he had taken for granted (13-14). The cries of eagles up on the mountain reinforce the unacknowledged “conflict” growing in his mind (16).

sephirotic treeWilliams describes these men with imagery drawn from the abstruse mystical tradition that his mentor A. E. Waite called “the secret doctrine in Israel.” They are steeped in the symbolism and the formulae of that tradition. In “The Coming of Palomides” he had contrasted the curved scimitar of Moorish conquest with the crosses found everywhere in Christian France; now we see the impact on Palomides’ mind of the third great monotheistic religion (albeit in Gnostic guise). He remembers a strange word that his hosts chanted, Netzach, and how he broke into their devotions by asking what it meant. “Victory” was the answer; more precisely, “the Victory in the Blessing” (23). They go on to explain, “The Lord created all things by means of his Blessing.” This remembered utterance comes to dominate the rest of the poem.

Although Williams borrowed this motto from his occult sources, we need not suppose that he felt bound thereby—or that Palomides, meditating on it in memory, failed to interpret it in the light of his new-found Christian understanding. Williams may have known, for example, that although the word Netzach appears about forty times in the Hebrew Bible, only twice is it translated “victory.”  It has a wide range of meanings, with connotations that include glory and endurance; the latter may tie in with the idea of victory, as it surely does with the idea of eternity or “forever,” which is by far the commonest translation. As for the idea of “blessing,” the creation may be understood as a divinely willed overflowing from the infinite reservoir of God’s goodness, bringing into existence persons different from himself who are able to savor that goodness. Human free will, exerted wrongly, having sharply curtailed that ability, God’s disposition to bless is further seen in the Incarnation and the Cross. Of these distinctively Christian mysteries Palomides began to be aware soon after leaving Spain, but only abstractly, (“Coming,” lines 9, 11). Either of these, or both, may be what is meant by “the unbelieved symbol” in line 44. (Thelma Shuttleworth, who no doubt conversed with Williams on these matters, says it is the Cross.) It is “unbelieved,” of course, by the two Levites (see 1 Corinthians 1:23), but Palomides may also be acknowledging how far he falls short of understanding it.

DSC01092.JPGPalomides imagines himself again at Monsalvat, now singing with the old men, “The Lord created all things by means of his Blessing.” Even if the full meaning of the “formula” (53) is not understood, he is satisfied that it is all that needs to be said. Now dying (55), he will add only his own heart’s pledge. He yields up what’s left of his own striving for mastery (“for thine is the kingdom”). He “endures the power” and joins in spirit the eagle-featured cherubim and seraphim (line 19) who continually sing Sanctus—“the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isaiah 6:2-3; Revelation 4:7-8). He ends with another of Charles Williams’s cryptic aphorisms: “That Thou only canst be Thou only art.”

Here Williams echoes a line by an old Irish poet, written about the time of King Arthur and englished in 1912 in the now-familiar hymnal version, “Naught be all else to me save that Thou art.” A few years later, Williams will repeat the final line of this poem in “The Prayers of the Pope” (lines 297-98) in a context that celebrates the eschatological divine victory. By adding one significant word, the Pope unites the Way of Affirmation and the Way of Rejection in a single Christian mystery.

In the years leading up to Taliessin through Logres Williams greatly reconceived his Saracen knight. An earlier poem celebrated Palomides’ own victory (!) over the “blatant beast” and aligned him with Galahad in the Grail quest. There wasn’t much left of that notion of heroism by 1938. But it’s not entirely gone (see “The Coming of Galahad,” 96-98). Williams believed that even an ordinary struggling Christian deserves respect—and we know quite well his high regard for the faith that lives in honest doubt. It’s often said that in the bard Taliessin he gives us a self-portrait—perhaps not so much as he is but as he would wish to be. But we are compelled to ask as well: In what ways might the outsider Palomides, too, be recognized as Williams’s double?

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Monsalvat/Monserrat, photo by Charles Huttar

 

NOTES

[1] Victorian Narrative Verse, 325.

