Good or Great?
But what about Williams? Was he a good novelist (he wrote seven)? Poet (he wrote two slender volumes that make up an Arthurian cycle of lyrics)? Critic (endless articles)? Dramatist (several plays)? Theologian? Ah. It is this last category that interests us here. But let it be said about the other four categories that Williams’s work is problematical. It may be great. After 45 years of reading his stuff, I am still turning that question over in my mind.
Certainly he leads us all out into titanic vistas, and startles us over and over and over by pointing out features in that vista which to him are obvious, but which in a thousand years we might never have noticed. Like all good poets, he sees the fear in a handful of dust. Or shall we say, the glory in a handful of dust (Eliot meant that anyway). But what checks us, every time we approach the point of concluding that Williams is one of the greats, is his—what is the word? Quirkiness.
The difficulty here is that that word may be applied to any number of writers who are firmly lodged in the canon. John Skelton, for example. What a lark his work is "The Tunning of Elinour Rumming," for example, or "Philip Sparrow." But you can’t talk about Elizabethan literature without reckoning with Skelton. Or Donne. Now there is a truly great poet. But he positively capers through his metaphors, leaving us gasping: gasping, but deeply, deeply moved (see his "Good Friday, 1613: Riding Westward"). Pepys: what possible excuse can we offer for that stuff? And yet there it is, somehow immortal.
And William Blake: impossible to categorize. Wildly heretical, if we are attempting his "theology," and quirky in the extreme, no matter what we are attempting. But again, we can’t canvass English Lit. without keeping Blake on the list. And has any of us heard of James Joyce? Try Finnegan’s Wake. Or Faulkner? As I recall, the first sentence of one of his novels is forty pages long. So when it comes to the quirkiness sweepstakes, we can scarcely fault Williams.
Nevertheless. The mystery ingredient that stops Williams just short of the Greatness category may be revealed in a comment Lewis made about him. Williams was self-educated. His mind had never had that experience of sustained, given discourse that comes in the lecture room and the seminar. He had had to drop out of school and go to work, since his father never was able quite to bring in enough money to keep the family going.
In the light of this, Williams’s sheer knowledge, and the sweep of his imagination, are breathtaking. He may have been self-educated, but he was self- educated. The great tribute to this is the fact that Lewis and Tolkien managed to secure a lectureship at Oxford for Williams, in some semi-official way.