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The English Poetic Mind by Charles Williams – an appreciation, of sorts…

Charles Williams, a contemporary and friend of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, wrote prolifically about many things, among them literary criticism, plays and poetry, as well as seven wholly remarkable novels, which to this day remain on my must read (and re-read) short list. I find myself agreeing with Lewis in the belief that if a book is worth reading at all, it is worth re-reading many times. A book which, upon a second reading, no matter how much it might have engaged us on the first pass, fails to rekindle the excitement, the wonder, that out-of-body sense of other-worldliness, is a book that probably didn’t elicit those reactions the first time through, but held us through sheer novelty, whether via technical innovation or obtrusiveness of subject matter… Nothing annoys me more than to have someone tell me  I simply must read a book because it’s on the NY Times best-seller list. The Harry Potter books were on all the best seller lists, but I found myself abandoning the series half-way through the second book. I just didn’t care about characters who felt to me as an attempt at replicating what Lewis created in his Narnia series; an attempt that failed quite badly. The Potter series has none of the charm that Narnia has, and perhaps that says as much about modern society as anything. Also, you get the feeling from Narnia that, even though the story takes place in another world, it is this world that is at stake. With Potter, even though the story is, in theory, about the battle between good and evil, I got the feeling that it just didn’t matter, to this world, who won. The Muggle’s would go on their merry Muggle way, blissfully unaware that there might be something else going on. Now, of course it matters who wins, whether in the ‘real’ world or in a world entirely of the imagination. I do not propose anything other than it is of the utmost importance who wins. What I am proposing is that the difference between Potter and Narnia is a matter of quality, both of style and of substance. Narnia has that quality. Potter left me wishing that it, too, possessed it. But I digress…

Perhaps the most astonishing book Williams ever wrote, in my opinion, is a book called The English Poetic Mind, a survey of English (the country, as opposed to the language) poetry from the standpoint of what separates the truly great poets from those who can’t quite rise to the sustained level required to be included in the pantheon of immortals. In Williams’ opinion, that pantheon includes Shakespeare, Milton and Wordsworth, followed by lesser gods and demi-gods and on down through descending levels of divinity to those mere poetic mortals who’ve written a lovely line or two but nothing else worth mentioning.

In one sense, at least amongst those of us who speak a version of the English tongue on the western side of the pond, this post might seem as the idle musings of a mind more profitably spent perusing the stock market, the jobs listings or the TV Guide. Poetry has never been what might be called wildly popular (aside from the occasional naughty limerick), and all the uproar, or more accurately ‘hoopla’, concerning Maya Angelou when Bill Clinton was elected to the presidency seems to me, with all due respect and apologies to Ms. Angelou, more due to the excitement surrounding Clinton’s election (and didn’t that just wear right the heck off…?) than to the poetry itself… But if one waits until the more pressing material concerns are addressed before turning whatever time is left towards the more ‘esoteric’ pursuits, I think you’ll find that there is never any time left over. You have to make the time, to insist that there shall be something else to think about, and talk about… Or not… It’s totally up to you…

Poetry, as I said, has never been the stuff of water cooler conversation, but it has always been with us… Men and women, love-struck teens and philosophic geriatrics throughout time have turned toward the muses for inspiration in how to adequately convey their feelings. Simple, every day verbiage just isn’t enough for certain emotional states. Even young children take delight in the rhyming of a Seuss or a Stevenson. And then you come to the English pantheon, where it wasn’t just emotional states but life, the universe and everything which must be, and could be, set to verse.

To Williams, even the triune divinity had varying degrees of success. Milton reached his Zenith with Paradise Lost, but never again reached that rarified strata. Wordsworth, being the best example of the poetic mind at work because his poetry was about the evolution of the poetic mind, reached his zenith early but fell back from the heights, like some modern day Icarus, as he allowed himself to be distracted by the political and social events of his times. We have no idea what he might have achieved had he not diverged from the business at hand, but it appears to me that this is one of the great tragedies of English literature.

And then you have Shakespeare… G.K. Chesterton, writing almost one hundred years ago about the differences between England and the Continent, said:

“… I am making a little list of all the things that are really better in England. Even a month on the Continent, combined with intelligence, will teach you that there are many things that are better abroad. All the things the DAILY MAIL calls English are better abroad. But there are things entirely English and entirely good. Kippers, for instance, and Free Trade, and front gardens, and individual liberty, and the Elizabethan drama, and hansom cabs, and cricket, and Mr. Will Crooks. Above all, there is the happy and holy custom of eating a heavy breakfast. I cannot imagine that Shakespeare began the day with rolls and coffee, like a Frenchman or a German. Surely he began with bacon or bloaters. In fact, a light bursts upon me; for the first time I see the real meaning of Mrs. Gallup and the Great Cipher. It is merely a mistake in the matter of a capital letter. I withdraw my objections; I accept everything; bacon did write Shakespeare.”

THAT is funny… And that should also put to rest a running argument between my friend Robert and myself….

But I digress…

What is it about modern society that makes it almost impossible to stay on topic long enough to actually cogently and concisely convey…

What was I saying…?

