With graduation season beginning, we thought it appropriate to highlight the honorary Master of Arts degree Charles Williams received from Oxford University on February 27, 1943 as our May “Artifact of the Month.” This post also celebrates a full year of “Artifact of the Month” blogs on “Off the Shelf!” After this point we will continue to highlight materials from the Wade Center as “Featured Artifacts,” but not on a monthly basis. Keep reading “Off the Shelf” for more artifacts to come!
Charles Williams began his college career by being awarded a scholarship to University College, London where he studied mathematics, literature, history, and languages (Hadfield, Alice Mary. Charles Williams: An Exploration Of His Life And Work. New York : Oxford UP, 1983. p. 11). Despite his promise as a student, the Williams family could not afford Charles’s college tuition and he had to withdraw after two years. He was never able to return and complete his degree, though he went on to become an editor at Oxford University Press in London.
At the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Charles Williams and his colleagues at Oxford University Press relocated their offices from London to Oxford due to bombing by the German Luftwaffe. This move enabled Williams to spend more time with C.S. Lewis and the rest of the Inklings, the group which he had already been attending when he was able to make the journey from London to Oxford. Lewis had first invited Williams to join the Inklings in 1936 after reading his novel The Place of the Lion, and became a fast friend and admirer of his work. Knowing of Williams’s lectures at the City Literary Institute in London, his prodigious intellect, and his passion for literature in general, C.S. Lewis arranged for Williams to give guest lectures at Oxford University. He began with a series of lectures on Milton, which greatly impressed Lewis and captivated his audience.
On Monday C.W. [Charles Williams] lectured nominally on Comus but really on Chastity. Simply as criticism it was superb — because here was a man who really started from the same point of view as Milton and really cared with every fibre of his being about “the sage and serious doctrine of virginity” which it would never occur to the ordinary modern critic to take seriously. But it was more important still as a sermon. It was a beautiful sight to see a whole room full of modern young men and women sitting in that absolute silence which can not be faked, very puzzled, but spell-bound … It was “borne in upon me” that that beautiful carved room had probably not witnessed anything so important since some of the great medieval or Reformation lectures. I have at last, if only for once, seen a university doing what it was founded to do: teaching Wisdom.
–C.S. Lewis in a letter to his brother Warren H. Lewis, February 11, 1940
Williams’s involvement at Oxford evolved to later include tutoring as well as giving additional lecture series on Wordsworth, Shakespeare, 18th Century poetry, the Arthurian tradition, and other literary topics. In 1943, Oxford University acknowledged Williams’s contributions to literature and the University by giving him an honorary Master of Arts degree, shown here.
Williams, delighted by the honor, wrote in a letter to his wife:
I broke the news to [Anne Spalding and Gerry Hopkins, nephew of Gerard Manly Hopkins and fellow colleague of Williams at Oxford UP] — about the degree, I mean. … This morning Ursula [Grundy] rang up to congratulate me, having heard from Michael [Williams’s son]. She says M. is very pleased … so I owe him my thanks. I do like him to show well. She wants to come, “if it’s convenient.” (I thought she would!) G.H. thinks anyone can go, but are supposed to be under the convoy of “a member of this University,” but he has put himself at your disposal, & anyone you bring.
–Letter to Florence (“Michal”) Williams, February 12, 1943. The letters between Charles and Michal Williams are located in the Charles Williams Papers collection at the Wade Center, and in the book To Michal From Serge: Letters From Charles Williams To His Wife, Florence, 1939-1945. Kent, OH : Kent State University Press, 2002.
Three others were given M.A. degrees at the same ceremony: Reginald John Shambrook, Alberto Jiménez, and Captain Lord William Romilly. Mr. John G. Barrington-Ward, Public Orator’s deputy, gave brief speeches of presentation for each of the degree recipients, which like the degrees themselves were also written entirely in Latin. A leaflet, with the text from the speeches, is shown below from the Wade Center’s Article File collection. Our thanks to Dr. Leslie S.B. MacCoull of the Society for Coptic Archaeology (North America) for offering the following translation of the speech on Williams:
There follows a most keen critic of literature, yet also a talented poet, in whom indeed we see refuted what has often been customarily said, “those who could not turn out to be poets always settle for critical studies.” But rather this man, our outstanding poet, “who did not turn pale with fear to drink from the Pindaric fountain” [Horace, Epistles 1.3.10], even in that admittedly difficult Pindaric form has already garnered so many outstanding laurel crowns, and has been observed to form such serious judgments about literary works and authors, that, called by our staff members to undertake the function of a sponsor, he filled that role for them so that, if anyone had written anything, he read it all through, carefully weighed it in the balance, and finally made a judgment of it as to whether it would be worthy of the staff members’ smoothing pumice-stone or should rather be consigned to the waste-paper pile. And now in our schools how gladly have we recently listened to him expounding in public on the English poets! With what keenness of mind he spoke, with what fervor of spirit he recited! Therefore, so that this outstanding craftsman and judge of literature may be added to our ranks and may add our laurel crown also to those he has already borne, I present to you the most learned man Charles Walter Stansby Williams, editor and proofreader of the Oxford Press, to be admitted to the degree of Master of Arts _honoris causa_.
Williams sent details about the upcoming ceremony to his wife via a series of letters, and the event took place in Oxford’s famous Sheldonian Theatre. At the official lunch that day, Charles and Florence (“Michal”) Williams sat between the Vice-Chancellor and Mr. L.S. Amery (Secretary for the State of India, and another degree recipient). Several of Williams’s friends got together at a separate lunch to celebrate the occasion, including the Douglases, Ursula Grundy, and Gerry Hopkins. Two articles reporting the ceremony follow below, as well as an image of the procession with participants in full academic dress, and an image of the Oxford M.A. academic gown. Click on the images for a larger view.
Williams remained in high demand at Oxford University, and with other scholarly groups and clubs such as the Dante Society, until the event of his untimely death in May 1945. His style, since he was not formally university educated, was seen as fresh and different from the other academic lecturers of the time, and as Lewis noted above, the quality of his criticism was brilliant. He had a large following and his talks were well-attended. Surely it was gratifying for Williams to be acknowledged by the academy in such an official capacity before the end of his career.