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SOURCE: A review of Visions and Revisions in The North American Review, Vol. CCI, June, 1915, pp. 923-25.
[In the following review of Visions and Revisions, Shaw praises Powys's gift for literary criticism, but pans his indulgent view of great writers.]
Mr. Powys is a critic of astonishing brilliancy and insight. Among modern writers upon literature there are few who approach him in the power of perfectly identifying himself with the spirit of the writer whom he describes; there is hardly one who so often gives the reader occasion for a kind of inward shout of joy. A hatred of shallow creeds and narrow dogmas gives vigor and point to his style; a serious and profound feeling for life as a whole lends fervor to his appreciation of strong thoughts and beautiful imaginings. And about the greatest of the writers of whom he treats—about Shakespeare, about Goethe, about Dante, about Dickens—he is in the main tremendously right. There can be no question of his power to guide and almost miraculously to deepen appreciation.
This, in fact, is all that he professes to do. He disclaims philosophic narrowness, and simply relates the adventures of his own soul. And yet he has a philosophy—of course. "If there is any unity in these essays," he writes, "it will be found in a blurred and stammered attempt to indicate how far it may be possible, in spite of the limitations of our ordinary nature, to live in the light of the 'grand style.' I mean that we can live in the atmosphere, the temper, the mood, the attitude toward things which 'the grand style' they [the great writers] use, evokes and sustains." And the users of the 'grand style' are those who have learned that the most important thing in the world is to realize to the fullest limit of their consciousness what it means to be born a Man. All this "has nothing to do with 'right' or 'wrong.'… The whole thing consists in growing vividly conscious of those moods and events which are permanent and human as compared with other moods and events which are transitory and unimportant."
This approach to criticism is immensely attractive, in the first place just because it gives a superior significance to the great writers, defying the curse of philistinism and reconciling one's moral with one's esthetic feelings; in the second place, because it suggests the possibility of finding a noble and satisfying way of life outside the narrow confines of any moral system or religious creed—in human nature itself as found at its strongest and freest in great literature.
As one reads on, one discovers that nothing annoys Mr. Powys so much as a shallow optimism. In this feeling one is inclined to join. Nothing is more annoying than a shallow optimism. If there is much in this world that is unaccountably good, there is much also that is unaccountably evil, and to profess disbelief in the latter smacks of ignorance or hypocrisy. Mr. Powys, moreover, shows no exclusive preference for those writers who begin with the thesis that "life is a tale told by an idiot," and end with it. Nevertheless, his pessimism goes deep. One begins to see, moreover, that he recommends not merely courage and resignation to the will of the gods, but almost any form of esthetic escape from the inconsistency and cruelty of life which a kind of fundamental decency permits. Thus he commends somewhat extravagantly the epicureanism of Pater, the poses and caprices of Charles Lamb, deepening these attitudes toward life to profundity and exalting them to...
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Just what this point of view may ultimately mean may be best seen in that passage in which Mr. Powys describes his manner of instructing "the Innocents" in regard to the philosophy of Walter Pater. "I try to explain," he informs us, "how … it is our right to test every single experience that life can offer, short of those which would make things harder, narrower, less easy, for 'the other person.' And if my Innocents ask—as they sometimes do—Innocents are like that!-'Why must we consider the other person?' I answer—for no reason, and under no threat or danger or categorical imperative; but simply because we have grown to be the sort of animal, the sort of queer fish, who cannot do the things 'that he would.' It is not, I try to indicate, a case of conscience; it is a matter of taste…."
In opposition to the point of view so consistently and successfully applied to criticism by Mr. Powys, it is possible to urge that the great writers are not, after all, "the Law and the Prophets"; that the untutored mind may without them discover the way of life through religious intuition: that what the untutored mind really lacks and what the great writers teach is tolerance, catholicity, that power of imaginative sympathy which makes man feel less lonely and gives a touch of dignity to his poor estate. And if one may be permitted to emulate a certain comfortable brusqueness of speech in which Mr. Powys sometimes indulges, one may suggest that to call the sense of right and wrong a "matter of taste" is perhaps quite as much damned foolishness as are some other things; that it is, possibly, to quote the words of Manson in The Servant in the House, "both foolish and damned."
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John Cowper Powys 1872–1963
English novelist, essayist, poet, and critic.
The following entry presents criticism on Powys's career through 1995. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 9, 15, and 46.
John Cowper Powys is considered one of the great modern English Romantic authors. A prolific writer of poetry and essays on philosophy, religion, and literature, as well as his remarkable Autobiography (1934), he is best known for his highly original novels. These fall into three categories: the twentieth-century stories of his beloved southwestern England, his "Wessex romances"; historical romances of ancient Wales; and his smaller science fantasies written after 1952. His masterpieces include A Glastonbury Romance (1932), Owen Glendower (1940), and Porius (1951). Typically Powys's novels are massive in size and complexity, with interconnected plots, strong characters, and vivid detail. He probes his characters' psyches by embodying modern psychology in Celtic mythology and natural settings. His themes of reconciling individual strife with cosmic forces, and sexual urges with mystical redemption reflect his own struggle for self-understanding. Critics have compared his novels to the works of William Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy, Walter Scott, James Joyce, and D. H. Lawrence.
Born a parson's son, Powys was the eldest of eleven children and brother of two other notable writers. T. F. Powys and Llewellyn Powys. He was raised in the Dorset-Somerset countryside, the setting of his future "Wessex romances." His father claimed descendancy from a Welsh lord, and his mother's family tree included poets John Cowper and John Donne. Powys cultivated a certain eccentricity during his schooldays, although he was later renowned for his graciousness and amiability. He attended Sherbourne and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and became a lecturer in literature. Hoping to build a career from his poetry, he published his first volumes in 1896 and 1899. However, an estrangement from his wife and the need to support an only son led to a public speaking career in America in 1910. Speaking engagements took him to scores of public halls, colleges, and universities including public debates with Will Durant and Bertrand Russell. While lecturing set his reputation as a keen interpreter of literature and philosophy, he published prodigiously, including his first novel Wood andStone (1915) and eleven other books and articles from 1915 to 1923. In 1929 he gave up public speaking, due to poor health, for full-time writing. He lived in upstate New York with his life-companion Phyllis Playter and published, among other important works, his first masterpiece A Glastonbury Romance (1932). Although Powys claimed his years in America were his best, he longed for Wales, his ancestral home. In 1936 he moved to Blaenau-Festiniog in North Wales and produced two more masterpieces Owen Glendower (1940) and Porius (1951). Powys wrote his last full-length novel in 1960 as he approached the age of ninety.
Powys's finest philosophic writing includes his best-seller The Meaning of Culture (1929), A Philosophy of Solitude (1933), and The Art of Happiness (1935). His Autobiography (1934) is considered incomparable for its candor, its self-denigration, and its humor. One Hundred Best Books (1916). The Pleasures of Literature (1938) (published as The Enjoyment of Literature in the United States), Dostoievsky (1946), and Rabelais (1948) represent his best literary criticism. His poem Lucifer (composed in 1906, published in 1956) is considered his most eloquent. Powys's first novels Wood and Stone (1915), Rodmoor (1916), and Ducdame (1925) introduce the use of natural elements as forces driving the actions of his characters. His first "Wessex romance" Wolf Solent (1929) establishes him as an author of esoteric interest. It concerns Wolf's return home to Dorset and his ordeal of writing an "underground history" of the community that emphasizes its evil. In contrast to this single-character study, A Glastonbury Romance (1932), the second "Wessex" piece, is a tour de force that rolls back the centuries to connect multiple characters in modern-day Glastonbury with the Holy Grail and the First Cause. Weymouth Sands (1934) and Maiden Castle (1936) complete this series. Powys's first historical romance Owen Glendower (1940) chronicles Owen's ill-fated push to free Wales from English rule during the fifteenth century. In the second, Porius (1951), a Welsh prince prepares to take over his father's throne in a world of giants, Mithraic cults, and Arthurian legend after the fall of Rome. Toward the end of Powys's life, his interest turns increasingly to fantasy, evident in his novels Atlantis (1954) and The Brazen Head (1956).
As a young man, Powys had many friends among the leading writers of the day in Wales and America, and devoted readers throughout the world, but only an insistent minority of critics to praise him. Since his death, however, critical assessment of his literary canon has become increasingly widespread and positive. Yet questions remain concerning the size and complexity of his novels. Among these, A Glastonbury Romance, Owen Glendower, and Porius are considered masterpieces because they best illustrate Powys's gift for blending high drama with intuitive insight into the human psyche. But some reviewers have been put off by their epic proportions in terms of the number of words and pages, the number of characters and plots, and the layers of allegory that seem to intrude on each other and cause confusion. Critic Jerome McGann believes that the problem lies not with Powys's works, but rather with the reader's expectations. He compares Porius to Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, arguing that, like Joyce, Powys was moving his writing to a "new order and level." According to McGann, Wolf Solent was Powys's last "novel," and A Glastonbury Romance was one of the "first of the unique prose inventions [Powys] sometimes called 'romances' [which attempt to] incorporate the novel back into its romance origins … the exact reverse of Scott's move … to accommodate romance fiction to the novel." Renowned critic G. Wilson Knight nominated Powys for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1959. He has compared Powys to Shakespeare for his "visionary penetration and mastery of the concrete." Angus Wilson likens him to Dickens for his "genius for comedy and crowd, for larger-than-life characters…." George Steiner sees in Wolf Solent as in no other English fiction "that realization of the meshing of human and natural presences which marks Tolstoy," and in Owen Glendower, Powys's remarkable ability to make the past into the present.
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SOURCE: "The Immortals and Mr. Powys," in The North American Review, Vol. CCIV, September, 1916, pp. 457-60.
[In the following review, Gilman discusses some of Powys's surprising choices for inclusion in his One Hundred Best Books.]
As soon as we encountered Mr. John Cowper Powys's One Hundred Best Books, With a Commentary and An Essay on Books and Reading, we proceeded to follow the habit of Emerson (or was it Lamb or Hazlitt!—we have looked it up repeatedly, but we always forget). That is to say, coming upon a new book, we turned away and read an old one; but in this case, the old one was also by Mr. John Cowper Powys. It was his share of a volume called Confessions of Two Brothers, and our hope was that we should find there some information as to the equipment of this adventurous and greatly-daring author. We found what we had hoped to find: a light that flooded the secret chambers of Mr. Powys's soul, disclosing the ways of his mind and the nature of his taste.
We had known that Mr. Powys was arbiter elegantiarum to those dear ladies, avid of aesthetic fertilization, aflame with spiritual passion, who compose the audiences at lecture-courses in those fountains of American culture, our women's clubs and our church "parlors." We knew that Mr. Powys was one of the best beloved of the interpreters and priests of beauty who are privileged to minister unto those ardent and eager souls; that he was a lecturer prized and quoted, wearing with grace and majesty, we doubted not, the splendid mantle of intellectual authority. We knew that he had published critical essays in which the Kansas City Star found "a semblance of the Grand Style." Also, we knew, he had published a novel which moved the Philadelphia Record to exclaim of it that "every page is a joy," and caused the Press of that incomparable city to note that "Mr. Powys's style is the style of Thomas Hardy"—we paid small attention to the characteristically cloistered observation of the Nation that it was "a book of distinctive flavor," detecting in that unhandsomely reticent estimate a soul inimical to sweetness or to light. We knew, finally, that Mr. Powys was famous, was International. Nevertheless, we felt it our duty to explore the Confessions, in order that we might be prepared to approach One Hundred Best Books with some preliminary knowledge, authoritatively derived, as to the qualities of mind and heart which the author must have brought to the conduct of his high and consecrated task.
The first thing we learned (and we beg the reader not to object, in haste, that the point is irrelevant)—the first thing we learned was communicated to us in this passage, on the opening page of the Confessions: "It came over me yesterday that the whole secret of my being, of my happiness and my misery, was to be discovered in my hands." It seems that when Mr. Powys is quiescent, or engaged in quotidian pursuits (eating or bathing or tieing a shoe-string or posting a letter) his hands are dead hands—clumsy, helpless, inert: "They are out of reach of the electricity of my being. My consciousness does not penetrate to where they hang." But when Mr. Powys is lecturing, a miracle occurs: "My hands change completely and my consciousness flows through them to the tips of my fingers…. I feel them as I speak; and between them and the waves of my thought there is a direct magnetic connection. Under ordinary conditions my hands are the hands of a dead body. When I am lecturing, they are the hands of a lover; of a lover caressing his darling." Fascinating as this is, we were still unsatisfied; but the Confessions led us further: they took us from those inspired and amorous hands inward, upward, and downward. We found, according to Mr. Powys, that his exterior appearance "gives an impression of power and formidableness that is altogether misleading": for beneath his "Roman Despot look" he conceals a shrinking timidity, "the soul of a slave." Traveling still further inward, we ascertained that Mr. Powys is dowered with a mind that is "singularly clear, fluid, and nimble"; yet we learned, with a brief sigh for the inescapable carnality of our kind, that, for Mr. Powys, the earth-breath is dangerously seductive: "I live," he tells us, "a double life. I live in my mind, which is eternally restless, mobile, and light as air; and in my sensations, which are heavily-weighted, earth-bound…." As to his creed: "I believe everything and—nothing; and I pass from sensation to sensation like a moth from bush to bush." In his tastes, Mr. Powys prefers blue to yellow, satin to velvet, horse-hair sofas to cushioned couches.
Concerning his quality as a critic, we were cheered to find that for once the encomium on the publisher's wrapper is correct, Mr. Powys, says the wrapper, "is without a peer in his particular field: that of telling rapt audiences the adventures of his soul among masterpieces"; and this is corroborated by the candid admission of Mr. Powys himself: for he tells us in the Confessions that he is "an eloquently impassioned critic" ("not even my enemies could deny my right to that title," says he). Indeed, he is prepared to rate himself as "the very acme and apogee of a born critic" ("I do not regard it as an outrageous claim," he observes). Gifted with an "abnormal and insatiable receptivity, a sort of sensual voluptuousness in the intellectual world," it is easy to understand by what path he has climbed to his apogee. Finally, and we shall do well to remember the caution, Mr. Powys utters this warning: "I am much cleverer than my enemies suppose"; though how so genial and confiding a soul as Mr. Powys could have incurred any enemies we find it impossible to perceive.
You now have, perhaps, an outline of Mr. Powys, from the mystical sentience of his hands and the duality of his inner life and the shape and texture of his mind, to his taste in sofas and his affinity with the moth. And so we come to the Hundred Best Books.
Clearly it was rare sport for Mr. Powys to compile this scrupulously heterodox catalogue. In selecting his list he was actuated, he tells us, by "shameless subjectivity"; and he realized that his choice of books would be "a challenge to the intelligence perusing it." The claims of venerated reputations have not annoyed him. He glories in the "essential right of personal choice"; and "the great still images from the dusty museum of standard authors" can go hang for all he cares. So it would never do to demand of him indignantly why he omits George Eliot and includes Mr. Gilbert Cannan; for that would be merely playing into his hands: that is precisely what he wants you to do. He rejoices in his contempt for the "well-read" philistine, the worshiper of orthodox excellence. He is the tameless urchin of criticism, and he makes his outrageous racket with his stick on your front fence in order that you may be teased to come out and swear at him.
You find a list which begins soberly enough (it is, no doubt, intended as a decoy) with the Psalms of David, the Odyssey, The Bacchæ of Euripides, Horace, Catullus, the Divine Comedy, Rabelais, Candide, Shakespeare (with Troilus and Cressida, Measure for Measure, and Timon of Athens preferred for special mention), Milton, Sir Thomas Browne, Cervantes, Goethe, Emerson: you find this list, which starts off with such sweet and classic reasonableness, abruptly presenting you with Sudermann and his Song of Songs, Hauptmann and The Fool in Christ, Ibsen's Wild Duck, Mr. Edgar Lee Masters and his Spoon River Anthology, and—Mr. Oliver-Onions: whereby you know that Mr. Powys is off at last, clattering happily with his ribald stick along your decorous palings.
Thereafter, the fun progresses according to Mr. Powys's uncompromising schedule. Artzibasheff with his Sanine is yoked with Lamb and his Elia; Mr. George Bernard Shaw, costumed as John Tanner, flees in panic from Jane Austen; Mr. Chesterton, spouting conciliatory paradoxes, walks arm-in-arm with Emily Brontë. Ruthlessly Mr. Powys assembles them. You do not know whether to ponder more over those who have been invited to the party or over those who have been ignored. Here is Oscar Wilde; but where is Plato! You are delighted to welcome Alice in Wonderland; but where is Maeterlinck! Mr. W. Somerset Maugham is here, and so is Mr. Vincent O'Sullivan; Mr. Arnold Bennett chats amicably with his rival trilogist, Mr. Onions; and Anton Tchekov broods gently by himself, perhaps wondering why Tolstoi was omitted from the list of guests—a slight which he must bear in common with the authors of the Book of Job, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Solomon, the New Testament, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Chaucer, Webster, Marlowe, Fielding, Flaubert, Hawthorne, Defoe, the Upanishads, the Arabian Nights, and a host of other disconsolate immortals and abandoned masterworks.
We like Mr. Powys. We like his gamineries, his charming assurance, his cosy confidences, his exuberant atrocities. He is indeed, as he says, an acme and an apogee.
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Wood and Stone (novel) 1915One Hundred Best Books (essays) 1916Rodmoor (novel) 1916Ducdame (novel) 1925The Meaning of Culture (essays) 1929Wolf Solent (novel) 1929A Glastonbury Romance (novel) 1932A Philosophy of Solitude (essays) 1933Autobiography (autobiography) 1934Weymouth Sands (novel) 1934The Art of Happiness (essays) 1935Maiden Castle (novel) 1936The Pleasures of Literature (essays) 1938Owen Glendower (novel) 1940Dostoievsky (essays) 1946Rabelais (essays) 1948Porius (novel) 1951Atlantis (novel) 1954The Brazen Head (novel) 1956Lucifer: A Poem (poem) 1956
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SOURCE: "Beyond the Beckoning Waters," in New York Herald Tribune Books, Vol. 5, No. 35, May 19, 1929, pp. 1-2.
[In the following review, Ross commends Powys for the powerful narrative and fresh imagery of Wolf Solent.]
The old Quaker's observation that every one but thee and me is a little mad, and thee is not quite above suspicion, might serve as a smug comment on the magnificent story of Wolf Solent. But its smugness would be untrue to the spirit of Wolf and his creator. Those aberrant impulses that lure us toward the bright circle of lunacy except no man, though many of us are too fearful to admit them to even our most secret thinking. But Mr. Powys looks wonderingly, without blinking, at the shuttles of shame, ecstasy, glory and degradation which cross and recross to weave the unique and mysterious pattern that is a human life. He grasps the shuttles with firm and sensitive hands, and the fabric of his book is rich and strange. It is at once as natural and as eerie as the phosphorescent wake of a ship breasting the waters of a midnight sea.
Externally Wolf Solent is the story of a man of thirty-five, who took refuge in the Dorset village of his forefathers when he had been rasped past the limit of his endurance by a schoolmaster's life in middle-class London. Chance and family influence had got him a post as secretary to the obscene old squire of Ramsgard to write a chronicle of the Dorset that was known to the bedposts in brothels, to the counters of barrooms, the butlers' pantries in old houses and the muddy ditches in old lovers' lanes. In Ramsgard he found love, marriage, friends, a home and a means of livelihood.
Below that current in deeper and more troubled waters runs the real course of the book. Wolf Solent was a sick man, harried by the demands that life made upon him. Into his sensitive and troubled soul experience intruded like the crash of a stone in a millpond, stirring up mud and debris, bespattering the water lilies. As he rode to Ramsgard in the train there floated between him and the green masses of the trees the phantom face of a man whom he had glimpsed on the steps of Waterloo Station—an English face, but also a Chinese face, a Russian face, "just the face of a man, of a mortal man, against whom Providence has grown as malignant as a mad dog."
Wolf himself knew the bite of the mad dog. He had had to leave London, because, two months before, in the midst of an innocent discourse on the reign of Queen Anne, some dam in his own mind had suddenly given away, and before his astonished pupils he danced what he called his "malicedance," pouring out a torrent of wild, indecent invectives on every aspect of the modern world.
As he looked out the window again there hovered before him a monstrous apparition of invention, a whole round world pierced and sullied by iron-clad motors like colossal beetles, its waters ravaged by the throbbing prows of relentless vessels, its air shot through by the stinging assault of airplanes. From this intolerable assault of noise and motion he had made himself a retreat. This obtrusive world could lay no finger on him. He had no urge to action, to literary or intellectual achievement. "He hid, deep down in his being, a contempt that was actually malicious in its pride for all the human phenomena of worldly success. It was as if he had been some changeling from a different planet, a planet where the issues of life—the great dualistic struggles between life and death—never emerged from the charmed circle of the individual's private consciousness."
When the stones became too troublesome he could sink still further below the waters of that pond, into a stillness where nothing could pierce, where his mind could unfold like the giant leaves of some fabulous tropic vegetation. This was his mainstay, his "life-illusion," the "reality" by which he lived, the refuge which the world so far had not been able to violate. That way lies poetry, and if one follow it far enough, madness.
The sore spot in Wolf Solent was a talisman whereby he felt—and suffered—the phantoms that pursued those other souls in Ramsgard who, there as everywhere else, pursued their courses in essential isolation, glimpsing only now and then the common sun over them, and the earth under their feet. Deny the village he could not; for its tentacles had sunk deep into him in the remote halcyon days of his childhood. Short of his own dissolution, they could not be dislodged. Bit by bit he realized and accepted them; first the elemental realities—the rain-drenched lanes and hedges; the Arthurian hills across which be plunged, alone or with the beautiful Gerda; and ominous Lenty Pond, which becomes the symbol of his struggle.
It was a legend of the village, which floated before him elusively for months, that each generation of the squires of Ramsgard had caused a young man to drown himself in Lenty Pond. The beautiful boy who had preceded him as secretary to the squire had died in bed, of double pneumonia, but it was believed that his spirit still walked the lanes, and his white face would float under the waters of the pond till another came there to take his place and let him rest in peace.
The Dorset village was like an old garden grown in on itself, roots intertwined under the soil, branches twisted grotesquely to reach the sun between overhanging leaves and stone wall. As Wolf for a time became aware only of the grotesqueness of the clasp of root upon root, it was a garden of malign ghosts. Beyond lay only the beckoning waters of Lenty Pond. The octopus of reality touched his "life illusion," grasped it, squeezed it dry and flung it aside. He was empty, defenseless, to himself degraded beyond all hope of rebirth.
But gradually from those roots he began to draw life. The phantoms faded and he saw that it was his own spirit that had painted them on the air. The people about him—the delicate and amazingly distinct gallery which Mr. Powys summons in the figures of Wolf's gallant mother; his lovely wife, Gerda; his "true love," the wraith-like Christie Malakite; the old squire, Jason; the poet, Darnley Otter and the rest; became not monstrous outgrowths, but natural and separate flowerings of forces which involved them all.
There was a night when Wolf Solent came near to slipping quietly into Lenty Pond to fulfill the destiny that seemed to be pressing in upon him. Then there came a day when he realized that his body had saved him, that the disease was in his own mind, and that that mind was what he had to reckon with. He would take as the talisman of his day 'endure or escape.' He had made peace with the world. Lenty Pond no longer could frighten him.
