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Charles Williams

Charles Williams wrote novels, poetry, criticism, plays and theology. He lectured at Oxford, was admired by W. H. Auden and T. S. Eliot and he was an 'Inkling' pioneering an imaginative, fantastical and mythological literature with C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkein. Today he is almost totally forgotten.

Charles WilliamsHe wrote a series of novels in which the magical, the mystical and the occult is woven into every day reality in the modern world. One deals with the appearance of mystical beasts in the Hertfordshire countryside. In another the Holy Grail is found amongst the church plate in an English parish church, only to be stolen by powerful satanists intent on either harnessing its power or destroying it.

A lifelong Anglican he wrote several works of popular theology which established him as the Church of England's leading lay theologian, and which had a profound influence on Auden's late-life piety.

He himself hoped that his legacy would be a collection of Arthurian poetry focusing on the Welsh, Druidic bard Taliessin. The poetry is dense and complex but full of striking imagery.

He came to Aisholt as a guest of Olive Willis in 1930 with his wife Michal and their baby and met the young Anne Ridler and her friends. The four girls were much taken with Williams and Williams with them. He wrote the following poem for them which was subsequently published as an addendum to a volume of plays. The poem associates each girl, Diana, Anne, Mary, and Jean with their mythical namesake, the Greek Goddess Diana, Saint Anne, Mary the Virgin and Joan of Arc.

[For ANNE, DIANA, JEAN, and MARY: made at their request]
ABOVE the rippling rivers, amid the swelling combes,
in gardens fair and flowered, in low and lovely rooms,
among the farms of Somerset, the sheep herds and the smiths,
we walked by sun and starlight, and looked upon the myths.
As in a place of mystery, Love’s Hierusalem,
the holy sites are gathered, and watchful over them
a Mount of sacred olives looks out on sacred rooms,
so a wonder of great courtesy stood up among the combes.
Within an English garden, below a beechen height,
the lilies grow in summer, and the souls that are as white,
the souls that are as lilies; and where barbarous people strove
we walked with sudden laughter, and made music out of love.
Beneath a common patronage, within a common grace,
we heard the supernatural sounds breathed far through time and place;
in a secluded summer we saw the flaming crowns
of all the antique legends come riding o’er the downs.
Among the spears and scimitars, between the peacock fans,
we saw the Orient glory whose name is Suleiman’s,
and by the Great King’s bridle the Sheban wisdom glowed,
outside an English window, upon an English road.
Beside an English gateway, within an English porch,
the Words of great antiquity arose as lamp  or torch,
the aureoles of the casual names that yet can sound so high
their subtle invocation brings the gods of vision nigh.
A voice went calling by me, and ere the voice had died
I saw among the swelling combes Diana all enskied,
Diana of the Romans, Diana of the night,
the buskined maids about her, the hunting javelins bright.
A voice went calling by me, and  ere the voice had ceased
the mother of the mother of God ascended from the east;
I saw the vigil ended, and the light of Israel come
where Saint Anne stood up to prophesy the tale of Christendom.
A voice went calling by me, and ere the voice was done
rose up our lady Mary, deep vestured with the sun,
a vision of two thousand years, a tower of mighty crowns,
one foot among the ships at sea and one among the towns.
A voice went calling by me, and ere the voice had stayed
came streaming o’er the wooded hills the banners of the Maid,
Jeanne and her company of peers within the fiery dark,
the myth of mortal valour that went heavenward from Arc.
I heard my own voice calling, and lo above the springs
the princess Michal walked in peace, between the striving kings;
calling a name of childhood—the gate of heaven’s own hall
in the prince Michael opened, a flame angelical.
O fast  and thick about us the dreadful myths went by;
they thronged the combes of Somerset, they thronged the English sky,
the legends of antiquity, the everlasting forms
who are lamps amid the darkness and torches in the storms.
And by those mortal courtesies invited and ensouled
I saw my Mantuan Duchess, a darkness turned to gold,
where unadorned among them she lifted up her head,
touched by the work alchemical, in union perfected.
In unconcluded verse I named the heavenly Mount of Rome,
the hill of Saint John Lateran, whence shining thoughts have come
on Augustinian errand all the Saxon thanes must con;
I named the names of splendour—elect Byzantion;
the queen Iseult of Cornwall, with Tristram at command;
the queen Morgause of Orkney, with Lamoracke at hand;
King Arthur and Lord Lancelot, and crimson in his mail,
serving the last Achievement, the Master of the Grail.
O song amid the rivers! O laughter ’mid the combes!
O wonder in the gardens and beauty in the rooms!
O myth on myth arising, and cast among them thus
the crying of the sacred word the Sunday sang to us:
‘He shall not let that Holy Thing which is abroad on earth
fail from the house of friendship, the place of joy and mirth;
by all the myths and legends, by the tale of Christendom,
He shall not let His Holy One into corruption come’.
The night is on the rivers; the night is on the combes;
a dozen lights are shining in far-divided rooms;
but deep within the firmament, high over sun and star,
where the great myths dwell for ever, the days of Aisholt are.

by permission of GOD and OLIVE WILLIS,
August 1930
Last Updated on  October 21st, 2014