The Comic Vision of T. F. Powys
The Powys Review, 4, 2 (summer 1984), pp. 72-6
Please note that I have made occasional alterations to the phrasing in this article, in the interests of clarity.
T. F. Powys has suffered not only from neglect but, where attention has been given, from a twofold misapprehension. He was taken up briefly by the critical journal Scrutiny in the thirties; thereafter a consensus somehow emerged that his art was ‘folk’ and ‘tragic’. There having been little challenge to the application of these terms, he is still taken by those who feel no real obligation to read him as a gloomy modern equivalent of Bunyan.
I wish to argue that in terms of both structure and vision Powys is a profoundly comic writer. I do not mean simply that his work contains humorous observations and incidents but that he consciously uses the traditional pattern of comedy, based ultimately on fertility myth and ritual, for his own serious purpose.
Q. D. Leavis did some unwitting damage early on: linking Powys with the rural memoir writer George Sturt, she spoke simply of the rich idiom of ‘the old culture of the English countryside’ as opposed to the ‘inflexible and brutal’ jargon of modern suburban life: spoke of that and of little else.(1) But only a decade ago Raymond Williams felt able to dismiss even such a rich work as Mr. Weston’s Good Wine under the category of ‘regional novel’.(2)
An early booklet-length study of the fiction tells us that we ‘must take account of Powys’s preoccupation with Death.’(3) Thirty years later, with little evidence of any general interest in between, the first full-¬length account of his fiction appears, but only to conclude that ‘he was ultimately a tragic writer’.(4)
The one critical comment on T. F. Powys which, for me at any rate, comes close to apprehending his true spirit is brief and parenthetical, made by William Empson in his account of the development of the pastoral form: ‘his object in writing about country people is to get a simple enough material for his purpose, which one might sum up as a play with Christian imagery backed only by a Buddhist union of God and death.’(5) Here we are at least beyond folk wisdom; and it would be a strange Buddhist who saw anything as tragic other than man’s attempt to resist the fact of mortality.
We probably all know where the title Mr. Weston’s Good Wine comes from: Emma by Jane Austen. Let us remind ourselves, though, of the specific context. It is chapter 15, where Emma is forced to sit in a two-seater carriage with the odious Mr. Elton as they bid farewell to their evening’s host, Mr. Weston. Emma’s interest in the clergyman has hitherto amounted only to plotting his marriage to her young protegee Harriet Weaver. Otherwise she finds him simply tiresome, and now she is rightly apprehensive: ‘She believed he had been drinking too much of Mr. Weston’s good wine, and felt sure that he would want to be talking nonsense.’ Far worse than this occurs though: Mr. Elton seizes Emma by the hand and begins making violent protestations of love to her.
Emma, of course, belongs to the narrative genre which we call comedy: not merely because of its author’s sense of humour but also, and more importantly, because of its structure. From the Roman dramatists Plautus and Terence and from Shakespeare we know that structure to be based on a move from ignorance to knowledge, frustration to fulfilment, isolation to identity. Emma, once she has understood the error of her presumption, may marry Mr. Knightley. The episode to which we have referred offers one illustration of that crucial period of sexual confusion which precedes the triumph of harmony.(6)
T. F. Powys, who knew the cultural anthropology of Frazer well, would have understood that comedy ultimately — Jane Austen’s included — derives from fertility myth and ritual. It is essentially about the tension between winter and spring, death and life. Just as in tragedy the fertility god disappears and in a sense dies, so in comedy he revives and reappears to be restored to the fertility goddess. Whether we know that god as Dionysus, Adonis or Tammuz, we say the original power is that of Eros. On the psychoanalytical level also the structure of comedy is clearly erotic: the drive towards the release of tension. Hence nothing — even the author, unless he wishes to make a display of being ironic — is allowed to prevent the sexual realization at the end, no matter how deep and intractable the period of confusion at the centre of the play or novel. Unlike normal life, art may present us with the triumph of the pleasure over the reality principle.
