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Every Green Thing

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It is hard to know what has made me a lifelong reader of John Cowper Powys, but perhaps the fact that he was one of three very different brothers who shared a common impulse may be part of the explanation. Like many people I read John Cowper first, but it was not long before I fell under the spell of Theodore, whose Mr Weston’s Good Wine (1927) was still being read when I came across it towards the end of the Sixties. Presented with the lapidary finality one finds in inscriptions in country graveyards, Theodore’s allegory tells how Mr Weston and his assistant Michael arrive in the village of Folly Down, selling wine – the light wine that gives pleasure, the heavy dark wine that brings peace – and then vanish into smoke. Reading the book in my late teens I thought it a perfect inversion of conventional religion, showing how a faith that promised eternal life could be reframed as one in which redemption comes in the form of everlasting death.

Some years passed before I immersed myself in Llewelyn, never as widely read a writer. While always acknowledging a saving element of poetry in religion, Llewelyn was a passionate atheist who maintained that Christianity had repressed much of the pleasure in life. It was not Llewelyn’s polemics against religion that appealed to me – Theodore’s parable seemed to me then, as it does today, far more devastating. Rather, it was Llewelyn’s vivid stories of how – while suffering from recurrent attacks of the tuberculosis that would eventually kill him – he enjoyed an adventurous career, working as a farmer in Africa, following his brother John to try and make a living as a lecturer in America and travelling to the Middle East and the Caribbean in pursuit of health and interesting sensations. Ever on the brink of life-threatening illness, Llewelyn hated the very idea of death. Yet he managed to turn that fear and revulsion into an exultant embrace of life.

Running through all three writers is th

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It is hard to know what has made me a lifelong reader of John Cowper Powys, but perhaps the fact that he was one of three very different brothers who shared a common impulse may be part of the explanation. Like many people I read John Cowper first, but it was not long before I fell under the spell of Theodore, whose Mr Weston’s Good Wine (1927) was still being read when I came across it towards the end of the Sixties. Presented with the lapidary finality one finds in inscriptions in country graveyards, Theodore’s allegory tells how Mr Weston and his assistant Michael arrive in the village of Folly Down, selling wine – the light wine that gives pleasure, the heavy dark wine that brings peace – and then vanish into smoke. Reading the book in my late teens I thought it a perfect inversion of conventional religion, showing how a faith that promised eternal life could be reframed as one in which redemption comes in the form of everlasting death.

Some years passed before I immersed myself in Llewelyn, never as widely read a writer. While always acknowledging a saving element of poetry in religion, Llewelyn was a passionate atheist who maintained that Christianity had repressed much of the pleasure in life. It was not Llewelyn’s polemics against religion that appealed to me – Theodore’s parable seemed to me then, as it does today, far more devastating. Rather, it was Llewelyn’s vivid stories of how – while suffering from recurrent attacks of the tuberculosis that would eventually kill him – he enjoyed an adventurous career, working as a farmer in Africa, following his brother John to try and make a living as a lecturer in America and travelling to the Middle East and the Caribbean in pursuit of health and interesting sensations. Ever on the brink of life-threatening illness, Llewelyn hated the very idea of death. Yet he managed to turn that fear and revulsion into an exultant embrace of life. Running through all three writers is the attempt to fashion a practical philosophy that has left behind the hopes embodied in religion. The sons of a man who for more than thirty years was vicar at Montacute in Somerset, each of the brothers had his own distinctive way of leaving the faith of his father. If I like John Cowper best – as most of the time I do – it is because his abiding scepticism about all kinds of belief and disbelief appeals more than Theodore’s melancholy paganism or Llewelyn’s dogmatic Lucretian certainty. Of course John Cowper was a novelist (and in a small but not insignificant way a poet) rather than a philosopher. But he regarded his writings as propaganda for a particular vision of human life that I find compelling and refreshingly original. Not only the many self-help books he wrote for money – such as his delightful short volume on The Art of Forgetting the Unpleasant (1928) – but also his works of fiction were vehicles promoting this distinctive view of things. The central figures in John Cowper Powys’s novels inhabit a landscape that is as much a protagonist in the story as they are themselves. Weymouth is more of a presence in Weymouth Sands (1934) than any of the gallery of misfits that makes up the cast of human players. Not the actual Dorset coastal resort that a visitor would have encountered in the Thirties, of course – it is an ‘occult Weymouth’, Powys tells us at the start of the book, a place distilled from impressions of the place he had accumulated over many years from childhood onwards. Powys resembles Proust in his intense focus on the central role of sensation and memory in our lives; but unlike Proust the sensations he cherishes most are those that are gathered out of doors. Whereas Proust’s world is one of rooms and boulevards, the backdrop against which Powys’s characters enact their lives is not a human construction – it is the sky, the sea and the wind. Even Weymouth, which was certainly built by human beings, seems in the novel to have a life of its own that is independent of its architects. As in Hardy’s Wessex novels, so in the Wessex novels of John Cowper Powys – Wolf Solent (1929), A Glastonbury Romance (1933), Weymouth Sands and Maiden Castle (1936) – an imagined place shapes the lives of the characters regardless of their desires or dreams. In his Study of Thomas Hardy, D. H. Lawrence wrote of ‘a constant revelation in Hardy’s novels: that there exists a great background, vital and vivid, which matters more than the people who move upon it’. Such was Egdon Heath, ‘the great self-preservation scheme in which we must all live’ and against which any kind of individual self-assertion could only be futile and disastrous. Powys also saw humans as tiny figures moving about in a vast incomprehensible landscape, but for him the upshot was not – as it was for Lawrence – tragedy, but a kind of dogged delight in the world of which humans are such a small part. At times this willed enjoyment rises to the level of an epiphany, as when Powys’s Wolf Solent watches the sun go down:

