187. (Charles Williams)

When anyone remembers Charles Williams these days, it is probably for one of two reasons. Either they know of Williams through his association with C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. He was a brief but dazzling member of the Inklings and features centrally in the enjoyable recent biography of that group, The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings by Philip and Carol Zaleski. Otherwise, they know of Williams thanks to the criticism of Geoffrey Hill.  I came to him by way of Hill, who celebrates and praises Williams in his essay “Eros in F.H. Bradley and T.S. Eliot”:

 Williams was a good theologian and, at his best, a great critic both formally and informally of English poetry because he recognized that language is arbitrary, autonomous, at the same time that it is bound, helpless. In this sense he could recognize in it not only an expression of, but a paradigm for, our human nature. As a Christian, he would have agreed with the anti-Christian William Empson that the theorist is inextricably  part of the world he examines. As a Christian also he would have understood the fundamental dilemma of the poetic craft: that it is simultaneously an imitation of the divine fiat and an act of enormous human self-will. In one of his books of theology he writes that ‘poetry can do something that philosophy can not, for poetry is arbitrary and has already turned the formulae of belief into an operation of faith’. ‘Arbitrary’ itself can mean either discretionary or despotic. Poetry can be in, or out, of grace; and the mind of the maker can imitate either God’s commandment or Lucifer’s ‘instressing of his own inscape’ as Hopkins splendidly and humbly described it: ‘it was a sounding, as they say, of his own trumpet and a hymn in his own praise’.

The passages tells us as much about Hill as about Williams, but what it says captivates the attention; I was led those years ago to order a copy of the book that Hill calls Williams’ “critical masterpiece,” the 1932 The English Poetic Mind.

For a long time, Hill’s judgment struck me as willfully esoteric. I gave it an equivalent attention to the Zaleskis, who consign it to a subordinate clause to remark that it is “more ambitious but less interesting” than the collection of essays on Williams’ contemporaries Poets at Present (1930). [That volume is interesting for other reasons, but it lacks the inspired urgency and crystalline insight of The English Poetic Mind].

Now, though, I more or less agree with Hill’s assessment. On every page of the book, there is something to like, something I can admire and reaffirm; best of all, there is something that returns me to the poetry he discusses, and poetry he doesn’t discuss, with a new fortitude and intensity. I don’t know why my view has changed, but I can see why, especially in the midst of a graduate program in literary studies, I would have recoiled from the volume, even though I was sympathetic to eccentrically personal literary criticism, and to literary criticism that insists that poetry takes care of itself, and that if we are to take care of it, we ought to trust in it. In so far as Williams ends up saying something similar, I am getting ahead of myself. But now that I’m there, I’ll quote from Hill again, where he catches at this element of Williams’ thought:

All of Williams’ profoundest aphorisms ( a number of his judgments were set down aphoristically) about the activity of poetry are poised on this edge of recognition: that what may be a declaration of righteousness is nonetheless a hair’s breadth away from monstrous assertion. There are statements quoted or paraphrased by Hadfield [Williams’ biographer and friend] from still unpublished letters: the ‘imagination producing out of actuality a thing satisfying to itself’, ‘The call of poetry in word and thought to be final.’

Williams’ critical masterpiece is The English Poetic Mind of 1932. Among other things he notes there that ‘poetry is a thing sui generis. It explains itself by existing’; and again, ‘the chief impulse of a poet is, not to communicate a thing to others, but to shape a thing, to make an immortality for its own sake’; and again, ‘Poetry has to do all its own work; in return it has all its own authority.’ He also writes of ‘the sense which poetry has of its own vigil before its own approaching greatness.’