[2] Alice Mary Hadfield’s phrase in An Introduction to Charles Williams, 152; again on 159.

[3] C. S. Lewis, Arthurian Torso, 163.

[4] Ibid., 166.

 

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About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is a writer, English teacher, and Inklings scholar. Sørina serves as Chair of the Department of Language and Literature at Signum University and teaches English at King's College and Lehigh Carbon Community College. She has published two books of poetry, "The Significance of Swans" and "Caduceus."
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6 Responses to TTL 21: “The Death of Palomides.” — by Charles Huttar

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    How to describe this, in thanking you for it? – ‘instructive’ seems cold and distant for characterizing the learning and thought in the teaching and exploration you give us, here!

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  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    For one example, I think you succeed in delicately and finely glossing or explicating the “Gnostic guise” in saying, “As for the idea of ‘blessing,’ the creation may be understood as a divinely willed overflowing from the infinite reservoir of God’s goodness, bringing into existence persons different from himself who are able to savor that goodness.”

    I hope – at the risk of treading the realm of ‘TLDR’ (‘too long, didn’t read’) – you and other readers may excuse my trying to say something more about that lucid gloss of yours!

    Having done a bit of reading around in “the abstruse mystical tradition that his mentor A. E. Waite called ‘the secret doctrine in Israel’ ” by way of Waite’s book of that title (conveniently, of late, thanks to the scans of it in the Internet Archive), I have a strong impression of how “abstruse” are both the tradition and Waite’s discussion of it!

    I’ve also read around with delight in Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, publishing in 1941 a series of lectures, in which he has qualified praise for Waite’s work. Alas, I have not read widely enough, in or out of Waite, to have a sense of what discussions Williams could have encountered of the character of the “Gnostic guise” before he wrote this poem.

    My memory of Scholem’s analysis, is that some kabbalists would have been ‘Gnostic’ in a sort of ‘pantheist’ sense, taking the world to be an ’emanation’ of ‘God from God’ with the mystic coming to ‘know’ he is ‘himself really God’; while other kabbalists would have been ‘Gnostic’ in the sense of coming to deeper, truer, experiential knowledge of (as you say) “the creation” as God “bringing into existence persons different from himself who are able to savor that goodness.” But, without being able to point to ‘the evidence’, I suppose Williams would have encountered such diametrically opposed understandings – and I assume that he agreed with the ‘orthodox’ second one.

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    • Charles Huttar says:

      What I meant by “Gnostic” was not a doctrine of God and creation (though you’re right about the emanation business) but the idea that salvation is obtained through knowledge, or rather a higher rank of salvation through initiation in a “secret doctrine.” (See “Descent of the Dove,” the last three pages of chapter 1). For Williams, however, Palomides and Taliessin are on a par, in some sense at least. That’s why I believe that, while the Sephirotic arcana furnish a necessary starting point for comprehending Williams’s imagery in this poem (“The Death of Palomides”), it would be a mistake to stop there.

      Palomides and Galahad also – in some sense; as I noted in my preceding blog last week. We are all members one with another. Yet (as Paul goes on to say) that doesn’t rule out a different sense, with some being given greater honor than others. Possibly Jesus implied as much in his answer to James and John’s request for a special rank in the Kingdom (Mark 10:35-45), even as he rebuked them for their worldly values. Lewis’s Great Ode at the end of “Perelandra” is instructive in this respect. So too is Piccarda’s contentment (“In his will is our peace”) though dwelling only up as far as the Moon – but even that hierarchical placement (a necessary fiction for Dante’s allegory) isn’t the whole story.

      As to the reading I’ve offered on “creation through blessing,” It was a nice synchrony that while meditating for weeks on the Palomides imagery I was also writing a paper on Lewis’s creation poem (“Le roi s’amuse”), which taught me a lot that I was able (I hope) to distill in this reading of Williams.

