The Powyses

D.A.N. Jones

  • After My Fashion by John Cowper Powys
    Picador, 286 pp, £2.50, June 1980, ISBN 0 330 26049 9
  • Weymouth Sands by John Cowper Powys
    Picador, 567 pp, £2.95, June 1980, ISBN 0 330 26050 2
  • Recollections of the Powys Brothers edited by Belinda Humfrey
    Peter Owen, 288 pp, £9.95, May 1980, ISBN 0 7206 0547 4
  • John Cowper Powys and David Jones: A Comparative Study by Jeremy Hooker
    Enitharmon, 54 pp, £3.75, April 1979, ISBN 0 901111 85 6
  • The Hollowed-Out Elder Stalk by Roland Mathias
    Enitharmon, 158 pp, £4.85, May 1979, ISBN 0 901111 87 2
  • John Cowper Powys and the Magical Quest by Morine Krissdottir
    Macdonald, 218 pp, £8.95, February 1980, ISBN 0 354 04492 3

Big guns (J. B. Priestley, G. Wilson Knight, George Steiner, Angus Wilson) have been booming the name of John Cowper Powys for many years, outraged that other big guns will not join the salute. In the first number of the Powys Review, in 1977, George Steiner blamed Dr Leavis for praising Theodore Francis Powys above John Cowper, thus denying J. C. his meed of lectures, tutorials and research students. Nevertheless, the book-addicted young, the Colin Wilsons of our time, find John Cowper instantly available in the heart of London, at the Village Bookshop, hard by Piccadilly Circus, that alternative campus.

There is here a bust of John Cowper, with large pictures of his photogenic face. There is a wall of his books which (with a few of T. F.’s and Llewellyn’s offering fraternal support) seem to dominate over the shelves of Dostoevsky, Hesse and Tolkien, while a Beethoven quartet accompanies the browsing, and little fish play in the Oriental pond by the occult books. This shop is a sort of Powys shrine: here are great names, great subjects, not examination-notes.

The Village Press offers more than sixty books by and about J. C. Powys and his brothers – and there is much more to come, numerous letters to collect. That word ‘village’ links rural Britain, Vole country, with Greenwich Village. So does J. C. Powys’s newly-discovered novel, After My Fashion, now published for the first time.

Probably all the 31 contributors to Recollections of the Powys Brothers, as well as Morine Krissdottir, Jeremy Hooker and Roland Mathias, would agree that After My Fashion is the most immediately important of the six books under review. It was apparently written very soon after the First World War, when John Cowper was in his forties, just beginning his career as a novelist. The very title reminds us he was a Victorian, only two years younger than Lord Alfred Douglas.

His most celebrated novels of English life were published in the 1930s. Then he moved to Wales, became very Cymric, historical and metaphysical; a sage, visited by disciples, he wrote of mysteries and antiquities until his death, aged 91, in 1963. After My Fashion draws us back from these later incarnations to a new writer, a middle-aged man with much experience behind him, a Victorian clergyman’s son pondering the Great War and the Bolshevik Revolution and his friendship with Isadora Duncan – and his own adolescent attitude to life, unusual in a man in his late forties.

The hero of After My Fashion is a self-portrait. Richard Storm has returned to Sussex from Paris, where he has made a name for himself with his critical appreciations of modern French writers. The first man he meets is a young painter, Robert Canyot, a traditionalist who thinks Richard far too modern. Richard wins Robert’s girlfriend, Nelly Moreton, although Richard fears she is too young for him: they have much in common, Richard and Nelly, both being vicars’ children. Robert behaves with extraordinary generosity: he gives the bride away. The main theme of the novel is the difficulty of behaving with non-possessive love.