Possibly some such struggle as this is a universal price of an artist's existence. But beyond that, differing only in the richness and intensity of its nature, it is a common experience that lies unrecognized in less conscious spirits, one price of honest life and growth. In its reach and its grasp Wolf Solent transcends the reefs of mere self-pitying aesthetic agony on which many a lesser vessel of exploration has been wrecked. Will Durant calls the book "an organized 'Ulysses,'" In the beauty and freshness of its imagery and the sustained interest of its narrative its power is without question. Its prose often rises to the cadence of poetry. And beyond beauty, it sinks shafts through the unique personalities and provincial setting with which it deals, to a core of truth which is the stuff of human experience, whether in a cottage in Dorset or a furnished room on Manhattan Island.
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Anderson, John Redwood. "John Cowper Powys's Lucifer, An Appreciation." The Dublin Magazine XXXII, No. 3 (July-September 1957): 37-43.
Compares this "great poem" to Milton's Paradise Lost and Shelley's Prometheus Unbound.
Bullett, Gerald, Review of Ducdame by John Cowper Powys. Saturday Review 140 (22 August 1925): 214-15.
Faults Ducdame for its trite ideas, poor paragraph construction, and prolixity.
Coombes, Harry. "John Cowper Powys: A Modern Merlin?" The Southern Review XI, No. 4 (October 1975): 779-93.
Contrasts the writing styles of John Cowper Powys and his brother Theodore, claiming Theodore as the superior writer.
Duncan, Ian. "The Mythology of Escape: Owen Glendower and the Failure of Historical Romance." Powys Notes 8, No. 1 (Spring-Summer 1992): 53-81.
Discusses Owen Glendower's shortcomings as a historical romance.
Jones, Ben. "Exile and Presences: Powys's Nihilism." Powys Notes 7, No. 1 (Spring-Summer 1991): 4-20.
Examines nihilism in Powys's novels Ducdame, Wolf Solent, and A Glastonbury Romance.
Lewis, Joan L. Review of Rabelais by John Cowper Powys. Ethics LXII, No. 1 (October 1951): 76.
Commends Powys for his fine translation and insightful interpretation of Rabelais' philosophy.
Priestley, J. B. "The Happy Introvert." A Review of English Literature 4, No. 1 (January 1963): 25-32.
Draws on excerpts from the Autobiography, A Philosophy of Solitude, and In Spite Of to provide understanding of Powys's personality.
Reynolds, Horace. "Stimulation to Good Reading." Christian Science Monitor XXXI, No. 45 (18 January 1939): 12.
Commends Powys's Enjoyment of Literature for its catholicity, vivid expression, and perceptiveness.
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SOURCE: "Mr. Powys Inquires Into the Meaning of Culture, in New York Times Book Review, November 10, 1929, p. 2.
[In the following review of The Meaning of Culture, Forman discusses Powys's "working substitute" for religious faith.]
It is not for nothing that Mr. Powys in the book under review addresses himself primarily to the young. The maturer consciousness, the character that is already formed and set, how tolerant so ever it may be, must nevertheless constantly rebel at any one else's idea of what culture should be. For culture is one of those elusive attributes in the individual at least as difficult to define as what makes a gentleman. Indeed, both of those words and their definitions are what sensitive people shy away from and seldom bring forward if they can help it. Mr. Powys himself, being a sensitive artist and a man of an exquisite culture, may be presumed to have drawn back more than once until, with something of grimness in his determination, he finally decided to speak to the young upon this difficult subject that so many a lesser and perhaps a greater than he would shrink from as from a violence. Was it Titus who upon entering the Holy of Holies, which moved an integral and obstinate people to endless devotion, found it empty? One may imagine Mr. Powys facing his particular arcanum and finding nothing to inventory save his own soul and mind. And no man of Mr. Powys's attainments could have found that an easy task. The more credit to him for producing under these circumstances a book at once full and cogent and worthy anybody's perusal.
Let it be said at once that with culture in the sense of a kultur, the culture of a nation or a continent, Mr. Powys has nothing to do. His primary aim, indeed, is to save the individual in face of the mass, the machine, the turbulent chaotic present. To use his own words:
What is aimed at here is to find in the instinctive and rationalized habits of human culture itself a sort of working substitute for the simpler religious faith of the past, for its heroic synthesis of so many human activities and emotions, something, in fact, that shall at once awaken us to the magic of life, so overlaid and vulgarized by modern conditions and calm us and steady us in our intelligent enjoyment of it.
There is a physical beauty and a moral, Cardinal Newman once said, when speaking to somewhat similar purpose: "There is a beauty of person, there is a beauty of our moral being, which is natural virtue; and in like manner there is a beauty, there is a perfection of the intellect." The intellect, the soul, the spirit—it is to the beautification of these that Mr. Powys aims, not, as he tells us, by means of "bitter onslaughts upon stupidity and obscurantism," but rather by the building up, "fragment by fragment, a new emotional and mental synthesis." And the very attempt to build up such a synthesis today is already an achievement.
But, indeed, this is much more than an attempt. The analysis of the true nature of what culture is, as set forth in the first five chapters, though it may not square with every one's idea of the content of a rounded culture, must nevertheless enter somehow into that idea. However imperfect the counsel, no man has ever been the worse for being counseled to perfection. Mr. Powys is urgent that we read metaphysics; that we should mold and achieve a philosophy of our own in preference to splitting hairs upon the great philosophic schools of thought. Better read Plato, Montaigne, Goethe, Wordsworth, Emerson, Pater, Proust, than Hume, Kant, Spenser or Whitehead. To read and appreciate Doughty's "Arabia Deserta" and Sir Thomas Browne's "Urn-Burial" is "a convincing proof that one's esthetic sophistication is an authentic thing."
Does the mature reader imagine that the reviewer is trying to be humorous? Remember, Mr. Powys is speaking to the young. Better they be told thus baldly than not be told at all. Surely some one must tell them that they may, if they wish, admire Aldous Huxley, T. S. Eliot and Ernest Hemingway and still enjoy Homer and Plato and Goethe and Rabelais. It may be news to some that they need to be told. But Mr. Powys comes in contact with great numbers of seekers after culture on his lecture tours and should have a very clear knowledge of what they lack.
Und was mir fehlt, du Kleine,Fehlt manchem im deutschen Land.
once sang Heine, and our own lacks are just as plentiful. If a boy or girl is surrounded by an irksome home or economic atmosphere,
sink into your own soul! [urges Mr. Powys]. Use your imagination and your senses upon the few simple elements of the Eternal that surround us all and the few undying books that you can lay your hands on, and create a new soul of awareness under the surface of your quotidian submission.
Now, clearly, neither Professor Dewey, nor Santayana, nor Whitehead probably need this advice, but many there be who do. They need it the more because, as Mr. Powys points out, culture today comes with exceeding difficulty. The tabloids, the noise, the radio, the movies, the jazz-"the wonder grows that any human beings are left in these places whose debauched wits retain the least resemblance to old-fashioned human minds."
Mr. Powys set out to make no bitter onslaughts upon stupidity and obscurantism. But flesh and blood can hardly resist the impulse in face of the conditions that surround most of us.
Nothing but an extreme and an almost misanthropic individualism can save us from the ubiquitous atmosphere of all this psychic vulgarity. We must accept the situation. We must harden our hearts against social-mindedness. We must welcome proudly all accusations of priggishness and pedantry. The worst prig in the world is a less despicable animal than these besotted slaves of a "sense of humor," these flunkeyish lickspittles of folk-foolery, these gesticulating Robots. A facetious popularization of the old mythologies has become a modern craze; and while the real poetry connected with Helen of Troy is a forbidden affectation, the story of the woman herself lends itself most horribly well to a comic Freudianism!
Mr. Powys, notwithstanding his early resolve, has much to say of these present-day obstacles to culture. And who shall gainsay him that there are many? One of his very best chapters is the one entitled "Culture and Nature." It is hardly possible to quote any of it without quoting all of it. But his own love for nature and the balm that it can bring to the soul, whether directly of itself or through some of the great poets, such as Homer, Virgil, Wordsworth, these are something that the modern young city person should take to his bosom. There are chapters upon "Culture and Love," "Culture and Human Relations," "Culture and Destiny." There is much that is readable and interesting in all of these. But the one entitled "Culture and the Art of Reading" will perhaps prove nearer to a vademecum for the young than any of the others. For reading is, after all, the least strait of all the gates.
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SOURCE: "Much Ado About Nothing," in The Nation & Athenaeum, January 3, 1931, pp. 461-62.
[In the following excerpt, Woolf pans In Defence of Sensuality for its prolixity.]
One must begin a review of this book by taking one's hat off to and acknowledging Mr. Powys's obvious sincerity. His book contains so much quackery and gush, such an enormous k of words for so small a kernel of matter, that it would be easy to make a great mistake and think that the author must be posturing. That is clearly not the case; Mr. Powys is terrifically in earnest and believes every word that he says. But sincerity is not enough. The youth of seventeen who discovers that moonlight is romantic and, under the influence of the discovery, writes many thousand lines of sentimental verse, may be quite sincere. That, however, does not prevent us recognizing that he is suffering from a well-known youth disorder, a kind of emotional measles of which one symptom is a rash of bad poetry. Sincerity is not enough. You may be a sincere inquisitor, a sincere bore, a sincere quack, the sincere writer of a bad book, as bad a book as this of Mr. Powys's.
Mr. Powys has really written a really bad book. Even its title is bad. Everyone reading the title would think that Mr. Powys was writing about sensuality in the ordinary sense, and his excuse and that of his publisher for using a title so completely misleading is a very bad one. His book contains his "philosophy of life," and the matter which goes to it is so exiguous that he could have said all he really has to say in ten pages. The rest of the book is a flood of (perfectly sincere) gush and endless repetition. For instance, Mr. Powys thinks—and I am disposed, or was disposed when I began reading his book, to agree with him—that if a "beggar" in the street asks you for sixpence, you should give it to him. I do not know how many times Mr. Powys does not come back to this point and repeat all his old arguments for giving the sixpence. The result in my case was that, though I agreed with him the first time, when I heard his argument for the hundredth time, he had driven me to such desperation that I have discovered convincing reasons for refusing two old women selling matches, and one ex-Service man singing hymns, the pence that they otherwise might have got from me. I doubt whether now even my favourite beggar who used to haunt High Street, Kensington, accompanied by a strange black and white cur ornamented with a kind of saddle of red and blue flannel on which sat two large white rats, could extract a copper from me. And I shall have to invent some argument which is not Mr. Powys's to allow myself the pleasure of giving sixpence to the melancholy lady who tinkles so faintly and sweetly on the harp on Saturday evenings.
Mr. Powys would say that I am trying to be humorous and that humour is a bad thing. There is a certain amount of truth in his attack upon humour, and here again when he said it the first time, I agreed with much of what he said. But when he had said it all over again for the hundredth time, one felt that he had got it all out of proportion, that he was making a terrible to-do about nothing, and that he was merely showing, by his lack of humour, that humour after all is of some importance. And so it is with all that he has to say. There is a good deal of truth in the little kernel of matter which he has embedded in all these highfalutin' words. It is true that the happiness which comes through the senses and the memory is an important ingredient of life, and one which the modern bourgeois form of society underestimates. It is true that much can be said in favour of loneliness, and that the modern world, both in its pleasures and its economic organization, is too gregarious. It is true that, because you have a respectable collar and an account or overdraft at the bank, you have no "cosmic" (I borrow a favourite word of Mr. Powys's) reason for thinking that you are thereby a better man than the next beggar you meet in the street. It is probably true that you should not form a habit of refusing beggars in the street, though I doubt whether it is true that you should, like Mr. Powys, form a conscious and somewhat Pecksniffian habit of giving them coppers and cups of coffee.
I cannot see that the kernel of truth in Mr. Powys's book is any more extensive or more important than what I have extracted in the previous sentences. He wraps it up in voluminous swaddling clothes of sentimentalism, mysticism, and honest quackery of the kind which is extremely fashionable these days. Mr. Powys has all the paraphernalia of modern, anti-rationalist mysticism with which we are already familiar in Keyserling, Steiner, Spengler, and a number of minor constellations. He is not content with saying that what he calls sensuality is a very good thing. He calls it "the secret of life" and "the purpose of life." How does Mr. Powys know what the secret of life is? How does he know that there is a secret of life? Of course, Mr. Powys never condescends to answer such questions—he covers up his traces by continually talking about such things as "the ichthyosaurusego" and the "First Cause," with which or whom he seems to be on terms of enviable intimacy. And "the purpose of life"! How can Mr. Powys or any other human being imagine that they know what "the purpose of life" is? It is almost inconceivable that an intelligent man like Mr. Powys can really delude himself into believing that the purpose of life—in this inhuman universe of icy space and flaming suns—is the "arrangement of thought," the pleasure of lying in bed in the morning or of remembering a windy warm day on the Downs. Mr. Powys—and all of us—know just about as much about the purpose of life as a tapeworm, and we do not conceal the fact by draping our ignorance in the vague and pretentious language which Mr. Powys is so fond of. "In loneliness," says Mr. Powys, "a human being feels himself backward, down the long series of his avatars, into the earlier planetary life of animals, birds, and reptiles, end even into the cosmogonic life of rocks and stones." The use of the words "avatar," "planetary," and "cosmogonic" in this sentence does not save it from being pure, unadulterated nonsense. "The soul feeds on dreams like a great immortal ox on sweet grass," writes Mr. Powys. As far as truth and meaning go, he might just as well have written (and more grammatically): "The soul feeds on dreams as a small mortal cow on soya bean cake." But that, of course, would have given the show away. One way of not giving the mystical show away is, apparently, to call everything cosmic. The following is a list of things to which Mr. Powys applies the usually irrelevant and meaningless adjective "cosmic" and the list is certainly not complete: philosophy, emotions, reality, mutations, scepticism, sense, ecstasy, gestures, happiness.
Mr. Powys, as we have said, has the modern mystics' fashionable contempt for reason. Truth, of course, is revealed not by reason, but by some operation of the soul which has nothing to do with the intellect or the laws of logic. If this be really the case, it is legitimate to inquire why Mr. Powys should waste his and our time by writing 287 pages in which he never ceases to argue with us, to use reason and logic to convince us (unsuccessfully) that what he believes and says is true? Even in the mystic, cosmic regions to which he invites us, it appears that the laws not only of reason but of arithmetic work: otherwise why does he write like this: "What we call the First Cause is the necessary centre of all these universes; and back and down into the First Cause every living soul can descend. When, however, two identities are linked together in this mystic-sensuous embrace, it is a double soul that thus sinks down; and a double anger against the evil it finds there, and a double gratitude for the good it finds there, floods this pair of conscious beings." It is quite a relief to find that in this cosmic region, though a plural subject can take a verb in the singular, at any rate "twice one equals two" applies to souls and their emotions.
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SOURCE: "A Cosmology For Hero," in New York Herald Tribune Books, Vol. 8, No. 29, March 27, 1932. p. 7.
[In the following excerpt, Ross compares A Glastonbury Romance to Wolf Solent, and faults the former for its lack of coherence.]
At the striking of noon on a certain March 5 there occurred within a causal radius of Brandon railway station and yet beyond the deepest pools of emptyness, 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. 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 12:19 train from London and the divine-diabolic First Cause of all life.
Thus, in its first paragraph, Mr. Powys sets the key for A Glastonbury Romance. Through nearly 1,200 large and closely printed pages its tentacles reach out in a determined effort to connect the infinitesimal and the infinite.
Its visible scene is the town of Glastonbury in modern times. Its visible people include a Mayor, a manufacturer, a doctor, a landed proprietor, a philosophical anarchist, a would-be writer, an elderly aristocrat, a vicar and his son, laborers, farmers and so on, with their wives, sweethearts, children, friends and the like; a prefixed list of "principal characters" enumerates forty-six persons. Its action, as the dust cover declares, "embraces no less than six major love affairs, one murder, three births and two deaths." Its thinking includes the establishment of a commune in a modern English town of ancient lineage, all of which the author declares in a foreword to be "pure invention." In fact, he insists categorically that "not a single scene, or situation, or character, or episode in this book has been drawn in any respect, or in any sense whatsoever, from real life." On closing what undoubtedly is one of the longest novels of all times, one feels that unfortunately this is true in a sense which the statement did not intend to imply.
Behind the kaleidoscope implied in this summary of the volume's vital statistics there lies layer upon layer of allegory, as below the Glastonbury land on which Philip Crow set his modern dye works there lay buried remains that traced back through the British kings to Arthur and beyond to the ancient peoples of the lake village, lost in the mists of antiquity. Only mysticism can bridge the span that Mr. Powys has set himself between the railway clock (assuming that I am correct in my reading of "causal" in that first sentence) with the creative silence of the First Causes. A vision hovers over this modern Glastonbury in the unpardonable sin of a Welsh antiquary, the religious fervor of the former secretary-valet of a late canon, who at the time of the story has become the rich Mayor; in the perversity of John Crow, the cancer of Tittie Petherton, the madness of Bet, the naturalism of Mother Legge, a procuress; in the simplicity of the country people. In it, as in a mirage, one sees the gleams and stains of the Arthurian legend, even to the Grail which appears to the Vicar's son in a coal barge. Behind this shadow play lurk still deeper reaches of ancient myth, to which Christian symbolism is only a recent sheath. At the kernel apparently (it is far from clear to me) lies that First Cause. Mr. Powys's preoccupation with mysteries seems to have permeated even the blurb writer of the jacket, who asserts cryptically that "his creation is more than a book."
The author's preceding novel, Wolf Solent, seemed to me a moving and vivid portrayal of the strange, often incomprehensible, currents that govern the life of one man. In the present story, however, it is not a person but a cosmology that is the hero. Varieties of human experience seem less important for what they are in themselves than for their bearing on the unrolling of some universal plan. Patiently, laboriously, sometimes brilliantly, the author puts his finger on some quality in the relationship of two persons, and then tries to trace it out in universal terms, back again to the First Cause. Or starting from a conflict of ambivalence, he works forward. "The mind of the First Cause was twofold—self-contradictory, divided against itself. The multifarious minds that stir up the chemistry of matter today are all descended from the First Cause and share its dualistic nature, its mingling of abominable cruelty with magnanimous consideration." This purpose involves pondering the contradictions of thought and feeling, and especially in this book the varieties of experience that spring from some manifestation or aberration of sex.
The symbol of t'ai chi, the interlocked yang and yin which from remote times have represented the antithesis of day and night, heat and cold, male and female, might well stand as the goal of A Glastonbury Romance. But in the tone of the story one feels not the sense of balance, of complement, which the symbol implies, but a conflict, a striving for unity (despite the author's repeated avowal that none exists), from which has ensued this enormous and to me inchoate volume. This conflict—this thirst for an explanation, a cosmology, if you will—is in direct antithesis to that creative realization of a moment in the flow of time out of which is born what we call consciousness and in another form art. As a by-product of his central purpose, Mr. Powys has given this book beautiful sentences, occasional gleams of imaginative realization that are wholly satisfying. But the struggle in which it is rooted seems to me to bring confusion and an alien purpose.
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SOURCE: "Adventures Among Masterpieces," in New York Times Book Review, November 20, 1938, p. 2.
[In the following excerpt, Hutchison favorably reviews Enjoyment of Literature.]
For upward of forty years Mr. Powys has traveled widely in the realms of gold, and his individualistic and penetrating appraisals of their States and goodly kingdoms have won him the confidence of hosts of readers. The present book embodies the maturity of Mr. Powys's thinking; in it he reviews his literary adventures among the masterpieces of the world. The pages flame with what is almost a religious ardor of passionate love for these masterpieces. And because Mr. Powys has the power to communicate his own buoyant pleasure in reading he is the adventurer who infects others with the high spirit of the quest. In consequence this book is out of the ordinary in its field; the gigantic effort of a truly critical mind that is strongly buttressed by imagination and deeply imbued with a sense of spiritual values.
Significant of this is the fact that Mr. Powys devotes his first two chapters to the Bible as literature, although the Bible, certainly the New Testament, does not antedate the Iliad and the Odyssey. But from these two testaments to eternal truths, so the thesis would run, emerged forces which were destined to shape a great deal of the thought and the imagination of the world for centuries to come. Homer, by elevating men above the cheap and vulgar, was to deepen human consciousness. But not even the mighty Greek, who was on familiar terms with heroes and with gods alike, could give other than secular stirring to the Christian mind. And the Greek tragic dramatist, virtually unknown to the Western world for centuries, had little influence on Western though. Yet Powys finds today the influence of Sophocles and Aeschylus great indeed. Dostoievsky, Hardy, Eugene O'Neill, he finds stemming back to the ancient tragedians of Athens. One should know these antique play-wrights better, would be Mr. Powys's admonition.
Enjoyment of Literature proceeds in the main chronologically, but it is not to be concluded, therefore, that Mr. Powys is engaged on literary history, for that is the very thing on which Mr. Powys is not engaged. But he is convinced by the evidence that there is in literature a subterranean "river of tradition," not only as to the kind of subject but even the kind of treatment of that subject, "that will strike deepest into what is universal and unchanging." Hence, although each of the chapters in this book appears to be an independent study, each is but a wave in one same strong stream.
It is Dante who is taken up next, and with the great Florentine Western literature moves definitely into the Christian path. Refusing the Greek idea of fate, Dante reaffirms to the world the concepts of good and evil, gives to them tragic recognition as forces to make or mar. Yet Mr. Powys feels that there has been an overemphasis on Dante as a moral guide. For him, Dante's stress upon endurance as the greatest of human virtues is what renders him supreme. Many, of course, will dissent from this and will cling to Dante, as others will cling to Milton, for something akin to guidance. But Powys is never so happy as when he can be provocative.
Rabelais, Montaigne and Cervantes follow in order. And we are not sure but that we should recommend the chapter on Rabelais as an introduction to the mind of Mr. Powys, because in its seeming paradoxes, which are not paradoxes at all, but are all beautifully, even wittily, resolved, we find this adventurer and critic at his supreme best. Rabelais, although just emerged from the censor's ban and not yet on the library's free shelves, held a commanding position in the literature of the Renaissance. And although Mr. Powys is willing to say that he cannot stomach all of the muddied outpourings of the ex-monk, he places him higher than Plato, Cervantes or Montaigne, ranging him beside Homer and Shakespeare because of his "cosmic optimism," his "Cyclopean drollery." And, rejecting a conventional interpretation of Rabelais, that he uses his extravagant humor as a mask to placate authority, Mr. Powys rises to indignant heights. For him that humor is the man's complete philosophy; while he has managed to retain "the mystical quintessence of medieval piety," he has also a vein of unctuous, homely piety that has something of the best of Protestantism in it.
With a book so large as Enjoyment of Literature, and ranging so widely, a reviewer can but be eclectic. Hence, we shall move on to the moderns, only noting by the way that Mr. Powys recommends those who read Montaigne in their youth to reread him in their later years for his great help in integrating one's essential personality, and Cervantes both for his irony and for the livingness of the story. Mr. Powys's study of Shakespeare we shall leave for the reader to take in relation to his study of the Greek dramatists, and the study of Milton with the chapter on Dante. Also the keen and delightful analysis of the humor of Charles Dickens in connection with the humor of Cervantes and Rabelais.
Coming to America, although Mr. Powys gives a few paragraphs to Emerson, the Sage of Concord does not get an entire chapter; and Longfellow and Whittier receive no mention. Whitman has a niche by himself, and Melville and Poe share one together.
