Marius Buning

      Theodore Francis Powys, novelist, short story writer, and fabulist, is comparatively little known in England and even less abroad. When the name Powys occurs in literary conversation at all, it is most likely to refer to John Cowper Powys, the eldest of the three Powys brothers (1872-1963), author of (among others) Wolf Solent, A Glastonbury Romance, and Weymouth Sands, and a prolific essayist and pamphleteer. Theodore F. Powys, the second brother, was born at Shirley (Derbyshire) in 1875. After having farmed for five years in Suffolk, he settled down in East Chaldon in Dorset, whose local landscape was to become the setting for most of his work; in 1940 he moved to Mappowder, where he spent his days reading and meditating until his death in 1953. The youngest of the three brothers was Llewelyn Powys, born in 1884, a distinguished nature philosopher and a stylist in the best English essayists' tradition, who died of tuberculosis in a Swiss hospital in 1939.
       Each of the three brothers achieved literary fame, just as the three Bronte sisters and the two Sitwell brothers and their sister Edith. The Powys family consisted of several other talented members: two brothers distinguished themselves by writing about architecture, the family, and Nature; of three of the sisters one was a painter, another a leading expert on lace in America, writing the standard work on the subject, and the third was a minor poet in her own right. Although each of them went his or her own way, they stayed in close contact with one another, particularly through writing.1
       Unlike his brothers and sisters, Theodore Powys led a hermit-like and outwardly uneventful life in rural Dorset, far removed from the literary world. He only visited London to see his publisher once, and decided never ever to come back. In his fiction the outside urban world hardly seemed to exist either. Instead we find, ironically presented, often whimsical descriptions of the comic and savage aspects of rural life, a fact that could not but appear eccentric to the predominantly urban, sophisticated modernist literary climate. This is, no doubt, one reason for his being neglected by critics at the time, with the exception of the two Leavises, by the way, who did acknowledge his idiosyncratic talent.2
       Other reasons for neglect or dismissal are his employment of allegory as a mode of thought and expression, which critics - still under the sway of a Coleridgean preference for symbolism - found old- fashioned and inferior to the pyrotechnics of Modernism. Moreover, his Weltanschauung - which can be briefly summed up as expressive of philosophical, Christian-oriented pessimism - was decidedly unpopular in the 1920s and 1930s. According to Powys, pessimism is "the best and most enduring wear from cover to cover,"3 and death is "God's best gift," the release from the burden of life, "the large Quiet - the great inaction, the uttermost release, eternal peace."4
       Nor were his highly unorthodox views, rejecting notions of immortality and the Trinity, and presenting sexuality and sadism unashamedly, palatable to the average Christian reader at the time. Moreover, his ironical and uncompromisingly critical picture of the rural world, with farmers only dominated by greed "longing always to get, never to be," and with a worldly established clergy, always siding with the oppressors against the poor and innocent, was decidedly out of step with the rural tradition in the English novel. His earliest 'dark' novel Mr Tasker's Gods (written in 1916 but not published until 1925) is representative of his pessimistic and disenchanted view of human nature: Mr Tasker's life is dominated by his love of gain, symbolised in his pigs that like gods control his life.
       For all these reasons, then, Powys can be considered an outsider, a marginal writer in self-chosen exile, and his characters, both good and bad, are outsiders as well, alienated from the social contexts they are in; the good ones are eccentric, anti-acquisitive 'holy fools,' haunted by the quest for God, whereas the bad ones are perverted and thoroughly wicked. Clearly, his work as a whole stands apart from the mainstream of modern fiction. In fact it belongs to the tradition of fictional meditation rather than to the canon of psychological realism for which it was mistaken. Yet, from a postmodern viewpoint its very marginality constitutes its value for us today.
       Apart from two non-fiction works, of which Soliloquies of a Hermit (1918, rpt. 1975) is of lasting value, Powys wrote eight full-length novels, a book of Fables (1929), two collections of three novellas each, and well over a hundred short stories. Regrettably, much of his work is out of print or difficult to get hold of, while several novels, short stories, and some plays are as yet unpublished. The only novel to reach the public at large and to find favour with certain critics was Mr Weston's Good Wine (1927); it appeared in several Penguin editions and was translated into a number of languages, including Japanese. Unfortunately, its companion novel Unclay (1931) was not well received, although it deserves to be placed among his finest work, as I argued elsewhere.5
