Caught by the River

Earth Memories

18th April 2015

earthEarth Memories by Llewelyn Powys
Little Toller Books. 176 pages, sewn paperback with flaps

Introduction by John Gray. Used with permission.

In this collection of essays the reader will find the distilled essence of Llewelyn Powys – the writer, the man and his philosophy. A lover of life who was not blind to the cruelty inherent in the scheme of things, Powys found fulfilment in travelling the world – accompanied in his later years by Alyse Gregory – and regularly returning to his native Dorset. Recounting his stay in Weymouth on his home-coming from Africa, where he had spent several years as a farmer in an attempt to recover his health, Powys writes: ‘I began once more to possess my soul.’ It was the soul of a countryman, shaped by local landscapes, which had acquired a universal philosophy in the course of his wanderings.

Llewelyn’s struggle with tuberculosis, which he seems to have contracted in his mid-twenties, defined his life and fortified his philosophy of enjoyment and endurance. Never far from death, which in ‘A Foolish Razorbill’ he describes as ‘the universal enemy, the universal deliverer of us all’, he found delight in the pursuit of ‘earth poetry’ – epiphanies of beauty in natural landscapes and their flora and fauna. His chronic physical fragility gave every moment of pleasure added value. Often he risked his health, sometimes his life, in the search for joy. While staying in a Swiss sanatorium he enjoyed romantic dalliances with women who may have been still infectious. At times his love of walking led him to test his strength to the limit or beyond. His frail health did not lead him to live prudently but instead dangerously. Much as he relished life, he was not willing to spend it running away from death. Often short of money, on occasion not far from poverty, he never yielded to the temptation to accept a less adventurous existence.

Some of the pieces – ‘A Locust Message’ and ‘A Butterfly Secret’, for example – present Powys’s philosophy in an explicit form. The way of life he advocated has been described, both by him and others, as ‘Epicurean’. Named after the third-century Greek philosopher Epicurus, it is one that advises avoiding pain as much as the pursuit of pleasure. The Epicurean sage should abstain from anything – especially romantic love – that upsets tranquillity of mind. At times involved in complex marital tangles, Llewelyn was far from being an Epicurean in this sense. One might say, without too much exaggeration, that Llewelyn was always ready to risk pain – his own, even at times that of others – for the sake of intensity in living. His Epicureanism had more in common with the way of life advocated by fin-de-siècle writers such as Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde than with that of the ascetic ancient philosopher. He was extremely fortunate in having Alyse Gregory as his life-companion, a gifted writer and for a time editor of the prestigious American literary magazine The Dial, who in 1924 gave up an independent life in New York to be his wife.

There are affinities between Llewelyn’s philosophy and that preached by his brother, John Cowper Powys, which valued rare and delicate sensations over more mundane forms of happiness. There is also something in common with the view of things expressed in the writings of the third brother in the Powys trio of writers, T.F. Powys. Unlike Llewelyn religious by nature, though without adhering to any orthodox belief, Theodore found succour in epiphanies of a different kind, equally earth-bound but suggestive of some passing spiritual revelation – ‘the moods of God’, as he called them. What all three writers have in common is disdain for the life of action and worldly success. Each defends a version of the life of contemplation, and in each case the heart of that life is the solace and joy that can be found in landscapes.

When Llewelyn presents his philosophy it is always through a description of particular places and incidents. Frolicking fox cubs, a dying seagull, a hare drinking from a small pond – these were the occasions that evoked his thoughts on the good life. When the stimulus for his thoughts comes from the human world, it is usually country folk that he describes. While his brother John found poetry in the misfits and eccentrics he portrayed living in and around Weymouth, the human figures portrayed by Llewelyn are more like those in Thomas Hardy – closer to the Earth, bent and twisted by the wind, but struggling on.

For Llewelyn humans are not set apart from the natural world. They belong in it, and share in its delights and misfortunes. A passionate materialist, he does not follow those unbelievers who imagine the world evolving towards a more harmonious state. An ugly rock on the coast between Weymouth and Lulworth, he writes in ‘The Blind Cow’, ‘has come to symbolise in my mind the obdurate reality of matter, against which the sensitive spray of life throughout the millenniums has dashed itself in vain.’ Matter crushes the hopes of all living things, but it is also the source of all happiness. Ardent and dogmatic in his rejection of supernatural hopes, Llewelyn is neither a hopeful evolutionist nor a timorous sceptic. He rejected Christianity not because of its mythical character but because he believed it to be life-denying. He viewed happiness as the supreme end of life, but he did not imagine it could ever be easy for humans to achieve that state. Stoical endurance is as much a part of the good life as enjoyment. It is this unflinching honesty that makes his vision so compelling.

The style in which he gives us his thoughts is inimitable. Some have found it ornate, but to my mind it is all the better for seeming at times a little archaic. The human world he describes exploring with his younger brother in ‘The Memory of One Day’ has vanished almost completely. Weymouth beach may not be greatly changed, but the tightly knit village communities and the grand life of the squires that Llewelyn portrays in this and other pieces is utterly remote from anything that exists today. In ‘Montacute House’, Llewelyn writes: ‘When I recall my childhood I often now feel as if I had lived two lives, one in the eighteenth century and one in the twentieth.’

His father having accepted the offer of a living as a clergyman at Montacute, Llewelyn was privileged to see at close quarters the last days of the great Reformation Phelips family in their magnificent Elizabethan house (which, as he reports, was acquired by the National Trust in 1931). His vignettes of country scenes capture a way of living that was vanishing as he wrote. Though his life was not long – he died in Switzerland in December 1939 at the age of 55 – it spanned two worlds.
We are lucky to have his sensitive record of the old rural world that would soon pass from memory. But it is Llewelyn’s celebration of nature that makes this collection so invaluable. This is how, in one of his most exquisite essays, ‘The Pond’, he invokes the everyday sights of country life to show how our spirits can be renewed by contact with nature. If we viewed the world with fresh eyes.

We should stand still as a stock to contemplate so slender a quill of air-filled horn which, with its filaments of adhering thistledown, can fan the heavy bodies of animals buoyant through the air. At every step we took we should be startled afresh.
The work of a convinced materialist, these essays celebrate the life of the spirit – not by turning to an otherworldly realm, or retreating into the shadowy depths of the mind, but by standing still and looking anew at the sun and rain and the changing seasons. As Powys shows, the human spirit is reborn when it sees the natural world as it actually is – a spectacle of inexhaustible beauty.

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