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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...

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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

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[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 romantic, philosophical and humorous imagination, of a similar blend of strength and weakness to that … in the critical work and in the Autobiography. For most people's tastes, there is altogether too much talk of such metaphysical sensations as 'The Unpardonable Sin', as in the chapter of that name in the Glastonbury Romance…. (p. 13)

For most people's tastes, too, there are altogether too many exclamation marks on nearly every page of these romances. The true value of an exclamation mark surely becomes weakened if it is placed almost automatically at the end of nearly every sentence, as it frequently is in Wolf Solent…. (p. 14)

[A] breathless, feminine, introspective prose is typical of many chapters in the romances, as it is of many passages in the Autobiography and in the critical and philosophical works. But it has its more admirable side. Novelists who are as much interested in the darker and more eccentric 'countries of the mind' as in the normal actions and thoughts of their characters are not common in English literature; to find a parallel we must turn rather to some of the Russian novelists of the nineteenth century, particularly perhaps to Dostoievsky…. Every character shares in John Cowper's own introspective habits, even in the most private and intimate circumstances of life…. (pp. 14-15)

When John Cowper's genuine insights are balanced against his 'sensationalism' it must be admitted that he has explored more than most novelists into those 'vast tracts of unknown country' which have always so fascinated him—even if, in the final analysis, he has only discovered himself. His most famous novel, A Glastonbury Romance, which is a modern interpretation or endorsement of the ancient legend about Joseph of Arimathaea and the Holy Grail:

… what really allured me about the Holy Grail were the unholy elements in both its history and its mystery … the unquestionable fact that it was much older than Christianity itself…

even this novel, with its thousand pages and scores of individual characters, is no real exception to the general characteristic governing all Powys's work. 'Every face on the canvas', John Redwood Anderson has truly written, is 'an aspect of a multitudinous and all-embracing self-portrait.' (pp. 15-16)

[Though] John Cowper Powys has written a good deal in nearly every branch of literature except—curiously enough—the dramatic, he is clearly not one of our greater poets or our greater poet-critics. The 'poetry' of this most Celtic … of the Powys brothers is rather to be found in his Autobiography and in what he has himself well described as 'the sort of mystic-humorous, Pantagruelian, Shandean, Quixotic Romance' that is seen at its best in the novel whose 'heroine is the Grail'. A Glastonbury Romance has never been everyone's reading; it requires for its appreciation, not only sympathy with the idiom of its author, but a series of suspensions of disbelief that are by no means easy to sustain in the twentieth century. In spite of its popular and humorous aspects—John Cowper's superlative opinion of Theodore's more ironic humour is a compliment that can sometimes be repaid to his own—it is clearly a work destined to be fully enjoyed only by scholars. (p. 30)

R. C. Churchill, "John Cowper Powys and Llewelyn Powys" and "Conclusion," in his The Powys Brothers (© R. C. Churchill 1962; Longman Group Ltd., for the British Council), British Council, 1962, pp. 10-18, 29-31.∗

Angus Wilson

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[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 limiting of freedom. As a result the dualism in his work can only be subjective: the 'mythology' of Wolf Solent is a process of withdrawal which he practises to protect himself from the incursions of life—'this secret practice was always accompanied by an arrogant mental idea—the idea that he was taking part in some occult cosmic struggle—some struggle between what he liked to think of as "evil" and what he liked to think of as "good" in these remote depths…. [His] "mythology", as he called it, had no outlet in any sort of action. It was limited entirely to a secret sensation in his own mind, such as he would have been hard put to it to explain in intelligible words to any living person. But such as it was, his profoundest personal pride—what might be called his dominant life-illusion—depended entirely upon it.' Dualism, good and evil, then, for John Cowper Powys as for Wolf Solent, is a necessary illusion or a possible reality always to be summoned by the imagination, never to be acted upon in life. In Wolf Solent the idea of evil is explored in a number of the characters, notably in Squire Urquhart, whom Wolf feels himself in psychological battle with from the start. Yet what is the 'evil' of Urquhart, a lonely, humped old man in a black wig? It is, the author finally suggests, an evil that exists only in his own sense of himself—in the way that he approaches the pornographic history of Dorset with which he is obsessed, the way in which he regards his homosexual desires. Wolf is constantly realising that his sense of battling with this old man, or his 'evil' servant Monk, or Mr. Malachite, the incestuous old pedlar of pornography, is all but an illusion, and a comic illusion at that. (p. 15)