Stating the fairly obvious fact that the striking characteristic of Whitman's poetry is an astounding optimism which is entirely heathen and profane, Mr. Powys, with his ability to show how in an individual mind there can be reconciliation of opposites, also gives Whitman credit for a metaphysic while he staggers the rational mind with the vast scope of his "mystical pluralism." Whitman, of course, has been almost as fiercely debated as Rabelais, and, earlier at least, with as bated breath. Mr. Powys's sane and discerning probings here should go far to bring him into clearer perspective. Say what you will, he sums up, Whitman's poetry "offers a triumphant response to the natural heart's desire of the natural man."
Poe is valued by Mr. Powys for his metrical virtuosity; and Melville (with this critic we are ever getting back to philosophy) for "his dark, satanic mysticism." And Powys finds the first as much underrated in the twentieth century as the latter was during the nineteenth. For Mr. Powys, "Moby Dick" is the greatest of all novels of the sea, more profoundly significant than the particularized stories of Joseph Conrad.
Essays on Goethe, Wordsworth, the neglected and unappreciated Matthew Arnold, Nietzsche, Proust, Dostoievsky and Hardy, complete the generous contents of this book, with Mr. Powys's highest encomiums reserved for the last two. Indeed, he says of Dostoievsky that he is as much greater than all other novelists as Homer and Shakespeare than all other poets: "For he is superior to the rest in all the main essentials of fiction. He is a greater artist, a greater psychologist, a greater prophet, a greater thinker." And Mr. Powys refuses to except even Thomas Hardy, his Dorsetshire neighbor, although, clearly, he places the man whom in his youth he called "Promethean," only second to the Russian. Hardy's strength, for Powys, lies in his arraignment of the ways of God to man, quite the reverse of justification. Does Powys exhibit rather too marked a preference for the dark, the satanic, the pessimistic in literature? If so, how can he call his writings "enjoyment of literature"?
That these apparent contradictions may be seen as not incompatible is the achievement of this book. It is not a perverse achievement. Mr. Powys does not delight in pessimism as a child delights in rubbing a bruise to experience the hurt. But, with the Prophets of Israel, with the Greek tragedians, Rabelais, Hardy, Dostoievsky, he looks life squarely in the eyes and says that life is not good. But the countenance of life, as reflected by the mirror of art—one can enjoy the reflection and derive from it a sustaining power. Enjoyment of Literature is a profound excursion into literature, an adventure ennobling and inspiring of mind and imagination.
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SOURCE: "Vast Novel of Medieval Wales" in New York Herald Tribune Books, January 26, 1941, p. 4.
[In the following excerpt, Ross gives a mixed review of Owen Glendower.]
Many motives, presumably, may underlie the writing of a historical novel. There may be a desire to escape from one's own time to an era where, at least in retrospect, the brave were braver and the fair more fair and all more picturesquely dressed. There may be a desire, as in Elizabeth Page's "The Tree of Liberty," to see the longer perspective of distant-period forces which illuminate our own; or as in L. H. Myers's remarkable trilogy, "The Root and the Flower," the author may choose a remote time and place in order to free his readers from their own immediate preoccupations and associations so that they will be the more able to examine some particular problem around which the story is woven. More simply, the desire may have been an extension of the curiosity which underlies most fiction, a desire to clothe in living flesh and so to see and feel the events which formal history has recorded in a succession of names and dates.
This last, I should guess, was the compelling motive for the writing of Mr. Powys's vast novel of Wales at the beginning of the fifteenth century. In contrast to many of his other books, he makes relatively little use of subjective symbolism and mysticism. It is rather as though, steeped in the songs, legends and chronicles of his native land, he has set himself the task of making a living whole out of the fragments preserved by the antiquarians. More than half the persons of the story bear names known to history, while the central figure, Owen Glendower, is the national hero who in 1400 led his countrymen in their last and most formidable uprising.
In an "Argument" prefaced to the story Mr. Powys points out that the beginning of the fifteenth century found Europe in the seething unrest of transition. In an era of "degenerate faith and degenerate chivalry." John Wycliffe, whose sermons had set people to questioning the social and moral, as well as the theological, conventions of the time, had died in 1384. The turn of the century found "an age of unscrupulous individualism but also an age when national self-consciousness under independent rulers superseded the old feudal ideal of a united Christendom under Emperor and Pope." The years of the story—1400 to 1416—saw "the beginning of one of the most momentous and startling epochs of transition that the world has known: the transition from the more or less federated Christendom of the Middle Ages to the turbulent evolution of our modern sovereign states."
Owen Glendower was a man in his middle years when first he led his people in revolt, a scholar as well as a soldier with, in Mr. Powys's interpretation, strains of the mystic, the charlatan and the demagogue. The immediate cause of his taking up arms was a personal quarrel with his English neighbors, the Greys of Ruthin, but once the turmoil was started, his followers rode with the cause of Welsh independence to victories through most of a decade. Owen made an official treaty with the French, openly styled himself Prince of Wales and called a parliament. The Battle of Harlech, in which his wife, daughter and grandchildren were taken captive, saw the end of the power of a man whose remarkable personality, exploits and cultivation are attested by history as well as by legend.
The figure of Owen dominates Mr. Powys's story, and is the center about which the scores of lesser characters and the hurly-burly of episodes revolve. Secondary only to Owen is his young kinsman and secretary, Rhisiart ab Owen, whose love for Owen's daughter Catharine and for Tegolin, the fictional maid who rode with Owen's men into battle, occasions the continuing thread of action in the book. Rhisiart, a young law scholar just up from Oxford, is more nearly attuned to the oncoming changes than his chieftain, who could lead his people up to, but not into, the newer ways; in Rhisiart, moreover, Norman blood helped temper Welsh ardors. But just as these times had meant the dissolution of the unity of old faiths and old loyalties, so for Rhisiart, even when he had become Judge Rhisiart, there was success neither in love nor in politics.
As its great length might suggest, Owen Glendower is written with Mr. Powys's characteristic exuberance, which gives vigor to its portraits of both historical and fictional characters. This exuberance, however, and the very breadth and intensity of Mr. Powys's concern for his subject tend to diffuse interest to an extent that is often confusing, the more so in a realm of strange names, customs and legends. The wealth of material that has gone into this novel makes it at points more dazzling than clear, a fault that becomes serious as one progresses through nearly a thousand closely printed pages, at least to a reader who has no background of national loyalties into which to fit Mr. Powys's synthesis and extension of old stories.
Owen Glendower is like a tapestry, many parts of which delight, though others will startle, any who love romance. From the standpoint he expresses in the prefatory "Argument," however, the author might have attained his objectives more nearly had he given less. In mood Owen Glendower is less exalted—if you will, hysterical—than some of Mr. Powys's earlier books, notably than his other very long novel, Wolf Solent. Possibly because of this greater objectivity, it lacks, on the whole, the sustained emotion and intensity of his work at its best. For the same reason, it probably will be more generally liked, especially by readers who bring to it a prior concern that all these things have "happened in their beauty and in their pain."
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SOURCE: "Mr. Powys Writes of Ancient Wales," in New York Times Book Review, January 26, 1941, p. 7.
[In the following review, Southron commends Owen Glendower for its faithfulness to early Welsh tradition.]
Any one not Welsh who, like this reviewer, has lived in Wales and so become more than casually acquainted with the Welsh people of both north and south knows that the outstanding characteristics of the race are an inherent poetical quality, an ineradicable mysticism, an innate aristocracy of soul and a hard, stiffening core of realistic perception. No one alive today could be more fitted and qualified to interpret his people and country to the modern world than John Cowper Powys, himself descended, on his father's side, from ancient princes of mid-Wales and with William Cowper and John Donne in his mother's family tree. Mr. Powys's own distinctive contribution to modern literature elsewhere and in these volumes is, both in inspirational essence and uncompromising realism, in direct continuity with early Welsh tradition.
Owen Glyn Dwr, hero of insurgent Wales in the first decade of the fifteenth century, when Henry IV of Lancaster, "the usurper," was King of England, is of all historical Welshmen the one most representative of his countrymen. The story of his general acclaim as "Prince" of Wales to lead an insurrection of the common folk, supported by great Welsh lords determined to deliver their land from English rule, is one vouched for by history.
In Mr. Powys's hands the story of the war becomes a saga depicting the blind adventuring of mortal man, with fate working out the issue inexorably. He has treated it selectively as to incidents, throwing those that were of final importance into prominence, stressing details of vital and integrating significance, suppressing what savored of routine and blending all into a whole of rare beauty by creational interpretation.
All the main actors in the historical drama are here—forty three of them, French, English, Welsh; poets, clerics, Lollards, harpist, the English King and young Prince Hal—supported by a cast of about half their number listed by Mr. Powys as "unmentioned in history." Although the nonhistorical people, connected closely, save for one or two, by family, tribal or community ties to the others, illustrate period vagaries more than do those who carry most of the history on their shoulders, there is no definite line of demarcation.
Rhisiart ab Owen, for instance, Owen's secretary and chief of the young gallants of the saga, is historical; but Tegolin, one of the two women he loved, is fictional. Abbot Cust and Prior Bevan are fictional but no less essentially of the story and time than the historical Archbishop responsible, with Henry, for the burning of heretics, one of whom, the historical Walter Brut, Rhisiart's friend, only escapes the slow torture at death by fire through a tragic ruse. Gilles de Pirogue, one of the two fictional Ambassadors to Owen's court, is as typical of degeneracy in early fifteenth-century France as the historical Patrouillart de Trie, who stormed a castle alone, is of its chivalry. In both groups the cruelty and the tenderness of the age, its idealism and its earthiness, its superstitious ignorance and it straining after beauty and spirituality are rendered with equal, antiphonal effect.
Owen is, here, a realistic mystic who, in a later age, might have been a great astronomer. He is a capable administrator who conceives and, had fate willed, might have carried into actuality a workable system of law and government for his country. His strategy at Bryn Glas proves him to have been, naturally, an able soldier. A lack of ultimate hardness in advance of his period prevents him risking the destruction of his men by a forlorn and desperate push through hostile country; but, more than all else, it was his essential Welshness, hindering him from believing in the value of material success, that defeated him.
In all or nearly all of this Mr. Powys is in line with history or historical possibility. On one point, however, he notably diverges, sublimating the careless sensuality, bearing, then, no intolerable stigma, with which report tagged Owen ("father of many bastards") into a solitary incident steeped in the romance of self-denial.
This is a book into which you plunge and lose yourself; led back through the centuries and ages by the oldest of all enchantments, that of the gifted word.
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SOURCE: "Mystics and Rebels," in The New Republic, Vol. 104, No. 15, April 14, 1941, p. 509.
[In the following excerpt, Moore extols Owen Glendower for its drama and "evocation of the past," but takes exception to its disproportionate size and style.]
We all know Glendower through Shakespeare, who presents the Welsh hero as a strutting and irascible star-gazer: Owen was politically in the wrong camp and, besides, Shakespeare liked to kid the Welsh. John Cowper Powys' two-volume novel gives us a different Owen—mystic, with a power of letting his spirit float away from his body, but in the main a practical and brilliant leader of an oppressed minority. Owen could whip the armies of Henry IV so long as the Welsh kept fighting a nuisance war, but he could never establish a peaceful, independent Welsh nation. At the end, Mr. Powys gives him a dramatic and impressive death scene in the traditionally magic Welsh mountains.
The story of Owen's revolt is presented through a thick broth of Cowper-Powysian prose. The central consciousness is sometimes Owen's, but oftener it is that of his kinsman on the illegitimate side, Rhisiart ab Owen. At the end of the book Rhisiart is a famous English lawyer, far removed from the youth of Welsh and Norman blood who had left Oxford for Welsh to become Owen's secretary. Rhisiart is easily the most oversexed character in all the hectic literature of today: "He had the feeling that his fate was advancing upon him in the form of a vast pair of dusky feminine breasts, each with a crater where the nipple should have been out of which proceeded fire and smoke!" Rhisiart's entire approach to the sexual is like this; he sets a new record even for a Powys hero by having erotic inclinations toward almost every character in the book. Rhisiart is irrevocably bound to two girls, but his sexual impulses run on beyond them to every girl in the story, and even to old women, pages and dwarfs. Owen, historically a noted libertine, is shown as a renouncer of temptation, at least in one big self-denial scene. As in the previous novels by this author, the motives of behavior are not easy to understand: here the obscurity is more in keeping with the background, and helps to suggest the world of Celtic fable and of dark old chronicles. The book is frequently effective on the atmospheric side: the guerilla Owen, moving from place to place in wild Wales, keeps a stately court in ruined castles, where his retinue are to be seen mostly by torch-light—savage hillmen, a mad friar screaming that King Richard still lives, the old seneschal who cherishes a famous ancient sword, the bards, bowmen, sorceresses, the flamboyant Hotspur and all the rest, in vivid costumes amid the shattered mystic castles—all these have the medieval flavor.
Yet there is another aspect of the book to be considered before the reader hazards the 963 pages. It is bad in so many ways that one wonders how it ever got published in its present state. The story is disproportionate, wind-baggy, and loaded with references to legends that only a Cymric specialist would know; it is lumpishly written, and full of stylistic ineptitudes. But if the book is read it will be for the unquestionable power of its dramatic moments, and for its evocation of the past. At least one can say for it that it is a most unusual combination of the impressive and the goofy.
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SOURCE: "The Immortal Bard," in A Review of English Literature, Vol. IV, No. 1, January, 1963, pp. 21-24.
[In the following review, Miller gives a brief account of Powys's life, and praises his Autobiography and A Glastonbury Romance.]
My admiration, love and reverence for John Cowper Powys began when I was in my twenties and has continued ever since, which is to say for a period of almost fifty years. Some thirty years or more after I first heard him lecture I had the rare good fortune to visit him at his home in Corwen, Wales. I found the same wonderful being whom I had idolised in my youth, only he had grown younger, healthier, gayer. There he was, remote from the world, living on a pittance, writing faithfully each day as ever, and, though seemingly cut off from the world, in communication with an ungodly number of friends, compeers and 'true believers'.
The secret of his joyous wisdom may be found in his little books which deal with life and art, with everyday philosophy and the cultivation of the sensual nature. In these works he takes us by the hand, as it were, and leads us through the cultural labyrinth in which most of us grope and stagger aimlessly. With his guidance the virtue and blessing of simplicity are rediscovered.
For thirty years this fascinating torch-bearer roamed far and wide over the vast wilderness which is America, giving his lectures with the same fervour whether addressing an audience of a dozen or a thousand. He spoke with the eloquence of a prophet always—on art, life, love, literature—using as models such classic figures as Homer, Dante, Rabelais, Goethe, as well as the leading spirits of the modern age, such as Blake, Nietzsche, Dostoievsky. During these thirty years of hopping from town to town, village to village, he found time to write some of his major works: Wolf Solent, the Autobiography and A Glastonbury Romance.
The Autobiography I still believe to be the greatest, the most magnificent, of all autobiographies. I say this, having read most if not all of the celebrated works in this category. Reading it, one feels that he has lived life to the fullest. A rare and mighty spirit breathes, or rather blows, throughout. As for A Glastonbury Romance, I repeat what I have said time and again, that it is unique in the whole of English literature. It took me almost a year to read it. I read only a few pages at a time, savouring and re-savouring every single morsel, every tiniest crumb, and dreading to come to the end. How this great work can be so neglected, so almost unknown, is a mystery to me. Or rather it would be, did I not know from sad experience that the truly great works of literature usually reach us fifty or a hundred years late.
Were I to seek a single adjective by which to summarise the wizardry of this author I should fasten on 'mantic'. It is a dark word which covers a multitude of things. An astrologer would probably make much of his Neptunian and Uranian qualities. For this author has not only the ability to sound the innermost depths, he can also reach beyond the stars. He has a polarity and a gamut which is almost terrifying.
The soul of virtue, he has no fear of exploring the dark, inchoate realms in which good and evil are drowned. Pagan that he is, he has no compunction about soiling his hands. Naturally, he prefers the Old Testament to the New. He is on the side of the great Jehovah rather than that of the sickly Saviour whom the Christian world professes to worship. He is for the gods, really, rather than for God. And, like the ancients, he invests his gods with monstrous as well as sublime qualities.
His literary gods, all of universal spirit, are out-sized, superabundantly endowed, overflowing with life, and givers of life. Each year he re-reads his Homer, Dante, Goethe—Whitman too, if I am not mistaken. These are his boon companions, as well as the daisies, the little creatures, the village idiots, the wastrels, the snails and toads, the leviathans and behemoths, the nonconformists, the rebels. (And why, in his Autobiography, does he dwell with such gratitude and affection upon the Jews and the Negroes? He knows whereof he speaks.) Though his compassion embraces the despised and the downtrodden, it is the anomalous ones, the antipodal beings, more especially the defiant ones, to whom he is drawn. Despite the wide range of his embrace he is never the Buddha. Nor would he ever wish to be a Buddha.
His philosophy is a living, everyday philosophy, free of all the metaphysical abstractions which characterise both Eastern and Western thought. If anything, it derives from Laotse and Heraclitus. The lucidity with which he pierces life's problems lays bare the primordial darkness in which we are eternally wrapped; it never seeks to explain it away. He takes his stand before Abraham, before all that has a name was named. That is why he can speak so knowingly and intimately of the slug or any creature of the primal ooze. He is at home everywhere, even with dullards. How rare among creative spirits is this gift of participation and identification! What use the brotherhood of man, he seems to say, if it does not include all that lives and breathes? They are there in his books, these creatures whom we exclude from our dubious brotherhood. He makes them talk and act. He is never the entomologist, the botanist or the horticulturist; he entomologises, botanises, horticulturises. Put him in a cell or dungeon, isolate him from the world of men and women, and he would find as rich a life as in any high place. Perhaps a richer life, for not only does he know how to crawl, cling, slither, suck and sting, he knows also how to vanish into thin air, find his way in the star drift, live not only in myth and legend, in muck and glory, but in fraud and phantasy, in doldrums and ecstasies.
A remarkable fellow, quite. Of this world and the next. Of worlds unborn. Friar John is his moniker. Suits him to a T. Can neither be frocked nor defrocked. Is of no denomination, no caste or creed. Human, all-too-human.
Nostalgia for the ancestral haunts of the bards drove him back to the land of his forbears. He had served a long, long term in the American wilderness. He watered it faithfully. One may still find flowers which testify to his quondam presence there. Here and there a meadow lark will recall his passage and make to sing. Here and there, in the swamps, an occasional bull frog, like yours truly, endeavours to croak his paean at mention of the magic name.
He was my first living idol, John Cowper Powys. And he remains one to this day. In my youth I had many idols. Some I could never reconcile with the others. Some had been dead for centuries; others, like Vivekananda, had hardly turned cold. Friar John was on speaking terms with them all. So comfortably and securely niched was he in this strange pantheon that not even an earthquake could shake him loose. Of them all, only he possessed the universal tongue. Only he could turn his head full circle.
If there was a guiding spirit which gave inspiration and direction to the Master, I would imagine it to be Arthur's. There was the mantic sovereign of all the worlds which dreamers dreamed, yet none had seen or lived. King Arthur, light of the Western world. It was out of this world that I like to believe Friar John was born and to which he will return. The heraldic world which never fades because it alone is real and true.
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SOURCE: "Landscape with Figures: The Early Fiction of John Cowper Powys," in Studies in the Literary Imagination, October, 1968, pp. 51-58.
[In the following essay, Robillard gives a detailed overview of Powys's early fiction, including Wood and Stone, Rodmoor, Ducdame, Wolf Solent, and A Glastonbury Romance.]
The present critical reputation of John Cowper Powys (1872–1963) can be illustrated by the surprise with which his name was mentioned in a recent piece in the New York Times Book Review. In reviewing George Steiner's Language and Silence, the writer took note of the value Steiner seemed to place upon Powys's work; and, indeed, Steiner, who is a welcome champion of Powys, had said that Wolf Solent is the only novel in English to rival Tolstoy. Such are the extremes that a small, insistent minority praises and even risks overpraising their man while the majority simply ignores him. But the quality of scholarship and criticism which have appeared since his death is indisputable. We have the excellent, complex, and demanding critical study of the fiction by G. Wilson Knight, The Saturnian Quest; the biographical and critical overview of all the work by H. P. Collins, John Cowper Powys: Old Earthman; Derek Langridge's John Cowper Powys: A Record of Achievement, which contains a large amount of valuable bibliographical information; and Kenneth Hopkins' biography, The Powys Brothers. That Powys is now attracting such an amount of attention indicates the durability of his appeal and the likelihood of further critical revaluation.
It is given to some writers to be so energetic and productive that their writings spill into a number of channels and cannot readily be classified. As the author of more than fifty volumes, Powys might well be considered a poet, with five volumes and Lucifer, a lengthy epic, to his credit; a critic and biographer, whose works include volumes of essays and book-length studies of Dorothy Richardson, Rabelais, and Dostoevsky; a writer of fiction, who produced fifteen novels; or, quite apart from all this, a keenly intelligent author of numerous volumes of philosophy and commentary. Nor does this categorizing quite exhaust his potentialities. The published letters to Louis Wilkinson reveal him as a vigorous, readable correspondent, and the existence of large caches of unpublished letters at Yale, Syracuse, and else-where promises well for the future of his reputation. He is too massive a subject to be treated briefly, and I mean to advance only tentative statements about his early fiction in order to attract readers to him. It is likely that readers may need enticement; Powys wrote long, substantial novels, and one may be put off by the two volumes of Wolf Solent or the more than eleven hundred closely packed pages of A Glastonbury Romance.
When Powys began writing novels, he was already in his early forties and had a lengthy career as writer and lecturer behind him. His earlier work had been poetry, and as a lecturer he had ranged throughout England, Europe, and America. A good part of the time he had spent writing a book on Keats, a long-term project that worried him but never reached publication. When his American lecture agent, G. Arnold Shaw, set up as a publisher in 1914, Powys was in a singularly excellent position to contribute to the venture. He had read widely, had thought hard about literature and talked often about it, and wanted to shape his thoughts into critical essays. He wanted to continue his interrupted work as a poet, although, by this time, nearly two decades after a promising beginning, he suspected that he could never become what he confesses he wanted so badly to be, a major poet. And, in addition, the persistent writing of fiction over a period of years by T. F. Powys, his younger brother, must have been a stimulus to him to attempt work in the novel. He found that he had a model ready to hand in the novels of his much admired neighbor, Thomas Hardy. Powys's first novel, Wood and Stone (1915), is dedicated to Hardy, though one hardly needs the dedication or the weak prefatory disclaimer of influence to see the print of Hardy upon the work.
Powys had chosen his master wisely, for Hardy's philosophical position matched his in many ways, and his own predilection was always to move Nature into the arena usually reserved for human characters and make a landscape a moving force in the fortunes of his characters. It is the quality of the countryside that forces upon the people the chief characteristics of their lives, much as it does in Hardy's novels. In some ways, Powys moves beyond Hardy, giving Nature an even more important role, animating and personifying it till it has life and movement of its own. In Wood and Stone, the dominant influence is that of the stone quarries of Dorset. Besides being a natural element in the composition of the tale, stone is a symbol for the power, cruelty, and self-ishness of the times before the self-sacrifice of Christ upon the wood of the cross. The themes of the novel are worked out in this play of the two impulses, power and perverted sadism, and the gentleness and quietness of apparently ineffectual self-sacrifice. Powys conceives many of his fictions in just such a dualism, with the landscape reflecting the struggle fully as much as the people do. In the twenty-first chapter, "Caesar's Quarry," all the elements of plot, setting, and character join to build to a powerful scene of confrontation. Innocence is trapped there but rescued when madness, in the person of James Anderson, a stonecutter, breaks into the scene with demented shouts and gestures before he walks blindly off a cliff to his death. Putting one of his theses into the mouth of a character, Powys observes that the forces which move men are elemental, destructive, and powerful; they are as much natural catastrophes as earthquakes, floods, and avalanches.