Even from Hill’s selections, it is not difficult to see why Williams might prove tough on the digestive tracts of today’s students and readers of literature. We might be led to suspect Williams of leading us down a path in which literature exists in an aesthetic realm, untainted by history, by politics, by all of the other parts of life; we might feel we are reading a theologically-imbued restatement of Romantic ideals.  And Hill has quoted what is probably easier for many readers to accept. He does not discuss the key-word of the entire study, “Genius,” which Williams takes to mean not a quality, but a presence, a core of selfhood that, like Socrates’ daemon, has a life of its own. Once again, Romantic Guff, we might say; or else a displacement of the “soul”; or, with some knowledge of William’s eccentric (Yeatsian) interests in “Magic” (cut-out shapes on altar cloths and all), we might detect in all of this a desire for poetry to possess powers that it could not possess. Finally, there is a central, abiding, and genuine concern with what it means to speak of the “greatness” of poetry, which might be mistaken for the itch to rank and to exercise authority, establish hierarchies and promote a tacit political program.

But I don’t think any of that is fair to Williams; the assumptions he makes free and guard him. They free him to assume that for a poet, the discoveries in a poem were real and irreplaceable; they guard him against his own eccentricities, so that he is not compelled to find in Shakespeare a code of magic or a theological mission.


Williams would answer the question with a criteria for greatness that serves not to limit poetry, but to open up a way of discussing its effects; it points to what we should be able to expect to do when we talk about great poetry, and I find it powerful because it urges us to do more with that poetry, with how we read and think about and discuss it, than we might think possible; it removes poetry from the realm of triviality without casting it as a servant to Philosophy or History. It does not limit us in what we can find in or ask of great poetry; it reminds us to go further than we otherwise might:

Poetry, one way or another, is ‘about’ human experience; there is nothing else that it can be about. But to whatever particular human experience it alludes, it is not that experience. Love poetry is poetry, not love; patriotic poetry is poetry, not patriotism; religious poetry is poetry, not religion. But good poetry does something more than allude to its subjects; it is related to it, and it relates us to it.

Through the sad heard of Ruth when, sick for home | She stood in tears amid the alien corn

Those lines relate us to an experience of exile. They awake in us a sense of exile; more accurately, a realization of our own capacity for enduring exile.

Let this immortal life, where’er it comes,| Walk in a cloud of loves and martyrdoms;

That awakes in us–not certainly love and sacrifice, or love and sacrifice would be easier things than they seem to be. But it does awake a sense that we are capable of love and sacrifice. It reminds us of a certain experience, and by its style it awakes a certain faculty for that experience. We are told of a thing; we are made to feel as if that thing were possible to us; and we are so made to feel it–whatever the thing may be, joy or despair or what not–that our knowledge is an intense satisfaction to us; and this knowledge and this satisfaction are for some time complete and final; and this knowledge, satisfaction, and finality are all conveyed through the medium of words, the concord of which is itself a delight to the senses. This sensuous apprehension of our satisfied capacities for some experience or other is poetry of the finest kind.

Here, Williams introduces many watchwords of his criticism: experience, realization, capacity, satisfaction, concord, knowledge. Poetry is cognitive, but sensuously so; poetry happens when we feel a shock of discovery, but what is discovered is the shock itself, the capacity for experience that is awakened is itself discovered and hits us like a shock; the apprehension of capacities for experience, is, at its most intense, recognition and discovery of previously “unknown modes of being,” to borrow the phrase from Wordsworth that is central to Williams’ approach

What does the criticism look like in action? I can do little better than quote, extensively:

Williams’ reading of Shakespeare takes the plays as a “cycle,” though that word is unhappy in so far as it implies that Shakespeare intended the plays as a unified whole. Better, I think would be the word “progression,” since the unity that Williams discerns is a unity of action, whereby Shakespeare’s work becomes a series of discoveries in poetry and of poetry. He offers a “biography” of Shakespeare’s “genius,” where that genius is assumed, like the Daemon again, to have a life of its own. For Williams, Troilus and Cressida marks an especially significant step in Shakespeare’s oeuvre–a moment where Shakespeare’s imagination devotes itself, for the first time, to an essential crisis of disillusionment and desolation, a crisis that Wordsworth experiences when the British government declares war on the French Revolution: “a sense | Death-like, of treacherous desertion, felt | In the last place of refuge–my own soul.” It is a crisis when faced with a change in the world about which a person can do nothing; a crisis that might inspire action but that certainly demands recognition. For Williams, this crisis in Wordsworth’s poetry is paradigmatic of a crisis in each of the poets he studies, and when Shakespeare faces it in Troilus, he discovers also something about a capacity for experience that is entirely new, and that demands of him a renovation of style. I will quote extensively from the discussion of Troilus:

