Latin Teachers of the World Unite

A fellow reader and blogger who has wonderful taste in books was reading Wolf Solent and sent me this quote from the book: “But when I think of the misery that human beings cause one another in this world, I am thankful that I can teach Latin and let it all go.”

I am a Latin teacher in New England and was just so excited to see this wonderful, apt quote that I also shared it with my husband, who is also a Latin teacher.  The following week a copy of Wolf Solent showed up in the mail because my husband ordered it immediately after seeing the quote.  I love British literature especially from the 19th and 20th but my husband has never been a fan.  We rarely, if ever, read the same books for pleasure.  So you can imagine how thrilled I was that we would both read a book together in one of my favorite genres.  We both enjoyed Wolf Solent and plan to also read Powys ‘s biography together.

George Steiner has famously compared Powys’s writing to Tolstoy but when reading Wolf Solent I had the feeling I was occupying a world similar to those created by Dorothy Richardson or Virginia Woolf. The eponymous character of the novel, thirty-five year-old Wolf Solent, has been fired from his job as a history teacher at a grammar school in London. He finds new employment in Ramsgard as a literary assistant to a peculiar old squire who is writing a scandalous history of Dorset as well as a part time position in another grammar school. We view the world of Dorset and its quirky residents through Wolf’s private thoughts and meditations. The term “stream-of-consciousness” can be applied to the narrative, a central part of which is concerned with what Wolf calls his personal “mythology.” He enjoys taking long walks, communing with nature, and avoiding the complexities and entanglements of human society:

He asked himself lazily why it was that he found nature, especially this simple pastoral nature that made no attempt to be grandiose or even picturesque, so much more thrilling than any human society he had ever met. He felt as if he enjoyed at that hour some primitive life-feeling that was identical with what those pollard elms felt, against whose ribbed trunks the gust of wind were blowing, or with what these shiny celandine-leaves felt, whose world was limited to tree-roots and fern-fronds and damp, dark mud!

The aspect of Powys’s writing that particularly reminded me of Richardson’s Pilgrimage is the gaps or silences in the text that the reader must fill in. For example, Wolf’s newly discovered half-sister, Mattie, has a crying fit at a dinner just before her wedding. Another guest at the table mentions the wedding preparations and Mattie bursts into tears and calls for her long-dead mother. Wolf doesn’t ask any questions or wonder what is going on with his sister but, instead, he simply gets up and excuses himself from the house. So we are left, on our own, to wonder if Mattie is having a case of prenuptial nerves, is having second thoughts about her fiancé, or is just emotional because of the stress of planning a wedding. There are many such gaps in the text, some of the most interesting of which involve Wolf’s young wife, Gerda.

Wolf’s “mythology” which has kept him sheltered from the harsh realities of human life, is shattered when he settles into a rural, English town in Dorset. Hints of murder, suicide, incest, and love affairs disturb the quiet recesses of his mind into which he likes to withdraw. The various scandals in Dorset read like a Greek tragedy as Powys is fond of dabbling in the same taboo topics with which ancient mythology dealt. And whenever Wolf is upset he utters, “Ailinon!”, the ritual cry used by the distressed chorus in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon. But the greatest destruction to Wolf’s peace-of-mind is the result of his own choices: he decides to marry Gerda, the beautiful eighteen-year-old daughter of the local tombstone carver which he very soon regrets: “This killing of his ‘mythology’ how could he survive it? His ‘mythology’ had been his escape from life, his escape into a world where machinery could not reach him, his escape into a deep, green, lovely world where thoughts unfolded themselves like large, beautiful leaves growing out of fathoms of blue-green water.”

It is difficult to sympathize with Wolf, however, because he chooses to let go the one thing that would make his existence happy. Just after he marries Gerda, Wolf realizes that he is deeply in love with Christie the local bookseller’s daughter. Christie offers him all of the things his marriage is lacking—meaningful conversations with an intellectual woman who is also physically more of the type of woman to whom he is attracted. Even though he calls her his “one true love” and has the opportunity to build a life with her, his inertia and inability, and even unwillingness, to upset his carefully constructed, English life holds him back.

When Wolf is speaking with a cousin, Lord Carfax who has visited from London, he notes about the man’s appearance: “His compact, sturdy figure, his formidable, level stare, presented themselves to Wolf like the embodiment of every banked-up and buttressed tradition in English social life.” Wolf is bogged down by and unwilling to throw off his own English social life–his wife, his neat cottage in Preston Lane, and his respectable but miserable job as a teacher. He quietly moves along in his wretched days in order to keep up the semblance of his neat, carefully ordered, little life: “He kept his spirits down on purpose, visualizing the innumerable moments of discomfort, of nervous misery, that lay before him. He stretched out his hand to pluck at those wretched future moments, so that he might appropriate them now, grabble with them now.”

Happy 50th

The Powys Society marks its 50th year with an open event at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge University, on Saturday 30th March

Coming together in the late 1960s, in the full sun of counter-cultural times, there’s something cheering and reassuring about the Society’s survival through the growing chill of a cynical age.

