The Downs and Nature

A major theme in Powys's work is the relation of man to the natural world and the world of human beings and their dealings is always described in the context of this relation. The natural settings and landscapes of his novels play an important role in their own right and are never merely a background.

' He had been long enough in Sussex to know exactly what he had found. It was one of those mysteriously constructed dew-ponds upon the secret of which whole books had been written, none of which really solved the problem of how the thing was made.' (After My Fashion)

For Powys, man is deeply rooted in the earth: 'Human sensations are Nature's self-expression. They are the earth's awareness of herself'. Walking on the earth is an expression of this close bond:

' By treading upon her with alternate feet you enter into a subtle and intimate relation with your mother, the earth.' (A Philosophy of Solitude)

In addition, Powys is always conscious of man's location in the universe as a whole, and the priorities and preoccupations of his life are seen against the immensity of their eternal, unchanging environment:

' Man goes forth to his work and his labour until the evening. Man is born; man loves and hates; man dies. And over him the same unfathomable spaces yawn. And under him the same unfathomable spaces yawn.' (The Complex Vision)

A walk on the Downs heightens awareness of both these perspectives:

' The immense undulating upland, along the crest of which they were now moving, was like some huge wave of the sea struck into immobility. This great green wave held up their two figures, isolating them completely from the rest of the world; carrying them through infinite blue ether on the planetary motion of the round earth.' (After My Fashion)

But the concept of Nature for Powys is not restricted to beautiful scenery and includes all manifestations of the inanimate such as rocks, trees, hedges and especially old, weather-worn or moss-covered objects, which evoke for him

'...a return to a remote past whose magical secrets have been almost lost amid the vulgarities of civilisation.' (In Defence of Sensuality)

In keeping with this, he is at pains to stress that his enjoyment of Nature is poetic and imaginative, but not aesthetic. Powys does not contemplate Nature, he identifies with it:

' What gave me these sensations seemed to be some mysterious "rapport" between myself and these things. It was like a sudden recognition of some obscure link, some remote identity, between myself and these objects. Posts, palings, hedges, heaps of stones - they were part of my very soul.'

Powys believes that inanimate objects possess a soul with which we are able to enter into communion and that, at some deep primordial level, the souls of trees, rocks, animals and men form part of one 'elemental soul'. This notion recalls the belief-systems of the Celts and other ancient peoples, and should perhaps not be regarded as wholly without foundation, now that scientists interested in 'pre-biotic' evolution speculate that consciousness may be an emergent property of matter itself.

Powys was prone to states of ecstasy brought on by these subtle modes of communication with the natural world. Walking along the avenue of trees at Offham he records

' ...one of those strange mysterious ecstasies to which I was subject...and what it really amounted to was a sudden revelation of the magical loveliness of twigs and leaves when they make a sharply-cut filigree, an intricately delicate pattern, against a grey sky.'

But while Powys may be described broadly as a 'nature-mystic' in the style of Traherne, Rousseau or Wordsworth, he is not a mystic in the strict sense. The typical mystical experience is bestowed by higher powers and involves a temporary removal from the world as we normally experience it and the obliteration of individual minds in the One. It can be prepared for, if at all, only by years of rigorous training.

Powys's elevated states, by contrast, involve an intensification of the world as we normally experience it. They can be consciously willed and are in principle available to all through the exercise of our imaginative and intuitive faculties, which have fallen into neglect in an age in thrall to the faculty of reason. If anything, this entails the development of a greater awareness of the different aspects and modes of being of the individual self. The result is to increase our receptivity to, for example,

'...a vivid awareness of the magical influences proceeding from those leaves and stalks. Vibrations and quiverings, half-material, half-psychic, flow through them and through us...' (The Meaning of Culture)

For Powys, these subtle but intense experiences have been marginalised in the overwhelming bustle and commercialisation of modern life, which have diminished our capacity for contemplation and insight. But they remain part of our essential humanity and we possess within ourselves the equipment required to tune in to our natural surroundings:

' The mind within us is not merely the mind of a foolishly-sophisticated city-dweller, fussing about amid shops, offices, studios, theatres, concert-halls. It is the mind of a starfish, a bird, a polar-bear, a viper, a sea-anemone, a sycamore-tree, a half-born planetary god!' (In Defence of Sensuality)

 

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