New to Powys’s readers is the quiet reflectiveness of Richard Storm, lying on the Sussex ground as a returned exile, offering a prayer for the souls of the dead soldiers who had saved his native land – while aware that the land did not truly belong to the people and ‘aware of the sinister ambiguities of most patriotic moods’. But happily familiar is his loving, sensual, tactile description of British land. Sir Angus Wilson remarks, in his foreword to the paperback reprint of Weymouth Sands, that Powys, in a Victorian manner, somehow made a contribution to the impressionism explored by Virginia Woolf: ‘the seaside of Weymouth Sands is a Boudin painted by Monet.’ Perhaps. But in After My Fashion he strikes me as more like a thoroughgoing Victorian, offering the sort of landscape painting Ruskin admired in William Dyce. (The people-crowded canvas of Frith was yet to come.)

Suddenly the novel leaps from the unchanging Sussex village to wild, hectic Greenwich Village, the hot streets of Manhattan, ‘its echoing cataracts of iron and stone’. We can almost hear the title being jazzed up: Dowson’s Propertian lament for Cynara is turning to Cole Porter’s ‘Always true to you, darlin’, in my fashion’. The peaceful Sussex marriage has gone with the wind: ‘From Adam and Eve to Scarlet and Rhett’. J. C. Powys, well-known as a magician, was doubtless able to foretell these pop-song lyrics ... But we must not be too fanciful.

Readers who know the exciting, frightening evocations of the United States in Powys’s Autobiography will relish these newly-discovered impressions. We remember that he had spent years of his life travelling and lecturing all over the States, intoxicating himself and his audience with large thoughts about Dante, Dostoevsky and Homer, while contrasting his subject-matter with his environment – years before he began forcing his physical and spiritual experiences into novels of British life.

What happens in New York is that Richard takes up with an old flame, a dancer called Elise Angel, based on Powys’s friend, Isadora Duncan. Richard’s wife, Nelly, is distraught. Worse still, the predatory dancer leaps into the arms of another predator, a romantic young Russian Communist. (Did Powys know of Isadora Duncan’s affair with Esenin, or did he prophesy it?) Richard then feels it his duty to comfort the Russian’s deserted girlfriend, Catharine, two weaklings thrown over by tigers – in a partnership ‘queerly assorted and entirely chaste’. Now, when he tries to win back his wife, what maddens her is not so much Richard’s infatuation with the beautiful dancer as his close friendship with feeble Catharine ... The end of the story will not be revealed here, but readers will recognise that this story is ‘true to life’ in the realistic style – and those who like Powys in this vein, without too much metaphysics, will count this early novel among their favourites. Metaphysicians will rather note the vicar who loves Christ but can’t love God.

But newcomers to Powys-land may wonder what the fuss is about. The last chapter of John Cowper’s Autobiography has the strange heading ‘There’s a Mohawk in the Sky!’ Is it a man, is it a bird? Is Powysianism a cult, a fan-club, a Welsh academic festival? Let us turn to Recollections of the Powys Brothers, to attempt historical perspective.

In the Thirties and Forties, when I was a boy, the most acceptable of the Powys brothers was Theodore Francis – both to Dr Leavis and to the general reading public. My own father, a suburban civil servant, had half a dozen volumes of T.F. Powys, but I, though liking the author’s way with words, could not see the point of his stories. Dylan Thomas’s broadcasts similarly appealed to my father (‘the bullish fields,’ he would say, savouring the words), and it was Dylan Thomas who ‘sent up’ T.F. Powys so memorably on the BBC Home Service, without even mentioning his name. (On the BBC Light Programme, a touch less highbrow, Thomas would talk of more famous people, like Arnold, Beerbohm and Chesterton, but that was in the bookish Forties, before we all became viewers.) Mocking Dr Leavis’s admiration for T.F. Powys, Dylan Thomas spoke of the little village of ‘Upper Storey’: ‘a small, lunatic area of Wessex, full of saintly or reprehensible vicars, wanton maidens, biblical sextons and old men called Parsnip or Dottle ... Everyone in this sophisticatedly contrived bucolic morality, has his or her obsession: Minnie Wurzel wants only the vicar; the vicar, the Reverend Nut, wants only the ghost of William Cowper to come into his brown study and read him The Task; the Sexton wants worms; worms want the vicar. Lambkins on those impossible hills, frolic, gambol and are sheepish under the all-seeing eye of Uncle Teapot, the Celestial Tinker ...’ In this parody (the Listener, 17 October 1946), Thomas indicates a kinship with his butt, later to flourish in Under Milk Wood. Perhaps there was, after all, something Welsh about T.F. Powys, despite his determination to stick to the Wessex of his boyhood. Unlike his brother, John Cowper, he never returned to the land of his fathers, to become the darling of the academics.