The dramatic contention of good and evil plays its part against other landscapes as well. The second novel, Rodmoor (1916), shifts the scene from the western mountains to the fishing villages and open, low country of East Anglia. But this landscape plays as much upon the people as does the other, for it shapes their lives, their ways of thinking, and their feelings. Because the land is low, the seas encroach upon it and the inhabitants are constantly driven from their land and left rootless and without tradition. The land that their ancestors worked has been lost to the sea; even the churches have had to be moved at frequent intervals and, as a result, the people themselves are said to have a reputation for impiety and perversion. Likewise, this steady destructiveness finds its ethical equivalent in the philosophical view that destruction is the essence of life. But the sea is not the only feature of the landscape that affects the lives of the inhabitants of the village of Rodmoor. Inland are the fens, which cast upon much of the novel the atmosphere of solitude, flatness, wildness, and terror. It is a dreary area, so much alike in its whole expanse that one can lose hope and die in it. The pattern of events in the novel is to be found in the pattern of the seasons and they, too, play their part in shaping character and event. The summer heat and the damp and heavy air of Rodmoor create an atmosphere of madness and abnormality, where the self-annihilating madness of Adrian Sorio, artist and philosopher, are most in evidence. The final scenes of the novel take place in November and are heavily freighted with the atmosphere of death, so that we are prepared for the madness, death, and suicide that bring the tale to its conclusion.
Powys's third novel, Ducdame (1925), has less in it of the strongly etched landscape and more interest in the people who inhabit the place. It is a defect of the first novels that Powys creates characters who are not adequate to the world that surrounds them. They are not nearly as strongly conceived or as individual as the landscape, the natural elements, and the seasons. Instead, as is so often the case in fiction that leans heavily upon scene for character and treats it as though it is a living presence, the people tend to be types representing forms of behavior that the author wants to get into his fiction in order to illustrate his ideas. Thus, in Wood and Stone, power is personified by Mortimer Romer and sadism by his daughter Gladys. The good and innocent in humanity are represented in the character of the unfortunately named Lacrima Traffio, who is all too good, and equally in Maurice Quincunx, who is all too ineffectual. Madness, like sadism, is an especially fascinating subject for Powys, and he manages to put a madman near the center of each of his first three novels. In Wood and Stone, the madness of James Anderson is directed inward because of his essential gentleness. In Rodmoor, madness is manifested in the life and work of Adrian Sorio, and here it is a more complex element, for Sorio's madness is made to express one of the major themes of the novel, the drift toward annihilation. The artist first preaches death, and then dies in the midst of his madness. In Ducdame, it is part of the character of William Hastings, a vicar who sees the struggle between opposing forces that Powys so likes to portray as one between life and death. Like Sorio, he is madly intent upon writing out his obsession into a book. And, while he believes that the two forces are inextricable, that man can germinate life or destroy it, he is insistently on the side of the death force. That he plunges out into a stormy night at the climax of the novel, his madness in full possession of his spirit, and kills Rook Ashover just at the moment that Ashover's wife is bearing a child, illustrates both his view and that of Powys. Man, who can create, has an irresistible urge to destroy.
It should be noted that, unlike younger first novelists, Powys does not show much uncertainty of intention or execution in these early works. Even from the first, his novels have a shape and firmness of outline that make them well worth reading. But, in a way, the first three books are a preparation for two much finer works, Wolf Solent (1929) and A Glastonbury Romance (1932). If it was necessary for Powys to gain practice as a novelist, he should have had it by the time he turned to the writing of these novels. Starting late, with a fund of skill already at his disposal, he had given about fifteen years and three novels to whatever apprenticeship that might be necessary.
The basic premise of Wolf Solent is the treatment of the individual life and its development, the careful chronicling of the single character and all the influences that work upon him. Wolf Solent is the not-quite young man returning to the home ground that has been dishonored by his father. He knows the entire history of the town and of most of the people who live there, although he has no personal experience of either. The job that brings him home will take in the entire surrounding countryside, the past and the present, good and evil; for it is the writing, in collaboration with Squire Urquhart, of an "underground history" of Dorset which will emphasize the perversion and evil of the territory. Urquhart himself is an embodiment of the evil that so fascinates him, another in the portrait gallery of cruel and sadistic figures that Powys is always attempting to draw. The secondary characters add to the life of the novel and at the same time reflect or throw light upon Wolf's character. Thus we have the poetic temperament and awkward unsociability of Jason Otter, whose poems depict the neighborhood and at the same time cut into the psychological nature of the problems of good and evil; Malakite, the bookseller, another of the men of evil; his daughter, Christie, who represents the elusive spiritual element that satisfies in some part of the needs of Wolf, busy yearning for both the spiritual and the sexual in women. That he courts and marries Gerda, who is all physical, and then misses the comforts of Christie, is an expression of his divided nature.
It is, finally, the concentration upon the one personality that unifies the book, giving it richness and fullness that are satisfying; but, irritatingly, the novel is at times prolix and tedious. In a way, Powys is providing a fictional synthesis of his own life and opinions. He always leaned toward the confessional side of writing; one of his earlier efforts had been the collaboration, with his brother Llewelyn, upon Confessions of Two Brothers (1916). It is significant that while Llewelyn's portion of the book is a rather slight gathering of diary jottings, John took advantage of the created form to pour out his thoughts and feelings about poetry and personality, his paradox of assuming his own sadistic and self-destroying nature. If one has his biography in mind, it is easy to see how much of his own person, self, opinions, and feelings he puts into each of the characters of the early novels. Traits of this one personality overflow into several of the characters, men and women alike, in each novel, as if the novelist recognizes that characters have to be stylized and that complexity has to be hinted at while the people themselves can represent only one or two traits; the recognition that all the subtlety and variety of a single human personality cannot be presented in one created character. The realization must have been frustrating for Powys, who thought constantly about his own rich and variable personality. He was to make a large-scale attempt to present all the turns and twists, the variables, the dark spots, the quirks of his own personality in his Autobiography (1934). And, because of the intensity of his effort, the book is a remarkable and intensely readable record. In Wolf Solent, he was, so to speak, offering a fictional trial run at presenting a whole personality. Wolf is undeniably John Powys, with all his weirdness and all the weirdness he imagines he possesses, a victim of his own sadism, sentimentality, talent, and sensuality.
In spite of its length, Wolf Solent gives the impression of being a small-scaled novel because of its focus upon a single character. In A Glastonbury Romance, Powys returns to the panoramic kind of novel he had attempted in Wood and Stone and Rodmoor, the full treatment of an entire locale that is ripe with history, myth, scandal, and the powerful burden of the present. For all that it looks traditional and is not shaped in any experimental manner, the novel is more of the generation of Lawrence and Joyce than it is of the generation of Bennett and Galsworthy, both of whom might be claimed as more nearly Powys's contemporaries than the later writers. It has some elements of the pageant about it; the two major scenes are worked out in a crucifixion and a deluge. It is full to the brim with characters who are so fully developed as to compete vigorously for the attention: John Geard, Will Zoyland, Philip Crow, Sam Dekker, Owen Evans. Powys's men are almost more interesting and impressive than his women. There are so many plots being developed at once, with crossings as the characters encounter one another and begin influencing other lives, that it is often difficult to keep all the parts separated and clear in the mind. And, running below the level of plot and character is a complex mythic substructure that makes the whole unwieldy machine work.
One strand of the myth is the Grail quest, with the attempt to found a new religion that will compound the religious and the anciently pagan. John Geard, "Bloody Johnny," is the center of this movement, a demonic presence with apparently magical powers to heal the sick and revive the dead. His powers are opened to public exhibit in the "religious circus," the mystery play and pageant that he organizes for Midsummer Day. It combines, religion, legend, history, and paganism: all the figures of the Arthurian story are present except Merlin, who, for all his absence, is a kind of center for the whole novel, and the pageant reverses chronology in the interests of symbolism, working from most recent times to the distant past in presenting the Arthurian Cycle, the Passion of Christ, and the ancient Cymric Mythology.
One of Powys's excellences as a writer is his ability to describe large, impressive, panoramic scenes, full of people, movement, contrast, and color. Both Wood and Stone, with its election scene and Wolf Solent, with its fairs, are distinguished for their use of these large structuring devices, placed at strategic points in their development. Powys uses such scenes as focal points for the meeting of opposing forces and ideas, for the confrontation of friends and enemies, and for the dramatic exposition of theme. Here, the pageant grows in a chapter of some seventy pages, a long, carefully worked out, complex scene that draws together all the major characters with their fears and ideas and lets them grate upon each other.
The perceptive remarks on the novel by G. Wilson Knight emphasize the sharp contrast between the pagan and the Christian elements, presented as though they are in conflict. In Wood and Stone, the two opposing forces had been represented by the two materials of the title, the wood for the cross, crucifixion, and self-sacrifice, stone for the granitic hardness of the ancient doctrine and the sadistic cruelty of its human practitioners. Here, the doctrine of Bloody Johnny Geard is opposed by the saint-like turning of Sam Dekker, who moves from the self-abuse of sensual love to a simpler life as Holy Sam, the laboring man who takes care of an infirm old man and an idiot boy. His holiness leads him to a great vision:
When the vision appeared, and it came sailing into the midst of the bleeding darkness that was Sam's consciousness, healing everything, changing everything, each detail of what he saw he saw with a clearness that branded it forever upon his brain. He saw a globular chalice that had two circular handles. The substance it was made of was clearer than crystal; and within it there was dark water streaked with blood, and within the water was a shining fish.
On the contrary, for John Geard, hell is the cave at Wookey Hole. Philip Crow, owner of the property, has been conducted to these lower regions before by Persephone Spear, who is both lover and goddess of the darkness and the underworld. As Geard stumbles about under the electric lights that have been mounted to make the Hole a tourist attraction, he finds himself under the stone figure of the Witch of Wookey:
Here Bloody Johnny awkwardly disembarked, feeling, though he knew nothing of Dante, very much what that medieval Harrower of Hell felt, when he, still a man of flesh-and-blood, moved among the infernal wraiths. He advanced under the precipitous wall of the vast cavern, his feet sinking, as he walked, in the loose shingle of that Acherontic shore.
When the Deluge comes, it is almost inevitable that it will take the life of John Geard, for it is the wrathful recompense of an angry God for his blasphemies as the founder of a newer, or perhaps older, set of religious ideals. It does not detract from the achievement that the scene of the deluge comes at the end of an already very long book. Powys is not always a consummate stylist; he often sputters, gets long-winded, becomes entangled in his own visionary rhetoric, and loses his way. But he knows how to rise to a great occasion and a great theme, and the rhythm of his prose matches the quality of his subject:
The great waves of the far Atlantic, rising from the surface of unusual spring tides, were drawn, during the first two weeks of that particular March, by a moon more magnetic and potent as she approached her luminous rondure than any moon that had been seen on that coast for many a long year. 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. Across the far-stretching flats of Bridgewater Bay these moon-drawn death-bringers gathered, stealing, shoaling, rippling, tossing, waves and groundswells together, cresting billows and unruffled curves of slippery water, rolling in with a volume that increased its momentum with every tide that advanced, till it covered sand-wastes and sanddunes, grassy shelves and sea-banks, that had not felt the sea for centuries. Out of the misty western horizon they came, rocking, heaving, rising, sinking, and beneath them were shoals of unusual fish and above them were flocks of unusual gulls. 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.
It is possible to see Powys taking new turns in his life and career after expending large energies upon A Glastonbury Romance. He turned sixty and, symbolically, set forth his Autobiography. After a lifetime, almost, of traveling to lecture on life in the United States, he turned again to England, but only briefly. His last move, to Wales, and his residence there for the final twenty-eight years of his life was symbolic too, for there he could nourish his obsessive Welshness, which must have been more imaginative than real and work out the materials for his later novels: the historical in Owen Glendower (1940) and The Brazen Head (1956); the legendary in Porius (1951) and Atlantis (1954); and fantasy and a sense of the grotesque in the other novels. A wider avatar of life is to be glimpsed in these later books, as Powys reached the point where, in the words of H. P. Collins, "his desire to escape the present in magnificent fantasy began to counterpoise his passion for deeper psychological reality." The earlier narratives, as we examine them, seem more fixed in time and place, their characters more human and more susceptible to the weight of experience and landscape.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7568
SOURCE: "John Cowper Powys' A Glastonbury Romance; A Modern Mystery Play," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. XIII, No. 3, Summer, 1972, pp. 341-60.
[In the following essay, Cook explores the themes and characters of A Glastonbury Romance, and compares its style to the novels of Dostoevsky.]
The psychic history of a place like Glastonbury is not an easy thing to write down in set terms, for not only does chance play an enormous part in it, but there are many forces at work for which human language has at present no fit terms.
John Cowper Powys' first important work, Wolf Solent (1929), is a novel which follows a fairly simple course of narrative development through the experience of a single center of consciousness to a predictable conclusion. It is like a swollen brook running through the plains of Dorsetshire without variation or divergence to the sea. A Glastonbury Romance (1932), Powys' second major novel, is like that vast and chaotic sea itself—a book whose centers are myriad and multiform and whose circumference is an awesome authorial omniscience aspiring toward the cosmic consciousness of God. That the novel has a localized setting at all is an accident of form. Its true setting is the cosmos itself, upon whose vertical axis Glastonbury is but a single if important coordinate; and it is the vertical axis which matters here ultimately. For all the panoramic sweep of Powys' descriptions, evoking not merely Somersetshire but Wessex and England, for all his intricate patterning of spatial and temporal relationships, helping to make the book the longest undivided novel in our language, it is a reality transcending these which provides the motive force of A Glastonbury Romance—that is, the Holy Grail (for, Christian or pagan, it is preeminently holy in Powys), "that fragment of Beyond-Time fallen through a crack in the world-ceiling upon the Time-Floor" (p. 789). The function of each entity trapped upon the Time-Floor in the vicinity of Glastonbury is to come to terms with this sacred object, and so the novel has no plot in a conventional sense. Rather, significant action occurs on a spiritual plane.
On the level of character this response involves a choice between the pagan and the Christian Grail (which manifests itself in terms of Arthurian legend as a choice between Merlin and Arthur, and in terms of the Nietzschean dichotomy which is everpresent to Powys as a choice between Christ Dionysus and Christ Apollo); for the Isle of Glastonbury is above all a center of spiritual warfare where the exiled heathen deities of the Tor (rising from the Somerset plane like "the phallus of an unknown god") battle fiercely with the Christian divinity of the Abbey for ascendancy over the soul of Wessex. Which grail our characters choose to follow and the intensity with which they pursue it determines the nature and degree of psychic integration that they will be permitted to achieve in the course of the novel; but personal salvation is conceived to depend in part upon an agency beyond the self and its volitions. It is as if, having stabilized self in Wolf Solent, Powys now seeks to attune it with some eternal principle or godhead which promises cosmic as well as psychological wholeness.
In this and other respects A Glastonbury Romance resembles the novels of Powys' acknowledged master Dostoevsky. Indeed, what Marc Slonim has called Dostoevsky's "psychological clairvoyance and ideological profundity" are qualities which pervade A Glastonbury Romance, and so too are Dostoevsky's crudities of construction and style. The formal eclecticism of The Brothers Karamazov as characterized by Slonim, for instance, exactly parallels that of Powys' novel: "Straight exposition … is followed by dramatic scenes or long dialogue; dynamic narrative full of suspense and action is interrupted by forensic speeches quoted in extenso; flashes of violence follow disquisitions on Christianity; sarcastic hints and humorous character sketches alternate with descriptions of death and hallucination." Furthermore, the critical charges leveled against both books have been precisely the same—"lengthy dialogue, distracting sub-plots, the melodramatic piling up of incidents and coincidences, the high-pitched tone of the narrative, which often jars and exhausts the reader." Yet it is a testament to the genius of both artists that their immense spiritual vitality has enabled them to triumph absolutely over absurdities of plot and clumsiness of narrative technique, creating novels whose strength and unity of vision render their technical flaws irrelevant. The visions are ultimately dissimilar, it is true; and Powys may have failed to grasp the overriding importance of Dostoevsky's Christian orthodoxy and political conservatism, so antithetical to all orthodoxies were his own views; but his numerous studies of Dostoevsky reveal that Powys felt his way into the great Russian's soul as few men have done before or since. The affinity between the two is one of temperament rather than intellect, for both were great undisciplined mystics who understood intimately and instinctively, as Powys wrote of his mentor in 1916, "the depravity of the spirit, as well as of the flesh, and the amazing wantonness, whereby the human will does not always seek its own realization and well-being, but quite as often its own laceration and destruction." But unlike Dostoevsky Powys seeks redemption upon a larger scale than the merely human, and his conception of salvation extends to the earth itself. As one character in A Glastonbury Romance puts it: "Matter must be redeemed: and only Christ can redeem it. Christ, I say; not Jesus. Verbum caro factum est…. It's the Thing Outside breaking into our closed circle. And every atom of Matter feels it. Matter is no longer separate from Spirit. It has become the living flesh of Spirit" (p. 265). This is why G. Wilson Knight can write with a kind of absolute justification, "A Glastonbury Romance is less a book than a Bible." It is a novel too, however, and while it may be the sacred text of the Powys canon, A Glastonbury Romance shares certain thematic concerns with its more secular fellows.
Like Wolf Solent, A Glastonbury Romance opens with the return of a native to his homeland after long absence. John Crow, our "human norm" in the novel's animistic universe, arrives in East Anglia from a fifteen-year sojourn in Paris to attend the funeral of his wealthy grandfather, the Canon William Crow of Norfolk. There he meets for the first time since childhood his anima-like cousin Mary Crow and immediately recognizes his destiny to merge with her spiritually and physically (p. 19), exclusive, however, of sexual intercourse. To even suggest such a union in a modern context is remarkable enough; to actually depict it without embarrassment or absurdity is next to impossible. Yet Powys does exactly this in the second chapter of the novel where John and Mary come together in a finely realized act of symbolic intercourse in a rowboat on the Wissey River:
The prolonged struggle of these two with the boat and with the water became in a very intimate sense their marriage day upon earth. By his saltasting sweat and by her wrought-up passion of guiding, these two "run-down adventurers" plighted their troth for the rest of their days…. They clung to each other with a grim, vicious, indignant resolve to enjoy a sensuality of oneness; a sensuality of unity snatched out of the drifting flood of space and time. It was not directed to anything beyond itself, this desire of theirs. It was innocent of any idea of offspring. It was an absolute, fortified and consecrated by the furious efforts they were making, by the diamond-bright sparkles upon the broken water, by the sullen clicking of the rowlocks.
John had begun to count now. "I'll stop after twenty more strokes," he thought. But when the last of the twenty came, and he found in the beating pulse of his exhaustion an undreamed-of nerve of renewal, he did not stop. The dazzling spouts of water drops which followed his oars, each time he drew them from the water, mingled now with a renewed counting. "Ten … eleven … twelve … thirteen … fourteen … fifteen …" Those rhythmic, up-flung splashes of dancing crystal, stirred and subsiding amid the long emerald-green weeds, became the thudding reverberation of his own unconquerable heartbeats. (pp. 64-65)
John's coalescence with this feminine projection of his very soul secures for him a degree of ontological stability unparalleled by his counterparts in Powys' other novels. For this reason he becomes less a participant in the great spiritual drama to be enacted at Glastonbury than a spectator to it, and his role as central figure is usurped by other characters as the novel unfolds. More significant, perhaps, he has certain congenital limitations which preclude full response to the "aura" of this ancient island fastness.
Powys will repeatedly make the point that the Norfolk-born Crows—even the most sensitive among them, like John and Mary—are descendants of the conqueror race which rode roughshod over the sacred mythologies of Celtic Britain during the Invasion and, as such, are aliens to Glastonbury and its awful burden of Mystery. It is not that they are immune to the influence of the Grail (for no one is) but rather that the blood of their forthright and pragmatic Norman ancestors prejudices them against the Unseen in favor of the palpably material and causes them to hold the legend-steeped Glastonbury in contempt as an evasive, feminine, and irrational presence—all of which it is. Thus, John and Mary will live and work in Glastonbury for the duration of their relationship, but "rooted in fen-mud and vicious heathenism," they remain temperamentally indisposed to its atmosphere.
Even after John has been granted a vision of Excalibur on Pomparlès Bridge, he will persist in his skeptical attitude to-ward the Glastonbury mythos. Indeed, the intense spirituality of the place discomfits these "healthy-minded" Crows to such an extent that, however benevolent their resolve, they all end by becoming its enemies.
John's cousin Philip possesses this racial attribute in its most extreme form. A grasping industrial magnate who bears unmistakable kinship with Lawrence's Gerald Crich, and the foremost entrepreneur in Glastonbury, Philip Crow has come to Norfolk hoping to inherit the better part of his grandfather's estate in order to electrify and mechanize his tin mine at Wookey Hole, Somerset, formerly a sacred cave of the Druids. Though Philip is included in Powys' comprehensive "Tolstoyan sympathy," he is easily the least humane character in the novel, hating Glastonbury and all it represents, and admitting at one point: "It would be a good thing if the Glastonbury people would simply die off…. How these Christs and Buddhas … ever reached the point of feeling that it was worth their while to save the human race is more than I can understand…. If I could cut off the heads of all the poor of Glastonbury and fill their houses with a picked set of men and women who could really work I'd do it tomorrow" (pp. 776-77). Driven by an insatiable desire to subdue both man and nature to the will of the machine. Philip Crow is the great antagonist of the Grail and all that is holy in the human spirit and the world. But myth and religion are formidable opponents for a mere capitalist, and Philip soon learns that his grandfather's money has been bequeathed to a professional exponent of the Unseen, Johnny Geard, nonconformist preacher cum Powysian mystic and the strangest defender the Grail has ever found.
This remarkable personage is one of Powys' greatest creations. Known to the townspeople of Glastonbury as "Bloody Johnny" (owing to his frequent invocation of the Blood of Christ), Geard is the very type of thaumaturgic field preacher—half-charlatan, half-Dionysian Messiah—which Powys conceived himself to be in his American lecture tours. Bloody Johnny has reached the conclusion that the Western world stands upon the brink of a great spiritual renaissance whose center, with a little intelligent promotion, will be Glastonbury itself. He seems truly to believe that, with Jerusalem, Mecca, and Rome, Glastonbury is one of the few "reservoirs of world-magic on the whole surface of the globe" (p. 291), and he hopes ultimately to establish the site of Chalice Well near the Tor as a nonsectarian shrine on the order of Lourdes, fully sanctified by miracles which he will himself perform. For the present, however, his purpose holds to inaugurate a Midsummer Religious Festival at Glastonbury climaxed by a spectacular Passion play which will attract international attention to the place. During his tenure as curate to Canon Crow, Geard has apparently inspired this orthodox clergyman with the same fantastic notion; and the old priest leaves Bloody Johnny a small fortune with which to prosecute the unlikely scheme. The Canon's erstwhile legatees are outraged that this unctuous, brandy-swilling son of the lower middle classes should thus inherit the family wealth, but the will is airtight; and the Crows grudgingly remove themselves to Glastonbury where for one reason or another they all temporarily reside.
