The Image of the City

Realism of language is perhaps the theme of Charles Williams. I am no scholar of Williams, but I’ve been reading around a bit, and while I’d hesitate to make a definite statement, I would venture a hypothesis; that is that whatever else he wrote about, what seems foremost in Williams is the fullness of the cosmos as perceived in the scope and riches of his language.

There is a flat and barely referential use of language in the mouth of living speakers and in literature which can be called a sort of being dead: a death of language. It is like a picture taken by an amateur photographer, like the sound of popular music, like a bag of ordinary chips. This death is when something is not alive with suggestions of what lies beyond, of greater possibilities. Language is dead when rather than suggesting, it seems to be withering, meaning less, comprehending less, touching less of the real world.

No painting is great that does not somehow spiritually transcend its necessary frame, no music is great that doesn’t have something of the march of meaning, no cooking is great that comes without some kind of hint beyond nourishment of the affirmation of the life it nourishes. And in the same way, in his use of language Williams was alive with suggestions and greater possibilities.

The Image of the City is a collection of essays (this is a good time to go looking for Williams’ non-fiction). These essays are valuable because Williams was a difficult, an intelligent, a skilled and a Christian thinker. He is worth understanding simply because of the kind of person he was. He was a rarity in an age that increasingly looks golden compared to ours. To great minds he was a stimulus: to Sayers to translate and study Dante, to Lewis in his thinking on Milton, and even to Eliot in his observation of Integrity.

And as he was a stimulus to better minds than ours, he can be a stimulus to us. He was an apologist for Milton in an age of much confusion about Milton—and his friends in the university got him a position lecturing on English letters. He had a way with lines of poetry, with poetic concerns, and not only suggests interesting things, but provides for us a necessary and welcome point of view. He has a way of opening up the poets to you, of appreciating. We need the criticism of appreciation. He was, when it comes to literature, not shackled by conventions void of insight and the spirit of the age, but liberated by an ardent love, and has the power of helping you to see through his gaze, and of making you want.

He knew how to communicate matters of the heart, and this is in large part due to his command of English prose—the fact that language was for him something alive. He was a poet admired by poets and the lovers of poetry (Auden read his poetry, and read his prose as well; Lewis admired and studied his poetry—I wish the volume of his commentaries on Williams were still in print). But he was most successful and admired as a novelist. He also wrote complicated plays, and he wrote books and essays. His use of English, his power with it—to show and to suggest—alone make his essays valuable.

If you read him with attention, Williams will expand your mind, will set it on things wondrous and permanent, will make the world you live in deepen because of the new-perceived order. The order will provide lines, along which lines true possibilities are opened. This is the essence of insight, and the real function of language.

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