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 before Wolf Solent. In 1939, the year of his death from tuberculosis, there appeared Llewelyn Powys’s idyll of dreamy pastoral wish fulfillment called Love and Death, which is still moving and readable. But their elder brother, whose numerous novels and didactic potboilers (with titles like The Meaning of Culture and The Pleasures of Literature) stretched right back before the First World War, and forward well beyond the second, never desired or achieved such definitive literary moments. His bestknown novel, The Glastonbury Romance, has great things in it, but is so huge and unwieldy that it obscures his two much more effective masterpieces, chronologically on either side of it, Wolf Solent and Weymouth Sands. The ivy of Powys’s occasional writings covers and obscures such masterpieces with its leisurely profusion. Welshness abounds in his later work, and his grand old age produced such misty marvels as Porius and Owen Glendower, much admired by some, and full of superb Arthurian scene and vision, but as unproportioned as are most historical fantasies.

Nor is Powys really at his best in his autobiography, composed in the Thirties in his cottage in upstate New York. A wonderfully mercurial presence in his novels, the Powys personality face to face is no less genial, but forfeits its strange powers of creation and romance, becomes garrulous and quirky, exhibits the stigmata of the confiding obsessive. It is characteristic of Powys to seem to have no idea that this might be so: there is no division in him between artist and man. The character Wolf Solent derives from Powys himself—the clumsy young schoolmaster with his beaky nose and angular frame, inseparable from his hat and walking stick, loquacious, unselfconscious, enthusiastic—and Weymouth Sands contains three or four partial self-portraits. But his remarkable vitality as a novelist transforms these familiar self-images, and with great humor, into the swirling vortex of the tale, into its vigorous play of multiple consciousness.


The Powys cult has done him a disservice in obscuring the true gift so evident in these two novels—that of a highly idiosyncratic but essentially domestic novelist, as domestic as Jane Austen, a genius like her at creating a cast of characters as part of a comedy, and in a comic setting. Like her too he is at his best in the home or family, in a small historic town whose traditions and way of life mingle with the fantasies and illusions of its inhabitants. In the interrelation of these fantasies flourish not only comedy and pathos but joie de vivre and a kind of deep holy satisfaction in the intricacies of being and in the small, ever-present details of nature—leaves, wheel-ruts, bright beetles, small dry twigs. His earliest novel, Wood and Stone (1915), set like the later ones in Hardy’s Wessex, which Powys knew intimately from his childhood and schooldays, makes apprentice use of Hardy’s plotting in dire coincidence and fatality, but is basically and irrepressibly cheerful. It is also dedicated to Hardy, who had not long since been censured by conservative critics for writing Jude the Obscure. Powys’s Wessex is a different world, though it has a subtle kinship with Hardy’s, just as the fabulous world of sex in a Powys novel seems both unconscious of D.H. Lawrence and yet in affinity with him.

While Powys is just as brilliant an explorer of our erotic being as Lawrence, he is also happily tolerant, relaxed, diffusive, spacious. The erotic world he offers is too enchanting to be viewed with intensity. Powys’s heroes are never self-protective, and in personality as in diction he is fundamentally easygoing. He seems not to mind something sounding clumsy and banal, old-fashioned, even secondhand. Smart academic critics avoid him because it is so hard to show succinctly why he is good. It is no use pointing to key passages, in the way that a critic can demonstrate the mastery of Lawrence, Conrad, or George Eliot, and assign them their place in a “Great Tradition.” As his stories go on Powys’s fascinations are accumulative, their movement peristaltic. His themes, if analyzed, appear lacking in original insight. In his second novel, Ducdame, the autobiographical elements are particularly strong, and prefigure a situation enriched and varied in the later novels—that of a young man whose emotional life is divided among several women—wife, mother, mistress. Young Wolf Solent is torn between his wife Gerda, a marvelously realized, down-to-earth creation, and an ethereal “soulmate,” Christie, who is in every way Gerda’s antithesis.

