John Cowper Powys Powys, John Cowper (Vol. 15) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 one must find peace with the cosmic forces of nature. (See also CLC, Vol. 7, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88.)

R. C. Churchill

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[It] is no great exaggeration to describe almost all of J. C. Powys's creative work—and some of his critical work too—under the one heading of autobiography. It is not merely in the volume with that title that he reveals himself in all his paradoxical mixture of genuine insight and self-confessed charlatanry. There has always been, by his own admission, a touch of the theatrical about John Cowper Powys: 'There is no use trying to conceal the fact', he writes in the Autobiography, 'that Nature from the start had made me an actor.' From youth onward, he has relished his own performance, often observing it, however, with a satirical smile, not altogether taken in by the act but grateful, so to speak, for his privileged seat in the front row. His own complex personality, the various masks he has assumed at different periods of his life, his search for a coherent philosophy which would satisfy his soul, as orthodox Christianity satisfied his beloved father's: these have been the mainspring of his writing for over fifty years. (pp. 10-11)

The prodigal fluency and the genius for introspective digression are seen at their height in the Autobiography, but here they can be accepted without much reservation. It was part of Powys's purpose in this remarkable book to disarm criticism by making such a display of his own failings—'my naughty passion', he calls it, 'for tearing my own repute to tatters'—that the confession, like a modern Rousseau's, would be transformed into a virtue. Here the admitted theatricality comes perilously close to exhibitionism, the impulse to 'glory in the feminine aspects of my character' too much indulged in to make unembarrassed reading. Yet there is much to be said on the other side. Autobiography is a loose form of literature and can survive treatment that would be fatal elsewhere. (p. 12)

["Sensationalism"] is hardly the final word for John Cowper's fiction in its most striking development—as seen, for example, in Wolf Solent (1929), A Glastonbury Romance (1933), Jobber Skald (1935) and Maiden Castle (1936). Rather are we conscious, in these extraordinary—but also extraordinarily interesting—productions of the...

(The entire section is 913 words.)

Angus Wilson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Wolf Solent (1929) and Porius (1951) together] demonstrate the ways in which John Cowper Powys has developed and changed, and together they also show to what extent his whole literary production has been dominated by certain original mythologies, haunting scenes and dominant human relationships. The two novels also illustrate the various literary influences which have been so powerful in Powys's work. (pp. 11-12)

Most novelists, no doubt, must be lessened by any charges of derivation, but John Cowper Powys has suffered on the contrary from a most false general impression that he stands almost in entire isolation. Paradoxically this writer, so peculiarly pious in his reverence for his literary ancestors, has been made to seem arrogantly separate…. The two novels are in great contrast, for Wolf Solent has the most ordinary setting and the least extraordinary events (though this does not mean ordinary) of any of his novels; Porius is the most remote in place and time and in it occur the most extraordinary events he has imagined. Yet the novels are also similar, for each may be classed as a bildungsroman where the hero ends both wiser and more illumined. Above all, both Porius and Wolf seem to participate very deeply in John Cowper Powys's own thoughts, feelings and imaginations, so that the reader is inevitably drawn to conclude that the highly subjective metaphysical views of these two heroes—what Wolf Solent calls his 'mythology' and Porius his 'cavoseniargising'—must reflect the inner life of the author.

This inner life is complex, sceptical and by no means constant, yet it ultimately determines both the form and content of Powys's works. (p. 12)

The setting of Wolf Solent is, for John Cowper Powys, almost flatly realistic. Wolf Solent, a man in his mid-thirties, has thrown up a school-teaching job in London in disgust. He comes down to Dorset to assist Squire Urquhart in the writing of a local history. In so doing, he returns to the country where his father, an attractive, drifting womaniser, had eventually died in the workhouse; to the country where his proud, tough mother had suffered the pains of her husband's infidelities. But it is not only to a land of the past that he returns, for torn apart by the characteristics inherited from his antagonistic parents, Wolf suffers from a deeply introspective indecision, and this weakness (strength?) is now felt to the full when he falls in love with two girls, marries the wrong (?) one, and wrongly (rightly?) refuses to the other one the physical love he wants (?) to give her.

I have purposely set out this very bald account of Wolf Solent's plot (there are numerous rich and totally relevant other streams of event and psychological conflict) with queries and alternatives because these dubieties on the surface level of event, psychology and ethic are reflected in the deeper significance of Mr. Powys's thought. It is this fundamental scepticism, a scepticism quite peculiar in so far as its function is not the negative desire to reject but the positive unwillingness to exclude the innumerable facets of thought or feeling that attach to any person or event, which so distinguishes Powys from D. H. Lawrence, to whom in some other ways he might be compared. It is this scepticism which makes his sexual mythology, his fetishism, his hostility to monotheism, his pantheistic concern with animal, vegetable and even inanimate matter, all in themselves like to much that Lawrence teaches, but in effect so unlike, for he never can 'teach', must remain undogmatic, is fundamentally unaggressive.

It is not, for example, that he fears 'love' or 'spirituality' when it invades his own person, or threatens to emasculate him, less than Lawrence does, but that even here he cannot finally accept maleness or sexual powers or any other such value as more than relative. Thus he can never hate his bugbears, such as a certain sort of 'Christian spirituality', so wholeheartedly as Lawrence can…. [Mr. Powys] is never angry, except where cruelty (particularly to animals) is concerned; and even here, it must be said that his sadistic characters are treated personally with peculiar love and understanding, which is to say much in a novelist who so completely identifies with all his characters.

To some extent, of course, the ambiguity of human psychology and therefore of the meaning of events exists in the mind of Wolf himself, indeed it may be thought of as a mark of that inner indecision and weakness which he only comes to recognise (to correct would not be in Mr. Powys's scheme of things) as the novel's events unfold. As Wolf is the eye of the book, it is not easy to separate him from the author; yet the intensity with which the passions and thoughts of the other characters is presented suggests more than Wolf's compassion and points to some part of Mr. Powys that stands outside and beyond the hero [but merely to see and not to judge]. (pp. 12-14)

Wolf reflects John Cowper Powys in rejecting every action or activity that could be associated with power or...

(The entire section is 2105 words.)

V. S. Pritchett

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Some critics], like myself, have found [Powys's novels] ungainly and have thought Powysland a place of tedious sermons occasionally refreshed by thunderstorms. Others, of whom Mr Angus Wilson is the most distinguished [see excerpt above], think his ventures into the unconscious and the irrational fertilising. For them he has become contemporary. Whether admirers really go for the poet-novelist or whether they get most out of the mystical essayist who appears to be tramping on some solipsistic walking-tour in which Dorset and the Welsh Border blend with the psychic mysteries to make an ever-dissolving topography, I do not know…. Wolf Solent, a characteristic Powys hero, always carries an intensely symbolic...

(The entire section is 1385 words.)