In Glastonbury we are introduced to a large new cast of characters (the author claims forty-eight principle figures in all), most of whom, as Roland Mathias has remarked, "are not products of society, but foci of intellectual, genealogical, geological, and vegetable processes." By far the most important of these figures are Owen Evans and Sam Dekker, who represent respectively the two aspects of Apollonian Christianity that Powys finds most dangerous to the human spirit and yet most fascinating to the creative mind—guilt and renunciation. Mr. Evans is an itinerant Welsh scholar and crypto-sadist engaged in writing a definitive biography of Merlin (in which he hopes to explicate the sorcerer's Nirvanic translation to the mysterious "Esplumeoir") when he is not grappling strenuously with his monstrous fantasies of cruelty and the agonizing guilt they engender. Indeed, he martyrs himself daily to this cerebral perversion, which he believes to be the "Unpardonable Sin," and, like the ghastly, tortured Christ of Calvary, assumes the bloodguilt of the race in the process (p. 95). His remorse is so great in fact that Evans allows himself to be literally crucified in the Glastonbury Passion Play and almost dies of asphyxia. Yet it is less a physical yearning for mayhem that afflicts Owen Evans than a Dostoevskian mal d'esprit. He believes in evil as a constitutive force generated exclusively by man—"man the cruel, man the bloodfiend, man the voluptuous tormentor, man the rejoicer in pain, man the inventor of pain, man the pain-be-getter, the pain-eater, the pain-drinker, the pain-devil" (p. 642)—but his own victims are all phantoms, so that neither his crimes nor his guilt are subject to material restraints:
His mind seemed … absolutely balanced on a taut and twanging wire between two terrible eternities, an eternity of wilful horror, and an eternity of bleached, arid futility, devoid of all life-sap. He could feel the path to the horror, shivering with deadly phosphorescent sweetness. He could feel the path to the renunciation filling his nostrils with acrid dust, parching his naked feet, withering every human sensation till it was hollow as the shard of a dead beetle! The nature of his temptation was such that it had nothing to redeem it….
… And his imagination … settled itself like a dung-wasp upon the nature of his conscious life if he did yield to it. He saw his soul in the form of an unspeakable worm, writhing in pursuit of new, and ever new mental victims, drinking new, and ever new innocent blood. (pp. 254-55)
The ultimate horror in the Powysian universe is not sadism but solipsism run wild; and Mr. Evans more than any other character in Powys' novels bears its stigmata.
If Evans is a Stavroghin manqué, Sam Dekker stands some-where between Prince Myshkin and Alyosha Karamazov. He is the awkward but well-intentioned son of the Reverend Matt Dekker, Vicar of Glastonbury; he has for some time conducted an affair with the beautiful (and married) Nell Zoyland, whom he loves dearly. But Sam also loves the lean and ascetic Christ of Glastonbury Abbey, who requires awful sacrifice of his worshippers; and after a spiritual struggle of some magnitude, he renounces his near perfect relationship with Nell to become "Holy Sam," saintlike hermit of the Glastonbury water meadows whose Imitatio Christi makes him the laughingstock of the town. Though the religious quests of Evans and Sam come to completely different ends, both are initially grounded in the joyless (and, for Powys, wrong-headed) assumption that man's sinfulness can only be redeemed through pain and self-denial. Theirs is the tragic, suffering Christ of the Crucifixion who dies for a race which, as Sam tells Evans, is "all scales, scurf, scab, on the same twisting, cresting dragon of the slime" (p. 856).
Far different is Johnny Geard's Messiah who, if He has an orthodox equivalent at all, must be said to be the Christ of the Incarnation and the Resurrection. For Geard, Christ's Blood is not the substance shed on Calvary but an ichorous fluid which streams in the firmament at sunset and dawn, the sap which rises daily in every living thing to produce new life, and the great tidal billow of the sea. Redemption comes not through fastidious renunciation but unqualified acceptance of everything in the cosmos from excrement to ether. The heretical Easter Mass that Geard celebrates for his Saviour in his wife's garden is wholly characteristic:
He sank down on his knees in the presence of a little square patch of grass, a few privet bushes, and a tiny round bed with three dead hyacinths in it, and in this position began, with a sort of ravenous greed, tearing open the loaf and gobbling great lumps of crumb from the centre of it. These mouthfuls he washed down with repeated gulps of port wine….
"Christ is risen! Christ is risen!" muttered Bloody Johnny, with his mouth full of the inside of his loaf. "Christ our Passover," he went on, "is sacrificed for us; let us therefore keep the Feast!" (pp. 422-23)
The image he evoked in his imagination did not resemble in the least degree the tortured Figure of Pain worshipped by Sam Dekker…. (p. 456)
Later, Sam himself will note the extreme contrast between his god and Geard's:
How different was Sam's Christ from Mr. Geard's! Mr. Geard's Christ was a Power to be exploited. In his weird gnostic dialogues with his Master, [Geard] addressed Him like a friend, almost like an equal. He was [his] great magician, his super-Merlin, by whose strength and support he became strong. Never once had it crossed the threshold of Mr. Geard's consciousness that it was his duty to live a life of self-sacrifice. (pp. 950-51)
Geard's Christ, then, is a benevolent Anarch, much closer to the chthonian deities of the Tor than to the hieratic divinities of the Abbey; and through the medium of Bloody Johnny He becomes a living presence in Glastonbury, succoring the same downtrodden contingent of humanity—the sick, abnormal, and disenfranchised—that Powys himself championed during his American lecture tours.
Like Powys, Geard is a spiritual communist who believes that all life is holy and, as his influence in Glastonbury grows, he becomes a material communist as well. When he manages to have himself elected mayor of the town by an unlikely coalition of Liberals, Laborites, and Bolsheviks, Geard sets about at once to reorganize Glastonbury as a socialist commune in order to implement his religious revival. His constant refrain in the early days of his crusade has been that he will restore the town and its historic ruins (held in trust by the state) to "the People." The Normans, he contends, "Brought the Devil with 'em … and the Devil's gentlemen" (p. 287) and still hold the rightful property of Saxon and Celt alike in thrall. Now, from his new position of authority, Geard convinces the town council to municipalize Glastonbury's industry, largely the property of Philip Crow, and distribute the shares among the populace (exactly how remains unclear—and unimportant: critics who carp at the novel's political improbabilities forget the most emphatic word of its title). In thus forcing Crow out of business and dividing his wealth among his natural enemies, Geard is only fulfilling the manifest destiny of the Glastonbury people to cast out the Invader and usurp the centuries of illegitimate authority which has attempted to rule them since the Battle of Hastings; and Powys leaves no doubt as to the people's ultimate allegiance:
They were lean and lanky men, descendants by centuries of inbreeding of those heathen aboriginals of the Isle of Glastonbury who resisted St. Joseph, St. David, St. Indractus, St. Gildas, St. Patrick, St. Dunstan, St. Benignus and St. Bridget, in their attempts to spiritualise them, who were forever revolting against both church and state, who seemed inspired in their rebellions by the old chthonian divinities of Tor Hill,… and whom nobody but Bloody Johnny seemed able to manage. (pp. 966-67)
On a symbolic level this rebellion is figured in the return not of Arthur but his Celtic prototypes, Uther Pendragon or Urien, and a whole succession of vanquished Fisher Kings:
The sturdy northeastern invaders—the ancestors of Philip and John—beat back more than Mr. Evans' people when they swept the Celts into South Wales. They beat back with them their thaumaturgic demigods, the Living Corpse, for instance, of Uther Pendragon, the mysterious Urien, King of yr Echwyd, the Land of Glamour and Illusion, the Land whose vapours are always livid blue, that mystic colour named by the bards gorlassar, and Arawn, King of Annwn, they beat back, together with those weird protectors of the heathen Grail, the Fisher King Petchere and the Maimed King Pelles…. And along with Mr. Evans' people, and their dark chthonian gods, these healthy-minded invaders had driven back the very dreams of these Cymric and Brythonic tribes. (p. 788)
Geard's "new religion" is based precisely on the restoration of this exiled mythology, for like Jung he believes that man has become spiritually impoverished through the loss of his unconscious symbols, or archetypes (p. 1124). Indeed. Owen Evans believes that Geard has recovered yr Echwyd in Glastonbury itself:
Few Glastonbury people realise that they are actually living in yr Echwyd, the land of Annwn, the land of twilight and death, where the shores are of Mortuorum Mare, the Sea of the Departed. This place has always been set apart … from the earliest times … Urien the Mysterious, Avallach the Unknown, were Fisher Kings here … and for what did they fish?…
… What they sought … what the Fisher Kings of my people sought, and no other priests of no other race on earth have ever sought it … was not only the Cauldron and the Spear … not only the sheath and the knife, not only the Mwys of Gwyddno and the Sword of Arthur, but that which exists in the moment of timeless time when these two are one! (pp. 771-72)
It is the heathen Grail, then, which the Merlinesque Geard through the medium of his weird evangelical mysticism will offer Glastonbury; but other citizens of the town are less confident of its miraculous properties than the jittery, guilt-ridden Mr. Evans.
The professional classes of Glastonbury continue to regard Geard as a degenerate fraud even after his Midsummer Pageant brings the prosperity and renown he has forecast for the town. Philip, of course, would like to see him hanged; and even John, who now works for Geard in a public relations capacity and harbors a certain grudging admiration for him, is frequently revolted by the Mayor's "new Revelation" ("What the devil am I doing in this muggy hole, selling my soul and swallowing all this tosh?" [p. 707]). Various other middle-class characters are alternately affronted and appalled by Geard's ability to converse with congenital imbeciles, heal the incurably ill, and resolve complicated crises with Joycean gibberish while apparently drunk on port or brandy. Indeed, a straightforward account of Geard's exploits would tax the faith of the most credulous reader. Yet Powys describes them, like so much else in the novel, with such energetic brilliance, such sustained and vibrant intensity, that we readily overlook the absurdity of the particular situation. Witness, for example, the Glastonbury Miracle, Geard's exorcism (for it cannot be called a cure in any known medical sense) of Tittie Petherton's breast cancer at Chalice Well:
Straining every nerve of his nature, body and soul together, he forced himself to envisage that cancer as something towards which he was directing arrow after arrow of blighting, withering, deadly force. "The great thing is to see it," he said to himself, while his black eyes now alight with their most burning fury, stripped the poor woman of every stitch of clothing.
His arrows of thought now became a spear—the Bleeding Lance of the oldest legends of Carbonek—and with an actual tremor of his up-raised, naked arms, he felt himself to be plunging this formidable weapon into that worst enemy of all women! "I've done it," he repeated, for the second time, as he saw Tittie's eyes begin slowly to close.
And then Mr. Geard shivered and his teeth began to chatter.
Perhaps he wouldn't have succeeded after all if there hadn't come into his head at that moment an actual vision of one tiny living tendril of that murderous octopus under the sleeping woman's flesh. With one terrific upheaval of the whole of his massive frame, its gastric, its pulmonary, its spinal, its phallic force, and even lifting himself up on tiptoe from the gravel at the bottom of the fount, he plunged that Bleeding Lance of his mind into the half-dead cancer.
Then he bowed himself forward, like the trunk of a tree in a great storm, till his forehead touched the surface of the water. From that surface he proceeded to gulp down, in long, panting, gurgling gasps, enough water to satisfy the thirst of the Questing Beast. "Blood of Christ!" he spluttered; and it was the first time during this great struggle that his favourite expression had crossed his lips. (pp. 739-40)
In passages like this one Powys does not ask us to suspend our disbelief; he forces us to suspend it through the sheer inundative power of his prose.
Geard, however, continues to encounter opposition at every level of society. Local Bolshevik leader Red Robinson, for instance—less a character than a diagrammatic representation of virulent class "atred"—despises the Mayor officially for his tempering the Revolution with religion and, more accurately, for his simple good fortune. But Geard has the temporary fealty of the proud and rebellious townspeople and, more important strategically, the patronage of his old friend Henry Zoyland, tenth Marquis of P., who collects the land rents on most of Glastonbury and its environs. It is in fact on a visit to the Marquis' hunting lodge at Mark's Court, by local tradition the site of Merlin's last earthly appearance, that Geard consolidates his vision of the heathen Grail.
After a terrifying but victorious midnight struggle with the spirit of the sorceress Nineue, the fatal anima-sprite who imprisoned great Merlin forever in her crystal cave, the Mayor of Glastonbury is confirmed in his tao:
For a thousand years the Grail has been attracting thought to itself, because of the magnetism of Christ's Blood. The Grail is now an organic nucleus of creation and destruction. Christ's Blood cries aloud from it by day and by night…. I know now what the Grail is. It is the desire of the generations mingling like water with the Blood of Christ, and caught in a fragment of Substance that is beyond Matter! It is a little nucleus of Eternity, dropped somehow from the outer spaces upon one particular spot! (p. 473)
Geard (and Powys) believes that in its descent this sacred fragment of Beyond-Matter has left a corridorlike rift in the fabric of time through which the spirit of all Matter must pass for its redemption. Matter is not evil in itself, as Mr. Evans claims (p. 264); rather, it becomes so by imprisoning something which struggles to escape into the shaft of atemporality created by the Grail. This is the "secret of the Inanimate" so crucial in Powys, that matter, like man himself, contains a soul which labors toward release—a simple enough concept for cosmic seers like Geard and Merlin, or Sylvanus Cobbold in the later Weymouth Sands (1934), but one that is lost upon the anthropocentric consciousness of humanity at large. The Powysian Grail vision, then, requires for its fulfillment a recognition of the Christ in matter as well as in man; and this is precisely what Sam Dekker achieves when he finally surrenders the oppressive burden of human misery he has chosen to bear and turns from the crucified Man-God of his father's theology to a more animistic image of redemption not far removed from Geard's.
Sam had earlier agreed with Evans as to the essential baseness of matter, telling him at one point: "I feel that the whole Creation is on the wrong track…. What Christ has to do is to deny the whole thing, root and branch" (p. 857). But as he stands alone one evening on the banks of the Brue with the whole of mystical Glastonbury stretched before him, Sam gazes upon an aged post embedded in the river mud and is plunged into ecstatic communion with the created matter which surrounds him: "He began to realise that the soul of the inanimate, the indwelling breath of life in all these ancient lifeless things, whereof the town was so full, was really moving towards him" (p. 978). Solid matter suddenly becomes porous, and Sam, caught out of himself, realizes its "life-essence" as a vibrantly animated World-Fish "passing through the primeval watery element that existed in all things" (p. 980). Then, without a second's warning the earth, water, and darkness crack, and Sam is brutally ravished by the great Dionysian godhead which has brooded over Glastonbury for centuries awaiting its moment of annunciation:
It was as if the whole of Sam's consciousness became the hidden darkness of his inmost organism; and when this darkness was split, and the whole atmosphere split, and the earth and the air split, what he felt to be a gigantic spear was struck into his bowels and struck from below….
… 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. (pp. 981-82)
The pain subsides, and Sam is granted his vision of the heathen Grail: "He saw a globular chalice that had two circular handles. The substance it was made of was clearer than crystal; and within it there was dark water streaked with blood, and within the water was a shining fish" (p. 982).
The following morning, still dazed, Sam attempts to evaluate his incredible experience and realizes, with Johnny Geard, that a new revelation has been made at Glastonbury: "Christ is in the Stones and in the Water; it is Jesus who is dead and buried. There's something in Nature that has turned against Nature and is escaping from Nature. There's a Christ in matter that is nearer the Grail than the Christ of the Church" (pp. 986-87). But the true identity of this new Messiah remains obscure to Sam until later in the day when he is giving a constipated octogenarian an enema and the significance of his recent vision breaks full upon him:
As he struggled with his task, bending over the old gentleman's rear, the tension of his spirit brought back with a rush the miraculous power of the vision he had seen. The two extremes of his experience, the anus of an aged man and the wavering shaft of an Absolute, piercing his own earthly body, mingled and fused together in his consciousness. Holy Sam felt, as he went on with the business, a strange second sight, an inkling, as to some incredible secret, whereby the whole massed weight of the world's tormented flesh was labouring towards some release. (p. 991)
In this quintessentially Powysian moment Sam recognizes that "his living tortured Christ was now changed to something else" (p. 991)—specifically, the all-accepting, wholly irrational, and ecstatic Christ of Johnny Geard. Like Wolf Solent's similar discovery of the transfiguring mantle of romance behind a foul-smelling pigsty, Sam Dekker's excremental realization of an indwelling spirit in all that is brings with it a supreme moment of integration, unifying a heretofore divided self:
"I have seen it! I have seen it!" the heart within him cried; and in a vague, delicious, dreamy reverie he became aware of an important psychic change in his inmost self-consciousness. This change was nothing less than a coming together of his body and soul. Although his soul still felt independent of his body, and free of his body, it no longer felt contemptuous of his body. It had ceased to utter its mandates in the tone of a slave-driver. Its mere presence within his body at this moment seemed to make Sam's flesh feel porous and transparent, as if large, cool, undulating waves were sweeping through it. (p. 998)
Sam's, however, is an extraordinary case. He has been singled out for spiritual greatness from the earliest chapters of the novel, and his true vision of the Grail is all but inevitable. Other upshots of the new tide of mysticism sweeping Glastonbury are less beneficent.
Owen Evans, for example, is not so fortunate in his Grail quest as Sam. After his crucifixion in the Pageant—a magnificently rendered agony in which Powys literally attempts to recreate the subjective experience of Christ on the Cross—Evans is granted no rectification of the will but driven with ever-increasing fervor to actually witness some sadistic act. When he discovers that the crazed imbecile Finn Toller plans to murder John Crow on Glastonbury Tor by crushing his skull with an iron bar, Evans secretly arranges to watch this latter-day reenactment of the "Dolorous Blow" which Malory's Balin gave the Fisher King Pelles, bringing years of pestilence and famine upon three realms and creating the Waste Land. On the appointed day, however, Evans' wife, the ingenious Cordelia ("Cordy") née Geard, senses that her husband is about to embark upon some ruinous pursuit and provokes him into an act of oral intercourse which successfully defuses his volatile passion ("Not for nothing was this brave girl the child of Geard of Glastonbury" [p. 1083]), even as he remembers "how more than once he had dressed up that pillow of his in his own vest and shirt and had pounded it with the poker from the fender while an orgasm of terrible ecstasy dissolved his very soul" (p. 1074). In the event, moreover, Toller bludgeons by mistake Tom Barter, John's boyhood friend (and lover); and Evans, who has exhaustedly repented of his evil intention and set out to warn the party, arrives moments late upon the scene to discover the battered corpse. Viewing thus the grisly result of his insane passion for violence permanently debilitates Evans, and he spends the rest of his days in impotent seclusion without ever broaching Merlin's great secret.
Following the murder on the Tor, we sense that something has gone seriously amiss with the Glastonbury Revelation. An atmosphere of dissolution settles over the land (pp. 1080-81), suffusing those mysterious blue Somersetshire vapors with a faint odor of decomposition. The townspeople become restless; sexual perversions are rife. John and Mary Crow return to Norfolk with their old friend's body, determined to remain there, far from the "morbid-legended fields" of Glastonbury. Philip Crow believes that his adversary's power is on the wane; and Geard himself, like many another spiritual leader before him, is disturbed to find his flock riven with factionalism and petty doctrinal dispute:
In place of one great final outpouring of the Spirit, obliterating all divisions, all quarrels, all maliciousness, and setting him free, they were back again in the old wrangling human arena, Celt against Saxon, Capitalist against Communist, and every Philip against every John! Mr. Geard had come … in the mood of Elijah when he was transported to Heaven in a chariot of fire. But now he began to feel that his Lord had forsaken him and left him alone with the false prophets. (p. 1141)
It is young Paul Trent, however, the gentle philosophical anarchist come to town from the Scilly Isles to observe Geard's socialist experiment in action, who puts his finger on the source of the Glastonbury malaise: "A feeling stole over him as if all the way down its long history Glastonbury, the Feminine Person, like Mary at the feet of the Master, had been waiting for the fuss to cease, for the voices to subside, for the dust to sink down" (p. 1046).
Like the Grail itself—Cauldron of Ceridwen or vessel of Christ's Blood—Glastonbury is a feminine presence, and she is deeply mistrustful of all the bustling, goal-directed human activity which the "new Revelation" has engendered in her womb. Murder is as nothing to Glastonbury, for she has experienced a multitude of such crimes in her long history; but she does fear rational human industry and has spent all her centuries of inscrutable calm resisting the wedge of purposeful behavior which men have attempted to drive into her bowels. Since the Midsummer Festival and the miracle performed at Chalice Well, Bloody Johnny has become a figure of legendary reputation, attracting hordes of wealthy pilgrims to his shrine from all over the world; and, ironically, Geard's bid to revive Glastonbury's ancient Mystery threatens her more than Philip Crow's concerted effort to destroy it. For the Grail can never be killed, but it may be comprehended; and Glastonbury above all does not wish to be grasped, even by her most devoted admirers. Indeed, she must remain beyond what even Powys can elucidate; and so, in "a trance of mindless passivity" (p. 1046), the Feminine Emanation of Glastonbury calls down upon herself a deluge to sweep away the ordered madness of humanity and return her great mystical body to the aboriginal chaos from which it issued.
For two ominous weeks in March the flood moves inland from the sea with the slow and terrible inevitability of some ancient prophecy fulfilled, bringing memories of "far-off mysterious disasters" and awakening in the low-lying Somerset vales "feelings that had not come to the population of those places for many a long year" (p. 1118). Yet there is no suggestion of divine retribution in the Glastonbury inundation as there is in the flood which concludes The Mill on the Floss (F. R. Leavis to the contrary notwithstanding). The rising of the waters is as purely natural and volitionless as a dream of god in the mind of man, or the sleeping thoughts of Glastonbury herself, "floating on its softly upheaving sea-surface of feminine breasts" (p. 779). It is simply element calling to element across the leagues of cultivated silt that separate the island-city from the sea. The winter-wasted land itself cries out for healing inundation:
Liberated from the frost and ice of winter, a thousand unfrequented backwaters, bordered by dead, wind-swept rushes, clammy with salt-smelling marsh-lichens and thick-stalked glaucous-grey weeds, seemed actually calling out to the sea to come and cover their brackish pools. Salt amphibious growths, weeds of the terraqueous marshes, they seemed to be yearning, these neutral children of the margin, for the real salt sea to rush over them and ravish them. (p. 1115)
But the proud people of Glastonbury, preoccupied with exciting public events and their own newfound prosperity, go about their business heedless of the saltlike pungency of the air and the cries of gulls drawing ever closer. Bloody Johnny alone seems to realize the destructive magnitude of the approaching deluge and this only in the most personal sense. He has told his followers: "What matter if Arthur never does return. I am here" (p. 1142). But Geard's secret conviction is that when the flood waters pour through the streets of town, his work there will be finished and that like Glastonbury herself he must return to the element which gave him birth. Death presents itself to Geard as a completely natural function of his life, and the thought of suicide does not enter his mind. It is simply that his Master has called him to Himself and, as always. Johnny Geard obeys.
