Tag Archives: John Cowper Powys

‘Weymouth Sands’ Quote by John Cowper Powys

Jerry had indeed something in him that went beyond Rabelaisianism, in that he not only could get an ecstasy of curious satisfaction from the most drab, ordinary, homely, realistic aspects of what might be called the excremental under-tides of existence but he could slough off his loathing for humanity in this contemplation and grow gay, child-like, guileless.

I wish I’d used ‘The Excremental Under-tides of Existence‘ as my Blog name.

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‘The Brazen Head’ (1956) by John Cowper Powys

It did not take Lil-Umbra long with her fifteen-year-old legs and her slender figure to scamper down the quarter-of-a-mile avenue of over-arching elms that led due eastward from the Fortress of Roque, where she lived, to the ancient circle of Druidic stones that had come to be known as “Castrum Sanctum”.

So begins, John Cowper Powys’s novel, The Brazen Head, published in 1956 when he was 83 years old. The events in The Brazen Head take place in the year 1272; the title refers to a talking ‘brazen head’ that was invented by Friar Roger Bacon and which could supposedly answer any question put to it. The opening lines introduce us to Lil-Umbra, the daughter of Sir Mort, the Baron of Roque Castle, as she meets Peleg, a Tartar giant who is indebted to Sir Mort with saving his life during a crusade. Powys’s novels typically have a multitude of characters and The Brazen Head is no different; briefly the novel covers the inhabitants of three castles and a priory along with various visitors. Firstly there is the Manor of Roque, owned by Sir Mort, his wife, Lady Val and their children, Lil-Umbra, Tilton and John; John is about twenty-years old and studies under Roger Bacon. Secondly, there is the Castle of Lost Towers, occupied by Sir Maldung, his wife, Lady Lilt, and their beautiful daughter Lilith; both Sir Maldung and Lady Lilt appear mad and Lilith wicked. Thirdly there is Cone Castle, occupied by Baron Boncor, his wife, Lady Ulanda and their son Sir William; Raymond de Laon, who is a relative of the Baron’s is currently visiting. Fourthly, there is the Bumset Priory, run by Prior Bog, and is the current home/prison of Friar Roger Bacon.

Just in case the reader is thinking that this will be a rather tiresome historical novel we are quickly introduced to a horse, called Cheiron, that has an incipient human head forming in its neck, an old man who has discovered the consciousness of inanimate objects, and later on in the novel we are introduced to Peter Peregrinus of Picardy who carries a lodestone around with him and wants to use it to take over the world but also just seems to enjoy giving people, including Bacon, ‘magnetic shocks’ just for the hell of it—he also fantasises about getting his revenge on the human race. Lilith of Lost Towers is an odd one too, and feared by Lil-Umbra, who seems to sense Lilith’s malevolence. Lilith, though possibly evil, is extremely beautiful and inspires lust in just about every man she meets; she acts lasciviously towards Bonaventura, for example, a friar who is searching the land for heretics, and has his eyes on Bacon. Lil-Umbra fears that Lilith will try to seduce Raymond de Laon, whom Lil-Umbra is in love with. Lilith and Peregrinus seemed to be made for each other and they become a sort of Brady-Hindley couple. If Lilith is a bit cracked, then it’s no surprise because her parents are just as mad; her father, Sir Maldung, is very odd, and tries to kill both Sir Mort and Baron Boncor by arrow. Here is a description of Sir Maldung, as he interrupts a meeting between Baron Boncor and Bonaventura in the woods; this precedes Sir Maldung’s attack on Baron Boncor.

   He was interrupted by the appearance of the most amazing human figure that any of them, man or beast, had ever seen in his life before. This personage came dancing into their midst, and not one of them could take his eyes off him for a second when once he appeared. He inhaled and sucked in and tried to drain up the essence of every living soul upon that spot, whether such a soul belonged to a man or an animal or a bird or a reptile or a toad or a worm or an insect. None of the three human beings present at that cross-tack in the forest had a flicker of doubt as to who this intruder was, who thus came dancing into the midst of them.
   It was Baron Maldung himself, the Lord of Lost Towers!

