“Ducdame” by John Cowper Powys

Ducdame title page

(My copy of Ducdame is a first edition, 1925 Doubleday, Page & Company, given to me by my Fred.)

Thus it goes:

If it do come to pass

That any man turn ass,

Leaving his wealth and ease

A stubborn will to please,

Ducdame, ducdame, ducdame.

Here shall he see

Gross fools as he,

An if he will come to me.


Amiens: What’s that “ducdame?”

Jaques: ’Tis a Greek invocation, to call fools into a circle. (Act II, Scene VI, As You Like It)

I had to look it up myself—Ducdame—it’s a nonsense word, which goes well with the novel, a lot of nonsense goes on, yet in the nonsense there is sense. I’m always spellbound by Powys.  His writing style, the sense of place, and details that are part of the texture and flavor of his world as he’s envisioned it. Yet Ducdame is a bit laughable—the extremes of what these people do to themselves and to each other—it’s a soap opera. Seriously, it’s right up there with the nonsense on East Enders and their fucking crazy ass weekly dramas. The Squire Ashover and family are just a bunch of inbred white trash, only with property, money, and a noble name that’s been around for generations. Listen, every town has that one family that’s been around for generations, not all of them are from money, some of them are dirt poor, and being around for generations doesn’t make you any more special than the guy who showed up for the first time last week. Honestly, there are some gene pools that should dry up.

Rook isn’t very noble, he’s human. Powys makes sure this is understood. The man is tormented by the conflict of what he has to do and what he wants to do—he so hates the “script” that he is being forced into—hijacked by family legacy. Rook is bedeviled by the weight of ancestors—ancestor worship—marriage, the production of the valued male heir. He doesn’t want to do what his mother expects him to do (marry his cousin Ann and make babies.) He wants to fool around with Hasting’s wife, Nell, and he’s smitten with his mistress, Netta—and obsessing about her after she leaves. Rook Ashover hasn’t really grown up, he’d rather die than become a slave to the expectations of his place as the Squire of Ashover. He wants to make the rounds with the pretty girls, hang out with his brother, Lexie, and wile away his days in quiet reflection without responsibilities nagging him. It’s a comedy and a tragedy—the blend is subtle and if you’re inattentive, it can be disconcerting and confusing—Rook is confused. It is a soap opera—it is what it is—and life can be absurd and sincere at the same time, it’s maddening.

Powys always has the odds and ends people for local color, the old hag, the deformed twins, bastard children of Rook’s father, and then Binnory, the idiot boy, and bastard children who are relations—Mrs. Ashover is a real treat, and the old Corporal, the bastard son of Rook’s father’s father was awesome (yes, there seemed to be a family trend of bastards.) The Corporal’s extreme attempted disposal of Netta. (Wow.) And then there’s the obsessive Hastings and his mysterious book—I’m sure Powys inserted his personal experience in this man’s raving—there’s nothing more disconcerting or misunderstood than a writer obsessed with finishing a book…


Ducdame inside map

(I love the map! Sooooo awesome!)

I could be wrong, but I have a sense that this book is one in which Powys was still finding himself as a writer (I’ve so far read his latter books), and from what I’ve read about its literary history, it was not much liked by the critics of the time (apparently Faulkner didn’t think much of it.) Yet, in spite of its milling and muddling around, it has gems throughout, pages are dog-eared, and some are revisited here…

Some of the most significant encounters in the world occur between two persons one of whom is asleep or dead… (Page 1)

 It ceased to be a mere satellite of the earth, a mere mirror of an invisible sun. It became a round illuminated lake that drew him toward it, that drew him into it. The blue-black sky around it became a sloping, slippery shore, that held no ledge, no crevice, to which he could cling; nothing to break the swift, fatal final slide into that magnetic gulf! (Page 7)

 The gate leading from the orchard to the sloping hill called Battlefield was a gate heavy on its latch. But it was a gate that Mrs. Ashover had manipulated as a young bride fifty years before and she was not to be daunted by it now. She rubbed her forefinger thoughtfully up and down its gray lichen-grown bar. The sun was warm around her, a slanting autumn sun, and it fell pleasantly on the ancient gate and on the rough yellow patches of lichen which filled the crevices of that half-century-old plank. A piece of woodwork exposed to all the elements is a very different thing from a piece of woodwork protected in a barn or a church. Its life is five times as intense; its experiences five times acute. That top bar by the time this particular afternoon sun reached it must have been, if vividness of experience were allowed to count, older than Dürer’s famous Madonna in Nuremberg.  (Page 34)

Before that day was over there was a distinct alteration in the drab colourlessness of the weather. Little by little the puddles in the roads turned into cat’s-ice. A faint film of solidification formed over the ponds at the meadow corners. Hieroglyphic patterns made themselves visible in the mud of secluded lanes. Wrinkled crisscross imprints appeared on the top of the new molehills, imprints made by lighter touches than the feet of mice or birds or the trail of worm or snail.

 Dead leaves that had lain softly one upon another in the mouths of old enmossed fox holes or under clumps of fungi at the edge of woods were now soldered together, as if by tinkling metal, with a thin filigree of crisp white substance. The wet vapour distillations clinging to the yellow reeds down by the ditches began to transform themselves into minute icicles. Birds that had reassumed their natural thinness fluffed out their feathers again as they hopped about searching for sheltered roosting places. In every direction there were tiny rustlings and tightenings and crackings as the crust of the planet yielded to the windless constriction, crisp and crystalline, of a gathering hoar frost. (Page 136)

Ducdame spine

There’s more, but you should look for yourself…enjoy.