The deluge comes and is absolute, devastating both Philip Crow's industrial empire and the expensively designed paraphernalia of the Mayor's new religion; but most of the townspeople are saved (a bit miraculously, as all things happen in Glastonbury) by the intervention of the civil authorities. Bloody Johnny, however, has willed to die; and this resolve is only strengthened by his casual contact with the drowned corpse of a local beauty:
No sooner had his hand encountered that ice-cold exposed bosom than he left it there, lying like a heavy horse-mushroom on the girl's breast. And with his hand resting there his face took upon itself the very expression of this dead woman. His eyes closed. His jaw fell open. His nostrils grew pinched and thin. Certain lines disappeared from his face altogether and certain completely new ones showed themselves. (pp. 1150-51)
Through that mystical sympathy with all created things which has characterized his life, Geard's death-change has already begun; and after rescuing Philip Crow from the half-submerged wing of his downed aeroplane, Bloody Johnny drowns himself rather clumsily on the site of the old Lake Village, the settlement of an early people who predated the Celts. His death agony is horrible because he has not allowed for the unnatural coldness of the water or the awful spasmic pain of suffocation; but when his body at last collapses and his grotesque struggling subsides, Geard achieves an "unbelievably delicious calm" and, dying to intenser life, sees the Grail:
In calm, inviolable peace Mr. Geard saw his life, saw his death, and saw also that nameless Object, that fragment of the Absolute, about which all his days he had been murmuring…. It was as if he had ceased to belong to our world of looking-glass pantomime wherein we are driven to worship we know not what; and had slipped down among the gods and taken his place among those who cast their own mysterious reflections in the Glastonbury of our bewilderment.
… In his dying moments, Geard of Glastonbury did actually pass, consciously and peacefully, into those natural elements that he had always treated with a certain careless and unaesthetic aplomb. (pp. 1170-71)
It is wholly appropriate that Johnny Geard should pass into the Grail (or perhaps into the mysterious "Esplumeoir") on this eminently pre-Christian and pre-Celtic spot; for as Powys has told us all along the great Mystery of Glastonbury precedes the Virgin Mary and Her Son, precedes Ceridwen and Pair Dadendi, the Cauldron of Rebirth, precedes even the Lake-dwellers themselves, reaching back beyond time to the uncreated chaos which existed immeasurably before there were ever men to dream of gods.
A Glastonbury Romance is itself a prose inundation corresponding to the torrential deluge that overwhelms the town; and just as floods do not end but subside, so the novel does not conclude with Geard's death but tapers off into a strangely beautiful epilogue invoking "the great goddess Cybele, whose forehead is crowned with the Turrets of the Impossible" (p. 1172). Though her name belongs to an earth-goddess of Asia Minor, Cybele has no specific mythological equivalent here. She is rather an incarnation of that in the cosmos which answers to the deepest spiritual yearnings of man, the "Unknown Dimension" from which the Grail proceeds; and her presence moves in darkness "from cult to cult, from shrine to shrine, from revelation to revelation," pre-existing and outlasting them all. But the end is not yet, for the "ribs of our ancient earth are riddled with desperate pieties" (p. 1173), and while man continues to aspire beyond the limits of the possible, she will sustain him in his faiths, mad and frantic though they be:
For She whom the ancients named Cybele is in reality that beautiful and terrible Force by which the Lies of great creative Nature give birth to Truth that is to be.
Out of the Timeless she came down into time. Out of the Un-named she came down into our human symbols.
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.
Thus she abides; her Towers forever rising, forever vanishing. Never or Always. (p. 1174)
This enigmatic conclusion is perfectly consonant with the rest of the novel, for ultimately A Glastonbury Romance is a book which refuses to reduce itself to easy formulas. It does not so much defy analysis as evade it, disliking to be held; and perhaps because it is essentially a book about the wellsprings of our religious instincts whose major symbol is "older than the orbits of the stars," Powys did not intend that we should fully comprehend it. As he wrote in the "Preface" to the 1955 edition of the novel: "Its heroine is the Grail. Its hero is the Life poured into the Grail. Its message is that no one Receptacle of Life and no one Fountain of Life poured into that Receptacle can contain or explain what the world offers us."
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3033
SOURCE: "John Cowper Powys as Humorist," in Contemporary Review, Vol. 222, No. 1285, February, 1973, pp. 78-83.
[In the following review, Knight highlights humorous excerpts from the works of Powys.]
We could say that there are three main myths in modern Europe: the Faust myth, the Don Juan myth and the Prometheus myth; the first covering evil and tragedy, the second sex and comedy, and the third something ahead of us, Nietzsche's superman, an extension of human consciousness. Powys's fictions cover the first two, his philosophical books, In Spite Of especially, lay foundations for the third. Here I discuss, primarily, the play of humour suffusing, and at times dominating, his writings.
His letters are rich with it. It is usually a humour turned against himself, as when he imagines a publisher saying: 'Oh, that terrible heavy-weather John Cowper—What I say is, he's the only one of these buggers I know who has the gift of combining Risquéness and Dullness' (Letters to Louis Wilkinson, June 23, 1936). His range of half-denigratory phrases applied to himself is unlimited, both in the letters and the Autobiography. He calls himself a charlatan, a zany, a clown. He likes clowns. In a letter to me of December 11, 1956, he said that he was 'a born actor but I suspect more still of a born Circus clown and lets hope at my best a born (Shakespearean or not) Stage Clown!'. There is an argument in A Glastonbury Romance as to whether they shall have a clown in the passion play, countering the Christ-story, with 'wild Rabelaisian gags' (XVII, 538 or 518.) A clown, sympathetically handled, is a well-developed personality in Weymouth Sands.
Together with this pervading humility there is a corresponding courtesy to the reader. It would be an error to regard it as self-abasement. He knows his importance; he knows that he is a great genius; but this genius is one with his importance as clown, as outsider, almost as anarch. But within the anarchy is fun.
In the stories his humour is of the kindly sort. I once, writing of Byron's Don Juan in Poets of Action (page 259; originally The Burning Oracle, page 284), drew a distinction between (i) sympathetic and (ii) derisive humour. The first, which I regard as good, tends to dissolve all conventional valuations in what I called a 'golden centre'; the other, which is bad, wills to bring conventional critical judgements drawn from morality or religion to bear on this centre. Provided we remain serious there is no harm in this; moral satire has its place. The point is, we should not be amused during the process; moralistic humour is, for me, a contradiction in terms. The golden centre is not to be too precisely defined; it is common-sense; reality, things-as-they-are; above all, it is sexuality. Good humour is an approach to joy.
I offer an example of this dissolution of conventional appearance in the golden centre. In Wolf Solent (XIV, 300-2 or 284-6) the respectable Squire (who is also a Gothic monster). Squire Urquhart, and the disgruntled and unhappy poet, Jason Otter, are suddenly transformed by the sight of two village boys swimming naked in Lenty Pond. Of Otter's face we hear that 'Every trace of nervousness passed out of it and every shadow of misery. It seemed to be illuminated by some soft inner light….' The Squire calling out 'Well done, Weevil! Well done!' as he watched 'the flexible muscles and slim back of the swimmer' is also transfigured:
The Squire had the air of an innocent, energetic schoolmaster superintending some species of athletic sports. Jason had the look of an enraptured saint, liberated from earthly persecution and awakening to the pure ecstasies of Paradise.
Such was the effect on these two of 'the classic nakedness of the two youths'. A phrase that follows, 'the purged and almost hieratic look', is a key: we have watched a purgation, or catharsis.
This may be said to be an example less of humour than of what all good humour is, or should be, for; but it is also, at least where Squire Urquhart is concerned, extraordinarily amusing, to us, as we read. The respectable appearances that so torment humanity are dissolved into, not an obvious, certainly not a respectable, good, but an instinct. There is a radiant result. The incident is left undeveloped, or it might have ruined the book.
We find something similar, with a sharper play of actual humour, in an incident in Weymouth Sands (XIII, 488-9 or 469-70), where a girl, entranced by the bodies of boys bathing, asks the philosopher, Richard Gaul, if it is wrong of her? He replies:
It seems to me, Peggie, what you represent at present is the third rung of the philosophic ladder to the Contemplative Ecstasy. When you have reached the ninth rung you will find—you will lose—I mean you will gain—
He is, perhaps fortunately, interrupted. All the idealisms of the race are gently toppled over by Gaul's hesitancy.
It need not be a matter of 'voyeur' instincts, though these were, as we know from the Autobiography, strong in Powys. Central to Powys is the frank revelation of his own sexual secrets throughout the Autobiography. This conditions equally his humility before the reader and his humour.
Powys's scheme of things accepts a 'multiverse' in place of a 'universe'. He does not like things tidied up and mind-dominated into a system. The sign for 'universe' is 3, expressing the Trinitarian unity; the sign for a 'multiverse', signifying chance and the play of imponderables, is 4 (Whitman's 'square deific'). This means much to Powys and any conflict between the two views is to him important. And yet there is a speech in Porius where this conflict is, to me at least, rendered very amusing.
A fanatical Christian is speaking of Myrddin Wyllt, or Merlin:
Oh, how that unholy, huddled-up monstrous toad hates the very name of the Blessed Trinity! He has even dared to declare, as Christ's poor servants in Caerwynt and Caerlleon and Caerloyw and Caerlyr have told me, that one of the worst of these devils in human flesh that those thriceaccursed Greeks called 'Philosophers', a prizedevil, a master-devil, a dragon-tailed devil, a great ramping, roaring, ram's-horn devil called Pythagoras, swore that the number four and not the number three was the secret of God's most holy cosmos! (XXI, 482)
Supervening on the genuine interest of the philosophic conflict adumbrated, there is a grand humour; and that humour suggests the provisionality of all philosophic argument.
That is why Powys was so fascinated by Rabelais, and wrote a study of him in the volume Rabelais, in which he, perhaps for the first time in world-literature, explains the nature and purpose of great, and often obscene, humour. Rabelais stands for life-worship against all religious and sexual taboos. He is 'the humorous prophet of the new Federation of the World' (VII, 359). His wisdom is variously defined: it is pre-eminently a child's wisdom; it comes from below rather than from above; it involves obscenities. He points the way to a multiverse of unsystematised possibility. He would liberate the 'unfathomable well-spring of creative force' within us (IX, 385).
Rabelais is a redeeming, purifying, power. In a poem called "The Classic Touch" (included in the Selection of Powys's poems edited by Kenneth Hopkins), Powys writes of himself in misery in a 'crowded town', repellent and ugly. Then his eye falls suddenly on 'a patch of ancient wall':
And there an indecent sketch Limned by some laughing boy— O lovely and obscene wretch!— Swept from me all annoy. And the hideous iron place With its monstrous crowds and cars Was whirled into outer space And diffused among the stars. And alone by the fire with you I sat and read Rabelais— Rue des Beaux Arts, mon loup! And my soul was once more gay. And the old great shades returned, And the large sweet thoughts flowed free, And my heart within me burned. And that town was nothing to me!
It is natural that Rabelais should appear as a contrast to the sadistic horrors of Morwyn, that Sadists' Hell, to deliver a gospel of frank enjoyment of all sensual pleasures, provided that they contain no 'cruelty' (Part V, 313).
Here we come up against a crux. What if the sexual centres themselves are entwined with cruelty, with violence? Do they not cease to be golden? And does this not let in the whole range of taboos, moral and religious?
Well, Powys is not only our greatest—if not our only—authority on obscene humour, but he is also, very certainly, our first authority on evil. Both involve the sexual instinct. He knows in himself, and admits, a sexual-sadistic instinct. Powys does not of course claim to answer the problem of evil, since that cannot be done; but he does probe it, especially in that fearful study of Mr. Evans, the sadist, in A Glastonbury Romance. Mr. Evans has, and wrestles with, an ingrained compact with the Devil, his sadistic instinct, even more surely than Doctor Faustus. Suffering as he does from the ultimate evil within the First Cause he has insight into mysteries unknown to others. He is passionately concerned with what he takes to be the 'basic Secret of Life', as expressed in the ancient poem The Harrying of Annwn (XXV 843-4 or 807-9). He is here in a company of people discussing the formation of a Commune in Glastonbury, and is suddenly struck with some nameless absurdity:
He suddenly burst into a spasm of suppressed laughter which had an extremely disconcerting effect upon the ears of his hearers. Mr. Evans was evidently on the edge of a shameless and vociferous laughing-fit caused by some interior vision which struck his mind as a monstrous Rabelaisian jest…. It was as if he had suddenly been permitted by a special dispensation of Providence to catch a glimpse of the monstrous cosmic joke, abominable, heroic, megalomaniacal, into which the whole creation resolved itself! (XXV, 843-4 or 808)
What that 'cosmic joke' is, is not defined; but when he quiets down, he urges that it is not 'money or position in life that makes the difference between happiness and unhappiness. It's something else … and when I think of how unimportant all these questions are in comparison with … I could … I would …' (XXV, 845 or 810). He breaks off.
His face which at this moment was a mixture of Don Quixote, the Devil, and Dean Swift, broke into certain deep wrinkles, evidences of another laughing-fit, which contorted it considerably, while he controlled and prevented the outburst.
Don Quixote, for Mr. Evans' battling with the evil; the Devil, for the evil nevertheless inextricably rooted in him; and Swift, for the scorn which this dual knowledge brings to bear on all social planning. The humour is derisive, but we should note that it attacks the superficialities in the name of a deeper reality; our reading of Powys's humour holds good. What Mr. Evans's outburst appears to signify is the appalling necessity of our uncovering and facing the 'basic Secret of Life', with a view to some kind of liberation. If he is thinking of his own ingrained evil, and he surely is (see XXV 847-9 or 811-813), sexual instinct is involved. This we must face, honestly, in all its perverted and obscene aspects, and, as far as may be, accept it, as a means to purgation. The implications of such an acceptance I have discussed elsewhere, in The Saturnian Quest and Neglected Powers. In Mr. Evans's hilarious outburst we have an extraordinary and probably unique impingement of the comedic on the tragic.
The tendency of Powys's later work favours the Rabelaisian gospel. In Atlantis Zeuks as humorist is certainly favoured as against his natural rival, the prophet of the mysteries, Enorches. Ajax, at the point of death, recounts how he had once looked for a 'laughing man' at the bottom of some mysterious hole, which seems to prefigure the tunnel of life, and now: 'A power tells me, you laughing one, that you are my dream come true' (VIII, 279, 281). Zeuks' humour is as a golden prize beyond, or within, the darkness.
In the important collection of Powys's letters to Nicholas Ross (Bertram Rota, 1971), Powys acknowledges his debt to Charlie Chaplin:
What I am primarily and by nature is a mixture of a born clown and a born story-teller, and this was evidently clear to Charlie Chaplin when we met, for he taught me more of this art of combining clownery with oratory and with drama in my quarter of an hour with him, than I have learnt from any other person save Rabelais his wone self. (September 24, 1955)
Yes, I am a born Clown and therefore just suited to write fairy stories as I have done since I was ten years old…. (February 9, 1960)
This relation of clowning to fairy stories is very interesting. Powys's last books were given a fairy story structure and planning. In them fantasy, which is a brand, or branch, of humour, is unfettered and possibilities unlimited, as in the essentially child-like quality and fairy-tale grotesquerie which Powys so loved in Rabelais.
Powys believed in children, and even solicits this belief to challenge the sadistic horrors. Writing to me on February 6, 1957, after urging that 'sex-maniacs' should 'use their imagination on themselves and not on others', he continues:
I bet if Gilles de Retz had been ready to learn from me, from Jack the Imaginary Ripper, his 250 victims would have descendants still alive! But notice the proof that the wisest people in the world are children—I must not add old rogues in their second childhood!—and what are the wisest books in the world? Not the Bible or the Koran or the Vedanta but Grimm's Fairy Tales and Mother Goose, tales including Blue Beard in their scope. Jesus was right there. We grown-ups have no idea of what children see and know….
Profound issues are involved.
In Powys's last stories, Up and Out, The Mountains of the Moon (published in Up and Out) and All or Nothing, a children's fairy-tale manner is fused with space-fiction to bear on the deepest problems of Powys's life and work. These are reduced to simplicity and concretely expressed. Time and Eternity appear disadvantageously in Up and Out, and the people take a leap into another dimension to enjoy a spiritualistic existence for a while before dissolution. Space retains more honour, as ultimately the most real thing we know (The Mountains of the Moon, 192). In Up and Out God himself engages in a friendly discussion as to the mess he has made of creation and whether he should have another try, and if so, what it should be like; and he comes again, in All or Nothing, as a Newt. All or Nothing uses a symbolism of creation and its opposite, 'Everything' and 'Nothingness' (VI, 40). In The Mountains of the Moon we have the delightful Terrestrial Milestones (152), objects from Earth's history collected on the Moon: the core of Eve's apple, a piece of the Ten Commandments, the heel of Achilles, a string from Nero's lyre, one of King Alfred's burnt cakes; most attractive of all, the Black and White Feathers from the Raven and Dove of the Ark, whose conversation is wonderful and whose union after long separation symbolises a union of dark and light. That these stories do indeed house much of Powys's most cherished wisdom may be supposed from the part played by giants in All or Nothing. The Cerne Giant, for so long a dominant power, actually comes to life, on the star Vindex, and delivers, in simple words, and for the first time in Powys's public writings, Powys's masturbatory doctrine (XXVII, 192).
All this can only be received if we respond to the story and its humour, as a child would. This is not to say that all the elements contained would appeal to a child, any more than in Gulliver's Travels; what the stories offer is a child-like approach to the profundities. Powys in old age saw himself as, in part, a child. On January 14, 1947, he wrote to me that he was thinking of composing
something in praise of Second childhood for if theirs is the kingdom of heaven what about doubling 'theirs' with the dotage of a second go at that 'Something far more deeply interfused'?
And on February 27, 1957:
I'd love to write a book entitled Second Childhood wherein I shall show the weird strange curious mysterious magnetic psychic understanding that exists between really old people such as I am now—much older than I was when I wrote The Art of Growing Old—and Babies and Toddlers and all children up to 41 It is a most interesting thing. A week ago I went to see a Doctor … and in the Surgery waiting room we were about a dozen adults or even 15 and one tiny child of about 2. It and I sat gravely in the circle. Then very gravely I waved to it. And with equal gravity it waved back at me. It was just as if we had both said to each other: 'Lord! What fools these grown-up mortals be!'
On October 12, 1957, he told me that old age was 'the happiest of all the epochs of my life, the one I am enjoying now—which I know I am being absolutely correct in calling second-childhood.' He tells how he waves from his window to 'tiny toddlers between one and three-and-a-half', and they wave back.
Folly has become wisdom and wisdom folly: 'Lord! What fools these grown-up mortals be!' The clown and the child hold the secret. It is as old as the New Testament, and repeated by Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley and throughout Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra, with its progress from Camel, through Lion, to Child (I.i). It is also very modern. Powys is modern. He belongs to the age of the Theatre of the Absurd and the 'permissive society'. In a pluralistic and directionless universe of unlimited possibility these point, provisionally, ahead; to the change of consciousness of the Aquarian age adumbrated by Powys's books Obstinate Cymric, Rabelais and In Spite Of; which corresponds to Shelley's description (Prometheus Unbound, IV, 370-423) of the liberation of Prometheus.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2480
SOURCE: "The Problem of Powys," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 3819, May 16, 1975, p. 541.
[In the following excerpt, Steiner discusses the reception of Powys's works in England and elsewhere.]
There is, of course, a Powys problem. For G. Wilson Knight, perhaps the noblest of our critics, John Cowper Powys is a writer whose powers, whose visionary penetration and mastery of the concrete are, not in any loose metaphoric sense but by virtue of closely argued analogy and estimate, Shakespearean. Angus Wilson finds in Powys a novelist whose genius for comedy and crowd, for larger-than-life characters shaping and being shaped by the animate agencies of the environment is the rival of Dickens's. To a faithful circle of British readers, Powys is not only a supreme artist, but the great seer after Blake and a companion for life. No less than during his career as a charismatic lecturer—with members of the audience often following him from city to city—Powys continues to command an American and Canadian following. North American scholars, critics and bibliographers generate a growing body of Powys studies. The early novels—Rodmoor, Ducdame—have lately been translated into French and he is au programme both in the Sorbonne and among a devoted circle of younger scholars (of the publication, last year, of a remarkable Powys number in the review Granit). Powys's fiction and philosophy, his essays on literature and the meaning of human experience, are highly valued in Germany where he received the only major literary award given to him in his long and prodigal life. There are passionate Powysians in Japan.
A lecturer in English at Swansea, on the other hand, declares Powys to be an "old third-rate windbag". (the author of this remark is, to be sure, the most brutal of F. R. Leavis's imitators). More significantly the experiment undertaken by Penguin in issuing Wolf Solent—an experiment whose success might have led to the publication in the same format of the other major works—proved abortive. The negative view taken at the time by V. S. Pritchett, a humane reader of wide sympathies, seemed to crystallize general indifference or distaste. An attempt to obtain an honorary fellowship for Powys on the occasion of his ninetieth birthday was rebuffed by Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, with the utmost arrogance; so far as he was remembered at all, the sometime member was a source of vague embarrassment. In his own country John Cowper Powys remained essentially unknown and unhonoured (there is a substantial growing archive at Churchill College).
This gap between Powys's place at home and abroad gives a clue. Though a proud descendant of Donne and Cowper, though "of the earth earthy" in Somerset and Dorset, Powys was, in certain crucial respects, alien to the British climate. It is not only that he wrote a number of his greatest books in upper New York State, and that he revelled in the spacious energies of the American way; nor is it a question of his persistent, eloquently proclaimed indebtedness to such Continental masters as Rabelais, Goethe, Nietzsche and Dostoevsky (though both these "alienations" matter). It is a central issue of personality, of register, of life-style. Wanderer, magus, rhetorician, John Cowper Powys did not feel himself to be a part of modern England, but rather a Celt with enigmatic "Jewish-Scotch" atavisms or, as he preferred to put it, a "Brython" of Immemorial strength and strangeness.
But these distances, in part literary and self-dramatizing, in part contingent (he spent many years in America because he could find no suitable work in England), cannot account for so drastic a disagreement in critical judgment. To some Powys is, beyond any question, a genius, a teacher of moral and philosophic values unique in the modern context and, together with Thomas Hardy and D. H. Lawrence, the greatest of British novelists in this century. To others he is either a bore, a charlatan, or both. Despite the notorious instability and modishness of literary "placements", particularly where the achievement of a recent figure is concerned, a split of opinion so wide and, apparently, uncompromising is, in fact, exceedingly rare. There is, customarily, a qualifying middle ground, an agreement over the range of useful disagreement which will lead, often fairly rapidly, to consensus. Over Powys there is, on both sides, a sense of exasperation or blank puzzlement. In such a case one had best state one's convictions.
I believe Wolf Solent to be one of the very great novels in the language, challenging comparison with Middlemarch by virtue of its intelligence of the range of its social comprehension, and comparable, as is perhaps no other English fiction to that realization of the meshing of human and natural presences which marks Tolstoy. Weymouth Sands (or Jobber Skald) is, a flawed composition, uneven in its distribution of narrative levels, but containing a wealth of characterization and landscape, of humour and symbolic incident which justify the parallels often drawn between it and the work of Dickens. There are excesses of style, of dimension, of incantation in Owen Glendower; at moments that black devil of sadism which Powys feared and exposed himself to so intensely, almost mars the fabric, the organic unfolding of the book.
But, choosing my words with extreme care. I would say that no other work in our literature, with the specific exception of Shakespeare's histories, themselves so creatively at hand in Powys's imagination, can match Owen Glendower in making a past present. Here, more than in Scott, the power of a writer to "dream backward", to furnish our sensibilities with felt remembrance of remote but formative experience, is tested and made tangible. The Glastonbury Romance defies any concise or confident valuation. The early chapters of erotic infatuation—with their physical candour so much fiercer, so much more charged with risk than were the guarded tactics of Lawrence—and the famous chapters of flood and apocalypse which complete the novel, are like nothing else in our prose. Again, certain characters are Shakespearean in their prodigality of being, of personal idiom, in the capacity they possess to lodge in our minds. But there are also grey stretches in this enormous design, loose ends and metaphysical-psychological soliloquies so insistent as to spill over into melodrama or idiosyncrasy.
