The Celian Moment and Other Essays
Charles Williams & Stephen Barber, editor
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CHARLES WILLIAMS was admired as a writer, and revered as a truly good person, by luminaries such as W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, and C. S. Lewis. Recently, a biography by Grevel Lindop (Books, 15 April 2016) has brought him to public attention again, even eliciting a splenetic review by Geoffrey Hill in the TLS, which praised Williams as a critic still worth reading.
This book is a collection of lost or forgotten essays by Williams edited with an introduction by Stephen Barber. Beginning with an essay on the role of criticism Williams argues that what comes to us in literature, especially poetry, is more real than life, and the job of the critic is to relate the two. “We know things first of all in life, and we know them again more fully and more clearly in poetry.”
The second general essay, “The Celian Moment”, reveals the difficulty of Williams as well as his genius. He was an autodidact, who had read everything and remembered everything, and his range of reference can be too wide and allusive for many, if not most, readers. Also, while capable of the most astonishing fresh insights, he can sometimes come across as wild or obscure in some of his connections.
Elliott & FryAutodidact: Charles WilliamsThe book then includes essays on the Aeneid, Henry V, The Duchess of Malfi, Hopkins, Yeats, the Russian Revolution, and a rather arch, unsatisfactory response to Eliot’s Four Quartets and Dante. This last sets out the theology of romantic love which meant so much to Williams, and which he saw exemplified in Dante.
In fact, both Williams and Eliot seem to have seen in the figure of Beatrice drawing Dante into Divine love not just a great piece of literature, but a way of solving their own personal dilemmas, enabling them to sublimate and transmute earthy attraction into a heavenly one.
The glimpse that Dante had of the young Beatrice and the perfection he saw in her is a love that leads him on through the circles of hell and purgatory to heaven. He sees a glory in Beatrice, but this is a glory that has to become part of himself as he gradually becomes “In-Godded”, which is how Williams translates Paradiso IV, 28.
A passage here reveals Williams at his best: “Eros need not be for ever be on his knees to Agape, he has a right to his delights, they are part of the Way. The division is not between the Eros of the flesh and the Agape of the soul; it is between the moment of love which sinks into hell and the moment which rises to the in-Godding.”
The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford. He is the author of The Beauty and the Horror: Searching for God in a suffering world (SPCK, 2016).