John Cowper Powys - "The only book in the English language to rival Tolstoy"
John Cowper Powys, A Glastonbury Romance [1932.]
A Glastonbury Romance, first published in 1932, is Powys masterwork, an epic novel of terrific cumulative force and lyrical intensity.
In it he probes the mystical and spiritual ethos of the small English village of Glastonbury, and the effect upon its inhabitants of a mythical tradition from the remotest past of human history - the legend of the Grail. Powys's rich iconography interweav
A major English novelist of the 1920s and '30s, Powys's remarkable novels are reprinted from time to time (Harper recently did Weymouth Sands). The present edition marks a long-overdue return to availability of what is certainly his masterwork. Glastonbury is a small town in Somerset that by legend was home to King Arthur, and some of its ruins are infused with the spirit of long-gone ideals like the Holy Grail. Building on that base, Powys has constructed a towering edifice of faith, greed and cynicism, as a wealthy industrialist tries to exploit the town's mines, a skeptic cynically plans to bring in money by exploiting the legends and many people of varying degrees of faith and idealism are caught in between. Powys's gifts are enormous: he has an eye for nature, and its mystical power, akin to Wordsworth's; his sense of rustic scene and character is the equal of Hardy; his sharp-eyed view of business and politics reminds one of Shaw; and his sense of the endless subtleties of the relationships between men and women is, if anything, more encompassing than D. H. Lawrence's. His leisurely tale is told in prose that ranges from poetic miniatures to extended passages of the most dazzling rhetoric. It's a long book that requires the closest attention; but those who fall under its spell will be rewarded by one of this century's masterpieces of the novel. - Publishers Weekly
Not without caution do I place my first step into John Cowper Powys’s town of Glastonbury. The book, A Glastonbury Romance, runs deep as it does wide and though I have never seen the river Brue, the book is perhaps as muddy as the river’s shore. For to step into this Romance is to step with all or nothing at all.
I have read that it has been difficult for many to get past the first long-winded chapter, maybe even the first long-winded page; and that many give up their going at the very beginning. Then there are those who become subject to Powys’s hefty novel. Those who, when their eyes fall onto his words, the words they do not digest because they are words that penetrate, a story that penetrates, through every myth that every novel has ever created. These are words that sprout and replicate to a Rabelaisian size and stature, words that take down the whole literary stronghold with their intent and meaning. Needless to say, in the later category I heedlessly fall, and, my introduction is biased. I am surprised at how quickly I am flipping flipping flipping through the 1000+ pages. My mind is verdant with various sproutings.
Something passed at that moment, a wave, a motion, a vibration, too tenuous to be called magnetic, too subliminal to be called spiritual, between the soul of a particular human being who was emerging from a third-class carriage of the twelve-nineteen train from London and the divine-diabolic soul of the First Cause of all life.
As for the sun that noon in East Anglia:
Roaring, cresting, heaving, gathering, mounting, advancing, receding, the enormous fire-thoughts of this huge luminary surged resistlessly to and fro, evoking a turbulent aura of psychic activity, corresponding to the physical energy of its colossal chemical body, but affecting the microscopic biped’s nerves less than the wind that blew against his face.
What begins by a relatively focused chapter of the Crow family in attendance at the reading of Canon Crow’s will, by which the magnetic Johnny Geard becomes newly rich, soon sprawls. The sprawl of this thick novel goes beyond what any novel has gone and beyond what any novel will sprawl forth towards again. Henry Miller wrote in a letter to Lawrence Durell: The other day I began reading A Glastonbury Romance by John Cowper Powys. My head began bursting as I read. No, I said to myself, it is impossible that any man can put all this—so much—on paper. It is super-human. . . Old John had caught the world by the throat. And lovingly and surely he squeezed every bit of beauty, of meaning, of purposeless purpose out of it.
Perhaps, in a way, A Glastonbury Romance is similar to that bulk of a book John Cowper Powys wrote later, Porius. They both share in the overwhelming joy of too many characters and as-interesting sub-plots—then the similarities between this Wessex Romance and that Dark Ages Romance end. But there is, as always and shall forever be, the blood of John Cowper Powys running through both works, and where there was John Cowper Powys there sits a book of superb range.
It is not my point in this introduction to delve into the actual gears turning in this book, but to give its general overview, the dominant taste of the book. And though I am only some hundred pages away from finishing, I figured, better too late than not at all for when I come to write the piece to follow I would like my gears to be in the full and clear.
Glastonbury herself is one of the major staring roles in this romance, a reacting-acting entity more than a setting. The myth that Glasonbury is steeped in, according to the animate-inanimate of John Cowper Powys, effects even the land, effects the air and the trees, especially the inhabitants, their deep-thoughts, their late-night dreams. Though the Holy Grail may or may not have existed, may or may not have been birthed from myth older than the Celts, in A Glastonbury Romance the Holy Grail is as real as Bloody Johnny’s miracle-making Chalice Well. The Glastonbury Tor, the Isle of Avalon, the Abbey Ruins, the last Abbot dragged, hung and quartered, the Lake Village, the sarcophagus of Joseph of Arimathea, the Holy Grail itself and all its various incarnations in symbols, combine to cast a deep-glowing mystery over the whole book.
What has the power to permeate more than a well told myth? What else stands the test of time? How else are the eternal symbols of life passed from the dead to the living?
A Glastonbury Romance follows two questing heros in search of two different Grails, the Holy Christian one and the Pagan Celtic one. Though my Grail knowledge before this book was nil, one does not need to know exactly what John Cowper Powys is talking about to know what he is talking about. The subtle intricacies of this novel are too much to make any serious reader’s head spin and it is this spinning which gives me such delight. The seeming nonsense of the plot is grounded in myth as old as the rocks of Stonehenge. If one is open to the vein of ancient symbolism, the aura of this book, much like the aura of the sun on the opening pages, will penetrate thru to the ancient stories and symbols within one, which usually lie dormant.
My mind has something in it, some background, some basis of secret truth, that is completely outside the material world, outside the whole staggering vision of Matter! Without this existence of this something else I could not envisage this immense universe at all. Without this deeper thing there would be no universe!
This “something else,” this “deeper thing,” is like the waters of Bloody Johnny’s Chalice well. I know I wouldn’t mind going there and dipping myself inside while I “focus on that slit in Time through which the Timeless had broken the laws of Nature.” But what need have I for such travel? A Glastonbury Romance accomplishes the same thing.
My mental attempts to collate my reading of A Glastonbury Romance makes me feel as though my hands were fumbling, groping along in the dark of certain shadowy, black shapes and figures. It’s by accident that my palm touches the Saxon arch Johnny Geard built; by accident my fingers run along the cool stone of the old vicarage; by accident my feet plunge into the dewed grass of Tor hill; by chaos do the many names of the populace in this “girt” book run: Sam Dekker, Mat Dekker, Nell Zoyland, Philip Crow, Miss Elizabeth Crow, John Crow, Emma Drew. . . need I list more? A Glastonbury Romance is immense.
John Cowper Powys, in his introduction written twenty years after the “girt” book was written, writes that A Glastonbury Romance attempts to describe:
Nothing more and nothing less than the effect of a particular legend, a special myth, a unique tradition, from the remotest past in human history, upon a particular spot on the surface of this planet together with its crowd of inhabitants of every age and of every type of character.
The “particular legend” is the Grail myth. The “particular spot” is Glastonbury, Somerset. Of both I have written in brief in my introduction. By deduction I am left with the “crowd of inhabitants” and what a crowd it is! Morine Krissdóttir claims there to be 47 principle characters. It is not this veritable crowd that overwhelms me but that all of them have been indulged with their own story, off the plot, but with the plot, ultimately completely separated yet completely effected by the undercurrents and vibratory nature of the myth of the Holy Grail. It is unbelievable, “impossible,” as Henry Miller wrote, that such a story could come out of any one head, any one life, one body, one soul. This is the almost inconceivable magnitude that is John Cowper Powys!
Unlike Wolf Solent who came before, unlike Porius who came later, and unlike Autobiography which came directly after, what was concentrated into a main one “Powys-character” has been spread through the entirety of A Glastonbury Romance thick and fine over many. Though none of the above listed Powys-characters are straight-shot autobiographical sketches, I did find myself missing the depths in one versus the collective depths of many. Not to mention, there were no epic walks. But in scope, all lack was certainly made up, so that what I missed wasn’t even a lack at all but something extraordinarily different.
The two Grail questers, John Geard and young Sam Dekker, were so unlike each other as was the distance of their individual quests. Johnny Geard, the incorrigible pagan, the miracle-wielding magician, the elected mayor. He got pleasure smelling at dung-hills, from making water in his wife’s garden, from snuffing up the sweet sweat of those he loved. He believed that there was a borderland of the miraculous around everything that existed and that “everything that lived was holy.”
Bloody Johnny’s body was heavy, like his thoughts, languid. He was driven on by his version of the Blood of Christ and through his mystical mingling with the Blood of Christ he became a healer and a great orator to whom travellers would pilgrimage to Glastonbury so that they could sit at his feet and listen. The Magician that was Bloody Johnny is who I can not overlook; he transformed Glastonbury as much as Glastonbury transformed him, transformed those who believed in his new “religion” as he transformed those who found him absurd or heathen.
When into the turgid waters of the flooding Atlantic did he drown it was above the very ground where once had stood the Lake Village’s temple to the goddess Cybele. The death of Johnny Geard was the most beautiful prose in the book, which brought me to the most beautiful ending of any book I’ve ever read. The incantations to the “Towers of Cybele” left me with an indescribable calm that must have been as peaceful as the drowning of Johnny Geard.
For the great goddess Cybele, whose forehead is crowned with the Turrets of the Impossible, moves through the generations from one twilight to another; and of her long journeying from cult to cult, from shrine to shrine, from revelation to revelation, there is no end. . . The days of the years of men’s lives are like leaves upon the wind and like ripples upon the water; but wherever the Tower-bearing Goddess moves, journeying from one madness of Faith to another, these pinnacles of desperation mount up again.
Sam Dekker, on the other hand, was not bestowed with such a great surety as Mr. Geard of Glastonbury, until the very end. If it was in the nature of his quest to ask out the great question: “Is it a tench?” that unlocked the vision of the Grail, it was in the nature of Sam Dekker to be always advancing through the insisted ideals felt by his whole self. It was not without agitation did I read of his relationship to Nell Zoyland, for whom his father whispered in his deepest self, “I’d like to!” What was once fervent with love, he gave her a child, became on the next day, by dint of some off-shot comment, chaste. His imposed saintliness, which aroused derision in the clay mines, kept his purpose steady and clear, gave him his question which unlocked his vision; but what about the miserable girl?
Then there was Owen Evans, the sadist of odd eroticisms. His crucifixion at Johnny Geard’s Passion pageant, more real than performed, was another greatly impassioned scene. The physical pain of the man, strung up by his wrists to his wooden cross, before he shouted that “Eloi! Eloi!” was more acute than he had ever dreamed of undergoing.
His body, as the pain increased—as his soul deliberately caused the pain to increase—began to overbrim the confines of its human shape.
His body projected itself under the pain projected outward, reached outward until his body became the whole round earth, swinging on its orbit through space. Through the pain, Owen Evans took onto himself Glastonbury’s darkest and most terrible secrets. What follows is a dialogue of suffering, hope and forgiveness, worthy of the great Dostoevsky himself. Owen Evans is not exactly cleansed of his sadistic sins, but he is calmed enough. . . for awhile.
If the men of A Glastonbury Romance shade in spanning sketches with every imaginable color—from the easiness of ex-mayor Wollop and Bert to the high-toting idealism of communist commune-creating Dave Spear—than the women fill in where the men absolutely can not. And for all of John Cowper Powys’s ankle gazing and sylph hunting, sometimes I found myself blown away by the great import of his keen observations, more so when woven into such a story.
The two sisters Geard, Crummie and Cordelia, were as physically unalike as two sisters could be. The first and youngest, fresh of soft, white flesh, took secret pleasure in the caressing of her own thighs. While Cordelia, eventual wife of Owen Evans, had legs like “broom handles” and went through the feminine pantomime of getting ready with hasty contempt. Oddly, it is Cordelia who experiences the most complex eroticism and it is Crummie who shrouds herself in the presence of her saintly love, Sam Dekker, like a nun.
Persephone Spear, of a willowy figure such that John Cowper Powys was so enamored with, whose waist one could not help but to put one’s arm around, bred fleeting resemblances to her namesake (and perhaps bore more similarities to Frances Gregg.) Maybe, when Philip Crow brought her down into the caverns of Wookey Hole, that was her descent into Hades, so that he could make love to her in the bottom of a rocking boat; but I was under the impression that she had been down there before. The striking acting of Persephone as Mary mourning under Owen Evans’ cross was like some classic representation of her own namesake, the Goddess of the Dead. Her relationships, with Philip Crow, with Angela Beere and Will Zoyland, left her more lonely and alone, still searching.
There is more, so much more: more gentry, the servants, the animals, children, the inanimate, Glastonbury herself, the ancient edifices, new structures, the earth, the plants, nature. Unfulfilled love, love between cousins, incestuous love, sex, murder, infidelities, unrequited love, babies born, communism and anarchism and industrialism. If there has been no other book to encompass as much of our human experience as absolutely possible, this book is it. John Cowper Powys is unequivocally unequalled in his long-winded sense of the incredible and the completely mundane. Perhaps it is this delicate mix that causes some to find him so unreadable.
John Cowper Powys is the only writer I have read that gives enough voice to all that rises from the deepest and the untold and the unseen, all that rises from “nightly pillows” whether they be dreams or drifting thoughts or acknowledgments of solid action. Maybe in giving voice to the great Goddess Cybele he was writing much more closely about the creative elements—so vital, so potent and eternal—within himself.
Through all the stammerings of strange tongues and murmurings of obscure invocations she still upholds her cause; the cause of the unseen against the seen, of the weak against the strong, of that which is not, and yet is, against that which is, and yet is not.
Amen! - descriptedlines.com/a-glastonbury-romance
A book like this gives rise to divergent opinions, with each individual drawing their own unique meaning from it. ‘A Glastonbury Romance’ is large (1120 in my Overlook Press edition) that it provides an astonishing richness of character and event. It is a treasure-trove of language, myth, legend, place, philosophy, literary allusion, conflict, humour and much more.
Powys was an erudite man, who often lectured on English literature for his living. He wrote this novel in what one could call the Nineteenth Century tradition, emulating models such as Dickens, Hardy and George Eliot in England, and Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky in Russia, to cite but a few influences. He explicitly refers back to deep legend from Welsh, French and English sources, by using the nexus of stories concerning King Arthur and Merlin. He also employs the many stories invented in Glastonbury about Joseph of Arimathea, the thorn tree, the holy grail, the chalice well and so forth. Yet he is also a modern Twentieth Century novelist, dealing openly with sexual matters, communism and new technology, such as aeroplanes.
The story centres for most of the book on the small town of Glastonbury, a cradle of English national identity (however fraudulent). At one level he is exploring the nature of Britishness (I say that advisedly, since he is also concerned with nearby Wales). He does this by presenting the lives of many characters in the town, creating a complex web of concurrent, intertwining stories, just as George Eliot did for the fictional town of Middlemarch. I cannot think of a novel that explores a single town with such loving detail, as Powys does of Glastonbury.
