Tag Archives: Herbert Williams

John Cowper Powys and Henry Miller

After finishing John Cowper Powys’s A Glastonbury Romance I was eager to push on with some more of his works, however, I had made some commitments to read other books so I couldn’t indulge myself quite yet. But I still couldn’t quite leave him alone; after spending a month with A Glastonbury Romance I wanted to know a little more about Powys and his world. So, I bought online, and read, as soon as it arrived, a short biography of the author by Herbert Williams. Published in 1997 by Seren (Poetry Wales Press Ltd) it is too short to be a comprehensive biography but, at 172 pages, it’s long enough to be substantial enough, and it suited my purposes.

Image source: GoodReads

John Cowper Powys’s writing career lasted more than sixty years; surprisingly he started by writing poetry, with his first book, Odes and Other Poems coming out in 1896 and his last book, except for some posthumous, unfinished works, was the novel All or Nothing in 1960. Along the way he wrote poetry, novels, philosophy, literary criticism and an autobiography. In fact whenever I read anything about J.C. Powys it’s his autobiography that is marked out as being worth reading; J.B. Priestly said that ‘this one book alone would have proved him to be a writer of genius’, though it’s curious, as Herbert Williams points out, that it contains nothing about the women in his life, not even his mother. Still, his Autobiography and many of his other books seem appealing, even some of his more bizarre books, such as Atlantis (1954), which I believe is about Odysseus discovering Atlantis, or something. His book on Rabelais, a favourite author of Powys, and his philosophy book, In Defence of Sensuality are a couple of his non-fiction works that I would like to read. It is worth noting that many of his books are published by Faber and Faber and the Powys Society recently released many of the more famous novels in kindle format.

Image source: Powys Society

I first heard of John Cowper Powys via the works of, and biographies of, Henry Miller. So I had to read this collection of letters between Henry Miller and J.C. Powys, published in 2014 by The Powys Society and edited by Jacqueline Peltier; its full title is Proteus and the Magician. The Letters of Henry Miller and John Cowper Powys. Miller initiated the correspondence in March 1950, when he was living in Big Sur, California and was in the middle of writing his book, The Books in My Life and was obviously thinking about authors who had inspired him through his life. Miller had seen Powys lecturing in New York between 1916-17 and had the impulse to talk to the man after one of his lectures only to be rather curtly treated by Powys. Still, reading these letters it is amazing to see how quickly the two authors start calling each other ‘dear John’ or ‘dearest Henry’—they quickly become best friends and their letters become quite personal at times. Having read works by both authors it is not that surprising that they both got on so well together. The only real difference is over sex; although Powys is no prude he seems to have not enjoyed sex (in a letter included in the Williams book Powys states ‘I have a horror of ‘fucking’ as it is called’), though he often claims to have had sadistic fantasies in the past and preferred masturbation to sex. In one of the letters Miller mentions the works of Sade, in reply to Powys’s previous mention of his sadistic tendencies and Powys shares the following:

No I’ve never read a line of de Sade and never shall. You see my own dominant overpowering maniacal vice was sadism and in Philadelphia (isn’t that the right place for such a thing?) I used to borrow from a friend Sadistic Books in French (he had half a library of them!) and carry them off to my lodging where I wd. read them with my knees knocking together & all my pulses going it like mad in a prolonged cerebral fury of crazy unsatisfied satisfaction.

Amusingly, Powys frequently calls himself an ‘old maid’ in his letters to Miller, but then he was approaching eighty at the beginning of the correspondence, whilst Miller was still a sprightly fifty-eight. Another topic where Powys disagreed with Miller can be seen below, which is about love—it’s rather amusing—see what you think.

O I do so agree with you in Faith being the thing! But Henry (my dear) I can’t I can’t I can’t and I won’t (even if it is the old devil himself in me!) I can’t agree with you about ‘Love‘. No no no no no no no no no no I am sick of love. It has been tried and it has failed. Jesus & Love have had their day.

It was heartening to see that they met again in 1953, when Miller visited Powys in Corwen, North Wales, and that they, and their wives, got on so well together; their visit is frequently referred to in later letters and seems to have been a joyful encounter. In one of the last letters in the volume, Henry Miller wishes Powys a happy ninetieth birthday and signs off with the following:

And now, my dear beloved John Cowper Powys, rest well, breathe lightly, and dream true.
   Henry Miller

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