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Authors: John Cowper Powys

Wood and Stone

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WOOD AND STONE

BY

JOHN COWPER POWYS

DEDICATED
WITH DEVOTED ADMIRATION
TO THE GREATEST POET AND NOVELIST
OF OUR AGE
THOMAS HARDY

T
HE following narrative gathers itself round what is, perhaps, one of the most absorbing and difficult problems of our age; the problem namely of getting to the bottom of that world-old struggle between the “well-constituted” and the “
ill-constituted
,” which the writings of Nietzsche have recently called so startlingly to our attention.

Is there such a thing at all as Nietzsche’s born and trained aristocracy? In other words, is the secret of the universe to be reached only along the lines of Power, Courage, and Pride? Or,—on the contrary,—is the hidden and basic law of things, not Power but Sacrifice, not Pride but Love?

Granting, for the moment, that this latter
alternative
is the true one, what becomes of the drastic distinction between “well-constituted” and “
ill-constituted
”?

In a universe whose secret is not self-assertion, but self-abandonment, might not the “well-constituted” be regarded as the vanquished, and the “
ill-constituted
” as the victors? In other words, who, in such a universe,
are
the “well-constituted”?

But the difficulty does not end here. Supposing we rule out of our calculation both of these antipodal possibilities,—both the universe whose inner fatality is the striving towards Power, and the universe whose inner fatality is the striving towards Love,—will
there not be found to remain two other rational hypotheses, either, namely, that there is no inner fatality about it at all, that the whole thing is a blind, fantastic, chance-drifting chaos; or that the true secret lies in some subtle and difficult
reconciliation
, between the will to Power and the will to Love?

The present chronicle is an attempt to give an answer, inevitably a very tentative one, to this formidable question; the writer, feeling that, as in all these matters, where the elusiveness of human nature plays so prominent a part, there is more hope of approaching the truth, indirectly, and by means of the imaginative mirror of art, than directly, and by means of rational theorizing.

The whole question is indeed so intimately
associated
with the actual panorama of life and the evasive caprices of flesh and blood, that every kind of drastic and clinching formula breaks down under its pressure.

Art, alone,—that mysterious daughter of Life,—has the secret of following the incalculable
movements
of the Force to which she is so near akin. A story which grossly points its moral with fixed
indicative
finger is a story which, in the very strain of that premature articulation, has lost the magic of its probability. The secret of our days flies from our attempts at making it fit such clumsy categories, and the maddening flavour of the cosmic cup refuses to be imprisoned in any laboratory.

At this particular moment in the history of our planet it is above all important to protest against this prostituting of art to pseudo-science. It must
not be allowed to these hasty philosophical
conclusions
and spasmodic ethical systems, to block up and close in, as they are so ready to do, the large free horizons of humour and poetry. The magic of the world, mocking both our gravity and our flippancy, withdraws itself from our shrewd rationalizations, only to take refuge all the deeper in our intrinsic and evasive hearts.

In this story the author has been led to
interest
himself in the curious labyrinthine subtleties which mark the difference,—a difference to be
observed
in actual life, quite apart from moral values,—between the type of person who might be regarded as born to rule, and the type of person who might be regarded as born to be ruled over. The grand Nietzschean distinction is, in a sense, rejected here upon its own ground, a ground often inconsequently deserted by those who make it their business to
condemn
it. Such persons are apt to forget that the whole assumption of this distinction lies in a
substitution
of
œsthetic
values, for the values more
commonly
applied.

The pivotal point of the ensuing narrative might be described as an attempt to suggest, granting such an aesthetic test, that the hearts of “ill-constituted” persons,—the hearts of slaves, Pariahs, cowards, outcasts, and other victims of fate,—may be at least as
interesting
, in their bizarre convolutions, as the hearts of the bravest and gayest among us. And
interest
, after all, is the supreme exigency of the aesthetic sense!

