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A week ago the Erewash Press brought out a book I’m particularly excited about.  It’s entitled Taliessin through Logres, and it’s a collection of Arthurian poetry by Charles Williams.  I’ll admit I’m excited about all the books that come out from Erewash, since the whole project came out of friends chatting obsessively about books, and it’s partly an excuse to spend ages rummaging in some of the slightly more obscure corners of writing from the past.  But this one is a special favourite, for a few reasons.  It hasn’t been generally available for decades: the second-hand copies knocking around start at upwards of twenty pounds, and there isn’t an electronic edition.  By publishing our edition at three pounds (or fewer, if you were on the mailing list the day it came out, hem hem…) we’re hoping to make the poems easily and cheaply available for a much wider range of readers.

I think it’s tremendously readable stuff, this poetry.  Whilst it’s dense and allusive and full of odd words, it carries the reader along with its energy and its singing quality.  The editing of this volume was slightly delayed at various points by the fact that we both just wanted to read and reread the poems.  Some of the poetry is angular and stately, and some is flowing and daring, and some of it (unsurprisingly, given the topic) is mournful.  It reminds me a lot of one of my personal favourite poets: Geoffrey Hill.  I spent a lot of time with Hill’s Collected Poems as a student, sat in a corner of the college bar, and a lot of what I found exciting and sustaining in his work seems to find an echo in Williams’ poetry.

The language is precise, erudite and even technical at times: any poet who can write a single stanza which includes the phrases “translating the Greek miniscula/ to minds of the tribes”, “the identities of creation/ phenomenally abating to kinds and kindreds” and “the logothetes run down the porphyry stair” is not only unafraid of difficult words, but enjoys blending them together and playing with the intoxication they can create.  There’s both an intense concentration in the handling of complex language in Williams’ poetry, and a sense of the abstract and the ridiculous in how it works.  This is the same writer who begins his “short history of the holy spirit” with the extraordinary sentence:

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. That measurement, the measurement of eternity in operation, of the bright cloud and the rushing wind, is, in effect, theology.

It’s what I call “provocative redescription” in Williams’ writing, for want of a better term: talking about a familiar subject or a familiar idea (such as Christianity or the Arthur legends) from a deliberately unexpected point of view.  It often uses language that is unrepentantly abstruse or complex, refusing to suggest that the subject is simple or could be easily explained.  Though this is also the writer who (in the same book) admires the Mystical Theology of Pseudo-Dionysus, with his vision which annihilates language as it soars into a great darkness.  Williams both adores words for their potential and mystery, and feels the mystic’s sense of their inadequacy.  Perhaps he can enjoy them, and use them with such a sense of their power and their ludicrous quality, because of his own spiritual experiences which went beyond words.  He’s playful whilst being entirely serious.

His writing is not always as consciously knotted and Latinate (or Hellenic) as this, though.  His poetry also shares with Geoffrey Hill’s work a delight in rhymes and a direct voice, as in the opening lines of “The Coming of Palomides”:

 

Talaat ibn Kula of Ispahan

taught me the measurement of man

that Euclid and Archimedes showed,

ere I took the Western road

across the strait of the Spanish seas.

 

Or later in the same poem:

 

In the summer-house of the Cornish king

I kneeled to Mark at a banqueting,

I saw the hand of the queen Iseult ;

down her arm a ruddy bolt

fired the tinder of my brain

to measure the shape of man again ;

 

It’s tremendous story-telling, even if the story is profound and the connections which make up the plot aren’t always evident on the surface.  Just as with Hill, the music and the drama of the poetry are evident before the larger significance becomes clear.  Every re-reading shows up a new connection or a new implication, but the process of reading is fun in itself.   Taliessin through Logres reminds me of the other Williams, too: there’s something of Rowan in the weaving together of philosophy, emotion and myth with a Welsh tinge.  The fluency of form and readability also brings W. H. Auden to mind, despite their major differences.

Having compared Charles Williams to Geoffrey Hill, I feel a bit hesitant about mentioning the Inklings.  Hill furiously (and rightly) denounced publishers and writers who bracketed him as an “Inkling”, describing it as a term only fit for tea-towels and marketing slogans.  Of course he was right: categorising Williams as an Inkling risks making him a second-best version of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, who also wrote theologically-infused fantasy but who never achieved a Narnia or a Middle-Earth.  It assumes that he was trying to be them, and limits our appreciation of his writing to how far it approaches theirs.  It’s perhaps like listening to B.B. King to see how far he resembles the Beatles: it’s missing the point, and distorting the perspective.  It also risks making these writers into a cosy little club.

It is worth reading Williams as one of a number of mid-twentieth-century British writers deeply concerned with fiction, Christianity and their connections, though.  In that sense he (and this poetry) sits alongside Lewis and Tolkien, as well as Dorothy L. Sayers, Evelyn Underhill and Austin Farrer.  And none of the others wrote a major work about Camelot and Arthur, so it is genuinely thrilling to have a cycle of Arthurian poetry by one of these figures.  Discovering that Williams had written Taliessin through Logres (and other Arthurian poetry which we’ll be publishing later) was like discovering that Dorothy Sayers had translated Dante’s Divine Comedy.  It’s one of those things that should have happened, and I’m delighted it did, and that the work was completed and hasn’t been lost.  Here’s a complete poem from early in the sequence, entitled “Taliessin returns to Logres”:

 

Taliessin’s return to Logres

 

The seas were left behind ;

in a harbour of Logres

lightly I came to land

under a roaring wind.

Strained were the golden sails,

the masts of the galley creaked

as it rode for the Golden Horn

and I for the hills of Wales.

 

In a train of golden cars

the Emperor went above,

for over me in my riding

shot seven golden stars,

as if while the great oaks stood,

straining, creaking, around,

seven times the golden sickle

flashed in the Druid wood.

 

Covered on my back,

untouched, my harp had hung ;

its notes sprang to sound

as I took the blindfold track,

the road that runs from tales,

through the darkness where Circe’s son

sings to the truants of towns

in a forest of nightingales.

 

The beast ran in the wood

that had lost the man’s mind ;

on a path harder than death

spectral shapes stood

propped against trees ;

they gazed as I rode by ;

fast after me poured

the light of flooding seas.

 

But I was Druid-sprung ;

I cast my heart in the way ;

all the Mercy I called

to give courage to my tongue.

As I came by Broceliande

a diagram played in the night,

where either the golden sickle

flashed, or a signalling hand.

 

Away on the southern seas

was the creaking of the mast ;

beyond the Roman road

was the creaking of the trees.

Beyond the farms and the fallows

the sickle of a golden arm

that gathered fate in the forest

in a stretched palm caught the hallows.

 

At the falling of the first

chaos behind me checked ;

at the falling of the second

the wood showed the worst ;

at the falling of the third

I had come to the king’s camp ;

the harp on my back

syllabled the signal word.

 

I saw a Druid light

burn through the Druid hills,

as the hooves of King Arthur’s horse

rounded me in the night.

I heard the running of flame

faster than fast through Logres

into the camp by the hazels

I Taliessin came.

 

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