I recently had the opportunity to re-sample a bit of Charles Williams’ Arthurian poetry, thanks to the inclusion by Google Books of a volume of criticism that, fortuitously, includes the poems and forgoes the criticism. The “Prelude” from Taliessin Through Logres is a particularly powerful piece of work. I don’t know much about the mechanics of poetry; drilling in iambs, trochees, and anapests had percolated their way out of the public school curriculum by the time I arrived to ninth grade English, and I am much the poorer for it.
Nevertheless, the poetry is splendid for reading aloud, at least as splendid as anything by Yates or Eliot. The problem comes when you try to puzzle out what the poems are about. I am almost certainly in over my head here. Williams is a difficult writer even when he’s trying to be straightforward. He uses a private theological language in his essays with terms like “under the Mercy”, “Web of Exchange”, or most famously, “the doctrine of co-inherence”.
I think that Williams’ Taliessin poems are all about coinherence, about mediation, and about the emergence of history from mythology. The Arthurian figures are counters, I think, for Williams, who uses them in a dialectic for which the grammar has been given us already by Malory. The subject matter of the Arthurian poems is the calling forth of Logres by the Emperor, the attempt and failure by Arthur to realize Camelot-in-Carbonek, and of the decline into Britain. It is like his commentary on the Tarot card of the Tower, where every human endeavor, even the most noble, partakes of the Shadow and contains the seeds of its own destruction.
Another theme that I notice: Williams is concerned about the matter of Europe; Europe as Christendom, Europe as the sacramental body:
the poetry is filled with that sort of imagery. For example, he sings that milk rose in the breasts of Gaul, (Western) man suckled there and his bones hardened. When I first read that line, it unpacked for me as the transition from a way of knowing during the so-called Dark Ages, also known as the Age of Saints, of whom the last who embodied this particular way of knowing would be the enigmatic figure of John Scotus Erigena. Then came the schoolmen, “the milk rose in the breasts of Gaul” in the teaching of Abelard, Albert Magnus, and Anselm. “Man drank, and his bones grew hard.”
Perhaps I can find a scan of Williams’ scandalous [for the 1930s] frontpiece to Taliessin Through Logres. It is the figure of a naked woman with her navel in Jerusalem, her privates in Rome, and her arms and head in England. There is a lot, a lot, of astrological imagery in the Taliessin cycle and the correspondence of the superlunary body to the Index of the Body. As I have said before, Christendom is the greatest matter of myth we have, and it may be the only enduring myth.