Monday, March 31, 2014

The Poetry of the Accidental Inkling

T.S. Eliot called him England’s greatest living poet, and described his novels as “supernatural thrillers.” He was responsible for the first major translation of the writings of Soren Kierkegaard into English. He wrote plays, criticism, and essays. And he was a major influence on at least one of C.S. Lewis’s novels.

Charles Williams (1888-1945) is mostly remembered today as an “accidental” Inkling, the group of Oxford dons who met at the Eagle and Child Pub and included C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. He was something of a wartime refugee – an editor of Oxford University Press in London, he moved (with the publisher) to Oxford during the blitz of World War II. He met Lewis, and Lewis drew him into the Inklings. (Lewis was a fan; Tolkien wasn’t, at least according to one source).

I first encountered his writings in the early 1980s. Eerdman’s published new editions of seven of his novels – Descent into Hell, The Place of the Lion, Shadows of Ecstasy, Many Dimensions, The Greater Trumps, War in Heaven and All Hallow’s Eve. They are clearly Christian fiction – but almost unrecognizable from what we know as Christian fiction today. The seven are complex works; they must be read slowly to grasp what is happening in the stories. Eliot’s “supernatural thrillers” gets at some of what they’re about; “supernatural thriller, mystery, theology philosophy, cultural commentary” may be a bit closer but still doesn’t adequately describe this extraordinary books.

Williams also wrote poetry, and three of his collections were republished in 2007 by the Apocryphile Press as part of their Inkling Heritage Series: The Silver Stair (1912), Poems of Conformity (1917), and Windows of Night (1925). The works are largely formal, rather classical poetry, with recognizable forms, rhyming schemes, and meter.

The Silver Stair includes a significant number of love poems, love toward women as well as the Virgin Mary. Poems of Conformity is a collection of theological poems, but that’s a generalization; there are other subjects and themes, too. Windows of Night is a more general collection, and includes a number of beautiful sonnets.

There is whimsy here as well, and fun, humor and laughter. One free verse poem in Windows of Night is a particular favorite:

On Meeting Shakespeare

I saw Shakespeare
In a Tube station on the Central London:
He was smoking a pipe,
He had Sax Rohmer’s best novel under his arm
(In a cheap edition),
And the Evening News.
He was reading in the half-detached way one does.
He had just come in from an office
And the notes for The Merchant
Were in his pocket,
Beginning (it was the first line he thought of)
‘Stil quiring to the young-eyed cherubins,’

But his chief wish was to be earning more money.

(Sax Rohmer is largely forgotten today, but he was the author of the Fu Manchu stories extraordinarily popular in the 1920s.) 

Not all of the poems in these volumes are as accessible as “On Meeting Shakespeare;” many anticipate the complexity of his novels written in the 1930s and 1940s. But together they are a piece of literary significance. Not every writer can claim to have influenced both T.S. Eliot and C.S. Lewis.

Related: Yes, there is a Charles Williams Society, based (where else?) in the United Kingdom.

1 comment:

Maureen said...

I'm struck by how contemporary that poem reads.