Rediscovering the Essays of Llewelyn Powys

Columns

By Jeff Bursey

Llewelyn Powys (1884-1939) suffered for almost thirty years with tuberculosis, the disease that eventually killed him, and in his relatively short span of time as a writer produced essays, stories, poetry, a novel and a kind of memoir. After his death, works continued to come out. Despite that popularity, and a resurgence of interest a few decades back, he is not well known, and two of his brothers, John Cowper and Theodore Francis (T.F.), more prolific and considerable writers, have only a somewhat more noticeable profile. Publisher Oneworld has done a favour to readers, then, by presenting in A Struggle for Life almost thirty essays from over the course of Llewelyn Powys’ career, with a useful and informative introduction by Anthony Head. This book feels particularly appropriate for summer reading.

The January-February issue of American Book Review focused on “The Essay’s Future,” and in her introduction to the topic, “Essay Hunger – Devouring Essays in the 21st Century,” Lynn Z. Bloom writes: “as a culture, a nation, we hunger for essays, for essays catch us in the act of being human.” She further states: “But it’s the essayist’s engaging rendering, the individual point of view, that makes readers care – perhaps vitally – about some topic they may never have thought about before.”

Conscious though we are of self-advertising, confessional bloggers, a multitude of people clamouring for our attention, our “likes,” and our re-tweeting, at first we may resist, as Head puts it, Powys’ “manners-maketh-man idealism”: it’s one that encourages through example, and with self-deprecatory humour, the extraction of an ethical lesson (as in “A Blackamoor! A Blackamoor!”) from the narration of a seemingly mundane occurrence.

While his confrontations with authority will appeal to new readers, at times Powys writes about customs or people that will strike others as irredeemably stuck in the mire of history. Separately, his attitudes towards Africans must be regarded within a framework comprised of knowledge of his upbringing and the times in which he wrote. If we were to judge Powys as old-fashioned and refuse, in Bloom’s words, to engage with him, to open ourselves to his individuality, complete with flaws and fine qualities, we would miss a great deal.

Powys’ learnedness, drawn from study and experiential material, reveals an abiding intelligence that is sensible, sober where necessary, at times rhapsodic, or frank, and, like Whitman, contradictory; it can be quiet, probing, elegiac, sharp, and controversial within the same page, while his word choice pays attention to rhythm. You can hear these sentences as if they’re being spoken to you off the cuff, and to make writing come across as effortless requires craft and art.

Many of the essays are situated in England, British East Africa (what later became Kenya, Uganda and other countries), Switzerland and the United States. A few are slight, such as “A Leopard by Lake Elmenteita” and “Some African Birds,” provoked by Powys’ stay, for his health, at his brother Willie’s farm in Africa. In the first he kills a leopard that is attacking the homestead, while “Kiboko” shows him hunting hippopotami. “In Africa the Dark” is a more substantial and revealing piece, combining his intrusion into and misunderstanding of Masai death customs with the hunt for a lion. Whatever one may feel about such a pursuit, the tension is palpable and effectively done. For three miles the two brothers trace the lion, which is dragging a heavy trap that failed to catch him.

All at once, with terrifying suddenness, the silence of the jungle was broken by the most appalling roar I had ever heard in my life. I shall never forget my surprise at the actual volume of sound… I literally felt the earth shake and tremble under my feet. In broad daylight, with the sun glancing down through the tropical foliage, it was simply paralysing; every live thing, animal or human, for miles round must have heard it… I was simply scared out of my wits, and stood there impotent, incapable, baby-like, with a succession of cold thrills running down from my scalp to the end of my spine.

This isn’t Green Hills of Africa. Indeed, in “A Defence of Cowardice” Powys remarks: “…I should like to rid the earth of all brave men, to organize a great rebellion of cowards so that on some dark St Bartholomew’s night we might suddenly by treachery, by hitting below the belt and stabbing in the back, rid the round world of all these vigorous mischief-makers.”

That cowardice is heightened for effect. In the opening essay, “A Struggle for Life,” one of the book’s most affecting, Powys forecasts, with customary grim humour that keeps self-pity at a distance, that TB will make him “a member of that recumbent congregation of all nationalities who lie on their shoulder blades…” Later, in Italy, when laid low for some time by coughing up blood and passing a kidney stone, he can do little all day but lie in the hotel bed and gaze across the street at prostitutes sitting in front of mirrors in their houses. He has no thought that they’ve noticed him. “However, when the doctor at length allowed me to get up, they crowded to their window sills like so many coloured birds in an aviary and began clapping their hands, overjoyed at my recovery. I waved and threw kisses at each one of them in turn.”