Powys spent much time researching the town, and is extraordinarily detailed and faithful in his presentation. There are minor errors of fact, such as Mat Dekker looking West over the Bridgwater bay at the purported rising sun. There are deliberate liberties taken, for the sake of the dramatic action. He has a tin mine dug at Wookey Hole, and a road constructed across the Somerset Flats. He puts an upper floor in St Michael’s tower on the Tor. He imagines that an aeroplane could land on the constricted space of Wirral Hill. This is easily allowable to the omnipotent narrator.
Some commentators think Powys is an obscurantist, seduced by the silly legends of the town, yearning for a non-existent romantic past, after the horrors of the First World War. I think that is a false judgement. Powys is his own man, and he frequently pokes fun at the myths and legends, while being fascinated by their literary and cultural power. His whole outlook on life is dualist. He loves to conjoin and contrast the quotidian and the cosmic, the material and the spiritual, the ancient and the modern, the good and the bad.
For example he has Sam Dekker experience religious ecstasy in a coal barge: “He had ceased to be a man sitting on a coal sack at the stern of a barge. He had become a bleeding mass of darkness. His consciousness was a dark surface of water; and up through this water, tearing it, rending it, dividing it, turning it into blood, shivered this crashing stroke, this stroke that was delivered from abysses of the earth, far deeper than the bottom of the Brue”.
This leads us to his metaphysics, which some people find irritating and objectionable. Certainly his frequent reference to ‘The First Cause’ is startling and idiosyncratic. He boldly rejects the conventional Christian view of the moral universe, but paints a picture of a cosmic force that is simultaneously evil and good – in other words dualistic. This insistence on spiritual forces and even angels influencing and intervening in the lives of men is hard to reconcile with the modern, sceptical parts of the book. It seems to reflect an almost Medieval view of the world, and it impossible to tell if Powys is being ironic or tongue-in-cheek in these passages. They are certainly challenging – and I can imagine him in a pub or at a dinner table stirring up debate for the sheer love of intellectual stimulation and the exploration of points of view.
The challenge starts with the long first sentence of the novel, which has probably deterred many browsers in bookshops from buying the book! “At the striking of noon on a certain fifth of March, there occurred within a causal radius of Brandon railway station and yet beyond the deepest pools of emptiness between the uttermost stellar systems one of those infinitesimal ripples in the creative silence of the First Cause which always occur when an exceptional stir of heightened consciousness agitates any living organism in this astronomical universe.” Personally I was intrigued by this sentence and felt a need to walk a journey with the author, although I knew it would be a long, hard road.
The author assumes a very God-like status in the book, looking down on “this microscopic biped” from a great height, and then zooming in, much further than a Google Earth map into the hearts and thoughts of his characters. He vouchsafes them visions of Excalibur and the Holy Grail, and finally washes them in a mighty flood, like the old testament God.
The challenge and excitement of Powy’s idiosyncratic genius hit me when he starts conveying the point of view of plants: “The now darkened conservatory listened to the placid sub-human breathings of heliotrope and lemon verbena, the latter with a faint catch in its drowsy susurration…” Then he talks about the house as if it had its own consciousness too: “Silent and alone the broad staircase fell into that trance of romantic melancholy which was its invariable mood when the hall lamp was first lit”.
So in this novel we live in a universe of multiple consciousnesses, at many levels: cosmic, natural, human, cultural and more. I think he wants to jolt us out of our dullness into a more vivid plane of thinking and feeling, and he succeeds. However, there are some aspects of Powy’s authorial point of view that are difficult to swallow. His pronouncements on how women feel and think (eg. “in a trance of mindless passivity”) seem objectionable at times, though delicate at others. His obscure references to the erotic sadism that preys on the mind of Mr Evans (purportedly a self-portrait) seem frustratingly obscure and helpful to me, though they play an important part in the plot.
Different people in the book want to turn the town into something new to fit their personal views of the world. Philip Crow, a businessman, want to modernise and enrich the town and “beat down this pious Glastonbury legend, this piece of monkish mummery.” The evangelical preacher Geard, wants to utilise the legends to further his own power, and express his enigmatic faith. Sam Dekker wants to explore sensual erotic passion, but later converts to a mystical asceticism. Red Robinson, Paul Trent and others want to overturn the current order of society and bring in a communist/socialist heaven on earth. John Crow, Edward Athling and others want to express themselves in pageants and poetry. There are many other currents that reflect on the overall development of British society in the 1920s. In that respect it is a deeply interesting reflection of society, culture and politics of the age, just as ‘Middlemarch’ reflects the society of the 1840s.
If one persists with the book (and frankly it took me many months), one becomes drawn into the characters and wants to discover how the many currents of their aims develop. The book starts in too leisurely a fashion, but rises to a fast-paced climax in the latter pages that is exciting, vivid and rewarding. On reaching the end, I felt an urge to start reading it again. I resisted this temptation, having other objectives in my life than reading books, but dipping into the earlier chapters again revealed a richer texture in the tapestry than I had first appreciated.
One may receive the impression from what I have said and quoted so far that the book is all portentous and high-flown. Far from it. ‘Glastonbury’ is lightened by many fine passages of conversation, delightful Somerset dialect, humourous touches, comic moments and light poetic perceptions. There is much to entertain the reader along the way. I find the light and the dark, the heavy and the light entwining in Powys’ fertile, dualistic brain. This is a characteristic he shares with his brother Theodore Powys, who wrote the novel ‘Unclay’ – a parallel work to this, set in a Dorset village.
Of the all the influences on Powys, apart from his own talented family, I think Thomas Hardy is the most prominent. I believe the brothers met the great man in person, and they certainly read many of his famous novels. They follow in his footsteps of creating a great native body of fiction rooted in the ‘West Country’ of England. Hardy created tragedies in the backwaters of Wessex, and the Powys family succeed in doing the same. However ‘Glastonbury’ cannot be simplistically labelled a tragedy. The word ‘Romance’ is wholly appropriate in the title of the novel.
‘Romance’ is a tricky word, since it is used in many different senses. The sense in which Powys used it, and which I say is appropriate, it chivalric romance, drawing on the tradition of High Medieval stories about heroic knights. This links directly with the most popular cycle of romances about King Arthur and the knights of the round table. Powys weaves in many references to the Arthurian legends, and he sets out to portray struggles and spiritual journeys, and several love stories. There are no crude references to damsels in distress or dragons, though you might identify Nell Zoyland and the aeroplane as such, if you choose.
The book is enriched by drawing on folklore, sagas, ghost stories and even satirical takes on the romance genre, such as ‘Don Quixote’ or ‘Sir Hudibras’. In this manner Powys aims to absorb, without judgemental condemnation, the many contradictory strands of human life. J.C. Powys was one of the earliest readers of James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’, and he succeeded in creating a work of comparable resonance and many layers. -
One of the small sorrows of my life is that I’m unable to talk about my favorite novel with my friends. No one has read it. I have badgered any number of people into giving it a try, but most quit somewhere in the middle of the first paragraph.
Who can blame them? Just for openers, A Glastonbury Romance is 1120 pages long—the longest undivided novel in English. There are stretches of incomprehensible West Country dialect. For instance: “Thee’s ‘ooman be biding along wi’ Missus for thik party.” Powys is bombastic, windy, and utterly lacking in good taste. There is an unforgettable scene involving an enema. He is prone to phrases like “the divine-diabolical soul of the creative energy beyond space and time.” I love it!
In Glastonbury, England, the nexus of Christian legend and Celtic and Arthurian myth, great events are stirring. Johnny Geard, a low-church preacher who revels in the blood of Christ, is elected mayor. Young Bolsheviks establish a commune. Adulterous love affairs are consummated. The arrogant industrialist Philip Crow plans to electrify the local cave, Wookey Hole. And the Holy Grail is appearing. The cast of characters eclipses anything Dickens ever created: saintly and lustful Holy Sam, tormented sadist Owen Evans, cold-hearted Persephone Spear, and a whole battalion of country folk with names like Isaac Weatherwax and Tossie Stickles. Merlin is in there somewhere, too. And those are just the human characters. Powys, a mystical pantheist, tells of the thoughts and dreams of trees, rocks, the Sun, a stalk of lemon verbena. The novel’s climax is an apocalyptic flood—told from the point of view of the flood.
I have a challenge: read the first paragraph. Yes, it is bombastic and syntactically challenged. But if it makes you laugh, read on. Your reward will be the experience of what George Steiner calls “the only novel produced by an English writer than can fairly be compared with the fictions of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.” It throbs with life: myth, sex, nature, greed, dualism, mysticism. Let me know if you make it to the end. - bfgb.wordpress.com/2007/07/18/a-glastonbury-romance-by-john-cowper-powys/
Glastonbury Romance by John Cowper Powys: The Novel and the Grail.
Wolf Solent (1929)
Often described as one of the great apocalyptic novels of our time, WOLF SOLENT is the story of a young man returning from London to work near to the school at which his father had been history master. Complex, romantic and humorous, it is a classicwork combining a close understanding of man's everyday experience with a delicate awareness of the spiritual.
He is an aqueous man with an aquiline nose. Who? the title above or the author below? What little I know of John Cowper Powys I’ve gleaned from his hero, Wolf Solent; what I know of Wolf Solent has been given to me by his creator, John Cowper Powys. Both are of aqueous form, both have an aquiline nose. Do not come unprepared unto this ground; do not get them confused.
As I skimmed through online articles while reading this book, I came across an image of this man, this eccentric writer, that lodged itself into my consciousness. It has been said that every morning before sitting down to write, John Cowper Powys would submerge his head into a bucket of water for as long as he could take it, so that he was better prepared when he sat down with his ledger to make good talk with the underwater fishes, to better understand the underside of flotsam and jetsam, to better grasp the sway of the seaweed on underwater breezes. If it is only this practice that led to such passages which evoke such rivers of consciousness that break out into veritable ponds, lakes and seas, perhaps I too, one day, will attempt such a humorous method.
It is John Cowper Powys’ eery ability to transcribe our most subterranean thoughts that have established him, in my self, as another mania. An author I will dog until I have exhausted every possibility of every word ever written by this mythopoesis. Unfortunate for such a mania to strike in a non-English speaking country, for my fixes promise to be few and far-between. But no matter, I will feast off of Wolf Solent for as long as I possibly can!
A great thanks goes out to Henry Miller who managed to forge this introduction over countries and ages. Both Miller and Powys share an adhesion to life; life in its most destructive, chaotic, ugly to life in the most divine and over-worldly. And like Henry Miller, I do not suggest Powys for the weak of heart or spirit; some passages are too brutal and ghastly in their naked truth. But do not let me to shy you away from this rare experience no other author offers.
“I refuse to believe,” Wolf said to himself, “and I never will believe until the day Nature kills me, that there’s such a thing as ‘reality,’ apart from the mind that looks at it!. . . The ‘thing in itself’ is as fluid and malleable as these trees.”
Wolf Solent has a ‘mythology.’
“Perhaps I have never known reality as other human beings know it,” he thought. “My life has been industrious, monotonous, patient. I’ve carried my load like a camel. And I’ve been able to do this because it hasn’t been my real life at all! My ‘mythology’ has been my real life.”
This ‘mythology’ is a life-illusion; the quickest way to go under water with the fishes, I presume. This ‘mythology’ is, as I understand it to be, Wolf Solent’s version of the story, our story, his story; this story constructed in a wild mind with wild characters and synopsises.
Wolf Solent slips into his ‘mythology’ on his epic walks through the West Country; giving way to epic thoughts that swing, weave, float through possibilities, impossible or not. Does Wolf Solent slip-in to escape and not to endure? What constitutes an escape on such terms? The mind, given free range to roam, constructs hefty edifices, chosen deliberately or stumbled upon quite by accident; edifices that build a castle or dig a tomb. The underwater mind takes underwater swims, looping through underwater breezes; an underwater mind that visualizes it all from the bottom, up.
Between your happiness and that face [on the Waterloo Steps, of Living Despair] there was an umbilical cord. All suffering was a martyr’s suffering, all happiness a martyr’s happiness, when once you got a glimpse of that cord! It was the existence in the world of those two gross, vulgar parodies of life, ennui and pleasure, that confused the issues, the blighted the distinctions.
Why not drift off for a little escape? Dive down to depths where all things become vaporous and where the lines between blur. Finishing Wolf Solent and coming upon the task of writing these notes I was seized by the book’s contradictory substance of underwater molecules: I attempted multiple drafts. Finally, I came upon the solution: the question, what is ‘mythology’ and what purpose does it hold?
Wolf Solent ‘looses’ his ‘mythology.’ He gives in to the evil behind Mr. Urquart’s preposterous book: the perverted record of Dorset’s residents, past and present. As Wolf Solent gets paid to finish this project, which he was summoned to Dorset to do, his secret ‘mythology’ loses the ability to oppose some equally secret “evil” in the world around him. The downright ‘evilness’ of this Urquart is apparent in the state of Wolf’s unfortunate predecessor, who occupies a plot in the local cemetery. Poor Redfern, he just couldn’t take it!
Oh, it was Wolf Solent’s own mind that was diseased. . . not Nature. Well, diseased or not, it was all he had! Henceforth he was going to take as the talisman of his days endure or escape.
With the ‘mythology’ gone I didn’t find much changed in Wolf’s days, besides a wizened outlook and a more leveled ability to not jump hastily to wild conclusions. For the final scene, when Lord Carafax is seen to have taken the ‘stunning’ Gerda upon his knee—as much a child as Wolf’s wife—Wolf reacts ‘normally.’ He goes out behind the pigsty to rattle the contents of his mind with his adroit and perpetual analyzations. He is then able to enter his gate almost humming! Wolf Solent endures. That he will spend the rest of his days as a teacher of history in the grammar school; that he will live on Preston Lane; that he is married to one girl who is his ‘grounding’ and has another girl who is his ‘true love.’ All this will pass and pass well or not well, but pass-on. To endure or escape? Or as his father, the skull six-feet below the earth, says, ‘forgive and forget.’
I find myself clinging to the phrase, ‘as malleable as the trees,’ as I pass through the undulations of the Italian countryside; the sturdiness of trunks and limbs sway under the effects of my straying vision. In John Cowper Powys’ potent descriptions of Nature the threads of his life-illusion glint with a silver-light. I stand at my own sentinella. Jagged snow peaked mountains rise at the furthest periphery. It is only in Nature where the simplistic nature of all the above blather, is restored. A simple complexity, ‘good’ and ‘evil’ and everything in between.
“Walking is my cure,” he thought. “As long as I can walk I can get my soul into shape!”
Elements of John Cowper Powys are not suited for everybody. Despite being dubbed as an English “Great,” not many have tried him. John Cowper Powys’ words ring strong, smashing the confines of literature built by that drudge, academia. His colors are too dazzling: look how his metallic scales glitter when caught in the ray’s angle of deep-sea light! Lusterful pinks and greens! What an aquamarine and perfect celeste to smash-up any academic and intellectual dull-grey!
Reading John Cowper Powys is a lesson in the vagrancy of vocabulary and a glimpse into the true freedom of written form. He plunges straight to the heart of the eternal questions that have stuck around since the beginning of written time. Reading John Cowper Powys is at once a descent and a flight. I have another addiction. I must read more! - descriptedlines.com/wolf-solent
I first read Wolf Solent under a state of veritable hypnotism. The writing of John Cowper Powys enchants me: it casts spells. Each time I read this writer’s liberal eccentricities and disclosures I am refreshed anew: this is what writing/reading can be like: an exploration, a long-winded plunge into the unthinkable of one man’s populated world. Now, with more of Powys’s canon behind me, I’ve again finished the raucous book that began my obsession.
