Charles Williams’s name always seems to flit about the edges of the Tolkien/Lewis world. Everyone who knows anything about these gentlemen beyond Middle-earth and Narnia knows that they met regularly at The Bird and Baby to drink beer, smoke, talk, and read their "work in progress" to each other, and that Charles Williams was perhaps the most animated (or agitated) one of the group. Others were there — Hugo Dyson, Lord David Cecil, Dr. Havard, and so on—but the Three were the core of the thing.
An Insider’s Name
Nevertheless, Williams’s name is strictly a name for insiders, so to speak. Lots of people vaguely know the name, and many have had a go at reading one or more of his novels. But the testimony here is frequently, "I couldn’t make head or tail of it all." The testimony becomes a wail of despair when Williams’s poetry is attempted. Even W. H. Auden found himself stumped by it at first, although he came, like T. S. Eliot, to be a great admirer of Williams’s work.
Even Williams’s essays (I was going to say "straightforward essays," but they aren’t) set one to tugging one’s beard. Here, by way of illustrating the point — and this is typical — are the first two sentences of Williams’s short church history, The Descent of the Dove: "The beginning of Christendom is, strictly, at a point out of time. A metaphysical trigonometry finds it among the spiritual Secrets, at the meeting of two Heavenward lines, one drawn from Bethany along the Ascent of Messias, the other from Jerusalem against the Descent of the Paraclete."
Where are we with this sort of vocabulary and syntax? We are in Williams territory, that’s where we are. For everyone’s consolation, it may be said that it is not only beginning readers of Williams who find themselves stumped. I myself wrote a doctoral thesis on Williams 35 years ago, and to this day I cannot pick up a single one of his books without at some point muttering to myself, "Yo! Williams, old boy—how on earth do you expect anyone to have the faintest clue as to what you are on about here?"
The thing is, Williams unfailingly leads us all on what George Eliot called "a severe mental scamper." His mind was so packed with images, and so curious about every cranny of the universe, and so regaled by ideas—especially dogma — and so overcharged with what one can only call high-voltage restlessness, that it is a wonder his prose is accessible at all. Ironically, we find that we must give him a palm for clarity. His prose — and, it must be said, his poetry — says precisely what he means.
He means nothing more, and nothing less, than what we find on the page. And, as endless critics, with Eliot in the van, have pointed out over and over, every poetic line must be just as we find it. The disjuncture between words — both the vocabulary and the word order — and meaning has been closed by the poet. And we may, with a certain justice, call Williams a poet, even though most of what he wrote appears on the page as "prose." The thing is, everything that he writes has the density, economy, pace, and exactitude, of poetry.