Something Borrowed: A Passage from Charles Williams

I’ve decided that my “something borrowed”-week can be something borrowed from a non-poetry genre as well as something borrowed from a friend. This takes the pressure off my friends, and also allows me a bit of non-poetry blogging, though this week there is a connection of a sort.

I’ve blogged a fair bit about Christian poet, novelist, friend of C.S. Lewis, and lay theologian Charles Williams, but today I’m going to share and talk about one of my favorite passages of his (from All Hallows’ Eve, which I picked up for Halloween, fittingly enough)—one that indirectly inspired a poem of mine, one that exemplifies what I like about him, and one that shows why I like his prose better than his poetry. (The other reason I like his prose better than his poetry is that I have only read Taliessin Through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars once, whereas I have read All Hallows’ Eve at least three times. The other other reason is that, despite my diligence in learning about poetry and how to write it, my most natural medium still is prose.)

First, here’s the passage, which describes the experience of a dead woman as she “moves on,” leaving her living husband behind, after playing her part in a supernatural drama (I was delighted to discover that the spirits of the dead, according to a superstition, wander the the earth until Halloween because it explained the premise of this novel):

…she had found herself once more in the rain. It was driving down over and past her on to-the Thames? some wide river, flowing, flowing on beneath her; and the pale ghastly light in the hall had changed. Within the rain a fresher light was opening. It shone on the rain and on the river; and the room with its companies was still there, but it stood on the river, which lowed through it, and in the rain, which fell through it. The light was like dawn, except that it had in it a tinge redder than dawn, and the
same tinge was in the river and the rain, exquisite and blood-roseal, delicate and enriching. Only she felt again the awful sense of separation. It was like a sharp pain in a great joy. She gave herself to it; she could no other; she had consented long before-when she married Richard perhaps-or was consenting now-when she was leaving him. Her heart sank; without him, what was immortality or glory worth? and yet only without him could she even be that which she now was. All, all was ending; this, after so many preludes, was certainly death. This was the most exquisite and pure joy of death, in a bearing of bitterness too great to be borne. Above her the sky every moment grew more high and empty; the rain fell from a source far beyond all clouds. Below her the myriad drops, falling in slanting lines, struck the great river in innumerable little explosions, covering the whole surface. She saw each of them with an admirable exactitude-each at the same time as she saw all, and the flowing river and the empty sky, and herself no longer bodily understood, but a point, a point reflected from many drops and pierced by many drops, a spark of the light floating in the air. But she was not very conscious of herself as herself; she no longer thought of herself as bearing or enjoying; the bitterness, the joy and the inscape of those great waters were all she knew, and among them the round hall, with those mortal figures within it, and its window open, as she now saw it, on the waters. Even Richard’s figure there had lost its immediate urgency; something once necessary and still infinitely precious, which had belonged to it, now lay deep, beyond all fathoming deep, in the current below, and could be found again only within the current or within the flashing rain. Of any future union, if any were to be, she could not begin even to think; had she, the sense of separation would have been incomplete, and the deadly keenness of the rain unenjoyed.

I love the rain in my own way—it feels like a cheerful tune in a minor key, and living somewhere rather arid I never see as much of it as I want to. I love the cold exhilaration of it. I used to play in it as a child. I still enjoy getting drenched now and then. But Williams does things with it that would never have occurred to me.

I like the fundamental paradox of the passage: “this was the most exquisite and pure joy of death, in a bearing of bitterness too great to be borne.” We are left to ponder how this combination of unbearable grief and joy works, but it feels real, and joining it to the falling water makes it more real, more local, more specific (I also just love the sound and syntax of the sentence “this was the most exquisite….”) I like both the idea and the difficulty of intellectually comprehending the idea that a permanent loss is a sort of joy. 

Meanwhile, I find the writing at once intellectual, imaginative, and sensual. It’s very visual—the redder light, the rain “driving” past, the “innumerable little explosions,” the idea of herself as “a point reflected from many drops and pierced by many drops”—and it tickles the ears with rhythmic repetitions (“some wide river, flowing, flowing,” “All, all was ending,” “deep, beyond all fathoming deep”).  The “fresher light” the rain brings summons too the fresher smell of rain. The piercing and “deadly keenness of the rain” can be felt. But here begins the magic. That pain is tied immediately into emotional pain, married to joy, and also brought into a state of being that human beings (probably) do not actually experience: she sees everything with perfect clarity, she no longer has a body but rather is “a point,” and everything feels orchestrated, clear and specific in a way real life rarely does for me.One feels that the rain is not merely a more than usually complex example of the pathetic fallacy, but actually charged with supernatural force and serving directly as a metaphor, or perhaps something more than a metaphor, for bits of doctrine. The experience is removed from ordinary human experience, feels austerely and beautifully different from it, and yet can be accessed by it.

I learned two wonderful words here, too—roseal, which means roselike, and inscape, which has a delightfully Williams-esque definition in the online dictionary I checked—to paraphrase, the essence or inner nature of something, especially as expressed in poetry or art.

Finally, to be a grouchy-pants against rules of writing, Willliams uses supposedly lazy words: “ghastly,” “exquisite,” “awful,” “delicate,” “enriching,” “pure,” “joy,” “exactitude,” “bitterness.”  C.S. Lewis, if he were too doctrinaire for my taste, would take Williams to task for naming these ideas and emotions rather than evoking them indirectly. I would argue that 1) in a worldview where things have intrinsic value, it is natural that that value should be expressed directly in writing and 2) in a worldview where things do not have intrinsic value, readers come to writing with extraordinarily diverse emotional dispositions and backgrounds and are likely to take very different emotions from the same facts and descriptions; it can be safer to throw in a word about what you mean as a writer.

Of course, it also helps Williams’s case that the back of my head is (in some ways) a lazy fool, and if I’m actually going to feel something, I don’t resent being told what to feel; I have to be told what to feel, or all I’ll feel is lazy boring mush. It helps even more that even the list of words up there is lovely and tells a story in itself, and that it adds to the sensual details given rather than reiterating them, and that it is inherently surprising.

I wrote a poem once with this passage very much in my head, and feel about the poem pretty much the way I felt writing on Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida as an undergrad—it’s frustrating writing about something when the text says all the things you’re arguing but in a much plainer and more sophisticated way.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.