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John Cowper Powys DUCDAME





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DESCENTS OF MEMORY The Life of John Cowper Powys by Morine Krissdottir

Descents of Memory

The Life of

John Cowper Powys


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The Life of John Cowper Powys

by Morine Krissdóttir

A selection of reviews



Descents of Memory: The Life of John Cowper Powys

By Morine Krissdóttir (Overlook Duckworth 480pp £25.00)



It is not hard to understand why John Cowper Powys has never had the recognition he deserves as

one of the twentieth century's most remarkable novelists. Until he was nearly sixty he earned his living

as an itinerant lecturer, much of the time in America, where he thrilled his audiences by his seeming

ability to transmit, medium-like, the inmost thoughts of the writers he loved. For a time Powys's

electrifying performance as a kind of literary magus attracted a considerable following. His admirers

included some of America's best-known writers - Theodore Dreiser was a notable supporter, for

example - but Powys's method of 'dithyrambic analysis' never caught on. An idiosyncratic exercise

that he described as 'hollowing himself out' so he could become the writer he was interpreting, it was

too obviously adapted to the needs of the lecture circuit and the quirks of Powys's personality to have

any lasting influence. Powys removed himself further from any kind of critical acceptance when, in an

effort to generate an income that would enable him to give up lecturing, he published a series of selfhelp

manuals. With titles like The Art of Forgetting the Unpleasant and In Defence of Sensuality,

these forays into popular psychology were refreshingly unorthodox in their prescriptions for personal

happiness; but they reinforced the perception of Powys as an eccentric figure flailing about on the

outer margins of literary and academic respectability.

In fact, respectability was never one of Powys's goals. Both in his writing and his life he scorned

conventional standards of success and followed his own, frequently conflicting inclinations. Easily

moved by sympathy and always recklessly generous with money, he could at the same time be

extremely cunning in satisfying his own needs, which were often strikingly bizarre or perverse. In his

Autobiography (a tour de force of shameless self-revelation that has been justly compared to

Rousseau's Confessions), Powys wrote that all his life he was pursued by fear - fear of the world and

other people but above all fear of his own manias, 'perpetual forms of madness' that dogged him

throughout much of his life. From his earliest years Powys believed he possessed 'some obscure

magical power' to realise his desires, but many of these involved sadomasochistic fantasies which

filled him with horror and of which he was able to rid himself only after many years of effort.

Describing himself as an 'anti-narcissist' who spent his life running away from himself, Powys escaped

from his manias - which included a loathing of spiders and a horror of his own shadow among many

other besetting anxieties - by employing 'an elaborate psycho-analytical psychi-psychiatry of my own

invention'. Tapping his head on stones and trees, praying to assorted deities on behalf of suffering

creatures human and animal, long peregrinations with named walking sticks as his regular

companions - these and other compulsive daily rituals allowed him to forget his psychic and physical

ailments (he was plagued by ulcers and chronic constipation) and freed him to write.

Born in 1872 into a clerical family with literary and aristocratic connections as the first of eleven

children, two of whom - Theodore and Llewelyn - also became highly original writers, Powys grew up

in the stifling gentility of a Victorian country vicarage. Yet he is in some ways the most modern of

writers, taking the dissolution of orderly society for granted and focusing on the shifts and turns of the

solitary consciousness with an intensity reminiscent of Proust. As in Proust, Powys's central

protagonists are introverted, almost solipsistic figures, who find relief from the sense of being

'contingent, mediocre, mortal' in sudden epiphanies, which they try to preserve in memory. However,

whereas Proust's epiphanies occur always indoors in a self-enclosed human world, Powys's were

found in the open fields and coastal vistas of his native Dorset - a more-than-human landscape that

frames his greatest novels. In Wolf Solent and Weymouth Sands, perhaps the most accomplished of

the Wessex series of novels that includes the panoramic Glastonbury Romance, Powys evokes the

floating world of moment-to-moment awareness as found in a collection of characters living on the

edges of society, struggling to fashion a life in which their contradictory impulses could somehow be

reconciled. The fusion of introspective analysis with an animistic sense of the elemental background

of human life which he achieves in these books is unique in European literature.

