A Well Full Of Leaves

A Well Full Of Leaves

posted Tuesday, 9 September 2008

A passage (read this morning), one that has deeply affected me – from a book by an author I’ve never heard of (title and name at the end):

Occult sighs and air came from the stalks below and the boughs above, and sometimes the grass, for no account­able reason at all, would be taken with a quiet slow-­attacking ague.

‘Isn’t it eerie!’ broke from Anda. ‘Oh, I hate it here! What can you see to like here, Laura? Why is this your favourite spot?’

‘There is more to be seen here than you can see,’ I answered.

‘Pshaw!’ she exclaimed. ‘But it’s easy to see that you’re only thirteen, choosing an awful place like this!’

‘Thirteen is not a bad age· to be!’I said.

Thirteen is not a bad age to be. You have got over the shock of hearing about sex. You have even come to see the decent fittingness of it, the dignity, the sublime outlet for tenderness. And yet, and yet, you know that nothing will ever quite take the place of the world that has gone, the world that suddenly receded when you got knowledge and so lost wisdom.

And if you are lucky-young as I was, you grasp then the shape of the battle to come. You see that the fight will not be for power or riches, beauty or learning, or a long pro­cession of lovers. You see that it is to find the way back to being a little child again.

Aye! You’ve got to grow up to become as a child again.

You’ve got to learn by unlearning: you’ve got to imagine, not to know!

But now I moved forward into my little paradise of a dell, and began touching the leathery mounds of leaves, and rocking the buttercups. I held my breath to see jolly crimson beetles rollicking wildly among the damp roots, winged seeds floating on the wind, pigeons’ dropped feathers, and the bizarre small skeletons of mice and birds.

A kind of cosmic shorthand was written everywhere for those to decipher who would, resplendent in forgotten dew-drops, in sunstarts and wing-gleamings; in the tapestry of the rhododendrons with their strong reek; in the rustlings of rats and worms and an estrayent toad from the pond; in rain stains and drippings; in the lawless grass; in the withered bluebells that had flowed in sapphire thousands under the trees in the springtime; in the crimped and fluted leaves; in the aromatic smell of the tansies; in queer blights on tree-trunks; in cobwebs swinging between branches; in a lone fleshy marigold; in twigs and dust and moss and stones. All these things gave off messages going deeper than life.

Anda stood with her back to a tree, steadfastly refusing the spirit of the place. Robert said he couldn’t make up his mind whether he got from it the atmosphere of the fen, the spinney, or the country cave, but he finally allowed that it spoke to him of all three.

Steve said nothing, but followed me about where I peered and pried and with inhuman joy became whatever I looked at. I was a blob of cuckoo-spit; a writhing spray of ivy; a very pungent smell of dockweed; a willow-leaf frizzling in the wind. I burrowed, I flew. I was beside myself. I could have stayed there for ever.

What has been broken lies in pieces. The pieces fly every­where. The kingdom that has been shattered can be picked up, piece by piece, everywhere. The success of a life lies in the number of recaptured fragments. A few lucky people go on looking for pieces till they have found them–every one. Just how long it shall take is a matter not for the parson or the philosopher to determine, but depends upon a person’s own inclination and the porousness of a person’s heart.

In that glade I never failed to find something of the stormed citadel, something of the Absolute, though I didn’t call it so then, and it all wasn’t so clearly aware to my mind. All I knew was my own joyful affection for the livingness both of sentient and inanimate things. Every clump of grass, every chirper on the wing replied to my heart. The per­sonality of a stick and a stone were more thrilling to me than the personality of a man or a woman.

‘Oh, do let us get on,’ wailed Anda, clasping her hands in despairing boredom.


To escape the angry pitying thoughts that had come to me, I felt the need to do something, so, sitting back on my heels, I began to pick up handfuls of a mysterious deposit of silver sand at the bole of a tree, letting the glittering stuff speed through my fingers, and trying in the touch and the look of it to forget what I had seen–and forgetting in that heavenly diffused sensation that comes when you allow yourself to pour into the element you are con­templating. And the exquisite feel of the sliding sand linked up with many another memory–the particular look of some dandelions I had had in an empty potted-meat jar–their private gold–the moss creeping between the cracks of the paving stones in the backyard at home: these things were ever so many little admittances to a plane where sorrow and anger melted right away.

I was recalled by the hollow notes of a bird. I looked up into the tree-tops and I went off on a little spree of imagin­ing how this glade would be in the grey stillness of a Christmas afternoon, in that hour just before tea when friends and relations are hurrying to the houses of their kin, their faces flushed with the cold and the prospect of gay warm rooms out of the quiet icy streets. I was picturing my glade when all that was going on, my glade shut out from all that, given over to the iron frost and the oncoming sparkling stars. I saw something sinister about its dispo­sition, about those lonely trees carbonized against a grey sky, in comparison with the lighted gold globes in cheerful rooms and the especial jollity going on in homes. I shuddered to think of the glade’s unseen tenants at that time, its utter desertion, its implacable continuity.

It was then that my little brother crept up to me, nudging me sharply with his elbow and whispering bitterly:
‘She hit me, she hit me–I fell down–and all you can do is to run your fingers through this sand!’

from ‘A Well Full Of Leaves’ (1943) by Elizabeth Myers.

NOTE: The core of the passage seems to be this sentence:
“The per­sonality of a stick and a stone were more thrilling to me than the personality of a man or a woman.”
Sadly, the ‘were’ should be ‘was’, no?

Penguin Books proof-reader in 1943 to blame!

ANOTHER NOTE: the word ‘estrayent’ is an interesting one. But not a common one according to google!!


comments (3)

1. Weirdmonger left…

Tuesday, 9 September 2008 7:47 pm

Just discovered Elizabeth Myers was a sister-in-law of John Cowper Powys!

2. Frank Kibblewhite left…

Friday, 10 October 2008 2:48 pm

Elizabeth Myers was the second wife of Littleton Powys, who edited her letters, and himself was the brother of John Cowper Powys, Theodore Powys and Llewelyn Powys. She published three novels and two collections of short stories. There is an interesting article on Myers by Anthony Glynn in The Powys Journal Volume 9 (1999, 224 pg 1 874559 21 X) and available from The Powys Society http://www.powys-society.org

3. zaza left…

Thursday, 18 December 2008 11:41 pm

I too read this book many years ago in a second hand shop, and never forgot it, it was one of the strangest books I read.


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3 responses to “A Well Full Of Leaves


  2. Inspired by John Cowper Powys…

  3. I read ‘A Well’ as a young girl, and completely identified with the children of a loveless mother. It showed me how I had also woven a protective shell around me, how we three children clung together in unspoken protection. I identified my love of the natural world as in part an escape from grief at home, like the heroine’s. The Powys link is a revelation. I wept bitterly over it, for an evening. It was cathartic, to be able to recognise the situation of the children. Tho we did not end up in a cottage on Hampstead Heath. Thank you wordpress.

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