Infants of the Spring

by Anthony Powell
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Infants of the Spring

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3118

Devotees of Anthony Powell’s witty and astringent prose style will enjoy Infants of the Spring, the first volume of his autobiography. It begins in the dim past of the twelfth century, with tales of an eccentric forebear named Rhys ap Gruffydd, and ends with Powell at age twenty, having come down from Oxford, “enveloped in a fog of naïvety” and about to “dive headfirst into the opaque waters of London life.” Much of course is chronicled in between, as Powell, taking his guiding epigraph from Joseph Conrad’s Chance, manages both charmingly and informatively “to keep the ball rolling,” as does Conrad’s narrator with the nonchalant Marlow. This idea of casually, entertainingly maintaining the conversation, keeping the air filled with inquiry, with analysis of as much as possible of what happened—in an attempt to discover the remarkable—is Powell’s purpose. Thus, the overall title for the volumes of his autobiography will be To Keep the Ball Rolling.

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Readers not devoted to Powell (or unless avid genealogists) will not get much beyond his first twenty or thirty pages. Anyone seeking Powell’s usual immediacy of drama, wit, and quirky character will have to wade at first through some stretched points and anecdotes which Powell finds of high interest. But to fans of his novels, his research into the dim past of his family will be heavy going. Only a Powell admirer or an Anglophile can justify it perhaps as being a lambently appropriate approach to the roots of one who would later create the magnificent twelve-volume fiction, A Dance to the Music of Time.

Powell was the only child of a professional soldier and an aristocratic beauty who played the banjo for charity benefits. Frequent changes of military station moved the family around a great deal. On his father’s side, young Powell’s roots grew out of the country of the Welsh Border; on his mother’s side they were of the wolds and fens of Lincolnshire. This mix of bloods and traditions produced an array of stories on both family sides about eccentric and dissipated forebears. Powell grew up hearing the stories and participating in them with strange uncles, aunts, and countless cousins. Powell tells of one old gentleman who loved to take visitors on long walking talks, occasionally accenting his tales by thrusting his cane between his listener’s striding shins. As the person fell, the old man would calmly catch him, laugh, and continue with his discourse. Certainly, this battiness of background contributed much to the creative imagination which went into A Dance to the Music of Time.

There are brilliant examples of Powell’s uncanny exactness of rendering an event or a character here. In Chapter I, “From Whence Clear Memory,” he mentions that his first recollection at age two was of snow descending in small flakes outside a hotel window. Then he mentions how, at age six, he was stimulated by a long beam of sunlight filled with dust particles slanting through an upper window on a staircase in his home. With a precision impressive because it defies both time and the ineffability of the moment, he writes that he had been conscious of “. . . approaching the brink of some discovery; an awareness that nearly became manifest, then suddenly withdrew. Now the truth came flooding in with the dust infested sunlight. The revelation of self-identity was inescapable. There was no doubt about it. I was me.” For those who would get to know Powell better in Infants of the Spring, that is unfortunately one of the very few genuine insights to himself Powell provides. Most often he is the narrator-observer, overshadowed by persons around him, realizing himself only through the light they reflect around themselves and him. Because of this “Nick Jenkins” sort of reticence, one learns a great deal about Powell’s contemporaries, and very little, actually, about him and his immediate family. Possibly such discretion, such self-effacement, is natural and even fruitful in a writer whose major role has been to chronicle faithfully and wrily his age, to report the glory and twilight of a unique kingdom and era. One has the feeling that Powell indeed feels Conrad’s Marlow correct when he says of that other “Powell” that he was not exactly remarkable. Powell does not seem to be intentionally holding back—he is too honest a writer for that. Rather, he seems to feel uninteresting by himself. What fascinates him is England, the time, the other people. What interests Powell most, then, in keeping this particular ball rolling, is observing and reporting with stunning accuracy the doings and ideas of others who were around him. They, he reveals to us and to himself, are remarkable people.