Porius is a novel one attempts, retreats from, returns to with a deepening sense of magic and authority. Here size has become utter density, and philosophic speculations are fully embodied. The difficulties are extreme, not only because of the time and locale chosen (the marches of Arthurian Britain), or because of the incisiveness of mythological reference on which the narrative depends. They stem from a combination of violent incident with the subtlest introspection. The effect is, in the truest sense, uncanny, as if Rabelais's genius for physical action, for the enormity of matter, were shot through with a Jamesian focus on motive and nuance. It sounds absurd, but there it is.
Look at the scene in which Merlin crosses the river, in which Merlin's ambiguous nature and numinous motion literally metamorphose light and air, the pulse of identity in the animals and men who watch his coming, and you will experience a flash of vision ("flash" is wrong—it is more like light spreading across live waters at once rapid and stately) which no other writer has surpassed. And, to give that suggestion its entire vulnerability, let it include Shakespeare and Blake. Porius stands foremost, I think among Powys's novels. The book on Rabelais is the best of his literary philosophic criticism or, rather, "presentations"—for Powys was a presenter of other men's works more often than he was a judge. The Autobiography is a masterpiece, Coleridgean in its introspective scruple, but also of a lyric breadth, of a delight in the absurdities and wonder of self which recall The Prelude.
Why is it that these convictions will, even to many unbiased readers, seem bizarre? Why should it be that the case of John Cowper Powys offers no shared idiom for collaborative dissent?
Part of the answer, at least, is straightforward. There is so much more to Powys than the clutch of great novels and the autobiography, and the addenda are of a kind almost to destroy, to make endlessly irritating all but the best work. Starting late in life, driven by volcanic energies, he wrote far too much. There are in the books which come after Porius, and in such experiments as Maiden Castle and Atlantis remarkable pages, but too much of the continued outpouring was just that—garrulous, self-indulgent, rhetorical. The instinct for myth from which Powys drew his radical strength came to betray him. What had been illumination and a Shakespearian understanding of the life of imagery and symbolic act, turned into a farrago of Arthurian, Emersonian-transcendentalist and even Meredithian invocations and gestures (the line to Meredith would repay study).
Insights into the subconscious, once acute and unsparing, a genuine apprehension of the play of free forces around strong personalities and natural sites, turned into a tedious, vaguely bullying parapsychology. The man would preach with the relentless loquacity and sing-song innocence of a village saint. (Though even here embarrassment or scorn may be too facile a reflex: was Powys wrong when he insisted that men would find no cure for cancer or other major diseases so long as they tortured animals and practised vivisection in the name of medical research?)
The sense of silliness, of faddish obsession, of private cult, has been reinforced by the publication, over these past years, of Powys's correspondence with various intimates. Reasons of piety and economics (the books are not large) may explain such publication, but the effect has been disastrous. The idiom is one of tremulous homo-eroticism. This is, in part a matter of style, of Powys's personal roots in the world of Pre-Raphaelite and fin de siècle expression. But it points also to that enigmatic, partly autistic, partly encompassing sexuality (the current jargon would be "polymorphic") which lies at the centre of Powys's achievement, but around which there is to this day a barrier of silence or giggly allusion. (Wilson Knight's approach being the robust exception). In short Powys and Powysians have made it difficult for those who want to enter their world and discover the major books in their integrity.
These major books, moreover, are of a tonality and dimension wholly at odds with current habits of speech and of reading. For motives too complex, too serious to be casually enumerated, the climate of British feeling over recent decades has favoured ironic constraint, sparsity of idiom and shape. The normative posture is one of wary thrift or ironic deflation, in respect of style, theme, personal investment. The grand motion, the orchestral, the "copious", to borrow a term used by Donald Davie, are distrusted. These attitudes militate against a number of major artists. They have, until very recently, kept the work of Sir Michael Tippett from the pivotal, pre-eminent place which belongs to it in modern British music. They have, so far, prevented widespread response to the stature of David Jones. They may, in some measure at least, have inhibited the formation of that critical, corrective yet also collaborative circle of attention and discrimination which might have disciplined the gifts of Lawrence Durrell. What is certain is that Powys's writings, like those of the masters of Jacobean and baroque prose, demand an ear for the richness, for the cumulative sonorities, for the "drama" of the language of a kind which nothing in our present habits cultivates. Much of his work, like that of Carlyle and Ruskin, asks to be read aloud, so that the "swing of the sea" (Hopkins was yet another "aural" craftsman) or the rushing voices of wind and forest which give it its magic can be realized. Wolf Solent, A Glastonbury Romance, Owen Glendower, Porius call for patience, for a suspension of disenchantment, for a delight in the sheer prodigality of English speech as Shakespeare, Sir Thomas Browne, Melville or Ruskin used it. One must yield to the great music of these books, or they will remain closed. But the prerequisites of leisure, of "inner space", of trust and communal (Powys would have said "racial") pride which this act of reading, of audition depends on are precisely those currently in short supply.
This poses problems of tactics, of priority. Powys's letters to Iorwerth C. Peate, poet, writer, first curator of the Welsh Folk Museum, do not come under the damaging rubric of other marginalia. Letters 1937–1954 shows Powys at his most characteristic; humorous, modest, voracious for new knowledge, engaged—for the benefit of Owen Glendower and Porius—in transmuting himself into a true and obstinate Cymric. The letters show his wondrous isolation from the world (he had not heard of Albert Schweitzer until late 1944). They give clues to his bizarre politics: "I'm an odd Tory since my favourite poet is Walt Whitman." They document his fierce distrust of the brand of punitive Christianity and cultural reaction which he sensed, with unerring speed and directness, in the tracts and critical pronouncements of T. S. Eliot and C. S. Lewis ("these sly ones"). But publications of this type are marginal and, it may well be, a luxury at this stage in Powys's fortunes.
Is there not a case, indeed an urgent case, for the production of a compendious anthology, containing essential biographical and bibliographical information, together with generous selections from the major novels related, shown to be logically and organically interwoven, by a critical commentary? Objections to such a scheme are obvious ("how can one fairly select from books so densely put together, etc"). But it was precisely a vade mecum of this design, Malcolm Cowley's Portable Faulkner which, in the 1940s, broke through the esoteric status of Faulkner's work and made of it a main feature in the landscape. It is, in the meantime, good news that Wolf Solent is again in print and that the Village Press will reissue Porius.
The question of biography is also a vital one. The Autobiography is a deliberately allusive, masked statement. It conceals or allegorizes far more than it declares. It is an intricate work of art, not a chronicle of the facts. But it is these we need to know. We need a life of John Cowper Powys, not merely glimpses of the Powys clan, telling us of the circumstances, locale, chronology which surround his writings, and informing us—within proper bounds of taste and respect for the sensibilities of the living—about what we ought to know of his passions and erotic convictions if we are to make good sense of the novels. Only a serious, full-scale biography can rescue John Cowper Powys from the cult-groups and whispering indirections of the Powysians, whose labours and enthusiasm have done a tremendous lot to keep the flame bright, but who have also, in fact, set barriers of initiation between Powys's genius and a general public.
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SOURCE: "The Reemergence of John Cowper Powys," in The Antioch Review, Vol. 39, No. 4, Fall, 1981, pp. 422-30.
[In the following excerpt, Lane favorably reviews Powys's major literary works in light of renewed interest in England.]
Pause at the bookstall of any airport or railway station in England and you are almost sure to find numerous handsome Penguin or Picador editions of the works of John Cowper Powys. Once a newsmaker in the United States, a popular figure of the lecturing circuit for almost twenty-five years, Powys is now largely unknown in America, except among a coterie of devoted scholars and those readers of novels who can remember the original publication of his works here in the twenties and thirties. All of this is likely to change. Should the planned serialization by British television of his vast A Glastonbury Romance result in its being imported by the American educational networks (a strong possibility in view of the present popularity of many televised versions of the English classics), then there will be a veritable resurgence of interest—such as has been seen in England over the past ten years—in the life and work of this extraordinary man.
John Cowper Powys (pronounced Poe-iss) was born in Shirley, Derbyshire, on 8 October 1872, but his formative years were spent in the Southwest of England, first at Dorchester, and then at Montacute in Somerset, where his father, the Reverend Charles Francis Powys, had been appointed vicar in 1885. All of this may seem unremarkable in itself, but John Cowper was the first of eleven children, most of whom went on to achieve distinction in one way or another. In addition to John, the brothers Theodore and Llewelyn became writers of note; Philippa was an essayist and poet, Gertrude an artist, while Marian, who subsequently emigrated to America, established herself as an authority on lace, which she appraised for the U.S. Customs Service. Seven of the eleven Children, in all, were to publish books.
The self-insulating world of this late-Victorian family, "private and tribal," as one critic has described it, had enormous impact on Powys the writer. The shadow of the father looms large in Powys's early work, and although his ultimate, essentially humanistic viewpoint amounts to a stinging rejection of his father's staunch Christianity, it also represents an acceptance of the benevolent and sensitive spirit that accompanied it. Then too, Powys's love of nature, which can be found on every page of his novels and which invests them with their fibrous richness, was an inheritance from the father for whom, in Powys's words, nature was "part of his passionate—but totally subjective—romance of life." His early attachment to literature Powys acquired from his mother, a somewhat timid and enduring woman (portrayed lovingly by Llewelyn in his Skin for Skin) who was herself descended from the English poets Cowper and Donne. Though the family atmosphere was far from oppressive, there was nevertheless an inward orientation—a sense of separateness—that left a distinct imprint on some of the children, particularly when it came to establishing contacts in what was for them an "outside" world. Theodore, for instance, seems to have been claimed quite early in life by a sort of mental morbidity that he was unable fully to shake loose, while John, although subsequently renowned for his graciousness and amiability, was given at public school and university (Sherbourne and Corpus Christi, Cambridge, respectively) to the deliberate cultivation of bouts of mania and eccentricity.
It was in America that Powys was able to channel these neuroses in a positive direction, and it was in his novels—many of which carry figures of self-portraiture—that he submerged them. Powys first came to America in 1905, but it was an estrangement from his wife of fourteen years and the need to support an only son that in 1910 led him to pursue on a permanent basis the lucrative territory of America in his career as a public speaker. For almost a quarter of a century Powys crisscrossed the country, familiarizing himself with its cities and towns and, on endless walks ("one of my chief life-exigencies"), its suburbs and waysides. He traveled incessantly by train, knew the great railroad termini (few airports then) and the grand hotels of the day; spoke at such various places as the old Lincoln Center in Chicago, Cooper Union and the Labor Temple in New York, and at scores of colleges and universities throughout the South and Midwest. He debated publicly the likes of Will Durant and Bertrand Russell; secured the adoration of Isadora Duncan, the friendship of Theodore Dreiser, and the admiration of Henry Miller. On the platform, Powys was by all accounts a masterly performer, a truly magnetic personality who could command the attention of vast and varied audiences. In this, it seems, his striking physiognomy—a noble head dominated by searching eyes and topped with a mass of curly hair—served him well. Will Durant's 1931 portrait of Powys in Adventures in Genius provides an unforgettable description of the fantastic lecturer in high form: "… tall, thin, ungainly, angular … long arachnid legs, long simian arms, long, restless, pseudopodian fingers, the Word made not flesh but bone and naked nerves; the stooping carriage of a solicitous giant … the trembling mouth of the poet … the eyes startled and piercing, hunted and hunting, tossed and pulled about with things vividly seen, haunted with mystery and frightened with understanding…." This was the speaker who caused Ariel Durant, hearing Powys for the first time in New York, to rush home to Will to exclaim that she had just "seen Shelley plain."
Powys's subject was "culture"—in short, literature and philosophy—but it also included forays into political the or and social organization. He was a subtle analyst of capitalism and the capitalist frame of mind, as can be witnessed in print in his 1936 essay "Farewell to America" and in the characterization of the industrialist Philip Crow in A Glastonbury Romance. As a lecturer, his style and viewpoint were not to everyone's liking, however. His detractors called him a charlatan, a term that Powys, who was a genuine maverick and natural self-publicist, embraced with pride. "I am a born actor," he would frequently declare, adding that he was one who had "rebuked the mighty and exalted the leper."
This much is the public memory of John Cowper Powys—proselytizer, lecturer, ardent individualist—but along with this Powys was gradually building in America another reputation: that of writer. Typically, the output was prodigious, particularly when one considers the rigorous speaking schedule he was following at that time. In one eight-year period, 1915 to 1923, he produced no less than twelve books—novels, poetry, philosophy, autobiography, and literary criticism—together with countless articles in magazines and newspapers (the Dial, Forum, and Scribner's were favorite outlets). As Kenneth Hopkins notes, by 1917 Powys's public stature was sufficient to allow him to appear for the defense at the prosecution of the Little Review in connection with its publication of James Joyce's Ulysses. He was also an early defender of Dreiser when he too came under attack. Although Powys's own work never encountered difficulties of this type, it was some few years before it was accepted with anything approaching widespread admiration. The turning point occurred in 1929 with the appearance of two books: first, his powerful and unusual novel, Wolf Solent, the forerunner of what can be considered his major novels, and then, the highly successful The Meaning of Culture, the first of a series of books of popular philosophy consisting of eclectic and personal formulas for independent living, prototypes of which had appeared earlier in the Little Blue Books series of the Haldeman-Julius Company.
By this time Powys had reached the age of fifty-eight, a late start for a writer but one that he seized with relish, especially now that, having retired from lecturing because of ill health, he had taken up residence "deep in the land of the Mohawks," at a Dutch cottage near Hillsdale in upstate New York, "I have what I've never had before," he wrote to one of his brothers, "real time to write in, hours and hours of time. I can shuffle time, like you shuffle snow, in a great wooden spade." It was there, and in North Wales, where he finally settled in 1935, that Powys produced the five or six novels that are his masterworks, and where also he was to write the work entitled Autobiography (1934), that astonishing piece of self-revelation that J. B. Priestley justly describes as "one of the greatest autobiographies of the English language."
While Powys was to celebrate his energetic years in America ("incomparably the best years of my life") in both the autobiography and the essays of the period, America nowhere appears in his central novels. That world remains, in surface texture at least, the world of his childhood, of Dorset and Somerset, and in two later novels the historic world of the Powyses' ancestral Wales. The westcountry wanderings of the eponymous Wolf Solent, for instance, clearly replicate those of Powys's own younger days, as is reflected in his 1961 preface (written, with amazing clarity, when he was eighty-nine): "Wolf Solent is a book of Nostalgia, written in a foreign country with the pen of a traveller and the ink-blood of his home." Yet to say that Powys's novels center upon Wessex is to define only partly the world they inhabit, for his vision is so copious and so extensive that ultimately their true setting is nothing less than the cosmos itself. In brief, they debate the nature of the universe and man's place within it. Like later novels, the seminal Wolf Solent reveals Powys's belief in the transforming powers of the human will and the human imagination, and his belief—so germane to us today—that every man and woman has the creative potential to shape a future of happiness and self-fulfillment, irrespective of the particular circumstances under which he or she labors. Thus all of his novels exist as imaginative efforts to reconcile this faith in individual creativity with the reality of human experience. From Wolf Solent, his first major figure, to Porius, his last, he maintains a long line of characters bound up in a state of "deep contemplative tension," each calling upon his will's "unbounded power," and each in his own manner fulfilling the Powys credo that the universe is "always capable of being further discovered and further created."
On the surface, Powys's philosophy, as espoused in novels and essays alike, appears to argue against the cultivation of ordinary contacts with human society—a communion with nature, for instance, is always depicted with prominence as a saving grace in life—and there is no doubt that collectively they abjure the modern world, just as they implicitly question modern religion and modern philosophy. Yet they remain deeply human. They concentrate primarily upon individual dramas, dramas seen less in relation to the present than to the past, but that nevertheless combine trenchant insights into social, sexual, and familial relations in modern life. The climax of Wolf Solent, a study of emotional evolution in a young man of severely introspective habits, occurs behind a pigsty—a typically Powysian metaphor of the modern world—when Wolf's mental turmoil is finally put to rest in a vision that replaces his previously complacent idealism with the realism inherent in a life based upon perpetual renewal and endurance. Such a note of psychological pragmatism, embodied in a novel of eloquence and descriptive beauty, led Theodore Dreiser to comment that it "holds speculations so intense, so searching and ennobling as to suggest little less than revelation—at their lowest ebb high poetry."
If Wolf Solent was to establish Powys's reputation, then his next novel, A Glastonbury Romance (1932), served to confirm it. The binding element in this huge, labyrinthine chronicle—estimated by one critic to be the longest undivided novel in the English language—is the mystical and spiritual ethos of Glastonbury, whose impact Powys tests upon his characters. The focus, wide and all-inclusive, falls now upon numinous rather than emotional awareness. We are here truly in the domain of the Powys novel: characters are many and Dickensian in variety (the front matter lists forty-seven "principal" characters alone); events encompass the dramatic and the miraculous (a crucifixion, a devastating flood, a murder, even an exorcism); mood is intense and quickened by the spiritual presence of figures of myth and tradition; a rich iconography interweaves the ancient with the modern, the historical with the legendary. The novel is the outgrowth of Powys's lifelong interest in religious and philosophical creeds. Thematically, it deals with the religious response to life. It is a searching examination, conducted by means of exempla and personal experience. The stories of John Crow, Sam Dekker, and "Bloody Johnny"—John Geard, the street-corner revivalist turned provincial guru—all contribute in various ways towards a definition of what is religious in life and to an explanation of the origins of religious instinct. In the course of his investigations, Powys questions many systems of values, even at times his own, and it may be these episodes (by their presence if not their substance) that are the most significant and the most telling. Some critics have suggested that in this way Powys deserts the reader, by providing no positives, no definitive answers, but such is exactly his intention. "I try to advocate," the wrote in the preface to a 1955 edition, "… an acceptance of our life in the spirit of absolutely undogmatic ignorance," and he would argue that a book is worthless that pretends to solve life's mysteries with a system. Despite its underlying tone of philosophical circumspection, A Glastonbury Romance stands as a wonderfully human document. Panoramic in design, charged with scenes of great vividness, and informed by its author's quizzical vitality, it is nothing less than a giant of a novel. Its style is unmistakably Powys's own: a sweeping, stirring, prose, rich in elemental imagery and archetypal symbol. There is no doubt that it will make superb television; indeed, it would be a fine instance of poetic justice, for tragically Powys himself never made a penny from the novel—its royalties being swallowed up by a disastrous libel suit brought by a westcountry landowner.
There followed two more novels with Wessex settings. The first, Weymouth Sands (1934)-"my seaside tale," as Powys fondly called it—was the last product of his American years. Its integration of separate narrative episodes into an all-inclusive mixture of humor and pathos makes Weymouth Sands the most innovative, the most compact, and, for many readers, the most enjoyable of his novels—"a happy book" is how G. Wilson Knight describes it. Its message concerning the triumph of perseverance over despair is worked out through a series of streams of consciousness, overlaid by, or set against, the cumulative metaphors of the book; the sea, the sands, the rocks, and the settlements of the Dorset coastline. In short, Weymouth Sands is a novel of the margins, its sands the margins of consciousness, where the psychic residua of its characters are confronted and laid bare. The Weymouth area was, interestingly, the final resting place of John Cowper Powys, for it was at Chesil Beach, one of this novel's central locations, that his ashes were scattered following his death in 1963. After Weymouth Sands came Waiden Castle (1936), a moral fable about the negative powers of presumption. Here, in a novel written during a year's stay in England, Powys broke new ground as he began to give full rein to his mythopoeic genius. Set in and around the great neolithic earthwork of Maidun, Near Dorchester, the novel presents a fascinating study of human relationships, of their fruition and decline, within a close circle of what Powys called "enemy-friends," and of the abrasions and incompatibilities that can result from close and repetitive contacts. These difficulties are heightened by the claim of one of the characters to powers of reincarnation, a claim that Powys, though judicious in his depiction of the reactions of other characters, did not entirely diminish. At the novel's core are considerations of pain and cruelty, death and the past, a combination that caught the eye—not surprisingly perhaps—of the late Dennis Wheatley, whose works explore these murky areas.
The homecoming to Wales marked Powys's final phase, but his energies were by no means depleted: two of his best novels and a cluster of fantasies, the products of extreme old age, were yet to come. Wales, never far from the center of Powys's imagination (his family traces its descent from the ancient Welsh princes of Powysland), consumed it entirely when he made his eventual move there in 1935. Thinking of himself then as an "Aboriginal Welshman," Powys renewed his lifelong interest in the history and literature of Wales and in later years even learned to read and write Welsh, a feat of considerable proportions in view of the acknowledged difficulty of the language and his own advanced age. This deep-rooted interest in the culture and traditions of his adoptive home was poured lavishly into the work of his last twenty-five years. Where Powys had moved gradually into the past with the historic associations of the Romance and Maiden Castle, in Owen Glendower (1940) and Porius (1951) he broke with the present entirely to re-create, in fifteenth-and fifth-century settings respectively, two panoramic episodes in Welsh history. Owen Glendower, following in its broadest outline the known facts of its hero's great rebellion against the English, is a marvelous blend of historicity and vision, of mythology and romance, and for this it has won high praise from such eminent voices as those of Angus Wilson and George Steiner. Essentially, the novel is a restatement of Powys's earlier theme of self-determination, only this time in terms of national rather than individual significance. Porius, however, is a world unto itself just as, equally, it is the summit of Powys's achievement. Eight years in the writing, Porius is in fact a mythic rendering of Powys's personal creed and his candescent belief in the existence of "an old human vitality … that will yet make man, rather than any Man-God, or God-Man, the creator of man's future." The novel's brilliant and teeming action, couched in an atmosphere that is both elemental and regressive, is too complex to summarize. But this much can be said: that for all its atavism of mood and setting, Porius is nonetheless a manifestly twentieth-century novel, and it is so because it presents a doctrine that finds philosophical solace in variety rather than in any ultimate or absolute theory. It speaks to an age that, like the Dark Ages in which it is set, is fraught, in Powys's words, "with the terrifying possibilities of human disaster," but it does so in terms that iterate the power of diminishing such possibilities and stress the view that good, whether in "fellow-feeling" or "kindness," is capable of increase. It was perhaps this work more than any other that spurred G. Wilson Knight to nominate Powys for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1959. (Although Powys did not win the Nobel—the honors that year went to Salvatore Quasimodo—he had the previous year been the recipient of the Plaque of the Academy of Arts of Hamburg, a distinction granted previously to only one other novelist, Thomas Mann.)
It is upon the six novels that I have mentioned and the autobiography that future interest in John Cowper Powys will undoubtedly center. These works represent a unique and impressive achievement. Their concerns are as wide as they are profound. They attempt to find or portray an actual, valid, and preeminently practical interpretation of the universe. For some readers they offer alternate values to those held by the twentieth century; for others they offer pragmatic advice on living one's life in a spirit of courageous acceptance. Collectively, Powys's novels are a forceful antidote to the Age of Anxiety. They are written out of an affirmative spirit, capturing with richness and with vision man's organic desire for peace and happiness, yet they do so without blinking at ultimate problems of human perversity, suffering, and death. A reasonable optimism is how we might best characterize the moral legacy of John Cowper Powys.
