Powys, John Cowper (Vol. 9)
Powys, John Cowper 1872–1963
Powys, an English novelist, poet, and essayist, recreated in his novels the western English countryside of his youth. His characters possess a deep affinity for the natural elements that surround them: the sea, the wind, the land are imbued with a mystical significance, perhaps reflecting Powys's philosophy that man must find peace with the cosmic forces of nature. (See also CLC, Vol. 7.)
To label a man or a character an eccentric, at least as the term is generally used, tells us little that is helpful. In England, as Henry Adams discovered, "Eccentricity was so general as to become hereditary distinction." But in its stricter geometric and literal sense, eccentricity defines a position or form of movement which, when recognized, identifies a characteristic mode in a life or in a novel. Eccentricity is also, in a sense, a parody of genius. It mimes many of the gestures associated with true originality and profundity. And, like good parody, eccentricity feeds on, even eventually threatens to become, the very thing it imitates. The eccentric, like the parodist, must place himself at some distance from the center—whether that center be the "normal" or the object of parody. But while they begin by standing away from the center, both the parodist and the eccentric are finally dependent upon whatever occupies the center. Both, then, feel the tension of apparently contradictory demands: the requirement that they remain at the periphery and their need to define themselves by the center.
John Cowper Powys was a self-proclaimed eccentric. "Quixotic Puppet as I am, Prophetic Scarecrow as I am, draggle-tailed Hermit-Whore as I am," he chants in his Autobiography. Perhaps it is this eccentricity, as much as anything, which has confused the critics. While a few have emphasized his central position in the development of the modern novel, most have left him unnoticed on the periphery. (pp. 201-02)
Powys fostered his own neglect by cultivating a perverse instinct which kept him moving in the least fashionable direction. He left England in 1905 to spend almost thirty years lecturing to and "civilizing" America, while Americans with pretensions to civilization, including many of the country's most original writers, were sailing the Atlantic in the opposite direction. The years he spent in America are described in the Autobiography (written just before he returned to England in 1934), but they left virtually no mark on his fiction. He made literary friends in America, most prominently Theodore Dreiser, but the atmosphere of his novels is so thoroughly British that he received only passing attention from American critics who were busy at the time discovering the richness of their own neglected literary tradition. Thus, although the years spent in America occupy the center of his life, it is as if they formed an ellipsis, an empty center around which the eccentric circles.
America did, however, offer Powys a convenient periphery from which he could look in and write about what was truly central to his imaginative life—the hills, plains, flowers, and beaches of southwest England. Three of his four "English" novels were written in America: Wolf Solent (1929), A Glastonbury Romance (1932), and Weymouth Sands (1934). When Powys finally did return to England, he almost immediately began writing about Wales, the home, as he conceived it, of the ancient Princes of Powysland from whom he liked to trace his descent. And later, after he had settled in Wales, he turned in his fiction to more remote centers: Homeric Greece, Atlantis, and ultimately, outer space. He writes, then, from what he called in his Autobiography the "fluctuating margin of vague memory". From this margin he writes himself toward the center until, having reached it, that center becomes a new margin from which to explore yet another center. (p. 203)
Powys writes, as he lived, around the circumference of the modern novel. His theory of fiction, as distinct from his practice of it, remained Victorian, while the age more and more demanded experimentation. As a critic, Powys "appreciated" while others analyzed, and popularized while fascination with the difficult grew. He explored the psychology of man in terms of his relation to nature and place, the world outside, just as Freud's theories were making familiar territory of man's inner world. And while he seemed modish as an advocate of sensuality, he went on to profess a disgust for all aspects of the reproductive process. "It was only the most purged and winnowed allusions to sex that I could endure, and the least reference to normal sex functions turned my stomach. Savagery and blood I could not tolerate for a moment. It was the idea of sadism, an idea that had to flit and float and hover, like those tenuous heat waves that you watch sometimes above the surface of a field, that alone excited me."… In its blend of moral rectitude and aesthetic perversity Powys's admission itself flits and floats and hovers between condemnation and celebration. He never offers a standard against which to measure his eccentricities. And his novels present the same difficulty. They are populated by grotesques whose obsessions vie with one another for primacy. Still, in his best novels and in Wolf Solent in particular, Powys's eccentricity evolves a dramatic structure which is, at the very least, an excellent imitation of genius. (p. 205)
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…."