       Much to everyone's surprise he gave up writing suddenly in 1936, announcing that "a writer should stop, when he has said enough."6 Was this step (as Peter Riley argued) the logical outcome of the increasingly 'minimal bleakness' of his later fiction, written between 1930-1933, in which - like in Beckett's later prose - a general drift towards reduction of language, the self, and of the world as perceived in the text is increasingly noticeable?7 Or was his silence the result of his devotional and mystical nature that no longer needed literary expression, as Gerard Casey has forcibly suggested?8 We shall probably never know.
       Anyway, he continued reading intensively, marking up heavily what he felt to be significant passages and writing comments in the margins. Taken together these reflections constitute a distinct kind of self- expression, a form of 'post-writing' or agraphia that not only gives us a deeper understanding of his inner biography, but also provides us with valuable insights into his creative work.9 Summarizing, it may be said that Powys's comments reveal his profound affinity with unorthodox, unworldly writers, who in their lives and works were concerned with the search for ultimate reality: Richard Baxter, Jakob Boehme, Maurice Maeterlinck, Pascal, Spinoza, and Simone Weil - all of whom had a memorable mystical experience. When Powys was dying a friend read to him from the Revelations of Divine Love by the medieval female mystic Julian of Norwich, and this drew from him the characteristic remark: "'I like her. I like that thing she said, "God is GROUND"'; he had taken it to mean that God was actually ground - EARTH."10
       When surveying Powys's literary output, one cannot but be struck by its thoroughly intertextual nature, which reflects his enormously wide reading. His fictions are replete with references and allusions to and echoes from indeed the whole history of English literature, poetry and drama included, as well as from many of the great writers in the Western tradition: from the Greek philosophers to Nietzsche, Freud, and Frazer. According to Martin Steinmann, some three hundred authors are referred to, both stylistically and substantially, with the Bible (in the Authorised Version) - to be taken as a work of supreme fiction - at the top, closely followed by the works of Jane Austen - to whom some of Powys's good characters attribute a quasi-religious function - and by those of John Bunyan, whose allegorical mode he appropriated for his own purpose.11 Minor medieval references are to Chaucer, Dunbar, medieval drama, notably The Second Shepherd's Play, Everyman, and the ballad tradition.
       Although intertextuality is not as such an exclusively modern phenomenon, I would argue that Powys's ingenious intertextual practice is decidedly modern since it is on the whole 'destructive' rather than constructive', that is, the intertext or pre-text helps to undermine the meaning of the actual text, which in turn destabilises the authority of the original meaning.12 Moreover, this kind of subjective, ironic intertextuality empties the text of its referentiality and effectively underpins its 'literariness' and its essentially non-realistic, fictional nature, and - what is even more - contributes in no small way to the reader's perception of the text as allegory.
       Powys's use of allegory clearly owes much to the great medieval allegorical tradition (Dante, Langland, the morality play, Spenser, John Bunyan and Ben Jonson), but his fiction is not written according to any particular allegorical model, nor should the reader approach it with anything like a four-level scheme in mind. Moreover, it should be remembered that allegory, both as a writerly, compositional technique and as a readerly, interpretative activity, is not in itself a medieval invention, but has a long history behind it, starting in Antiquity, although it reached great heights during the Middle Ages. As C. S. Lewis rightly observed: "Allegory, in some sense, belongs not to medieval man, but to man, or even to mind in general. It is of the very nature of thought and language to represent what is immaterial in picturable terms."13 Consequently, we should not be surprised to find allegory at work in modern and postmodern literature as well, for instance, in Kafka, Joyce, Beckett, and Pynchon.
       Allegory in Powys's mature fiction can best be grasped in the light of modern, post-romantic allegorical theory (E. Honig, Northrop Frye, A. Fletcher, R. Tuve, M. Quilligan, and Paul de Man), which has successfully falsified three deep-seated prejudices against the very word and concept of allegory.14 Briefly summed up, they run as follows:

- that allegory is a kind of double-talk in which there is or ought to be a point-to-point compulsive relation between the narrative and the symbolic level or between concretion and abstraction; this is, no doubt, true of naive or frigid allegory, but not of the great allegories of the past or present;

- that allegory's heyday was over by the end of the seventeenth century; however, with the advent of the Enlightenment allegory radically changed its purpose but not its method. From being an essentially affirmative mode of writing, celebrating a well- structured, commonly shared Christian view of the world, it became an increasingly ironic mode of expression, concerned with highly subjective and fragmented presentations of reality and the self;

- that allegory is or should be a stable, single concept; this is not only historically untrue but also theoretically unsatisfactory. Preference should be given to Northrop Frye's proposal for a sliding scale of allegorical explicitness, ranging from the most to the least allegorical: from naive and continuous to ironic and indirect allegory, depending on the degree of interaction between the literal and the symbolic level of the text. Modern allegory, then, is to be located towards the latter two stages, that is, as free- style (freistimmige) allegory in which the relation between concretion and abstraction is unsystematic; consequently, its allegorical interpretation is equally intermittent.15

       It is clear that this liberal, modern view of allegory is at variance with the Romantic views, eloquently expressed by Goethe and Coleridge, which privileged the symbol at the expense of allegory. Following Paul de Man in this respect, I plead for a revaluation of allegory, particularly in the light of a post-Saussurian semiotic awareness of language as a system of signs and their relations, in which the linguistic sign is essentially arbitrary and conventionally determined.16 A similar denial of 'presence' in language of a 'transcendental signified' (sc. an ineffable, Being or Truth) has been cogently argued from a deconstructive viewpoint by Jacques Derrida, for whom presence becomes "the sign of signs, the trace of a trace" - the endless interplay of differences, denials and deferrals.17
       In short, I suggest that allegory belongs to the realm of polysemy or multiple meaning; it is a theme-dominated, symbolic, non-mimetic mode of thought and expression, controlled by indirectness and double meaning, that strongly invites the reader to look for further significance beyond the literal level of the text. A brief, though for reasons of time and space partial, look at Powys's mature novel Mr Weston's Good Wine may shed some light on its allegorical nature.
       On the literal, narrative level the novel describes the arrival of Mr Weston, wine merchant, and his young assistant, Michael, in the village of Folly Down, in order to sell the 'good wine', which comes in two varieties: the light wine of love and the dark wine of death - eros and thanatos being for Powys the two great realities of life. The good characters accept the wine, which is said to be "as strong as death and as sweet as love"; for instance, Luke Bird, a hermit, nature mystic, and ardent lover, and Mr Grobe, the grief-stricken village pastor, obsessed by the problem of theodicy (the cornerstone of Wilhelm Leibnitz' philosophy), who cannot accept the justice of his wife's sudden and cruel death, and wishes to die. Some villagers neither buy nor accept the wine and are judged accordingly: thus the wicked Mrs Vosper, the village procuress, is destroyed by a lion kept in the back of Mr Weston's van, and the Mumby brothers, young, greedy, masochistic farmers, receive a severe warning. At the end Mr Weston and his partner vanish with their Ford car in the smoke that ascends into the heavens.
       On the allegorical level Mr Weston is both God, visiting his imperfect creation, and the artist, reflecting on his own prose poem, the Bible, whose ultimate meaning is equatable with the wine he sells: both are forms of illusion which is necessary in order to make life bearable. It is at the village pub, Angel Inn, where "time has stopped and eternity is begun," that Mr Weston's true nature is magically revealed. Naturally, the good characters love reading since for them (as for Thomas Carlyle) literature is the wine of life, showing them 'the truth of the world'.18 As Mr Grobe observes, when looking at his bookcase:

Good wine was there too; there the thoughts of wise men of all ages and countries were gathered. Good wine that never failed him. Good wine that had ever given a deep drink of the proper colour to the gentle reader. . . . Had he been drinking all the evening out of that great book? Had that book been Mr Weston's Good Wine?19

       A similar allegorical journey or imaginative quest for ultimate reality is undertaken in Unclay, Powys's last novel, which can again be read on different levels: psychologically, as a search for identity and self-knowledge; philosophically, as an examination of the relation between love and death; artistically, as an exploration of the creative process and the way we as readers respond to it, and (most importantly) as a religious quest in search of the ground of man's being. In Unclay John Death, whose appearance and behaviour remind us at times of his medieval predecessor on the stage, visits a Dorset village in order to carry out the divine command to 'unclay', that is to kill a pair of young lovers and two villains. Both he and the narrator present love throughout in terms of pain and sorrow, which can only be alleviated by Death, 'God's best gift', since it releases us from the burden of life (the pensum vitae) and the bonds of time. This theme is dramatically presented in the transfiguration scene at the local churchyard, where John Death is seen to divide the living from the dead: "upon this side, the folly of passion, suffering, and pain . . . upon the other side, the sweet silence of God.20 Although love and death are depicted as opposing forces, fighting each other like husband and wife, they form actually an indissoluble pair.