Powell’s judgment is apt. He knew an astonishing number of movers and shakers, and early spotted greatness in many of them. Though this volume ends with his youthful leavetaking of Oxford, Powell has not limited himself, along the way, from moving ahead in time to share with us stories about the careers and ends, brilliant and otherwise, of many of his school chums. Typical is the quietly unathletic boy with spectacles he remembers as having been the butt of cruel jokes, who is recalled as having become a major general in what Powell calls “the Hitler war.” There are friends who are brilliant in youth only to become lost in lassitude as adults. There are scandals and heroisms. Through it all, Powell’s craftsmanship depicts his time in terms definitively, essentially upper-crust British. Sociologists and historians will find here a rich lode of ore for their particular smelters. Powell is depicting richly, from the inside, a rare world, superbly conscious of itself as important but fleeting. He describes it as a world most beautiful, perhaps, in its stiff-upper-lip resistance to the inevitable crumbling of its idols. Sheer fatigue of blood and brain would do many of Powell’s old-family-scion friends in; two great world wars would get many; loss of empire would throw many into irreversible spins; ennui, the dissolution of class structure, and the post-World War II utter absence of grandeur would betray nearly all. Through it all, history, the very music of time, would dance them all to its own increasingly depressing tune.

In Powell’s memoirs of his school friends, and of their various lives and productivities, there is always a stringently contained but nevertheless affecting sense of the beautiful, tragic, or tragicomic futility of it all. It is all very sophisticated, even wise, but very Britanically elevated and brittle, or aloof, even superior in tone. Very likely, it is the sense of futility, the consistent assurances of the twentieth century that fate has her way despite our best efforts, which causes this defensive intellectuality. In Powell’s hands the device is natural; it is a stance which works. What else can a man of intellect, breeding, taste do? He will not grovel; he will not condescend; he cannot descend; he wishes not to withdraw, for therein lies illness. The creative alternative is to see the world and life as an interesting adventure, if melancholy. There resides part of Powell’s artistic salvation: his sophisticated sense of adventure, his cerebral curiosity as to what will next come along. Joined impressively to this is his sense of discipline and his extreme devotion to craft. His tone seems to suggest that though the times may be more tragic than comic, more reprehensible than admirable, with more of the crass than class, it is what we have. It is happening, and there is the treasure of honor to be grasped in reporting it all inordinately well. How deeply he cares and consequently how superbly he controls the expression of that caring is the source of his power.

Having laid his foundation of history and family in the first third of his book, Powell’s account grows more lively when he gets to his days at Eton. Eton was life. The customs, studies, and personalities there were more real for Powell than all the melancholy boredom, the childhood inactivity which had come before. Eton became metaphoric nation, family, and religion. There at last, it seemed to him, the results made the reasons for actions and thoughts appropriate and apparent to him. Life took on meaning. He began to exercise discernment, to allocate his energies to causes—mostly aesthetic ones.

Academically, at Eton he seemed most involved in the study of art. Significantly, his interest in art seems never to have flagged. A recurrent device of his in Infants of the Spring is to characterize someone by revealing their taste in art, by mentioning representative and illustrative works owned in their collections. Obviously, Powell feels that a man is known by the artistic company he keeps hanging about his walls. He tells us, for instance, that his father’s taste ran to Beardsley, Conder, Ricketts, and to illustrators such as Rackham, Dulac, and Thomson. Powell knew these enthusiasms revealed his father’s nonmilitary facet, his protected inner life, and perhaps for that reason, he seems particularly gentle in his treatment of his father’s excitement over artists apparently not high on his own list. At Eton, too, he came to know acquaintances by their artistic tastes. In a story cogently revealing the laughably pretentious style of his fellow student Brian Howard, he quotes him as responding to a questioner, “’I can always sell my Gris.’ ’But what will you do then?’ ’Oh, write—paint—don’t fluster me.’” Powell also mentions, with admiration for his having made the discovery first, his friend William Acton’s possessing an early collection of Picasso reproductions.

