The English Poetic Mind, by Charles Williams, and The Figure of Beatrice

How was Shakespeare coming to grips with his powers as they developed? What was developing and what was Shakespeare trying to do? What if you could look through his works diachronically and trace this development in such a way that you could explain not only what he achieved, but the apparent shortcomings, why things end the way they do, or break off? It is what Williams does. He analyzes his way through the plays in their chronological order and traces the development of Shakespeare’s deeper concern with poetry itself. He studies “the nature of the act of poetic creation itself.”

Then he does it again with Milton, and after that with Wordsworth. After which he mentions some minor poets by way of contrast and explanation and then proceeds to draw his conclusions. The way he can move in another person’s thoughts and words is extraordinary.

He does something similar with Dante’s development and purpose in The Figure of Beatrice. Both books were slow for me because there is just too much to absorb and you have to hang on every word, but Williams is absorbing because it is all clear, intelligent and persuasive. He lived among complexities but grasped them clearly; and if you are the kind of person who hungers after the clear and deep, the high and marvelous you will find it in Charles Williams.

In The Figure he takes one through the Vita, a second unfinished work of Dante, and then the Comedia, showing what the poet was after, and how he did it. He shows the underlying development of his thought, and the progress of thought not only across his works through time, but in the works themselves–how he achieves his ends.

These are the kinds of books that leave you feeling satisfiyingly illuminated about the subjects treated, with a lot of possibilities for inquiry that have been scattered throughout, and with a great desire to admire again and with new eyes Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Dante and the world. Charles Williams had a great and noble way of understanding.

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