[The] imaginative life for [Mr. Powys] is the strongest of forces. It is for this reason that pornographic and particularly sadistic books represent so potent and dangerous a force in themselves, because the imaginations they stimulate have a real effect on the world though they may never be realised. That this is not simply a part of his fictions we know from his autobiography. There are times, however, when he suggests that 'evil' is something less directly opposed to 'good', more of a primitive force, what he describes as a kind of primeval inertia, the deadness which tries to hold life back into its original slime. (p. 16)

Wolf Solent and Mr. Powys are both well aware that [his 'mythology'] can be no everyday code by which to view life, only a reserve of force in times of stress…. It is [a] sort of loving 'fetishism', as he names it, so far from the sort of possessive human love or invasive Christian spiritual love which, like D. H. Lawrence, he dreads, that gives Mr. Powys's enormous range of characters their extraordinary individuality and reality, so different from most of the minor characters of Lawrence. They are truly portrayed through the love of multiplicity he attributes to himself. It is this too which gives to his description of places and small inanimate objects, of smells, of weather, so loving an exactitude, it is this which suffuses his prose with the most exact and felicitous imagery from animals or plants. Yet in Wolf Solent, when he was still in middle-age, the sexual love of women, which he so enjoys and respects, and the ties of tenderness to sweetheart or mother or male friend are still strong enough with all their dangers of stifling or enslaving, that his mythology of duality is needed with its overtones of power. It is the refuge of the male from woman's pathos, from a mother's power, from the calls of the ordinary, social material world, from the gnawing, disastrous claims of guilt, from the eroding pressure of human compassion. Nevertheless this duality, this mythology with its weakness of power is restricted to the imagination only.

By the time that Mr. Powys wrote Porius, that wonderful story of fifth-century Wales, he seems to have freed himself from the need for a fiction (reality?) of a dualistic myth. Prince Porius, the hero, has his escape route from the pressures of life. How it comes to be called by him 'cavoseniargising' there is no space here to relate, but it is a superb example of Mr. Powys's power to invent examples of naturalistic psychology. 'Cavoseniargising', however, is a very different process from Wolf Solent's mythology…. (pp. 17-18)

'Cavoseniargising', Porius's escape route, unlike that of Wolf Solent, is in direct harmony with his Weltanschauung, with his universal fetishism. It is this that makes the strange mock-hero Prince Porius with his heavy, sluggish athletic body and his fast moving brain, the saviour of Merlin, the great magic life force. Of course, the great Merlin too has his grotesqueries, even his moments of charlatanism, for if Mr. Powys … has moved on from the conflict of Wolf Solent, he has not lost his sense of irony or even of farce. There is something of the mock epic in Porius, for even Prince Porius's destruction of the Saxon invaders of his land is not without its absurdity.