Wolf Solent was not Powys’s first book but the first book publicly accepted. None of his later works either can boast of such success, evidenced by Wolf Solent‘s status as a Penguin ‘Modern Classic.’ The unusual cast of characters is almost familiar to me now, like Wolf himself, an archetypical Powys anti-hero, his lusts, walks, unending thoughts. The uninitiated may find Powys tedious, but try to think of the manuscript before it was cut by 350 pages!
Since my second reading was more thorough, I am splitting this ‘book note’ into three sections: Relationships, Consciousness and Life-Illusion. Each of these have been key to my understanding of Wolf Solent, key to understanding more of the author’s formidable genius.
Soon after arriving in Ramsgard (or Sherborne) Wolf Solent gets involved with two young women: Gerda Torp and Christie Malakite. There are plenty more relationships in this long book: between Wolf and his mother; the antagonism between his mother and dead father; the Otter brothers, Jason, a sketch of Powys’s brother, Theodore, and Darnley, to whom Wolf seems almost attracted; then there’s the drunk vicar, the incestuous dirty bookseller, Wolf’s bastard sister and on and on… But it is Wolf’s relationships with these two young women that sheds the most revealing light.
John Cowper Powys began to write Wolf Solent soon after meeting Phyllis Playter, twenty-two years his younger. Phyllis and John lived the rest of their lives together, in the States and Wales. Pyllis and Christie share similar physical descriptions—‘her honey-pale oval face, her long eyelashes, her thin legs, her faintly-outlined childish figure‘—and an ideal of the female Elemental, a ‘bodiless, formless identity.’
Wolf declares Christie his ‘true love’ soon after he marries Gerda, young and beautiful. Wolf’s relationship to Gerda is only sensual; he is surprised to find that such a pretty head has its own personality! Powys’s biographer, Morine Krissdóttir, believes Gerda is based on Powys’s wife Margaret, a woman whom he abandoned but never failed to send money to.
The Gerda/Christie dialogue is carried on endlessly in Wolf Solent’s head. His deepest soul is Christie’s while his outward life must belong to Gerda and his mother. Even when it becomes obvious that Gerda’s childhood friend Bob Weevil is advancing on the young wife, to eventually sleeping with her, the marital relationship is something to escape or endure rather than to do anything about. Wolf clings to an impotent apathy, as if all he can do is think.
When he does feel jealous over Bob Weevil’s advances, he reminds himself of his love for Christie. When incestuous Mr. Malakite goes to spend a night in Weymouth —leaving Christie home alone—Wolf fantasizes about sleeping with his daughter. But Wolf arrives at the moment before her nakedness and can’t go through with it—stopped by the Waterloo steps face. Christie is insulted. She yells at him:
Not only do you refuse really to understand other people; but I sometimes think there’s something in you yourself you’re never even aware of, with all your self-accusations. It’s this blindness to what you’re really doing that lets you off, not your gestures, not even your sideways flashes of compassion.
Like much in Wolf’s life, these women are like the Dorset landscape he walks over. As he crosses this or that hill or dale he is completely at its mercy, his thoughts, his consciousness sinks into it. Much of Powys’s writing about nature is sensually charged; he arrives at the very essence of what brings life into his sensations. Yet this is what Christie is upset about. Between him and his holy sensations, no person can reach.
The division between Gerda and Christie, besides their real-life representatives, was between what Powys saw as two very different types of women. Gerda is physical, more woman, more ‘conventional.’ When she worries about not having a dress for his mother’s attendance at tea, Wolf…
…became suddenly aware of the existence, in the beautiful head opposite him, of whole interests and values that had nothing to do with love-making and nothing to do with romance.
Gerda and his mother represent all that baffles him in women. While he is never surprised at Christie’s thoughts, in fact, he believes they think the same. (Even when Wolf discovers Christie’s book, which details a possible sexual relationship with her father, Wolf is not as surprised as when Gerda wants a new dress!) Christie is what is meant by ‘those mystic syllables, “a girl,” a “young girl.”’ As a first-time reader I missed this distinction; but having read more Powys, I have found lots more Christie’s but never another Gerda. Christie (like Phyllis) is Powys’s ideal, a sylph with thin legs and white ankles, a girlish figure, passive, a female Elemental who can entertain and stir a strange man’s strange sexual sensations.
Down under his feet, under this asphalt, under this Somerset clay, down to the centre of the globe, went the mystery of solid matter. Up, up above him, beyond all this thick swine-scented darkness, went space, air, emptiness—the mystery of un-solid matter.
As Wolf is sharply aware of his own inner-consciousness, so he is keenly aware of outer consciousnesses. Krissdóttir pin-points Wolf Solent as set after World War I (though there are never any direct references in the novel); the sky and the earth are swarmed with ‘the monstrous Apparition of Modern Invention.’ Electricity and aeroplanes disturb Wolf the most and he sees the earth as ‘bleeding and victimized’: Modern Invention is a threat to benevolent Nature.
In Nature, Wolf/Powys revels in the ‘souls’ of the myriad creatures, animate and inanimate and the earth itself. Certain places have their own consciousness, such as the slaughtering yard’s pain or Poll’s Camp, an ancient Roman rampart that at one point seems to make love to Gerda as she sleeps atop it. But it is the consciousness of Wolf that is the most well-endowed. He is able to enter into, to join these ‘souls,’ a sensual act, ‘fetish-worship.’
The consciousness of John Cowper Powys, given to Wolf Solent, is massive. And it is rambling. Similar to the proverbial ‘stream of consciousness’ that flows wherever it shall flow, so Wolf’s thoughts ebb and flow. At one moment he’s engaging in a conversation with his father’s skull then begins to contemplate Gerda’s figure then the Elementalism of Christie then Jason’s antagonism. The effect is long-winded, but equally, it is what I find refreshing. Powys wrote to please himself: Thank God!
The loss of Wolf Solent’s life-illusion is the main moving motive of the novel. Wolf predicts this loss in the beginning, as he rides the train to Ramsgard. The two major threats to his life-illusion are finishing evil Mr. Urquhart’s dirty book and the possibility of seducing Christie Malakite. Wolf’s life-illusion has something to do with escaping reality into his ‘mythology,’ propagating sensations: he re-writes reality in his own terms.
I could argue that a personal life-illusion is necessary and, without knowing it, most practice similar fugues from reality’s brutalities. My life-illusion is my writing, wherein I create a personal reality. So then, the loss of a life-illusion would indeed be staggering. Powys commits a vast number of words to the possibility; it is a preoccupation more important than Gerda or Christie or Nature: his life-illusion is life itself.
The first main and major jab of disruption was the face that turned to Wolf as he entered Waterloo Station. The Waterloo-steps-face was that of Living Despair, the unforgivable and unrepairable suffering of the world. The face turns to Wolf again and again throughout the course of the book, like a moral compass. Mr. Urquhart is at the far end of this spectrum, a man thoroughly evil, he pays no regard to suffering and instead takes joy in assembling a book which showcases it.
The dilemma of accepting money after deciding to finish Urquhart’s book plagues Wolf ferociously. It is difficult not to hear exaggeration, for Wolf has finished the book so cash the check already, you need the money! Only after Gerda sleeps with Bob Weevil, as reparation to Wolf’s obstinacy, does Wolf accept the money. And here the book loses some credulity, somewhat due to the removal of 350 pages. After he loses his life-illusion, Wolf’s thoughts run on in the same vein as before.
Yet Wolf advances, for his troubles direct him to accept that life will be as it is until the end of his days: married to Gerda, in love with Christie, a teacher in Blacksod (or Yeovil) and without ambition to change anything. I can picture Wolf Solent as an old man, walking through the Dorset hills with stick in hand, still muttering the same old thoughts and cursing about how he lost his life-illusion to Urquhart long dead!
I think Wolf Solent merely traded one life-illusion for another, one mythology for another mythology. Like Wolf says to his father’s skull:
There is no reality but what the mind fashions out of its self. There is nothing but a mirror opposite a mirror, and a round crystal opposite a round crystal, and a sky in water opposite water in a sky.
Wolf Solent is one of the most vivid of Powys’s books. What he later populated with an interminable cast of characters is, in Wolf Solent, relatively simple. More than about the loss of a life-illusion, it is the story of a man in middle-years who must face who he has become. - descriptedlines.com/wolf-solent-x-2
Jobber Skald (also published as Weymouth Sands, 1935)
Oh, how odd it was to read John Cowper Powys’ Weymouth Sands while travelling in Southeast Asia. With its phalanx of characters and jumble of subplots—for is there even A Plot?—one risks sheer passages to the lack of full engrossment. I may have lost some here and there, in hammocks or out train windows, but let them be passages well lost, let them drift off to their place in the Inanimate.
…between St. Alban’s Head, the White Nose, the Nothe, Chesil Beach, the Breakwater, the Town Bridge, the White Horse, Hardy’s Monument, King George’s Statue, St. John’s Spire, the Jubilee Clock, and this perpetual crying of sea-gulls and advancing and retreating of sea-tides, there might have arisen, in their long confederacy, a brooding patience, resembling that of an organic Being…
It is in Weymouth Sands more than any other book by John Cowper Powys I have so far read, that has given this “patience” the widest reign. Into this “brooding patience” all action seems to fizzle out, like the characters, their relationships, their unhappinesses. It is something I have come to think of as lingering in the air around and sometimes sharing the air within all things. To believe John Cowper Powys, this “energy” is everywhere, certain places, by dint of their popularity, are heavier than others.
It is hard to suppose that any strip of planetary surface, even over which the sea-tides advance and recede, can be so totally oblivious to the shifting impressions of our race’s tragic comedy as to retain no trace, no memory, no memorial, of words that have once been spoken.
Out of all John Cowper Powys’ varied philosophies, this is the one that stays with me the longest. In it there is something so truthful to me—whether it is a hopefulness or a desire for more than our banal landscape, I don’t know. In it is a reason for keener observation, an invocation to the mysterious and a reverence for everything; there is also an immortality for words and thoughts as much as deeds.
Also in Weymouth Sands more than his other books, there is an over-brimming of relationships. Usually there is at least one, but here every other character gets paired up true to form: old guy and young girl. If this wasn’t clear enough in Wolf Solent, in Weymouth Sands the reader is given a very filling dose. Though it is only Sylvanus Cobbald who has a preoccupation with virgins, and what happens when one beds with them. No, he’s not after bleeding hymens but something greater:
And as he now held this slender young being in his arms,… he began to use her young warmth,… to strengthen his colloquy with the mystery of the cosmos.
Virgins hold the secret of the Absolute! Or, they at least allow guys to get closer: just hold a sleeping sylph in your arms to unravel the world’s secrets! Sylvanus is not the only one with young saplings and white limbs on his mind; though the other men’s attractions are merely accidental. Take poor poor Magnus Muir and his tragic longing for young and beautiful Curly, whose beauty begins to lead its own existence. To Curly this ruminative man is extremely ill-suited. Yet how is that enough to stop his love?
Magnus is not the only unhappy one in Weymouth Sands. Unhappiness dominates much of this book; most every character has at least one melancholy to brood about. But the text is not forlorn, which brings me back to the Inanimate. No one makes any large effort to “fix” their problems, leaving the ending relatively incomplete. Instead, these people simply go with their problems until they are able to let go, more thoughts and words for the Inanimate.
This is not an optimistic outlook though neither is it pessimistic. There is much in John Cowper Powys’ eccentric writings and philosophies that is more real than the most studied writer, scientist, person. As a writer he has the ability to let himself go, a quality in life that some are severely lacking. John Cowper Powys is fixed in my imagination—and my soul, perhaps—as a writer of boundless inspirations. - descriptedlines.com/weymouth-sands
The sea lost nothing of the swallowing identity of its great outer mass of waters in the emphatic, individual character of each particular wave. Each wave, as it rolled in upon the high-pebbled beach, was an epitome of the whole body of the sea, and carried with it all the vast mysterious quality of the earth’s ancient antagonist. – page 1 (When I collected these words to include in this reflection, I started to read the book all over again!)
The realm of John Cowper Powys is dangerous. The reader may wander for years in this parallel universe, entrapped and bewitched, and never reach its end. There is always another book to discover, another work to reread. Like Tolkien, Powys has invented another country, densely peopled, thickly forested, mountainous, erudite, strangely self-sufficient. This country is less visited than Tolkien's, but it is as compelling, and it has more air.—Margaret Drabble The Guardian, The English Degenerate, August 11, 2006
John Cowper Powys is adored by a loyal type of reader who once they’ve found him will be forever grateful, yet he is often scorned by other readers with the trite accusation “Nothing happens!” Indeed, reading Powys is like taking a long rambling walk through a landscape—if you enjoy lingering over mosses and funguses, meadows and forests, absorbing birdsong, the wind through the trees, the rattle of pebbles on the beach, and becoming immersed in mysticism, psychology, and the legends from long ago, you will love Weymouth Sands.
It is enchanting—haunting—provocative; the complexities of the human puzzle, made up of eccentric misfits and lonely monsters. There is a beautiful sense of place, the wonders of nature, the transcendence of the ordinary; the passionate love of home, the reassuring familiarity with landmarks; obsessive-compulsive behaviors, emotionally overwrought to the point of being tenderly maudlin. The epic longing for a cup of tea at most times equals the yearning for the attentions of a woman, or the overwhelming desire to cave in the head of the miserly richest man in town with a pebble stone—all this in the day-to-day lives of the population of Weymouth. There is more going on in the lives being lived—much of the antics of the residents could be considered madness—and apparently, it’s chronic enough that a place dubbed “Hell’s Museum” exists. It is a place where unsettling rumors about a laboratory in which vivisection is secretly performed on dogs is a worrisome outrage that lingers in the back of most of their minds. There are moments of bawdy comedy, perverted and hilarious, that mesh with the intimate dramas disseminated throughout this human document. No one’s perfect, on the surface they put on a proper façade in order to exist in society (such as Perdita Wane, Magnus Muir, and Mr. Gaul and the assorted elder ladies of the town), while some are clearly of the “fuck it, I am what I am” sort (such as Jobber Skald, the brothers Jerry and Sylvanus Cobbold, and Gipsy May) who have embraced their nature and go about with a ‘come what may’ attitude.
Only he could write such a formidable tale with such intense characters—he is a writer’s writer. The words flow from his pen, coming into existence—Powys followed his bliss. Can you imagine, the constant vision, the outpouring of thoughts, the compassion, the persistence, the intensity of his mind (the exhaustion) to create everything he wrote? (I can.) Turning on the creative spigots and leaving them on is a deluge with an understanding that human nature is complicated and not everything is going to be resolved from beginning to end—tho’ it is certain that Weymouth Sands is a story in which a pebble stone starts out riding in the Jobber’s pocket as a bludgeon with intent, to becoming a paper weight with a final resting place—everything else that happens in between is incidental.
A few moments from the dog-eared pages.
