MODERNITY AND MEDIEVALISM
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
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
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
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
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
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.