Then the change comes in life. The first change - the forerunner of Death - is Love. When the sun of Love rises, and a man walks in his glory, he may be sure that a shadow approaches him - Death. Love creates and separates; Death destroys and heals.21

This quotation highlights the novel's central paradox: Death is both love and death, pain and peace, existence and non-existence. In my view, Unclay is Powys's crowning achievement, since it contains the fullest artistic expression of his meditations on life, beauty, evil, love, and death.
       A survey of Powys's mature fiction would be incomplete without, at least, referring to his Fables, a collection of some twenty fables, published in between his two major novels and itself an indisputable masterpiece. As is to be expected, the predominating mode is thoroughly allegorical; the style is relatively simple, traditional, and full of biblical echoes and cadences. In almost all of them inanimate objects such as a withered leaf, a clout, a pan, a stone, a bucket, a rope, a clock, a hassock and a Psalter, a spittoon and a slate, or animals like the ass, the rabbit, a dog, a worm, and a flea, act as instructors of erring man, or as keen-sighted commentators on the vicissitudes of mortal life.22 In passing, it should be mentioned that many of his novellas and short stories shade off into fables themselves and possess similar stylistic virtues.
       In comparison Powys's penultimate novel Kindness in a Corner is, relatively speaking, a lightweight affair. It is his only truly humorous novel, with no unpleasant or evil characters to disturb the all-pervading atmosphere of bucolic innocence. Yet, underneath the rural comedy we can detect his preoccupation with death. According to sexton Truggin, both good and evil originate from the same God, as he explains in stylised Dorset dialect:

"Tain't earth that I do hold," he said, "tisn't earth at all, here be the dirt of God. - There bain't no stone, no root of grass, no mould, that be man's here - 'tis God's. Our lively doings in the world are ours, here, our rottenness be God's.23

The kind Reverend Mr Dottery, living in a remote corner of the country, epitomises the novel's title and philosophy, when he reflects on oblivion as being God's kindest gift to mankind:

How pleasant to rest forever in a corner of the kind earth, fearing nothing, loving nothing, while above and about us, never lessening, never slackening for one moment its power, is the peace of God that passes understanding.24

       As I argued earlier, Powys's mature fiction belongs to the genre of fictional meditation rather than to the mainstream of psychological realism. More in particular, it is embedded in the mystical writings of the past, notably in the heritage of so-called apophatic or negative theology - a form of expression that privileges the articulation of the unsayable, of negativity. I therefore conclude this paper by suggesting that his mature fictions can be interpreted as fictional dramatisations of the mystical 'way' of negation - the via negativa - of which the Dominican preacher, theologian, and contemplative mystic Meister Eckhart (d. circa 1327) is the greatest medieval exponent. For this far- reaching conclusion there is a good deal of evidence, both external and internal. Space forbidding, I can do no more than summarize my recent research in this field.25
       Powys was not only widely read in the works of mainly Protestant Christian mystical writers like Richard Baxter, George Fox, William Law, Jeremy Taylor, Thomas Traherne, and John Wesley, whose works are intertextually active in his own fictions, but he also closely read and heavily marked up writings by such continental mystics as Jakob Boehme, St. John of the Cross, and Johannes Tauler. Moreover, it is unquestionably certain that he read and marked up Meister Eckhart's two-volume English edition of the sermons and tractates. Together with Waiting for God by Simone Weil and Eckermann's Conversations with Goethe (which contains in the margin of page 274 Powys's moving comment: "You see Humbolt, it is all over with me"), Meister Eckhart's volume was among the last - if not the very last - books he read before the illness that led to his death on 27 November 1953.
       Evidently Meister Eckhart's bold 'theology of negation' and in particular his sophisticated concept of 'detachment' or 'releasement, (in the original Middle-High German: Gelassenheit or Abgeschiedenheit) - which is the driving power of the mystical union between the soul or the mind and the Godhead - were congenial to Powys's own way of thought. He apparently equally much enjoyed Eckhart's idiosyncratic style, with a predilection for parallelism, paradox (coincidentia oppositorum), metaphors centred on images of darkness, waiting, silence, nothingness, non-being and death, and for negative predication (marked by such adverbial qualifiers as no, not, nor, neither, and by negatively-loaded nouns and verbs, negatively-prefixed adjectives, or adjectival and adverbial phrases) -- in short, a negative discourse that highlights the presence of absence.
       A final quotation from Soliloquies of a Hermit - a work that in retrospect announces and sums up Powys's philosophy best - may illustrate this spiritual and literary affinity:

I will tell you what my soul is. My soul is a waiting, hesitating, longing silence; it is the most delicate, the most ethereal, the most ready to die of all the silent noiseless feet that we feel moving in our lives. And my soul waits, and often its flame goes out while it waits. It is not chained to the moods; it is the waiting silence in us that is free.26

Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam


      1. Richard Perceval Graves, The Brothers Powys (London, 1983).
      2. F. R. Leavis, New Bearings in English Poetry (London, 1932, rpt. 1952), p. 92; idem in: D. H. Lawrence: Novelist (London, 1955), p. 296; Q. D. Leavis, Fiction and the Reading Public (London, 1932), p. 77.
      3. Theodore F. Powys, Mr Weston's Good Wine (London, 1927), p. 273.
      4. Theodore F. Powys, Unclay (London. 1931), p. 191.
      5. Marius Buning, T. F. Powys: A Modern Allegorist. The companion novels Mr Weston's Good Wine and Unclay in the light of modern allegorical theory. Amsterdam and Atlanta, 1986.
      6. Theodore F. Powys, 'Why I Have Given Up Writing,' in Peter Riley, A Bibliography of T. F. Powys (Hastings, 1967), pp. 62-64.
      7. Peter Riley, 'T. F. Powys at Mappowder: A consideration of his fiction in the light of the final twenty years of non-writing,' The Powys Review 111 (1978), 17-32.
      8. Gerard Casey, 'Letter to the Editor', The Powys Review IV (1980), 85-86.
      9. Marius Buning, 'Mappowder Revisited: T. F. Powys's Reading in Retirement', The Powys Review VII (1980), 78-86.
      10. Brocard Sewell, ed., Essays on T. F. Powys: Theodore (Aylesford, 1964), p. ix; cf. the phrase "the end of man is ground," in Powys's penultimate novel, Kindness in a Corner (see n. 24, p. 200).
      11. Martin Steinmann, Jr., 'T. F. Powys and Tradition,' The Powys Review XIII (1983-84), 5-16.
      12. The distinction between 'destructive' and 'constructive' intertextuality derives from Paul Claes, De Mot Zit in de Mythe: Antieke intertextualiteit in het werk van Hugo Claus (Leuven, 1981). A similar opposition in terms of 'prophetic' or objective versus 'apocalyptic' or ironic, is suggested by Edwin Honig, Dark Conceit: The Making of Allegory (New York, 1959, rpt. 1966), pp. 107-108.
      13. C. S. Lewis, Allegory of Love: A Study in the Medieval Tradition (Oxford, 1933, rpt. New York, 1958), p. 45.
      14. For Edwin Honig, see above, n. 12; Northrop Frye, The Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, 1957); Angus Fletcher, Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode (New York, 1964, rpt. 1982); Rosemond Tuve, Allegorical Imagery: Some Medieval Books and Their Posterity (Princeton, 1966); Maureen Quilligan, The Language of Allegory: Defining the Genre (Ithaca and London, 1983), pp. 187-229); and Paul de Man, 'The Rhetoric of Temporality', in Blindness and Insight (London, 1983), pp. 187-229.
      15. Robert D. Denham, Northrop Frye and Critical Method (University Park, Penn. and London, 1978), pp. 38, 238.
      16. See above, n. 5, Ch. 1: 'Romantic and Recent Theories of Allegory'.
      17. Jacques Derrida, 'Différance', Speech and Phenomena, tr. David B. Allison (Evanston, 1973), pp. 28-38; see also his Writing and Différance, tr. Alan Bass (Chicago, 1978), passim.
      18. Cited in the OED from Carlyle in Froude's Life, 1, 16, 271.
      19. Theodore F. Powys, Mr Weston's Good Wine (cf. n. 3), p. 215.
      20. Theodore F. Powys, Unclay (cf. n. 4), p. 324.
      21. Ibid., p. 108.
      22. Glen Cavaliero, The Rural Tradition in the English Novel 1900-1939 (London, 1977), pp. 188-190.
      23. Theodore F. Powys, Kindness in a Corner (London, 1930), p. 231.
      24. Ibid., p. 201.
      25. Marius Buning, 'Theodore F. Powys via Meister Eckhart', Powys Notes (Fall 1989), 5-12.
      26. Theodore F. Powys, Soliloquies of a Hermit (London, 1918; rpt. 1975), p. 95.

Originally published in Year's Work in Medievalism 5, papers from The Fifth Annual General Conference On Medievalism 1990, edited in English by Leslie J. Workman from Mittelalter-Rezeption V, herausgegeben von Ulrich Müller und Kathleen Verduin, Kümmerle Verlag, Göppingen 1996

Dr.M. Buning is a retired Senior lecturer at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam where he taught modern English literature and literary criticism. Besides a doctoral dissertation on T.F. Powys, he has published various articles on Samuel Beckett, C.S. Lewis, James Joyce, Chaim Potok, Thomas Pynchon, on deconstruction (Jacques Derrida) and on negative theology (Meister Eckhart). He is the co-chief editor of the bilingual, annual journal Samuel Beckett Today/Aujourdhui and President of the Dutch Beckett Society.