Anyone with more than a casual interest in JCP owes a debt to the Society and all of its committee members and contributors over the years. It’s meant an ongoing stream of new material, new perspectives. The pot of enthusiasm is kept bubbling.

And best of all, for me, is that while other literary societies might confine themselves to enjoying the College’s venerable chambers where JCP and other family members were students (wouldn’t it be wonderful if it was still possible to see the wooden beam at Corpus where one of his peers had carved the words “Pray for the Soul of John Cowper Powys”?) – the Society will be heading for the meadows: to Coe Fen and the old wall running along the back of the Fitzwiiliam Museum. It’s one of those ‘little places’ that played a large part in making Powys write the kind of fiction he did, and why there is a Society at all.

More Little Places

Robert Macfarlane suggests his own list of nameless places, more resonant and luminous to him than a range of mountains.

“There would be the ‘Dumble’, the steep-sided ditch way in Nottinghamshire, in which I played with my brother when we were young. There would be the little birch grove near Langdale in Cumbria, whose trees I had climbed and swung between. There would be the narrow strip of broadleaf woodland at the base of the Okement valley in Devon, where I saw a blue-backed falcon slip from an oak and glide off out of sight – a merlin! Such a good guardian for such a magical place.”

It made me think about what would be in my list. I could say nights on the Venice lagoon or views from the Monsal Dale viaduct near Bakewell, but it just wouldn’t be true. Most potent for me would be:

– Sandy Market Square’s bus stop, looking out over the rooftops to the sand hills

– A flight of crumbling old steps near Hitchin town centre

– The promenade at Bognor Regis and its streetlights

– The woods above Woburn Sands, looking down over the town

What a gift it is that such humdrum places can become supercharged with poetic meaning. 

The Little Places

In The Wild Places (2007), Robert MacFarlane ponders the importance of our encounters with place. Those often unromantic but intensely meaningful places we all hold a store of.

“Most of these places, however, were not marked as special on any map. But they became special by personal acquaintance. A bend in the river, a junction of four fields, a climbing tree, a stretch of old hedgerow or a fragment of woodland glimpsed from a road regularly driven along – these might be enough. Or fleeting experiences, transitory, but still site-specific: a sparrow hawk sculling low over a garden or street, or the fall of evening light on a stone, or a pigeon feather caught on a strand of spider’s silk, and twirling in mid-air like a magic trick…

“Little is said publicly about these encounters. This is partly because it is hard to put language  to such experiences. And partly, I guessed, because those who experience them feel no strong need to broadcast their feelings…They would return to people as memories, recalled while standing on a station platform packed tightly as a football crowd, or lying in bed in a city, unable to sleep, while the headlights of cars pan round the room.

“It seemed to me that these nameless places might in fact be more important than the grander, wild lands that for so many years had gripped my imagination. Taken together, the little places would make a map that could never be drawn by anyone, but which nevertheless existed in the experience of countless people.” 

It’s a passing consideration for MacFarlane, a small part of his efforts to make sense of what constitutes the ‘wild’ in modern Britain, what it’s value might be. For JCP, of course, these issues are an obsession. Our relationships with places, and the moments of heightened consciousness they evoke, are full of secrets, and secrets that are fundamental to everything that is most affecting, even somehow magical, in human culture.

But as MacFarlane points out, experiences of the little places aren’t talked about. Best not. It’s all too vague and odd-sounding, particularly when it comes to attributing actual significance to attitudes and how lives are lived.

The celandine time

Celandines remind me more of John Cowper Powys than the coming of spring: the combination of vivid colour and our northern chill, the surprises from damp, earth-smelling grass. It’s the kind of mood that dominates much of Wolf Solent – which always feels like a springtime book (Glastonbury for summer, Porius for autumn?).

Celandines work for Powys something like TS Eliot’s April lilac, mixing memory with desire.

 

        After all

        There are moments,

        Even for the most unhappy,

        When, out of some tiny crevice,

        Some small overlooked chink in the great Wine-Vat,

        The good liquor spurts forth

        Into our mouth.

 

        And we remember

        How long ago the rain-wet celandines

        Pierced us with memories,

        With memories of things deeper than sleep or death

        And older than all the orbits of the planets.

        Over the tossing poplars,

        Over the misty plough-lands,

        Over the dreamy meadows,

        Those memories came;

        Nor did they melt to nothing

        Even when, from the witch-girl’s window,

        The lamp-light streamed across the night.

 

        And we remember

        How from a long straight road –

        Somewhere – no matter where –

        While at our feet silver-weed and dandelion

        Laughed out of the hot dust,

        Somewhere – no matter where –

        We heard it; we knew it;

        The Sea! The Sea! The Sea!

 

JCP, ‘Compensation’ (a poem which resonated with Iris Murdoch, who used the last line for the title of her 1978 novel).

Hedgehogs?

One of my favourite articles from The Powys Journal in recent years must be Timothy Hyman’s recollections of the theatrical literary critic G Wilson Knight – best known for his scintillating works on Shakespeare. 

