Poems of Home and Overseas

Here again is another work that Williams edited in his job at Oxford University Press. You might be able to access a scan of it at HathiTrust if you have an academic login. As you can see from the title page, below, CW worked together with Vere Henry Collins (1872-1966). I have been unable to find out much about Collins; I gather that he worked at OUP as something of an anthology-collecting grunt man, though his title was head of the Education Department. He put together such volumes as Poems of War and Battle (1914), Poems of Action (1917), Ghosts and Marvels and More Ghosts and Marvels (1924, ’27), and three volumes of English Idioms (1956, ’58, and ’60). Williams was reportedly less than enthusiastic about the Poems of Home and Overseas anthology. In a letter to John Pellow in January of 1922, he complained it was

not a book to be vain about: scissors and paste and much toil. He had the idea, I did the toil. Poems of Home and Overseas–the title almost makes me weep; with Mrs Hemans and Conan Doyle and O.W.Holmes in and Shakespeare to round all up and Blake to give it an air and Kipling to give it a flag. […] The book would have been much worse if it hadn’t been for me. Mrs Hemans and Shakespeare without the Blake.

qtd. in Lindop, The Third Inkling p. 85

I’m intrigued that Williams is identified as the author of Poems of Conformity rather than either of his other two volumes of verse that had been published by this time: The Silver Stair (1912) or Divorce (1920). But I’m really more surprised that he would be identified as a poet at all, considering how minor those books of poetry are.

Anyway, the current work under consideration is a “school anthology”; i.e., the kind of book assigned in those days to secondary school boys and in our time to undergraduate themed literature survey courses. Published in 1921 in the aftermath of the first World War, it partakes in and contributes to the frantic patriotism and nationalism flaring up hot at home in England. Read in this light, the Table of Contents is revealing: four of its five sections (126 of its total 158 pages) are about “Home” (i.e., England), while only the last fifth is about “Overseas”–and mostly by English poets, too. It is a nauseating banquet of racist, imperialistic, jingoistic, nationalistic verses that have not aged well. At least, not for this reader. I can’t speak for any Q-Anon types out there, but I seriously doubt they’re reading this blog.

Section I is “In Praise of England” and features poems in no apparent order by Shakespeare, Blake, Coleridge, R. Browning, Wordsworth, E.B. Browning, Sassoon–and Charles Williams, among others. There’s a mini-section at the end called “Voices from America,” and it has a total of two poems: one by Oliver Wendell Holmes and one by John Greenleaf Whittier.

The poem of his own that CW chose to include in this section in praise of England is entitled “Sub Specie Aeternitatis”: a predictably pretentious title next to “England,” “England, my England,” “A Song of England,” “Ye Mariners of England,” “England, Queen of the Waves,” “Return to England,” “Men of England,” and many more. You get the idea. Here’s his:

It’s a surprisingly straightforward piece for CW, and also surprisingly negative about the land it’s meant to praise. There are hints in it of his later doctrine of Logres: the spiritual kingdom existing with England but on another plane.

Section II is “Merry England,” packed with poems by Chaucer, Keats, Hardy, Herrick, and some of the other old favorites from Part I, as well as lesser-known writers (to me, anyway). These pieces seem to tell quintessentially “English” tales (whatever that means) and to invoke nostalgia for the cheery old days of feudalism and the pastoral idyll/ideal. Section III is “The English Land,” and it means what it says: These poems dig into the soil of England, reveling in her fields, coasts, brooks, trees, flowers, birds, gardens, seasons, and weather. In addition to those previously included, we get Tennyson, Arnold, Clare, Kingsley, Bridges, and others. The fourth English section is “Places,” and most of the poem-titles call out the location that they celebrate: London, Westminster Bridge, Cambridge, Essex, Berkshire, Dorset, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, and more. I’d have thought the Scottish locations would be controversial inclusions; and then why aren’t there locations in Wales or Ireland? Well, let’s not get too mired in the vexed history of the British Empire and the “British” Isles here, or we’ll never get out!

Finally we get to the last section, V. Overseas. The poems in this part are by Kipling, Felicia Hemans, Doyle, Hardy, Stevenson, Andrew Lang, Laurence Housman, and others. But they are not really about overseas, at least not in the sense of having the slightest interest in other nations for their own sake, nor in their cultures, peoples, heritage, traditions, languages, or anything else.

Nope. These English authors think about overseas only–if this anthology is taken as definitive–as pieces of soil in which to bury the heroic English dead, or colonies to add to the Empire, or battlefields to conquer, or places where one can sit and daydream about the lovely land left behind. It’s quite sickening jingoism. There’s a sonnet by one Wilfrid Scawen Blunt that praises Gibraltar, “the famed rock which Hercules / And Goth and Moor bequeathed us” (147). Bequeathed?! More like you murdered them and stole it. Somebody called Thomas Pringle crows about being the first European to walk through a bit of desert “Where the White Man’s foot hath never passed” before (148). There are occurrences of the typical, troubling equation of the conquered landscape with a woman’s body. Andrew Lang trumpets the Empire’s power across the globe, boasting that even if England herself should fall, “Still ‘Rule Australia‘ shall be trolled / In Islands of the Southern Cross!” (153). And this in an anthology put together just at the end of the bloody history of genocides in Australia–at least 111 separate massacres over a period of 137 years in which Indigenous people were hunted, slaughtered, and eradicated.

