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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