And what of Bacon’s brazen head? Well, it undergoes an….invocation…I guess, as that’s the title of the chapter; this invocation involves inviting Ghosta, a Jewish servant girl who has just arrived in the priory, and who has had a presentiment to visit the friar, to straddle the brazen head with her naked genitals touching the neck, whilst they all repeat the following: Birginis, Sirginis, Flirginis, Virginis. Apparently this is of use to Bacon. This scene is portrayed on the cover of my edition by a sculpture by Patricia V. Dawson, a series of seven sculptures based on events in the novel. Bonaventura, meanwhile, considers Bacon an heretic; he intends to put a stop to his experiments and seize and destroy the brazen head; and maybe even Bacon as well.

This is certainly a wild novel, full of grotesque characters and it is amazing that a man in his eighties would write such a thing. Some of Powys’s other later novels sound even stranger than this one. Maybe it isn’t quite as consitantly crazy as I’ve made it out to be but it’s not far off and the ending is suitably chaotic and cataclysmic—you will have to read it though to find out what happens. In amongst all the weird characters and the strange goings-on there are some beautiful passages; Powys’s skills as a writer certainly didn’t deteriorate as he aged. Here’s a short passage near the end of the book as an example of the calmer prose in the book.

It may well be that what gives to the wind along that Wessex coast its indescribable mixture of vague sorrow and wild obscure joy comes from its passing, on its unpredictable path, the floating hair of so many love-lorn maidens and the wild-tossed beards of so many desolate old men.

n.b John Cowper Powys was born on 8th October 1872, 148 years ago today.

The Brazen Head was read as part of Karen’s and Simon’s 1956 Year Book Event.

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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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‘A Glastonbury Romance’ by John Cowper Powys

After finishing John Cowper Powys’s 1,120 page epic, A Glastonbury Romance (AGR), which took just over a month to read, I am finding it difficult to leave Powys’s world behind. I’m reluctant to start anything new and have started reading a (slim) biography of him by Herbert Williams. I keep picking up AGR to re-read parts of it again and think to myself, “Why not read it again?”—but I will resist the urge, for now. The same thing happened after my reading of Wolf Solent and I very nearly started a re-read of that book instead of starting AGR. There is something strangely attractive about his writing; he’s not the best author and AGR is not the best book in the world, but it is very readable, at least I found it so. He’s just an unfashionable writer, unfashionable then and unfashionable now.

Powys is one, of many, authors whom I first heard about from reading Henry Miller when I was younger—others are Jean Giono, Knut Hamsun, L.F. Céline, Sherwood Anderson et al. Two of these authors, Powys and Giono, I’ve only got round to reading for the first time in recent years and both have been impressive, so far. I’m looking forward to reading more by them.

So yes, A Glastonbury Romance is a big book; but once started I was drawn into its mythologies, its many sub-plots and its strange characters, I almost forgot the size of it and only wished it were longer—the same thing has happened with my reading of Dickens and Dostoyevsky. So A Glastonbury Romance was first published in the U.S. in 1932 (and 1933 in the U.K.) three years after Wolf Solent. It won’t be any surprise to find that the bulk of the novel takes place in Glastonbury, Somerset but it begins in Northwold, Norfolk with the reading of Canon William Crow’s will; many of the family members have assembled, such as John, Mary, Philip and Elizabeth Crow, all who feature throughout the novel; Elizabeth is the daughter of Canon Crow and is the aunt of John, Mary and Philip. John has just returned from a period in France and has no real plans for the future, whereas Philip is a successful businessman from Glastonbury. Canon Crow has a surprise in store for everyone as he’s left all his estate to John Geard, who had been the Canon’s valet, secretary and in the end, his friend. Although this revelation causes initial excitement and anger, most of the characters seem to resign themselves to the decision quite quickly—maybe they were half-expecting something of this sort. John decides to walk to Glastonbury and meets a Welsh Arthurian scholar, called Owen Evans, at Stonehenge; Owen happens to be Geard’s daughter’s fiancé.