In order to thrust back from its free horizons these invasions of its prerogatives by alien powers, Art
must prove itself able to evoke the very tang and salt and bitter-sweetness of the actual pell-mell of life—its unfolding spaces, its shell-strewn depths. She must defend herself from those insidious traitors in her own camp who would betray her into the hands of the system-makers, by proving that she can
approach
nearer to the magic of the world, without a system, than all these are able to do, with all of theirs! She must keep the horizons open—that must be her main concern. She must hold fast to poetry and humour, and about her creations there must be a certain spirit of
liberation
, and the presence of large tolerant after-thoughts.

The curious thing about so many modern writers is, that in their earnest preoccupation with
philosophical
and social problems, they grow strained and thin and sententious, losing the mass and volume, as well as the elusive-blown airs, of the flowing tide. On the other hand there is an irritating tendency, among some of the cleverest, to recover their lost balance after these dogmatic speculations, by foolish indulgence in sheer burlesque—burlesque which is the antithesis of all true humour.

Heaven help us! It is easy enough to criticize the lath and plaster which, in so many books, take, the place of flesh and blood. It is less easy to catch, for oneself, the breath of the ineffable spirit.

Perhaps the deplorable thinness and sententiousness, to which reference has been made, may be due to the fact that in the excitement of modern
controversy
, our enterprising writers have no time to read. It is a strange thing, but one really feels as though, among all modern English authors, the only one who
brings with him an atmosphere of the large mellow leisurely humanists of the past,—of the true classics,—is Mr. Thomas Hardy.

It is for this reason, for the reason that with this great genius, life is approached in the old ample ironic way, that the narrator of the following tale has taken the liberty of putting Mr. Hardy’s name upon his title-page. In any case mere courtesy and decency called for such a recognition. One could hardly have the audacity to plant one’s poor standard in the heart of Wessex without obeisance being paid to the literary over-lord of that suggestive region.

It must be understood, however, that the temerity of the author does not carry him so far as to regard his eccentric story as in any sense an attempted imitation of the Wessex novelist. Mr. Hardy cannot be imitated. The mention of his admirable name at the beginning of this book is no more than a humble salutation addressed to the monarch of that
particular
country, by a wayward nomad, lighting a bivouac-fire, for a brief moment, in the heart of a land that is not his.

 

 

WOOD AND STONE

M
IDWAY between Glastonbury and
Bridport
, at the point where the eastern plains of Somersetshire merge into the western valleys of Dorsetshire, stands a prominent and noticeable hill; a hill resembling the figure of a crouching lion.

East of the hill, nestling at the base of a
cone-shaped
eminence overgrown with trees and topped by a thin Thyrsus-like tower, lies the village of Nevilton.

Were it not for the neighbourhood of the more massive promontory this conical protuberance would itself have stood out as an emphatic landmark; but Leo's Hill detracts from its emphasis, as it detracts from the emphasis of all other deviations from the sea-level, between Yeoborough and the foot of the Quantocks.

It was on the apex of Nevilton Mount that the Holy Rood of Waltham was first found; but with whatever spiritual influence this event may have
endowed
the gentler summit, it is not to it, but to Leo's Hill, that the lives and destinies of the people of Nevilton have come, to gravitate. One might.
indeed without difficulty conceive of a strange supernatural conflict going on between the
consecrated
repository of Christian tradition guarding its little flock, and the impious heathen fortress to which day by day that flock is driven, to seek their material sustenance.

Even in Pre-Celtic times those formidably dug trenches and frowning slopes must have looked down on the surrounding valley; and to this day it is the same suggestion of tyrannical military dominance, which, in spite of quarries and cranes and fragrant yellow gorse, gives the place its prevailing character.

The rounded escarpments have for centuries been covered with pleasant turf and browsed upon by sheep; but patient antiquarian research constantly brings to light its coins, torques, urns, arrow-heads, amulets; and rumour hints that yet more precious things lie concealed under those grassy mounds.

The aboriginal tribes have been succeeded by the Celt; the Celt by the Roman; the Roman by the Saxon; without any change in the place's inherent character, and without any lessening of its tyranny over the surrounding country. For though Leo's Hill dominates no longer by means of its external strength, it dominates, quite as completely, by means of its interior riches.

