Sunday, January 31, 2021

Walking Through Fire - The Byzantine Poems of Charles Williams and W.B. Yeats

And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

Apocalypse  21: 2


For both Charles Williams (1886-1945) and W.B. Yeats (1865-1939) the city of Byzantium was a key poetic symbol. Two of Yeats's most evocative poems, Sailing to Byzantium (1927) and Byzantium (1930) are devoted to it, while for Williams the city acts as the centre and focal point of a restored, expanded Roman Empire. His two collections of Arthurian poems, Taliessin Through Logres (1938) and The Region of the Summer Stars (1944), though primarily set in Britain (or Logres, as Williams calls it) are infused with the spirit of Byzantium throughout. Its presence is palpable from first word to last.

For Williams, Byzantium is an active city. It as a motor - a dynamo - which propels events, makes things happen, and builds and maintains the Empire in its own sacred image. As Taliessin, Williams's poetic alter-ego, observes on his pilgrimage there:

... the logothetes run down the porphyry stair
bearing the missives through the area of empire ...

And ...

Chariots and galleys sprang from the shores;
the messengers were borne over sea and land.
(The Vision of the Empire)

It is in one of these galleys that Taliessin returns home to begin his vocation as Poet (and also Captain of Horse) to the new king, Arthur. His voyage to Byzantium has shown him the greater reality, which, as a raw, unformed youth, he had dimly sensed but not yet experienced:

... for the Lord God had not yet set him at liberty,
nor shown him the doctrine of largesse in the land of the Trinity.
(The Calling of Taliessin)

We are not told what happens to Taliessin in Byzantium. Was there an initiation he had to pass through to arrive at the wisdom he brought back to Logres? Did he have a vision? A flash of transformative insight exposing the nature and essence of the Empire's various realms and how they all, in their own unique way, reflect and embody the glory of the centre - Byzantium itself?

This metropolis is no remote abstraction - bloodless and aloof. It is a living presence, symbolised by its Emperor, who represents, and in a way incarnates, not just the Empire, but Christ Himself - Christos Pantokrator - the Master of the Universe. This Emperor looks after his own. In Taliessin's Return to Logres, he seems to watch over the young poet from on high, like a guardian angel or tutelary spirit, protecting both his servant and his servant's homeland from malign influences:

The seas were left behind;
In a harbour of Logres
lightly, I came to land
under a roaring wind.
Strained were the golden sails,
the masts of the galley creaked
as it rode for the Golden Horn
and I for the hills of Wales.

In a train of golden cars
the Emperor went above,
for over me in my riding
shot seven golden stars,
as if while the great oaks stood,
straining, creaking, around,
seven times the golden sickle
flashed in the Druid wood ...

Byzantium, for Williams, is an incarnational city, imprinting itself on the minds and imaginations of lands both near and far. It touches the provinces of the Empire and makes them holy, drawing them up into its own archetypal pattern. In Yeats, the emphasis is different. In both his Byzantium poems the city has nothing to do with the material world around it. It stands apart, above and beyond that which the poet, in Byzantium, dismisses as the 'fury and the mire of human veins.'

Byzantium, for Yeats, does not go forth into the world. The seeker goes in search of it, and this is the theme of Sailing to Byzantium. The poet has become dead to the world - this world, that is - the world of what he calls 'those dying generations,' where:

Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long 
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies,
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

The poet has reached the end of the road. The round of daily life - getting, spending, building, striving - has nothing more to offer him. He needs to step off the wheel, escape 'that sensual music' and be born anew - transfigured and remade - in the crucible of God's salvific fire. So he sails the seas to the 'holy city of Byzantium' and prays to those who have come this way before him:

O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.

In the sequel to this poem, Byzantium, we see where this invocation leads. Sailing to Byzantium focuses on the Lesser Mysteries - finding one's way to the sacred city - but Byzantium is concerned the transformation wrought when one is there - the Greater Mysteries. 'The unpurged images of day recede,' declares the poet in the first line. The great dome of Hagia Sophia stands out clear and distinct in the night air, far removed in its solemn majesty from the 'complexities' of worldly life:

The unpurged images of day recede;
The Emperor's drunken soldiery are abed;
Night resonance recedes, night-walkers' song
After great cathedral gong;
A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains
All that man is,
All mere complexities,
The fury and the mire of human veins.