If the dualism has been resolved, is there no place for evil in the book? It is to be found—but mainly in the wasteful, destructive brutality of the Saxons on the one hand or on the other in the fanaticisms of the Christian priests or of the Druids and the old Welsh princesses who support them. (p. 19)

[The] last sentence on Porius's vision of Merlin's Golden Age … throws great light on the development of Powys's views. The last two survivors of this giant race, the Gawr and his daughter, come down after the great Saxon-British battle to devour the corpses. To most observers,… they give off an irresistible flavour of evil. For Porius, however,… the giantess presents only a spur to a long-felt lust, to which he responds. The fury of the father is aroused, and the girl from the caves … is dragged down by her giant father, into the deepest of lakes. They are the last of their race, the last of the primitive peoples. And in their death, despite the horror of their cannibalistic lives, there is a considerable pathos. That the image of this girl as Porius sees her when she is drowning should appear among the weak, the unprotected who triumph under Merlin's rule, suggests that, in this great novel of his old age, John Cowper Powys finds a place for 'evil' as seen in the primitive, though not for 'evil' as symbolized by the eagles of power, among the things that shall be saved.

By affronting directly the evasive central metaphysic of John Cowper Powys's great novels, I have necessarily omitted all the entertainment, all the rich human psychology, all the poetry and the humour of his work, above everything, all the sheer excitement of his wonderful powers of narration. These … reveal also the way he has repaid his debt to Scott and Balzac, to Dickens, Dostoievsky and Hardy, [and] await the scholarly analyses that he will no doubt soon be awarded. Then, too, will have to be dissected the many imperfections, the occasional longueurs, the moments of empty rhetoric which mark his work, as they do the works of all the great novelists he so admires. (pp. 19-20)

Angus Wilson, "'Mythology' in John Cowper Powys's Novels," in A Review of English Literature (© Longmans, Green & Co. Ltd. 1963), Vol. 4, No. 1, January, 1963, pp. 9-20.

V. S. Pritchett

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[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 walking-stick, an object of trust and perhaps also of sexual support.

Objects of this kind played a queer part in his secret life-illusion. His stick was like a plough-handle, a ship's rudder, a gun, a spade, a sword, a spear. His threadbare overcoat was like a medieval jerkin, like a monk's habit, like a classic toga!

Most things, in Powys, turn out to be like something else…. That is the essayist with the scholar gypsy charm, vowed to poverty, calling for ale, collecting and naming wild flowers, excited by the dialect and the legs of country girls, worshipping the Cerne Giant and entranced by the guilty secrets of country rectories, scholarly squires and the graveyard—a beguiling amateur.

The essayist is also a pagan lecturer, an impressionist of the mysteries of time and the soul….

Since Powys is writing Romance, or some kind of neo-Gothic tale, there is no reason why he should not make us suspend disbelief, in spite of his intrusiveness. There are strange passages which succeed because the lecturer gives way to the delicate artist. Ghosts appear in an empty drawing-room and speak…. Also like the wind whistling in a ruined clocktower

without bell or balustrade, bare to the rainy sky, white with the droppings of jackdaws and starlings, forgetful of its past, without a future save that of anonymous dissolution.

That reads like good Edgar Allan Poe. Powys is a very literary writer.

Romance in Powys, as a novelist, is often on the edge of the absurd, but it is generally more acceptable than his realism. Excellent passages—Wolf Solent's passionate quarrel with his mother; Wolf, intellectually self-conscious, domesticating with the stonemason's amorous daughter; or (in A Glastonbury Romance) Nell preparing to go to bed with Sam who is, later on, to get religious-mania—begin or end as Powysian utterances from the Firmament and are followed by clumsy tedious realism and bathos. Unconscious humour trips him up again and again. Sustained competence as a novelist escaped Powys in his vastly swollen works. One has the impression that some lettered prehistoric pachyderm was trying, with learned pathos, to get in touch with the village grocer and was distracted by village girls' garters. A pretty folk world—inaptly compared with Hardy's—has somehow to coalesce with educated pryings. His objective correlatives are grotesquely ill-assorted, even in Wolf Solent where the theme is restricted to Wolf's sexual indecisions. In A Glastonbury Romance, the local businessman, the religious revivalist, the vicar's ladies, the guilty sadist, the strikers and communists, are prosaically unequal to bearing the burden of Powys's intuitions of the First Cause, Ultimate Evil, the Necessity of Opposites, the dark suggestions of Welsh prehistory and the philanderings with the Grail. It is as if the novelist had never met human beings and had been obliged to manufacture them out of literary sources. We start to feel that all the talk of sexual dualism, sadism, incest, adultery, fornication, not to mention murder, catastrophe and the rest, is smocking and embroidery. As in imitation medievalism, there is a failure to connect….