It is, in fact, a huge rock-island, washed by the leafy waves of the encircling valleys, and
containing
, as its hid treasure, stone enough to rebuild Babylon.

In that particular corner of the West Country, so distinct and deep-rooted are the legendary
survivals
, it is hard not to feel as though some vast
spiritual conflict were still proceeding between the two opposed Mythologies—the one drawing its strength from the impulse to Power, and the other from the impulse to Sacrifice.

A village-dweller in Nevilton might, if he were philosophically disposed, be just as much a percipient of this cosmic struggle, as if he stood between the Palatine and St. Peter's.

Let him linger among the cranes and pulleys of this heathen promontory, and look westward to the shrine of the Holy Grail, or eastward to where rested the Holy Rood, and it would be strange if he did not become conscious of the presence of eternal spiritual antagonists, wrestling for the mastery.

He would at any rate be made aware of the fatal force of Inanimate Objects over human destiny.

There would seem to him something positively monstrous and sinister about the manner in which this brute mass of inert sandstone had possessed itself of the lives of the generations. It had come to this at last; that those who owned the Hill owned the dwellers beneath the Hill; and the Hill itself owned them that owned it.

The name by which the thing had come to be known indicated sufficiently well its nature.

Like a couchant desert-lion it overlooked its prey; and would continue to do so, as long as the planet lasted.

Out of its inexhaustible bowels the tawny monster fed the cities of seven countries—cities whose halls, churches, theatres, and markets, mocked the caprices of rain and sun as obdurately as their earth-bound parent herself.

The sandstone of Leo's Hill remains, so architects tell us, the only rival of granite, as a means for the perpetuation of human monuments. Even granite wears less well than this, in respect to the assaults of rain and flood. The solitary mysterious monoliths of Stonehenge, with their unknown, alien origin, alone seem to surpass it in their eternal perdurance.

As far as Nevilton itself is concerned everything in the place owes its persuasive texture to this resistant yet soft material. From the lordly Elizabethan
mansion
to the humblest pig-stye, they all proceed from the entrails of Leo's Hill; and they all still wear—these motley whelps of the great dumb beast—its tawny skin, its malleable sturdiness, its enduring consistence.

Who can resist a momentary wonder at the strange mutability of the fate that governs these things? The actual slabs, for example, out of which the high shafts and slender pinnacles of the church-tower were originally hewn, must once have lain in littered heaps for children to scramble upon, and dogs to rub against. And now they are the windy resting-places, and airy “coigns of vantage,” of all the feathered tribes in their migrations!

What especially separates the Stone of Leo's Hill from its various local rivals, is its chameleon-like power of taking tone and colour from every
element
it touches. While Purbeck marble, for instance, must always remain the same dark, opaque, slippery thing it was when it left its Dorset coast; while Portland stone can do nothing but grow gloomier and gloomier, in its ashen-grey moroseness, under the weight of the London fogs; the tawny progeny of
this tyrant of the western vales becomes
amber-streaked
when it restricts the play of fountains, orange-tinted when it protects herbacious borders, and rich as a petrified sunset when it drinks the evening light from the mellow front of a Cathedral Tower.

Apart from any geological affinity, it might almost seem as though this Leonian stone possessed some weird occult relation to those deep alluvial deposits which render the lanes and fields about Nevilton so thick with heavy earth.

Though closer in its texture to sand than to clay, it is with clay that its local usage is more generally associated, and it is into a clay-bed that it crumbles at last, when the earth retakes her own. Its
prevailing
colour is rather the colour of clay than of sand, and no material that could be found could lend itself more congruously to the clinging consistence of a clay floor.

It would be impossible to conceive of a temple of marble or Portland stone rising out of the embrace of the thick Nevilton soil. But Leonian sandstone seems no more than a concentrated petrifaction of such soil—its natural evocation, its organic
expression
. The soil calls out upon it day and night with friendly recognition, and day and night it answers the call. There is thus no escape for the human victims of these two accomplices. In confederate reciprocity the stone receives them from the clay, and the clay receives them from the stone. They pass from homes built irretrievably of the one, into smaller and more permanent houses, dug irretrievably out of the other.

