Saturday, January 10, 2009

Who's Afraid of John Cowper Powys?


[John Cowper Powys (1872-1963)]


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. ...

So what's your first, spontaneous reaction to that piece of prose, eh? Be honest.

If you find it bold, attractive, intriguing, then it might well be worth your while to explore further the bizarre regional-cosmic romances of John Cowper Powys, greatest of an extraordinary set of Welsh-English brothers (Llewellyn and Theodore [T.F.] Powys were the other writers among them).

If, by contrast, your response is to yawn and start skimming to the end of the paragraph - well, then, better not bother.

Ever since I first encountered that extraordinary opening to Powys' greatest, or at any rate most celebrated, novel A Glastonbury Romance (1933), I've felt a curiosity about its author, the shaggy old Mountain Man in the picture above.

Picador published a number of his novels in the late 70s and early 80s, but not by any means all of them. It's therefore been quite a job to assemble anything like a complete set, but I think I might finally have succeeded.



The main impetus for this post, then, is my recent discovery of the Faber Finds series, who've decided (very wisely in my opinion) to put back into print, simultaneously, his first four novels and four of his later ones. To wit:

Early Novels:


  • Wood and Stone (1915)
  • Rodmoor (1916)
  • After My Fashion (1919)
  • Ducdame (1925)


Later Novels:

  • Morwyn (1937)
  • The Inmates (1952)
  • Atlantis (1954)
  • The Brazen Head (1956)




This has pretty much enabled me to complete my set of his "fictions" (early and late). Some of them are a bit difficult to classify - Homer and the Aether, for example, a kind of novel-commentary on Homer's Iliad. There's also a fairly large selection of what the author himself referred to as his "senilia" - mad, childish writings composed in extreme old age (he did live to 91, after all). Some might think that a few too many of these have appeared in print, but then to true fans it's doubtful that anything JCP wrote is entirely devoid of interest.

So here's my attempt at an itemised list:

Novels:


  1. Wood and Stone (1915) - JCP's first novel, written very much under the influence of Thomas Hardy's "Novels of Character and Environment."
  2. Rodmoor (1916) - this one I'd never previously managed to locate, so I'm eagerly awaiting my "Faber Finds" copy.
  3. After My Fashion - written in 1919, this one wasn't published until 1980 by Picador, who must have had a real success with their reissue of the Dorset novels in the 70s.
  4. Ducdame (1925) - the Village Press repackaged a number of the master's obscurer works in rather minimalist paperback editions in the mid-70s. My copy is one of these.
  5. Wolf Solent (1929) - possibly (still) his best-known novel, frequently reprinted by Penguin, and the first of the four "Dorset Novels" which constitute his major claim to fame.
  6. A Glastonbury Romance (1933) - a colossal, bizarre masterpiece, well over a thousand pages long.
  7. Weymouth Sands (1934) - There'd been a lawsuit over potential libels in A Glastonbury Romance, but that resulted only in a couple of minor excisions. This book was really hauled over the coals in court, though. Bringing frivolous libel suits was quite a profitable business in Britain in the 1930s, according to Graham Greene, who also suffered from it. The law was weighted against any author who dared to set his work in a contemporary setting or used names which might be those of real people. As a result this book was reissued in an expurgated form in the UK, under the new title Jobber Skald (1935). It didn't reappear in full there until the late 1970s.
  8. Maiden Castle (1936) - the last of the Dorset novels.
  9. Morwyn: or The Vengeance of God (1937) - I owe my copy of this eccentric work to the "Dennis Wheatley library of the Occult", which republished it in the 1980s. It's a kind of anti-vivisectionist tract disguised as an account of a trip to Hell. Much more entertaining than you'd think.
  10. Owen Glendower (1940) - the first of his Welsh historical novels.
  11. Porius (1951) - another historical novel, this one set in the fifth century, during the reign of King Arthur. So long and weird that it could only be published in a heavily-edited form at the time. A complete, restored text came out from Colgate University Press in 1994. I'm glad to say that I have both versions. Tough going at times, though, but.
  12. The Inmates (1952) - a rather wistful and charming account of a love affair in a lunatic asylum.
  13. Atlantis (1954)- this one I'd been looking for for ages. There was a copy in Auckland University Library when I was studying there, but I never succeeded in obtaining one of my own till the blessed Faber Finds people put it back into print.
  14. The Brazen Head (1956) - another odd historical novel, this time about the medieval alchemist Roger Bacon.
  15. Homer and the Aether (1959) - commentary / fiction about the Iliad, rather like a more esoteric version of T. H. White's Once and Future King
  16. All or Nothing (1960) - if you think some of the others are odd, try reading this piece of raving lunacy.




Shorter fiction


  1. The Owl, The Duck, and - Miss Rowe! Miss Rowe! (1930) - no idea. I've never seen it. The title is certainly intriguing, though.
  2. Up and Out (1957) - two novellas: "Up and Out: a mystery tale" & "The Mountains of the Moon: a lunar love-story." Not like any sci-fi you've ever read, I bet you.
  3. Romer Mowl and Other Stories (1974) - haven't seen this.
  4. Real Wraiths (1974)
  5. Two and Two (1974)
  6. You and Me (1975) - or any of these three novellas.
  7. Three Fantasies (1985) - I do have a copy of this, though, and very weird it is, even by JCP standards.