Belinda Humfrey’s engaging book of recollections offers six essays on Llewellyn Powys, ten on Theodore Francis and 18 (by rather more famous writers) on John Cowper. Leaving the big guns aside, for a while, we note the modest charm of T.F.’s friends recalling his quiet eccentricity. He lived in a Dorset village, his wife being a local girl, uneducated, who seems to have been a happy housewife and mother – occasionally suggesting, wistfully, that she wished her husband would allow her a wireless set, like the other villagers. T.F.’s sister-in-law, Alyse Gregory, writes with some annoyance about the marriage: this American lady novelist, editor of the Dial, liked to take T.F. on country walks, with intellectual discussions, and complains that ‘he has had to live his life with a woman who shares none of his tastes, none of his thoughts ...’ Nevertheless, the slightly jealous Alyse managed to get something out of her brother-in-law. She discussed with him Seneca’s ‘Essay on the Tranquil Life’, and T.F. remarked that he did not agree with the Roman courtier that ‘lust and the pleasures of the table were most harmful to man. He said that ambition and love of glory were, by far, more dangerous.’

Among the Recollections is an exciting and excited essay by Gerard Casey about how T.F. made him read Jacob Boehme, whom he preferred to Plato – ‘that flighty one: honest Jacob has the hammer that rings my bell.’ Gerard Casey is a Dorset resident of Welsh upbringing: he farmed in Kenya with T.F.’s brother, Willie, and married the daughter of their sister Lucy. He writes about religion in Quaker journals and has published a long poem called ‘South Wales Echo’, under the pseudonym ‘Gerardus Cambrensis’. Mr Casey also translates modern Greek poetry. He recalls that it was J.C. who made him learn to read Homer: the necessary books were obtained from another brother, Littleton Powys, the schoolmaster. Gerard Casey’s essay concludes: ‘In the room in which I am writing are two imaged heads: one of Homer, one of Boehme. As I look at the one I see, with John, Zeus the Son of Cronos of the Crooked Ways reflected in the unresting sea of Homer. As I look at the other I see, with Theodore, the world mysteriously plunged in the crystalline sea before the Throne of the Ancient of Days ...’ An apt pupil, Gerard Casey.

Let us come down to earth. Several of the 31 essayists recall their discovery of John Cowper Powys, during adolescence – and this is relevant to his influence. Myself, on a wet day at the seaside, I drifted into a public library and saw a thick, battered, re-bound book labelled ‘Powys: Jobber Skald’. It did not look like my father’s slim, elegant volumes of T.F. It was J.C. – with a list of characters at the front, just like Macbeth or The Old Curiosity Shop. ‘Adam Skald, the Jobber; Magnus Muir, a teacher of Latin; Jerry Cobbold, a famous clown; Larry Zed, a mad boy; Marret Jones, a Punch-and-Judy girl: Dr Girodel, an abortionist; Tissty and Tossty, dancers at the Regent Theatre; Gipsy May, Curly Wix, Captain Poxwell ... ’ Why, I had discovered the modern Dickens, all on my own! (The italics and exclamation mark represent a passing tribute to John Cowper’s deplorable, attention-grabbing style.)

Jobber Skald is the book now reprinted in paperback under its original title, Weymouth Sands. Sir Angus Wilson, President of the Powys Society, explains in his foreword that J.C. published it in America as Weymouth Sands but changed the title for British publication, since he feared another libel action (such as he had already suffered over A Glastonbury Romance). Sir Angus thinks this change did no good to the book’s reputation, since it is about community and landscape, not just one hero. This is true – but for my part I was first hooked by the substitute title, down-to-earth English ‘Jobber’ and ancient Norse ‘Skald’. After reading it, I looked again at T.F. and then discovered Llewellyn: this third brother annoyed me, breaking into rather beautiful descriptions of Wessex with discordant, defiant cries about God and sex. Ethel Mannin’s memoir, in the Recollections, echoes his sharpness: ‘For every utterance of his with which I find myself sharply in disagreement, there are two I passionately endorse.’ He liked to rebuke, she says.