But I digr…

Well… you know…

Chesterton’s remarks are flippant, and funny, but for Williams, there was enough textural evidence for a single authorship of the Shakespearean canon. In tracing the evolution of the poetry itself, we have an extended and extensive example of the development of a single poetic mind. We have the young Shakespeare of the early plays exulting in emotion, and the expression of said emotion, merely for the sake of the exultation; emotion for emotion’s sake, if you will. Eventually, this exultation is no longer enough; the poetry had to evolve…

There seems to be a rather large number of words in the previous paragraph that start with the letter ‘e’…

But I…

Egad, and enough…

Shakespeare’s poetry, according to Williams, progresses from pure luxuriousness in the emotions and language through to more complete characterizations of whole characters, only to then split the  various parts of the characters apart for more detailed treatment. (Henry V and Falstaff could not coexist in the same play not because it couldn’t happen in real life but because Shakespeare’s poetry was not yet capable of containing both in the same vessel. And so one had to go; that is why Flastaff was expendable for Henry.) From there, in ever increasing complexity and knowledge, the genius of Shakespeare begins to reassemble the parts. We go from Romeo as the example of pure animal enjoyment of experience, through Hamlet, whose experience is he wants to act but cannot discover the wellsprings of action, to Othello who wants to act and does so, to Lear who wants to act and can act but is powerless to do so. At the same time, we have each of the plays, whether comedy or tragedy, revolving around one central character, and one central aspect of character. Henry V is the exploration of a character bent upon glory, with none of the ordinary paralysis to be felt by Hamlet. By the time we reach Macbeth, Shakespeare has synthesized the disparate parts back into a whole, with not one but now two centers (alas, too late for Falstaff) around which the play revolves, both but two sides of the same thing; Lady Macbeth becomes physically what MacBeth becomes spiritually. Hamlet cannot act, Othello acts distractedly, Macbeth acts intentionally. In all the plays up to this point it’s as if the characters are being blown and buffeted by fate, sacrificed because the poetry can as yet not adequately express more than one vital character at a time, or to the necessities of the dramatic arts. In Macbeth perhaps we feel for the first time that the character lives and actively chooses his course.

From one central point of revolution to two in Macbeth, to three in Anthony and Cleopatra. And in all these later plays the ever increasing descent into solitude, that birthright of all humans everywhere. As the characters become more complex, more complete and characteristic, their solitude becomes more omnipresent, only to eventually find their way out the other side, in the later plays, into a synthesis of simply being. The characters in the later plays do not talk about love or revenge or whatever, they are love or revenge, or whatever. The genius of Shakespeare’s poetry has discovered the expression of pure being, to the point that by the time we reach Ariel, pure being and simplicity have come so far that we are in danger of being shown something quite on the other side of humanity, something beyond. Shakespeare at the same time has gone from Life through to Death through to solitude, which might be called the death within life, right around again to Life once more and on to the other side, to something beyond life. Ariel is something almost inhuman. But the poetry has explored all these provinces, and is now free to explore the undiscovered country.

I quote from the last paragraph of the section on Shakespeare:

“But that Shakespeare or any other great poet could, finally and deliberately, determine to write no more seems impossible; nor is that habitual illusion necessary. In his last comedies his genius had provided his characters with ‘calm seas, auspicious gales’, and now it turned to something else: ‘To the elements Be free’. It is to the pure elements of this life and of some other that Shakespeare’s poetry is now directed; free.

“Only he died.”

This is the greatest tragedy in English literature.

This is a great book; one which deserves and demands to be read and re-read, again and again. Others have written about how Shakespeare couldn’t possibly have written all of these plays, about how he stole this and borrowed that, or how he is responsible for the invention of the modern human being. This is the first book I’ve seen which actually talks about what the poetry is actually doing, why it exists and, I hesitate to say, what it means. This is a paperback that goes with me everywhere, because it is not yet available on an e-reader. When I was shipping my belongings back from Macau, including a large number of books, this book stayed with me because I did not wish to trust it to the shipper. It came back on the plane with me.

I was having a discussion about this book some months back, in Macau, with two friends, both of whom are significantly younger than I am, and trying to convey how a book, not about love or human suffering but about literary criticism could bring me to tears. Apparently I was successful enough in conveying the gist of the topic, because one of them asked me why I was working in my current field. The question was put as “… Why are you here? Why aren’t you a teacher, or a poet…?” And the rejoinder simply must be “The question is not why am I a rigger, the question is why are you not a poet?”

This is your language, the language you were born into, the language that can never be replaced in primacy. Why is not every single person on the planet, regardless of mother tongue, striving with every fiber of their being to become a poet?

Why do we settle for ‘the skyline looks awesome at dusk’ when “… a rose-red city, half as old as Time…” is available for any and all who want it? In an age where any and every form of verbal communication can and is subject to the whims and personal agendas of speaker and hearer alike, poetry may be the only path back from the brink of total incomprehensibility and manipulation. The time is coming when it is not individual languages that will separate man from man but his inability to release his own prejudicial preconceptions, his inability to effectively communicate intricate concepts. And then the descent into solitude will have become complete.

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