Aside from his interest in art, Powell’s main devotions at Eton seemed to be the study of human character. He was precocious in his ability to select friends who would prove substantial persons. In the chapter called “The Game and the Candle,” he employs the device of reprinting a 1922 list of contributors’ names found in the initial copy of The Eton Candle, a publication of the Eton Society of Arts. The list, like all such lists, appears at first stark and dull. In contrast, Powell’s systematic, leisurely, yet sprightly telling of his acquaintanceship with each of these boys is riveting. He sees each of them as fascinating, significant, and finally as being revealing segments of the large picture of Britain and the period. It is impressive to Powell—and he makes it so to us—that this narrowly selected group of young Britons revealed in their failures, their excesses, their triumphs, and their beauties a cross-section of the traits of a nation. Told in Powell’s gracefully terse style, each of their lives is a drama of high interest. Typical of his affectionate yet objective blend of observations about even the wastrels in his peer group is the story of Hugh Lygon, son of Lord Beauchamp, leader of the liberal party in the House of Lords. Lygon, Powell writes, was “amiably unintellectual”; and after leaving Oxford, later, he suffered bad health, tried various occupations—most having to do with gambling—including being a stable hand, and later while traveling in Germany he fell and died in his thirties. In contrast, one of the successful friends Powell recalls was Roger Spence, who served with quiet distinction in both the diplomatic service and all through World War II. Spence became a brigadier general, and was so devoted to duty that he died of overwork. Powell notes with obvious approval that “doing his duty, behaving well, being quietly agreeable,” seem to have comprised Spence’s stoic and productive code.

Between the extremes represented by his fellow students Lygon and Spence are other equally illustrative stories. Powell recalls their lives with mingled relish and regret. These were his friends, his fellow actors. This was a stage on which life was lived to its fullest. Their drama has been played—both brilliantly and badly—to mixed reviews. Sadly, too, the curtain is drawing closed.

The next major and less pleasant influence on his life was Powell’s going up to Balliol College at Oxford. Sardonically, he recalls the reasons for his selection of that college as being the usual “syndrome of Dreaming Spires, Lost Causes, Zuleika Dobson, Sinister Street . . . Balliol’s effortless superiority sounded as good as anything else.” Though it was to be instructive, Powell’s Oxford experience was never to give him the pleasure Eton had. By his last year there he was eager to get away from its cloying atmosphere and its precious cliques.

At Oxford, Powell found his generation to be singular as the first in a decade to attend a university not tinged by ex-soldiers and war. Students older than he who had been in the war were altogether set apart; younger people there never caught up with them. One senses Powell’s longing to participate more fully in their strangely aloof maturity and movement toward still undefined forms of existence. This sense of being cut off from those older than he contributed to Powell’s strong sense of identity, of the specialness he attributes to himself and his contemporaries.

In this new context, Powell continues to dwell on the personalities of his friends, giving only occasional glimpses of himself. Among the illustrious and memorable names Powell mentions in this section, “The Close and the Quad,” are those of Evelyn Waugh, Henry Green, Denys Buckley, George Orwell, Cyril Connolly, Maurice Bowra (who kidded Powell about his heterosexuality), and Alfred Duggan. Of each of these men he tells entertaining and informative stories. Along the way, there are scores of others about lesser personalities. Out of it all emerges a sense of the tone and texture of what it must have meant to be at Oxford in the 1920’s. It was a time of change, yet of unique and peculiar adherances to traditions long since beyond meaning. Most of all, what Powell renders here are the attitudes of various people whom he knew. Some of the attitudes are traditional, some radical, all of them vehement; all taking place amid scenes of unmitigated minglings of dissipation, effetism, homosexuality, scholarly excellence, literary productivity, and political flux. All this was more serious than the participants knew. A new war already was brewing, and it would sweep them all up in its exciting, exacting embrace. Powell suggests that the balance of silliness and seriousness he experienced at Oxford was not unlike the later demands made by the world on his generation. In the midst of all this change and challenge at Oxford, he provides a charming specific about university life which reveals his own conservative, down-to-earth side. Mentioning that he had a basic (and sparse) three hundred pounds to pay his school bills, he goes on to note justifyingly that “apart from paying college bills one was stockpiling all sorts of necessities in the way of clothes that had to be only gradually renewed.” Powell also makes a note of mentioning that he, untypically of his generation, left Oxford without debts.