Here we are obviously invoking the work of Sigmund Freud. But if we take death itself to be the ultimate reality with which we must come to terms, we may see Freud in his later work as coming to see sexuality and mortality as complementary rather than antagonistic. That is, he suggested that all behaviour is an attempt to release tension: a release which may seem be temporarily attained by means of sexual activity but which is only final in death. In that sense Thanatos comprehends Eros.
All this may seem a long way from fiction which has seemed to most critics a folksy by-product of English literature. Let us be clear about what exactly happens in Mr. Weston’s Good Wine.
I think that it is fair to say that Mr. Weston, the benevolent old wine merchant, is God; his assistant Michael is the archangel of the same name. They come in their Ford car to the village of Folly Down with a list of potential customers. In order to sell their product they stop all the clocks at seven in the evening: time gives way to eternity. There are two wines; or rather the wine is of two strengths; the lighter one is that of love, the darker that of death. As Mr. Weston himself says, his wine is ‘as strong as death and as sweet as love’. Love and death, Eros and Thanatos, are described by Powys elsewhere as ‘the two great realities’.
So the central symbol of the book is wine. But an attendant one is that of the spreading oak tree and its mossy bed beneath. Here various virgins, procured by the evil Mrs. Vosper, are seduced by Martin and John, the sons of Squire Mumby. One such was Ada Kiddle, who subsequently drowned herself: she drank the dark wine of Thanatos. The blame for all such sin is attributed by the village to the sexton, Mr. Grunter: he is Adam, still attempting to act as if he were in Eden, seeing no shame in his reputation (which he rather enjoys).
Customers for the light wine include Luke Bird and Jenny Bunce, who are given to each other in marriage and so testify to the power of Eros. ‘To be happy with another, in all the excitement and the glamour of the spring, is the proper thing to do. Luke longed in his heart to commit, to rejoice in the commital of, the most wanton excesses of love.’ But there are others who yearn to succumb to Thanatos, notably the vicar Mr. Grobe, who lost his faith after the death of his wife. His daughter Tamar, who is obsessed by the possibility of an angelic lover, is finally carried off into the skies by Michael himself: in her fulfilment Eros and Thanatos are shown to be one.
An important part of Mr. Weston’s task is to bring the Mumby sons to repentance. Having revealed his true identity to Grunter, he leads John and Martin to the graveyard, where they expect to find his good wine but where the sexton has unearthed Ada Kiddle:
‘My good wine, gentlemen,’ said Mr. Weston.
Though the worms had destroyed Ada’s beauty, her shape was still there, and Mr. Grunter regarded her compassionately. He saw Ada as if she were a picture, which is the way that all wise countrymen regard the world or anything in it that seems a little curious or out of the common …
‘You are a liar and a cheat,’ Martin shouted at the wine merchant.
‘You promised us wine, and you show us the rotted corpse of a whore. Is this your wine?’
Mr. Weston said nothing.(7)
Powys may perhaps be dismissed as having a morbid, even a sadistic streak (consider his story ‘The Baked Mole’). But to do so is to miss his real thematic interest: not a passing attention to sexual life as a sort of spice by which to relish all the more the fear of death but a realization of the final identity of the two great realities of Eros and Thanatos.
At the close of the novel, Mr. Weston himself is ready to drink the strong wine of death: he orders Michael to set fire to the car:
Michael did as he was told. In a moment a fierce tongue of flame leaped up from the car; a pillar of smoke rose above the flame and ascended into the heavens. The fire died down, smouldered, and went out.
Mr. Weston was gone.(8)
The Biblical associations are hard to ignore. Yet throughout the novel their persistence has not overridden the profane, rural idiom which pleased Mrs. Leavis; and of course its strength has to be acknowledged, without making the mistake of justifying the novel solely on such terms.
What is more pertinent is to demonstrate the way in which the ‘folk’ idiom is informed by the spiritual dimension; or conversely the way in which that dimension is substantiated by that idiom. Consider the moment at which Grunter (Adam) recognizes Mr. Weston (God):
‘I have work for you to do, John Grunter,’ he said.
