Some Thoughts on 'The Flax of Dream'



Other essays and reviews by Fr Brocard Sewell:


Facing the Spectres of the Mind (review, 1960)


Henry Williamson (1961)


The Power of the Dead (review, 1963)


Some Memories of H.W. (1980)


For further information about Fr Brocard Sewell, The Aylesford Review and Henry Williamson, see Anne Williamson's consideration of In the Woods (St Albert's Press, 1960).



Some Thoughts on The Flax of Dream



Fr Brocard Sewell, O. Carm.



[An address given at the University of Exeter on May 14th 1965 on the occasion of the presentation by Henry Williamson of manuscripts of his books to the University.]



Henry Williamson's earlier series of novels, The Flax of Dream, consists of the four books The Beautiful Years, Dandelion Days, The Dream of Fair Women, and The Pathway. I have been asked to speak to you about this tetralogy. Why a Carmelite friar should have been chosen for this task is not clear. Perhaps the explanation is to be found in Henry Williamson's 'Some Notes on The Flax of Dream' which were published in a little magazine a few years ago. There Williamson said: 'What, I am asked, is the basic feeling or faith, of my authorship? What impels one to sit, hour after hour, week after week, from autumn to spring, in a hilltop hut in Devon, in the dark days, before a wood fire, and live, sometimes glowingly, in the scenes which arise before one? . . . Shall I confess what I believe deeply within myself? That life is a Spirit; that the artist is but a medium of the Spirit of life; that many, if not all, of his "imaginative" thoughts and impulses towards magnanimity are as it were signals . . . Speaking for myself as a writer, I do not think I could write outside the belief that the purpose of life is to create beauty, "under the fostering hand of the Creator". Everyone has his bad or off moments; but there is no happiness or serenity without the voidance of self, thus making way for the spirit by which alone the artist can live and have his being.'


'Voidance of self', riddance of the 'little ego', in order that the true Self may be discovered and that its light may shine in the darkness. This is the point from which all mystics, of whatever faith, begin; and by none is it taught more clearly than by our Carmelite mystic St John of the Cross. And this is one of the underlying themes of Henry Williamson's writings.


For the encouragement of any younger and aspiring writers who may be here it will perhaps be of interest to look first at the early publishing history of the four novels which comprise the Flax of Dream series. The details are given by the late Waveney Girvan in his A Bibliography and a Critical Survey of the Works of Henry Williamson published in an edition of 420 copies by The Alcuin Press in 1931.


The first book of the series, The Beautiful Years (Williamson's first published work) was issued by the firm of Collins in 1921, when the author was twenty-four. He had been at work on it since he was nineteen. The edition consisted of 750 copies, and a proportion of it was remaindered by the publishers at 10d a copy.


In 1922 its sequel, Dandelion Days, was published. Significantly, only 600 copies were printed, and of these a number were remaindered at 11d a copy. In Girvan's Bibliography the 'authentic bibliographical annotations by ANOTHER HAND' record that 'Inscribed copies were sent to the late A. B. Walkley [a leading critic of the day] and the late Sir Edmund Gosse, but it is not known whether they ever arrived.'


The third book, The Dream of Fair Women, was published in 1924 in an edition of 750 copies, of which none were remaindered.


The concluding volume, The Pathway, was published – by another firm, Jonathan Cape – in 1929 – in an edition of 2000 copies.


In 1929 the Flax of Dream series was taken over by the firm of Faber and Faber, after the text of the first three books had been extensively rewritten by the author. In these new editions 2580 copies were printed of The Beautiful Years (1929); 2500 copies of Dandelion Days (1930); and of The Dream of Fair Women (1931) 3500 copies.


Waveney Girvan's Bibliography ending in 1931, there are no figures available for the Faber reprint of The Pathway. But eventually it sold over 30,000 copies. (A one-volume edition of the tetralogy was published in 1939.) [Fr Brocard is mistaken here; it was published in 1936.]


On its first publication in 1928 The Pathway was hailed by a well-known critic as 'almost a great novel'. Presumably he was judging by the highest standards, which was a compliment to the author. It is difficult to be entirely objective in these matters, but for me The Pathway is a great novel; not one of the greatest, obviously, and not one without flaws, but a great novel all the same.


