Life in the Head

Wolf Solent

by John Cowper Powys, with an introduction by Robertson Davies
Harper Colophon, 614 pp., $9.95 (paper)

Weymouth Sands

by John Cowper Powys, with an introduction by James Purdy
Harper Colophon, 567 pp., $8.95 (paper)

John Cowper Powys
John Cowper Powys; drawing by David Levine

John Cowper Powys was born in 1872 in Derbyshire, England, and died in 1963 in the small Welsh village of Blaenau Ffestiniog. He grew to maturity as slowly as a tree, and his long life included more than twenty-five years spent lecturing in the US before he published anything of significance. Powys inherited the charisma of his father, a Church of England parson, and he could discourse with eloquence on almost any subject—Homer, Shakespeare, Blake, the Bible, ancient romance, and modern materialism. He had been at Cambridge University, and in English literature and the classics he was prodigiously well read.

In America he preferred nonacademic audiences, but in the early days of imagism, and before their emigration to Europe, Ezra Pound, HD, and their friends came under his spell and followed him around the lecture circuit, sitting at his feet in the intervals in cafes and hotel bedrooms. There was nothing vain or sinister in this appeal. Powys was never ambitious to establish a dominant literary persona. Modest, chivalrous, the least power hungry of men, he was quite out of place in the ambitious bohemian world of the prewar literati, but he was also quite unselfconscious, accepting and being accepted by them. His early marriage in England had broken down, but he supported his wife and child all their lives, and because he was a Catholic never divorced her. Latterly he lived with a young admirer, Phyllis Playter; with whom he remained for many years, and who was with him when he died.

His powers as a preacher certainly left their mark on Powys’s writings, but an equivocal one. Every literate person has to know about Faulkner or Kafka or Lawrence, but it is permissible in literary academic circles to be barely aware of Powys. His name crops up as a crackpot mystagogue, the kind associated with druid festivals and Stonehenge societies. His admirers, on the other hand, have the wrong sort of fervor, comparing him freely to Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Cervantes. Such comparisons may in fact be quite justified but they are not reassuring. He has never become a universal property like other great writers; his legend and reputation belong to a cult. All cults are tiresome, but this one paradoxically shows something very attractive about Powys—his ineradicable amateurishness, his lack of self-dedicated ambition. Less attractive geniuses—Frost, Yeats, Thomas Mann—do not need a little church of devout acolytes to cherish them. Nobel Prize seekers have a better sense of timing. Powys did not bother. What he wrote is all over the place. He never artfully planned and brought forth the pattern or sequence of masterpieces that would have established him definitively.

His remarkable siblings, to whom he was very close, were better at this than he was. Theodore, who wrote as T.F. Powys, had a great critical success with Mr. Weston’s Good Wine, which appeared in 1927, two years…

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