Poems of Conformity is Williams's second volume of poems.
It contains more variety of forms than his first book, The Silver Stair, which was a sequence of 84 sonnets. He still uses fairly conventional meters in this second volume, but handles them deftly. In fact, the more I read these early works, the more I like them simply as poems. (The less I like some of their content, but that's a different story). Anyway, until now I have agreed with scholars who have pretty much dismissed these early books. In fact, I wrote in a paper recently:
His early volumes (beginning with The Silver Stair in 1912 and culminating with Heroes and Kings in 1930) are frequently called “pastiche” (see, for instance, Dunning 113), and employ rigid, archaic, juvenile rhyme schemes and metrical patterns.
Well, now I'm not so sure. These are fairly skillful poems. They are not wildly original, and when one compares them with what T. S. Eliot was writing at the time—this is the year “Prufrock” was published—Williams does not come out looking very good. Sure, there are hints of Shelley, Herbert, Wordsworth, and Shakespeare, but there is a fine line between imitation and allusion. I think this collection is more on the side of allusion.
It was published in the same year that he got married and that he joined the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross. However, I do not have the exact chronology of these events precisely mastered. Here is what I know:
- February 1915: CW tells Alice Meynell that he can't write poetry
- May 1915: Harold Eyers killed in action
- 20 May 1915: CW writes a poem memorializing Eyers
- 12 April 1917: CW marries Florence “Michal” Sarah Conway
- June 1917: Ernest Nottingham killed in action in France
- July 1917: Poems of Conformity published
- 21 September 1917: CW joins A. E. Waite's Fellowship of the Rosy Cross
But what's missing is the chronology of the writing, compilation, and revision of Poems of Conformity. Hadfield tells us that he submitted the MS to the publisher Elkin Matthews, who had turned it down. (Hadfield narrates, interestingly, that “In a temper, Charles threw it aside and marched out of the office at five-thirty”—but neglects to say on what day this particular 5:30 tantrum occurred; Hadfield 25). Then Fred Page (CW's office mate) sent it to OUP, who took it up. But Hadfield does not tell us when this happened.
Nowadays, publishing takes a long time. I finished a first draft of Caduceus in October of 2009; it was rejected all that spring, then I resubmitted it in the fall of 2010, it was accepted in March of 2011, and the book was finally published in February of 2012. But I don't know if a similar schedule applied in the 19-teens—or, quite probably, that since CW worked for OUP, they may have rushed his book through on a fast track. And I also don't know how much revision he may have done between rejection and acceptance, and then again after acceptance.
Why does it matter when he wrote the poems, when the book was first rejected, then accepted? Well, because of the relationship of the interpretation of these poems to the date of deaths and a wedding.
There are several major themes in this book: War, Romantic Theology, the City, and True Myth.
Williams had to write about war: World War One was raging at the time, and Harold Eyers and Ernest Nottingham, mentioned above as killed in action, were two of his closest friends. The poem entitled “20 May 1915” is clearly meant to memorialize Harold. But the chronology of the writing of the book would also determine whether he had time to memorialize Ernest as well. I'd like to know that.
The concept of Romantic Theology is very highly developed in this volume, which is dedicated to “Michal.” What's more, there are poems that clearly describe sex, especially the series of Sonnets on pp. 36-41. How about these powerful lines:
What Love indeed doth us inspire,
What doth our shrinking bodies fire
Till half a sacrifice and half
A triumph, all a sobbing laugh
Teaches how sacrifice may be
It own exceeding ecstasy;
How shall achieve the final Deed?
(“Churches,” p. 69).
And yet he occasionally calls her a “virgin” (p. 47) or a “maid” (sorry, didn't note the page number). This suggests that the book contains poems written both before and after their wedding—I remember coming across something somewhere in Hadfield that Williams was a “self-described virgin at 30” when he got married.
Well, who cares about the private sexual life of this author? Really, I agree—except that Williams made a religion out of his private sexual life, and it is impossible to interpret his writings correctly without an understanding of that religion, which he called “Romantic Theology.” We'll soon be hearing about his book Outlines of Romantic Theology (published only posthumously) and later about one of his final masterpieces, The Figure of Beatrice. These are the two works in which he explicitly laid out the early and late forms of this system, although it is implicitly present, arguably, in all his works.
What is this Romantic Theology, and by what logic does it work? I have attempted to chart its progress in The Chapel of the Thorn, The Silver Stair, and Poems of Conformity, and hope to continue tracking its later developments. Here is what I have put together, speculatively:
- In his 20s, Williams seems to have gone through a crisis of faith. Specifically, he seems to have questioned the exclusive claims of Christianity. I put forward this suggestion based on the syncretism of Chapel of the Thorn, while I fully realize the dangers of biographical criticism based on a reading of poetry.
- Somewhere, sometime around 1912, it appears that he decided “No one can do more than choose what to believe,” and chose to believe in Christianity.
- Then he faced another dilemma. Given the exclusive truth of Christianity and its moral injunctions for how to live, he had to choose between the two traditional Ways of honoring God: the Way of the Affirmation of Images and the Way of the Negation of Images. Williams was much more naturally and temperamentally suited, it seems, for the Negative Way. He was “born under Virgo” and thought at times that maybe he had the gift of celibacy and should remain single (according to Hadfield). Thus, the theme of The Silver Stair is renunciation.
- However, he got married. So at some point between 1912 and 1917 he chose the Way of Affirmation. He then committed himself to being a kind of prophet of this Way, although he really strove to balance the two Ways all his life.
- The essence of the Way of Affirmation is that created objects and pleasures—and people—legitimately reveal something about God, and can be used not as objects of worship, but as objects of joy and pleasure such that our worship kind of passes through the object up to the Creator of that object. People are, indeed, the best “objects,” or icons, of this sort, because only humans are specifically said to be made “in the image of God.”