Geographical nostalgia sets the scene for biological nostalgia for Wolf Solent is also a book about lost paternity…. At thirty-five, the exact midpoint of the Biblical span of three-score and ten, Wolf feels that he is about to start a new life. Yet the movement toward this new life is actually circular since Wolf is travelling back into his own past as well as the rural past of industrialized society…. As he flees from London, a representative center of modern civilization, Wolf carries with him the memory of a man he has seen on the steps outside Waterloo Station,… a man of such misery that "no conceivable social readjustments or ameliorative revolutions could ever atone for it."… This face appears to Wolf again and again during the course of the novel, reminding him of the monstrosities of the modern world and of the existence of a sadistic impulse in the Creator of that world.
Of all the emotional baggage Wolf brings with him, the most important piece is what he calls his mythology or "life illusion." Wolf has developed a system which places himself at the center of a cosmological struggle between good and evil…. Since the story is told from Wolf's point of view, the structure of the novel inevitably reflects the momentous dualism of this illusion. Thus Wolf Solent is built upon a series of apparent oppositions. (pp. 205-06)
Wolf's sense of self-importance is stimulated by the evil he perceives. As long as he can believe that he is surrounded by sinister people and events, his identity is sustained by the illusion that he occupies a central position, that his choice between good and evil is the decisive one. But as the oppositions begin to merge, as good and evil become less and less distinguishable, as innocent explanations replace sinister interpretations, the illusion of the center can no longer hold…. Wolf becomes aware that the polarity he has imposed upon the world is actually within himself.
Wolf is contained within "the charmed circle of the individual's private consciousness." The special charm of the circle is that it offers the self a privileged position at the center. For Wolf, however, the charm must be broken. He is unable to sustain the illusion that he stands at the center of things. Instead, he begins to see his life as an imitation…. As he feels himself reliving the past, he becomes less and less a participant in and more and more an observer of his own fate…. As the novel progresses, involvement gives way to detachment and the compulsions of memory lapse into the anodyne of forgetfulness. (pp. 208-09)
Unlike James's narrator who stands inside the house of fiction and looks out the window, Wolf is characteristically ouside looking in. There are several explicitly voyeuristic scenes in the novel, but the voyeuristic stance is pervasive. Wolf is constantly watching others, or watching himself watching others. Since the tensions of the novel are ultimately the product of Wolf's mythology, Wolf Solent offers what may be the quintessential voyeuristic experience, the voyeur peeping at, and through, himself. Or, in Powys's somewhat more metaphysical formulation: "Does not all literary penetration spring from some subtle sublimation of our deepest vice? From a 'voyeur' I became a 'clairvoyeur'."… (p. 209)
The crucial scene in the collapse of Wolf's mythology dramatizes this "subtle sublimination." It is set in Christie's bedroom. Wolf … is convinced that if he commits adultery with Christie he will have completed the identification with his scandalous father and could no longer pretend to be on the side of the good. Seated on Christie's bed, he hears himself ask her to remove her dress. He is not even sure that he has actually spoken these words. And, as he wonders what will happen, he looks into the mirror—the conventional prop in scenes of erotic self-discovery—and sees neither his image nor Christie's, but rather the face of the beggar in the Waterloo Station which has been haunting him ever since he left London. Ostensibly the face appears to remind him of his allegiances, of his commitment to suffering humanity. What actually happens is that Wolf feels himself splitting in two. "For a second or two the struggle within him gave a sensation as if the very core of his consciousness—that 'hard little crystal' within the nucleus of his soul—were breaking into two halves! Then he felt as if his whole being were flowing away in water, whirling away like a mist of rain, out upon the night, over the roofs, over the darkened hills! Then came a moment's sinking into nothingness, into a grey gulf of non-existence; and then it was as if the will within him, that was beyond thought, gathered itself together in that frozen chaos and rose upwards like a shining-scaled fish, electric, vibrant, taut, and leapt into the greenish-coloured vapour that filled the room!"… Having worked through a series of imitations, Wolf here doubles himself. A new center is established—an empty, clear space between the two halves of Wolf's consciousness. And from the poles of this divided consciousness, Wolf can look into and through the center, as Powys in America had looked toward England, as the son had looked toward his "formidable begetter."
