The Beginnings of Complicated (Dis)Agreement: C.S. Lewis’ 2nd Letter to Charles Williams

Allegory of Love CS Lewis 1976 reprintAfter posting the first letters between C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams last week, it was requested that I post Lewis’ second letter to Williams. Williams worked for Oxford University Press and was reading Lewis’ first academic book, The Allegory of Love, in order to write a “blurb” for the cover. At the same time Lewis has stumbled upon Williams’ thriller, The Place of the Lion. They loved each loved the other man’s work and wrote letters of admiration which very nearly crossed in the mail in March of 1936. The each identified points of synchronicity between their work and thought, and they end the letters with promises to visit and an exchange of writing. So great was their literary and theological agreement, Williams would turn out to be an essential influence in Lewis’ life for the next decade.

As it turns out, some of their agreement may have been critical disagreement. While both men followed a kind of romanticism, they clearly meant different things by romantic theology. It is worth reading this letter, not least because Lewis explains a bit how he Charles Williams writingvalues mythology for expressing the longing he calls “Joy”–see his spiritual autobiography Surprised by Joy. But it also shows us the beginning of a relationship built upon debate, iron sharpening iron. Read below, and then read more of their strange relationship at The Oddest Inkling. It is hard not to enjoy a friendship that uses as one of its starting point this phrase: “After this you will not be surprised to learn that I found your poems excessively difficult.” It is risky, and Lewis does not hold back in his critique of poems. But it follows this principle:

“I embrace the opportunity of establishing the precedent of brutal frankness, without which our acquaintance begun like this would easily be a mere butter bath!”

March 23rd 1936

[Dear Williams,]
This is going to be a complicated matter. To make a clean breast of it, that particular species of romanticism which you found in my book and which is expressed in the poems you send me [Poems of Conformity], is not my kind at all. I see quite clearly why you think it is–the subject of the book, the at any rate respectful treatment of the sentiment, the apparently tell-tale familiarity with Coventry Patmore–it all fits in perfectly and must seem to you almost like a trap: while it shows me for the first time how paradoxical it is that I, of all men, should have elected, or been elected, to treat such a subject. I trust, however, that there has been no writing with (horror of horrors!) my tongue in my cheek. I think you will find that I nowhere commit myself to a definite approval of this blend of erotic and religious feeling. I treat it with respect: I display: I don’t venture very far. And this is perhaps what one ought to expect from a man who is native in a quite distinct, though neighbouring, province of the Romantic country, and who willingly believes well of all her provinces, for love of the country herself, though he dare not affirm except about his own.

I hope you will find that where I talk of the value of the gods and, above all, of their death and resurrection, I speak much more confidently than I ever do of the Celestial and Terrestrial Cupids: there I am on my own ground. That’s where I live.

I don’t know how far I am making myself clear…the matter, at this stage in our knowledge of each other, is not easy. Put briefly, there is a romanticism which finds its revelation in love, which is yours, and another which finds it in mythology (and nature mythically apprehended) which is mine. Ladies, in the one: gods in the other–the bridal chamber, or the wood beyond the world–a service incensed with rich erotic perfume, a service smelling of heather, salt water etc.

But this distinction is a little complicated by two acts. 1. While writing about Courtly Love I have been so long a student of your province that I think, in a humble way, I am nearly plgrim's regressnaturalised. 2. In the book [The Pilgrim’s Regress?] I am sending you (don’t read it unless it interests) you will find lots about the frontier between sexual and religious experience. But look to your feet, here. It really has nothing to do with your province: it is simply about desire, longing, the impersonal thing: which oddly enough can be diverted from the wood beyond the world (are you still following me?) into lust just as quickly as ‘love’ can. We shall have a great deal to talk about when we meet.