In A Glastonbury Romance, it was obviously useful to his mystical sense of history that a Glastonbury Pageant should occupy an important place in the novel: a Dostoevsky handles this kind of thing with vitality and humour. He is half-savage and half-comic, and the grotesque occasion holds together. Not so with Powys. He flounders in hobbledehoy realism; he has no comic sense—his greatest single defect—he is haunted by the picturesque and, in attempting to put that right, he falls into the trite and pedestrian….

Powys was an impressionist, a seeker after psychic sensations, and it is here that we must look for his special virtue. It is present in his delicate observations of nature, the changing moods created by the passing of day to night and night to day, the changes from wood to field and from field to river….

He can evoke locality. But love is his first and excited interest. He is keen to get his couples to bed, but unlike later novelists he is most concerned with the effect of the body on the spirit. He relishes a memory of youthful homosexuality and even a flutter of sadism. All is grist to the psychic mill. He is a strong believer in what he calls cerebral sex: sensuality seems to be good for cerebration. One begins to wonder about that walking-stick: does it enable the uncertain hero to make his getaway to solitude?

Like most writers of Romance his is moved by the ecstatic condition of young love, and by the corruption of age gloating over the memory of past sins. It is the essence of young love, for him, that the sexual feeling is scarcely yet differentiated: the young girl brings back memories of young boys. The lovers are moving out of the stage of being in love with love, and are beginning to find what their needed form of love is. It is common for the lovers to be moved by two loves at once. Wolf Solent has three. He has his passion for his primitive and masterful mother—one of Powys's best female portraits—who stands for the ironic experience of the world, for burned-out passion, and disillusion. She reminds the wandering scholar and nature-worshiper that convention, also, is part of nature, and that he is not adult: a point against several of the Powys heroes. (p. 534)

Powys is uncommonly sympathetic to all female feelings, even to female coldness, and devastated by his own feelings. Or rather, one should say, he responds to feeling in its formative or decaying stages. In love, the young and the old are experimentalists—the young with life, the old with the approach to death; and to him, both experiments are erotic. The mature bore him. His view of women is erotically idealistic; the word 'lust' has ideal connotations; and if we feel these love affairs are dream-like, they nevertheless convey his real interest: psychic disturbance and the unity of men and women with nature. We exist, he seems to say, as metaphors. But whereas the portrait of Wolf Solent is an essay, the women are also carefully observed persons with an inner life. In all this, as a pagan poet-teacher midway in the revaluation of sex in this century, he had something bold to say. We may find him evasive, or dismiss him as self-loving, but evasiveness is one of the aspects of sexual emotion, which is subject, after all, to transfigurations and reserves that tend now to be forgotten in our stress on the vividly physical.

To his young men, in their varying kinds of love, Powys is tougher. He is apt to intervene and to argue with them. Many have the Wolf Solent weakness of indecision. They have to carry a haversack of Powys ideas on their backs….

One smiles at the rather absurd period charm of these novels, the eager absorption in Good and Evil, in Body and Soul. The fascination with the perverse or vicious—high terms of detached commendation for him—have a sort of innocence, a sly but harmless daring, which puts a great distance between him and ourselves. Our world has lost its innocence. He is also distant from the highest products of Romance. Any of the important writers in this genre can give us a more shaking sense of evil or more vibrant moments of ecstasy. Powysland is a place where a sage is caught, red-handed, playing with toys. (p. 535)

V. S. Pritchett, "The Mysteries of John Cowper Powys," in New Statesman (© 1965 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. LXIX, No. 1777, April 2, 1965, pp. 534-35.

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