How well he knew this spot! It was one of those geographical points on the surface of the planet that would surely rush into his mind when he came to die, as a concentrated essence of all that life meant! –Page 10 (Magnus Muir)
…as if by the mere hugging of her knees between her arms she could return to that unconscious state in which twenty-six years ago she lay, an embryo-mite, before she was born into a world like this; a world in which for a woman not to be beautiful, not to be seductive and appealing, means after all a series of futile desperations, of shifts and make-shifts, of pitiful and sorrowful turnings to the wall. (Perdita Wane) Page 49
Sue Gadget suddenly felt as if all the waves of the sea did not contain water enough to wash out the pity and trouble and pain and weariness of being alive in this world.—page 578
For further indulgence you may enjoy this lovely website “tour” of Powy’s Weymouth—I didn’t come upon it until after I finished reading the book, upon finding it this morning, it confirmed my vision: http://www.powys-lannion.net/Powys/Weymouth/weymouth.HTM
- Laura J. Wellner (author pseudonym Laura J. W. Ryan)
Maiden Castle (1937)
The novels of John Cowper Powys are like none other, containing the romantic extravagance and comic exuberance of the great nineteenth-century novels with the self-conscious depth and introspection of the great Modernists. Maiden Castle portrays in pointillist detail the complexities of sexual and romantic feeling that bedevil an eccentric cast of characters, and explores the psychological idiosyncrasies that fuel their hopes and dreams, fantasies and failures.At the center of the novel is the aptly named Dud No-man, a historical novelist widowed after a yearlong unconsummated marriage to a woman who continues to haunt him. Inspired by pity and his own deep loneliness, Dud takes Wizzie Ravelston, an itinerant circus performer, into his home and heart. Their awkward yet endearing efforts to create a life together unfold in counterpoint to the romantic and familial relationships that sizzle and simmer in the village of Dorchester. Yet even as the characters in Maiden Castle struggle with the perplexities of love, desire and faith -- readjusting their sights and affections -- it is the looming fortress of Maiden Castle that exerts the otherworldly force that irrevocably determines the course of their lives.
Widely regarded as Powys' finest achievement in fiction, "Porius" has never been published in its intended form - until now. The culmination of a lifelong passion for Wales and its mythology, "Porius" is at once a historical novel and a commentary on the nature of modern warfare...It is the year 499. The Saxons and their forest-people allies are advancing upon a Roman fort in North Wales in a desperate attempt to save the remnants of their matriarchate. Arthur has sent ahead Merlin, Nineue, and Medrawd, to help the beleaguered son of the reigning prince, Porius. Powys, a self-labelled 'born Inventor of Fairy Tales', transformed the people and animals of his Welsh village into the mythical figures that haunt Porius' primeval woods. Severely cut by previous publishers, this edition, newly edited by two pre-eminent Powys scholars, is "Porius" as Powys would have wanted what he considered 'the chief work of my lifetime'.
"Porius stood upon the low square tower above the Southern Gate of Mynydd-y-Gaer, and looked down on the wide stretching valley below." So begins one of the most unique novels of twentieth-century literature, by one of its most "extraordinary, neglected geniuses," said Robertson Davies of John Cowper Powys. Powys thought Porius his masterpiece, but because of the paper shortage after World War II and the novel's lengthiness, he could not find a publisher for it. Only after he cut one-third from it was it accepted. This new edition not only brings Porius back into print, but makes the original book at last available to readers. Set in the geographic confines of Powys's own homeland of Northern Wales, Porius takes place in the course of a mere eight October days in 499 A.D., when King Arthur - a key character in the novel, along with Myrddin Wyllt, or Merlin - was attempting to persuade the people of Britian to repel the barbaric Saxon invaders. Porius, the only child of Prince Einion of Edeyrnion, is the main character who is sent on a journey that is both historical melodrama and satirical allegory. A complex novel, Porius is a mixture of mystery and philosophy on a huge narrative scale, as if Nabokov or Pynchon tried to compress Dostoevsky into a Ulyssean mold. Writing in The New Yorker, George Steiner has said of the abridged Porius that it "combines [a] Shakespearean-epic sweep of historicity with a Jamesian finesse of psychological detail and acuity. Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, which I believe to be the American masterpiece after Melville, is a smaller thing by comparison." This new, and first complete, edition of the novel substantiates both Steiner's judgement and Powys's claim for Porius as his masterpiece.
The forests of Edeyrnion, Ynys Prydein, were of the ancient mythical sort. Ancient even in Porius’s time, 499; trees already brought dust to dust, trees whose liquid properties extended so far beyond the usual solid wooden type, trees that spoke, trees that moved more than swayed, trees whose leaves whispered by the wind from the south particularly. The earth of the forests had history and in certain places, history made itself known. Porius ab Einion ab Iddawc complacently plodded through such forests; through such forests Porius’s subtle mind-butterflies fluttered.
As it is with most good trips through the forest, in Porius the novel, there is never any rush. “All in good time,” creator and character seem to say. “There is time upon time for all.”
. . .the condition of Time is the inner subjective condition, within which every conceivable ‘I am I’ has to function once it asserts its living existence.
The genius that is John Cowper Powys excels—within Porius as I read it—in that he has managed to secure a place for this book in the very bosom of Time itself. The Time of Porius is so unlike any other time in any other book I have read. What John Cowper Powys did was elongate it, dissect it, dove into it, almost unnaturally, so that the reader is given an obscene sense that this book could very well go on forever!
But it won’t and it can’t! Half the illusion lies in that, that the whole novel but brief histories is the present course of one week. This astounds me! Blows my socks off, as they say! Perhaps by part effect of the medieval setting and its uncanny reality; how John Cowper Powys has displaced himself almost 1450 years with a perfection that only comes when one eats, breathes, lives the words one writes.
Back to Time, whose discourse is related on a rest during the unhurried ascent up Eyri mountain. Porius seems to be taking forever to arrive at the top, in no desperate hope of saving the crooked-counseling Chronos or Myrddin Wyllt. “All in good time,” he mumbles under his caught breathe. Porius pulls up a rock and as quickly discovers the craving to prove “the dynamic importance of Time compared to the cumbrous necessity of Space.”
After some minor interruptions and change of locale, Porius stumbles upon the conclusion—far from ‘Space the devourer of Time’ and ‘Time the begetter of Space‘—that “one of the deities Medrawd’s God-Devil, life-death, chip-chop, see-saw, one-is-three-and-three-is-one vision of things leaves out entirely is Uncle Brochveal’s bitch queen of the dice, the great goddess Chance!” That we are all locked into Time and Space is perhaps enough—‘enjoy to the end’ or ‘endure to the end‘—but what drama is wrought within them!
Isn’t it better to be creatures dependent on Chance than creatures pulled in half all the time between good and evil and God and the Devil, especially when you’re always catching the same expression whether under the crown or under the horns?
. . . that for all the beautiful, hollow-staring, world-despairing eyes of the emperor’s nephew [Medrawd], neither his God nor his Devil, neither his good nor his evil, were mysterious enough to correspond with the multitudinous waves of the ocean of being that washes us up and sucks us down along the shores of the boundless.
Instinctively I turn back to the forests through which Porius plods at his dullard’s pace. By which the forest is mysterious, through which Nature operates on Chance and refuses to follow any kind of duality’s logical laws. Was it Porius’s outstanding use of the invented verb, ‘to cavoseniargize’, that brought him “into the inner existence of all natural entities,” which revealed to him the wordless, thoughtless, inner-workings of such mysteries? Mysteries enough to warrant no explanation but as such.
What John Cowper Powys attests to with this invention, ‘to cavoseniargize’ is what I expect to be his own experiences in Nature, something I think he called elementalism. He ‘flung’ himself out into the things he enjoyed; as boring as a rafter of Brother John’s cell, as sweeping as the minutiae muscular chest of a swallow in a head-long dive, the water that ripples due to unpredictable winds, anything, he claims, has a spirit into which we may climb.
In the very beginning of the book, relatively, Porius caught Nineue, the seductress, with the very same far-off dreamy look on her face. She was also ‘cavoseniargizing’ he supposed. Many pages later, in Brother John’s cell, as they sat quietly side-by-side: “She was enjoying herself just like I [Porius] was. . . she draws into herself the things she enjoys. . . But that’s only because she’s a woman and I’m a man. Otherwise our enjoyment’s the same.”
When I read this sentence I stopped reading and I thought, “Is this true? Is my ‘cavoseniargizing’ not a big exhale but a big inhale instead?” So I imagined myself standing on the sentinella or better yet, an Alpine peak, of which I climbed alone at the brave age of eighteen. I decided what Mr. Powys claims is true; and that whatever end of the breathing process it is, it is breathing all the same. I also decided, that by John Cowper Powys giving name to this most personal of explorations was a way of getting to know it better.
‘To cavoseniargize’ is something all writers must do to write well, all artists must do to create well. I ‘cavoseniargize’ daily from behind my typewriter and my keys. I’ve been doing it since youth, I would say, walking through the forests all the same. I do think there is spirit in the rafters; I do think that by joining it with my own I at once become less, a mere rafter, and more. . . “souls and bodies, of worlds and creators of worlds, of dreams within dreams within dreams within dreams, of multiverses beyond multiverses, it seems to me. . . “
Porius is a novel to span dimensions. Because of this I can’t agree with the tagline, “A romance of the Dark Ages.” I just don’t like it. When I first began to conjure up images of this book from short descriptions found online, it became this unwieldy dark bulk set in old-world forests. But Porius’s darkness is a very natural darkness as its light is a very natural light. There is something about this book that defies other books, almost spits in their faces by the sheer delight it takes from itself. As I said in the beginning, John Cowper Powys has set Porius into the bosom of the Earth herself.
I don’t know. I guess I’m going to use this book as a bible of sorts from now on. Maybe that makes me as nuts as Mr. Powys himself, but I truly believe that no great writer comes out of the usual. A great writer must be accustomed to living out their own worlds, worlds like Porius walks through, worlds of the mind, worlds back and forward in Time and Space; where Time and Space become something like a leaf, something we can hop into or fling ourselves out into, as much as anything else.
In a very hard-mannered kind of way, Porius has brought me hope, more hope than any tree-hugging manifesto ever has. A hope dark and light all the same, weighted and weightless; for John Cowper Powys has seen through the spirits of the dirt as well as the spirits of our souls. A life always there. That’s probably why I don’t like that tagline: Porius is more than medieval: Porius is Time-less.
Oh, how long it takes us all to learn the trick of ‘laying down the law’, as they say, ‘each for himself,’ and of carrying about with us the responsibility for ourselves like a good slice of bread to feed upon! That’s the thing to do—live upon the stuff of your conscience and see to it that you keep it fresh and wholesome! - descriptedlines.com/porius
Owen Glendower is John Cowper Powys' brilliant re-imagining of the life and exploits of Wales's national hero.
It is the year 1400, and Wales is on the brink of a bloody revolt. At a market fair on the banks of the River Dee a mad rebel priest and his beautiful companion are condemned to be burned at the stake. To their rescue rides the unlikely figure of Rhisiart, a young Oxford scholar, whose fate will be entangled with that of Owen Glendower, the last true Prince of Wales-a man called, at times against his will, to fulfill the prophesied role of national redeemer. Psychologically complex, sensuous in its language, vivid in its evocation of a period shrouded by myth, Owen Glendower tells a compelling story of war, love, and magic.
"Autobiography conveys Powys's contagious excitement of his discovery of books and men and his unceasing discovery of himself as well as fascination reminiscences of the remarkable journeys, both geographic and intellectual of his life.
It was Simon’s habit, when making reference to this book, to this Autobiography by John Cowper Powys, to call it the “brick.” My hardcover edition could, with the help of some fine mortar, no doubt lay a foundation for it is heavier than slate. The symbol stuck and like the lichen which coats the trunks of the oldest in the olive groves and nestles into the crumbled walls of old villages, it began to slowly grow. Though those who are hasty and quickly bored would pass such trunks, walls and bricks by, they would miss that this brick is flecked with the most mystical and sensational gold.
Autobiography is heavy and at times interminably dull. John Cowper Powys is meticulous and in the upmost devoted to every single life-sensation so that this book is less an autobiography and is more a chronicle of a life self-observed in its subtlest forms. Which is why, when from amongst the prattle there arose such insight! such brilliance! that surfaced and shone and awed me into contemplatively setting the brick down. Autobiography becomes like a manual whose subscript reads: Never never never short your life-illusion!
In fact it may be said at once that the grand struggle of my life has been between my conscience and my impulse to live a life made up solely and entirely of sensual-mystical sensations.
By slow degrees it has made itself known to me that the purpose of my life was to dodge—when I could get leave of absence from my exacting conscience—all obligations to humanity and to cultivate certain totally useless, purposeless, unprofitable feelings.
The gold vein runs so thick at times. The impact of the flakes and flecks renders me still, so that I may then absorb what John Cowper Powys writes about when he writes about his life-illusion. I do not only begin to understand in an imperceptible way but I begin to try to follow his examples so that I too may bolster my conscious conceptions and configurations of what I have begun to call my life-illusion. The Magic of this genius, scattered through interminable pages has enough mystical otherworldly force in it to enhance, alter and irrevocably deepen what I “see” on a daily basis. Henry Miller did this to me—and continues to do still—bombastically and boldly. John Cowper Powys does it imperceptibly, eccentrically, magically.
I have always believed that the imagination and the will have a creative power. What a person wills and what a person imagines become a mysterious part of what is. It is madness to spend your days trying to eliminate what your own will and spirit and imagination are perpetually adding to the mystery of life.
Do not short yourself or your life-illusion! Let it feast on the most fertile food it can find, the most eccentric, the most true to your nature, feed feed until you’re full and then move on, guiltlessly, to the next. “The Mystery of Life” is a deep river running through us all. Those who dare not to cower before the strengths of social conformities and external pressures, cultivate the life-illusion that is their own and do not doubt it. “Independence! Independence!” John Cowper Powys wrote, “That is the secret to all philosophy.” I must believe that those who have searched their deepest abyss and have resurfaced time and again, hold in their hands the envelope of their selves onto which they must blindly rest their whole life’s belief.
To live out one’s life-illusion to the end of one’s life is no little chore. John Cowper Powys had this tenacious skill; he was himself from the beginning until the end.
… I am inclined to think that the two great electric currents of my life, the currents that have gathered and gathered their momentum beneath all the changes and chances of circumstance have been first the gradual discovering and the gradual strengthening of my inmost identity, till it can flow like water and petrify like stone; and second the magic trick of losing myself in the continuity of the human generations.
Autobiography was not written at the end of a life of long writing, but at the beginning of a writing career begun in his sixties. It was written in nine-months in long hand. It was written in Phudd Bottom, up-state New York, before he sailed his return to England. It was written in flamboyance characteristic of one who knows oneself from the inside out. There are no dates, no concrete markings to count the passing of Time. It is a collection of feelings and well-formed ideas. Autobiography was written as John Cowper Powys laid on his back, after he submerged his head in a bucket of water, after he tapped is forehead on sacred rocks and said his prayers to the dead and living, bowed his head to the trees and earth-mounds, he wrote it.
We are all mad; and the best thing is to learn to forget our madness. Forget it! Never fight against it.
John Cowper Powys was very careful to include his “fetishes” and his fear of evacuating himself in public, the terrors of Prep school and his three counts of sadism. As equally, he was careful that his history-so-far would “contain No Women at all.” I was left with a very large mystery ; a large part of his private life was gone missing. What was John Cowper Powys’ relationship with women? Which women? How did these relationship influence his writing? My questions grew and were left hanging. He kept his promise—true to form—of not writing anything that would hurt any female. To quench this curiosity I must then pick up Morine Krissdottir’s biography: Descents of Memory.