‘And who be thee to command folk?’ asked the clerk.
Mr. Weston uncovered his head and looked at him. Until that moment he had kept on his hat.
‘Who be thee?’ asked Mr. Grunter in a lower tone …
‘I know thee now,’ said Mr. Grunter.
‘Then tell no man,’ said Mr. Weston.
Mr. Grunter looked happy; he even grinned.
‘I did fancy at first,’ he said, in a familiar tone, ‘that thee was the devil, and so I did walk down church aisle behind ‘ee to see if thee’s tail did show.’(9)
Mr. Weston’s disappearance at the end of the novel is clearly not a touch of homely whimsy: God enters into the death which he has created; or, following Empson, God and death are shown to be identical. We may be reminded of an earlier tale by Powys, ‘The Only Penitent’, in which Tinker Jar (God) asks Mr. Hayhoe (Adam) for forgiveness for creating all the evils of the world and in particular for allowing his own only son to be crucified. Mr. Hayhoe is only able to grant it because his effort to counter Jar’s confession with a reminder of the good things in the world — love included — fails in the face of Jar’s reminder of the fact of individual annihilation. That is why Mr. Hayhoe has finally to forgive Jar: he invented death. It is God we must thank for death.
Mr. Weston’s Good Wine is not, then, a tragedy in any acceptable sense. True, it concentrates to a large extent on the aftermath of the death of Ada Kiddle — though that death has taken place before the story begins. True, Mr. Grobe and his daughter accept the darker wine; but there is no sense of protest or loss. Where death is presented not as the terrible contradiction of life and love but as their realization, ‘tragedy’ is not an appropriate term. This book is in fact a comedy in the sense that it follows the structure of pagan fertility myth, involving the ever-recurrent springtime victory of life over death; Powys simply accepts that the corresponding autumnal victory of death over life is not a fate to be feared but a comic resolution more desirable even than that of love.
Given this emphasis it is not surprising that he makes constant allusion to another book, profoundly comic in structure, which long before that of T. F. Powys resolves in its own way the dichotomy between love and death: I mean the Christian Bible.
In traditional Christian theology there is an inextricable link between sexual love and the fact of death. Put simply, angels do not breed; they are immortal and immaterial. Only fallen man, with the animals, must reproduce his kind and so attempt an immortality of generation. According to St. Augustine, Adam and Eve enjoyed a sexless joy in Eden, but after the fall they entered into a world of individual death and birth, death and birth . . . and so a world of sex. Thus T. F. Powys presents us with the image of the mossy oak tree bed on which both wines are drunk. The possibility of such identity — sex and death as one — gives his language its paradoxical force. This brings him close not so much to Bunyan as to Shakespeare (Lear’s ‘I will die like a smug bridegroom’) and Donne (‘A bracelet of bright hair about the bone’).
Again, in Unclay John Death is sent by God to gather up Joseph Bridle and Susie Dawe, but loses his parchment of names and so spends the whole summer resting from his usual labour of ‘scything’ and finds delight in love. As he explains to the parson’s wife:
‘When a deathly numbness overcomes a body, when the flesh corrupts, and the colour of the face is changed in the grave, then I have done for a man more than love can do, for I have changed a foolish and unnatural craving into everlasting content. In all the love feats, I take my proper part. When a new life begins to form in the womb, my seeds are there, as well as Love’s. We are bound together in the same knot. I could be happy lying with you now, and one day you will be glad to lie with me.’(10)
It is to miss the point, as does H. Coombes, to protest that there is too little distinction drawn in this novel between the erotic and the morbid intrigues of the protagonist.
As we have suggested earlier, in the later Freud also we find identity where others –the earlier Freud included — have seen conflict. Eros and Thanatos have a common end; or rather the final fulfilment of Eros is in Thanatos. Hence Powys’s fiction, which owes as much to Freud as to Augustine, amounts to an interrogation of the comic structure and in doing so offers us a new comic vision. In the major novels — Mr. Weston and Unclay — as in Fables and the more realistic stories such as ‘Lie Thee Down, Oddity! – the final victory is not over death but over fear of death. Death is truly a consummation devoutly to be wished.
