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.  

The Family Christmas

John’s brother Llewelyn’s descriptions of the Powys family Christmas can be magical: old traditions lit with a fireside glow; the contrast with the austere rural landscape.

“The celebrations had their beginning on Christmas Eve with the decorating of the horns in the hall and the pictures in the dining room. All the day long my brother and I [not John, who was 12 years older than Llewelyn, but Bertie] would have been busy collecting in two large baker’s baskets, moss and fir branches for the church and holly and mistletoe for our own home…

“At midnight, with the appearance of the carol singers, the real Christmas celebrations would begin. The men – masons, farm labourers, quarrymen and gardeners – would stand with their lanterns outside the front door to sing ‘Joy to the World’…At the first notes of the concertina, flute and harmonium sounding along the dark rambling passage, we children would hasten to the dining room, and collecting on the sofa, wrapped in dressing gowns and blankets, would peer out into the darkness…How strange it was to look out upon the drive, with the tennis lawn obscurely visible beyond the wicker-work fence, and to hear the ancient strains redolent of man’s desperate hopes, rise up from the secure Victorian garden into the sky, into eternity!”

(Christmas Lore and Legend, Yuletide Essays by Llewelyn Powys)

Encountering Powys #1

Powys really does confound the literary critics. Which box do you place him in? Memorably described as a “leviathan who laughs at the critics modest rod and line”, Powys hits you with his ability to evoke the coarse and the sublime, the mystical and the mundane. He can change the way you look at an ancient stone or a sweeping landscape, a blade of grass or a blackbird. He can stop you in your tracks. I love the guy. He can be as close to bad and good and over the top as every human being. He writhes about in prose that can seem clotted and then transparent. He is often intensely ‘wonder-full’. He has a grasp of human frailties that makes Tolstoy’s preachings seem superficial.

He erupted into my life with a huge impact; I was in a London bookshop, in 1964, and there was a new Penguin Modern Classic, Wolf Solent, with a splendid cover painting by Paul Nash. I began reading it in the shop and I have never been so instantly grabbed. Powys has never left me since that man on the Waterloo steps, and the solo journey he makes in the railway carriage to Dorset. A fly walks across a railway picture; this evokes another layer of memory. Yes, compartments on trains had pictures to look at, under glass. They might be photographs or paintings. And that Wolf Solent journey took me to Glastonbury Romance, Maiden Castle, Porius, Rodmoor, Weymouth Sands, Wood And Stone and Owen Glendower. He is truly enigmatic, almost other worldly rather than un-worldly. From a grain of sand to the Milky Way, the reader can look over this man’s shoulder and sense what he is writing and where his imagination will take us. Porius is essential; it is a fairytale with a profound message for anyone who catches on. Is it his masterpiece? I don’t care. But it is the best illustration of that historical essence; the idea that before we existed was a stream of consciousness that occupied the same forest that we now walk through. And it’s every bit as muddled as it ever was.

While acknowledging he is a such a loveable obsessive nutcase, I am entirely willing to take him on completely; although I’m talking about his books, rather than the ‘first cause’ spiritual stuff. A Glastonbury Romance is a classic example of the ‘flawed masterpiece’. It is strung out to the point, almost, of irritation; it has elements of mumbo-jumbo in the Johnny Geard character, but that same Johnny is wonderfully convincing and believable. Certainly it drags this reader on because it is peppered with wild and wonderful passages of inspiration and imagination, of the celebration of language. Love him or hate him, all his novels contain rich, complex characters and glorious writing. And I certainly do love him, with his whole heart, his acceptance of human life in the spirit of ‘absolutely undogmatic ignorance’. That’s his philosophy in brief form. Wolf Solent might well be my favourite single entertainment of Powys, but Glastonbury Romance is damn close to being my number one as well. It is just a bit too huge and untidy a sprawl compared to Wolf. 

Physicist Alan Lightman wrote: “From all the physical and sociological evidence, the world appears to run not on absolutes but on relatives, context, change, impermanence, and multiplicity. Nothing is fixed. All is in flux.” I go along with that; ‘nature’ is beyond all understanding. The closer we get to an absolute final clear answer we are confronted with a further complication. Organised religion appeals to some people because it offers a graspable answer to the mystery of life. But to me that is to cauterise further attempts to find that elusive ‘First Cause’ as John Cowper Powys puts it.