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Powys, John Cowper 1872–1963
Powys was an English novelist, poet, and essayist. He wrote of the sensual and the spiritual, and always expressed an intense and mystical attachment to nature.
Nobody in a novel by Mr. Powys is ever as interesting as the author himself. Many remarkable things are happening,...
(The entire section contains 4366 words.)
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- Critical Essays
Powys, John Cowper 1872–1963
Powys was an English novelist, poet, and essayist. He wrote of the sensual and the spiritual, and always expressed an intense and mystical attachment to nature.
Nobody in a novel by Mr. Powys is ever as interesting as the author himself. Many remarkable things are happening, and a gallery of grotesques presses its walls perilously upon the reader as he passes; but at any moment he is likely to be thinking less of the actions and the characters than of the man who could have contrived them. That unhappy figure is always hugely in the way, pushing people around, straining them into appropriate attitudes, forcing their relationships, producing sound effects of wind and thunder to eke out their rather toneless voices, and gesticulating to the reader lest he miss some cosmic irony which is about to express itself. Nor is Mr. Powys anything but truly interesting. It is simply that his best book is still his "Autobiography," which is completely and frankly about himself, and where to be sure he confesses that he has made an art out of acting as if he were even more interesting than he is.
He is perhaps no novelist at all. To me he tragically lacks the gift of being credible; tragically, because he has so many other gifts in the richest abundance. He has eloquence, imagination, and a unique vision of the universe. He has the kind of humor which comes from looking at things and people through prisms, so that the gray light for him breaks constantly into color. He has a feel for the world. And yet he cannot tell a story which I will believe. He is always getting ready to do so, he is forever maneuvering the battalions of his words toward some strategic point. He is a master of preparation, a potent suggester of mysteries to come. But the mysteries are fizzles, the events are overprepared. This seems to be because Mr. Powys lacks any sort of gumption about what is plausible. He spoils his suspense by having too much of it and by talking too much about it. He slows down his action almost to the stopping place by keeping too many actions simultaneously before our eyes. Where all is supposed to be wonderful, nothing can be genuinely so; where all is grotesque, nothing can be strange.
And this is not at all because Mr. Powys lacks vision. The world he is groaning to give us does exist. But it exists in his own mind, and he has never been able to get it out. It is art that he lacks: the art of projecting his soul into people unlike himself, people who know how to act as if they had never heard of John Cowper Powys. (pp. 201-02)
Mark Van Doren, in his The Private Reader: Selected Articles & Reviews (copyright © 1942 by Mark Van Doren; reprinted by permission of Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Publishers), Holt, 1942.
[Powys's] psychological realism goes as deep as Joyce's and is more assured than Lawrence's; his use of myth and legend, indigenously rooted in his story's British locale, is more convincing than Lawrence's Quetzalcoatl or Joyce's use of the Odyssey; and with his sense of occult powers and the great First Cause itself as intertwisted in his drama we shall find little correspondence in either Lawrence or Joyce. It is all of a piece, a vast, organic, convincing whole, like a natural growth. Within it, and without straining, without anything of Lawrence's nervous insistencies or Joyce's top-heavy apparatus, a large number of themes of deepest importance are lucidly selected and developed. (p. 153)
Powys's general world-view concentrates heavily, though not exclusively, on the powers coming from below in man and on the inanimate and the lower life-forms in nature, with a kind of mystical sensuality blending Wordsworth, Joyce and Lawrence. (p. 154)
The new spiritual freedom described in Wolf Solent corresponds to that of Lawrence's Manifesto. Powys's prose unfurls with an unhurried and unperturbed ease that goes far to witness its authority; and on the strength of his revelatory passages the tormenting obsessions of Swift, the tragic lives of Byron and Wilde, the sex-agonies of Lawrence and obscenities of Joyce, may all receive, in retrospect, a new sympathy and justification. (p. 155)
G. Wilson Knight, "Lawrence, Joyce and Powys" (originally published in Essays in Criticism, October, 1961), in his Neglected Powers: Essays on Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Literature (© G. Wilson Knight 1971; reprinted by permission of the author and Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.), Routledge, 1971, pp. 142-55.
[Powys] is deeply and traditionally unorthodox; he is against all 'establishments' and as sceptical of scepticism as he is of dogma. He remains imaginatively at home, whenever it suits him, with either, while putting his final trust only in those poetic and occult perceptions that have from time immemorial enriched the consciousness of man. In sexual matters, too, he is similarly both unorthodox and traditional, explicitly formulating, though with a number of typical reservations and repudiations, what has for too long remained merely implicit and embedded in our poetic and dramatic traditions: the compulsion on man of the bisexual, or seraphic, vision which, though transmitted through human figures, speaks from a dimension beyond the biological.
