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Descent into Heaven

January 4th, 2005 | 1 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

My students have recently been reading Charles Williams' Descent into Hell. Though I had read Williams' Figure of Beatrice (which is, incidentally, an excellent commentary on Dante's thought), this was my first exposure to his fiction.

His writing style is initially obscure and confusing, but it quickly becomes apparent that he is attempting to communicate things beyond himself. As a result, Williams' fiction is as poetic as it is narrative. As Thomas Howard writes:

The thing is, Williams unfailingly leads us all on what George Eliot called “a severe mental scamper.” His mind was so packed with images, and so curious about every cranny of the universe, and so regaled by ideas—especially dogma—and so overcharged with what one can only call high-voltage restlessness, that it is a wonder his prose is accessible at all. Ironically, we find that we must give him a palm for clarity. His prose—and, it must be said, his poetry—says precisely what he means.

He means nothing more, and nothing less, than what we find on the page. And, as endless critics, with Eliot in the van, have pointed out over and over, every poetic line must be just as we find it. The disjuncture between words—both the vocabulary and the word order—and meaning has been closed by the poet. And we may, with a certain justice, call Williams a poet, even though most of what he wrote appears on the page as “prose.” The thing is, everything that he writes has the density, economy, pace, and exactitude, of poetry.

As a result, Williams' work is extremely erotic. While reading, I constantly had an intuition that extremely deep meanings and lessons were being communicated, if I could but understand. Williams' work is challenging, but worth reading if one enjoys the exhaustion after a "severe mental scamper."

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.