David Llewellyn Dodds, editor, Charles Williams. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell & Brewer, 1991. ISBN 0851152910, tp, 302 pp., $29.
(Reprinted from the July 1992 issue of Mythprint, Volume 29:7, Whole No. 145.)
Reviewed by Eric Rauscher
This volume of Williams’s Arthurian poems is divided into two parts. The first part is basically a reprint of Taliessin Through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars. Those acquainted with those works need no introduction to them; those who have not read them are missing, in my humble opinion, perhaps the most important work in the Arthurian genre since Tennyson (or if you really want to ruffle feathers, Malory).
The second part (uncollected and unpublished poems) is divided into The Advent of Galahad and intermediate poems, with an introduction, and poems after Taliessen Through Logres, again with an introduction.
The poems in The Advent of Galahad were written in the years 1929-31, and though complete as a cycle were never published. Along with this cycle are reprinted various poems published in Heroes and KIngs, Three Plays, New English Poems (edited by Lascalles Abercrombie), and Time and Tide. (Check in Lois Glenn’s Williams checklist for these volumes.)
Most of the early poems smack of Milton, or at least are done in a style more archaic than the era in which they were written. The poems tend to be short-lined with a definite cadence, heavy on the end-rhyme, and are sprinkled with King Jamesian English. As the title indicates, Galahad and the Grail are the main subjects. King Pelles and the Dolorous Blow also play a main part as does a Byzantine princess named Caelia. She is to Taliessin as Brisen is to Merlin.
These poems tend to be in more of a narrative form than the previously published poems, and are not as heavy-laden with symbols. One poem, “Taliessin’s Song of the Myths”, although in the tum te dum te dum te dum style, contains phrasing and imagery that point to Williams’s later works. Another interesting poem is “Modred’s Song of the Kingdom”. In it, Modred muses over his state in life, his father’s folly, the Grail, and what he would do if in his father’s shoes. In his musings on the Grail he says that, instead of worship, “What should I do but sup on the magic of the Cup? In my buttery it should sit and my cooks be glad of it.” Modred would follow Jessie Weston’s lead and turn a holy object into an automat.
In the four intermediate poems we can see a transition away from Williams’s earlier works to his mature poems. In some he still relies on cadence and end rhyme to carry the poem, but in others his own free-flowing imagery breaks through.
The poems following are similar in style to Taliessin Through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars, but have a darker quality. The breakup of Logres seems to be the main theme, with once again an emphasis on Galahad’s role. Since the poems are incomplete both as poems and as cycle, it is difficult to say what the main theme is in further detail (as if you could in his published works!).
The book also contains, both at the front and the back, reproductions of the map of Europe superimposed by a woman’s body that was originally published with the first edition of Taliessin Through Logres. In the various introductions and notes by the editor tantalizing references are made to a commonplace book that Williams used as a place for his ideas for and about the poems (and who knows what else). Once again I have that pre-Silmarillion feeling. All in all, I believe this volume will give to scholars of Williams expanded vistas from which to view his work, and to the general reader glimpses of Camelot.