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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

12 August 2022

Malcolm Guite visits the grave of Charles Williams — and has a strange experience

I HAD a curious experience in a graveyard last week. I was in Oxford for a week, speaking at a conference devoted to celebrating, and continuing, the work of the Oxford Inklings, whose key members were C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Owen Barfield. On my way to the University Church to preach a sermon at the conference’s closing service, I thought that I would visit the churchyard of Holy Cross, and pay my respects to Charles Williams, who is buried there.

Williams, sometimes known as “the oddest Inkling”, was an extraordinary man: a devout Anglican, but also an adept, along with his friend Yeats, in the quasi-magical Order of the Golden Dawn. T. S. Eliot, who saw to it that Faber published his novels, thought him the holiest man he had ever met, and described the novels as “supernatural thrillers”. Lewis was also deeply moved by his writings and his friendship, and was devastated by Williams’s sudden death in 1945.

The churchyard of Holy Cross is wonderfully wild and overgrown, a haven for wild flowers, bees, and insects. Not many people seem to visit it, and, wandering on the paths there, which are so tangled with long grass and nettles, I wondered whether I could find his gravestone; for the paths seemed to wind in ways that I couldn’t remember. The place was quiet, deserted, and still. Just as I began to feel that I might never find the spot, there was a movement at my feet, and a beautiful black cat appeared, purring and rubbing itself round my legs; then it turned and walked away. I followed, and it led me straight to Williams’s grave, where it perched on a stone and asked for more fuss as its reward, purring all the time.

It was all a little uncanny, and I felt rather as though I were in the opening scene of one of Williams’s novels; for, unlike his friends Lewis and Tolkien, he did not set his books in imaginary worlds, but firmly in our own, and it is into this familiar world that the magical powers, the supernatural and spiritual presences, come unbidden. When I had given the cat its due, I turned to contemplate Williams’s headstone, beautifully lettered and simple: “Charles Walter Stansby Williams: Poet”, and then, beneath the word Poet, the words with which he used to sign off all his letters: “Under The Mercy”.

Malcolm GuiteThe grave of Charles Williams in the churchyard of Holy Cross, Oxford

I thanked God for him and for the gift of his writings, and especially for the beautiful word “coinherence”, which he applied not just to the persons of the Trinity, as earlier theologians had done, but also to our relations with one another in Christ — and, indeed, to our relations with all the natural world; for we are all, as God’s creatures, mutually interwoven, mutually interdependent, bearing one another’s burdens.

I left the churchyard and went to preach my sermon in the pulpit from which Lewis had preached his wonderful sermon “The Weight of Glory”. At the reception afterwards, I mentioned to the composer J. A. C. Redford, with whom I had collaborated on the work “Ordinary Saints” (Poet’s Corner, 16 November 2018), that I had visited Williams’s grave. Before I could tell him anything more, he said: “You know, years ago I had a strange, almost a mystical, experience there. I somehow got lost in the tangled paths and couldn’t find the grave, and then, from out of the undergrowth, there stepped a beautiful red fox, which looked at me, turned around, and trotted down the path that led me straight to Williams’s grave.”

I told him my story, and we were silent for a while, but glad to be reminded that we, too, were “under the mercy”.

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