My test – an unfashionable one today I know – is that propounded by Arthur Machen (whom Henry Williamson used to meet in his Fleet Street days in the old Daily News office) in his book Hieroglyphics. Thus I take it that great literature is not a matter of keen observation expressed with skilled artifice (as in such admirable writers as Thackeray and Anthony Trollope). Great literature I take to be writing which has that quality, that note, which Machen sums up in the one word Ecstasy. As Machen puts it: 'Fine literature is simply the expression of the eternal things that are in man, that it is beauty clothed in words, that it is always ecstasy, that it always draws itself away, and goes into lonely places, far from the common course of life.' Thus, Pickwick is literature; and so is Thomas Hardy's Two on a Tower; whereas Meredith, George Eliot, and Jane Austen are not. Ecstasy, to use Machen's term, is the expression, whether in prose or verse, of the poetic vision, or if you will, of the mystic's intuition. If a book has this quality, then, to quote Machen's metaphor, 'The statue is gold; . . . and we need not fear that it will turn into lead if we find that the graving and carving is poor enough.'


But I should not like those who may hold other theories of criticism to conclude that The Flax of Dream can only be adjudged a great work on these premisses, and that therefore it is not for them. I have heard of young readers, addicted to the works of Samuel Beckett and William Burroughs, who have begun The Flax of Dream and after a few chapters have not continued because they have found its romanticism, and its prose style too, 'old-fashioned'. Had they read on they would have found, I believe, that The Flax of Dream is an extremely moving book, and its reading an important experience.


But by whatever standards one judges, The Flax of Dream must be recognised, I think, as one of the major novel-sequences of our times. It was mainly The Flax of Dream that caused so fine a critic as Mr George D. Painter to rank Henry Williamson with John Cowper Powys as one of the two finest novelists of the first quarter of this century. But not all have been so percipient. A fascinating thesis could be written on the reactions of the critics to the work of Henry Williamson. Mr Painter has written of the 'treason' of most of the critics during a long period when Williamson's writings were recognised for what they are only by 'an underground army of unknown readers'. That era is happily over. But it is interesting to find, for example, that the 1957 edition of The Concise Cambridge History of English Literature (first edition 1941) makes no mention of Henry Williamson at all. The 1958 Everyman's Dictionary of Literary Biography accords him a substantial entry, but makes no mention of his second great series of novels, A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, five volumes of which had by then appeared.


But in 1959 there was published, with a Foreword by T. S. Eliot, Katherine Mansfield and Other Literary Studies by John Middleton Murry, which contained an essay of sixty-five pages on 'The Novels of Henry Williamson'. Since his death Murry's status as a critic has been impugned from certain quarters; but it will survive. In his Foreword to this book Eliot distinguished between writers whose criticism is a by-product of their creative activity and those whose criticism is itself their creative act. For Eliot, Murry in his lifetime enjoyed a 'solitary eminence' in this latter kind of critical writing.


Murry's verdict on A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight – as far as it had been published before his death – was that 'it is the work of a truly gifted artist, come at last, after much inward travail, to a mastery of his own self-disturbing powers, and working on the grand scale'. Concerning the Flax, Murry says that the first three novels of this series had shown great promise, and that The Pathway had shown the promise coming to realisation. The Pathway, he says, deserved its success. 'More than any other member of the tetralogy, it stands securely as a separate novel . . .; and it is obviously the work of an original sensibility.' For myself, I would put it a good deal higher than that.


The Flax of Dream was written as the result of a twofold experience of conversion. (The use of this word, with its psychological and religious connotations, is inevitable.) Williamson has written of how 'On Christmas Day 1914 the author [of The Flax of Dream] had a conversation with a young soldier of the 133rd Saxon Regiment in no-man's-land . . . Although he did not fully realize it at the time, that experience altered his entire conception of the world. During that truce the seed-idea of The Flax of Dream was loosed upon the frozen ground of the battlefield. During the years that followed it lay dormant, to quicken, suddenly, three months after the Armistice, on reading an old copy of Richard Jefferies's Story of My Heart in a second-hand bookshop in Folkestone.'