I’m ashamed of Charles. Given his later, progressive politics, I’m disappointed in the narrow-minded view this collection reveals. Of course, we don’t know how much say he had vs. Collins, and he was still fairly low down on the OUP hierarchy. I doubt he had the power to change the direction of the anthology. He basically had to do as he was told at this point. Plus he was always poor or terrified of becoming so, forever taking on more work than should be humanly possible just to make a buck (or a quid), producing pot-boiler biographies or book reviews in short order to purchase a coat for his wife or shoes for their son. I shouldn’t judge him too harshly. Besides, who in 1921 could see where nationalism would take them?

Given those considerations, I’m inclined to go back now and re-evaluate the poem of his own that CW managed to sneak into this collection. If you read it carefully, you’ll see it is not about the earthly England (the geo-political entity) at all: it’s about its spiritual model, its platonic form, that is “starry and invisible,” hiding in “celestial darkness.” It has not yet been discovered. Only the greatest painters and poets have caught glimpses of it with their inspired vision. The real “heart of England,” Williams argues, is not on earth: “it is found / Only by such as set their souls to find / The harbours and great cities that abound / Beyond the waters of the temporal mind.”

That true England exists on the astral plane. “Within man’s soul she dwells,” not on earth. I should have anticipated that Williams’s one contribution, from the fourth year of his intense involvement in A. E. Waite’s Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, would be hermetic in nature. Really, when it comes down to it, his Ideal England can only be accessed by the long, arduous, precise practice of divination via visualization techniques. Some great artists have bypassed that method through the sheer imaginative power of their genius, but everyone else must employ occult arts to access the true England.

And by the way: England is not alone on the astral plane. It’s not as if England has this spiritual archetype and other countries do not: No, she is there “with her sisters” (l. 23). Compare the passage in C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength when Dr. Dimble says:

This haunting is no peculiarity of ours. Every people has its own haunter. There’s no special privilege for England–no nonsense about a chosen nation. We speak about Logres because it is our haunting, the one we know about […]

and goes on to discussion the “ghosts” behind France and China.

In the end, I think I’ve talked myself around. Far from being disappointed in CW for putting together this horrifyingly “patriotic” anthology, I’m extremely impressed at the subtlety with which he managed to undermine its very principles in his own contribution. If he’d had his way, the collection should have been entitled something like Poems of Home, Overseas, & Spiritual Skies.

About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is Editor-in-Chief of the Signum University Press. She holds a Ph.D. in English from Baylor University. Dr. Higgins is currently co-editing a volume on the ethical turn in speculative fiction with Dr. Brenton Dickieson and previously edited an academic essay collection entitled The Inklings and King Arthur. She is also the author of the blog The Oddest Inkling, devoted to a systematic study of Charles Williams’ works. As a creative writer, Sørina has a volume of short stories, A Handful of Hazelnuts, forthcoming from Signum’s own press. Outside of academia, Sørina enjoys practicing yoga, playing with her cats, cooking, baking, podcasting, gardening, dancing, and ranting about the state of the world.
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3 Responses to Poems of Home and Overseas

  1. rri0189 says:

    Well, Mrs Hemans, we are told, self-identified as Welsh (and, of course, from 1535 to 1992, Wales counted as part of England).


  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    George MacDonald Fraser has a fascinating book, The Steel Bonnets (1971), about the days when Scotland and England had a border, and how that changed with the accession of James VI of Scotland and I of England. (I should reread around in Williams’s James I biography – which Dame Helen Gardner, for one, admired – to see if he touches on this…) And then, a century later, came the Acts of Union which made Queen Anne the first Monarch of the United Kingdom. So, perhaps Scotland is formally ‘home’ in one sense and yet historically and experientally a distinct sort of transition to ‘abroad’, if not ‘overseas’.

    We had Holmes’s ‘The Chambered Nautilus’ in our grade-school anthology – and the fact that Conan Doyle chosen his detective’s surname from him says something about his trans-Atlantic popularity. And Whittier’s ‘Dear Lord and Father of mankind’ as set by Hubert Parry has remained popular apart from his oratorio, Judith, in which it appears (though the Hymnary website tells me it appears set to the tune ‘Rest’ by another English composer, Frederick C. Maker, appears in even more hymnbooks).

    I suspect Williams has been given “Author of Poems of Conformity” because The Silver Stair was not published by OUP and Divorce is a less self-explanatiory title.

    I think you are very right about Williams’s poem and Dr. Dimble’s observations – though when I think of the first chapter of Williams’s English Poetic Mind (1932), “A Note on Great Poetry”, and that of his Reason and Beauty in English Poetry (1933), “The Ostentation of Verse”, I suspect he may have thought poetry – and even verse – can affect and effect vision without employing occult arts to access the true England, or her sisters (despite the title of this anthology almost making him weep).


  3. Barry Curtis says:

    Thank you for sending this to me. More of the man at different points of his brief life is becoming clearly and now I have an early poem of his to read.


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