Whereas earlier creative writers kept these occult and seraphic intuitions so well woven into their artistic fabrics that we could at least pretend to ignore them, Powys allows no such opportunity for escape. Like Nietzsche he writes from the beyond-good-and-evil consciousness on the border between art and doctrine where each interpenetrates the other. (p. 13)
Poetry is close to myth and it is saturated both in the past and in a consciousness that outspaces the day to day perceptions of contemporary man. We may accordingly call John Cowper Powys a great modern poet using his own insights and his inheritance from past centuries for a modern purpose. He has, it is true, won fame chiefly by his series of 'novels', but the term scarcely suits them, since it was made for a particular kind of social and sexual fiction arising in the seventeenth century and appealing to a particular class and a particular time. The very word suggests the 'new', and therefore the ephemeral; whereas Powys is more at home with what is age-old and enduring. (p. 17)
Lucifer does more than contain embryonically the potential of Powys's subsequent writing; it is, in itself, not only a fine poem but a valauble attempt to place our age within the context of the centuries. That Powys should have afterwards turned to prose was wise. What he had to say would have had less impact in poetic form; it would have been either limited to an aesthetic approbation or denigrated by tendentious criticism. The imponderables concerned, at once so simple and so remote, demanded expression through a less sophisticated medium capable of every needed modulation from the trivial to the tremendous. (p. 18)
What he counsels directly and indirectly in both his fiction and his teaching is what he sometimes calls 'elementalism'. He urges us to cultivate the Wordsworthian power of feeling into the inanimate; to enjoy all nature, and especially its less obviously living manifestations, such as earth, stone, wind and sea, not haphazardly but by an act of will. Sometimes he says that any object, even any human arte-fact, will do, all that is needed being the embrace by the ego of the external world. Sometimes he visualises the soul as being projected from the physical body, like Marvell's silver bird.
On occasion he appears to regard the elements as themselves conscious but sometimes, and especially when thinking of old buildings, walls and paths, he regards past human associations as playing their part. Past human emotions can be impressed on localities. Like Wordsworth in so many passages of The Prelude, Powys has a sense of a haunting past, and also of parental or ancestral spirits; and in looking for what Wordsworth called the 'Elysian Fields' he is always likely to search back in racial history to a lost Golden Age, such as was supposed in classical mythology to have existed under Saturn, or Cronos, before the present dispensation.
This mind-nature fusion is regarded by Powys as a kind of sexual union, having its own 'sensuality'; and correspondingly in its approach to human beings the Powysian sexology is strangely impersonal. Both in what he tells us of himself and in the many self-reflections in his novels there is a divergence from ordinary desire to a more refined but impersonal and cerebral fascination…. Himself, as he tells us, half a woman, he is a Tiresias understanding sexual affairs from the woman's side; but since they are so subjectively approached his fictional women are, unless of a type that has male or bisexual extensions, less individualised than his men. (pp. 20-1)
He never forgets that there are horrors too awful for any theology to explain or any teaching to assuage. He knows in himself the sadistic instinct; he sees it active in others, especially in vivisection; and he finds it implanted in the universal scheme. Much of his writing can be read as an attempt to replace this grim recognition by a sunnier, more kindly and more humorous, gospel, searching for a life-way such as he believes may have existed in antiquity. More and more he relies on the ancient literature of Wales in which, deep below the horrors which it faces and understands, he contends that the Saturnian secret lies embedded. One great question, the question of Death and human survival, he attacks, in book after book; he is obsessed by it. His elemental and spiritualistic intuitions and experiences open manifold possibilities; and if, as he thinks, we are wiser to think less of a universe than of a multiverse, the chances and possibilities are only multiplied. Nevertheless, he grows, as the years pass, more doubtful. Even so, while his explicit thought remains agnostic, his objective art becomes less and less earth-bound, steering finally sun-ward an astral, or etheric, course. (pp. 21-2)
Whereas Ducdame continually described the interaction of scene and mind, Wolf Solent is, as a whole, written as from that very interaction. We experience throughout from the hero's subjective centre; earth and its vegetations are by him inwardly apprehended, their soul-sap touched almost as from their own subjective centre; sometimes the mind itself creates its own nature, sometimes external nature becomes less an aggregate of objects than a suffusing and vaporous presence. Human thoughts and instincts are imagistically equated with animal-life or other natural manifestations and human events appear almost to form themselves like steaming vapour rising from the soil. The soul is regarded less as a hard core to the personality than as an enveloping lake or cloud…. And yet there is no loss of solidity; we are in an earth-world and a world of thick vegetation; but that earth-world's solidity is itself mysterious. The solid and the atmospheric are in strange identity. (p. 30)