The name of Richard Jefferies reminds us that Henry Williamson follows Jefferies in the great line of English nature writers. But Jefferies was also a mystic, and for Williamson The Story of My Heart was a 'revelation of total truth'. Jefferies's mysticism is usually labelled 'pantheist'; he could not find nourishment in the religious thought-patterns on which he had been nurtured. It has been said that he 'reached a doctrine of the "nobility of the soul" which is akin to that of Eckhart and Sankara.' 'There is an existence', he says, 'a something higher than soul – higher, better, and more perfect than deity . . . With the whole force of my existence, with the whole force of my thought, mind, and soul, I pray to this Highest Soul, this greater than deity, this better than god. Give me to live the deepest soul-life now and always with this Soul.'


Yet as he was dying Jefferies asked his wife to read him a chapter from the New Testament, and when she had finished he whispered, 'It is true, it is true.' Jefferies's burning hope and the purpose of all his work was the creaion of 'a better, truer, more sunlit world of men'. This, no less, has been the purpose behind all the writing of Henry Williamson; and it is the leitmotif of The Flax of Dream.


The novels of the Flax of Dream series tell the story of a boy, Willie Maddison, from his childhood and schooldays until, a demobilised officer of the 1914–18 war, he meets his Shelley-like death by drowning in Bideford Bay when, in a hopeless endeavour to attract attention, he burns the manuscript of his allegorical book The Star-born, with which, together with his other book, The Policy of Reconstruction, he hoped to revolutionise men's thought.


How far is Williamson to be identified with Maddison? The author tells us that The Flax is 'neither wholly fiction, nor . . . autobiography', and suggests that it may be 'autopsychical'. The message of Williamson-Maddison may be summarised is a passage from Williamson's other book The Wet Flanders Plain (1929), an objective account of some of his experiences in the first world war. He says:


I must return to my old comrades of the Great War – to the brown, the treeless, the flat and grave-set plain of Flanders – to the rolling, heat-miraged downlands of the Somme – for I am dead with them, and they live in me again. There in the beautiful desolation of rush and willow in the forsaken tracts I will renew the truths which have quickened out of their deaths: that human virtues are superior to those of national idolatry, which do not arise from the Spirit: that the sun is universal, and that men are brothers, made for laughter one with another: that we must free the child from all things which maintain the ideals of a commercial nationalism, the ideals which inspired and generated the barrages in which ten million men, their laughter corrupted, perished.


I have a little boy now, an innocent who with his friends in the village street laughs in the sunshine; he sings and smiles when he hears the bells on the wind. Must he, too, traverse a waste place of the earth: must the blood and sweat of his generation drip in agony, until the sun darken and fall down the sky, and rise no more upon his world?


We know the answer to that question now. The message of The Pathway, that 'unless there were mental change – true life or awareness coming to the white-sepulchral minds of "public opinion", the same war would rise again', was not heard. The Pathway failed of its effect partly because the work the young writer had set himself to do was greater than he could then accomplish. It is significant that nothing is said in The Pathway, nor in its wartime predecessor The Dream of Fair Women, about Maddison's experiences in the battlefields of Flanders. The writer was still too close to these experiences to be able to write of them, save very briefly in The Wet Flanders Plain and The Patriot's Progress. This task was to be accomplished later in A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, Williamson's great work still in progress, which tells the story of Willie Maddison's cousin Phillip, and which was not begun until 1950. But with The Flax of Dream Williamson drove a furrow in many minds, and the seed sown there is still flowering.


Writing of The Flax Mr Anthony Gower, a writer whom Williamson discovered when he was editing The Adelphi, has said that 'What The Flax of Dream perhaps gave me above all else was belief: if I had doubts before about my intuitive whisperings they were now dissolved. War was always wrong; so was cruelty, intolerance, hate, and the bending of child minds. Ah yes, cries the unthinking critic, we all know that these things are wrong; and my reply is: Ah yes, but have you spent your whole life, some fifty working years, trying to redress these wrongs? Henry Williamson has.'


The bending of child minds – through the ignorance of parents and wrong methods of education. The first two books of The Flax illustrate this theme in the story of Willie Maddison's childhood and schooldays. Presumably when he wrote these books the author did not yet see The Flax in its entirety, and the result is, as Middleton Murry points out, that they are unable to carry the weight of social indictment that they should. The satire on Colham School, for example, is extremely funny, but is very gentle. The Headmaster, Mr Rore, with his gospel of work, is really a very sympathetic character.