Stated thus the plot of Wolf Solent sounds sufficiently banal, verging on soap opera, but the reader is won over by the immense lyrical and humorous energy with which Powys gets into these characters. Living in the rustic setting they do they maintain convincingly egalitarian relations, although the question of class is always present. Wolf is a gentleman whose dotty, life-loving father—an active presence in the book—has died in the poorhouse, and he supports his vain, active, sardonic mother. Another disturbing presence in Wolf’s life is that of Miss Gault, his old headmaster’s daughter, whose face, hideously disfigured by a huge birthmark, looks “like an ancient theatre full of dusky gladiators.” All these people are driven by the passions and illusions of love, but they are not presented as eccentrics and we soon cease to regard them as such.

Trivialities loom as satisfyingly large as in a novel by Jane Austen or Barbara Pym. We share Wolf’s anguish when both his mother and his mother-in-law threaten to come to tea the same day. After a tiff with his wife he is comforted by looking into the “strangely-coloured eyes” of his friend Darnley, and has “that peculiar sensation of relief which men are wont to feel when they encounter each other after the confusion of sex-conflicts.”

Wolf heard nothing of what he was saying, so occupied was he with a sudden question, gaping like a crack in a hot stubble-field in the very floor of his mind, that had just then obtruded itself. Was he really in love, in the proper sense of the word, with his sweet bedfellow?

That gives an idea of Powys’s curiously resonant use of cliché, and the images of landscape that mingle with and represent consciousness.

His feeling was like a brimming stream between reedy banks, where a wooden moss-covered dam prevents any spring-flood, but where the water, making its way round the edge of the obstacle, bends the long submerged grasses before it, as it sweeps forward.

The Coleridgean delicacy and zest are accompanied in the novel by images and suggestions of mystery and fatality that show why a writer like James Purdy so much admires Powys. Wolf Solent possesses a full intimacy in description and humor which Powys never quite approached again. Squire Urquhart, a memorable character at once sinister and commonplace, who is compiling a scandalous history of Dorset, says “my book must grow like a living thing, till it frightens us by its reality.” The death of Mr. Malahide, father of the Christie whom Wolf illusorily supposes to be his soulmate, is one of the great comic scenes in English literature, both perturbing and, in an odd sense, profoundly reassuring. Although not to Wolf. When he attempts to offer philosophical comfort to Christie, who may have pushed her father downstairs, she rejects him with a scream of rage and misery which seems to disclose a region of feeling into which neither he nor his author can penetrate. “You great, stupid, talking fool! What do you know of me or my father? What do you know of my real life?” This cry from the girl whom Wolf for most of the book has regarded as his “one true love” shows us a great deal about Powys’s unique attitude toward the characters he creates.


Originally published in England as Jobber Skald, because the corporation of Weymouth objected to the use of their town’s name in its title, Weymouth Sands has a greater breadth of cast than Wolf Solent and a more dramatic concentration of scene—the harbor town and the island of Portland (Hardy’s “Isle of Slingers”), which the young Powys had known well, and which he continually returns to in his early fiction. The plot turns on emotions of hatred and sadism—the projected revenge of Jobber Skald, a formidable jack-of-all-trades, against a powerful brewer who has wronged him—but, as in the other big novels, the fantasies and incongruities of love and daily living take a more important place than does the apocalyptic theme that has caused Powys’s admirers to compare him with Faulkner and Dostoevsky.

Indeed in his most natural and absorbing vein Powys noticeably avoids “big scenes,” preferring to refer to them as imminent and to assume their importance after they have gone by. This increases our sense of many and diverse consciousnesses leading their own lives, regardless of the author’s speculations and enthusiasms. Unlike Hardy and Lawrence, unlike Tolstoy, with whom George Steiner has compared him, Powys does not assume a complete understanding of his characters—he hardly seems to take responsibility for them at all. He does not own them psychologically, or pursue their fates in order to turn them into models of fictiveness. It is their fantastic but homely contact with life, always fresh and droll, that really takes hold of us, making its own tacit and good-natured commentary on the more mystical inventions of the story. An exuberance unlike any other in fiction keeps breaking in—“that basic human necessity for some degree of cheerfulness in one’s lair,” as Powys calls it—which is the most striking and engaging feature of his novels.