The character of the soil in that corner of
Somersetshire 
is marked, beyond everything else, by the
clinging
tenacity of its soft, damp, treacherous earth. It is a spot loved by the west-wind, and by the rains brought by the west-wind. Overshadowed by the lavish fertility of its abounding foliage, it never seems to experience enough sunshine to draw out of it the eternal presence of this oppressive dampness. The lush pastures may thicken, the rich gardens blossom, the ancient orchards ripen; but an enduring sense of something depressing and deep and treacherous lurks ever in the background of these pleasant things. Not a field but has its overshadowing trees; and not a tree but has its roots loosely buried in that special kind of soft, heavy earth, which an hour's rain can change into clinging mud.

It is in the Nevilton churchyard, when a new grave is being dug, that this sinister peculiarity of the earth-floor is especially noticeable. The sight of those raw, rough heaps of yellow clay, tossed out upon grass and flowers, is enough to make the living shrink back in terror from the oblong hole into which they have consigned their dead. All human
cemeteries
smell, like the hands of the Shakespearean king, of forlorn mortality; but such mortality seems more palpably, more oppressively emphasized among the graves of Nevilton than in other repositories of the dead. To be buried in many a burying-ground one knows, would be no more than a negative terror; no more than to be deprived, as Homer puts it, of the sweet privilege of the blessed air. But to be buried in Nevilton clay has a positive element in its
dreadfulness
. It is not so much to be buried, as to be sucked in, drawn down, devoured, absorbed. Never
in any place does the peculiar congruity between the yellowness of the local clay and the yellowness of the local stone show so luridly as among these patient hillocks.

The tombstones here do not relieve the pressure of fate by appealing, in marble whiteness, away from the anthropophagous earth, to the free clouds of heaven. They are of the earth, and they conspire with the earth. They yearn to the soil, and the soil yearns to them. They weigh down upon the poor relics consigned to their care, in a hideous
partnership
with the clay that is working its will upon them.

And the rank vegetation of the place assists this treachery. Orange-tinted lichen and rusty-red weather-stains alternate with the encroachments of moss and weeds in reducing each separate protruding slab into conformity with what is about it and
beneath
it. This churchyard, whose stone and clay so cunningly intermingle, is in an intimate sense the very navel and centre of the village. Above it rises the tall perpendicular tower of St. Catharine's church; and beyond it, on the further side of a strip of pasture a stagnant pond, and a solitary sycamore, stands the farm that is locally named “the Priory.” This house, the most imposing of all in the village except the Manor, has as its immediate background the umbrageous conical eminence where the Holy Rood was found. It is a place adapted to modern usage from a noble fragment of monastic ruin. Here, in mediæval days, rose a rich Cistercian abbey, to which, doubtless, the pyramidal mount, in the background, offered a store of consecrated legends.

North of the churchyard, beyond the main village
street with its formal town-like compactness, the ground slopes imperceptibly up, past a few enclosed cottage-orchards, to where, embosomed in gracious trees and Italianated gardens, stands the pride and glory of Nevilton, its stately Elizabethan house.

This house, founded in the reign of Henry VIII, synchronized in its foundation with the overthrow of the Cistercian Order, and was constructed entirely of Leonian stone, removed for the purpose of building it from the scene of the Priory's destruction. Twice over, then, in their human history, since they left the entrails of that brooding monster over which the Nevilton people see the sun set each day, had these carved pieces of sandstone contributed to the pride of the rulers of men.

Their first use had not been attended with an altogether propitious destiny. How far their present use will prove of happier omen remains a secret of the adamantine Fates. The imaginary weaving of events, upon which we are just now engaged, may perhaps serve, as certain liturgical formulæ of
propitiation
served in former days, as a means of averting the wrath of the Eumenides. For though made use of again and again for fair and pious purposes,
something
of the old heathen malignity of the Druid hill still seems to hang about the stone it yields; and over the substance of that stone's destiny the two
Mythologies
still struggle; Power and Sacrifice dividing the living and the dead.

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