There were women that John Cowper Powys included, but these women only managed to tilt the scale for me so far in the sexually misfitted direction. These women were the “Messengers of the Grail.” Burlesque dancers, girls taking sun on Brighton beach, theatre performers, girls in the street, sketches of girls in Ally Sloper, girls in bawdy French book, girls with knees and ankles, girls whose bodies were the Holy Grail. It was not that I found his eccentric eroticism especially disturbing, because mostly it was simply strange; but that I prefer more, more than just a “Grail.” To be made to digest so many “fetishes” and never any hints of female love is like eating dough instead of cake.
What John Cowper Powys gives us in Autobiography is a “living portrait” of a writer of the old lineage. His reverence for Nature and the inanimate spirit, his piquant observations, his blazing eccentricities, his staunch tie to all that stretches its brave limbs through the annals of history, his merciless prose are the many veins of gold in this dull rock. Autobiography goes to every limit but the female one. Do not pick up this book if you haven’t made it though a book of his before, I warn you! You’ll then know what was meant when some patron to his lectures muttered that he’s a “long winded bore.”
But, if you are like me and like John Cowper Powys enough to revere him, obsess over him as an insightful, invigorating, life-giving spirit, than you will discover those bits of metaphysical gold. John Cowper Powys had a life-illusion! When this life-illusion strikes by tangents or by bold shafts of light, on my own life-illusion, there refracts a great blaze like an extinguishing star. “Of this I am as certain as I am certain that I am I.” - http://descriptedlines.com/autobiography-jcp
Set in Dorset, this novel features the protagonist, Rook Ashover who is an introverted young squire with a dilemma: to go on loving his mistress, Netta Page, or, make a respectable marriage and produce an heir.
Morwyn:The Vengeance of GodMorwyn is not a good book yet it’s not a bad book either. A strange book; a book I only suggest to previous readers and enjoyers of John Cowper Powys. Morwyn is a crystallization of his eccentricities, a portrait of a fanatic, fantastic mind.
It is exactly John Cowper Powys’ eccentricities and fanatic leanings which pull me to him as a writer. One never knows what’s coming next, especially in this novel, as it takes place in Hell. Like books which employ personifications of the devil so any illustration of that place of perdition is more than welcome: you’ve got to admit, it’s more fun than Heaven! As the cover of Morwyn self-proclaims: The classic novel of a terrifying journey into Hell.
Now, I wouldn’t call Morwyn “classic,” nor would I call it “terrifying.” It is sometimes funny and at times exhausting to follow on for paragraphs the exigencies of Morwyn’s “maddening figure.” Her little girl ankles, her slender legs, her purity and chastity and virginity, what have you. On and on, so that even when the nameless Captain has found himself and Morwyn and his dog, Black Peter, in a desperate life-threatening situation, he always has time to stare and contemplate the nature of his attraction.
Like many other characters created by John Cowper Powys—and like John Cowper Powys himself—the Captain finds in Morwyn his ideal nymphette, or sylph. The Captain describes Morwyn with the emotion’s of a woman then as wavering to the passivity of a little girl, so that one can almost visualize the battle going on in this retired man’s mind. So often I found myself sure through his descriptions, that he had fallen in love with a twelve year old. She only looks twelve, but she’s really eighteen!
Morwyn’s father was a famous vivisector. When on the abrupt descent into Hell, he died and became a vivisector ghost among other ghostly vivisectors. A long discourse on anti-vivisection composes the bulk of this book.
… it was clearly a characteristic of Hell to bring out into the open and enlarge upon, as if under a magnifying glass, all the lesser, as well as the greater, abominations of our earthly life.
Torture for Science (knowledge and longevity) and torture for Religion (salvation) are the only two direct routes to Hell. Outside of the usual life-and-death struggle these two cruelties exist. They are rationalized cruelties, thought out, performed in the name of progress and the saving of lost souls. Honestly I never thought much about vivisection before reading this book and now perhaps I’ve read too much. John Cowper Powys was so passionately against vivisection that he felt the need to write this tract and disguise it as a novel.
It is a work of fiction, with characters such as Torquemada and the Marquis de Sade, with an imaginative depiction of Hell much more pleasant than Joyce’s. But it is a novel which wants desperately to get a point across. Sometimes that desperation is way too much, for how many times and in how many ways can you say that vivisection is bad without repeating yourself? But then, just as frustration was about to consume me, I always stumbled on a gem of a John Cowper Powys’ thought:
It’s extraordinary how deceptive the mere fact of being alive makes us! Everything living, everything healthy and sound and natural, blooms like a flower with illusion and pretense!
Usually John Cowper Powys is a man of many words. At least Morwyn is relatively short! - descriptedlines.com/morwyn
The Meaning of Culture
'Mr. Powys is to be congratulated on having written a book of the kind that most needs writing and most deserves to be read...Here in a dozen chapters of eloquent and glowing prose, Mr. Powys describes for every reader that citadel which is himself, and explains to him how it maybe strengthened and upheld and on what terms it is most worth upholding.. The virtue of his book is that it is freshly and clearly focussed to meet the present situation to encourage and establish developing experience in growing minds' Manchester Guardian
The Brazen Head
In this panoramic novel of Friar Roger Bacon, John Cowper Powys displays his genius at its most fecund. First published in 1956, this novel, set in thirteenth-century Wessex, is an amalgam of all the qualities that make John Cowper Powys unique.
The love-story of Lil-Umbra and Raymond de Laon, and the quest of the Mongolian giant, Peleg, for Ghosta, the girl seen, loved, and lost on the battlefield, are intermingled with the historical, theological and magical threads which form the brocade of this novel.
Dominating all is the mysterious creation of Roger Bacon one of the boldest as well as most intricate of Powys' world-changing inventions. Professor G. Wilson Knight called this 'A book of wisdom and wonders'.
The realm of John Cowper Powys is dangerous. The reader may wander for years in this parallel universe, entrapped and bewitched, and never reach its end. There is always another book to discover, another work to reread. Like Tolkien, Powys has invented another country, densely peopled, thickly forested, mountainous, erudite, strangely self-sufficient. This country is less visited than Tolkien's, but it is as compelling, and it has more air.
Powys's work is full of paradoxes and surprises. He was extremely prolific, yet a late starter; his manner was heroic, yet bathetic. He was a writer of tragic grandeur and of everyday comedy, of sexual perversion, and of bread and butter and cups of tea. (More bread and butter is consumed and more tea drunk in the novels of John Cowper Powys than in the whole of the rest of English literature.) He wrote poems, and essays, and gargantuan epic fictions, and manuals of self-help, and innumerable letters. Words poured from him, and he was famous for never rereading any of them. It is left to us, the readers, to lose ourselves in his creation, and to try to emerge from it and to make some sense of it. It is no wonder that mainstream literary critics have avoided him, and that a handful of scholars and addicts have clustered round his oeuvre. He is so far outside the canon that he defies the concept of a canon.
During his lifetime, he was admired by writers as diverse as Theodore Dreiser, Henry Miller, JB Priestley, Iris Murdoch, Angus Wilson and that unconventional scholar LC Knights (who was fond, as he wrote in later years to Powys, of performing Shakespeare wearing as few clothes as possible). Powys continues to attract acolytes. In 2002 the educationalist Chris Woodhead delivered a remarkable paper to the Powys Society describing how he had been influenced as a schoolboy by the chance purchase of a Penguin Classic of Wolf Solent, and AN Wilson has recently written a new Penguin introduction to the same novel. Yet it is hard to know how to tempt new readers into the charmed stone circle. His six major novels - Wolf Solent (1929), A Glastonbury Romance (1932), Weymouth Sands (1934), Maiden Castle (1936), Owen Glendower (1940) and Porius (1951) - are formidably long, and not always in print, although they reappear in various guises with a stubborn regularity. Most of his shorter novels are too bizarre to do him justice, although they have paragraphs of dazzling originality - his science-fiction anti-vivisection novel Morwyn (1937), which contains much abstract debate about the nature of sadism, also provides arresting descriptions of the behaviour of his dog that justify the whole crazy enterprise. But Morwyn, despite the portrait of "Old Black", does not make a good point of entry into the Powys world.
The most accessible of his important publications is probably his Autobiography (1934), one of the most eccentric memoirs ever written. Powys states elsewhere (Confessions of Two Brothers) that he takes Pepys, Casanova and Rousseau as his models, and his autobiography has justly been compared to Rousseau's Confessions. It rivals them in its frankness and its evasions, in its inconsistency and its emotional intensity, in its egoism and its self-abasement, and in its keen response to the natural world. Both Rousseau and Powys make compelling reading. Rousseau notoriously reveals much about his sexual deviations, embarrassments and social humiliations, yet fails to dwell on the fact that he, the preacher of natural childhood and domestic love, fathered five children by his servant and left them all in a foundling home. There is an even more startling void at the heart of Powys's apparently open and detailed account of his childhood, family life and sexual adventures. He writes much about his father and his many siblings (he was the oldest of 11, two of whom, Theodore and Llewellyn, were to become distinguished writers), but hardly mentions the existence of his mother, his wife or the woman with whom he was living in America while he was writing this volume, and with whom he was to live for several decades until his death, in his 90th year, in 1961.
The woman-free story that Powys chooses to tell us offers great riches to the analyst in all of us - and unlike Rousseau, Powys was well-acquainted with the works of Freud and Jung and Kraft-Ebbing. (He preferred Jung, but he read them all.) His recall, of what he chooses to recall, is astounding. Although his works identify him as a Wessex man with Norfolk blood, who in later years reinvented himself as a wizard Welshman of the line of Merlin and as a descendant of the Neanderthals, he was in fact born in 1872 in Derbyshire, where his father was then vicar at Shirley, near Dovedale. Powys writes of the landscapes of his infancy with a lyric clarity, and he also records the earliest infantile manifestations of the temptations towards sadism that tormented him violently for most of his life, and which he was to satisfy largely through reading French pornography. He insists here and throughout his writings and correspondence that his only physical indulgences in this mental vice involved tadpoles and worms and small birds, but one may well wonder whether he protests too much.
Moving from Derbyshire to Dorset, the growing family soon settled in Somerset, in the vicarage at Montacute, one of the most beautiful and historic villages in England. This was a setting of exceptional natural and architectural beauty. Here the Powyses pursued a life of comfortable upper-middle-class eccentricity, of botanising and sermonising and antiquarian research. The Powyses were not rich, but they were well born, and had some private means. Mrs Powys claimed literary ancestry, through the poets Donne and Cowper, and was said to have inherited Cowper's melancholia.
John Cowper, now known as Jack, was sent to Sherborne School, and he describes his experiences there with a sense of heightened and not always convincing horror. It is a classic tale of public-school nightmare, with bullying, beatings, flirtations and long-remembered injustices, and we see Jack in the process of forging his adult persona of orator and defiant clown. He learned early to use words as his armoury, and extravagant behaviour as a defence. From Sherborne he went to Cambridge, which made less impression on him (he disliked its "parrot-like" teaching), and from Cambridge he embarked on a curious freelance career as an itinerant lecturer on English literature, supported in part by a small allowance from his father. Under the auspices of the Dickensian agency of Gabbitas-Thring, he began speaking in girls' schools and colleges in the south of England, much taken with the slender beauty of the flurry of "sylphs" he encountered, but soon, thanks to the Oxford Extension Society, he was covering the length and breadth of the country. He was entertained in private houses, where he learned much about class and society: "There was one weekly or fortnightly round ... that caused me to leave Newcastle on Tyne before six in the morning when I used to see the sun rise over the bleak Northumberland hills, lecture in Lewes, after I had seen the sun set over the South Downs, and get to my home in West Sussex that same night."
Or so he says. He does not give the impression of being a reliable narrator; his chronology is far from linear, though rarely confusing, and many of his dates have been questioned. His biographer, Morine Krissdottir, who is presumably attempting to distinguish fact from fiction, has set herself a daunting, perhaps impossible task. But at least some of his bizarre stories about his adventures must be true. He loved to be on the move, and writes of his wanderings through Britain, and later through America, with infectious zest. He enjoyed walking in the open air, and travelling by train, and exploring the less obvious corners of towns and cities: his liking for tramps and vagrants was as strong as his dislike of the police. He is a great topographer. Although he was fascinated by the intricacies of his own perverse personality, there is nothing claustrophobic about his story. He sympathises with the whole of creation, with insects and birds and cows and plants and trees and stones. There is something Whitmanesque as well as Wordsworthian in his love of the open road. His godson was to say of him, memorably, that he was "more plant than animal; more mineral than either. He was dust and rock and feather and fin talking with a man's tongue" (Seven Friends, Louis (Marlow) Wilkinson, 1992).
It was during his vagrant lecturing career in England that Powys married the sister of a close friend (on April 9 1896, to be precise, which he rarely was) and in 1902 his wife gave birth to a son. This was achieved, we gather, with difficulty and needed some form of medical intervention. Powys openly admits, again and again, in his autobiography, in letters and, by implication, in his fiction, that he found the notion and practice of normal penetrative sexual intercourse deeply repugnant, and could not understand how his brother Llewellyn could go in for that kind of thing. ("I have a horror of 'fucking' as it is called" was one of his many comments on this matter.) He insists that he is not a "homosexualist", though he has no objection to those who are. He liked girls of the demi-monde, and prostitutes, and slim young women in men's clothing.
His notions of sexual satisfaction centred around masturbation, voyeurism and fondling. He liked girls to sit on his knee, and he also got sexual satisfaction from reciting poetry at them. The comic aspect of this was apparent to him, and it bothered him not at all. There is a grandeur in his indifference to the norm. His appetite for food was as unusual as his appetite for sex: he became, nominally, a vegetarian, but eschewed most vegetables, surviving for years, he claimed, on a diet of eggs, bread and milk, with occasional treats of guava jelly. This gave him severe gastric trouble, and he had to endure a painful form of surgery that he labels "gasterenterostomy". In his later years, he depended for bowel function entirely on enemas, a procedure of which he highly approved, as it facilitated meditation.
We would not have known about all of this if he had not told us about it, but he recites his woes with such relish that his prose becomes charged with rapture. During a sojourn in hospital he says that he invented the trick of concentrating on variously coloured angels - "purple ones let us say ... vermeil-tinctured ones perhaps" - which he would direct towards his fellow sufferers, and "in this way, as I lay in the great White Ship of Suffering, I felt that I was not altogether wasting my time". Convalescing in his garden at home, he at last found relief in vomiting a "whole bucketful - forgive me, dear reader! - of the foulest excremental stuff possible to be conceived ... of a dusky sepia tint, a colour I had not so far hit upon for any of my tutelary angels". Reality, in his own phrase, lies "between the urinal and the stars".
A memorable autobiographer, but what of his status as a novelist? He did not start to publish fiction until he was in his forties. In 1904 he had sailed to America, where he was to be based for many years; he lectured to vast audiences in New York and across the continent (though never invited by the grandest universities), and at times, somewhat randomly, he earned very good money, with which he supported his wife and son at home. His first novel, Wood and Stone, was published in New York in 1915, to little notice: he published two more, but they did not receive serious attention. Another early novel, After My Fashion, written in 1919, was based in part on his unlikely friendship with the American dancer Isadora Duncan: his acquaintance was large and extremely eclectic. This did not find a publisher until Picador brought it out in 1980. Once it was rejected, he did not bother to pursue its fate, but let it go. He was remarkably uninterested in the practicalities of publication, and was unworldly to a degree that was later to cause him trouble: his bibliography is a nightmare, owing to differing publication dates and titles in the US and England. This has made all his works collector's items, but has hardly smoothed the path of his reputation. He was a showman, a performer, in his own words a pierrot and a charlatan, but he lacked the basic instinct for marketing and self-promotion.