For this play, full of abandoned action and arguments, yet contains one of the very greatest achieving lines in all Shakespeare, and one of the most splendid and complex speeches. It contains one of those moments where the poetry of human experience is as sublimely itself as ever before or after. Speech and line both occur in v.ii, after Troilus has become aware of Cressida’s mutability. He is changed; and that change is not only in him, it is paralleled and expressed by a change in Shakespeare’s own manner. Troilus, like Wordsworth, undergoes an entire subversion of his whole experience–he is given up to ‘a conflict of sensations without name.’ [From such a conflict, for Williams, great poetry may, on rare and happy occasions, arise; without that conflict, it is difficult to imagine it happening].

To that conflict Shakespeare devoted a speech; but he expressed it also in a line. And that line is no longer an intellectual statement, however thrilling, or a beautiful verse, however moving–it is a synthesis of experience, an achievement of a style, the style for which Troilus and Cressida had been looking.

The crisis which Troilus endured is one common to all men; it is in a sense the only interior crisis worth talking about. It is that in which every nerve of the body, every consciousness of the mind, shrieks that something cannot be. Only it is.

Cressida cannot be playing with Diomed. But she is. The Queen cannot have married Claudius. But she has. Desdemona cannot love Cassio. But she does. Daughters cannot hate their father and benefactor. But they do. The British Government cannot have declared war on the Revolution. But it has. The whole being of the victim denies the fact; the fact outrages his whole being. This is indeed change, and it was this change with which Shakespeare’s genius was concerned.


If beauty have a soul. this is not she;
If souls guide vows, if vows be sanctimony,
If sanctimony be the gods’ delight,
If there be rule in unity itself,
This is not she. O madness of discourse,
That cause sets up with and against itself;
Bi-fold authority! where reason can revolt
Without perdition, and loss assume all reason
Without revolt: this is, and is not, Cressid.
Within my soul there doth conduce a fight
Of this strange nature that a thing inseparate
Divides more wider than the sky and earth;
And yet the spacious breadth of this division
Admits no orifice for a point as subtle
As Ariachne’s broken woof to enter.
Instance, O instance! strong as Pluto’s gates;
Cressid is mine, tied with the bonds of heaven:
Instance, O instance! strong as heaven itself;
The bonds of heaven are slipp’d, dissolv’d, and loos’d;
And with another knot, five-finger-tied,
The fractions of her faith, orts of her love,
The fragments, scraps, the bits, and greasy reliques
Of her o’er-eaten faith, are bound to Diomed.


Troilus sways between two worlds. His reason, without ceasing to be reason, tells him that this appearance of Cressida is not true; yet his loss is reasonable and cannot protest because this is the nature of things. Entire union and absolute division are experienced at once: heaven and the bonds of heaven are at odds. All this is in his speech, but it is also in one line. There is a world where our mothers are unsoiled and Cressida is his; there is a world where our mothers are soiled and Cressida is given to Diomed. What connextion have those two worlds?

Nothing at all, unless that this were she.

This is the ‘inseparate thing’ at a distance from which the earlier debates took place. Agamemnon and Nestor had made orations about the disappointments of life, the failure of ‘the ample proposition that hope makes’, and the need of courage and patience. Ulysses had answered by point out that degree and order were being lost, and had described what happens when degree is lost. It was all very wise, very noble, talk. But in Troilus the thing has happened: the plagues, portents, and mutinies have begun to ‘divert and crack, rend and deracinate’ his being. Order is wholly lost–

Take but degree away, untune that string,

And hark! what discord follows.


If there be rule in unity itself,

This is not she. O madness of discourse,

That cause sets up with and against itself.


The Grecian princes were in dismay and grief–‘what grief hath set the jaundice on your cheeks?’ But Troilus, had Hector asked him a similar question, might have answered with Wordsworth

Grief call it not–[’tis] anything but that,

A conflict of sensations without name.


The conflict is recognized ‘with glory not its own’ in Troilus’ single line.

