Tuesday 25 August 2020
The death of Charles Williams, and the decline of The Inklings - a 'transcendental' perspective
When Charles Williams died in May 1945, The Inklings seemed to be a thriving creative force - since the war years had seen CS Lewis produce some of his very best, and most impactful, work; Tolkien was working on Lord of the Rings; Warnie Lewis had begun to publish his histories of 17th century France - and Charles Williams had written and published some of his very best (and forward-looking) work in poetry and fiction.
All this was brought to an end by the sudden death of Charles Williams following surgery, aged only 58. This knocked the heart out of The Inklings - as they all immediately acknowledged. The gathering afterwards became a looser and more casual, less purposive, less valuable gathering of friends - instead of a focused and productive collaboration of writers, critics and thinkers.
Yet, in a sense, the end was coming anyway; since CW had already decided to return to London, to serve-out his years at the Oxford University Press. Furthermore, Williams felt himself to be already in a decline of health, energy and motivation.
By 1944, by my judgment; Williams had proved that prevarication and dissipation of effort was a part of his nature. CW was continually profligate with his money, which led to him wasting time and effort on hack work (pot-boiler books and reviews, done purely for money). Consequently he seldom gave the fullest time or energy to his significant books and poems; or didn't get around to writing them at all (e.g. critical monographs on Shakespeare, Milton and Wordsworth; which he was so well-equipped to write). My point is that Williams needed explicit encouragement and pressure (from those he respected) if he was to retain courage and a sense of high purpose - left to his own devices, he would be likely to waste his abilities and remaining strength.
At this point; I wish to take a transcendental view - a 'God's Eye' view - of CW's mortal life, and the question: Why did Charles Williams die when he did?
Of course, this kind of alternative history is completely subjective and speculative; but here it is...
As the war came to its end, the situation for Charles Williams was that his status at the Oxford University Press had declined, he was tolerated rather than being the centre of things - as he once had been. He was overlooked for 'in house' commissions - he reported that when an OUP meeting was gathered to consider who should be invited to author a new book on Shakespeare, it seemed that it did not even cross anybody's mind that CW might be well-suited to the job.
The Press declined to publish the new collection of poems The Region of the Summer Stars - despite that this proved to be the best-selling, and (I would say) best-quality poetry of Williams's career (both aspects of which were perhaps bolstered by the intense interest in Williams's poetry by Oxford's wartime undergraduates).
Apparently, CW was now a has-been from the perspective of the OUP. All that he could expect from the return to the London offices, was to work-out his final years in quiet seclusion, qualify for his pension, and then retire.
And the reason for this coolness at the Press was probably Oxford University itself. CW had, throughout the war years, devoted a great deal of his work time - i.e. the hours for which was paid by the OUP - teaching for Oxford University as a tutor and lecturer; even to the point of supervising pupils in his office on the premises of OUP!
More significantly, Oxford University valued CW far more than the Press. He attracted respect beyond his friends Lewis and Tolkien (the major Oxford 'fixer' and administrator Maurice Bowra - head (Warden) of Wadham college, was an admirer); was awarded an honorary degree (MA) qualifying him for full academic privileges; and he had become something of a cult figure among the students. His lectures were well attended, impactful and influential; and student societies (and other clubs in the area) called upon him frequently to give talks.
There was nothing definite to keep Williams in Oxford; but there were distinct and plausible possibilities for Williams if he was to stay - especially given his powerful and high-level support. There was talk of making him a University Reader (a faculty level, not college, sub-professorial appointment); and putting him in for the Professor of Poetry election (this was a prestigious public platform, but time-limited and essentially unpaid). Plus there were possibilities of college Fellowships, in the usual Oxford way.
Therefore in late 1944 to early 1945; Charles Williams was faced with two possibilities.
There was the high risk but potentially high reward path of staying at Oxford, continuing with The Inklings, and continuing to grow in fame and influence from that base.
And there was the 'safe' path of going back to London, and time-serving towards his pension at the Press.
Here comes my speculative explanation of Williams's premature death... My feeling is that by choosing the safe but mediocre path of London, Williams was signalling that his creative life was over, and that there was no compelling reason for him to keep living: therefore, he died.
And the counter-factual speculation is that if Williams had chosen the Oxford path - he would Not have died.
Instead, CW would have continued to develop creatively as a poet, novelist, critic and teacher. And, as a side-effect, the Inklings would have continued as a generative and significant gathering of co-workers - since they had come to depend-upon his presence for their distinctive cultural role.
In brief; I am saying that Charles Williams made the wrong decision in opting for London over Oxford; therefore there was no reason for him to continue living: so he did not.