Two representative personalities of the many most memorable and illustrative to Powell of the Oxford years were his friend Henry Green and his teacher Maurice Bowra. Green wrote his own account of this period in his book Pack My Bag. With Green, Powell realized and articulated his discomfiture with Oxford. Beyond that, he seems to have genuinely liked Green for his energy, for his devotion to writing, and, most of all, for his extremely individualistic mode of conduct. Typical of Green, he notes, is his unabashed unwillingness to play rugger for “the glory of the team.” He also notes that Green was a legendary drinker; that he saw a film a day; that he ate fried fish and steak every night; that he shaved with ordinary washing soap. Ultimately, Green was to impress Powell with his decision to leave without a degree and go to work in the family plumbing fixtures business. As a businessman, Green continued to write capable but modestly recognized novels.

Another factor which brought Green and Powell together was their mutual admiration of their teacher, Maurice Bowra. Both saw his shortcomings but overlooked them because he was obviously, uncaringly brilliant. He listened to them, kidded them, and calmly, self-assuredly encouraged them—made them believe in themselves.

Bowra, openly homosexual, was a scholarly and powerfully opinionated young don whose forte was his ability to stay abreast of the avant garde in all things intellectual. He could be exhilaratingly entertaining and sardonic in his attitudes towards all things. Powell notes that Bowra’s approaches to life, jocular yet practical, provoking both laughter and trepidation, were singular to the moment, hard to reproduce. Bowra was personality-in-residence, and, as such, influenced Powell and his peers by consistently shaking them loose from their too-easily-gotten moorings. Intellectually, he bullied his students into being unconventional thinkers. Powell noted that it was best to know Bowra for a time, then get away, returning later to appreciate what he had to offer. True to his idea, Powell closes Infants of the Spring with a memory of a 1960’s visit which he, his wife, and his son paid to Bowra, and of a Hellenic cruise they all took with him. The scene, forty years later, ends in the same tone. Bowra is still out front, still scandalously, provokingly different and charmingly influential. It is typical of Powell’s approach as a writer that his objective insights into both Green and Bowra do not erode his affection for them nor his ability to show them clearly and memorably. It is impossible to escape the feeling that one has seen characters very much like both Green and Bowra depicted in any number of American and British spy films and novels. They are Britannic types. It is due to Powell’s sensitivity and ability that they are more than mere types in his depiction of them.

Infants of the Spring will surely be sniped at by some readers for its apparent name-dropping. Its seeming consciousness of status makes it open to such criticism, too. Indeed, fault-finders will point to the multitude of parentheticals, such as “(later to become lord so-and-so)”; they will label it as being too traditional, even formulaic, in structure, and they will not like its being so unrevealing about Powell himself. Admirers of Powell’s craft, however, will see that this master of observation and rendering has been totally true to his aesthetic convictions here. To him, the memoirist, as the novelist, was put here to observe, experience, and report faithfully and accurately. Infants of the Spring does that admirably. Let us hope that Powell keeps the ball rolling. It has a fascinating path yet to journey.


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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 32

Book World. October 9, 1977, p. E3.

Booklist. LXXIII, July 15, 1977, p. 1694.

Christian Science Monitor. LXIX, November 4, 1977, p. 35.

New York Times Book Review. September 4, 1977, p. 6.

New Yorker. LIII, October 17, 1977, p. 195.

Saturday Review. IV, August 20, 1977, p. 63.

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