It might be too much to say that the line is the first place in which that special kind of greatness occurs in Shakespeare; but it is, I think, true to say that never before in his work had such complexity of experience been fashioned into such a full and final line. It is his power entering into a new freedom.

But this freedom is of another kind from the general behavior of his poetry in Troilus. The importance of Troilus is that we have Shakespeare’s genius, as it were, compelling itself to look for a way of doing things, trying out one way and finding another.

Williams sees the play as a series of discoveries about the capacity to experience the world and apprehend experience–of change, of action, of solitude–that follow Shakespeare’s work from Julius Caesar to Antony and Cleopatra, and it is on the last play that Williams’ criticism is most impressive:

Many adjectives have been used for Shakespeare’s style in this play; no adjective and no array of adjectives can compass it. It is compact of greatness and nothing but itself can be its commentary. It is a style which, like Cleopatra, ‘makes hungry where most it satisfies’. The whole play is itself a phrase that Ariachne’s woof could not entire. But why Antony now? and why Antony so? Because Shakespeare’s genius was entering another realm of expansion. It had founds its way to express change and solitude and action; it was now to discover the relation of change and solitude and action to something other: which it did in Macbeth on the one hand and Antony on the other. It was thus to leave itself free for its last achievement, which was the approach to sheer simplicity of things as they are. 

So many explanations have been offered of Shakespeare’s tragic figures; so much ingenuity has been spent on attempts to bring them under one law, that any suggestion must be offered in a deadly fear of ingenuity. But it does seem as if all the harm that happens to his chief characters–from Falstaff to Timon–arises because each of them has some preconceived idea, some preliminary emotion, about life, and therefore, largely, about the way in which other people will behave. Falstaff is certain of the way in which Prince Harry will behave. He is armed against the world everywhere but there, and he is wounded directly through that weakness. Hamlet has a feeling about the behavior of widowed mothers. Troilus has a–rather anxious–preconceived idea on the proper behavior of a beautiful young woman who is in love with him. Othello has it about his wife; Lear about his daughters. Macbeth has it about the advantages of kingship. Antony and Cleopatra have it about their own capacity to deal with themselves and one another and the world. The all have it; the all lose it; and they all suffer intensely while losing it.

But a preconceived idea or emotion in the character means a particular intention or approach in the writer. The things which happen–love, death, or what not–will happen in a certain way; there will be a particular response to those experiences on the part of that complex character. A preconceived idea makes the character to that extent complex. Romeo’s speech on death and Claudio’s speech on death are dictated by their special characters and circumstances. So is Cleopatra’s. But whereas Romeo’s was Shakespeare’s genius enjoying itself over death, and Claudio’s was Shakespeare’s genius awakening in us a sense of our own horror at death (especially death imposed by somebody else’s will for somebody else’s moral sense), Cleopatra’s is his genius awakening out of an image of death our sense of something quite other than death.

It is sometimes forgotten–or it appears to be forgotten–that Cleopatra dies: she cannot consequently be said to triumph over death. Critics have been excited by that scene (and small blame to them!) to talk as if she triumphed over death. But as a matter of fact she is, when Caesar enters, dead; she is a mere corse. What then has been happening?

This–Shakespeare has been presenting, in the most intense scene of an intense play, a union of intense opposites. The two fatalities of love and death are brought together and inextricably mingled. They are so mingled by a multiplication of lesser opposites. Ideas, images, long words, and short words–all at once are brought into opposition and propinquity. For example:

The world…is not worth leavetaking

the stroke of death…a lover’s pinch

Hurts…is desired



great Caesar…ass unpolicied


Immortal longings…Egypt’s grape

fire and air…baser life

warmth in my lips…aspic in my lips

He’ll spend that kiss….which is my heaven to have

Give me my robe, put on my crown….yare, yare

O eastern star… my baby at my breast

O break, O break…as sweet as balm

The luck of Caesar…[the gods’] after wrath

thou…and nature

And these opposites serve to convey to us a whole complex of qualities: royalty, immortality, swiftness, mockery, threatening, fidelity, courage, fierceness, lucidity–all these are wonderfully mingled in the first eleven lines. This death is no longer an ‘unknown mode of being’; it is known in its fullest extent, as far as anything whatever can be known in poetry.