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SOURCE: "Strangest of Geniuses," in The Spectator, Vol. 224, No. 8702, April 22, 1995, pp. 32-33.
[In the following review of Petrushka and the Dancer, Wilson credits Powys's companion Phyllis Playter for her inspirational support.]
It would be interesting to know how these diaries would strike a reader who did not know the four great novels of John Cowper Powys: Wolf Solent, A Glastonbury Romance, Weymouth Sands and Maiden Castle, or his magnificent collection of essays, The Pleasures of Literature; or his superb essay on "The Art of Happiness," or his Autobiography, which deserves to be placed on the shelf beside Saint Augustine and Rousseau. In the period covered by these journals, all these great books were produced.
Powys is one of those authors who is omnipresent in his work. To read his novels is to be confronted with his extraordinary personality—his 'manias', his pantheism, his vivid empathy for the sorrows and joys of women (springing from what he called his lesbianism), his passionate love of the Wessex of his childhood, his preoccupation with domestic trivia, his Homeric sense of the blank human tragedy. While becoming engaged with the lives and struggles of his characters, we are perpetually aware that he is there too, both as the narrator, and—for he is one of the greatest of clowns and play-actors in the history of literature—as most of the characters in the books.
In Weymouth Sands, for example, it was perfectly obvious to me (though I knew next to nothing of his biography when I first read it) that Powys 'was' the diffident teacher of Latin, Magnus Muir, obsessed by his 'crush' on the promiscuous Curly Wix, and by the brooding presence in that seaside resort of his dead father. Equally obvious was the fact that the author 'is' the crazy figure of Sylvanus Cobbold, the madman who 'prays' to his bit of rope with the frequently repeated mantra, 'Caput anus, caput anus', and who has an 'unsuitable' but passionate relationship with the sylph-like, just-pubescent daughter of the Punch and Judy man.
In this diary, we discover that this peculiar relationship—one of the most touching in all modern fiction—was suggested to Powys by his life-companion Phyllis Playter, known in the diary as the T. T.—the Tiny Thin:
She thinks all the time. And now she has thought out a wonderful idea for my book—about making Sylvanus Cobbold into a revivalistic preacher with a little idiot or subnormal girlfriend.
She it was, incidentally, who gave Powys the name of his most vigorous male character in the book—Jobber Skald. Inspired! We could not have guessed, unless we had read these diaries, what labours, imaginative and intellectual, the T. T. expended on helping Powys with his creations—reading drafts, being brave enough to condemn as well as to praise, and seeing into the life of this strangest of geniuses. She does almost emerge from the diaries as his co-author.
But, for that large proportion of the reading public who have never read these novels, these great novels, these greater by far than D. H. Lawrence or James Joyce novels, these novels which are of a world class, and whose neglect by the British reading public is one of the weirdest mysteries, to this unread majority, how will these diaries appear? They tell the story of a strange old man, (57 when the book starts) sharing a small flat in New York with his little sylph, the Tiny Thin, their doll Olwen and their dog, sometimes called the Black, sometimes called the Old. Powys earns a living as a hack lecturer, going from town to town in the United States to hold forth on varied literary topics. He was preoccupied in almost equal measure by the huge tribe of his English relations and their shared childhood in Sherbourne and Weymouth, and by the hellish consequences of his duodenal ulcer. His rigid diet of milk, eggs and bread and butter, and the inevitable resultant constipation, is one of the diaries' most repeated themes:
This morning—for I took three Pills last night—my stiff and obdurate Bowels worked all right & dung hard as Owl Pellets or Ichthyosaurus turds were driven out of my throbbing bum-gut.
On many mornings, he was less fortunate:
It was as if through my bum-gut I was giving birth to a Cannon-ball. I could not make it go out nor could I draw it back.
His fumbling adventures with the enema—he was so clumsy that the T. T. eventually took to 'helping' him with it—take up almost as much diary-space as his literary reflexions. ('The T. T. doesn't like too much space in my diary devoted to Number 2!'. One knows how she felt.)
The diaries, like everything else he wrote, were designed to be read first and chiefly by her. 'Shakespeare led a life of allegory; his works are the comments on it', wrote John Keats. The same is true of John Cowper Powys, which is what makes this diary so remarkably revealing a document, for in its pages we feel that we are close to the very heart of his creative process. His love for his little 'sylph', their complicated and difficult life-pilgrimage—from New York City to Phudd Bottom in New York State; from Phudd Bottom to England, where they lived first in the wilds of Dorset (where the T. T. was wretchedly miserable) and then in a poky flat in Dorchester—are turning themselves all the time into those magisterial and peculiar and endlessly readable novels.
The most powerful evocation of their relationship is probably to be found in Maiden Castle, where the ineffectual Dud Noman's inability to satisfy the emotional needs of Wizzie leads to one of the most dramatic emotional dénouements in English fiction. (Why has it never been taken up by the feminists?) When she read Maiden Castle, which she did, chapter by chapter, aloud to the author, the T. T. was bitterly upset. 'Is this the result of our 15 years' life together?' The mistake she made, Powys adds.
was not taking into account the maniacal convolutions of my reserves! As I left out my mother from my Autobiography, so in dealing with Noman & his girl I dodged and avoided any introduction of the precious and indescribable pleasures of every sort that I myself have got from living with the T.T.
That it was a love-match of the deepest kind cannot be in question. After their tiff about Maiden Castle,
in the morning after breakfast I made love to the T. T. … in the Passage! And this pleased me; for this immorality christened, as it were, our dwelling.
It is extraordinary how our emotional imaginations are identical—'the T. T.'s' and 'The Man's'. It is a mystery considering how, when she came in that big young-girl-of-24 hat with a brim I caught her wrist as my white slave for purely wicked reasons—never did I know (when I wrote her name in the dust) how our emotional nervous imaginations were destined to display absolute identity.
This being the case, Powys's diary is not merely the egotistical ravings of a self-proclaimed genius. It is a moving tribute to the woman who helped to fashion him as a writer. None of the books which he wrote before he met her were any good. And I think one finds the clue to what is so memorable and exciting about the novels in this entry:
After breakfast the T. T. talked with extraordinary eloquence about that experience of life—that thick, rich feeling of life made up of a vast number of tragic experiences or experiences observed in others or just intuitively grasped even if you live in one place all your days. This deep life-feeling she says is the chief thing! Shakespeare & Dostoievsky have it & Dickens a little too but not Balzac. Tolstoy has it. She says I spoil it in my books by Propaganda.
It is really the case that in the four great novels, Powys, almost alone among the English prose writers, achieves this quality of felt life which one discerns in Shakespeare. Equally, we can salute the T. T.'s good judgment in despairing of his mad preacher, or bardic wizard side. Not that she was any more sensible than he was. Their shared whimsy, their devotion to their doll Olwen, for example, will not please every reader. (In one strange entry, Powys achieves an erection merely by stroking Olwen). The belief that the Powyses were ancient kings of Wales, and their move to that Principality for the last 28 years of their shared life marked the change in his writing from modern romance to Welsh history and mythology. (There are some ludicrous photographs, one of which depicts Powys in bardic robes and a mitre, with the T. T. wearing a sinister-looking papier-maché mask.)
It was the T. T. who urged all this upon him, encouraging him, for example, to write Owen Glendower, which must be a masterpiece which has defeated all but the most ardent Powysians. Ditto the impressive, but at 900 pages surely the most unfinishable Dark Age Romance, Porius. Yet greater pens than mine—Angus Wilson's and Irish Murdoch's, for example—have expressed admiration for these works.
Will this diary, punctiliously edited and cut down to manageable size by the admirable Dr Krissdottir, lead to a Powys revival? Will those who enjoy the novels of Martin (or come to that Kingsley) Amis see the point of making the great imaginative journey through A Glastonbury Romance? It took the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, and the weak things of the world to confound the strong. I fear that John Cowper Powys's extreme oddness (which made his schooldays at Sherbourne such torture, and which isolated him socially from all but his enormous family and his close circle of friends) will put people off.
The point to grasp about Powys is that while much of what he thought and wrote is profoundly eccentric, he is in fact one of the great mainstream European writers, who tackles the themes of love between men and women, and the peculiar manner in which societies cohere. His characters confront the Nature of Things with a baldness and raw vivacity which makes comparisons with King Lear seem quite reasonable. He tried to do for the novel what Homer did for the epic. When we read these diary accounts of domestic trivia, lavatory agony, money worries and correspondence with unsympathetic publishers and agents, and of the poor T. T.'s repeated gloom and despairs, we can only marvel the more that out of such strange earthen vessels such glory sprang forth.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3139
SOURCE: "A Seer of the Flesh," in the Times Literary Supplement, No. 4807, May 19, 1995, pp.3-4.
[In the following excerpt, Bayley praises Petrushka and the Dancer and The Letters of John Cowper Powys to Frances Gregg, Vol. 1 (edited by Oliver Marlow Wilkinson and Christopher Wilkinson).]
It seems unlikely that the critics will ever resolve the question of John Cowper Powys's status as a novelist. There is no version of the canon, or the "hundred best novels", in which his inclusion is taken for granted; he is not a standard author in any series, or regularly revived in paperback, like most classics. But in a sense this absence is itself his status. It seems to keep him absurdly, disconcertingly alive, while the oeuvre of James Joyce, say, becomes more purely monumental by the year. The Joyce industry works on the monument like the restorers on the Albert Memorial; whereas the Powys cottage industry goes on in its own slightly dotty way, disputing his philosophies, teasing and worshipping in equal measure, losing faith and regaining it. Even D.H. Lawrence, for all his aliveness (and Powys was a passionate admirer of the Lawrence letters), does not reach, as it were, this extraordinary gusto of ongoing literary instability.
Powys's diaries are as compulsively readable as Lawrence's letters; they are so clearly the groundwork, in both authors, of all their other writings; and with the same kind of personality informing them, very different as the two personalities are. Powys was a natural diarist, like Kilvert, inhabiting the daily form with the same clumsy ease with which his cast of characters inhabit the novels. Only in his Autobiography—a form in which Powys never seemed quite at home—and in some of his didactic and philosophical works, does the Powys personality lose its magical feel of closeness and elusiveness and appear ordinarily self-centred, cranky and prosaic. Of course, even when he is at his most mesmeric it is never difficult for his reader—his "dear far off reader wherever you are" as he calls him in the diary—to "see through" Powys, just as nothing is easier than to see through Lawrence. But then, as the great writer Elias Canetti once more or less remarked, seeing through great writers gets you nowhere.
Selected and skillfully edited by Morine Krisdóttir, doyenne among Powys scholars and devotees, the diaries begin on June 1, 1929, with Powys leaving New York, and his usual gruelling round on the American lecturing circuit, for his annual holiday with relatives and friends in England. He is fifty-six. Both he and his younger brother Llewelyn ("Lulu") have become well known as lecturers in America. His last novel, Wolf Solent is selling well, and so is The Story of Philosophy. He is beginning to write A Glastonbury Romance and The Meaning of Culture. As Arnold Bennett had found (both Powys and Phyllis Playter, his companion, were great admirers of Clayhanger), a novelist who was well known or becoming well known in those hopeful days of idealisms and urges towards learning could greatly increase his earning power by turning out, between novels, books on the hundred best books, with titles like The Pleasures of Literature, The Art of Happiness, A Philosophy of Solitude, and even In Defence of Sensuality, although Powys's publisher, Mr. Schuster, was a little worried about that one.
Back in England, Llewelyn is living on the Dorset coast, between recurrences of his tuberculosis, with his wife Alyse Gregory and his mistress Gamel Woolsey, now pregnant by him and about to have an abortion, after which she will decide to leave him and to marry Gerald Brenan. Alyse always treated Gamel, at least in public, with great kindness and consideration, and if her husband tried to bully his elder brother (they were in fact a very close pair), she would shake a finger at him and say "Mr. Powys shouldn't do that". John Cowper's enormous shrewdness and innocence entered with relish into this 30s world of "indescribable intrigues and cross-currents of all these conflicting personalities", as he happily called them. ("Lulu came to see me in bed, and as he went downstairs he said 'some people love me, but others think—'".) They all engage together in a complex idyll, hunting flints and fossils in the cliff ("I begged them to desist from this tiresome antiquarian pursuit"). Then Lulu, Gamel and Alyse are all busy downstairs cooking haddock for John Cowper, "because it is my favourite fish"; and Lulu bathes and runs naked along the shore. "Turned to meet him and embraced him all dripping and drenched with sea-salt—watched him rejoin Alyse and Gamel. Contemplated their three figures … Lulu naked, the two women clothed—like Epicurus with Leontion and Ternissa. Like Odysseus with Calypso and Nausicaa."
Two Powys sisters, Gertrude, a painter, and Philippa, a poet, are also living near by—Marian, another sister, had emigrated to New York where she runs a successful lace shop—and John Cowper leaves to visit his own wife and son in Sussex. He has never lived with his wife, but as she is very religious he has never divorced her, and their son Littleton, christened after the second oldest Powys brother, has become an Anglican priest.
Had a very happy breakfast with my son and heard him defend the art of dissimulation and diplomacy … how surpassingly beautiful his face does become at times—his complexion like a sea-shell and his eyes glaucous and luminous. He has sometimes an angelic beauty. He said he felt a gentle diffused amorousness to girls…. His sweet-natured tact between two such eccentric and selfish devils as his mother and me is beautiful and touching to see. He told me he would like to be a farm labourer-"old Father Powys"—and sometimes be allowed to say Mass by the parson. I think he is very like Alyosha.
Powys was a ritualist in his own way, a one-man Shaman or "super-ritualist" as he called himself; and yet these processes involved an absurdity of freedom and humour which liberated every mystical or mumbo-jumbo act. His phrase for what was quintessentially personal in himself, or in anyone else—our "Life Illusion"—aptly shows the whole ambiguous but unharmful gusto of his being: what we live by is not an "illusion", because it is what we live by, but the word "illusion" expresses both the absurdity and the necessity of being oneself; and this extraordinary diary seems to sum up the whole essence of that self-generating being. Nothing in his Life Illusion can be described in any other way than the way that he does it, as a poem can only in its own words be itself. "Tao" or "Zen" become totally inert terms if they are invoked in this context: and yet they are, of course, related to it. When Wolf Solent, in the novel of that name, sees the root of an alder diving inconspicuously into the dark river water, the act it tells him of is not that of Wordsworthian nature but a sudden and intense enhancement of his own Life Illusion. And the commonplaceness of such moments is part of their joy, as is in the diary an inconspicuous, almost unnoticeable reference to sheep passing "thro' the shadows of the ash-tree whose roots by the wooden palings I look at".
In a luminous introduction, Dr. Krisdóttir comes as close as one can do to conveying the remarkable qualities of the diary. Powys's fascination, as she notes, "lies in his ability to pass through boundaries as if boundaries did not exist. For him there was no demarcation between the outer world and the inner, no gap of desire between the self and the not-self. He clasps 'some extremely provocative embracing trees that I call the Lesbians', and the embracing trees are … identical with his body." In a sense and if Wordsworth should be in question, Powys lived all his life in the state whose withdrawal from Wordsworth himself is recorded in the Immortality Ode.
It is the total lack of "mysticism" in any ordinary sense that appeals so strongly in the daily record here, with an appeal like Kilvert's, but, of course, far more shameless and explicit than anything personal in Kilvert's themselves sometimes surprising paragraphs. To quote Dr. Krisdóttir again: "the world that is Powys is displayed in the Diary matter-of-factly, dispassionately—his self-centredness, his sadism, his sexual fantasies, his sicknesses, his shamanistic rituals, blandly poured out for the reader. In our world of carefully created borders this antic eccentricity, this elliptical off-centredness, is either violently rejected or passionately accepted."
I would not quite agree that one needs either to accept or reject Powys, still less that there need be anything violent or passionate in the process. To paraphrase Canetti again, either to worship or to write off a great phenomenon and a great literary identity like Powys gets you no further than "seeing through it" would do. Communion is the point; and communion with him through the diary, or in the earlier novels, can be as effortless as it is intimate and undignified, in volving no sense of our interrogating another person. Instead, we are with Powys, say, on the train which carries him on his last extended American lecture tour, a via dolorosa of dyspepsia from his ulcer in town halls and pretentious hotels. It was preceded by a public debate at Utica between himself and Bertrand Russell on whether marriage was or was not a good thing. Powys, faithful all his life, after the rapid failure of his own marriage, to his odd companion Phyllis Playter, thought it was. Russell dryly disagreed. Outside the hotel in Pittsburgh, he has an experience similar to that of Wolf Solent with the miserable man on Waterloo Steps; and it makes him feel he has "the soft fussy egotistic coward soul of an Archdeacon". Then he is back in the train at Racine, seeing the light on the cold lake. "Very hostile to me all whiteness except the girl's body I love. I don't like the idea of the Beatific Vision being whiteness. I like it to be green or sometimes blue. Dyspepsia bad and a long long lunch. A wild reckless lecture on Dostoevsky."
The vanished world of the American lecture circuit, in which Powys was Ancient Mariner and Don Quixote, Moses with his tables and the old man of the sea, made strenuous demands on those who panned its gold for their livelihood. "Once on this accursed tour my stomach was so upset that I dreamt of nothing else but going to look for places where I could shit in peace." He feels he has become like his own father, the patriarchal rector of Montacute, "an old lonely deep animal", "some savage constipated panther like my father when my mother was dying; and he cried out 'Can't I even have my breakfast in peace?'"
In the summer of 1930, he and Phyllis Playter—known in the diary as the T. T., the "Tiny Thin", the "Tao", or the "terminals"—retired thankfully to a little house at Phudd Bottom (superlatively Powysian name!) near Hillsdale in upper New York State. There the diary takes on its characteristic and absorbing density, recording walks with the black spaniel "the Old", progress on A Glastonbury Romance, ulcer pains and enemas, often administered by the T. T. and necessitated by his peculiar diet. Occasionally they are distracted by a visit from Edna St. Vincent Millay, who lives not far away with her husband, and he needs a little whisky then to calm his nerves after the social gin-drinking. There is the stove problem, and the cold of the winter. But the most real, and as it seems involuntary, achievement of the diary is the gradual creation of the two characters, himself and his beloved, and the way in which their two personalities emerge quite separately, and as it were laboriously, from the vivid but disjected prose, like creatures with wings slowly uncrumpling from a chrysalis. The apparition of the T. T.—her kindness, her irritation, her pining for town life, her house-proudness and her menstrual troubles—brings to life a person who is whole and complete in herself, and in no way dependent on the patronage of masculine shaping or viewpoint. Especially alive is the T. T.'s American seriousness, which Powys revered, and himself took very seriously as the utterance of an inspiritive muse."
After breakfast the T. T. talked with extraordinary eloquence about that experience of life—that thick rich feeling of life made up of a vast number of tragic experiences or of experiences observed in others or just intuitively grasped even if you live in one place all your days. This deep life-feeling she says is the chief thing! Shakespeare and Dostoevsky have it and Dickens a little too but not Balzac. Tolstoy has it a little. She says I spoil it in my books by propaganda.
As the editor points out, the techniques employed in the diary "are more deliberate and complex than its seeming artlessness and hap-hazardness at first suggest". For its author it was, as he says, "one of those things you are proud of doing just because it was difficult to do". His Autobiography was probably much easier, since he presents himself there by conventional means, which seem actually to invite the reader to "see through" him; a process which soon becomes tedious and uninteresting, just as—one cannot help feeling—Powys himself would soon have become tedious if actually encountered in the flesh. The diary holds and retains the mystery of creation, an absorbing secret which does not seem to present the portrait of a self and a loved one, but the T. T.'s "thick rich feeling intuitively grasped", by a clumsy and groping but strangely thrilling seer of the flesh, to whom Hardy had once said: "Your fate is in the lap of the gods, Powys."
The spell remains unbroken even by some characteristically comic outcry—a disillusionment that might belong to anyone, more specifically to any disappointed author.
Glastonbury is a failure. Only 4000 copies sold…. This is a Serious Blow, to which I must adjust myself when I had been secretly hoping for I know not what terrific Kudos including the Noble [sic] Prize & being knighted by my Sovereign & receiving the acclamation of Europe & seeing the book translated into all languages—& best of all sold at the entrance to the Ruins in Glastonbury itself! Well I must resign myself to its being a failure.
Touching indeed, though human, all too human; and this comparative lack of interest in the Powys novels in 1932 has continued to the present day. Powys rejected with horror an approach from Holly wood which would probably in any case have come to nothing and, if it had come off, could only have resulted in a travesty. But what he felt here as failure was one of the reasons which eventually persuaded them to leave Phudd Bottom and return to Europe, setting first at a Dorset cottage near his brothers Theodore and Llewelyn, afterwards, and for good, in North Wales, Powys dying in 1963 and Phyllis Playter surviving him for many years. Although Wales was a tremendous source of inspiration in his later years, it could be argued that it diluted Powys's true subject—his own Life Illusion—and that we find him at his most original and most characteristic not in Porius and Owen Glendower, and in the later mythological fantasies, but in his early novels like Wood and Stone and Rodmoor, as well as in Wolf Solent and Weymouth Sands. It is in these works that the spirit of the diary nestles and is tabernacled, as it were, converting itself into his liveliest, most humorous and most compelling fiction.
The present selection of the diary ends with the death from tuberculosis of Llewelyn Powys in 1939, when, in the editor's words, "the war and death of loved ones gave it 'a sense of ending'"; but the diary itself continues for many years after that. Although Powys hoped it would eventually be published, he realized it would have to be edited, a task he hoped to carry out with the T. T., but they never got around to it. So we take leave of this extraordinary couple, the dancer and her Petrushka, as Powys sometimes wrote of them, living in a tiny Welsh cottage, with the T. T.'s mother and aunt (Powys describes his lover as the most loving and obedient of daughters) installed in another one down the road. On January 1, 1940, he records the deaths of so many in his big family, and quotes from Hardy's poem "He Resolves to Say No More"—never a possible decision for Powys—while talking about "the beginning of the end of all of us" and "the T. T.'s future life when Petrushka be the ghost on the roof".
In 1912, Powys met Frances Gregg, who came up to him after one of his American lectures and presented him with a poem called "Perché". That was the start of a remarkable series of letters from him to her which were discovered in a sack at Plymouth dockyard, where she had a wartime job scrubbing floors in the canteen, and which have now been beautifully edited by her son Oliver Wilkinson. His mother had put the letters in the sack on the night she and his grandmother were both killed by a German bomb. Powys and Frances were in love for years, but since he could not and would not divorce his wife, she married his great friend Louis Wilkinson, who was to write under the name Louis Marlow. The marriage was the cause of great jealousy to Powys, and appears in various guises in his novels.
The letters themselves are almost as fascinating as the diary, and exhibit the same elemental feelings—love, jealousy, possessiveness—transmuted into the characteristic humour of the Powysian Life Illusion. Although he remained close to Louis Wilkinson and Frances after they were married, the Powys comedy of tensions remained; and so did his gladness, as he puts it in an earlier letter, "that fate would have me fond not only of receiving humiliating blows from hands I care for, but for having set up on the walls of my palace scrolls that no one—no! No one is able to read!…" The couple he had brought together (and who remained devoted to him, Frances especially) teased him by calling him "an Inflexible Toad", but oddly enough he reserved his sharpest jealousy for Ezra Pound, who Frances was also seeing a great deal of. The letters are irresistible; and for everyone interested in Powysiana, Oliver Wilkinson's extensive and charming annotation of the several characters who figure in them will be of great practical value.