Wolf Solent (1929) was the first of his six masterpieces, and it brought him some recognition. Set in the West Country, although written in America, its physical recall of landscape and townscape bears some kinship to James Joyce's written-in-exile Ulysses. (Powys, incidentally, appeared as a witness for the defence of Ulysses when the Little Review was prosecuted in 1918 in the US for serialising it; he was described on this occasion, as he liked to boast, as "the English degenerate".) The eponymous 35-year-old hero of Wolf Solent, who has been teaching for some years in London, returns home by train, accompanied in his railway carriage by an important and persistent bluebottle, and introduces us to the mysterious heart of the Powys universe, which is and is not Wessex. Hardy's Wessex (of which Powys was keenly conscious) has an epic dimension, but in Powys the distance from mundane reality is even greater.
It is hard to describe how the peculiar thrill of this work is generated. Fields and riverbanks, flowers and trees, cottage interiors and manor houses, graveyards and small town shops and country inns, are described with meticulous precision, as in a mid-Victorian novel, but the atmosphere in which they exist is charged with a strange psychic intensity. The mood is not Gothic, although the plot has Gothic elements; nor is it romantic, although the conflict of Wolf's sexual yearnings is a central theme. Wolf's sensibility and "fetish-worshipping" thought processes are portrayed with a quivering, compulsive immediacy unlike anything else in fiction. The visions of a William Blake illuminate the domestic realism of Cranford, and are subjected to the remorseless psychological analysis of a Proust. On nearly every page there is an epiphany. Wolf, walking through a dull small autumnal end-of-alley village garden, with patches of parsley and drooping chrysanthemums "that seemed to have their very souls washed out of them", is suddenly gripped by the sight of a stone "covered by a species of vividly green moss, small and velvety, that seemed enjoying a vernal prime of its own, in the midst of the universal dissolution. In a moment, like a rush of warm summer air, there came sweeping over his mind the memory of certain pier-posts at Weymouth, covered with small green seaweed ..."
Wolf Solent, which is largely the exploration of one man's spiritual journey, was followed by A Glastonbury Romance, which was conceived on an uncompromisingly huge scale, with a cast of hundreds, and a backdrop of metaphysical and mythic speculation that bears comparison with Dostoevsky. The plot rambles, but the cumulative force is powerful, and the set pieces - particularly the carnivalesque crowd scenes - are astonishing. The events centre on the Grail legend, which haunted Powys all his life (Jessie L Weston's From Ritual to Romance, 1920, was one of his inspirational texts), but he also manages to cram in many of his other obsessions and interests: vivisection, pornography, Welsh mythology and nationalism, magic, the nature of evil, Nietzsche's philosophy and the communist doctrines preached by labour leaders of the day. It is not a historical novel. The setting is contemporary, and its free handling of imaginary Glastonbury inhabitants - in particular the fictitious manager of Wookey Hole, Philip Crow - gave rise to a libel action from the real-life manager, Gerald Hodgkinson, who enforced subsequent disclaimers. But in Powys, the contemporary is ancient, and the distant past is modern. Time is interwoven, and epochs coexist.
The central 55-page chapter, "The Pageant", halfway through this immense novel, is a narrative tour de force. The action takes place on Midsummer Day, and involves not only the 50 and more named characters whom the reader has already come to know, but a cast of thousands. The whole town of Glastonbury, overlooked by the numinous Tor, is either taking part in or providing the audience for a community drama that mingles Arthurian legend with a Passion Play. Visitors have gathered from all over Europe to watch a spectacle on the scale of Oberammergau. Roman legions march, medieval knights in armour parade, a mob of strikers from the dye works causes mayhem, and the Lady of Shalott calls caressingly for the Taunton police. Welsh antiquarian Owen Evans takes on the role of Christ, and nearly dies in the act on his great oak cross. And through this panoramic, multitudinous perspective Powys evokes the entire history of Glastonbury, from Neolithic times to the present day.
The tone of this extraordinary chapter is as striking as its content. Powys combines tragedy and comedy and burlesque in an improbable and daring fusion. There are moments when the death-wish of Mr Evans and his fainting upon his self-imposed cross recall nothing more strongly than the trans-historical Life of Brian - a film that now seems sadder, less farcical and more ominous than when it was first shown. Powys was out of time, and ahead of time. Unlike Miss La Trobe, the pageant-maker in Virginia Woolf's Between the Acts (1941), Powys deliberately embraces the ridiculous to tell his tale.
The two novels that followed are also Wessex based, and both are topographically accurate to an uncanny degree. Weymouth Sands, like its predecessor, risked running into legal difficulties because of possible identification of local officials, and was renamed Jobber Skald for publication in England. This was not good for sales. Powys, although he had felt able to give up lecturing and commit himself to writing, would never grow rich: he seemed to persist in creating professional difficulties for himself. (By now, he and his equally unworldly American partner, Phyllis Plater, had moved to England, where they settled first in Dorchester, and eventually in Wales.) Weymouth Sands is a celebration of the seaside town Jack had loved as a child, but its tone is far from innocent. The novel features a sinister clown figure and Punch and Judy shows: Powys was not one to shy away from the suggestions of violence and child sex abuse that are now routinely associated with such entertainments.
The sexual aberrations in Maiden Castle (set in Dorchester) are largely those of the Powys-like protagonist, Dud, who had never managed to consummate his marriage with a wife who died young, and who purchases, in his forties, a runaway circus girl who is willing to submit to his impotent caresses. (The act of purchase is a conscious reference to Hardy's Dorchester-based Mayor of Casterbridge.) This girl is eventually revealed as the mother of a child, born as a result of her rape by a repulsively bald and aged circus manager (horribly named Old Funky), but - and how Powys can surprise even with such mildly obscene and melodramatic stuff - this incidental child is described with loving and affectionate care, and with an intense delight in child behaviour. Little Lovie, self-willed and surviving, greedily eating bottled pears, licking her fingers, earnestly playing with her crumpled paper doll, absorbed in her imaginary world, is more alive on the page than most children in fiction.
Powys's last two great novels are deeply Welsh, reflecting his increasing sense of what he thought of as his bardic heritage. Owen Glendower celebrates the life of the great 15th-century semi-legendary national hero, who, like Arthur, will one day come again. Eccentric though its treatment of history may be, it seems a conventional tale when compared with Porius: A Romance of the Dark Ages, a work that beggars description. He thought it his best. Set in October in 499 AD, it is more like a mountain landscape or an epic poem than a novel. Its characters include King Arthur, a Pelagian monk, a Roman matron, a Jewish doctor, the shape-shifting Myrddin Wyllt (otherwise known as Merlin), the bard Taliessin and a family of completely convincing aboriginal giants, who live on the slopes of Snowdon. We also meet the Three Aunties, grey-haired princess survivors of the old race. In this twilight of the gods, the cult of Mithras, the old faith of the Druids, the fading power of Rome and the rising force of Christianity do battle for a week beneath a waxing moon, while Powys's characters intermittently find time to reflect on past times, and congratulate themselves on being so modern. There is comedy, Miltonic sublimity, chaos and confusion in equal measure.
On the dust jacket of the copy of Porius I finally managed to purchase, at some expense, there is an indistinct photograph of the great man himself, gazing into the misty cleft of a mountain range, wearing what could be an old rug, or an old cardigan. He looks like a cross between an aged werewolf and a puzzled child. - Margaret Drabble
Wessex novels of John Cowper Powys — Wolf Solent (1929), A Glastonbury Romance (1933), Jobber Skald (also published as Weymouth Sands, 1935) and Maiden Castle (1937) — must rank as four of the greatest ever to be written in our language. Even those who do not feel ready for the 1,000-page novel based on Arthurian Britain, Porius (1951) which some consider to be the master work, it should be clear that here we have a truly major figure.
Every now and again there is an attempt at a revival. A brave publisher will reissue one of the novels and print on the jacket the plaudits which Powys has received: ‘The only novels produced by an English writer that can fairly be compared with the fictions of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky’, wrote George Steiner. ‘To encounter Powys’ (Henry Miller this time) ‘is to arrive at the very fount of creation’. Angus Wilson, Margaret Drabble, Iris Murdoch and Simon Heffer are among the faithful. But many university students taking a course in the English literature of the 20th century could achieve their degree without so much as hearing Powys’s name. And yet he is an author whom, once you have discovered him, you will go on reading for the rest of your life. He has lowered his bucket deeper than most into the mystery of things. He is able to write not only about the experience of memory, love, obsession, sex and childhood experience. More than that, he has his ear cocked to the life of the universe itself. I was fascinated to read, in a letter to Dorothy Richardson (another forgotten writer):
I have got Wordsworth here and am reading his Prefaces as well as the Excursion (every word) — I tell you I have discovered the trick of ‘getting the best’ of Wordsworth (in both senses) — disregard completely his Christianity, his morality, his chat about duty etc and read with meticulous care all he says when he is describing things or sensations, or theories about sensations.He wrote that in 1929, the year in which Wolf Solent, the first great novel, was published. Dorothy Richardson, the first writer of fiction to whom the phrase ‘stream of consciousness’ was applied, was one whose novels he admired. He earned his living as a freelance lecturer in the United States, and he first met her on a trip to London in 1929, when he called on her and her artist husband Alan Odle in St John’s Wood. Both sides of the correspondence survive, because Richardson typed and kept carbons. The letters have been in the Beinecke Library in Yale awaiting an editor, and thanks to the enterprise of Cecil Woolf, who has already brought out ten volumes of Powys letters, we are now able to enjoy both these, and, in another volume, his letters to the American anarchist Emma Goldman. Both volumes cover the period of his greatest creativity, the 1930s. Since he was born in 1872, it will be seen that he was that rare thing in a writer, a late developer.
It had all been ripening inside him, the whole strange experience of England. He had grown up the son of a clergyman. He was the eldest of 11 and of his remarkable siblings, Theodore (T. F. Powys, the author of Mr Weston’s Good Wine) deserves a mention as another writer who far outshone his contemporaries. Most writers are not speakers. Tolstoy never made a public speech of any kind, and you could almost say as a general rule that utterance kills the written word. But there are exceptions, of whom Dickens is the most obvious. Dickens wrote to be performed. With Powys it was the other way around. He was a performer from the beginning. He always writes well about the power of the spoken word over mass audiences — a key theme of the 1930s. The power mania of Jerry Cobbold, the stand-up comedian in Weymouth Sands ,is contrasted with the ranting preaching of his mad brother Sylvanus who has unwholesome designs on little girls. Powys, needless to say, ‘is’ all these people. For most of his adult life, before his writing came into focus, he was tramping about the United States lecturing on literature, and holding large audiences spellbound. Without the long period of exile in America, it would have been impossible for him to bring his England, almost an alternative-universe England, into being.
There is a marvellous early letter to Dorothy Richardson, who has asked him why he does not write about the country he has seen the most of, in the previous decades, that is to say America? He replies with a superb prose-poem evoking the quiet of his part of Manhattan on a Sunday morning. Then he adds:
A year or two later he is able to confide in Richardson the peculiar personal circumstances in which he lives, and which explain the need, even after his 60th birthday, to be exacerbating his stomach ulcers by an exhausting programme of lecture tours. He needs to pay money to assuage the guilt of a failed marriage:
The non-syntax here is suggestive. What was he trying to say? That the wife he had deserted after a disastrous marriage was really all right, or that his strange son had been undamaged by the experience? Incidentally, the newest biography tells us that he did not tell his wife and son about the Sin and Adultery for another four years. I wonder which is right?
And what of the companion, Phyllis Plater, a young American 22 years his junior, with whom he lived until his death in a tiny house in Blaenau Ffestiniog, North Wales, in 1963? We already know a lot about her, especially since Morine Krissdóttir published in 1995 Petrushka and the Dancer: The Diaries of Powys, 1929-1939, with an introduction which is an intrusively devastating analysis of the relationship. Phyllis Plater was Powys’s child-bride. He saw her as his Petrushka, and he nicknamed her the Tiny Thin, or T. T. The diaries chronicle her rages, her painful menstrual cycle, her violence and her domestic incompetence. But she was also his muse, his secretary and his beloved companion.
Krissdóttir, who has also written on Powys and magic (John Cowper Powys and the Magical Quest, 1987) and who is herself a psychologist, has now come up with a biography. Many of Powys’s admirers must have felt some misgivings as they awaited the publication of this book. The brew has been bubbling in Krissdóttir’s cauldron for a very long time, and while retaining her sense of Powys’s genius, she seems to have lost her personal sympathy with him a long time ago. True, he writes in his letters and journals a great deal about his stomach ulcers, his constipation, his perceived need for enemas, administered by the Tiny Thin, his obsessions with the bodies of little girls, his fondness for masturbation, mutual and otherwise, and his only occasional desire to make love to the T. T. in the normal way. Any biographer would be called upon to make sense of all this stuff, and to disentangle the webs of myth from truth-telling. True, Powys was a very rum bird indeed, but clearly the Autobiography is a sort of novel, and it should be obvious that part of Powys’s oddness was a need to show off, to be a buffoon.
So although these aspects do dominate Powys’s life from his fifties onwards, it is hard to know whether it was right to give them so much space in a third- person narrative. Would not any great person — Churchill, say, or George Eliot — seem ridiculous if their biographies were written in terms of bowel movements and sex, or its lack? There were times in Krissdóttir’s book when I felt that a medical casebook had turned into a brief for the prosecution in some unlooked-for trial. Also that much of the literary criticism was pedestrian and unlikely to awaken a passion for the great books in one who had never tried them. She gives us much of Powys the magician and the symbolist, but not much of Powys the orator, prophet, jokester and literary ventriloquist who is among other things one of our greatest comedians, or of Powys the poet of the humdrum — is there any novelist who better evokes the consolations and irritations of such day-to-day necessities as doing the washing-up?
That said, Krissdóttir is a real authority on Powys. She has been studying him throughout a long life, she knows the material well and she has produced a book which no reader of Powys will want to be without.
An earlier, more genial book, Richard Perceval Graves’s The Brothers Powys, tells us on the final page that a friend visited Powys in hospital on the last day of his life and found him singing ‘John Peel’. ‘That last day his old head looked inexpressibly noble against the pillows in his bed.’
Noble he was, in appearance, in utterance, and, I believe, in character. As a keen cigarette-smoker to the end, who indulged in paedophile fantasies and liked singing the anthem of the hunt, you could say he was the embodiment of nearly all that New Labour Britain disapproves of. As such, he surely deserves a monument in Westminster Abbey. Krissdóttir ends her book, however, with old Powys in the cottage in Blaenau, staring miserably into space. There then follows a coda in which she herself corresponds with Powys’s nephew, Peter Grey. ‘Powys died, aged 90, apparently a happy man. In October, 1992, the doomed Peter sent me his last journal and committed suicide.’ Aged seven, little Peter had spied on his old uncle ‘pump-shipping’ (i.e. urinating in the garden). The two had a row, Powys shouting that he hated the child, and the Tiny Thin trying to kiss away the boy’s tears. This happened in 1930. Peter’s ment
al illness and death over 60 years later were no doubt extremely sad, but they surely can’t be attributed to Powys losing his temper on this occasion? Krissdóttir offers her complicated, largely hostile, vision of JCP to this tormented nephew as a way of unravelling the mazes which Powys used to draw for him when he was a child.
