Book Review – Earth Memories, Llewlyn Powys
Review by Henry Rothwell.
Lulworth image by Anna Dillon.
‘We have forgotten how to respond to the poetry of life. The hollow, tinkling facade of life put up by noisy and trivial people stands between us and our deepest wealth.’
Llewelyn Powys, 1913.
Llewelyn Powys was a singular human, driven by atypical appetites which, though not always steering him on the wisest, safest course, provided a great deal of material for his highly inquisitive mind to consider and write about.
As a writer, he had the rare knack of shifting focus from the enormity of the universe, down into the detail of the denizens of his back garden, without disorienting the reader. In remarking on the presence of a hedgehog, he invokes, almost incidentally, its position in the cosmos: ‘Through the trembling leaves of the garden trees the summer stars shine bright on the back of the outlandish quadruped, impressing the conscious intelligence with a clear comprehension of the wealth of earth poetry revealed by the mere existence of so fabulous an urchin directing its activities by the light of the milky way.’
This extraordinary eye for ordinary detail is a distinguishing feature of his writing. At times he seems to be drawing inspiration from a not unpleasant fever-dream, a state to which he was perhaps no stranger, having endured an extended spell of pulmonary tuberculosis, for which he received treatment in a Swiss sanatorium in 1910, at the age of 26. And it’s during this period of recovery and relapse that we join him in this collection of 33 essays, most of which detail his experience of living in Dorset after his return to England.
A Struggle for Life opens this selection, the title referring to a reflection of both the author’s struggle to survive a serious malady, and the pursuit of experience which might convince him that he was truly alive. We learn here of his impatience to leave the sanatorium in which he is kept (of his own will), and the adverse effects this impatience created; his impulsive intimate relations with other patients caused repeated relapses, and his goal of walking the mountain range visible from his bedroom window served only to increase the period of his recovery and incarceration. Interestingly, it’s difficult to be frustrated by his self-destructive course, as the thread of the piece is, I think, that life is only worthwhile if you’re actually gaining experience, even at the expense of longevity.
In A Visit by Moonlight, he uses the purchase of six fresh herring as an excuse for a November nightwalk to his brother’s house, some six miles away. Here he invokes visions of the supernatural as he passes through the silent, sleeping settlement of Preston, where ‘[the] ancient Dorset village seemed lying in an absolute silence at the heart of a crystal sphere’. To Powys, on this night, it is a settlement suspended in time, and in which the only living sound was the steady ticking clock in the nearest house. He asks the question ‘In these small, low ancient chambers of births, love-makings and of deaths, chambers smelling of apples kept in drawers, and stuffy quilts – were there perhaps other beings that breathed, revenants irresistibly drawn back, with finger on lip, to the darker local corners of the house never reached by moonlight?’
Further on, he pauses at ‘Poxwell Circle’ (actually the remains of a round barrow with a retaining ring of stones) where he takes the opportunity to remove the scraps of newspaper which had adhered to the fish, and lay out his herrings in a line ‘their plump sides in the moonlight more glittering than the frost.’
He seeks a divine vision in A Pond, wondering if ‘one day, under special dispensation, I should receive from this little pool of water, from this small, green stoup of lustral water, a whisper as to the secret of life.’ He loiters, hoping for a revelation, observing the restless newts, ‘those little ancestors with orange bellies and gilt eyes who are privileged to experience the forgotten rhythm of saurian life.’ And the seasons, and composition of life in and around the pond, progress as he awaits his messenger. As with many of his essays, the pond is a nucleus for a meditation on the wonder we should feel observing the phenomena and creatures which, so often, is reduced with the onset of age and the pressures of human existence.
In A Locust Message Powys reveals a little more of his feelings towards his fellow creatures, and towards his fellow humans in particular. In this episode he plainly has more sympathy for the former, and grows quite scathing towards the unthinking follies of the latter. Whether this text expresses a permanent state of mind, or whether he was having an off day, is not entirely clear. However, given the companionable, buoyant quality of the majority of the essays in this volume, and given how our follies as a species can be maddening, if it is a lapse as opposed to a slipped mask, it’s entirely understandable.
Though Powys was drawn to the mysteries, his God rarely clutters the narrative, leaving the reader a choice to either ignore the occasional appearance of the deity, or ponder the nature of belief for themselves.
In the few photographs available, Powys himself appears as a creature rendered from untamed elements, the materials of his physical composition seemingly more allied with driftwood or stone, than common human flesh. And there is something of the elemental in his writing too.
As usual, I recommend the Little Toller edition if you can lay your hands on it. Though sadly out of print, you can get lucky in Waterstones. Second hand editions are available, but already go for a high price. There are other options, of course, with the Somerset and Dorset Essays in First Edition (1957) trading for around £20 at the time of writing.
Little Toller Books