But this speech is but the climax and close of a play which, in its entirety, is very like that climax. The whole of Antony is a union of opposites. Caesar is on one side and the tragic figures on the other, but he is not apart from them; he is indeed the very means by which they, as tragic figures, exist. He and Antony are at one point opposed to Cleopatra; at another he and Cleopatra seem to be opposed to Antony. His passion is opposed to theirs: if we deny him passion–though of another kind–we lessen the play. The manner of Antony’s death is opposed to the manner of Cleopatra’s. Octavia is opposed to Cleopatra; Lepidus to Caesar and Antony; Pompey to all three; Alexas to Charmian; Ventidius to Antony.

But the greatest opposition is between what Antony and Cleopatra think they are, and what in effect they prove. They are both experienced in politics and love; they both imagine themselves able to deal with politics and love–they have each tried them enough. And they cannot; their preconceived ideas are destroyed, they are destroyed, by the force which has been awakened. Well, but so was Macbeth, so was Lear: what more could Shakespeare’s genius discover?

It had already discovered a way to show man acting according to the cause of his action, and suffering from it; it had discovered tragedy. Such a discovery prolonged itself to the last words of Antony himself–

a Roman by a Roman

Valiantly vanquished.

But after his death and Cleopatra’s outbreak over it, her own style changes. She recovers from her swoon as if in it she had lost the accidents and pretences of her state. For a moment there lie together the two unconscious figures–one never moves again, the other moves to a changed rhythm. She has found the phrase that no other distracted suffered had found; not Hamlet, nor Troilus, nor Othello, nor Lear:

Patience is sottish, and impatience does

Become a dog that’s mad.

Neither patience or impatience are any good; neither is the resolution of the thing inseparate and divided. But her speech takes on a Roman sound; she has never before spoken to her women as ‘My noble girls’; and directly afterwards she uses the word ‘Roman’ itself–and the word ‘noble’ again.

What’s brave, what’s noble,

Let’s do it after the high Roman fashion.

It may be an accident that Caesar in the very next scene looks forward to her being defeated and a captive by and in Rome–

her life in Rome

Would be eternal in our triumph.

But that is not to be the way of union between Rome and Cleopatra; she is not to live in what is now both another element in her. She appears again with a mysterious and profound phase of poetic knowledge:

My desolation does begin to make

A better life.

Shakespeare’s poetry had been up to now concerned with desolation; it began thereafter to be concerned with life.

Yet she cannot confine herself to meditation, nor–actually–does she kill herself because of Antony’s death. The phrase she uses to Proculeius has another and a vaster meaning than the submission of the Queen of Egypt to Rome.

I hourly learn

A doctrine of obedience.

It is the lesson of the Empress, but also of the Empress that was

e’en a woman, and commanded

By such poor passion as the maid that milks

And does the meanest chares,

that realization of the strength of the power with which in the almost ritual colloquy of the first scene she and Antony had been playing.

I’ll set a bourn how far to be belo’d

Then  must thou needs find out new heaven, new earth.

Destiny took them at their word.

Finally, Williams reserves his most unreserved, if not highest, praise, his most loving admiration, for the late comedies or romances:

In those comedies there are figures which, for all their suffering, do not hate the world. And we have often been told that this shows how Shakespeare himself was reconciled or comprehending or what not. It may be so; we do not know. We do not know whether he was ever–for more than the momentary rages which take us all–divided from the world. It is certain that in those comedies he was able, from time to time, to present experience purely in himself. They all–it is a recognized fact–end with pardon, as the Two Gentlemen had ended, but with what a difference! That pardon may have been the decision of Shakespeare’s own personal mind and spirit: it was certainly, in the plays, the only solution which his style could find for a conclusion. The preconceived ideas of the characters had vanished; and therefore the predetermined methods of approach. Things are but themselves; his genius found that nothing brought him all things. There must then be nothing excluded; and the willingness to exclude nothing must exclude only the will to exclude. Such a result means something which, in our ordinary speech, may be called forgiveness; though the thing itself, as we have it in Shakespeare, is too swift, too tender, too lovely a name for which–to most of us–is a rather heavy and solemn determination.