So what else would I recommend? One of the very best of his books is his Autobiography, first published in 1934. In it he gives a pretty full account of his curious way of life: the strange observances to Nature and the other deities in his pantheon, various misadventures at home and on the lecture circuit, etc.

There's a very funny story about him being called to testify in favour of Joyce's Ulysses at an obscenity trial in New York in the twenties.

"Who's that?" asked one of the bystanders.

"Oh, that's the English degenerate, John Powys," replied his neighbour.

Powys would probably not have objected greatly to the description, though he might have had certain problems with the exclusivity of the adjective "English."

He was also a very fine essayist, and published a number of books on literature and culture. There've also been various volumes of his letters issued since his death, a form that particularly suited his discursive, polymathic personality.

Powys was (by contrast) a fairly conventional poet, but there's some nice pieces in this selected volume of Poems, edited by Kenneth Hopkins in 1964, immediately after his death.



There's a goodly number of biographies and critical books about him and his brothers. You can find links to various of them from Wikipedia or the Powys Society website.

I'd recommend G. Wilson Knight's pioneering The Saturnian Quest (1964), as well as Richard Perceval Graves' joint biography of the trio, The Brothers Powys (1983). There's an ever-growing corpus of books about all three of them to choose from now, though.

11 comments:

Larry-bob said...

Wow, great summation! What I have read at this point is some of the later short fiction - I have several of those books like Real Wraiths, etc. The one that comes most to mind (but I can't remember which it is, hence googleing and stumbling across your page) is about the adventures of the spirit of a doorknob and the spirit of a picture frame, since Powys suggests that objects which have association with humans can have souls.

Jack Ross said...

Thanks Larry-Bob,

Yeah, Atlantis begins with a fly, a moth and a club all having a kind of conversation over the sleeping body of a shepherd. One must admit that they all have a tendency to sound a bit like JCP, though.

But then, he did once describe the whole corpus of his fiction as "propaganda for my way of life." I can't help feeling that those late stories in particular are sounding increasingly relevant as we get more and more alienated from the natural world ...

Richard Taylor said...

Fascinating! I have that thing on the Illiad and I sold another book to an American in Saudi Arabia of all places - but I have never read him...


Link to "The Owl, The Duck, and - Miss Rowe! Miss Rowe!"

[Influence of Ed Lear?]

http://used.addall.com/SuperRare/submitRare.cgi?author=John+Cowper+Powys&title=The+Owl%2C+The+D

Or just google ADD ALL - although they are mostly signed First editions and quite expensive. But one is NZ$24 or so + postage etc I suppose.


Here is a description of A First Edition for sale on Antiquebooks of A Glastonbury Romance (but it's NZ$1900!)

(on ADD ALL)

A Glastonbury Romance. by JohnCowper Powys

New York, Simon and Schuster. 1932. First edition, 8vo; original pigskin-backed boards; top edge gilt. Edition of 200 signed copies, this is number 46. A Glastonbury Romance was conceived on an huge scale, with a cast of hundreds. The events of the novel centre on the Grail legend in a contemporary setting, but he manages to include many of his obsessions and interests: vivisection, pornography, Welsh nationalism, the nature of evil, Nietzsche, and communism. Fine, spine a little darkened. The original slip case is rubbed and chipped to the fore-edges.

!!! - "... his obsessions and interests: vivisection, pornography, Welsh nationalism, the nature of evil, Nietzsche, and communism..." (As far as I know,without the vivisection adn pornography, like MacDiarmid except he was Scottish!! ...)

I have just been reading and listening and to reading various poets and I came across Robinson Jeffers (someone else I hadn't paid much attention to) - I am have become a bit fascinated by his stuff - perhaps some similarity to Powys...in his strangeness...

Great summation here indeed Jack

Richard Taylor said...

'Ducdame' - is a part of the song the Melancholy Jacques sings in the Forest of Arden, in "As You Like it" (or am I wrong? I forget what it meant... ) - thought I would show off...a bit

Jack Ross said...

"Ducdame" is (allegedly) an invocation in Greek to call fools into a circle -- Powys is very fond of the "Holy Fool" idea.

I haven't really read Jeffers much, though I do have his Selected Poems lying around somewhere. You'll have to report back on him at some stage.

Richard Taylor said...

Thanks Jack - I am bogged down with my usual rambling from one thing to another reading plan of planless non plan - BUT - I wanted to look at some I hadn't much attended to .. apart from NZ writers (and another look at EMO etc)...such as May Swensen, Jeffers...I haven't got anything by him in book form but I will look around - H.D., Sandburg, Louise Bogan even Langtson Hughes and Hayden etc) -
So much writing! You could spend several life times say on Welsh literature or possibly even on Powys and say McDiarmid and a few others or maybe only one of them!

Universes of ideas, pleasure and 'knowledge' ...