Hence T. F. Powys is no disciple of Nietzsche: he sees the eternal recurrence of individual birth, experience and death as acceptable only because the recurrence is not eternal for the individual. He is closer to Swift: nothing strikes him as worse than the fate of the immortal Struldbruggs. Life is only possible given death; death is the very form of life. The difference from Swift is that for Powys a positive emerges: we begin to live only when we know we will die.
But to return to the Christian perspective: Coombes’s book contains page after page of conjecture as to whether T. F. Powys was an orthodox believer. Perhaps such efforts miss the mark: what matters more is to see how he adapts the language of orthodox belief to his own ends.
The good wine that Mr. Weston brings to Folly Down must surely remind us of that drunk at the last supper by Jesus. The early Christians, conscious of that event, understood that their communion, their affirmation of community in the person of the risen Christ, must involve the sharing of wine. The term for such an occasion was ‘Agape’ or ‘love feast’, from the Greek word for spiritual love. Scriptural commentators often suggest that Agape is something opposed to Eros, but strictly speaking it comprehends it. It also comprehends Thanatos, since what makes the love feast possible is the conviction that death, the last enemy, is no longer a threat given the resurrection of Christ.
What T. F. Powys does is to work within the language of orthodox Christian belief but without subscribing to its premises. It is not so much that he agrees with Nietzsche that God is dead but that he agrees with Schopenhauer (and so with the Buddhism of Empson’s aside) that God is death.
When Luke Bird and Jenny Bunce drink the lighter wine, and find fulfilment in Eros, they enjoy a foretaste of the darker wine of Thanatos, of the final mature acknowledgement of the fact that we are born to die. The comedy of T. F. Powys is Christian in structure; but what matters is the way he draws on Christian mythology in order to explore the depths of the human psyche and to reveal the spiritual succour it can draw from aligning itself with the natural order.
With most writers it is difficult, or impossible, to deduce a vision from a structure. The author of King Lear is not necessarily a cosmic pessimist; after all he is also author of All’s Well That Ends Well. But Powys is the exception who proves the rule. We may wince when we come across gift books containing the ‘wit and wisdom’ of Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson and others. Powys, though, is one of the few writers who does seem to insist that we consider the beauty of his art to be its truth. Thus we can we imagine a gift book, admittedly not one that everybody would find congenial, in which we find the following from Unclay:
When the sun of Love rises, and a man walks in glory, he may be sure that a shadow approaches him — Death.
Love creates and separates; Death destroys and heals.(11)
With the publication last year of R. P. Graves’s The Brothers Powys we may hope that a revival of interest in the brother Theodore is due. This article is written in the hope that that revival will necessitate a serious revaluation, not another invitation to savour the rustic gloom of a literary eccentric. For T. F. Powys’s art, like Mr. Weston’s wine, is truly ‘as strong as death and as sweet as love’.
1 Q. D. Leavis, Fiction and the Reading Public (London: Chatto and Windus, 1932; repr. Harmonsworth: Penguin, 1975), p. 170.
2 Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (London: Chatto and Windus, 1973; repr. St. Albans: Paladin, 1975), p. 302.
3 William Hunter, The Novels and Stories of T. F. Powys (London: Gordon Frazer, , 1930; repr. Beckenham: Trigon Press, 1977), p. 14.
4 H. Coombes, T. F. Powys (London: Barrie and Rockliff, 1960), p. 157.
5 William Empson, Some Versions of Pastoral (London: Chatto and Windus, 1935; repr. 1979), p. 7.
6 See Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957).
7 T. F. Powys, Mr. Weston’s Good Wine (London: Chatto and Windus, London, 1927; repr. 1975), p. 292.
8 Ibid., p. 316.
9 Ibid., p. 262.
10 T. F. Powys, Unclay (London: Chatto and Windus,1931), p. 325.
11 Ibid., p. 57.