Here is a guest post by Stephen Barber, publisher and editor of Charles Williams: The Celian Moment and other Essays.
This week sees the publication of a new collection of literary essays by Charles Williams, the first for over fifty years. This collection has a story of its own which is worth telling. Over the years I collected a number of articles by Charles Williams which had not found their way into any of his own books or into The Image of the City, the invaluable collection which Anne Ridler put together in the 1950s. Williams was a prolific – one could even say a compulsive – writer and not everything that he wrote deserves preservation, but I thought my folder contained pieces which those interested in Williams would like to have. They also make much easier reading than his two main critical books, The English Poetic Mind and Reason and Beauty in the Poetic Mind. They are not cobwebbed about with discussion of forgotten writers as in his Poetry at Present, the present being then 1930, and they do not assume an interest Dante, as in The Figure of Beatrice.
I thought about getting them published, but nothing much happened until I set up with my wife, Mary Hoffman, our own small independent publishing house, The Greystones Press. The name was not hard to find: it is the name of our house, which is built of Cotswold stone and is a delicious honey colour and not grey at all. This is our second year and Williams is now conveniently out of copyright, except for a few pieces for which I sought and obtained permissions.
Looking at the collection now I can see a few things which were less clear to me when I was preparing them for publication. Firstly, although Williams wrote novels and occasionally wrote about them, his greatest interest was in poetry and in poetic drama. He thought that reading poetry was good for the soul and he accorded it an almost scriptural respect. I am right to touch on religion, because Williams was a practising Anglican and, unlike most academic critics, he was happy to bring his faith and beliefs into his discussion of literature.
The strange thing is that his most general statement of his beliefs about literature comes in an essay which he did not even sign but ghosted on behalf of Phyllis Jones. She was a colleague at the Oxford University Press, where he worked. She was also the woman he fell in love with when he was already married. Their relationship was never consummated and so was not formally adulterous but it nearly wrecked his marriage and it left him wondering about the significance of idealizing erotic love.
Phyllis also lies behind the second essay, the title essay of the collection. The name comes from a poem by Marvell called The Match. But it is also Williams’s pet for Phyllis Jones. The Celian moment is ‘the moment which contains, almost equally, the actual and the potential; it is perfect within its own limitations of subject or method, and its perfection relates it to greater things.’ It is his version of an idea which was common in modernist circles in the 1920s and 1930s: Ezra Pound’s ‘image’, T. S. Eliot’s objective correlative’ and James Joyce’s ‘epiphany’ are other versions of it. Williams was, in fact, in his maturity, another modernist writer, and he wrote this essay around the time he was writing his Taliessin poems.
He had a strong historical sense. In particular he could see the background of English literature against the classics. He never learned Greek, but like others of his generation he learned some Latin. Like others before him he saw Virgil as a kind of pre-Christian and the Aeneid as describing the formation both of a soul and of a just society, the ideal ancient Rome. The essay on Virgil here he wrote as the introduction to a retelling of Virgil’s Aeneid for the Indian market. It is also rare and the only copy I have ever seen was in the Charles Williams Reference Library in Oxford.
Of course many if not most people fall in love but the greatest writer not only to do so but to make it the mainspring of a great work was Dante. Dante was for Williams the person who made sense of idealizing erotic love and found a way of reconciling it with Christianity and without betraying anybody. The essay on Dante explains how this works. Anne Ridler would have included it in her collection except that she thought it was readily available separately, which it promptly ceased to be. I am very glad to make it available again.
The other essays cover some of his other literary interests: Shakespeare (Henry V), Webster (The Duchess of Malfi), Hopkins, W. B. Yeats and T. S. Eliot. There is also one essay about politics: Hitler had just invaded the Soviet Union which had then suddenly become our ally. Williams reflects on the significance of the Russian revolution for people of his generation. This is not of course a literary subject but it throws such a light on Williams himself – for example his experience of poverty, ‘outside extreme physical pain the worst experience of man: broken hearts are nothing to it’ – and is so little known that I had to include it.
When I last wrote about Williams’s literary criticism I said that he badly needed his books to be properly edited with the references traced and given in footnotes. So when I came to prepare this book I thought I had better follow my own advice. I had an enjoyable time last summer doing this, with the help, mostly, of mother wit, a literary degree, my personal library and Google. There were two I could not find: you can find my failures on pages 12 and 102.
As I was the publisher as well as the editor I could also specify the book design. This is based on the style developed by the brilliant Berthold Wolpe, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Austria who became chief designer for Faber and Faber, where T. S. Eliot published many of Williams’s books.
I do hope others find The Celian Moment and other essays as enjoyable to read as I did to edit it and that you like the cover design.
— Stephen Barber
Charles Williams: The Celian Moment and other Essays is published by The Greystones Press in the UK. A US edition is under consideration but the book can readily be obtained from the UK branch of Amazon and is also available on Kindle.