“The smell from my bonfire, its smoke perhaps fusing with one of the quarry’s metallic odours drifting down through the silvery fog, now brought back that of the workmen’s bucket of glowing coke, burning outside their shelter.” [HSH 251/271] Powell’s magisterial and melancholy conclusion to Hearing Secret Harmonies, and the entire Dance, returns us to Powell’s beloved Nicolas Poussin, whose painting was evoked by the workmen’s bucket of glowing coke on the first page of A Question of Upbringing.
The very structure of Dance has echoed Poussin’s vision of the endless round of men’s fortunes, and brings to Nick’s mind “one of Robert Burton’s torrential passages from The Anatomy of Melancholy.” It is that litany of calamities that beset the lives of men, plus Powell’s reversion to the cadence of classicism, that encourage us to think of another of Poussin’s paintings as a valedictory image, even though it is not mentioned by Jenkins. Much later in his life than A Dance to the Music of Time, Poussin undertook a series of four canvases, now in the Louvre, to depict the seasons individually. Spring, Summer and even Autumn are filled with promises of plenty, but Winter (c.1660-4) is a vision of devastation and despair.
Though the decades of Nick’s witness are filled with comic moments, it is the spirit of Burton’s melancholy that remains: “The thudding sound from the quarry had declined now to no more than a gentle reverberation, infinitely remote. It ceased altogether at the long drawn wail of a hooter—the distant pounding of centaurs’ hoofs dying away, as the last note of their conch trumpeted out over hyperborean seas. Even the formal measure of the Seasons seemed suspended in the wintry silence.”