Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time: First Movement

by Pedro Blas González (April 2019)

Dance to the Music of Time, Nicolas Poussin, 1634-36



The Spanish philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset, believed that people can be judged by their interests in life. If this is true, surely people can also be judged by the books they read, and writers the content and themes of their writing.


Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time is a monumental 12 volume novel that chronicles the life of its narrator, Nicholas Jenkins, beginning in 1920s England and continues for a total of six decades. Partly biographical fictional saga of life in mid twentieth century, Dance follows Jenkins’ life through his memories, and how he reacts to a world in dissolution. The title of the work is taken from Nicolas Poussin’s 15th century painting, A Dance to the Music of Time.


Powell’s Dance belongs in the same category as Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities and Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, and not just because these works are long tales of passing time and changing milieus. Powell has been called “the English Proust.” Powell’s lyrical rendition of life is a masterful stroke of gathering events that, because they are dispersed throughout a lifetime, few people will remember.


The definitive publication of Dance is the four-volume University of Chicago Press 1995 edition. Each volume includes three novels. The subtitle of the four-volume compilation of Powell’s 12 novels that make up Dance is an allusion to the sections of a four-movement symphony. Volume one, First Movement, includes the novels A Question of Upbringing, A Buyer’s Market and The Acceptance World. This is the volume that my essay addresses . 


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So, if people can be judged by the books they read, writers also convey much about themselves through the themes that their books and other publications embrace. In Powell’s case, it is the pathos that Dance evokes. Being one of several grand figures of twentieth century English literature, a man of letters of old, Anthony Powell tackled questions relating to interwar English life like few other writers have been able to accomplish. Several glaring questions inform Powell’s themes, as these are presented as lived experiences of his characters: Do the young characters truly change according to the times? Or, are they the builders of the nascent world they eventually come to be part of?


These questions are important in several ways. One reason is because in a novel that chronicles six-decades of a man’s life, characters can be shown inhabiting their world—like animals at the zoo—while perhaps failing to convey much substance of their inner life as lived experience. The difference is important because life for people of flesh and blood is never experienced as a series of chopped up events. The unity of consciousness that human beings experience is fluid. For example, Jenkins, who wants to be a writer, begins the first novel—A Question of Upbringing—by describing a scene of men working on a city street. Some of Powell’s critics accuse him of making Jenkins too reticent. Yet diligent readers come to know Jenkins best by paying attention to the tone of his revealing thoughts. The opening of the novel has Jenkins telling the reader much about himself, which I suggest, answers the question whether Powell’s characters change throughout their lives.


Powell’s prose is lyrical and evocative of genuine emotion. Several pages into the work Powell offers a stunningly melancholic view of time. This early description sets up the pathos of the novel. Jenkins reflects on Poussin’s painting of the seasons, represented by ladies holding hands and turning in a circle as an old man plays the lyre. Poussin’s painting appears on the first two pages of the book. This classical depiction of time sets the mood for the series.


The way that young Jenkins describes the passage of time easily becomes stamped in the reader’s mind. Before elaborating on this beautiful passage, it is perhaps best to cite it:


The image of Time brought thoughts of mortality; of human beings, facing outward like the Seasons, moving hand in hand in intricate measure: stepping slowly, methodically, sometimes a trifle awkwardly, in evolutions that take recognizable shape: or breaking into seemingly meaningless gyrations, while partners disappear only to reappear again, once more giving pattern to the spectacle: unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the steps of the dance.[1]


The first striking image that Jenkins brings to mind is his equating time with mortality. This is significant because he is a young man, and young people are not normally overly concerned with mortality. He is not in a dangerous situation. For example, he is not in the trenches in battle or in a stormy sea as a sailor—situations when people might think about mortality. Young Jenkins thinks about mortality in an abstract manner, more so than he will later, as an older man in subsequent novels as the years wear on. This is how Powell sets up the young Jenkins as being a reflective person. The fact that Jenkins is telling his story from memory establishes him as reflective.


Another important aspect of this passage is the comparison of the four seasons, each moving around a central pivot that defines and limits their movement. The seasons signal human possibility and fate. “Moving hand in hand in intricate measure” signifies the inter-connected nature of human beings, each facing a specific lot, and each commanding a given step of the dance. Yet, even though Powell describes the seasons-hand-in-hand, his allusion is not to man having to face uncertainty together, but rather that each person must face the dance alone.


Young Jenkins ruminates on the nature of time and how it will shape his life. The recognizable shape of the present eventually gives way to “seemingly meaningless gyrations” in the future. Dance is a novel about passing time and what this means to human life. More importantly, the novel is a meditation on time and its effect on people, depending on character and temperament.


What time has in store for different characters in the novel informs the plot of Dance. Instead of being a soap-opera of literary characters and their insular world—this is the left’s criticism of Powell and his work—Dance is a saga of differentiated persons and time’s vengeance, as it were.