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Thank you! I think you’re very right that “For Williams, however, Palomides and Taliessin are on a par, in some sense at least.” And that we see something of Palomides “aligned […] with Galahad in the Grail quest” in “The Coming of Galahad,” 96-98, where the “girl” says she saw “dimly the lord Percivale’s pentagram” glistening “in the rain dark stones of his eyes”. An elaboration of attending to our being “all members one with another” in that she sees it, and the connection with Galahad is via that other Grail Knight, Percivale! To apply what David Russell Mosley said in his commentary the other day about Taliessin through Logres being “about Galahad and his father Lancelot more than it is about anything else”, we seem here to see Palomides becoming more Galahad-like, something which all in Logres can, and ought to, do – in their degree: where again (to apply your words, too) “that hierarchical placement […] isn’t the whole story.”

        It had never occurred to me to look at everywhere ‘Netzach’ appears in the Bible – and with what varied shades of meaning or emphasis it is translated – and am grateful for your sharing the fruits of your doing so! Especially in relation to where the “Sanctus — ‘the whole earth is full of his glory’ (Isaiah 6:2-3; Revelation 4:7-8)” is involved! (When I went looking for more about Scholem yesterday, I found a lecture online which I had enjoyed when it was published – Peter Schäfer’s “Gershom Scholem Reconsidered: The Aim and Purpose of Early Jewish Mysticism” – and what should I find on rereading it, but an emphasis on the relation between a mystic’s “Heavenly Journey” and joining in “the liturgy of the heavenly court” and its identity with “the liturgy which is performed on earth in the synagogues” (pp.10-11), especially that very threefold Sanctus (and Ezekiel 3:12).)

        But, I wonder if you would consider venturing to say something about what seems to me in some ways the extraordinary second-last stanza of this poem in the context of the other three last ones?

        I had seen your Lewis paper listed in the Taylor conference schedule, and am glad now to have heard a bit more about it – and its interaction with this commentary! Do you have an idea where and when those of us who couldn’t be there, may get to read it?

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        • Charles Huttar says:

          I’m sorry to have taken so long to reply. I’ll start with the last question. The full paper (more than twice as long as I was able to read at Taylor) is being reviewed by a journal. That is why I cannot submit even the abridged version for Taylor’s volume of Proceedings. You must be (along with me!) patient.

          Two paragraphs earlier, re Isaiah 6: 3. I didn’t mention that because netzach is used there (I don’t think it is), but because the eagle imagery suggested to me (via Ezekiel 1:10-11) the song of the angels in Isaiah’s vision, which supplies the word “glory” which Williams replaces with an ellipsis mark, in the main clause of the final quatrain (beginning with “my heart” as the subject). That word is needed to complete the doxology which (as I said in paragraph 4 of the blog) brackets the poem and is essential to its structure. Thanks for the chance to spell this out more clearly. In writing the blog I was trying hard not to run on too long — hence made the opposite mistake of leaving it unduly cryptic.

          I too find the penultimate quatrain puzzling. Loss, failure, the humiliation of being magnanimously forgiven and of accepting apparent folly (lines 45-48) — all these are forms of imitatio Christi; specifically, ways of kenosis. Thus in the long run it can be said “Thou only art” (and, it is understood, we in Him). But it’s harder to fit the Prophet in. To look a fool echoes the preceding poem and also picks up on the “symbol” (line 44) that he had found littering Gaul (after he “left the Prophet” in the first poem), which was “unbelieved” (44) by the Prophet as well as the Greeks (1 Cor. 1). The maxim about Blessing is clearly common to Judaism and Christianity, though I think it has a different meaning in the occult version of Judaism which is Williams’s source; and I don’t know the Q’uran well enough to say whether it too would concur.

          That’s about as far as I can go with these 4 lines. Anyone help?

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  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    If people will excuse a possibly wild tangent, I don’t think I ever considered any possible debt of Williams’s Palomides to the Greek figure, Palamedes, but brushing up on him after reading at Roger Pearse’s blog that new fragments of Euripides’ play about him have been discovered, I see that Tacitus, for instance, attributes the invention of 16 letters of the alphabet to him (and Hyginus, 11 letters) – which gets me wondering if the intellectual aspects of Williams’s princely knight have any debt to the Greek Palamedes.

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