After this you will not be surprised to learn that I found your poems excessively difficult. I think I have followed Ascension. I take it this deals with the death of passion into matrimonial routine and the discovery that this death is also a birth–the birth of something which is to passion as the Church is to the earthly life of Our Lord. Am I right? If so it is because we touch here: the death and re-birth motive being of the very essence of my kind of romanticism. If so, it is a good poem, specially stanzas 2 and 7. The Christian Year I take to be on the same theme, but there are a lot of gaps in my understanding. What I liked best was the bit about the Shepherds at the top of page 73. This may quite possibly be even a great poem–I’ll tell you in a year or so, if I find out. (And talking of years, I’m 37.) Churches I didn’t like, except that dear duplicity of love and Love–which I suppose is the thing we’re talking about. Presentation I liked, and the bit in Gratia Plena about the provincial dialect. Orthodoxy and Ecclesia Docens I definitely disliked. (I embrace the opportunity of establishing the precedent of brutal frankness, without which our acquaintance begun like this would easily be a mere butter bath!) But the thing I liked best of all came outside the ‘pages prescribed for special study’–notably Endings, The Clerk, and Ballade of a Street Door (tho’ I can’t construe line 2).

I have read Many Dimensions with an enormous enjoyment–not that it’s as good as the Lion, but then in a sense it hardly means to be. By Jove, it is an experience when this The Place of the Lion by Charles Williamstime-travelling business is done by a man who really thinks it out. I believe all your conclusions do really follow–and I never thought of being caught in that perpetual to-and-fro. The effect which that first idea of a really possible hell has on Lord Thingummy is excellent.

I shouldn’t dream of coming to London without visiting you, but I can and do dream of not being in London for a long time. But Canterbury can’t claim you all the time, and there are others besides me who want to meet you. The fourth week of next term (May 18th–May 22nd) would be a good time. Could we nail you now for a week day night between those dates? Of course, I realise that this letter, for more than one cause, may have quenched all wish for a meeting: but acting on the pleasanter hypothesis–

[C. S. Lewis]

P.S. Thanks for the very kind and intelligent blurb–a relief, after the nonsensical one put out from Walton Street! But not a word, he [Sir Humphrey Milford] may have been doing his best.

The letters we have were typed up by Williams. See Walter Hooper, ed., The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, vol 2., 183-7.

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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16 Responses to The Beginnings of Complicated (Dis)Agreement: C.S. Lewis’ 2nd Letter to Charles Williams

  1. “If so, it is a good poem.” This is priceless. Thank you for this post, and this thoroughly enjoyable blog.

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  3. Marla Russo says:

    While standard biographies are the medium people often turn to to find out more about someone, the letters an author pens often more revealing. I thoroughly enjoyed this (much needed) updated version of the letters of C.S. Lewis from 1916 – 1963 to his various correspondents. They are at various times funny, full of good advice, intentional nonsense, great learning, wit, homely (talking about the every day events that go on in life), and all in all intensely interesting. In addition to this fine volume, you might want to try his volume of Letters to Arthur Greeves (originally published as They Stand Together), C.S. Lewis Letters to Children, or The Latin Letters of C.S. Lewis. They are all quite good.

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  4. I could have put this comment on your Speculative Cosmographer post, but your sharing of the letters to Charles Williams made me move it over here. As you like maps and are interested in the different fantasy worlds, I wondered if you’ve heard of, or read, the series by James A. Owen, “The Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica” (beginning with “Here There Be Dragons”)?

    I had never heard of Charles Williams, until I read Owen’s books, though I’m familiar with quite a few fantasy authors of that time period. I have still yet to read any of his books, though I would like to. And this other series creates a world that… collects the other fantasy worlds, as well as including the characters of Tolkien, Lewis, and Williams, in person. Eventually, it includes MANY authors, in person, which is endlessly interesting to me.

    But for now, I’m really enjoying what you have to share about C.S. Lewis, on a number of subjects. Thank you for dropping by my own blog, and please keep the posts coming!

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  5. Rachel, thanks so much for the personal comment. I totally don’t know Owen’s books. I’m fairly new to Charles Williams, and am beginning The Place of the Lion.
    If I understand you Owens draws all the stories in?

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  7. jubilare says:

    This made me chuckle, and also made me want to read the poems mentioned. Also, I would love to know what that “nonsensical blurb” said!

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