When in A Glastonbury Romance Johnny Geard attempts to revitalize the myth of the center—Glastonbury as the place to which the survivors of Atlantis fled, the location of a prehistoric lake village, the spot to which Joseph of Arimathea brought the Holy Grail, the site of Arthur's grave—he is only elaborating a public version of Wolf's private mythology. A Glastonbury Romance ends with a flood from the midst of which Glastonbury Tor rises, an image of the center and its circumference which Powys used to describe a different location on the opening page of his Autobiography. "The part of Derbyshire which centres round the Peak is like the boss of a shield …". At the center of creation stands the phallic emblem, the figure of fatherhood, the formidable begetter of the formidable circle, the pole around which the eccentric ostentatiously circles.
The same geometry contols the contrived, insistently fictional conclusion of Wolf Solent. Lord Carfax (whose name means the meeting place of four roads—another center) arrives and gathers up the loose ends of the plot. Wolf, always the voyeur, the outsider, peers in the window of his own house at Gerda sitting on Carfax's lap. We are reminded that Carfax had once had an affair with Wolf's mother and that he was responsible for getting Wolf his job with Urquhart. The circle has been completed and Carfax as deus ex machina and surrogate father empties the plot of whatever tensions it still retains.
Wolf abdicates. He wanders out of the story which had been the creation of his life illusion into a sea of golden but tercups. (pp. 209-11)
Wolf's vision then slips to a memory of a time in Weymouth when he was drinking tea and reading Wordsworth. By virtue of the allusion to Wordsworth, the yellow butter-cups recall that poet's golden daffodils. The lone Wolf, the lonely writer, the lonely reader wait for a new vision to "flash upon the inward eye"—the eccentric's ultimate center, a center bounded only by the self. (p. 211)
George Blake, "The Eccentricity of John Cowper Powys," in Modern Fiction Studies (copyright © 1976, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana, U.S.A.), Summer, 1976, pp. 201-11.
In his last years Powys thought that the most important of his writing were the romances, and with Wolf Solent and A Glastonbury Romance in front of them few readers are likely to quarrel with that self judgement. The experience of such books is a liberation of the imagination such as one receives only from the great makers in any of the arts…. A Glastonbury Romance is demonstrably the most ample exploration into the imaginative realities of Wessex, an imaginative realm that goes back through Hardy, Barnes and Middle English to the old West Saxon literature, but Maiden Castle is the most compact of these explorations and the one in which the harmonization of Celt and Saxon in Wessex is most explicit. It is moreover the novel in which Powys takes to the limit his determination to counterpoint the everyday Arnold Bennett world and the E T A Hoffmann world—or the Undine world of de la Motte Fouqué, as readers of the Letters … to Glyn Hughes might prefer to call it. For both reasons I am unwilling to have it passed by, although I am aware that the 'Quest of the Grail', which had obsessed Powys since boyhood, is muted. The truth is that in A Glastonbury Romance Powys had examined the 'Quest of the Grail' in such detail that he had to be careful not to repeat himself.
After Maiden Castle … the succeeding romances, with their Welsh settings, explore the Celtic extension of the Wessex world and, no less than the Saxon Wessex romances, attest the very little noted survival of the 'Celtic' imagination that was so much heard of in the 1890's. (p. 49)
Bernard Jones, "Imagination All Compact," in Books and Bookmen (© copyright Bernard Jones 1977; reprinted with permission), February, 1977, pp. 48-9.