It is worth noting here that these 'human veins' are, for Williams, made participants in the Divine life by the blessing of the Emperor and what he calls the 'acts of the Empire.' Contrary to secularist misconceptions, there is nothing in orthodox Christianity which makes it despise or disdain the suffering and pain inherent in human life. Quite the contrary. It rolls up its sleeves, 'gets its hands dirty,' and drinks like all of us from the mixed chalice of quotidian life. In doing so, it makes itself vulnerable, as both the crucifixion of Christ and the fall of Byzantium in 1453 show. It acts on, in and through our earthly joys and sorrows. As with the gifts of bread and wine in the Mass, it sanctifies them and makes them holy. This is the whole raison d'être of Williams's Byzantium. It is the more purely Platonic city of Yeats's imagination which keeps us at one remove (at least) from the hurly burly of the everyday.

When we reflect, however, on what Yeats is doing in these poems we see how essential a degree of distance from the world is. To die to self and be reborn is no easy thing. In fear and trembling one realises that the world is not enough. Something deeper calls and pulls us out of our habitual orbit. Mount Purgatory, in Dante's Purgatorio, for instance, is situated on an island in the Southern Hemisphere far from the known world. This allows time and space for reflection and repentance as souls are prepared the hard way for the ever-brightening, ever-deepening light of Paradise  And this is exactly what Byzantium is - a burning purgatorial experience of shattering intensity:

At midnight on the Emperor's pavement flit
Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit,
Not storm disturbs, flame begotten of flame,
Where blood-begotten spirits come
And all complexities of fury leave,
Dying into a dance,
An agony of trance,
An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.

Is this the purgation that Taliessin went through on his pilgrimage to Byzantium? Was this the transmutative fire that he walked through? Is this behind his change from callow teenager to Bard of Britain, Herald of the Grail, and poetic bridge between those two Italian champions of Empire, Virgil and Dante?

It is unlikely that we will ever find out. Such information is not contained in Grevel Lindop's recent exhaustive biography (Charles Williams: The Third Inkling, 2015), probably because  there isn't any. Williams and Yeats certainly knew of each other, and Williams wrote a favourable review of Yeats's symbolic masterpiece, A Vision (1937), which was appreciated by the Irish poet. But they never physically met and were in no sense collaborators. They arrived at their differing yet complementary understandings of Byzantium independently. Like the twin-headed eagle of the Byzantine flag (see below) they look in opposite directions - Yeats inward, Williams outward - yet they fit together like a pair of gloves on the hands of the same master.

Is it at all significant, I wonder, that these poems were written at roughly the same time - the years leading up to and including the Second World War? Was Byzantium in some sense speaking through these two men or did their ritualistic, pattern-seeking minds conjure it into poetic being?

What, after all, is Byzantium? Where do we find it? Is it a hidden archetype, like the Grail, which our materialistic worldview has occluded from our vision? The city 'fell', remember, at the dawn of the Early Modern era when the West's attention was shifting from the eternal realm to the temporal. Or is it rather the case that the flat historical record is true and that Byzantium, like any other city, had its day in the sun and was then conquered by a rival civilisation and assimilated into its narrative? Maybe it is a wholly fictional construction - one of Italo Calvino's 'Invisible Cities' - created and maintained by the myth-making faculties of the endlessly fecund human mind? Or could it indeed be the 'bride of God' referred to by St. John in his Apocalypse, coming in the clouds with glory alongside Christ the King on the day of the Parousia?

I ask these questions because we need Byzantium and what it stands for more than ever at this time. We are adrift on a sea of relativism, tossed around by surging emotion, wide open to manipulation and frankly ripe for conquest. We are hemmed in by darkness, and it is the wrong kind of darkness too. It is the fertile darkness of Yeats's Byzantium we are desperate for right now, where those 'unpurged images of day recede.'

It is from such darkness - this 'dessication of the world of sense,' as T.S. Eliot has it in Burnt Norton - that all great works of the spirit proceed, and that applies to cities as much as to religion, literature and art. In Byzantium a civilisation of the inner worlds came into being for the first time in Europe, a 'sinking in upon supernatural splendour,' in Yeats's memorable words. And the soul of this city was the vision of the Christos, the power of the Imagination to call forth the miraculous fire.

The time has come, I feel, to acknowledge as a society - as a civilisation - that we have come to the end of the road. We cannot go on as we are. Let us therefore don our Lenten clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes, and sail the seas to the holy city of Byzantium. There, on the Emperor's pavement, we will be burned clean, so that next morning those 'golden smithies' - laboratories and oratories of the spirit - can get to work on us, guiding us to the throne room of the Emperor. On the marble mosaic of his dancing floor are inscribed the ancient patterns that transform chaos and disintegration into the rhythms and structures of the Great Dance:

Astraddle on the dolphin's mire and blood,
Spirit after spirit! The smithies break the flood,
The golden smithies of the Emperor!
Marbles of the dancing floor 
Break bitter furies of complexity,
Those images that yet
Fresh images beget,
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.