The current chairman of the Society remembers first meeting Wilson Knight at the inaugural Society conference in 1972, held to mark the centenary of John Cowper Powys’s birth, and getting to know a charming man who “radiated a kind of benign simplicity”; “I wanted to be to Wilson Knight what Porius was to Merlin/Cronos.”

It’s a piece full of insights into one of the most celebrated and rousing of Powys commentators, as well as glimpses of an appealingly eccentric character. Like the Powys conference in 1984 when Wilson Knight treated attendees to a performance of speeches by Timon of Athens wearing a reddish wig, when he finished up his recital by stripping naked (he was very proud of his muscular torso). And this memory of a visit to Wilson Knight’s home:

“So we were in this small kitchen together, he doddery and I clumsy, and every time I made a wrong move he would emit a strange loud sound, a sort of juddering shriek, which made me break out in giggles. At the end of the meal, which I’m afraid I left mostly uneaten, he just heaved the contents of my plate out of the kitchen window and into the thick tangle of bushes. He saw my surprise: ‘Well, there’s never anything left in the morning.’ / ‘So what do you think eats it?’ He replied, in a sweet sing-song, ‘I —don’t — know — hedgehogs?’” 

(The Powys Journal 2015, XXV)

Powysian walking #2

Walking Dorset’s Purbeck Hills was a commonplace activity for the Powys family, just part of the ordinary daily routines for those who lived in that part of the countryside and their visitors. Powys essays and diaries are filled with reminiscences of recreational jaunts over fields to the cliffs, following narrow fox-paths over dewy meadows in the mornings, the soaring flights of sea-birds that greeted them; the nights they would climb hills to make a moonlight vigil over a frosty landscape.

For anyone who’s walked the coastal paths between Lulworth Cove and Weymouth, or taken any of the routes inland across the ridges of hills into East Chaldon, there’s something’s remarkable missing from these accounts. Many of these ancient pathways are vertiginous, and to follow any of them for any real distance takes a monstrous effort. At any time of the year there will be lean athletic types jogging their way from one peak to the next, sometimes squaddies set a yomping challenge – but for the average walker it can be brutal. Summer or winter the challenge is the same. 

There’s nothing disingenuous about the family accounts of epic walks over the Purbecks, not an iota of false modesty. John Cowper Powys was open about his dislike for the attitudes among competitive, health-fad walkers of the 1920s and 30s. The point is that John and his brothers and sisters were perhaps a different physical breed to ourselves, more accepting of physical discomfort, more weather-stained, more robust. We’re used to easy comforts and instant treats, a modern ability to avoid the petty inconveniences of the material world. The resilience to the Purbecks – something earthy, salt-crusted and blistered – is translated, I think, into John’s writing, and into a simple principle that Powys readers know very well. Substantial effort, even angst, is repaid by what’s seen and experienced over the course of the journey.

A New Year

Tuesday 1 January 1935 (written while living in the top floor of a house on Dorchester’s High Street):

“Up at 8. Lit fires took tea to the T.T. Found her in splendid Good Spirits telling of how she put head out of window and saw…young people in evening dress & heard them bid each other Happy New Year in such crystal-clear voices…And she came & opened the Attic window so that I could hear the Fordington Bells that except for Maiden Castle thrill me most of all things in this town. And so I heard them, ringing wild & free out of the darkness…At 4.30 the Black & I got his licence at the Post Office & set out to within half a mile of Maiden Castle. We both walked on air – we were both so thrilled. Why does Maiden Castle thrill me so?”

[From Petrushka and the Dancer: The Diaries of John Cowper Powys 1929-1939]

 

Wisdom from the couch

Tuesday 25 December 1934:

“As I lay on my couch yesterday before tea watching the T.T. hang up her Wreaths & Major Stanley’s Holly she said she wondered why I looked on without helping in this task & why I had helped her so little over all her Xmas activities! This question nonplussed me totally. It is odd how little we know! But I suppose I behave as my Father used to do at Montacute – watching all our activities with benevolent but detached interest.”

Endlessly fascinating author. No use whatsoever around the house at Christmas.

Keith’s Companions

Powys’s modus operandi was wild and woolly. He was blown this way and that by inspiration, quirks and curiosities, able to dip into some seemingly bottomless pockets of literary knowledge, including Biblical learning and Classical works. 

W. J. Keith’s Reader’s Companions offer something of a port in a storm. To the eccentric world of Powysland he brought a clear head and a willingness to pay attention to fine detail, to explicate each obscure reference, old-fashioned phrasings, Welsh mythology and Latin terms. 

The latest Powys Society Newsletter includes tributes to Bill Keith (1934-2018) who sadly died in the summer. It’s another much-valued champion lost – not just in terms of the Companions, the introductory guides to Glastonbury Romance and Owen Glendower, but also his unerringly thoughtful and readable contributions to the Society’s Journal.

Keith’s Companions for A Glastonbury Romance, Owen Glendower, Porius and Autobiography are available in pdf format, or to order bound, printed copies via the excellent bilingual La Lettre Powysienne site.