- Well, then, the best way to get to know Someone invisible is to look at an image of Him. Based on this, Williams went on to say that the absolute best earthly object of this kind of “secondary worship” (that's what he calls it later, secondary worship) is the Beloved Woman.
- Side note: how obnoxiously phallocentric of him. One assumes that women can do the same via using the Beloved Man as icon, but I haven't come across anything where he says that. Humph.
- So, then, specifically in 1917, Williams was using Florence “Michal” Sarah Conway Williams as his Object of Secondary Worship, as the icon of his Romantic Theology. By affirming—praising, enjoying, delighting in—her excellences, he was taking steps up the ladder towards God, he believed.
That, so far as I can make out, is the logic of Romantic Theology. I would be glad of corrections, additions, disagreements, etc.
This kind of iconic use of Michal, then, comprises the largest portion of Poems of Conformity. Here are lines that could be taken up as an epigraph of Romantic Theology:
How, though I know him full of grace,
Should I before the God's young face
Dare kneel or gifts unfurl?
Only I bring them all to thee
Who still, Adored! hast need of me,
Being but a mortal girl!
(“Epilogue,” p. 126).
I wonder if even Dante was ever so explicit! At moments in this volume, the narrative voice seems shocked by how powerful sex is, by how much her physical presence changes him. And yet the longing, the sense of loss even during possession, is also present—as I believe it must be with every thoughtful pair of lovers. Who has not felt, during a kiss or an embrace, the heartbreak and horror of the future time when you will be torn apart? Who does not gird oneself for future grief even in the moment of first vows? As Williams puts it, in the context of remembering Christ's sufferings even while enjoying the delights of love, “Dear, / Livelong be our entreaty this, / To feel the sword in every kiss” (“Presentation,” p. 46).
It is also in this book that Williams starts to move from from a narrative microcosm to a diagrammatic microcosm—which requires quite some explanation. Let me pause to explicate what I believe are the two central poems, and what I mean by this use of “narrative” and “diagrammatic” should then become clear[er].
The most important poem in this book for the concept of Romantic Theology is “The Christian Year” (pp. 72-77). In this poem, Williams develops even more clearly an idea that he first put forward in The Silver Stair. This is the idea that each human marriage follows the narrative pattern of Christ's life on earth. In “The Christian Year,” Williams goes through the following incidents:
- Mary's Pregnancy
- Adoration of the Shepherds
- Adoration of the Magi
- Flight to Egypt
- Return to Nazareth
- Presentation in the Temple and Simon's Prophecy
- Road to Emmaus
...and in each description, he makes clear that this event is being re-enacted in the lives of the lovers. For instance, in the Crucifixion and Burial sections, two voices converse, thus:
“Surely his death had end when once he died?”
“Always, in all men, is he crucified!”
“Of old he rose: shall he not rise in us?”
“Estrangèd grow our hearts; cold, cold our will.”
“Aramathean Joseph felt that chill.”
Perhaps most beautifully, here are the lines about marriage vows matching up to the Nativity:
...the Child brought forth within
This silver-lanterned shelter of our skin,
Where whispers rustle like heaped straw; our hands,
Serving that Innocence for swaddling-bands,
Clasp the invisible Immanuel thus:
Lo, the Lord's glory is come in to us!
Whew. This seems crazy.
I mean, who thinks that Jesus gets born in them when they fall in love? And what if you fall in love more than once? (Williams had to face that problem later). And what about if you fall out of love—not just in the normal way, when every marriage has to transition from an erotic power to serious companionship and mutual labor, but in a fatal, divorcing kind of way? These are serious problems. Of course, the potential charge of idolatry is also a serious problem. But I've written enough (for now) about that elsewhere.
Another place Williams may have gotten this idea of Romantic Theology as Way of Affirmation was, possibly, from his reading in the Occult. There is a Hermetic principle, formulated in the “Emerald Tablet” that was not written by Hermes Trismagistus, called the principle of Correspondence. In Madame Blavatsky's translation, this principle is: “What is below is like that which is above, and what is above is similar to that which is below to accomplish the wonders of the one thing.” In short, “as above, so below.” As in Heaven, so on earth. Or, vice-versa, then, what is on earth reveals what is in heaven. Especially one's girlfriend.
It seems likely that Williams would have encountered this principle already, because he had certainly been reading books by A. E. Waite at this point. Indeed, only two months after the publication of Poems of Conformity, Williams joined the FRC.
OK, so what did I mean by moving from a narrative microcosm to a diagrammatic one? Well, the narrative microcosm is the idea that each pair of lovers re-enacts Christ's life. The diagrammatic idea is just in its infant form in in The Chapel of the Thorn, The Silver Stair, and Poems of Conformity. It's the concept he would develop later, in which each part of the human body matches up to a country on the map of Europe, and all of those match up to certain virtues or qualities of God's kingdom on earth.
The other central poem, “The Repose of Our Lady: A Dirge” (pp. 106-110) is not so much about Romantic Theology. Instead, it is about that other fascinating topic, True Myth. But Williams (characteristically) goes about the whole True Myth thing in an odd way. He makes Mary into a fertility goddess.
I kid you not:
To her more made than to Demeter suit;
In the ploughed field the busy corn struck root
By Her; with great fish seas grew populous,
And little ponds with stickleback and newt.
. . .
...barnfowl and herd she blessed
With chick and calf, and the wild beast with cubs.
. . .
She is the mother of flocks and corn heaped high,
She is the mother of all fertility...
. . .
Sunshine her smile, her spread hand rainfall gives:
But on her deep breasts Love that ever lives,
Refreshing all worlds, making all things new,
Throve, who eternally and ever thrives.
Seriously. Charles, will you never cease to surprise and amaze?