Yes. This is how it is. This is how it will be. The gong sounds. Spirit calls unto spirit. We rise up like the phoenix, restored and renewed, ready to return, à la Taliessin, to Logres. We will find our Arthur waiting for us there, and we will work beside him, like the 'golden builders' of Blake's imagination, building up the New Jerusalem, that 'fresh image', of which Byzantium itself is but a copy and reflection, on the hallowed turf of our very own green and pleasant land.

Monday, January 25, 2021

The best essay I've read on 'That Hideous Strength' ...

 ... is this one by Mihai Marinescu on the Kali Tribune website - It was written in September 2017 but it's so relevant to the world of January 2021 that it could have been written this morning. I'm thinking here about what it says about the demonic intelligences ('Macrobes' as Lewis calls them) who dictate so much of the agenda in That Hideous Strength. I don't really need to emphasise the extent to which these dark powers are active in today's world. But the Devil plays all sides, and the writer is also astute in his (her?) exposure of the limitations of 'conspiratorial' thinking, as well as the lies purveyed by the mainstream media, of course. 

There's a better way to be taken, and that is the path chosen by Ransom and the Company he gathers around him at St. Anne's-on-the-Hill. We don't know the how and the why behind the facade of surface phenomena. We can guess and surmise but our points of view are always partial and we'll never be able to 'join the dots' in the coherent, comprehensive manner we often crave. Tuning into the Divine Will is what it's all about and then making ourselves receptacles for that Will to act in the world. When it comes to current events, we need to move beyond our obsession with facts - 'What are the facts behind the smokescreen presented to us? What's really going on? - and look for the archetype which is expressing itself through the event. Only then do we start to look the right way through the lens and begin to get a sense of where God is in all this and what He might be asking us to do.

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

The World We Have Lost

When I think of what we have lost as a society this past year, two buildings spring immediately to mind - a pub and a church - symbols of a world which seems sadly to have vanished. The church is the Holy Name on Oxford Rd, Manchester (above), c.1995 when I used to go every day - a midweek Solemn Mass, Palestrina in the choir loft, candles glowing, incense billowing, kneeling before the Logos with three hundred others as the bells ring out at the Consecration, a feeling of unity and connection - not just with my peers, but with the Communion of Saints and the whole angelic host.

The pub is The Briton's Protection (below), just up the road in town - warm, intimate surroundings, the buzz of conversation, the give and take of banter and debate as ideas (on a good night) fizz back and forth across the table. This is the heart and soul of the City, that Civitas Dei which St. Augustine and Charles Williams championed and of which our earthly cities are a reflection and a stepping stone.

Both church and pub should, on paper, return as before, but the game's not played on paper, it's played on grass, and my sense is that the micro-managerial forces which have gained so much ground in 2020 will be reluctant to let such spontaneous, untrammelled, unmediated collective access to the Divine and the best of the human happen so easily and naturally again. Too unpredictable. Too unruly. Not at all 'safe.' 

Ersatz, largely online solutions will be peddled and accepted out of necessity, but these will come to nothing in the long-run. They will founder on the rocks of reality because they have no anchor in human nature and are tethered to an unstable morass of shifting, free-floating illusion. True connection, with both God and man, is hard-wired into us, and the church and pub represent those deep, eternal European archetypes - the sacred and the secular, the Pope and the Emperor, the crown and mitre, crook and flail, etc - the twin pillars on which our civilisation is built.

These two poles cannot be easily or lightly dismissed. They cannot be dismissed at all, in fact, unles this is what the Great Reset is really all about - changing us at a deep and fundamental level so that these primal, archaic symbols can never return. It would be interesting, would it not, if this was the actual, unspoken aim of the restrictions we are currently enduring. Even then, failure would still be its portion, just as it was for the NICE in C.S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength and their anti-natural, anti-Divine machinations. 

Truth alone is real and truth alone will win. Falsehood withers in its gaze. Like the Balrog faced down by Gandalf on the Bridge of Khazad-Dum, it cannot pass. No matter how tarnished that mark of truth becomes inside us, it cannot be obliterated or cancelled out. It is the Secret Fire, the Flame Imperishable that Iluvatar, to stay with Tolkien, planted at the core of the universe on the morning of creation. He made men and women partakers in that mystery, and the pub and the church, despite their seeming incongruity and even insignificance, are outgrowths and expressions of that holy gift. They are always present because they are always true and they will come into our lives again without a doubt, resurgent like the phoenix. 

The future is unwritten, as Joe Strummer of The Clash once said. Have faith in God, therefore, faith in those around you, faith in yourself, and faith in the indelible stamp of truth inscribed by Iluvatar upon your heart.