‘I love you, defiant witch!’

Michael Newton

  • Charles Williams: The Third Inkling by Grevel Lindop
    Oxford, 493 pp, £25.00, October 2015, ISBN 978 0 19 928415 3

In ‘On the Circuit’, a poem about the circle of purgatory reserved for touring poet-lecturers, W.H. Auden mentioned the moments of unanticipated connection:

Or blessed encounter, full of joy
Unscheduled on the Giesen Plan,
With, here, an addict of Tolkien,
There, a Charles Williams fan.

If Auden were on the circuit now, he’d still find plenty of Tolkien addicts, but he’d go a long way before stumbling on a Charles Williams fan.

Charles Williams influenced a swathe of mid-20th-century British writers, but that influence lay not so much in his writings, as in his presence and his person. During his decades at Oxford University Press and later as an English lecturer at the university itself, Williams made his mark through those he published, those he encouraged and, above all, those he impressed. He struck people as amazing. His energy was famous, his conversation a flood. At OUP, he would march into the office, bound up the stairs and immediately write down the thoughts and lines he had come up with on the way to work. After two meetings with Williams to discuss the Oxford Book of Light Verse, Auden wrote: ‘for the first time in my life I felt myself in the presence of personal sanctity.’ Many friends and colleagues seem to have treated him as a guru, compelled by his ‘holiness’. Yet Lyndall Gordon suggests that later in life, visited by moods in which evil seemed everywhere, T.S. Eliot sometimes suspected the man he too had once thought holy was in fact diabolic. Reading Williams, you can sometimes see what Eliot meant. Williams seems to believe in the magic he so frequently describes; you suspect that he may even have performed some of the spells. In his sequence of ‘spiritual thrillers’, written mostly in the 1930s, he seems sinisterly close to his sinister villains; one of his early poems is an ironic hymn to Satan. Evil fascinated him a little more than it should.

Williams’s writings were all wedded to the central idea that the spiritual world permeates the physical one. In his thrillers, the borderline between the streets of London and the afterlife breaks down: the dead haunt Holborn; in curtained rooms, occult rites conjure up demonic forces. He tilts the ordinary world to an odd angle: a magus stalks Bloomsbury; a celestial vision appears in a North London drawing room; people travel through time; they consort with the embodied presences of Plato’s Ideas. The best of his poetry (the part of his work he was proudest of and believed to be the most original) presents the Arthurian myth of the Holy Grail refracted through a series of dense lyric pieces, as in:

This is the way of the world in the day of that other’s;
make yourselves friends by means of the riches of iniquity,
for the wealth of the self is the health of the self exchanged.

A series of poetic dramas – about the martyrdom of Thomas Cranmer, about Satan’s attempt to father a child, about the personification of Chelmsford – offer opaque allegories of experience, in a form closer to morality play than provincial rep.

In book after book, he celebrated a mystical vision of the world that could see eternity in a grain of sand. For him, as for Blake, everything that lived was holy. He argued that romantic love, the force of Eros, was consecrated, and that in the lover’s heightened sense of the beloved resides the divine. For writers eager to reconcile their Christian beliefs with an art committed to human relationships and the things of the world, Williams expressed a creed that justified their position. He prided himself on being the only person who could claim the friendship of those arch-enemies C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot. Lewis and Williams both aimed at the disruption of the realist novel though the use of erudite fantasy, drawing on Dante and Plato and Milton; they wanted to make contemporary England strange. Eliot, perhaps, was just happy to find another Christian writer, a Modernist poet even, in the commercial publishing world. To all those he influenced, Williams stood as a symbol of undaunted integrity. What Grevel Lindop’s excellent new biography exposes, with all too disturbing force, is just how compromised he was.

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