John Cowper Powys
Llewelyn Powys, Writer*
from "Four Brothers, A Family Confession"
(The Century Magazine, September, 1925)
The basic inclinations lying deep down below all our divergencies--of the four of us who have so far got ourselves into print, for the nicest among us have still fought shy of such publicity--are undoubtedly explicable in terms of heredity, if not of environment.
Reared in a country vicarage; allowed to "run wild" in a large and rambling garden, with its glebe, its orchards, its terraces, its shrubberies; inheriting from one parent the stubborn tribal emotions, earth-bound, volcanic, inarticulate, crafty, of an old Welsh house, and from the other the capricious and rather morbid sensitiveness, saturated with a mania for books, of that family "out of Norfolk" to which William Cowper's mother belonged, we shall all of us, I suppose, display to the end of our days a certain simple, rustic, naive, pastoral quality which mingles quaintly enough with our various sophisticated perversities. Our parents--requiescant in pace!-- were both less influenced by passing fashions than we can hope to be; but they have bequeathed to us an odd mixture of conservatism and rebelliousness that lends itself better to literature than to science.
Never was there a less scientific-minded tribe. In addition to this rustic quality and this shameless lack of interest in biology, sociology, mathematics, and finance, I think it might be maintained that we all display a certain strain of humorous maliciousness capable of developing into a positive penchant for certain forms of contemplative cruelty. But to analyze the literary work of one's blood-relations is not an easy task. To analyze it in connection with one's own productions is still more difficult. To many minds it might seem not only difficult but impossible. And yet there is a peculiar interest, a piquancy even, in making such an attempt; for, after all, there is no reason why criticism, if it is genuine interpretation, should not ply its trade at home as well as abroad.
I do not know that there is anything remarkable in the mere fact of four brothers appearing in print simultaneously, but there does seem a certain--what shall I say?--philosophical interest in an analysis of the manner in which heredity and environment blend their influences in such a case with the capricious freakishness of nature.
To begin with the youngest of the four of us, with my brother Llewelyn.
Reviewing his Confessions, Ebony and Ivory, Thirteen Worthies, Black Laughter, and the little volume in Haldeman-Julius's Pocket Series entitled Honey and Gall, Llewelyn's writings up to date seem to me to resolve themselves into four technical formulas or moulds of literary expression. Without undue pedantry these various genres might be arranged thus: first, the diaristic or autobiographical form; second, the imaginative or "pure essay" form; third, the biographical form; fourth, the short-story or narrative-sketch form. Black Laughter and the Confessions would fall into the first division; "Black Gods" and "Threnody", into the second,Thirteen Worthies, into the third; and "The Stunner" or "Spheric Laughter", into the fourth.
Among these various forms through which my brother has chosen to express himself, it seems to me that it is the first, the diaristic or autobiographical one, that lends itself most naturally to his peculiar turn of mind and becomes the most fully impregnated with the essence of his personality. It is indeed inevitable that this should be the case, since the most characteristic quality in Llewelyn's temperament is his power in registering an integrated banked-up, and massively simple response to every actual situation in which he finds himself.
One might say that the characteristic yeast of this writer's "whole-wheat" bake-shop, even in the cases where he uses the biographical, discursive, or short-story formula, always springs from the same integral response to the same quite definite and quite special stimulus. For it is only a certain kind of human situation--a kind purged and winnowed of everything not basically rooted in our common earth-life--that really stirs his interest; and his heart-whole, compact reaction, when his interest is stirred, is as reiterated and undeviating as it is idiosyncratic, exclusive, empiric. It goes very deep, this response of his; it goes as deep as life. But it always remains obstinately unporous to certain overtones and undertones, to certain shadowy intimations, which must be admitted, in a more objective synthesis, to have their place in the world's complicated orchestra.
Llewelyn, in plain words, is a poetical materialist with an unconquerable zest for life--for life on any terms. But an ingrained prejudice, amounting to actual hostility, toward anything supernatural, mystical, or metaphysical, narrows the scope of his shrewd and quizzical reactions even more completely than did the scepticism of his master Montaigne. The poetic element, in his materialistic zest for life, is the dominant background to every one of his impressions; and this poetic element takes a very definite form in his mind--a form that is repeated again and again, with small enough variation, in all his writings.
The note I refer to, played upon so constantly, reverberates over the whole field of his experience and keeps up a low, deep monotone, like the humming of a cosmic mill-wheel or the drone of a planetary bumblebee, always just audible out there in the distance, but never teasingly aggressive. It is in fact his constant vision of "the hungry generations" of our human race going forth to their work and to their pleasure upon the surface of this solar satellite, and returning to their various shelters when the sun goes down, that supplies him with his chief philosophical point d'appui. Phrases and sentences full of this particular awareness occur in all his works, and the unconquerable dignity, offset by the grotesque tragedy, of man's life upon earth is something that never grows stale to him. "My illness," he writes in the Confessions, "had sharpened my wits. At night when I looked at the stars, I understood the background which belonged to our planet, . . . sailing on to extinction either by some catastrophic celestial collision or by slow senseless withering, and each man, each woman and each child destined also sooner or later to wear white stockings and be carried away to the churchyard."
