John Cowper Powys

John Cowper PowysBy his own admission, John Cowper Powys was mentally abnormal. His eccentricity showed itself most clearly in his relationship with the natural world: for him everything in nature pulsated with life—not only plants and animals but rivers, rocks, clouds. He found ecstasy in landscapes and a sublime significance in the smallest twig. And he believed that his sensitivity to the life force of inanimate objects gave him access to a larger cosmic meaning, one that connected humans with their environment and filled the universe with rapturous energy. In short, Powys was not your average man. But his abnormalities, far from crippling him or curtailing his activities, instead allowed him to view the most mundane situations as sources of wonder and delight. At the height of his creative power he was able to convey this wonder through inimitable and magnificent prose, and thus readers too can experience his heightened awareness of the natural world, while also feeling amazed by his talent. There are not many geniuses in the literary canon, but one can argue fairly that Powys is among them.

He grew up the oldest of eleven children, living in a succession of vicarages as his father, an Anglican minister, moved from one posting to another. In 1879, when Powys was seven years old, the family settled in Dorset, near Weymouth. Six years later, they moved to a parish in Somerset. Britain’s West Country was thus the scene of Powys’s formative years, and its landscape became enormously important to him; only Wales, the home of his ancestors, held as much meaning in his life and writing. Powys describes his early years in Autobiography, written in 1934. Dedicated to his mother, the book contains literally no other mention of her and barely acknowledges his sisters, though it offers dozens of stories about his father and the boarding schools that Powys and his brothers attended as young boys. From these strange omissions one might imagine that Powys had no use for women. In fact, however, women played a crucial role in his life, and the sympathetic female characters in his novels demonstrate how well he could relate to them. Soon after graduating from Cambridge, he married Margaret Alice Lyon, the sister of a college friend, and six years later they had a son, Littleton Alfred. Though their marriage lasted until Margaret’s death in 1947, it was not a successful relationship: for most of Powys’s adult life he worked as a lecturer in America, away from Margaret. After several short-lived affairs, he met Phyllis Plater, a gifted, intellectual woman who shared his home for the rest of his life and acted as a live-in critic and muse.

Powys died in Wales, his final home, in 1963. By then he had written fourteen novels, fourteen books of philosophy and cultural criticism, eight collections of literary essays, and six volumes of poetry. He had served as an expert defense witness in the American obscenity trial for Joyce’s Ulysses and taken part in a filmed debate with Bertrand Russell over the success of modern marriage. In both Britain and America he was a well-known public figure, an authority on literature who routinely lectured to audiences of over two thousand people. Yet his fiction never received the recognition he felt it deserved; often it elicited disgust or bewilderment rather than admiration and acclaim. In the early 1930s, while living with Plater in upstate New York, Powys wrote a novel that he was sure would garner him the Nobel Prize: A Glastonbury Romance, published in 1932. It is his best novel, but instead of the Prize he received only a lawsuit, from a man in Glastonbury who claimed to have been identifiably and unfairly portrayed in the novel. The ensuing settlement devoured all of Powys’s royalties from the novel, and though he wrote several more monumental works after this debacle, they were often maimed beyond recognition by aggressive editing on the part of his publishers.

Regardless of recognition or the lack of it, A Glastonbury Romance is a stupendous work of literature. It takes place in a town rich with Arthurian legends, in the heart of the West Country that Powys loved. Though he wrote many historical novels, A Glastonbury Romance is set in the 1930s, and this modern setting displays to its full advantage Powys’s idiosyncratic outlook on humans and their relationship with nature. His talent lay in painting convincing portraits of people within an environment redolent with the ecstatic, vibrant life only he could see: the novel abounds with characters who seem unquestionably real and alive, yet one of them is the personal enemy of the Sun, and another sees visions of the Holy Grail. The supernatural makes many appearances in the novel, and nature itself is usually prominent: if two characters converse in a field, the narrative might well jump to the thoughts of the horses grazing nearby or even to the viewpoint of the tree beside them. Even in these odd passages, however, Powys writes with careful control; his vision is unorthodox, verging on deranged, but he conveys it with expert skill, never allowing the eccentricities of the novel to overpower the characters who form its central focus. Throughout the book Powys uses his cosmic ruminations as interludes between nuanced, realist explorations of human psychology, and the juxtaposition, while at first unsettling, becomes increasingly effective as one settles into the atmosphere and momentum of the story.

At over a thousand pages, A Glastonbury Romance is vast, and its characters are appropriately numerous. Among them are Owen Evans, a man plagued by unwanted sadism; John Geard, the town’s mayor, who is determined to transform Glastonbury into a holy site of pilgrimage; Persephone Spear, the tomboyish wife of a Communist leader and the mistress of a local industrialist; and Sam Dekker, who sets out on a spiritual quest for the Grail. The novel’s many intertwining plot-lines are held together by the grandeur of Powys’s vision—and, as importantly, by the affection that shines through his characterizations. More than most authors, Powys patently and wholeheartedly loved his characters. His fondness for them is evident in the verve of his descriptions, the exclamation points sprinkled throughout the text, the sheer exuberance on every page. This excitement—his commitment to his own creation—unifies the sprawling plot and makes the complex web of connections easy to follow, for the reader cannot help becoming invested in the emotional struggles of each character.