I will stop quoting at such length—though I had wanted to quote also some of Williams’ criticism of Milton. I’ll end by quoting a passage from the final chapter “The Crisis in Lesser Poets” which elucidates further Williams’ faith in poetry. It comes in his rousing defense of Pope:

Pope’s poetry is continuously conducting a war. Milton’s poetry took warfare as a theme, but Pope’s is fighting–not for religion, not for morals, but for poetry. The number of times he used his genius to conduct a personal quarrel need not blind us to the way in which it fought for its own integrity. The eighteenth century was called by Arnold and age of Prose; but in Pope we see the defeat of prose. He is the defender of poetry; his couple excludes prose. It does not invite, it repels and masters the antithesis; it transforms, by its compression and its rhythm, the antithesis into something–even at its most rational–slightly irrational. Poetry had often found in rhyme a delight; here it almost found it a refuge. But it decked that refuge with many felicities, because the refuge itself was passionate. Pope’s mind was misled often by a philosophy the silliest that has ever been expressed in verse, or by personal quarrels; but his genius was never misled. The whole of “Adonais” has nothing greater than

Poets themselves must fall like those they sung;

Deaf the praised ear and mute the tuneful tongue.

‘What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed.’ We have read ‘ne’er so well’ too lightly; it is an aspiration and intention of the most integral poets.

What then is his poetry doing? It is doing its duty; there is o more moral poetry in English than Pope’s. It hates the second-rate–false Romanticism, prosy verse, and Addison. It hates ease and comfort. It does not certainly pass into the state beyond the crisis of discovery, beyond the solitude and the change. It does not seek for the springs of action. But it is the condition, and the only condition, under which poetry can go.

And the admiration for Pope is, in Williams as in perhaps no other critic I know, not only a counterpart, but a complement to an equally deep admiration for Shelley:

The summary of all this is that in Shelley, more than in any other English poet but Marlowe, we have this throbbing expectation, sometimes still, sometimes in movement, sometimes for a moment almost satisfied. His poetry is troubled with it. Pope and Shelley together are the double poetry made by the English Muse out of that state before the great crisis of poetry. In neither of them is genius satisfied with itself. But Pope’s is doing its duty and asks no more. Shelley’s asks much more, it is yearning for its own perfection. It is itself ‘an inheritor of unfulfilled renown’. It is full of the ‘undetermined modes of being’; it pines for ‘the hiding-places of man’s power’–but it found the Adriatic instead.

But the praise of Shelley rests on a salient and deep insight:

But when we turn back to the Romantics, especially to the two younger Romantics, Shelley and Keats, we find that movement is an essential part of their genius. What they talk of, they do. The difference between them–perhaps the difference between them–is in the attention they give to that movement and to the distance in which it takes its place. In Shelley distance is everywhere; in Keats it is nowhere. Shelley is always avoiding the moment; Keats is always closing with it. To so ‘avoiding’ implies no derogation; it is the nature of Shelley’s poetry to act so. It is poetry–his poetry–because it acts so. It is continually on the brink of the moment that has not yet come off.

Whatever we make of the talk of crises, however much we accept that the language of Wordsworth’s poetic development can be applied to the genius of Pope, Williams offers so intelligent and fresh an engagement with poets that his criticism cannot be ignored.

It does what the best criticism does, which is to help us recover our sense of what poetry can recover and discover, on its own terms. Of poets and readers, Williams writes, with Wordsworth’s theory of imaginative development in mind:

An undetermined sense of unknown modes of being may be with them at their commencement, as with all of us. The difference is our developments is between those who lose that sense altogether (this is probably what is called ‘losing one’s illusions’), those who keep it but cannot of themselves deal with it (among these are perhaps most readers of poetry), and those who are able to do something about it–and these are the poets. For their business is to discover and express, more and more exactly, more and more powerfully, those unknown modes of being.


And Williams’ business, like the business of many critics, is to return us to their discoveries.




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