Llewellyn was like D.H. Lawrence or a sort of Freudian, turning readers’ failings into diseases and then into sins, making us feel guilty for not being normal. ‘You’re neurotic, you’ve got an Oedipus, an inferiority!’ Is that a diagnosis or an accusation? But John Cowper’s charm, especially for the young, was his assumption that we are all perverts and deviants, in our heads, and that there is glee as well as danger in this condition. ‘These sharply-cut pathological formulae, such as sadist, masochist, zoophilist, misanthropist, extravert, introvert, homosexualist, cerebralist, heterosexualist and so forth, are too neatly scientific to cope with the mysterious impulses of a living soul.’ So wrote John Cowper in his Autobiography; and his novels are written in that spirit. This, I believe, is the principal reason why he has captured so many scholars and artists and youngsters.

Other reasons include the Anglo-Welsh connection. Belinda Humfrey has recently published an elegant book about John Dyer, the author of ‘Grongar Hill’[*]: she remarks that Dyer began to write his poem at the place itself, ‘even if he went on working at it later in London and Italy, in nostalgia, with what John Cowper Powys would call “the pen of a traveller and the ink-blood of his home” ’. Dyer and Powys are together in the Welsh academic syllabus. On the sidelines, we hear Dylan Thomas broadcasting in the BBC Eastern Service about Welsh poets: ‘John Dyer, still remembered, if only as a name, by those who read poetry for a degree and by those who live near Grongar Hill’. Dylan Thomas had a fair share of the ‘sacred malice’ which Powys observed in himself.

John Cowper’s ‘Welshness’ is nicely examined in John Cowper Powys and David Jones by Jeremy Hooker of Aberystwyth University. Readers of the Oxford Book of Welsh Verse in English will have noticed how Jones and Powys, these two men from southern England, seem alike, extravagantly bardic, by comparison with the sharper, terser poets around them – in English translations from the Welsh. Powys and Jones dreamed and read and learned about the land of their fathers: the difference, according to Hooker, is roughly that Powys sees Wales as a place to escape to, whereas for Jones it is the seat of the ultimate reality. Their verse styles, of course, are entirely different, Jones being avant-garde and Powys Victorian. Roland Mathias, another stalwart of the Anglo-Welsh Review, wonders, in The Hollowed-Out Elder Stalk, about Powys’s verse style: it is, he suggests, like Whitman rewritten in the style of Poe. Perhaps the thumping rhythms have something to do with Powys’s Greek studies? Gilbert Murray noted that the marked rhythms of Greek lyrics are associated with ‘triviality’ in 20th-century Britain: ‘Our clearest lyric measures are almost confined to the music-hall.’ C.M. Bowra supported him, remarking that ‘Oh, oh, oh, what a lovely war!’ was very like a Greek chorus. (See The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation).

Aside from the Welsh interest, we turn to the Occult. John Cowper Powys and the Magical Quest is out of my field: but I am impressed by Morine Krissdottir’s demonstration that Powys’s novel, Porius, deliberately uses the seven stages of ‘the alchemical opus’ as the framework. ‘The alchemical opus,’ she writes, ‘was the purification of the world of matter so that its golden nature should be revealed.’ It might be helpful to note the passage in Weymouth Sands, where Mr Gaul is explaining his philosophy of life: ‘The great thing is to put our basic human cravings into a rigorous mental crucible until we extract their purest essence. This essence will turn out to be much more like the old feelings called up by such words as “God”, “Immortality”, “Free Will”, than it will resemble the sapless formulae of modern scientific catchwords. You see what I mean, don’t you?’

[*] John Dyer by Belinda Humfrey, University of Wales, 115pp., £1.95, 15 May, 0 7083 0749 3.