PoriusPart of what makes Powys’s enthusiasm so pleasing is its breadth: he describes the feelings of Glastonbury’s poorest inhabitants as eagerly as the dreams of its mayors, magnates, and ministers. In each of his novels, one character always possesses Powys-like traits: an obsessive love of nature, an absorption in himself, a distracted air. While lovingly realized, these authorial stand-ins can become tedious: Wolf Solent (1929) and Maiden Castle (1937) suffer from focusing too closely on such figures. By contrast, in his finest novels—A Glastonbury Romance, Weymouth Sands (1934), and Porius (1951)—Powys embraces a wide variety of personalities, and the resulting ensembles are extraordinary in their accuracy, vividness, and depth.

In A Glastonbury Romance, the flood-prone plains of Somerset and Glastonbury Tor act not only as settings and symbols but as vital players in the story. Rivers, stones, and winds influence the characters, and Powys traces their effects with delighted awe. His reverence for nature is equally noticeable in Porius, a novel set in Wales in 499 A.D. that revisits Arthurian legend. Editors heavily expurgated the novel before its initial publication in 1951, and only recently have complete editions been released. Like A Glastonbury Romance, Porius is well over a thousand pages and boasts a lengthy character list, representing every level of Welsh society in that era. The book focuses primarily on the British prince Porius, a classic Powys-like figure (it is presumably not a coincidence that their names are so similar) who must prepare for a Saxon invasion. Through Myrddin—a variant of Merlin—he encounters the mysteries of the Mithraic cult and the native Celtic people lurking in the forest. The novel showcases Powys’s unquenchable enthusiasm and brilliant prose but also his devotion to Wales. It is obvious, even in Powys’s most eccentric moments, that a tremendous amount of scholarship underpins Porius. While the mood and characters are unmistakably Powysian, the depiction of Roman influence in the Britons’ culture and of the ties and tensions among the Celts, Britons, and Saxons stems from Powys’s deep knowledge of Welsh history and mythology. Thus, when Arthur himself, a young British leader, appears out of the mist, one feels the triple thrill of legend, history, and Powys coming together. It is a glorious moment, an evocation of Arthur that feels simultaneously magical and real.

Throughout his life, Powys never willingly compromised: he saw several of his novels published with huge chunks of text removed and their overall impact accordingly reduced, but the manuscripts as he wrote them never offered anything less than the all-encompassing world he envisioned. This insistence on his own style contributed to the incomprehension that frequently met his work, but it also produced unparalleled literary achievements. The opening paragraphs of A Glastonbury Romance provide an illustration of Powys’s defiantly distinctive voice:

At the striking of noon on a certain Fifth of March, there occurred within a causal radius of Brandon railway-station and yet beyond the deepest pools of emptiness 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 twelve-nineteen train from London and the divine-diabolic soul of the First Cause of all life.
In the soul of the great blazing sun, too, as it poured down its rays upon this man’s head, while he settled his black travelling bag comfortably in his left hand and his hazel-stick in his right, there were complicated superhuman vibrations; but these had only the filmiest, faintest, remotest connexion with what the man was feeling. They had more connexion with the feelings of certain primitive tribes of men in the heart of Africa and with the feelings of a few intellectual sages in various places in the world who had enough imagination to recognise the conscious personality of this fiery orb as it flung far and wide its life-giving magnetic forces. Roaring, cresting, heaving, gathering, mounting, advancing, receding, the enormous fire-thoughts of this huge luminary surged resistlessly to and fro, evoking a turbulent aura of psychic activity, corresponding to the physical energy of its colossal chemical body, but affecting this microscopic biped’s nerves less than the wind that blew against his face.
Far nearer to the man’s conscious and half-conscious feelings, with his overcoat buttoned under his chin and his fingers tightening upon stick and bag as he moved to the station-entrance, were the vast, dreamy life-stirrings of the soul of the earth. Aware in a mysterious manner of every single one of all the consciousnesses, human and subhuman, to which she has given birth, the earth might have touched with a vibrant inspiration this particular child of hers, who at twenty minutes after twelve handed up his ticket to the station-master and set out along a narrow dusty March road towards Brandon Heath. That she did not do this was due to the simple fact that the man instead of calling upon her for help called habitually upon the soul of his own dead mother. Jealous and exacting are all the gods, and a divided worship is abhorrent to them.
John Crow had given a hurried, suspicious sideways glance, before he left the platform, at the group of fellow-travellers who were gathered about the heap of luggage flung from the guard’s van. They all, without exception, seemed to his agitated mind to be attired in funeral garb. He himself had a large band of crape sewn upon his sleeve and a black tie. “I’m glad I ran in to Monsieur Teste’s to buy a black tie,” he thought as he met the wind on the open road. “I never would have thought of it if Lisette hadn’t pushed me to it at the end.”
John Crow was a frail, thin, loosely-built man of thirty-five. He had found himself a penniless orphan at twenty. From that time onward he had picked up his precarious and somewhat squalid livelihood in Paris. Traces of these fifteen years of irregular life could be seen writ large on his gaunt features. Something between the down-drifting weakness of a congenital tramp and the unbalanced idealism of a Don Quixote hovered about his high cheek-bones and about the troubled droop of his mouth. One rather disturbing contradiction existed in his face. There was a constant twitching of his cheeks beneath his sunken eye-sockets; and this peculiarity, combined with a furtive, almost foxy, slant about the contraction of his eyelids, contrasted disconcertingly with the expression in the eyes themselves. This expression resembled one particular look, as of a sea-creature without a human soul, that Scopas gives to his creations.

These paragraphs, while demonstrating the soaring scale and unique perspective of Powys’s narrative, do not convey the life-like vigor of the characters, nor the mesmerizing power of the setting. Indeed, the full force and eloquence of Powys’s novels can be experienced only when the books are read in their entirety—no mere excerpt can do justice to his genius.

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