Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 750
Charles Williams was the son of Walter Williams, a foreign correspondence clerk who also wrote poetry under the name Stansby. Charles was educated at St. Albans School and had two years at the University of London before he was forced to end his formal studies to earn his living. During years in a publishing job he continued his studies, however, and without acquiring any formal degrees he became a profound literary scholar, historian, theologian, poet, and novelist. Throughout his career as an editor with Oxford University Press he taught, lectured, and wrote prolifically. In 1917 he married Florence Conway, and they had one son. He lived all his life in London, except for a few years during World War II when his publishing firm was evacuated to Oxford. There he joined the Inklings, a literary group that included C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. After his death in 1945 the tributes of these and other literary friends such as W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, and Dorothy Sayers brought him wider recognition than he had had during his lifetime.
Williams’s literary career developed gradually, with four volumes of poems published between 1912 and 1924. His first play, A Myth of Shakespeare, was published in 1928. During the next decade he published eighteen books covering the entire range of his varied but closely related interests. In his three critical works he explored the religious basis of the creative imagination: Poetry at Present, The English Poetic Mind, and Reason and Beauty in the Poetic Mind. His historical studies were concerned with the relationship between the individual and the pattern of history: Bacon, James I, and Rochester. The depth of his thought as an original but profoundly orthodox Anglican was revealed in two religious books, The Rite of the Passion and He Came Down from Heaven. He also maintained a predominantly religious emphasis in the plays. His religious conviction was combined with an interest in witchcraft and the occult, which formed the basis of a remarkable series of novels, including War in Heaven, Many Dimensions, The Place of the Lion, The Greater Trumps, Shadows of Ecstasy, and Descent into Hell. Described by critics as supernatural thrillers, these novels employ a realistic contemporary English setting as the background for the eternal conflict between good and evil, revealing both the mystic and the sensuous facets of Williams’s personality.
In 1938 Williams published his first verse collection since 1924, Taliessin Through Logres, a series of brilliant but difficult poems based on Arthurian legends. His historical, poetic, and religious interests became focused on two of the greatest myths of European culture: the English legend of the king and the Italian poet’s legend of the beloved lady. Williams’s two books about Dante, Religion and Love in Dante and The Figure of Beatrice, are among the most stimulating interpretations of Dante in English. He further explored his passionate interest in the supernatural in the three religious and philosophical studies The Descent of the Dove, Witchcraft, and The Forgiveness of Sins. In 1944 he published the second volume of Arthurian poems, The Region of the Summer Stars. He also continued to write plays with a historical background and religious theme: Judgement at Chelmsford, The House of the Octopus, and Seed of Adam, and Other Plays (published posthumously). The novel All Hallows’ Eve was published shortly before his death in 1945, and Flecker of Dean Close in 1946.
Williams’s death came at a time when he was thought to have been at the height of his literary power. He left behind a large body of material that he had intended to use in both poetic and critical interpretations of the Arthurian myth, which had increasingly absorbed him during the war years. C. S. Lewis edited and enlarged upon this material in a volume called Arthurian Torso. Williams’s Arthurian studies during the war were in no sense escapist. He saw England’s role in the conflict as part of a pattern in history that had been foreshadowed in the Arthurian cycle. The company of the Grail knights on their quest was to Williams not merely a poetic image but a spiritual reality. To Williams, all of creation was unified in God across all time and space; this idea permeates all his works subtly or overtly, no matter what the genre or the subject. The wide range of his interests and considerable scope of his literary powers were all concentrated, in Eliot’s phrase, “to apprehend the point of intersection of the timeless with time.”
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