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Charles Williams’ Englishness is, among other things, something I would like to discuss before I tackle the daunting task of exegeting his Arthurian poetry. Like many Americans, I have something of a fantasy England tucked away somewhere in my heart. It is composed of bits and pieces of English high and popular culture that I have ingested over the years; a bit of Tolkien’s Shire, a bit of Lewis’ Oxford, landscapes from Gainsborough and Constable, screaming teenaged girls from A Hard Day’s Night, plenty of Downton Abbey, Chariots Of Fire, and Brideshead Revisted, both the Waugh novel and the Granada TV adaptation.
I was surprised at how well my American fantasy England weathered my exposure to the real article in the early 80s when I spent four months in the UK, visiting all four “nations” [Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and England] in succession. What I experienced during my visit was more of a confirmation of my fantasy England, and an amplification and broadening of it, than it was a repudiation of it.
An English friend suggested to me that what I was experiencing was what the English themselves called “Deep England”. “Deep England” is part nostalgia for a simpler life more attuned to the natural rhythms of the English countryside, part fable about a vanishing face-to-face village life, part family oral history, and a large dollop of national self-deception. Nevertheless, it has a powerful pull on the national sentiment. “Deep England” could be classist, different things for different people. A retired slate miner would wax sentimental about the days when the mines were humming and one’s mates had plenty of energy for sport and plenty of money to spend in the pubs. An Anglican parish priest would sigh and remember a “time when the Church had more influence in people’s lives.” “Deep England” seemed to be something which you were always perpetually losing, something that was always just slipping away. For me, an outsider, the musical expressions of this “Deep England” will always be the austerely beautiful “Pastoral” Symphony #3 of Ralph Vaughan Williams, or a church choir performing that unsurpassably mad hymn by William Blake, “Jerusalem”.
As an American, it is hard to know what to make of this Englishness. Whatever it is, we don’t have it, although we speak a common language. Eight generations of republican life now separate us from the fountains of “Deep England”, and all that remains is the notion of an Anglo-Saxon Protestant as a kind of gold standard for white people. In a way, it is kind of a collective unconscious mythopoeia, a mythopoeia built up scrap by scrap from the raw material of language, climate, and a long tenancy on the land. From this mythopoeia, all of the particular myths forged by Englishmen down through the long years have their provenience.
Already I am thinking about what Williams’ Arthur poetry is most like. If it is idiosyncratic and difficult, it is idiosyncratic and difficult in a particularly English way. Like William Langland’s Piers Plowman, the prophetic work of William Blake, or the contemporary Gnosticism of David Lindsey’s A Voyage To Arcturus.