Stars Through the Clouds, by Donald T. Williams
In the preface to his long historical poem Old King Coel, Adam Fox, former Oxford Professor of Poetry, former Canon of Westminster Abbey, and former Inkling, wrote that in it he had “used verse and rhyme in a traditional way, since the experimentalists do not seem to have created any more pleasurable substitute.” He was, of course, completely right, both about his work and theirs.
That statement could be lifted whole from Fox’s book then planted four-square into Williams’, and with good reason: first, because Williams’ poetry is better—more true, more beautiful, and more rhetorically apt than Fox’s—and, second, because its subject matter is more varied, its insights more enduring, and its content more theologically well-grounded.
All that is one way of saying that Donald Williams is an academic. He lives in his mind. That mind is well furnished with the ideas and forms of classical culture and of its subsequent iterations. His poetry, therefore, has meter, rhyme, structure, and substance. It asks and answers the perennial questions of life, questions like: “What’s a good life and what good is life?” “What’s a good death and what good is death?” “What’s a good love and what good is love?” and “What’s a human being?”
Because Williams is also a Christian, the poetic answers he offers to these diagnostic questions are full of Biblical theology and spirituality, the sort that grows up best and most richly in the hothouse of real human experience in a fallen world. Those answers are robed in the drapery of precise, memorable rhetoric and then scattered liberally in epigrams, proverbs, images and gobbets of printed gold across almost every page.
For years, I have said to anyone who will listen that Donald Williams is the best practicing poet in America. This collection bears me out: formal, informal, satirical, theological, poignant, insightful, playful, factual, and beautiful—it’s all there. Williams’ poetry is high verbal art that takes tradition seriously and that thinks art ought to serve the highest and best purposes. That sort of verbal art is less appreciated in our age, when shock and offense have displaced beauty, truth, and goodness. Thank God, that displacement has not been total. The higher things still can be found, if you know where to look. If you do not, then simply look here.
No poet is perfect, of course, though some are far better than others. Count Williams among our best. While every poet has a voice, Donald Williams has many.[i] Sometimes it’s the voice of Frost or Dickinson or Gray. Sometimes it’s De la Mare or Tolkien or Housman. All have their place.[ii] And sometimes, if you have the ears to hear, you might catch an echo of the Higher Voice. In his impressive multivocity, Williams is much like the late Anne Ridler, another verbal artist whose works are too little known. I’m not saying that Williams is a mere imitator. I’m saying that his poetic mind is well stocked with the works and words of the great poets and sages, and that it shows. I am saying that you are what you eat, and that Williams has obviously fed upon the best poetic morsels the English-speaking world (and beyond) has yet produced.
I won’t subject you to a selection of my favorite lines or poems. This review is not about me. But whether or not, like me, you prefer poems that are pointed and concise, poems that waste no time or words in getting where they’re going—something along the lines of Housman at his best—or those poems that are more patient and that draw themselves out more slowly and at length, like a giant waking from slumber, you will find plenty here to satisfy you: “Sehnsucht” (p. 314), on the one hand, or “Toccoa Falls: An Ode,” on the other (p. 82).
Williams is not the first of that name to write something significant and profound called “Seed” (p. 117). When read together with Charles Williams’ nativity play “Seed of Adam,” the six-part poem published here becomes part of a double journey into the mind of God and incarnational consciousness. But its six portions are perhaps one too many, the final installment unsuited to the rest and capable of standing on its own. Still, his “Reflections” on the next page (134) is more than ample compensation, as are “The Irony” (134) and “The Hypostatic Union”(135). “Miracula” (142) is simply deepest conviction. The two Williamses also have the poetic saga of Taliessin in common, and of the first the second Williams is a worthy successor and more, maintaining the profundity of the original while adding the clarity it sometimes lacked (pp. 172-226).
For good measure—and quite unlike anything I’ve seen since they collected Thurber or Nash—you’ll find page upon page (pp. 228-265) of rhyme that will make you smile, chuckle, and laugh, while simultaneously reading your way through the history of philosophy, theology and hermeneutics, to which topics Williams returns later not in levity but in full seriousness (pp. 267 ff.). The effect is a liberal arts education in miniature, with Theology as its capstone (p. 334). The book ends beautifully, much like Paradise Lost: the end is the beginning (p. 360).
Finally, three notable, but passing, particulars:
(1.) The publisher has the great good sense to use a slightly smaller font when a larger one would cause the line to bleed over—because visuals matter. To sound and sense add sight.
(2.) While the word “sackbutt” (p. 171) is historically accurate, it is so—unpoetical.
(3.) Lastly, please understand this comment as the highest possible praise: Of the nearly 400 poems in this collection, not one can righty be called a somnifacient—not one. The achievement is impressive. Not even Sidney, Housman, or Gray could ring the bell every time. Yet here, every poem both embodies and elicits thought and piety. Each one, considered carefully, illustrates why thought and piety are so closely related, perhaps twins. Williams’ poetry is the verbal embodiment of Benjamin Whichcote’s dictum that no notion ever changed his heart that did not first enlighten his mind.
Books related to this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
[i] For example, Frost: “Times in the Appalachian High Country” (p. 12) and “Metaphor Glimpsed” (p. 51), Hopkins: “Plane Flight” (p.33), Dickinson: “Spring Metaphor” (p. 17) and “Commentary, Job 38: 7” (p. 36), De la Mare: “New Every Morning” (p. 44), and occasionally even Wordsworth: “Conversation with a Back-Packer” (p. 52).
[ii] But not—praise God—Eliot, Sandburg or Pound, or at least not too much.