Central to Powys’s writings, fictional and non-fictional, is that we all have what he calls a life-illusion, which, if we can cultivate it aright, will enable us to overcome all our psychological inadequacies, all our fears and angers and look upon life in a healthy, cheerful, defiant mood. Powys was bold enough to write a book called The Art of Happiness and he seems to his admirers to be someone who has mastered that art and passed it on to others. For that, and for the books he wrote, we shall always be grateful. His faults were glaringly obvious, and he acknowledged them. From a biographer, it would have been good to read a bit more well-deserved praise. - A.N. Wilson
Since his death in 1963, John Cowper Powys’s reputation has ridden the usual dead-writer rollercoaster of obloquy and oblivion, rediscovery and restitution—with a vengeance. Few who knew him, either personally or through his work, were indifferent. Ezra Pound, once an amorous and professional rival, called him “a windbag” and “Jesus C. Powys.” (JCP reciprocated by calling Ezra a “pond newt.”) To Philip Larkin, Powys was a “gigantic mythopoeic literary volcano.” But the critic George Steiner once claimed that Powys was the only twentieth-century English writer on a par with Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Margaret Drabble, the distinguished English novelist, believes, “we need to pay attention to this man.” The fantasy world of his novels, she says, is “densely peopled, thickly forested, mountainous, erudite, strangely self-sufficient. This country is less visited than Tolkien’s, but it is as compelling, and it has more air.”
And, after reading Powys’s gigantic masterpiece A Glastonbury Romance, Henry Miller (yes, that Henry Miller) wrote, “My head began bursting as I read [it]. No, I said to myself, it is impossible that any man can put all this—so much—down on paper. It is super-human.” Theodore Dreiser, J. B. Priestley, Will Durant, and Iris Murdoch were devoted admirers. And today, the keeper of the flame is Dr. Morine Krissdóttir, a trained psychologist and Powys scholar (the two go together like bread and butter). She has written a fine biography of this controversial figure: Descents of Memory. Writing it was hard. “I have spent the last five years of my life,” she says, “writing the biography of an author whom many critics loathe.” But love him or loathe him, you can’t ignore him; Krissdóttir has no doubts on this score. She says, “[His works] both attracted and repulsed me—they still do—but the greatness of this wayward writer I have never questioned.”
She has done an outstanding job. More even than Powys’s own landmark Autobiography, hers is the definitive analysis of his life.
The early part of that life was standard Victoriana. John Cowper Powys was born in 1872, eldest son of the Rev. Charles Francis Powys, vicar of Shirley, Derbyshire, whose sprawling brood of eleven so epitomized the Victorian age it could have been written into existence by Trollope, a volume per child. The vicar’s wife, Mary Cowper Powys, was a gifted amateur pianist doomed to creative frustration, like so many Victorian wives; the reverend had a tin ear, alas, and no time for suffragists. Mary Cowper’s was a dreary life. But she was descended from the poets John Donne and William Cowper, so art ran in her blood and in that of her children, five of whom became artists of one kind or another, and three of whom, John Cowper, Theodore Francis (“T.F.”), and Llewellyn, went on to become writers. John Cowper became something more; I’m not quite sure what.
Like his father and brothers, he was educated at the ancient and prestigious Sherborne School in Dorset, where he succeeded in keeping bullies at bay by aggressively playing the fool, a skill he honed by practicing on his younger brothers. After Sherborne, still in the family footsteps, he went to Corpus Christi College at Cambridge University. There he associated with few, bar one or two fellow misfits; he kept a revolver in his rooms as a deterrent to excessive socializing. After graduating with a second-class degree in History, he married and fathered a son, and—having failed dismally at various kinds of teaching—he signed on with the Oxford Extension public lecture program which, in 1904, sent him off on his first lecture tour of the new world. Although he never became in the slightest bit American, America was the making of him. He stayed for 25 years until, driven by financial necessity, homesickness, and the need to be near the graves of his ancestors, he returned to Britain. He died in the mountains of North Wales at age 90. In his long and erratic career he published 23 novels, 17 biographical and autobiographical works, 10 books of literary essays, 16 books of philosophical essays, and 9 books of poetry and drama, as well as dozens of essays and reviews in magazines and newspapers. His best-known books are Autobiography, Wolf Solent, Glastonbury Romance, Weymouth Sands, Maiden Castle, and the sprawling Arthurian epic Porius. His finest, in this reader’s opinion, are the first three.
All this and much more Morine Krissdóttir chronicles in her biography, with the painstaking devotion of the acolyte, or martyr.
During his lecturing years, John Cowper Powys became one of the best-known public speakers in America. The early 1900s were the age of the Chautauqua public education movement, that flamboyant combination of evangelism, pedagogy, and freak show, and Powys was a natural. The only more popular speaker was William Jennings Bryan, whose topic was usually politics, temperance, himself, or a combination thereof, whereas Powys, by contrast, spoke almost exclusively on literature, in a throbbing, high-church kind of voice, with many dramatic gestures. He lectured in every state in the Union, and drew huge crowds that included such celebrities as Charlie Chaplin, Theodore Roosevelt, and Isadora Duncan (with whom he had a fling). He became a star of the lecture circuit partly through his acting talent—which was considerable, in a hammy, high-Victorian way—but mostly because he communicated a genuine passion for his subject. Great books, to Powys as both reader and writer, were far more than highbrow soap operas. They were as vital to life and well-being as exercise or sunlight. To spread this gospel, he traveled all over the United States, raising high the banners of Homer, Rabelais, Dostoevsky, Hardy, Shakespeare, Dante, and other luminaries, exhorting ignorant provincials (most of whom were “staggering illiterates,” in his words) to join the legions of the enlightened. Of course, Americans have always been up for a dose of that old-time revivalism, with a dash of P. T. Barnum, but– literature? And the bringer of literary wisdom to Utah and Texas and South Dakota a gangling Englishman with a plummy accent and bizarre tics? That was the freak-show part, no doubt heightened when he fell down onstage, as he did often, overcome by emotion and chronic gastritis. The crowds roared, delighted by the theatrics, and in awe of Powys’s gift for entering his part completely. When he spoke to them of Dickens or Hardy, the spirit of those writers seemed to inhabit him.
It is the way I always go to work in literary criticism, and it gives me the power, I will not say of becoming the personality I am dealing with, but at least of diffusing my identity through its identity and of realizing myself through the medium of its sensibility. The thing in its essence is a kind of spiritual eroticism and in my case it is intimately connected with my vice as a voyeur.
This passage quoted in Descents of Memory says much about the man. He reveled in self-analysis, even to the point of self-abnegation; just as he had preempted being bullied at school by playing the clown, so he sought to ward off criticism by getting in the first blows to himself, con gusto. He may or may not have been a real voyeur, for instance (although the heroes of his novels tend to be), but he was certainly a great looker-out-of-windows, especially if a “sylph-like” girl was on the other side. And “spiritual eroticism” was his ticket to the cosmos, a sublimation of all earthly obsessions. But for all his eccentricities he exuded a kind of ancient magic to which the unhappy, forgotten people of his day responded.
And he gave them what they wanted, year after year, adhering to a rigorous lecture schedule across the North American continent throughout World War I (he was exempted from the military for health reasons) and into the twenties. But by 1929 Hollywood was displacing the Chautauqua circuit as prime-time popular entertainment, and the Great Depression was lapping at the nation’s feet. So—incredibly, given his essential otherworldliness—Powys sat down and wrote a bestseller.
It was called Wolf Solent. It was the chance discovery of that novel in a bookseller’s clearance bin that led me to Powys’s work in the first place. Misled by the cover blurb (Dorset setting, philosophizing rustics, life-and-death drama) into expecting Thomas Hardy redux, I soon discovered a world of difference between Powys and Hardy as writers, and, indeed, between Powys and anyone else. Where most writers are oblique, at least to some degree, Powys writes from such a personal standpoint that all his heroes can be seen as projections of himself onto the screen of fiction. As Krissdóttir remarks:
He had little patience with those critics who point out the danger of seeing the creative work as a reflection of the life. So far as he was concerned, criticism of literature which has nothing to say about the impulses that drive a writer forward ‘becomes as dull and unenlightening as theology without the Real Presence.’
Take that, Jacques Lacan!
No prodigy, Powys had published his first novel, Wood and Stone, at 43, and four more had followed. All sank into the swamp of critical indifference. Wolf Solent was published in 1929, when he was 57 and still making a part-time living from his mobile lecture show. An unsparingly analytical, intensely poetic character-study of the kind that became his specialty, it was his debut as a mature novelist. Here are all the elements of standard Powysian psychodrama: a conflict between brothers; the hypnotic eroticism of girls; depraved elders; and the remains of innocence. Wolf Solent is no nostalgic pastorale. Powys, who eulogized the beauties of Nature, never balked at revealing its horrors. His work is full of implications of violence. To him it was a mistake not to see what he, in a somewhat Zen manner, called “the necessity of opposition”: Good and Evil; Male and Female; Life and Death; Appearance and Reality. All these, he says,
have to be joined together, have to be forced into one another, have to be proved dependent upon each other, while all solid entities have to dissolve, if they are to outlast their momentary appearance, into atmosphere.
The novel, on the surface, is a fairly straightforward story of a native son’s return, along the lines of Hardy’s Return of the Native. Wolf, the eponymous hero, returns to his hometown on England’s South Coast after suffering a mental breakdown in London. But instead of recovering his innocence at home, he loses it completely. He becomes entangled in various affairs, romantic and professional, and uncovers horrible truths about some old friends and neighbors. In the end he returns, disillusioned, to the anonymity of London. You can’t go home again sums up the novel in a nutshell; but a nutshell is far too small for Powys. It is what throbs beneath the surface of this novel, and all of Powys’s novels, that matters. “The mood [of Wolf Solent],” says Margaret Drabble, “is charged with a strange psychic intensity.” And biographer Krissdóttir observes:
The entire novel is studded with images taken from poetry, plays, classical myth, folklore, nursery rhymes . . . This vast literary undercurrent is in part what gives his novels their richness and complexity . . .
Powys’s books are all about the importance of the personal mythologies, or “life-illusions,” as he calls them, that are needed to block out the world’s ugliness, to which Powys is always sensitive. Incest and sadism are onstage together with beauty and sensuality; the trickery of our “life-illusions” is all we have to sustain us. But the good news is that we can find this sustenance anywhere. In one scene in Wolf Solent, for example, an imaginary conversation with the skull of his father, from whom he was long estranged, gives Wolf insight into his own, appropriately Hamlet-like dilemma. The language is biblical; the sentiments, pagan; the resonance, Shakespearean.
Wolf . . . lifted up his worm’s voice within that mocker and cried out upon its lewd clay-cold cunning, “There is no reality but what the mind fashions out of itself. There is nothing but a mirror opposite a mirror, and a round crystal opposite a round crystal, and a sky in water opposite water in a sky.”
“Ho! Ho! You worm of my folly,” laughed the hollow skull. “I am alive still, though I am dead; and you are dead, though you’re alive. For life is beyond your mirrors and your waters. It’s at the bottom of your pond; it’s in the body of your sun; it’s in the dust of your star spaces . . .”
It moves him, ultimately, to return to the all-embracing, indifferent metropolis.
In another scene, a bluebottle fly is a character. Insects and rocks and deep wells play a central role in Powysland. They all have names and voices. Much is made of the evocative power of moss on stones, and felled branches, and dripping eaves, and a rook’s call, and the swelling tide. Forgotten memories and long-ago sensations come back to life; youth’s squirming discomfort and squalid yearnings are reborn, but so is youth’s exultation at life’s wonders. Those everyday marvels and long-ago memories form a kind of synthesis of Proust’s “involuntary memory” and Joyce’s “epiphanies.” Nature is ubiquitous. The rank richness of cow manure and rain-soaked soil seems to rise from the pages. The reader senses the presence of a disturbing universal reality that, in the author’s own words, resides somewhere “between the urinal and the stars”; a spooky, almost God-like all-knowingness, in fact, that includes an obsession with sensuality and eroticism. Wolf, like all Powys’s characters—like Powys himself—survives by embracing those “life-illusions.”
Lying upon that rank, drenched grass, he drew a deep sigh of obliterating release. It was not that his troubles were merely assuaged. They were swallowed up. They were lost in the primal dew of the earth’s first twilights. They were absorbed in the chemistry, faint, flowing, and dim, of that strange vegetable flesh which is so far older than the flesh of man or beast . . .
This “onanistic ‘obliterating release,’” remarks Krisdóttir, “is not just an escape from possessive love, but also an escape from the unhappiness of the world, from the drudgery of work. It is a way of ‘losing oneself’; more importantly, this kind of ecstasy demands nothing in return.”
The success of Wolf Solent enabled Powys to escape awhile from his own unhappiness and drudgery. He quit his lectures, bought an old farmhouse in upstate New York, and named the place Phudd Bottom: the bottom of a hill he had christened “Mr. Phudd.” (All his life he gave “magical,” frequently silly, names to people, places, and things.) Under such benign circumstances, his creative forces peaked and in little over a year he wrote his masterpiece, A Glastonbury Romance.
This is the novel George Steiner had in mind when he compared Powys’s work to that of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. More like Dostoevsky, actually; this is Powys’s The Idiot. It teems with religion, myth, sex, and symbolism. Krissdóttir (who in her thoroughness seems to have read every letter her subject ever wrote), quotes from a letter Powys wrote to his publisher. In it he says that in Romance his intention had been to describe,
the effect of a particular legend, a special myth, a unique tradition, from the remotest past in human history, upon a particular spot on the surface of this planet together with its crowd of inhabitants of every age and of every type of character.
According to legend, Glastonbury, Somerset (a place Powys knew well in his childhood), is where the Holy Grail itself ended up, carried there from the Holy Land by Joseph of Arimathea. John Geard, mayor of Powys’s Glastonbury, tries to revive the town’s fortunes by exploiting this legend with a pageant modeled after the Oberammergau passion play. Meanwhile, Owen Evans, a freaky antiquarian with S&M tendencies, seeks redemption at the pageant through suffering—as Jesus suffered on the cross. At this point, the reader might be tempted to tune out, but persistence pays off. An immense teeming spectacle is slowly revealed, with a cast of thousands that out-DeMilles DeMille and out-Dickenses Dickens. To name a very few: the resident “Perceval,” Sam Dekker, lecher and holy man; Persephone, icy, beauteous daughter of the earth mother; Phillip Crow, a ruthless capitalist; Sergeant Blimp, a stolid policeman; Capporelli, a creepy French or Italian clown; disgruntled elders; and legions of excessively folkloric country folk with names like Zoyland, Weatherwax, and Stickles. But Powys maneuvers this mob of personalities with the precision of a maestro. Indeed, Jane Austen, with whom he shares an ability to fuse the comic and the dramatic, could have done no better. But Austen’s characters are all of this earth, whereas in Romance we are put on notice right from the start that other forces are in the wings. “Invisible watchers” observe Glastonbury. All objects and beings have their own points of view. Above and beyond it all is the First Cause, a.k.a. God, who steps in on page one:
At the striking of noon on a certain fifth of March, there occurred within a causal radius of Brandon railway station and yet beyond the deepest pools of emptiness between the uttermost stellar systems one of those infinitesimal ripples in the creative silence of the First Cause which always occur when an exceptional stir of consciousness agitates any living consciousness in this astronomical universe. Something passed at that moment, a wave, a motion, a vibration, too tenuous to be called magnetic, too subliminal to be called spiritual, between the soul of a particular human being who was emerging from a third-class carriage of the twelve-nineteen train from London and the divine-diabolic soul of the First Cause of all life.
