by BROCARD SEWELL, 0.Carm.
The Gale of the World by Henry Williamson (Macdonald 30s.).
THIS is the fifteenth and
final volume of Henry Williamson's novel-series A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight whose writing has taken hint a full twenty years. Some critics seem to have been intimidated by the scale of this work; others have found it too disturbing to allow them to assess it fairly. All applaud Henry Williamson the observer and interpreter of "Nature", with his remarkable books on otters, salmon. stags, and other beasts and birds. Fewer, it seems. are able to accept his probings into the behaviour of the human creature, and his interpretation of the disasters of our times. From one point of view his novels seem like a prolonged examination of conscience, of a candour such as few of us achieve.
Williamson's Chronicle is twice as long as The Forsyte. Saga, whose period it includes and extends almost to today. Those who enjoy the Forsyte books--and one can do that while admitting to the truth of D. II. Lawrence's savage criticism of them—should enjoy Williamson's Phillip Maddison novels; but they will find themselves confronting a work of art possessing a truth and seriousness that Galsworthy rarely achieved again after The Man of Property.
Of course, Williamson has his faults too. His writing, inevitably in a work of this size, is uneven; his dialogue is sometimes as stilted as Galsworthy's; and his characters have a tendency to lecture each other on the technicalities of agriculture, mechanics, and domestic science. (The amount of out of the way information in these books is amazing.) Thomas Hardy, another genius and poet of high order also had his awkward moments; and Williamson has done for our own time, and especially for the era of the two world wars, what Hardy did for the Napoleonic era in The Dynasts.
The Dark Lantern. the first
novel of Williamson's vast panorama, the story of the courtship and marriage of Phillip Maddison's parents back in late Victorian days, is a book of singular beauty which won high praise from M dd e It on Murray; the "middlenovels, which record Maddison's experiences in the trenches and on the battlefields of 1914-18, have been acclaimed for their truth and power; and this final novel, The Gale of the World, must probably be judged the finest book that Williamson has written: greater even than that near-masterpiece The Pathway, the final volume of his earlier four-novel series The Flax Dream.
The poet can often help us to see the truth where the preacher, who is seldom a poet, fails. Henry Williamson's A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight is to my mind a work of profound spiritual significance. The Flax Dream, the story of Phillip Maddison's cousin Willie, has influenced, and perhaps changed, the minds and hearts of many readers;
yet it did not convey the author's vision of the meaning and purpose of life with the clarity and truth of the later Chronicle.
The Gale of the World, which resumes the themes of the whole series, and which ends with its hero's emergence, alive, the spectres of his mind exorcised for ever. from the great storm on Exfnoor that brought the Lynmouth floods, can be read for itself; but once you have read it you will want to read, or read again, The Dark Lantern and its sequels. For we leave Phillip Maddison about to embark on the writing of his long-ambitioned chronicle, to begin on a spring night in the mid-nineties, with a shy young man, his father, walking up a hill in a LondonKentish suburb, carrying a dark lantern. "Do you know," Phillip says, "I'm glad I didn't write the novels before. They would probably have been angry and satirical if written in the 'thirties. Now I think I can understand every kind of man and woman. Particularly my father."