At the end of the novel, Wolf Solent feels he is “a ‘vegetable animal’ wrapped in a mental cloud.” He lives, like other Powys characters, by “mythology,” by “life-illusion.” There is nothing mystic about this; it is just a fact of life, as of the eroticism which for Powys fills most life-consciousness. He knows the truth that Lawrence always angrily and absurdly denied, that sex is “in the head,” part of our general dream of consciousness. For Lawrence “sex in the head” was the great deception; for Powys it is the great and obvious reality. “The best love was not lust; nor was it passion. Still less was it any ideal. It was pure Romance.”

Nothing could be more of a cliché than that exclamation in Weymouth Sands, and yet the sexual encounters and relations in these novels—Gerda’s with Wolf, Perdita’s with Jobber Skald, Mary’s with John and Nell’s with Sam in A Glastonbury Romance—give it a new kind of force and fascination. “Romance,” which can be more shamelessly, explicitly, and polymorphously erotic than Lawrentian sex, is the excitement which attaches our selfhood to the details of the world about us—erotic details especially—while at the same time keeping us separate in our own peculiar forms of self-satisfaction. This “life-illusion,” as Powys calls it, unites the odd and the conventional, the simple and the sophisticated. Wolf Solent reflects that the rival who has perhaps cuckolded him, the lecherous little grocer Bob Weevil, who thinks that “girls” legs are the most beautiful things in the world,” has the same good fortune in his daydreaming consciousness that he himself enjoys. “We both have the sort of intense life-illusion which protects human beings from the futility of the commonplace.”

One of Lawrence’s truest perceptions was that a great novelist made the novel form “incapable of the absolute.” This is especially true of Powys. There are no ultimate revelations in his world, or solutions for his characters; naturally enough, since for Powys personal illusions are the saving conditions in which we live. Although Wolf Solent has the form of a Bildungsroman, its hero learns nothing and is not subject to that stock fictive evolution common to both Lawrence’s Paul Morel and Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, as well, incidentally, as to the heroines of Jane Austen. In their urban or rural setting Powys’s lovers are as timeless in their erotic fixations as Queen Phaedra or Helen of Troy. And his narative proffers all sorts of metaphysical suggestions only to circumvent them, as trees and plants grow around artificial obstructions; sudden vital “discoveries,” often emphasized by italics, are soon absorbed back into the leisurely ganglion. Even as it absorbs and compels us the novel seems to be inviting us not to take it seriously.

This has disconcerted the critics who evaluate the novel as a serious art form. They can do little with Powys—his substance is too elemental—and his devotees usually resort to their fervently inflationary comparisons. The Saturday Review of Literature decided that he was “by turns an Emily Brontë; a subtle introspective Proust; a nature-enthralled Wordsworth;…a Dostoevsky shaking with the mystic fever; even, at rare moments, a Shakespeare.” The critic of The New York Times was nearer the mark in calling Weymouth Sands “a novel which takes people as it finds them.” Professor Robertson Davies has produced a similarly temperate and perceptive appreciation in his introduction for this edition of Wolf Solent. Few great novelists have the unusual gift of taking their characters as they find them, and the best we can do is to return Powys the compliment, hoping at the same time that these two splendid novels will never be taught in the English literature departments, as part of what Mary McCarthy called “the Proust-Joyce-Mann course.” The best tribute is the short poem Stevie Smith wrote for Powys in his old age.

This old man is very wise.
He knows the truth, he tells no lies.
He is as deep as a British pool.
And Monsieur Poop may think him a fool.

This Issue

March 28, 1985