But there is the cat or dog or spouse! to feed, money to get, chess games to analyse, daughters from time to time, motor cars to maintain...and, even if one
isn't a brilliant DANCER - one has to stop and eat - so much!

Ducdame - the fools, "gather to me my fools!" - we are all fools.

"In life, as in Chess, we are all duffers." Emmanuel Lasker (former World Champion and a friend of Einstein)

The Sundial Press said...

There is a thriving Powys Society which holds an annual conference and several other meetings as well as publishing a substantial Journal and three forty page plus newsletters each year. You can visit the website at the following: www.powys-society.org

Bernie said...

Hello all. I am Bernie from melbourne Australia. I am so pleased to find a site where I have a discussion of both John Cowper Powys AND Robinson Jeffers going on. Yippee. I have collected All Jeffers books over the last five years and have got about 8 of Powys's all fairly cheaply second hand. What might interest you most though is that when I took long service leave last year and was in the USA and later Wales I made a point of visiting Jeffers' house and many places of interest to John Cowper P. Jeffers' stone house is in Carmel, California. He built it with a stone mason when there was noone living in that area. Photos show it all alone on a huge bare hillside. Now it's surrounded and is basically on a quarter acre block. Many of the eucalytus and pines about were planted by jeffers though.It's called "Tor House" and is now a museum open on Thurs, Fri and Sat. You can book a tour. I went twice and loved every minute of it. Inside it is as he left it when he died. very atmospheric. Low ceiling, Wood lined. Books, piano, beds etc.When I figure out how to put photos up I will and you can check them out.
When in Wales I tracked down Powys's house in Corwen, Wales and even met a neighbour, Roger Jones, now in his 60's who knew JCP as a boy before he moved to Blanau Ffestiniogg. Roger took me up to JCP's house, showed me where he went for his daily walk, ( which I then followed) enjoyed discussing JCP with me very much and even met me later on in the evening and sent me some stuff in the mail. I also got to Blanau Ffestiniogg, a slate mining town, where JCP moved in the 1950s for the last 7 or 8 years of his life. There is a lovely plaque on the tiny house he lived in with his companion Phyllis Plater. I've got some greast photos of that too.
I love many of Jeffers short poems. Start with "November Surf", "Rock and Hawk" "The Coast Road" etc and then you might like to try some of the longer stuff.

With John Cowper I read and really liked Wolf Solent, which I have a couple of copies of in different Penguin editions. Now I'm reading Weymouth Sands. Went there too and visited the home of Powys's grandmother, Penn House at Brunswick Terrace where he stayed and visited as a boy.

Regarding Porius, I'm not sure that the Colgate edition is the complete text. I had picked up the edited Village Press edition a year or so ago but it has been recently reprinted by Duckworth Press and they clainm this is the first time it has been printed complete as in the original manuscript as JCP wrote it before he was forced to make massive cuts to have it published in 1951. If you're lucky like me you can get a remaindered copy for 4 or 5 pounds online in brand new condition , with just a black texta mark on its bottom. Bargain !!!

Jack Ross said...

Bernie,

I do have a copy of Jeffers' selected poems (in the beautiful old Modern Library edition), but that's about as far as I've gone with him so far, I think.

My Porius is complete, though - the Colgate edition was the first printing of that complete text which was later resiussued in a trade edition. I also have the abridged 1951 version.

What a fascinating trip! I'd love to see those Welsh locations - cool to meet his neighbout, too. I did have a bit of a wander around Weymouth on one occasion trying to identify sites from the novel. It's probably my favourite among his novels, to be honest - though the whole Dorset quartet seems imbued with a particular magic.

Richard said...

Bernie

Thanks for sharing your enthusiasm and information re Powys etc. Interesting that you went to see those places in Wales and the US.

I haven't read any Powys (from Jack's account he and his brothers are certainly worth looking into though) but Jeffers, for some reason, intrigues me. (I don't really know why I mentioned him though - do you find a connection between him and Powys or his writing?) I got a little interested in Jeffers and his poetry, although maybe he isn't perhaps the "greatest" poet of his time, but he is certainly quite different. I don't know much about him but his tower is interesting. I did read he lost readers during the war as his views were rather "different".

But I liked his poem comparing the Atlantic ocean to a vast eye and a long strange poem involving a woman going out on a journey in the middle of the night through the rain and storm on a horse...

I probably wouldn't collect his poems or books as Jack does (not Jeffers I know - but say with Powys or Ovid and so on) I am not quite addicted to that...I am more of an (admittedly obsessive) collator and hoarder but not quite an ('addicted' too strong a term?) collector...

I am to old to be a collector...I will die amongst far too much ridiculous junk and books as it is.
Too many of the books unread also. But most dipped into...useless knowledge.

Murr said...

Great summary of JCP's work and career. Allow me to add some links to reviews of some of JCP's novels. A review of Porius is forthcoming.

http://thelectern.blogspot.com/2011/06/wolf-solent-john-cowper-powys-he-had.html

http://thelectern.blogspot.com/2010/07/brazen-head-john-cowper-powys.html