Oxford, 5 February 1940. Monday morning in the Divinity School, Oxford University's splendid fifteenth-century Gothic lecture hall. The stone-carved room, with its magnificent fan-vaulted ceiling, is crammed with students, the mixed student body of wartime Oxford: a larger proportion than usual of young women; young men straight from school, many of them awaiting call up; a few in uniform, who will be training later in the day. Britain has been at war with Nazi Germany for five months: Hitler has recently invaded Poland and Finland, and is expected soon to attack France.

But it is not news from the war that causes the buzz of suppressed excitement pervading the room. Usually the audience for the second lecture of a series is smaller than for the first. This time it is larger: many who were here last week have brought their friends, to see and hear something out of the ordinary. Most are muffled up in overcoats and scarves against the chill of the poorly-heated building.

As the nearby clock of St Mary's Church strikes eleven, three men sweep into the hall and make their way up the central aisle between the chairs. At left and right, their black gowns billowing behind them, are two well-known characters, leading members of the English Faculty: on one side, the domed forehead and burly physique of C.S.Lewis, Fellow in English at Magdalen College; on the other, slighter, smaller, with down-turned mouth and piercing eyes, J.R.R.Tolkien, the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon. Between them strides an unlikely figure. Tall and angular, gownless, in a blueish-grey business suit and round spectacles, darting quick glances around the room, he seems as full of anticipation as the students, and when he mounts the platform, leaving his companions to find their seats in the front row, there is a glint of something like mischief in his eyes as he surveys his audience.

This is Charles Williams, the new Honorary Lecturer in English Literature. He clutches a rolled-up sheaf of papers in one hand but having set them on the lectern he never looks at them again. He launches into his lecture, which is on Milton's poetic masque Comus -- the second of an entire term's course on Milton's works -- and those already startled by his unacademic appearance are further shocked by his voice: not the usual refined ‘Oxford’ accent, but a sharp, plebeian enunciation. Almost Cockney, and certainly some sort of ‘London’ accent, it comes close to grating on the ear. But within a minute or two any resistance aroused by these unorthodox tones melts away.

Williams speaks as if Comus were of immediate and vital importance to himself and to every member of the audience, and needs urgently to be discussed and understood. He seems to know Comus -- and indeed all of Milton's poetry -- by heart, and plucks apt illustrations and quotations out of the air as he goes. He charms the audience with his wit, his irony, his passionate urgency. He strides about the stage, gesturing with his tense but expressive hands, clutching for the exact word and then firing it off with a piercing look at this or that student. He seems to speak out of the side of his mouth, and this -- together with the harsh accent -- gives his words a curious personal intensity. Reciting poetry, he makes it a hypnotic incantation but also a sensuous delight, enjoying it as if the sounds and rhythms of the words can be savoured like nectar, and sure that the audience will relish them too.

But he also understands the students' resistances, their scepticism, their doubts. Comus, he explains, is about chastity. A virtue undervalued in the present age but of the utmost importance, which we may choose to reject -- that is our right -- but which we must first understand. His hearers are spellbound. They sense that they are listening to someone who knows (and means) what he says; someone who has lived poetry, who has it in his blood and bones, and who can speak to them also about vital issues in their lives. The beauty of Milton's verse and the sacred loveliness of virginity become, for an hour, the most important things in the world.

Then, far too quickly, time is up; Williams has indicated the theme of next week's lecture and is already off the platform, with a quick conspiratorial smile to his friends in the front row, and is making his way briskly out of the room, leaving his audience dazed, exhilarated, inspired. Most leave the lecture determined to read Comus as soon as possible. Some are already planning to persuade their colleges -- by hook or by crook -- to let them have Charles Williams as their tutor, next term if not this.

Even those few who have remained sceptical, or been antagonised by the lecture, cannot help being impressed. For the reticent, ruminative Tolkien, Williams’s platform manner is perhaps rather too histrionic. Impressed by his friend’s intelligence and range of knowledge, he nonetheless decides to attend the lectures no further (after all, very little poetry worth the name has been written in England since the Norman Conquest). Lewis, on the other hand, has no doubts. ‘Simply as criticism’, he will later recall, ‘it was superb because here was a man who really started from the same point of view as Milton and really cared with every fibre of his being about “the sage and serious doctrine of virginity” ’. Indeed, ‘That beautiful carved room had probably not witnessed anything so important since some of the great mediaeval or Reformation lectures. I have at last, if only for once, seen a university doing what it was founded to do: teaching wisdom.’

That wisdom was hard-won and fraught with bitter paradox. The charismatic
lecturer who celebrated chastity bore the emotional scars of a painfully unconsummated fourteen-year love-affair which had brought his marriage close to breaking-point.

With an encyclopaedic knowledge of English poetry and unrivalled critical insight, he had no university degree (as his lack of an academic gown indicated) and could lecture at Oxford only because war had called away so many of the usual staff.

A brilliant Anglican theologian and interpreter of Christian doctrine, he was a trained occultist who continued to practise what can only be called magical rituals with a sexual and even sadistic tinge to them. At Oxford he was an anomaly: a restless Londoner who found ‘Oxford, however nice, still a kind of parody of London’; a worldly-wise publisher with a good head for business, more at home with a cigarette and a sandwich in a Ludgate Hill wine bar than with the pipesmoke and claret of an Oxford common-room. He was beginning to be recognised as an important poet with the first volume of a brilliantly original cycle of Arthurian poems whose style would influence the Four Quartets of his friend T.S.Eliot. And a little over five years later, at the height of his reputation and influence, he would die, to be celebrated briefly and then, for the most part, forgotten.

Who was Charles Williams, this man who changed so many people's lives -- often at a single meeting -- and yet has largely disappeared from our maps of twentieth-century writing? It will be the task to this book to find out, to explore a literary life rich and strange almost beyond belief.

Grevel Lindop (As yet unpublished)


Donna said...


I am reading "Not a tame Lion" about CS Lewis. This lecture on Milton's Comus came up in the book and I am curious about it. This post makes me even more want to know WHAT he said in the lecture. Do you know where I can find this?j


Arborfield said...

I'm having trouble too... Lewis refers to 'Comus' all over the place n his work, ranging from 'Surprised by Joy' to a surprising number of his letters... AND his first published work (1932) was about 'Comus' too. But exactly where his lecture on the subject is, I as yet, cannot find.