Theodore Francis Powys: The Soliloquy of a Hermit. New York: G. Arnold Shaw, 1916; London: Melrose, 1918; later reprints.
Theodore Francis Powys (1875-1953) belonged to the eccentric, remarkably talented British family, the Powys. His elder brother John Cowper Powys is best known as a novelist; he also wrote A Philosophy of Solitude. The first published work of Theodore Francis Powys was The Soliloquy of a Hermit, a nonfiction work which was followed by a number of soon-neglected short stories, novels, and fables, culminating in the writer's cryptic 1936 decision to no longer write. The Soliloquy of a Hermit, described by Powys scholar Marius Buning (in the essay "Modernity and Medievalism in T. F. Powys's Mature Fiction") as being "of lasting value," is a remarkable tour de force not merely foreshadowing T. F. Powys' later fiction, but representing a distillation of an unusual eremitic personality.
The work is relatively short at 143 pages, not divided into chapters or sections. Each paragraph holds its meaning and can be read independently. Powys develops his theme of solitude and God from the earliest pages, interweaving them with progressively more detail and nuance, though not as a scholar or philosopher but as essayist and "hermit."
As Buning notes, Powys was "an outsider, a marginal writer in self-chosen exile," whose fictions are habited by odd characters, the favorites being "eccentric anti-acquisitive holy fools" in quest of God or understanding or reconciliation with nature.
Buning describes Powys' writings as "philosophical, Christian-oriented pessimism." Powys himself called pessimism "the best and most enduring wear from cover to cover." He maintained that death is "God's best gift ... the large Quiet -- the great inaction, the uttermost release, eternal peace." In The Soliloquy of a Hermit, his first published work, Powys owns that "sometimes I appear to be an infidel and sometimes a believer, sometimes a Christian and sometimes a heathen ..." His pessimism is not Schopenhauer's so much as Nietzsche's, still engaged with the religion of his culture. Nietzsche's influence is especially clear in Powys' interpretation of Jesus, distinguishing the historical Jesus from the Jesus of Christianity. For Powys, Jesus is not an extension of the priestly hierarchy and psychology of Judaism, nor a theologian and doctrinaire of the future hierarchical Church called Christianity. Jesus is simply a model of how to live, in this world.
In what ways was the author a "hermit"? Powys lived alone in a rural area of Dorset, seldom going to the village but to be seen about his grounds on small tasks, a life "outwardly uneventful," as Buning puts it. In Soliloquy, Powys describes his concept of simplicity:
The simple life -- so called -- is not the simple life at all; it is the deeper life. The simple life is the life of motor cars, of divorces, of monkey dances, of hunting cats and hares and foxes, of shooting people and playing games like ferrets. All these things are the natural, the simple life of a man. Anyone can get pleasure in these ways ... The best joy is not got quite so easily. I want to cultivate the kind of mind that can turn stones into bread, a dull life into the life of a king. For what we call dullness is really the best soil we can dig in, because the gold that it yields is very precious and very lasting. I would like to know that I am getting rich, not by stealing from the poor, but by getting something more out of myself ...
This is the extent of searching that need preoccupy anyone.
I, too, for a long while, have looked round this corner and that corner for God's secret, and at last I have discovered that I can do very well if I loiter through my life without knowing any secret at all. ...
In the old days when I held my head in the sand of mystery, I thought that something wonderful would happen to me; and now I believe that the most wonderful thing is that nothing wonderful happens. We are, just as we are, and nothing else.
Powys tells us that his desires are simple, and conform to the inborn "secret" of life: to breathe, to get warmth and sunlight, to see the flowers in the fields in summer and to find wood in the forest for winter. To find music in the howl of the wind in his chimney. To eat bread and feel "fed with the whole goodness and fullness of the earth." The hermit has no desire to hurt his neighbors, but appreciates "a good wide space" between himself and them. Every time he goes out of himself with desires, he negates himself, following shadows, seeking a life other than his own.
No doubt one day we shall find all the mystic writers leaving their pens and their burrowings into the unutterable mystery of God's being, and instead busying themselves all day long peacefully planting cabbages.
Only in contemplating death does one really appreciate life. Powys writes: "Every day I look at the fields as though I am soon to bid them an eternal farewell." Because he breathes, feels the vibrancy of life within, he wonders if he is but caretaker of a spark that has passed through many bodies. He longs to not extinguish this spark of his own accord but to keep its vulnerable flicker alive for another, for the spark is like a star giving light but slowly dying within him. In appreciating both the living and the dying, says Powys, one comes to appreciate the sorrows of Jesus.
When I think of Jesus, the burden falls. I do not think of extinction. I think of the moment; I think of how He, in one life, ended the stagnation of immortality. I long to live a moment in Him, unfettered and free.
What shadows Powys are the fickle moods of God, the God of the Old Testament. The "moods of God" reflect the degrees of pessimism in Powys himself. Powys describes himself as the priest of the moods of God, not of God himself, terrible, ineffable, destroyer of peace. He admits that his favorite books are Wesley, Bunyan, and the Bible, the latter that "book of blood and tears." We know that Thomas Hardy and Nietzsche were among his books, too, and later his influences ranged from Jacob Boehme to Pascal, Spinoza, and Simone Weil.
In the world there will never be security, reflects Powys. Society will always be ruled by the rule of the "mob," that is, by hatred and hypocrisy. That is what put Jesus to death, that he came to teach the necessities of a simple life -- here is the trans-valuation theme of Nietzsche. Jesus threatened the ways of the the vengeful Creator, the blind, old Creator, and his priests and their temple. He intended to see "the great white throne rent and torn," intended to soften hearts as a "Babe of Joy." Above all, to live this life, and not for greed and desire to demand any other.
Thus Powys presents himself as an unorthodox thinker. He taps themes not to be developed for many decades after him, and only after the angst of world wars and existentialism. But as a hermit and a person, Powys reflects only a calm serenity, a confidence in nature and the necessity of harmonizing with the natural world rather than with the social world of human beings, even if they could be seen in the village down the hill. The Soliloquy of a Hermit is, as Buning notes, '"of lasting value," and can be read for itself or as a testament of where the turn of the twentieth-century was leading sensitive souls like his.