Here’s an odd little item for your contemplation: Christian Symbolism, supposedly written by “Michal” Williams. ‘Michal’ is the somewhat unflattering nickname CW gave to his wife Florence, but which stuck so hard she even chose it as her nom de plume and it’s on her gravestone. Apparently Florence mocked him for reciting poetry loudly in crowded settings, so he called her “Michal” after King David’s wife, who scorned her husband for stripping and dancing in ecstasy before the Lord in public (see II Samuel 6:14-23).
In any case, it seems that although this little book is supposedly “by Michal Williams,” Charles wrote most of it. Lois Lang-Sims, describing the end of her relationship with CW, records that he awkwardly “took a small book, seemingly at random, from a shelf and presented it to me as a keepsake. (It was called Christian Symbolism and was under Michal’s name; though Charles murmured, as he handed it to me, that most of it had been written by him.)” (Lang-Sims 80). As we’ll see, I’m not sure “most” of it was by him, but certainly some of it was, and perhaps he had a shaping role in the whole volume.
Christian Symbolism contains quite simple discussions of various images and ideas that have been used throughout church history in art, architecture, illumination, and other places to communicate spiritual ideas visually. The body of the book reads almost like an artist’s manual or encyclopedia of imagery, with each symbol mentioned in a heading, then followed by a few paragraphs or so of commentary. It contains six chapters:
I. What is Symbolism?
II. The Nimbus–The Aureole–God the Father–The Holy Spirit
III. Our Lord in Symbolism
IV. The Trinity–The Soul–The Devil–Hell–Heaven
V. The Church–The Four Evangelists–Baptism–The Lord’s Supper–Churches–Vestments
VI. Miscellaneous–St. George
For example, the Church is shown as an ark or a ship. The writers of the four Gospels each have their traditional associations: Matthew = Winged Man/Angel; Mark = Lion; Luke = Winged Ox; John = Eagle. Chapter III talks about Jesus represented as a lamb, a lion, the conqueror of dragons, a panther (I didn’t know about that one), a fish, the phoenix, the pelican, the eagle, a Jonah-figure, and a shepherd. Chapter VI, Miscellaneous, talks about the dolphin (faithful believers), salamander (faith), centaur (Christ’s two natures, or the Christian’s old man and new man), griffin (omniscience and omnipotence), unicorn (chastity). Chapter V illustrates and discusses, various representations of the cross, including the fylfot cross or swastika. Remember, this was written in 1920, but for us after the second world war, it is strange to see a swastika used as “a sign of fire-gods and rain-gods, or good-fortune and of life,” “the most primitive and most universal of symbols,” and “the witness of the Cross which lies at the centre of all things” (21). I suppose the Nazi appropriation of that image has wrested it from its Christian context forever.
Here’s a sample entry, describing a mosaic depicting “The Wasters of Baptism” in the Basilica of St. John Lateran, Rome:
This combination of symbols may be summed up thus–the Holy Spirit (the dove) sheds the radiancy of His great gift upon our Lord (the Cross) in His baptism (the medallion), and upon the waters of baptism (the four rivers) free to all who seek (the harts), and by which the faithful (the sheep) are admitted to the City of God (fortified against evil), the entrance begin guarded by the archangel whose office is to lead souls into the presence of God (St. Michael). Those who attain their habitation therein are victors (the palm) over evil, and rise again (the phoenix) to Eternal Life.Christian Symbolism 68
Although simple, Christian Symbolism is a learned study, drawing on a wealth of sources. Indeed, there are a few comments that suggest occult knowledge, such as a discussion of the Tetragrammaton (10-11), a use of man as microcosm of the universe (5), a claim that the whole universe is a symbol of the Trinity (6). and a reference to Egypt as “the place of profound religious mysteries and symbols” (20). Did Charles tell his wife more about his Rosicrucian studies than we’ve thought? Or did he, as he “murmured” to Lang-Sims, write most of this book? Or both?
Some of the diction is distinctively recognizable as coming from Charles’s pen, as is much of the content. Even in the Table of Contents, the syntax, possessive pronoun, and idiomatic preposition usage of “Our Lord in Symbolism” is characteristic. On the very first page of the first chapter, the examples of symbolism include “the red cap of the Revolution, the nimbus of sanctity, […] a sword of St. Alban,” and other such odd instances that it’s hard to imagine anybody but CW coming up with them. There is a Coleridgian distinction between ‘imagination’ and ‘fancy’ (3); the application of Aristotelian definitions of the accidental and a discussion of symbols vs emblems. The authors asserts: “a symbol is rather a representative than a representation” (1). The discussion of the independent existence of a symbol (as opposed to an emblem, which exists only as a representation and not as something in its own right) is quite similar to the beginning of The Figure of Beatrice, where he talks about the difficulty of finding just the right word for the kind of symbolism he intends. There, he decides as ‘symbol’ is not sufficient and settles on ‘image.’ It is easy to speculate that as early as 1920, he was working out his exact definition of and scope for ‘symbol’ and ‘image,’ then either talked to Florence about it or wrote this part of the book.
For some reason, I find it funny to think of CW and Michal working together. I don’t know why, but I think of their marriage as rather cold and distant. Maybe that is completely wrong. As Christine Mary Hearn writes:
Michal Williams encouraged her husband in all his pursuits; she collaborated with him on a book of Christian symbolism, listened to him as he read his books in progress, and advised him when she thought he had made a mistake. It is generally acknowledged that the first chapter of All Hallows’ Eve was completely rewritten because Michal said it was wrong.Charles Williams: Poet of the Affirmations (18)
However that may be, it seems unlikely that Florence wrote much of Christian Symbolism without his input. Here is what Grevel Lindop has to say about this short book and its putative author:
Although she could write well on occasion, Michal was not highly literate. She never used joined-up writing, her grammar was erratic, and to the end of her life she never mastered the possessive form of her husband’s name, often writing it as Charle’s. Only indomitable optimism could have convinced anyone that she was capable of writing a book. yet Williams must have thought it possible, for around 1918 Michal contracted with his uncle’s Talbot Press to write a book on Christian symbolism. The idea can hardly have been hers. Probably it was an attempt by Charles to involve Michal in his own interests and line of work. Predictably, it was a disaster.The Third Inkling 70
If I had to guess, I’d conjecture that CW wrote most of the introduction, but Michal wrote most of the interior prose, the descriptions of each symbol. Those entries are in a much plainer writing style, without many of CW’s distinctive phrases. There are still some, however, such as the opening of Chapter III, which claims “Blake’s great saying will be remembered” before quoting these lines:
The pride of the peacock is the glory of God.from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
The lust of the goat is the bounty of God.
The wrath of the lion is the wisdom of God.
The nakedness of woman is the work of God.
It seems odd that any woman (or, really, any normal person) would choose those lines to head up a chapter on Christological imagery. But for CW, lust and nakedness were part of his Romantic Theology and thus fitting emblems for our Lord. I shudder to think what his wife made of that idea, especially later when she found out he was in love with another woman.
In any case, Christian Symbolism is an odd, funny, intriguing little book. I’d be fascinated to know what a visual artist would make of it and whether its discussions of visual symbolism are at all useful in that field. As far as a sample of CW’s domestic arrangements, I think it creates more mysteries than it solves.