The manipulation of [a] vast concourse of themes and persons [in A Glastonbury Romance], treated simultaneously in width and in depth, is staggering, and the realism attained remarkable. Amazing as are the events, they are all on, or near, the frontiers of possibility. The psychological and spiritual insights show a daring and a penetration in comparison with which many great classics fall to the level of escapist fiction. A Glastonbury Romance is less a book than a Bible. (p. 41)
Wizzie [in Maiden Castle] is Powys's greatest success in full-length female characterisation. In female psychology he is always expert and his realisation of girls in mutual relationship particularly good, but his girls are created so peculiarly from 'within' that we have the less sense of them as objectively differentiated persons. Many of them are, as it were, the same, normal girl, whereas his males tend to be brilliantly characterised eccentrics. His most vivid girls as units have been those who have, or touch, boy-like attributes, such as Gladys in Wood and Stone, Philippa in Rodmoor, and Persephone Spear in A Glastonbury Romance; or who have esoteric extensions, like Gerda and Christie. Gladys and Philippa were simultaneously attractive and cruel; in them the bisexual was, or seemed to be, distrusted. Now, within the unfurling process of Powys's assimilative expansions, we have in Wizzie a complete and lovable feminine study the firmer for its bisexual pointing. (p. 50)
Owen Glendower might be called Powys's greatest artistic achievement; a maximum of its contents in human insight, historical learning and intuition, archaeological exactitude, theological disquisition, social understanding both of the past and as pointing to modern advances, all can be fully received without reference to Powys's other works, though the relation is there. In it he allows full scope to idealisms, Christian and bisexual, that do not again recur. (p. 71)
Shakespeare alone has left us literature of so vast and intricate a comprehension. The two developments are similar. Powys's poems, early narratives and lecturing correspond to Shakespeare's output before 1600; the famous sequence from Wolf Solent onwards to the dark tragedies; Owen Glendower and Porius to Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus; and both show final periods of myth and marvel, with a concentration on youth. Though Powys's technique is scarcely dramatic, his way of making each work a world of its own is Shakespearian, especially in his use of colourings: green for Wolf Solent, blue and purple for A Glastonbury Romance, white for Jobber Skald, red and gold for Owen Glendower, yellow for Porius, gold for Atlantis. (p. 122)
Powys can tire us by repetition; his vastly spatialised technique and massive deployments may intrude at the expense of narrative; and his mastery of the long sentence, like the wielding of a giant's club, tempts him, on occasion, too far.
Nevertheless his choice of media has in the main been admirably attuned to his purposes. These are peculiarly his own; he is announcing a gospel, a tao or life-way, perhaps also a death-way, though when he likes, as in The Meaning of Culture (1930), he can write impersonally on a wide field.
To traditional religion he is deeply attuned while remaining sceptical…. Theological disquisition is wonderfully handled in Owen Glendower and The Brazen Head. For some of us the Christian and bisexual idealisms, for the two involve each other, of Owen Glendower will remain the summit of his achievement. However, he is impelled to speak for our disturbed and sceptical age, distrusting bisexual unities in Porius and Atlantis in association with theology and science, though bisexuality still fascinates in The Mountains of the Moon …; rigid systems lead to tyranny and torture; all easy solutions he refuses, never forgetting the horrors in nature and in man. His own choicest precepts he admits to be provisional and he is aware, despite theology, that Chance, honoured in book after book, and perhaps especially in The Inmates…, is a determining power. But he also insists that from this ambiguous and indecipherable universe or multiverse, for he prefers the latter term, goodness, by which he means not zeal or 'love' but rather tolerance, kindliness and humour, has somehow unaccountably arisen, to exert henceforward its own unavoidable compulsions…. [Probably] his most important contribution to our religious tradition is his insistence that 'no religion that doesn't deal with sex-longing in some kind of way is much use to us'. (pp. 122-23)
Powys's concrete symbolisms are very exactly devised. His aim is to work from, speak through and induce, not knowledge but sensation and experience; and further to announce the possibility of a new, creative, step in evolution awaiting man…. Working from close contact with the sex-drive he apprehends magical powers already housed in man but awaiting development, of which his giants and cumbrous magi are rough symbols.