The first novel, A Question of Upbringing, begins with Jenkins’ melancholic look at time and mortality. The twelfth, and final novel in the series, Hearing Secret Harmonies, also ends with melancholy. The final novel ends with a long quote by Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy. Burton’s quote, even though it dates from 1621 and is ostensibly a study of the self, presents human reality exposed to the vagaries of a roaring new world.


Jenkins’ reflection on the passage of time, at the start of the first novel, sets the stage for how he experiences the world. As time goes by, many of Jenkins’ existential concerns become relaxed. As he matures, rather than occupying his thought with sophomoric concerns like Widmerpool’s out of fashion overcoat, Jenkins realizes that, “Even the formal measure of the Seasons seemed suspended in the wintry silence.”[2]


Dance can be enjoyed by paying heed to how the characters are integrated in the world, or, in some cases, consumed by it with the passage of time. This type of attention to characterization through time is difficult to sustain in literary works. Yet writers who succeed at this offer their readers untold rewards. In literary works, the passage of time can capture the essence of lived human experience, like non-fiction rarely can. In a sense, the passage of time acts as the protagonist of Dance.


A fine example of this is Miguel de Unamuno’s retelling of the Cain and Abel saga in his novel 1917, Abel Sanchez: The History of a Passion. In that work, Unamuno captures the passage of time like few authors ever have. The author chronicles the ongoing rancor and envy of the brothers’ respective families in the modern world. Unamuno accomplishes this in epic fashion.


In addition to concentrating on characterization through time, Dance is a novel that embraces themes of perennial philosophy. Because Powell’s novel eschews making literature a forum for social-political statements, Dance develops themes that are worthy of literature in any age. Following the trajectory of the life of several of the main characters, and witnessing how they appropriate the contingencies that life and the world present them with, makes for enlightening literature. The themes that Dance entertains revolve around the passage of time. Time is the axis of the novel’s plot.


In A Question of Upbringing the intersection of characterization and the novel’s thematic is poignant and telling. This is one reason why Dance will continue to have a long-lasting shelf life, as long as there are thoughtful and well-rounded readers in the world. Templer’s view of truth has to do with tangible things; a practical young person, by any standards. On the other hand, Stringham is a romantic; a young man of eccentric character. As youths, both of these views are afforded because the characters are trying to find a place for themselves in the world.


Jenkins describes himself as not being able to identify a particular drift to his life. Yet he is observant enough to realize that “the days passed, and only later could their inexorable comment be recorded.”[3] In section two of A Question of Upbringing, the narration describes the difficulties of writing about human action. This is the absence of abstraction, for Powell commented about themes that people of flesh and blood can relate to.


The narrator goes on to reflect on the nature of temperament. As an observer of human nature, its frailty, and at times enlightened vision, Jenkins’ prescience keeps tabs on the big picture, as he discovers the world through his friends. As he ages, his attitude remains the same toward strangers and the world at large. What changes appear to take place in his character are only surface deep.


Jenkins thinks of temperament a lot. In light of that, let us consider the following passage:


As I came gradually to know better, I saw that, in reality, Stringham and Templer provided, in their respective methods of approaching life, patterns of two very distinguishable forms of existence, each of which deserved consideration in the light of its own special peculiarities: both, at the same time, demanding adjustment of a scale of values that was slowly taking coherent shape so far as my own canons of behavior were concerned.[4]


The relationship between human temperament and the scale of values is a serious question that Powell entertains, which sociologist and postmodern philosophers and writers evade or cannot conceive. As a young observer of the spectacle, as Jenkins describes man in the world at the start of A Question of Upbringing, he is already aware of the trajectory that temperament sets for human life. In later novels, the vindication of this truism is confirmed. This relationship is one of the profound heuristic teachings of the passage of time that readers encounter in Dance.


The connection between temperament and human behavior brings me back to my earlier question, whether people make history or simply adhere to the latter’s demands. The answer appears obvious, when looking back at time that has passed. If many people merely respond to the contingencies of passing time—this is what Jenkins suggests—how they do so is a matter of temperament. On the other hand, if temperament makes history—then again—we are here talking about a different degree of the same thing.


Jenkins admires Templer for having a “well-organized life.” He tells the reader that Templer developed several simple ideas about the world that served him well nine out of ten times. This is impressive, for later on he reflects about how young people cannot understand the wear and tear, the corrosive rage that Monsieur Lundquist experiences, after a lifetime of pent up minor irritancies.


Jenkins narrates his trek through life and the world. Part of this encounter, Powell is quick to point out, is often comedic. This is yet another reason why Dance does not pander to the fancy of social-political zealots. A social-political radicalized milieu, as the twentieth century proved to be, cannot afford to entertain laughter. There are many truly funny moments in this 12-volume novel. When the young men are treated to a private tour of the industrialist Sir Magnus Donners’ London castle in A Buyer’s Market, the reader is treated to a tour in the touristic manner that we are so accustomed to today. The wide-eye young men follow the tour guide, who has brought with him two electric torches. The party, as the narrator calls the group, consists of a dozen people.