Thus did these two, the man from Wales and the man from Norfolk, enter the silent streets of the town of Glastonbury.

The rest of the book takes place within Glastonbury and its environs. Powys introduces us to multiple characters and sub-plots and tries to show us the political, philosophical, mythological, quotidian, psychological, sexual, natural life of Glastonbury (n.b. I may have missed some). The political side of Glastonbury is demonstrated by showing three main strands of political life represented by different characters or groups of characters: there is the capitalistic, industrious group represented by Philip Crow and William Zoyland; the socialists are represented by Red Robinson and Dave Spear; and the religious/mystical represented by John Geard and Mat Dekker. There are many others, some connected to these groups, some completely separate that intertwine with this narrative within the novel but there are conflicting interests for the future of Glastonbury (Britain). Crow and Zoyland are ashamed of the mystical past of Glastonbury and want to create industry, wealth and jobs; the socialists are just as ashamed of the mysticism but want to create a commune in the town; and there is Geard, who uses his newly acquired wealth to try to revive the mystical past of Glastonbury. Geard both uses and is used by the others to attempt to accomplish their aims. For instance Geard is supported by the socialist groups to become the mayor of Glastonbury as they believe he can be used to thwart Philip Crow’s industrial plans. When Geard does become mayor he decides to put on a pageant (or passion play) which ends in an amazingly chaotic mess.

John Geard is one of Powys’s brilliant characters but it’s difficult to know whether he’s genuine or a charlatan. At several points in the book Geard seems to suggest that he believes he is the manifestation of Christ; he appears to be at least a mesmeric cult leader. Physically, Geard is rather odd-looking and is described thus:

…a broad-shouldered, rather fleshy individual, without any hat, whose grizzled head under that suspended light seemed to Sam the largest human head he had ever seen. It was the head of a hydrocephalic dwarf; but in other respects its owner was not dwarfish. In other respects its owner had the normally plump, rather unpleasantly plump figure of any well-to-do-man, whose back has never been bent nor his muscles hardened by the diurnal heroism of manual labour.

Geard can work a crowd, he delivers impromptu speeches to audiences, sometimes sober, sometimes drunk and sometimes under some unknown influence. He’s enigmatic but shambolic. Later on in the novel he supposedly cures a cancer victim and during the opening ceremony of a Saxon Arch, he has had built, he seems to bring a recently-deceased boy back to life. Weird? Yes, meanwhile Sam Dekker, the son of the vicar of Glastonbury, has a vision where he sees the Grail in a barge on the canal. Maybe, even more strangely, Powys invests all creatures, indeed, all objects with a living spirit; but Powys has a special affection for trees; the following quote takes place whilst Owen Evans and his new wife, Cordelia, kiss in a wood next to two trees, a Scotch fir and a holly tree, which are also in love with each other.

In the summer when the wind stirs the trees, there is that rushing, swelling sound of masses of heavy foliage, a sound that drowns, in its full-blossomed, undulating, ocean-like murmur, the individual sorrows of trees. But across this leafless unfrequented field these two evergreens could lift to each other their sub-human voices and cry their ancient vegetation-cry, clear and strong; that cry which always seems to come from some underworld of Being, where tragedy is mitigated by a strange undying acceptance beyond the comprehension of the troubled hearts of men and women.

But it’s not all mysticism and animism, in fact, that takes up only a small part of the book; there are many affairs and other dalliances, sexual desires, repressions, sadism and murder. Owen Evans, for example, has sadistic sexual urges which he tries to purge, initially, by playing a crucified Christ at the pageant; later on in the novel he’s obsessed with witnessing a murder; but in both cases he does not really have the stomach for it as his sadistic desires turn to revulsion when realised. Powys switches about between characters, human and non-human, good and evil, at one point we are viewing events from afar and then we fall into the character’s mind. It can be disorienting but also exciting.