He may, despite his elemental and occult inclusions, be called a great humanist. (p. 130)
[No] student of Powys will get far who does not respond to the pervasive humour saturating his writings and often colouring with cunning irony his most abysmal speculations. And with this goes a wonderful courtesy, unusual in our day, not only to his readers but also to his own fictional persons whose rights, as persons, are never invaded, never scorned, never forgotten. (p. 131)
G. Wilson Knight, in his The Saturnian Quest: A Chart of the Prose Works of John Cowper Powys (copyright © G. Wilson Knight, 1964), Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1964.
[John Cowper Powys] liked to speak of his texts as romances rather than as novels, for a romance is not just a sprawling novel, it is an essay in representing other orders of reality than that which immediately meets the senses, it concerns itself with the convincingly impossible. To this end, Powys's people do not talk, they soliloquize, and his places are not just written up in sensitively accurate prose but plumbed for their occult possibilities. His thought is lyrical, his psychology inspired and morbid, though he is lacking in much sense of social reality—his communists and anarchists deliver their souls to the reader like angels, but it is hard to imagine angels actually bringing themselves to vote or throw a bomb. It could be said that while his books are always rooted somewhere—usually Dorset—it is never quite a solid rural 'somewhere' for long. Dorset makes as good a door as any to what he liked to call the multiverse. A Powys somewhere soon becomes a nowhere or an everywhere. Thus for all his feeling for the resonance of latitude and longitude—and Powys's most arresting texts all begin with elaborate stage-settings—I believe it would not be difficult to demonstrate that his landscapes are more often mental than physical. Dud No-Man's Dorchester lodgings reflect the inside of his skull as appallingly as the mother's room performs the same service for Samuel Beckett's Molloy. Even in the Autobiography, where Powys might be expected to be content as it were within the facts of the case, he is forever tending towards an identification of his clergyman father with the rock and the earth, and of himself with the wind. And then there are other habits which put him apart from the drift of English fiction in the first seventy years of the twentieth century: his awe before the 'mysterium, tremendum, his working sense of the analogy between the sublime and the numinous, his interest in trying to convey revelations of truth (though never absolute truth), his sensitivity to pain as a corrupter of perception, his Tiresias-type sympathy with what goes on in a woman's mind and body …, above all the essential quality of delicate but crafty kindness which makes him concentrate on the likenesses he can find between things and recoil in horror or disgust from aspects of difference. These items of the spirit, together with his encomiums of fools and misfits rather before Beckett made such folk intellectually respectable again, separate Powys from the century and the century's approbation. (pp. 83-4)
The 'Romance' genre allowed him to pretend that his books were dull and conventional when they weren't tumultously magic. It also allowed him to claim Harrison Ainsworth as a predecessor …. Powys, who read [Ainsworth's] books in sixpenny paperbound editions under the bedclothes in the dormitory at Sherborne, already knew that this was to be his own point of departure, his ticket to what he once called 'the erotic Fourth Dimension'. 'Erotic Fourth Dimension' of course belies the seriousness of the link which this fastidious yet scatological writer believed he had found between the excremental and the sacramental. But then Powys thought that seriousness required to be belied before it could be tasted and found true. (p. 84)
The demiurge impulse can be irritating. Powys chose to pose as a cross between Simon Magus and the Wizard of Oz, a charlatan magician, a fraud, a gnostic, a phoney. He had sound masochistic reasons for doing so—no one realized this better than himself. In his living, such traits were liable to result in his signing a letter 'from old loony Friar John' and instructing a young and impressionable correspondent to take nothing he said seriously except the jokes (which were always at his own expense). In his work, the same traits resulted in the creation of a gallery of false Messiahs—Bloody Johnny Geard in A Glastonbury Romance, Sylvanus Cobbold in Jobber Skald, Roger Bacon in The Brazen Head, Dud No-Man in Maiden Castle, each of these reveals a little of the misery of heresy. That Powys did not see it as misery makes it more tolerable. (pp. 84-5)
Robert Nye, "Tatterdemalion Taliessin: A Note on J. C. Powys and His Critics," in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1973), February/March, 1973, pp. 75-85.