Sir Magnus has the party descent into the dungeons. Jenkins explains that tension-releasing, suppressed laughter was felt in the air as Sir Magnus, a sort of ridiculous man who acts as the tour guide, announced that they were going to the dungeons, a place where perhaps the “girls who don’t behave should be placed.” The party does not know what to make of this statement. This line comes as the result of a series of comedic episodes that the young men take in on their walk through the castle. Jenkins reacts to this by realizing the central role that laughter plays in the lives of healthy young people. He explains:


It struck me, at this moment, that such occasions, the enjoyment of secret laughter, remained for him the peak of pleasure, for he looked suddenly happier; more buoyant, certainly, than when he had introduced me to Peggy Stepney. What perverse refinements, verbal or otherwise, were actually implied by Sir Magnus’s words could only be guessed.[5]


This passage is indicative of Jorge Luis Borges’ notion that the best literature is undertaken—from the writer’s point of view—as an exercise in reading between the lines. Readers derive whatever meaning they are capable of discerning from a writer’s restraint in writing between the lines. This realization, Jenkins comes to appreciate, is important because he is an impressionable young man who is fond of thinking of older people as role models. Once in a while, he goes on to suggest, they disappoint. 


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Powell’s observation of human nature is essential to his literary work. The story-telling quality of Dance is predicated on the ability of a prescient observer, Jenkins, to make sense of his life, the lives of others and the world, by picking up on patterns of behavior. In A Buyer’s Market, Jenkins makes the following observation: “There is, or at least, should be, a fitness in the follies each individual pursues, and uniformity of pattern is, on the whole, rightly preserved in human behavior. Such unwritten regulations seemed now to have been disregarded wholesale.” [6]


Jenkins relates to the reader the events, emotions and ideas that take place in his life. He discovers that everything that he undergoes not only takes a measure of time out of his life, but that this cannot be otherwise. He learns to equate the passage of time with the contingencies that he experiences in the world. For this reason, it is not difficult to realize that Jenkins gradually comes to the realization that his life and the world are separate things, even though remain an intertwined reality. While the passage of time is one of the staples of classical literature, domination over worldly contingencies is the emphasis of the post-modern world that the older Jenkins realizes has come to rule over human existence.


Many passages in Dance refer to time and “the formal dance.” The formal dance, Jenkins suggests, is marred by the external demands of the world, while the dance that time itself makes him observe is the greater, existential dance of the two. In The Acceptance World, the narrator observes,


Emotional crises always promote the urgent need for executive action, so that the times when we most hope to be free from the practical administration of life are always those when the need to cope with a concrete world is more than ever necessary.[7]


Jenkins understands that young men eventually become old men who must deal with the world.  His embrace of practical reality makes Jenkins, the melancholic young man who reflects on the nature of time in the first novel, a well-balanced mature man.


By the end of The Acceptance World, Jenkins is introduced to the dominant and most destructive form of philosophical materialism of the twentieth century: Marxist ideology. Jenkins resists groupthink and the collectivization of values by rejecting the call to the alleged modernization that other characters in the novel fall prey to.


Jenkins agrees with Templer’s idea that a well-balanced person eventually must accept the human condition. Templer refers to Widmerpool’s new employment as embracing the acceptance world. The key element of Templer’s thought that captures Jenkins’ imagination is that people’s expectations about happiness must be tempered by realism, if human beings are to achieve contentment. As is the case in all of the novels that make up Dance, The Acceptance World is anchored in Jenkins’ profound discovery – temperament moderated by the dance itself: “Besides, in another sense, the whole world is the Acceptance World as one approaches thirty; at least some illusions discarded. The mere fact of still existing as a human being proved that.” [8]


[1] Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time: First Movement. A Question of Upbringing. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995), 3.

[2] Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time: Fourth Movement. Hearing Secret harmonies, 272.

[3] A Dance to the Music of Time: First Movement. A Question of Upbringing, 36.

[4] Ibid, 53.

[5] A Dance to the Music of Time: First Movement. A Buyer’s Market, 202.

[6] Ibid, 208.

[7] A Dance to the Music of Time: First Movement. The Acceptance World, 114.

[8] Ibid, 171.

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Pedro Blas González is Professor of Philosophy at Barry University, Miami Shores, Florida. He earned his doctoral degree in Philosophy at DePaul University in 1995. Dr. González has published extensively on leading Spanish philosophers, such as Ortega y Gasset and Unamuno. His books have included Unamuno: A Lyrical Essay, Ortega’s ‘Revolt of the Masses’ and the Triumph of the New Man, Fragments: Essays in Subjectivity, Individuality and Autonomy and Human Existence as Radical Reality: Ortega’s Philosophy of Subjectivity. He also published a translation and introduction of José Ortega y Gasset’s last work to appear in English, “Medio siglo de Filosofia” (1951) in Philosophy Today Vol. 42 Issue 2 (Summer 1998).

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