Charles Williams

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

The year 1983 was a fortunate one for those studying the writings of Charles Williams. In addition to Glen Cavaliero’s Charles Williams: Poet of Theology, the year saw the publication of Alice Mary Hadfield’s impressive biography, Charles Williams: An Exploration of His Life and Work (reviewed elsewhere in this volume), and Thomas Howard’s The Novels of Charles Williams. In particular, Cavaliero’s and Hadfield’s studies complement each other well. Hadfield has some things to say about Williams’ writing, but her work is strongest as a biography and personal memoir, drawing as it does on a large number of Williams’ letters. On the other hand, Cavaliero uses only a few pages to sketch the writer’s life; most of his book details Williams’ thought and themes.

Cavaliero does not approach Williams’ works in strict chronological order. He begins with chapters on “The Early Poetry” and “Criticism, Biographies and Plays”; follows with “The Novels” and “The Arthurian Poems” (on which Williams worked throughout most of his life); and ends with “Theology” and a conclusion. The work also contains a very brief appendix concerning affinities in the symbolism of Williams, the poet William Blake, and the nineteenth century fantasist and religious writer, George Macdonald. Finally, there is a bibliography which includes a selection of critical and biographical sources as well as a list of Williams’ principal works.

In Cavaliero’s opinion, Williams’ early poetry (which, to be sure, is not much read) follows in theology the late Victorian tradition of religious writers such as Coventry, Patmore, and especially Francis Thompson. Unfortunately, Williams did not bring the rhythmic freedom of Patmore or Thompson to his early work; rather, Cavaliero finds Williams hampered by “the jogging measures of a hundred hymn writers.” He sees Williams in Poems of Conformity (1917) and Divorce (1920) attempting something like Blake’s Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1794); Williams contrasts earthly marriage, symbolizing the union of the human and the divine, with divorce, symbolizing separation on both levels. Windows of Night (1924) reveals Williams’ increasing spiritual disquiet. Less traditional in form than its predecessors, the volume suggests an uneasy awareness of the claims of modernity. “In all this early work,” Cavaliero concludes, “the artist is subordinate to the theologian.”

As a critic, Williams was “personal, expository and receptive” in a manner now too easily dismissed as “superficial and belletrist.” Cavaliero contrasts Williams’ manner of reading with the professional criticism exemplified by F. R. Leavis, whose work grew out of the context of university teaching. The first people to encounter Williams’ criticism were the students who, generally after a full day’s work, attended the evening courses he taught for the Municipality of London. These courses offered neither degree nor diploma, nothing but knowledge itself. Cavaliero believes this early training to have been important in the development of Williams’ thinking, particularly the idea that poets teach and that the best criticism of poetry is poetry itself. In fact, in his first work of criticism, Poetry at Present (1930), Williams appended short verses to each essay. Cavaliero suggests that in this early criticism may be found the attitudes and convictions that informed Williams’ own writing, and indeed, his view of life.

Cavaliero pays particular attention to what he calls “the divided consciousness” in Williams’ writing: the state that occurs in one who encounters a situation wholly contradictory to one’s understanding of the world. An example that Williams provides in The English Poetic Mind (1932) is William Shakespeare’s Troilus, who, in finding Cressida to have been untrue, experiences an undeniable reality that shows him “the union of incompatible experiences of one woman in her inseparate personality.” The situation suggests to Williams the union of two natures in one person, leading to a discussion (not in theological terms but in poetic) of the nature of Christ. Through much of Williams’ adult life, he referred to the union of opposites that is characteristic of human experience as “the Impossibility.”

It was also in the early 1930’s...

(The entire section is 1818 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Choice. XX, June, 1983, p. 1452.

Christian Century. C, August 3, 1983, p. 722.

Library Journal. CVIII, April 15, 1983, p. 824.