The second time through Charles Williams’ masterpiece Taliessin Through Logres, I find that I experience the poems as more difficult than I did the first time, in 2013. This is reassuring, because everyone says they are difficult, and I know that I can sometimes read too lightly to notice even when I’m failing to understand something (this is a very frustrating habit for me but I can’t seem to break myself of it yet).
Or perhaps it’s better to say that the things I experienced myself as not understanding the first time through didn’t feel that important, or at least not important to my experience of the poem (geographical locations, for instance, obscure bits of mythology, and obscure bits of theology). But, of course, these things are critical. And I suspect that I would relate to the poetry at least as intensely as I relate to the novels (in some ways at least) if I did understand those things. I begin to find passages that reveal hidden riches as I unpack them, which is, I think, where a great deal of the power of poetry lies.
Formally, I enjoyed the poems, though I didn’t make a close study of them. Often, as far as I can tell, Williams uses free verse—but what free verse! The lines move rhythmically, the language is richly formal, and there are a multitude of internal rhymes and eye-rhymes that add to the experience. I enjoy reading this poetry out loud. In other poems, he uses stanzas with fixed numbers of lines, from which only a pair or two will have end-rhyme. These I may like even better, though it’s hard to say.
The imagery is powerful to me, though at times monotonous. And I wish Williams paid a little more attention to the glorious diversity united by his mathematical, hierarchical, diagrammatic unity (and, perhaps, that he used such “key words” less often)—but one can’t expect one artist to do everything, to perceive the world as one oneself perceives it as well as how he perceives it. Williams I think did have an extremely intellectual, symbolizing, organizing eye that ignored “all complexities of mire or blood” (to quote another poem on Byzantium; I would like to learn more about Williams’ influence from Yeats, as magician and as poet), and I do not think this is a damning limitation by any means. (I also think I may be painting him with far too broad a brush, though I’ve seen Lois Lang-Sims and others voice similar concerns.)
Sometimes I found his images of horrors even more relatable than his images of glory (possibly natural for someone who has not made strong efforts to conform themselves to the kinds of “glory” he describes; possibly because I connect to images of freedom and profusion as well as of order and discipline, though I can appreciate both); “Lamorack and the Queen Morgause of Orkney” was incredibly, frighteningly evocative, as were references to P’O’lu and the headless emperor, the latter explained and described in just enough detail to frighten without enough detail to render him mundane.
Shortly after it came out, I bought an ebook version of The Inklings and King Arthur edited by Sørina Higgins, whose blog on Charles Williams I follow. I’m not finished reading it, but I’ve read nine of the articles, and I’ll comment on one of the two I read that dealt primarily with CW’s Arthurian poems: “‘What Does the Line Along the Rivers Define?’: Charles Williams’ Arthuriad and the Rhetoric of Empire” by Benjamin Utter.
This article discusses Williams’ treatment of Islam in the poems, trying to mitigate accusations Christian imperialism while acknowledging it. Utter points out aptly that Williams does not attack Islamic characters with harmful stereotypes and also that he treats the Muslim knight who converts much more sympathetically and in some ways less imperialistically than his source material does. Utter also observes that Williams is not, perhaps, a triumphalist because he imagines inviting others into unity via coinherence (or something like this).
I will say this: pulling bold narratives about the spiritual significance of other religions and races you know little about out of your (um) Caucasian regions (CW reference, long story; read “backside”) misses a lot of the complexity of reality, and can in addition be extremely harmful when there is a wide world of people willing to take any potentially negative statements you make and turn them into vicious attack-doctrine. I think that Williams’ treatment of Islam (to the extent I understand it) may come close to doing this, and I feel his discussion of Judaism in All Hallows’ Eve crosses over.
I will say also this, though, and I wish Utter were at liberty to do so too, because his argument as it stands feels disingenuous to me:
Wikipedia says: “Triumphalism is the attitude or belief that a particular doctrine, religion, culture, or social system is superior to and should triumph over all others.”
My knee jerk is this: is it triumphalism to hope that truth will conquer lies? (whatever truth may be—I make no claim to know it, I doubt very much that it has to do with a personal triune God, and I haven’t the least objection to keeping around false beliefs as lovely fictions, like Greek mythology was to Christian society for years, or as ideals that can be made true) I think that it is a good thing to know the truth. Not the only good thing, not always the most important good thing, but a good thing.
By this definition, I think wanting truth to conquer lies is triumphalism, and I am willing to embrace the label (while acknowledging that little under-educated Meg doesn’t know enough of anything to try to make truth conquer lies). Enforcing relativism makes me want to bite something.
Utter, on the other hand, seems to be trying to have it both ways, and while there is certainly a large and important difference between hoping to impose the truth on others by force and hoping that they will eventually acknowledge it through the force of friendship and reason (and I think the former is problematic most of the time and the latter excellent most of the time), both I think can adequately be described as triumphalist by that definition.
That’s the knee jerk. But maybe it’s simplistic. On the one hand, I refuse to believe that all religious beliefs are in their entirety true; this just doesn’t make sense. (I would be open to believing that there is something true in all religious beliefs, but that is a question of fact that deserves thought and examination by many methodologies, or that it is possible to interpret all religious doctrine in a way that sounds mutually consistent using Crabtree’s Bludgeon). But, on the other, and even acknowledging that knowing the truth is a good thing….is knowing the truth such a good thing that everyone needs to be convinced of the truth, whether by force or by friendship? (Let’s assume, for the moment, that said truth is, you know, actually true and very, very likely indeed from the perspective of the person who wants to win people to their cause). If not being convinced of said truth will send someone to hell to be tortured forever after death—probably so! If not being convinced of said truth will poison the planet and end the human race sooner rather than later—probably so! But if it will merely make conversations more confused, probably not. I have a lot more sympathy with enforcement of religions that threaten a terrible afterlife than I do with enforced secularism, as in Communist Russia.
Or maybe, despite that definition’s bold language, the fundamental idea behind condemning triumphalism is not that all beliefs are equal but the idea that I embrace, that it’s often stupid to be so sure of your beliefs that you want to force them on others. (Often, not always. Cf climate change, or Donald Trump’s blatant lies and likely collusion with Russia.)