Increasingly today [Powys] is being recognized as a genius, with all those contradictions that genius can show and still stay consistent with itself. It is certainly easier for his admirers to admit his shortcomings than for his detractors to allow his gifts. He never woos us, appears to take the same exultant pleasure in his artistic blemishes as in his most splendid utterances, and he is always moving on and away from us, so that a liking for Rodmoor guarantees little for our reception of Maiden Castle, while to be wearied and exasperated by Morwyn: or the Vengeance of God has no bearing on our approach to Owen Glendower. His last writings, those of the ninth decade, have as yet few defenders. One suspects that they will become a cult, or trial by ordeal, the last purgation of the true elect. If so, and he hears of it on the winds of the Berwyns or the rain-showers of Blaenau Ffestiniog, the "old magic-monger" will be cosmically amused….
The major novels normally require somewhere between a quarter of a million and half a million words each, and there will be few to maintain that all these are strictly necessary. He is a self-indulgent writer. Too often he appears unable to control the scope and deployment of his chapters, and is possibly never fully master of the pace and cohesion of an entire novel. As narrator, he uses old-fashioned devices which the sensitive find irritating: his affectionately confidential approach to the reader, for example, his coyness or archness, his literary echoes, his use of capital letters, italics, hyphens, and exclamation marks to draw attention to what should be sufficiently challenging in itself. In so far as he has a deliberate narrative stance, it is of the nineteenth not the twentieth century. For Powys, Percy Lubbock laboured in vain; James need not have bothered to make the "well-made novel"; and point of view is where you find it….
[Powys] has carried us back through time that is not to times that never were. His properties include the First Cause, the Lance and the Maimed King, King Arthur's sword Excalibur, Owen Glendower, Celtic gods and cromlechs, Myrddin Wyllt (who was remote enough as Merlin) and Porius (who is remote enough as Porius), with an attendant cast of giants, hags, witches and bitches, most of them with unpronounceable names—to say nothing of the Peir Dadeni and a recast Mabon…. What, it may be asked, is the relevance of this wild and whirling mythological conflation, this gallimaufry of reading and speculation to poor suffering man in the age of the power-cut?
It is an unfair, misleading question…. [We] shall do more wisely to heed the advice of Sterne (a great favourite of Powys) and not subject him to our fashionable rule and compass, but read his novels and apply to them exactly those standards of judgment that we apply to all classics of prose fiction, whether they conform to our current notion of a novel or not. He will then be found significant, important, often baffling but as often superb, an inspired explorer of human states of mind, an almost unrivalled expositor not of the beauties but of the life and being of Nature, a man with a passionate doctrine to preach—surprisingly, the doctrine of universal tolerance and the unbounded powers of the human mind released from chains—a fecund creator, a consummate master of the set-piece, in every sense of the word a great comedian, and, whether we find him a wondrous eccentric or lodged at the very heart of the mystery, a towering figure among British novelists of this century….
Powys is rather like life itself: you can object strongly to parts of it, and be often baffled for a meaning, but the sum total impresses. He creates a world that can survive his private notions of it. (p. 121)
[There are passages in A Glastonbury Romance that] show Powys writing at a level unsurpassed by any novelist of our century. At such transcendental moments of pathos, humour, despair and hope, we touch life itself, and the comparison is with Shakespeare and Dostoevsky.
That Powys is eloquent, rhetorical, a master of the dithyramb, is generally recognized and customarily held against him. [He] is also a master of precise language and realistic description…. He is even more impressive in his description of states of mind, the flux of thought and emotion, the processes of perception, the ebb and flow of purpose, the extent to which we find ourselves now at one, now at sixes and sevens, with ourselves, other people, the cosmos. He is among our most perceptive writers about sex, its drawing power, its earthy joys, its unattainable perfections, confused disappointments, endless delusions, the petty rifts and sundering chasms it sets between the desirer and the desired. He is a prober through and beyond sex, which he came to see in its fruitfulness and sterility alike as an inexhaustible source of mental and spiritual energy, without which we cannot realize ourselves….
[Other] aspects of Powys's writing [are] his cunning, grotesque, and sustained humour, often affectionate and warm, but likewise scalpel-sharp, his never-ending war on those who inflict cramps or cruelties on even the humblest living creature, his uncanny ability to identify himself, a character, and us his readers with the opposite sex, a stone, a tree, a lug-worm or waterdrop, his loving appreciation of the superior qualities of women, his belief in the individual, and his alarming scepticism…. (p. 122)
"A Magician and his Multiverse," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1974; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), February 8, 1974, pp. 121-22.