Powys is so distinctive a writer that any paragraph taken at random contains within it the essence of all others. In this paragraph, he takes a banal enough scene—someone arriving somewhere by train—and reads every possible meaning into it, from the most minute to the most cosmic. Throughout the novel—all 1120 pages of it in the Overlook edition—Powys sets up a series of confrontations and culture clashes, not only among the more than forty main characters but also between disparate local groups, each representing a single aspect of twentieth century civilization. In one corner are the mystics, led by the mystical/mercantile mayor; next to them, Crow, the greedy capitalist who wants to turn the town into a silver mining and industrial center; and sundry anarchists and radicals (“Bolsheviki”) intent on turning Glastonbury into a kind of autonomous kibbutz, or commune. By the end of the novel everyone has obtained at least part of their desires: the commune exists; the mystical mayor is busy promoting his Grail tourism; and industry is taking hold. But that cunning old First Cause, with all his “divine-diabolic soul,” has other ideas; in a magnificent passage, He shows His hand by raising the Atlantic Ocean and steering it to flood.
Up the sands and shoals and mudflats, up the inlets and estuaries and backwaters of that channel-shore raced steadily, higher and higher as day followed day, these irresistible hosts of invading waters . . . There was a strange colour upon them, too, these far-travelled deep-sea waves, and a strange smell rose up from them, a smell that came from the far off mid-Atlantic for many days. They were like the death mounds of some huge wasteful battlefield carried along by an earthquake and tossed up into millions of hill summits and dragged down into millions of valley hollows as the whole earth heaved . . . Many of these incoming deep-sea waves had curving crest-heads that were smooth and slippery as the purest marble, heads that seemed to grow steadily darker and darker as they gathered toward the land, till they added something menacing to every dawn and to every twilight.
In one of the many essays on literature Powys reworked from his lectures, he said of Balzac: “A thundering tide of subterranean energy, furious and titanic, sweeps, with its weight of ponderous details, through every page.” He could have been thinking of his own work, and probably was.
Alas, like Moby Dick, with which it can reasonably be compared, as a mythological, titanic, waterborne work of genius, Glastonbury was a commercial flop. For a while Powys brooded, depressed, in his farmhouse; but soon enough, cheered by his isolation, he recovered his spirits, partly because he had new projects to work on, partly because his isolation at Phudd Bottom was not complete. With him was his mistress and lifelong companion, the woman of his life, Phyllis Plater, or “T.T.” (for “Tiny Thin,” another of Powys’s nicknames), whose existence he and his numerous friends and siblings strove mightily to keep a secret from his wife and son in England. This endeavor was successful until 1934, by which time wife and husband, son and father, had been separated for at least half of each of the previous eighteen years, and it hardly mattered. Still, Powys was always punctilious in sending home half his pay, and when his father the reverend died, he promptly signed over his considerable share of the inheritance to his wife and son (who, incidentally, became a reverend as well; Powys the pagan was bookended by clergymen). It was his way of buying them off. He never quite succeeded in silencing the inner voice of his own guilt, but guilt was John Cowper Powys’s natural habitat. It was the devil that drove him.
He said as much in his Autobiography, a remarkable achievement—I am tempted to say, one of his best novels. It is, at least, the most accessible of his books; yet, ironically—for Powys believed all his life that he was never less than brutally honest with himself—it is also the most disingenuous. Krisd��ttir points out that Powys’s memory “was always skewed by defences against too much reality.” In short, he was a novelist first and last, and he saw everything, even his life, as a form of his own fiction. In Autobiography he claims to recall the most minute details of his life, and he parades a good number of them, some of astonishing obscurity, some doubtless true; but others are made up out of the fictioneer’s whole cloth, whatever best suits the overall pattern.
The book’s opening sentences are stately, resonant, and very English, like the first movement of Elgar’s Cello Concerto.
The part of Derbyshire which centres around the Peak is like the boss of a shield. Dovedale must be included in the circumference of this Omphalos of England; and with some largess of extension, like the elaborate margin of a Homeric shield, the little pastoral villages around the country town of Ashbourne might be regarded as coming into this formidable circle.
Indeed, the entirety of Autobiography is structured like a concerto or symphony, with motifs, themes, and subthemes stated and restated. This, too, is ironic because, despite his musical mother, Powys had no ear for music at all. But he could structure a theme in words. Vladimir Nabokov said the true purpose of autobiography is “the following of . . . thematic designs through one’s life,” and life recalled from the distance of time exposes its major themes more clearly, like the shoals of a bay seen from space. But this does not preclude a certain elaboration; life, too, is art, in the right hands. One of Powys’s motifs is madness, with himself as clown at school, idiot savant onstage, and Druidic elder, babbling to the trees.
We must cherish our mania, or our madness if you prefer that word, as we would cherish a second self; for our madness is our second self.
But this madness is a subtheme, the main theme being fantasy: the identification with fools and jesters and ancient wizards such as Taliesin and Merlyn, all the “life-illusions” that fight off despair. Powys saw himself as a shape-shifter, a warrior, or a king.
My dominant desire during the whole of my school life . . . was to lead a double existence, and while just “getting by” in the School Dimension, to find my real happiness in a secret subjective Dimension where I was “monarch of all I surveyed.”
Famously, Autobiography contains few women, whereas Powys’s life contained a good many. Readers have long puzzled over this, and Powys may have intended them to for publicity purposes. But the omission may also have arisen out of a genuine desire to spare the feelings of the most important women in his life: his wife Margaret, and his mistress Phyllis. When he was planning the book Powys wrote to his sister,
I shall not only avoid hurting feelings whether of the dead or living but steer clear of any risk of such a thing . . . This book . . . will contain No Women at all—not even Mother . . .
But then he adds, “Nor will it deal very much with Men either.”
It may be that he simply couldn’t spare the psychological energy for anyone but himself:
In this ticklish business of writing an autobiography I am going to play safe—so fantastically & exaggeratedly safe indeed that from this ‘safety’ itself will emerge a quite special sort of irony . . . of a kind for which at present there is no name.
The memoirs of Casanova and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were his models, and Powys rivals them in his sometimes hilarious descriptions of his own follies. These outbursts of frankness are intended to distract from his evasions, his inconsistency, and emotional intensity. But as we read further, and encounter prostitutes, fishermen, priests, ticket collectors, publishers, poets, and all the hoi polloi from a thousand railway journeys and lecture halls and bars and ocean voyages, we begin to appreciate the underlying generosity and life-democracy (to coin a Powysian term) of this book and its author. We are never manipulated toward a social or political message. Powys sees relationships as meetings of solitudes; he has no interest in social hierarchies, politics, worldliness, or ambition. He never moralizes about sex. And he has no time for religions and creeds that lack aesthetic qualities; to him, religion is art, or it is nothing.
Krissdóttir says the reader “can be forgiven for thinking that Powys is describing his own autobiography” when he writes elsewhere of Rousseau’s “mania for self-exposure” and “passion for self-humiliation.” Humiliation there may be, but there is humility too, and pride—all part of Life itself.
Now, . . . when I look back at the path behind me and the path before me it seems as if it had taken me half a century merely to learn with what weapons, and with what surrender of weapons, I am to begin to live my life.
As the narrative of one man’s uncertain pilgrimage, this book is a fine work, evasiveness, fabrications, delusions, and all. Tolstoy (himself a fairly creative memoirist) once said, “The aims of art are not to resolve a question irrefutably, but to compel one to love life in all its manifestations.” This Powys does.
Powys scholars such as Krissdóttir have stressed the importance of the circumstances under which he worked on the book. He was relatively content (despite his chronic gastritis), retired from the lecture circuit, writing copiously and well, and he had found his ideal mate in Phyllis Plater. In short, he was living out his “life-illusion” at his remote farmhouse. “Phudd Bottom,” says Krissdóttir, “gave him that wonderful combination of physical and psychic freedom that writers long for and seldom have.”
So what could be more natural than for him to give it all up and move halfway across the world?
In fact, there were sound reasons, not the least of which was monetary. He was going broke. Although Wolf Solent had been a bestseller, none of its successors—Weymouth Sands (which also became the object of a libel suit), Maiden Castle and A Glastonbury Romance—had sold well, or, at least, not well enough to compensate for Powys’s thoughtless spending habits and apparent determination to wreck his own interests. (When his publisher, Simon & Schuster, generously offered to sell Glastonbury to “the movies,” a gesture that could have made Powys’s fortune, he imperiously dismissed all notion of dealing with “unspeakable Hollywood vulgarians.”) Krissdóttir makes the dry remark “Powys never let money get in the way of his principles.” But those same principles impelled him back to Britain, where, he said, life would be financially cheaper and psychologically richer; and anyway, as Krissdóttir writes,
America had served its purpose as a place of exile. Powys knew his Odyssey at least as well as James Joyce did; he once wrote that he read it daily as a breviary.
Also, he had in mind a majestic Welsh chronicle or two, so it was time for the old chthonic forces to work their magic. Only in Wales, land of his distant ancestors, could he write his intended magnum opus. So he sold Phudd Bottom and sailed for home. After a stint in Dorset, he settled in his long-desired ancestral home of Wales in 1935, with Phyllis (having come to a more-or-less amicable settlement of his long-dead marriage) at his side. He found a welcome in the home of ancient Powyses. In May 1936 at the Corwen Eisteddfod, the Welsh national festival of literature, he was invested with the title of Bard. This greatly pleased him, although others received the same honor that year, which pleased him less: for all his self-criticism and showy humility, Powys never had any doubts about his own genius. Other honors slowly came his way; so did vilification, but he achieved sufficient serenity of spirit to ignore it. Admirers such as Henry Miller made the pilgrimage to North Wales to visit the old sage. He received them courteously, but never went abroad himself again. Buried in his hills, he continued writing until he was 90, and produced two more notable novels: Owen Glendower, a strange and compelling historical fiction about the Welsh national hero; and, stranger still, Porius: A Romance of the Dark Ages, a mystical, poetic epic of ancient Britain best reserved for Powys initiates: If you’ve read Glastonbury, you’re ready for Porius. The world, unfortunately, was not; the book sold poorly, but has recently been reissued. Powys wrote little of significance after Porius; a sketch here, a pamphlet there. He died on June 17, 1963, aged 90. A photograph taken of him not long before his death shows him wearing a cloak and peering at distant mountains, and looking, says Margaret Drabble, “like a cross between an aged werewolf and a puzzled child.” Which is a pretty fair description of the man.
English literature, like English history, teems with inspired dreamers and eccentrics: Bunyan, Blake, Hazlitt, Tolkien, and others, but none is quite as much of an all-rounder as Powys. He is as spiritual as Bunyan, as fantastical as Blake, as down-to-earth as Hazlitt, and every bit as much a fabulist as Tolkien. He is a unique necromancer of literature. He comforts and discomfits in equal measure. The word weird might have been invented just for him. Whereas Joseph Conrad contended that “it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence . . . its subtle and penetrating essence,” this is precisely what Powys succeeds in conveying. Henry Miller, who put so much so badly, put this well:
I had an unholy veneration for the man. Every word he uttered seemed to go straight to the mark. All the authors I was then passionate about were the authors he was writing and lecturing about. He was like an oracle . . . Leaving the hall after his lectures, I often felt as if he had put a spell upon me.
It is that spell that weaves its magic in the pages of Powys’s novels, and it hovers yet over Morine Krissdóttir’s splendid biography. - Roger Boylan
- Wood and Stone (1915) - JCP's first novel, written very much under the influence of Thomas Hardy's "Novels of Character and Environment."
- Rodmoor (1916) - this one I'd never previously managed to locate, so I'm eagerly awaiting my "Faber Finds" copy.
- After My Fashion - written in 1919, this one wasn't published until 1980 by Picador, who must have had a real success with their reissue of the Dorset novels in the 70s.
- Ducdame (1925) - the Village Press repackaged a number of the master's obscurer works in rather minimalist paperback editions in the mid-70s. My copy is one of these.
- Wolf Solent (1929) - possibly (still) his best-known novel, frequently reprinted by Penguin, and the first of the four "Dorset Novels" which constitute his major claim to fame.
- A Glastonbury Romance (1933) - a colossal, bizarre masterpiece, well over a thousand pages long.
- Weymouth Sands (1934) - There'd been a lawsuit over potential libels in A Glastonbury Romance, but that resulted only in a couple of minor excisions. This book was really hauled over the coals in court, though. Bringing frivolous libel suits was quite a profitable business in Britain in the 1930s, according to Graham Greene, who also suffered from it. The law was weighted against any author who dared to set his work in a contemporary setting or used names which might be those of real people. As a result this book was reissued in an expurgated form in the UK, under the new title Jobber Skald (1935). It didn't reappear in full there until the late 1970s.
- Maiden Castle (1936) - the last of the Dorset novels.
- Morwyn: or The Vengeance of God (1937) - I owe my copy of this eccentric work to the "Dennis Wheatley library of the Occult", which republished it in the 1980s. It's a kind of anti-vivisectionist tract disguised as an account of a trip to Hell. Much more entertaining than you'd think.
- Owen Glendower (1940) - the first of his Welsh historical novels.
- Porius (1951) - another historical novel, this one set in the fifth century, during the reign of King Arthur. So long and weird that it could only be published in a heavily-edited form at the time. A complete, restored text came out from Colgate University Press in 1994. I'm glad to say that I have both versions. Tough going at times, though, but.
- The Inmates (1952) - a rather wistful and charming account of a love affair in a lunatic asylum.
- Atlantis (1954)- this one I'd been looking for for ages. There was a copy in Auckland University Library when I was studying there, but I never succeeded in obtaining one of my own till the blessed Faber Finds people put it back into print.
- The Brazen Head (1956) - another odd historical novel, this time about the medieval alchemist Roger Bacon.
- Homer and the Aether (1959) - commentary / fiction about the Iliad, rather like a more esoteric version of T. H. White's Once and Future King
- All or Nothing (1960) - if you think some of the others are odd, try reading this piece of raving lunacy.
- The Owl, The Duck, and - Miss Rowe! Miss Rowe! (1930) - no idea. I've never seen it. The title is certainly intriguing, though.
- Up and Out (1957) - two novellas: "Up and Out: a mystery tale" & "The Mountains of the Moon: a lunar love-story." Not like any sci-fi you've ever read, I bet you.
- Romer Mowl and Other Stories (1974) - haven't seen this.
- Real Wraiths (1974)
- Two and Two (1974)
- You and Me (1975) - or any of these three novellas.
- Three Fantasies (1985) - I do have a copy of this, though, and very weird it is, even by JCP standards.
Peter Stanford reviews Descemts of Memory: the Life of John Cowper Powys by Morine Krissdóttir and Porius by John Cowper Powys, ed by Judith Bond and Morine Krissdóttir
Morine Krissdóttir's Descents of Memory, unearths almost everything any devoted reader would want to know.