In the sketch entitled "Death" in Ebony and Ivory, we come upon the following drastic question and emphatic answer: "What if the world does contain no purpose, but only a series of sensations for the elect, the chosen, to experience during an inconsequent transit? . . . For us the dread of death adds a tang and relish to life--to the only life for which we care. We accept these terms, we delight in them. The very pride of man indeed rests upon his mortality, for so and only so, does he appear an heroic figure under the sun."
His appreciation of Thomas Hardy in Thirteen Worthies contains passages that might well apply to his own work. "For Thomas Hardy writes like a countryman, thinks like a countryman, and has the imagination of a countryman. From first to last the essential element of the drama of existence has been for him nothing more than the simple spectacle of mortal man and mortal woman, passionate and bewildered, moving against a background of immemorial nature. . . . His is the deep, shrewd outlook of an old shepherd, whose native observations of life and death have supplied him with a tough, idiosyncratic, earth-bound philosophy."
Even in Black Laughter, in the African jungle, the same note is struck. "Had some over-sagacious negro a thousand moons ago peered up at the night skies and come to the conclusion that the ultimate question could never be answered, and that it was man's wisest course to cease from speculation and enjoy, without asking questions, the delicate flavour of goat's milk, the grateful warmth of a fire, and the sweet delights of love-making?"
The conclusion, in fact, of all Llewelyn Powys's philosophizing amounts to the old Shakesperian acceptance of fate, implicit in Falstaff's "Mortal men! Mortal men!" and more ideally expressed in that "Man must abide his going hence, even as his coming hither. Ripeness is all."
I seem to detect four main literary influences in my brother's work, that of Charles Lamb, that of Walter Pater, that of Guy de Maupassant, and that of Lytton Strachey. But it appears to me that it is that of Charles Lamb which has sunk the deepest into his mind. And yet where he is most entirely himself is, I think, in Confessions and Black Laughter, the autobiographical or diaristic portions of his work, where not one of the above influences leaves the faintest trace. In these he appears as the insatiable amateur, the incorrigible adventurer, the life-intoxicated world-child, for whom style and questions of style must all of them fall into a secondary position compared with a certain tough and yet timid curiosity, such as makes use of the tricks of style merely as feelers or antennae to come in contact with the very skin of reality; a curiosity occupied with the actual ways of men and beasts and birds, both as he remembers them in the land of his birth and as he finds them in remote and alien localities.
My brother's unmitigated hostility to metaphysical speculation, his complete indifference to both science and politics, his vigorous championship of the pleasures of the senses against every species of idealism, result, it must be admitted, in a somewhat narrow and unholy hedonism. And yet so penetrating and tender is his sympathy with the primordial physical desires of all living things,--the sensitiveness of their skins, the hunger of their maws, the unappeased craving of their shameless eroticism,--so large and sturdy is his poetic feeling for the diurnal and perennial panorama of earth-life, one is continually haunted by the suspicion, as one reads these racy and idiomatic pages, that it is rather erudite specialists of our disordered time who are refusing "to see life steadily and see it whole" than this stubborn disciple of Chaucer, with his quirks, his whimsies, and his rock-based realism.
No one can read Llewelyn Powys's books without detecting the presence in his temperament of a most charming vein of what is nowadays entitled "infantile fixation".
Beneath his carefully hammered style, redolent of the old masters, one is aware of repeated shocks of childish wonder in him that men and animals and birds and fishes and winds and waters and the high remote constellations should be just what they are and not otherwise. One is even aware of a sort of grave and humorous amazement that it should have been permitted to him--to Llewelyn Powys of Dorchester, Dorset--to express this primitive wonder in intelligible words at all.
And along with this astonishment that pebbles should be round and grass should be green, which is, after all, nothing else than the very heart of authentic poetry, there slips in now and then a most winning note of sheer childish "narcissism"--a note that is all the more effective when it is consciously exploited. "And I, a small child," he writes in "Threnody", "drifting in and out through the tall French windows, regarded shrewdly all this and came to my own conclusions. If our days in the garden of the earth are in reality so uncertain, so brief, if there is indeed so little time for any of us to play under the black thorn . . . then surely--" But we know well enough what these "brown Satyrs" have to say over the graves of their Hamadryads.
* This extract begins at the beginning of the article.
|The Powys Review||Number Fifteen||Volume IV, iii|