The result of this complete extinction of the sunset was that the world became a world in which every green thing upon its surface received a five-fold addition to its greenness. It was as if an enormous green tidal wave, composed of a substance more translucent than water, had flowed over the whole earth; or rather as if some diaphanous essence of all the greenness created by long days of rain has evaporated during this one moon, only to fall down, with the approach of twilight, in a cold dark emerald-coloured dew.

Finding something of the numinous in the diurnal round, Powys did not despair of the small human world. His response was acceptance, a mix of resolute enjoyment and stoical resignation. It is not by chance that the story of his alter-ego Solent, who finds himself stuck in a web of complex relationships and unfulfilled desires, ends with him having a cup of tea. The view of things that John Cowper Powys championed could hardly be less fashionable today, for it offers no hope that humans can transform their lives. Instead, Powys has his characters re-envision the world in which they find themselves. What he was describing was a non-religious version of the contemplative life, but for him contemplation was not in the least other-worldly – the search for peace in some realm of the spirit. For him the life of contemplation meant perpetual inner warfare, an incessant struggle to snatch sensations of earthly beauty from the jaws of time. Set in provincial England somewhere between late Victorian times and the interwar years in which they were written, these novels are galleries of brilliant impressions, which have not dated. While the countryside that Powys loved has vanished, the mingling of outward sensation with the inner flux of memory and desire that he portrays in his characters is everyone’s experience. Powys was a dauntingly prolific author, producing not only many minor works but also that vast epic of the Welsh dark ages Porius (1951), which I have never been able to finish. He was also one of the twentieth century’s great diarists, recording for several decades his everyday impressions and eccentricities. (A selection from the diaries covering some of the most eventful years in Powys’s life can be found in Petrushka and the Dancer: The Diaries of John Cowper Powys, 1929–1939, selected and edited by Powys’s biographer Morine Krissdottir (1995).) With its unique combination of candour and concealment, Powys’s Autobiography (1934) must be one of the great confessional memoirs of all time. But for me the core of Powys’s work will always be the Wessex novels, since it is in these re-imaginings of the landscape he knew best that his vision of life is most powerfully conveyed. John Cowper Powys spent much of his life preaching a practical philosophy in which practical life is not very important. A charismatic figure whose lectures electrified audiences across America, he used his position as a sort of secular hedge-priest to try to convert his audiences to a life of sensation. In his Autobiography he described himself as a disciple of Pyrrho, the founder of Greek scepticism, and there is some truth in the description. For a sceptic nothing can be known of the nature of things; but the world of the senses remains an undeniable given. Powys did not promote the life of contemplation by marshalling a succession of arguments. He did not believe (any more than I do) that argumentation can change the way people live. Instead he chose to illustrate what such a life might be like, showing fictional figures – often versions of himself – fumbling their way towards acceptance. Along the way he produced some of the most life-enhancing literature in the English language.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 33 © John Gray 2012


About the contributor

John Gray’s most recent book is The Immortalization Commission: The Strange Quest to Cheat Death.

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