The great thing, boys, is this, Make the most of now. No failure is entirely wasted if its significance is apprehended! What boys agree? All of you. Good. I am glad that you are wise, even after the event! Let bygones be bygones. To the failures I say: Don't let it happen again. The only thing of value in this world is work. Hard at it, hard at it! What should be, shall be! As you are now, so you will be out in the world. Take the example of the savage. The savage cannot benefit by experience. He is content – smug. He has not advanced because he is content to lie on his back in the sun all day and let ripe bananas drop into his mouth. Overcome that banana inclination!


There is a great deal of humorous writing in The Flax, especially in the first two books. Anthologists of English comic writing do not seem to have realised yet what a mine they have in the writings of Henry Williamson; especially, perhaps, in his Life in a Devon Village and Tales of a Devon Village.


Many who have read Tarka the Otter, Salar the Salmon, and the earlier nature books have read neither The Flax of Dream nor A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight. The loss is theirs, for in their own special field they will find plenty to enjoy in these novels.


At the end of The Pathway Captain Maddison MC leaves the home of his friend Mary Ogilvie, to whose mother and other relatives he feels he has been a cause of trouble, and decides that he will cross over to Appledore in a boat on the running tide at midnight. Not knowing that the salmon fishing has ended, he waits on a sand barrier and is overtaken by the tide and drowned. Early next morning his body is recovered, and is placed by a fire on the dry loose sand of the estuary beyond the Saunton Burrows. Mary Ogilvie, Willie's cousin Phillip, and other friends and relatives go down to the beach, and while they are standing by the fire each reproaches himself for some lack of sympathy and understanding which has led to the disaster.


'If we had understood him better' [says Phillip], 'he would not have needed to go away at all.'


Mary heard, and said wildly: 'Yes, that is the truth! I failed him!'


. . . 'Nobody failed anybody', said Howard. 'Nothing you or anybody else could have said or done would have made any difference. He would never have changed . . .'


'He did not need to change', cried Mary, slipping her arm out of Howard's; 'it is we who must change', and she ran down to Phillip by the edge of the sea, weeping, thinking of the darkness of men's minds, pierced in vain by the shining light of Kristos, and of the agony of Christ, at the end of the Pathway.


I would like to end by quoting a passage which occurs at the close of Henry Williamson's 1959 lecture on Richard Jefferies and W. H. Hudson (Some Nature Writers and Civilization). These words constitute, unconsciously on the author's part, Henry Williamson's Apologia pro Vita Sua.


I write these words [he says] after our North Devon Festival week, and particularly a night spent among boys and girls listening to and living joyfully in the rhythms of Humphrey Lyttleton's band in the Queen's Hall at Barnstaple. There was a shimmer of life in the hall; hundreds of happy faces below the platform, eagerly watching, happily listening, gently swaying; and there was tenderness, too, among the young people, as pony-tailed heads were gently stroked within protecting arms of teen-age boys. I thought of linnets among the gorse in bloom upon the Sussex Downs, almost dreamily uttering their gentle notes in the south wind; I thought, too, that one of the alternative titles of Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover was Tenderness. And it seemed to me with my own memories of such poverty seen among less fortunate people in my boyhood and early youth – of young children with almost old faces prematurely set to misery – the faces which Jefferies had seen in the slums of Swindon – it seemed to me that now the age of so-called 'idleness', or leisure to relax, was a possibility: and that possibility was in part due to two wars after which, despite all, the slums had begun to die. And that the 'near-madness' of the fully articulate of one age can sometimes be sanity and clear-sightedness to the next.


But we must not condemn those who do not perceive so quickly as the visionaries, for it is only a question of time; and in the words of Jefferies, 'Now is eternity; now is the immortal life.'







(First published in The Aylesford Review, Vol. VII, No. 2, Summer 1965. © 2000 Estate of Brocard Sewell. It is reprinted here by kind permission of the British Province of the Carmelite Order.)



John Middleton Murry's essay 'The Novels of Henry Williamson'  has been reprinted as an e-book by the Henry Williamson Society.






Other essays and reviews by Fr Brocard Sewell:


Facing the Spectres of the Mind (review, 1960)


Henry Williamson (1961)


The Power of the Dead (review, 1963)


Some Memories of H.W. (1980)


For further information about Fr Brocard Sewell, The Aylesford Review and Henry Williamson, see Anne Williamson's consideration of In the Woods (St Albert's Press, 1960).




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