One of the new characters that appears in the second-half of the novel is Finn Toller. I can never resist a good description of a character, so here’s Finn:

Mr. Finn Toller in his natural condition was no engaging sight. In his present state he was a revolting object. He was a sandy-haired individual with a loose, straggly, pale-coloured beard. He gave the impression of being completely devoid of both eyebrows and eyelashes, so bleached and whitish in his case were those normal appendages to the human countenance. His mouth was always open and always slobbering, but although his whole expression was furtive and dodging, his teeth were large and strong and wolfish. Mr. Toller looked, in fact, like a man weak to the verge of imbecility who had been ironically endowed with the teeth of a strong beast of prey.

Finn is a nasty piece of work; he thinks that everyone is trying to inveigle him to murder people on their behalf. He’s quite happy to oblige, except for women and children, so when Mad Bet does indeed urge him to murder John, whom she is besotted by, he plans an attack, which forms another sub-plot to this mesmerising novel. As with many of the local characters Finn talks, and thinks, with a Somerset accent. As a little taster of some of Powys’s Somerset dialogue here are a couple of examples of Finn’s:

“I never have liked these here windy nights. These here nights be turble hummy and drummy to me pore head.”

“What I’ve got…to say, Missus, be for Mr. Robinson’s ear alone. Please allow me, Missus, for all that us poor folks have got left”—he stopped and threw a very sinister leer at Red—”be what be put in our minds by they as be book-larned and glib of tongue, like this clever Mister here, who is foreman of his Worship’s. Us poor dogs hasn’t got anything left in the world, us hasn’t, except they nice, little thoughties, they pretty thoughties, what clever ones, like Mister here, do put into we.”

By the way, the ‘nice thoughties’ are those of bludgeoning Philip Crow over the head with an iron bar. In a public speech Red Robinson had called for Philip to be ‘liquidated’, by which Finn takes that to mean that Robinson wants him bumped off; when he repeats Robinson’s words back to him with this ‘understanding’ Robinson is shocked. It’s gruesome but funny as well.

“A bloated capitalist, like ‘im, what do hexploit us poor dawgs, ought to be lickidated.” It was Mr. Toller undoubtedly who was saying that; and Red recognized his own oratorical expression, “liquidated,” the meaning of which, for the word had reached him from Bristol, had always puzzled him—though this had not prevented him from using it in his orations.

But AGR is not all dark, there are light passages as well, humour as well as seriousness, and realism as well as mysticism and a cataclysmic ending for good measure. The aspect I really like about his work is how the narrative weaves between all these. For example, there is a great section where Powys describes a murder and the narrative switches to that of some rooks flying above and some insects on the ground near the body, or in the earlier example where the narrative fades from Owen and Cordelia kissing to the ‘thoughts’ of the trees.

Throughout the novel Powys introduces us to his spiritual philosophy of the First Cause; I always find mystical or spiritual text difficult to ‘understand’ but in Powys’s hands such passages are still stimulating to read. I shall end with a couple of passages as examples.

   There is no ultimate mystery! Such a phrase is meaningless, because the reality of Being is forever changing under the primal and arbitrary will of the First Cause. The mystery of mysteries is Personality, a living Person; and there is that in Personality which is indetermined, unaccountable, changing at every second! The Hindu philosophies that dream of the One, the Eternal, as an Ultimate behind the arbitrariness of Personal Will are deluded. They are in reality—although they talk of “Spirit”—under the bondage of the idea of the body and under the bondage of the idea of physical matter as an “ultimate.”
   Apart from Personality, apart from Personal Will, there is no such “ultimate” as Matter, there is no such “ultimate” as Spirit. Beyond Life and beyond Death there is Personality, dominating both Life and Death to its own arbitrary and wilful purposes.

What mortals call Sex is only a manifestation in human life, and in animal and vegetable life, of a certain spasm, a certain delicious shudder, a certain orgasm of a purely psychic nature, which belongs to the Personality of the First Cause.

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