It’s a brave thing to endure a death sentence for many years, and Powys addresses that in the closing essay, “Reflections of a Dying Man.” (“It is by the rarest chance that we have ever lived, and does it then become us to grudge when the hour arrives for us to walk the way of all nature?”) There’s no heavy sadness on his part, yet our awareness of his fate informs the reception of his work. Mortality certainly contributed to Powys’ delight in the natural world (“When I Consider the Heavens,” “A Pond,” “An Owl and a Swallow,” among other examples), as well as books, bookmen and artists (Thomas Bewick, Laurence Sterne, Richard Hakluyt and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner). Village life is nicely rendered in “Out of the Past,” which relates Powys’ visit to the home of his ancestors, while “An Ancient French House” joins his love of nature with his fondness for Montaigne and the murderous history of an old château.

Barbed wit and poetic images leap out unexpectedly. In “The Epicurean Vision,” one of a set of essays promoting a mix of atheism, hedonism and paganism over Christianity (and every other religion), one passage begins with broad-brush criticism: “As expressed by the Apostle Paul and the church militant, Christianity’s purpose has ever been to discredit life upon earth. There is something mean and perfidious about such a discipline.” The accuracy of this charge is buried by the next line: “Christianity has the eye of a sick cat, anxious, unreconciled and full of discontent with the lawns and sun-warmed garden spaces.” The sudden begetting of a wonderful image isn’t meant to indicate that Powys indulges in rhetorical tricks to slide an argument past a reader, though that can’t be entirely ruled out, but more to underline how his imaginative power can catch us off guard no matter how prepared we may be by the gracefulness of his lines.

A fair portion of A Struggle for Life contains passionate arguments in favour of the senses, the sensual, and the material world, and the fleeting time given us to enjoy them. Hopes for an afterlife are useless. The violent discussions about religion versus science rage on today, and his writing offers a perspective on that, but to my mind Llewelyn Powys’ emphasis on nature would please and enlighten anyone concerned with the natural and man-made disasters affecting every part of Earth. He is due to be discovered again. “The Epicurean Vision” merges the emphasis on the senses, the search for happiness, and an outlook on the fate of this world, where ice sheets melt on Greenland, species become extinct before our eyes, and extended periods of extreme weather deprive us of food and sufficient amounts of fresh water.

It is likely enough that human life has no moral significance – that nothing really matters. The long travail of evolution, the procreant urge, may have no purpose in view that concerns us. Born at all adventure, we and all that is animate on the face of the earth may be predestined for a meaningless annihilation. Our wisest course may well be to enjoy our hour of sunshine without thought or plan. All life is carried along in this perpetual flux. The poppy lifts its head to the sun, and its petals fall. Flies he never so high, the eagle comes to the earth at the last a sorry bundle of unbuoyant feathers. Ox and ass, mouse and man, none escape. The very planet itself, for all its encircling tumbler-pigeon flights, is doomed.


Oneworld Classics | 224 pages |  $19.00 | paper | ISBN # 978-1847491695

2 Comments

  1. Anthony Head
    Posted September 16, 2012 at 1:39 am | Permalink

    I was very pleased to read Jeff Bursey’s intelligent and thoughtful review of this book and to see Llewelyn Powys being given some serious attention in a journal of such quality and distinction. Powys, like his novelist brothers John Cowper and Theodore, still tends to be passed over by the broader academic and literary-critical establishment, but he was one of the most versatile essayists of the last century, an elegant and thought-provoking writer well-known in his day on both sides of the Atlantic. If he were more widely known today, his championship of the sensual delights of existence and his “carpe diem” philosophy would strike a popular chord, in these anti-religious and ultra-religious times. His wife, Alyse Gregory, was another fine writer who has been unduly neglected (I discuss aspects of their relationship in my Introduction to a recent reissue of her second novel “King Log and Lady Lea” by the Sundial Press). It’s a moot point who influenced whom the more, but Alyse’s own essays, both the literary ones she wrote for “The Dial” when she was that pioneering journal’s editor in the early 1920s and especially the later ones on such topics as Marriage, Friendship, Melancholy, and Death published in “Wheels on Gravel” in 1938 are fully deserving of a wide readership. After Llewelyn’s death in 1939 Alyse devoted the rest of her own life, with typical self-deprecation, to ensuring the survival and wider publication of his own work. It is very gratifying to see that Jeff is bringing Llewelyn Powys to wider attention, and readers who follow up his recommendation – or are lucky enough to stumble across others writings by Powys – will be amply rewarded.

    • Posted September 30, 2012 at 1:39 am | Permalink

      Anthony, I agree wholeheartedly that Llewelyn Powys, and Alyse Gregory, as well as all the Powys family who wrote, as well as their many lateral connections, deserve renewed attention.

      Thanks to your work in creating this selection, this may be starting to happen.

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Jeff Bursey


Jeff Bursey is a Canadian literary critic, and author of the picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press, 2015), and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (Enfield & Wizenty, 2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His academic criticism has appeared in Henry Miller: New Perspectives (Bloomsbury, 2015). Bursey is a special correspondent for Numero Cinq and an associate editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon. His reviews have appeared in Canadian Notes & Queries, Rain Taxi, and many other publications.