More than most writers Powys used his memories to create his fictions, but the greatest of these

fictions was his own personality. As Morine Krissdóttir shows in one of the most arresting literary

biographies in many years, Powys - a 'sworn hater' of dreams, which he loathed for the revelations

they contained of his only half-successfully repressed obsessions - gave himself over to the

conscious creation of a fantasy world in which he could live as the magician he had imagined himself

to be as a child. The problem with inhabiting such a dream world, of course, is that it unavoidably

contains real people who may not be willing to act the part given them in the fantasy-script. Powys

struggled constantly with this fact, which bedevilled his relations with the women in his life. Having

made a conventional marriage to the sister of a Cambridge friend, apparently mainly in order to

please his family, he went on to spend most of every year in America. It was there that he met the two

women he loved - the 'girl-boy' Frances Gregg, lover of Ezra Pound and Hilda Doolittle, with whom he

began a stormy relationship in 1912, and Phyllis Plater, whom he met in 1921 and who became his

lifelong companion.

It was in his relationship with Phyllis - a slight, nervous, intensely creative woman he called 'the T T',

or 'Tiny Thin' - that the tension between Powys's dream world and the reality of other people became

clearest. Phyllis loved the social and intellectual stimulus of big cities, while Powys craved a

sequestered existence in a peaceful rural landscape that reminded him of his Dorset home. Krissdóttir

writes that Powys viewed Phyllis as 'his slender Welsh fairy sylph, his elemental; but elementals are

designed for dancing in the midnight air, not for washing floors'. Certainly the sylph was Powys's own

creation, a figment with only a passing resemblance to his flesh and blood partner, who found the

drudgery and isolation of life with him - first in upstate new York, then Dorset and finally Wales, to

which Powys moved in 1935 and where he died in 1963 - hard to endure. Yet the fact remains that

the two were together for over forty years, during which Phyllis made a profound contribution to

Powys's most innovative and enduring work. In the end Phyllis may have shaped Powys - the selfstyled

shaman - more than he shaped her.

Using a mass of new material, Descents of Memory is an inspired study of the tangled and precarious

life of an absurdly neglected writer. Unsparing in her description of his exotic array of neuroses and

the ways in which he manipulated people to sustain his dream-life, yet full of admiration for his

dauntless energy and generosity of spirit, Krissdóttir is clearly deeply torn in her view of the man. She

never doubts the extraordinary quality of his best work. Like Powys himself, she sees his vast prose

poem Porius - one can hardly call it a novel - as in some sense the culmination of his life's work. For

the first time published in the unabridged form Powys intended, this rambling fairy tale of the Welsh

dark ages presents Powys's mythic world of animate nature and magical transformations on an epic

scale. Written in early old age, Porius is an enchanted labyrinth reminiscent of Finnegan's Wake. For

most readers the Wessex novels offer a more accessible way into this Dorset Proust. Seeking a sort

of salvation in distilled sensation, Powys turned to memory in an attempt to master time. Whether or

not he achieved any kind of personal redemption (Krissdóttir's biography suggests otherwise), he

came as close as any modern writer to capturing the inner flux.



The Monarch of All

The fantasy world of John Cowper Powys

Roger Boylan

Boston Review March/April 2008


Since his death in 1963, John Cowper Powys’s reputation has ridden the usual dead-writer

rollercoaster of obloquy and oblivion, rediscovery and restitution—with a vengeance. Few

who knew him, either personally or through his work, were indifferent. Ezra Pound, once an

amorous and professional rival, called him “a windbag” and “Jesus C. Powys.” (JCP

reciprocated by calling Ezra a “pond newt.”) To Philip Larkin, Powys was a “gigantic

mythopoeic literary volcano.” But the critic George Steiner once claimed that Powys was the

only twentieth-century English writer on a par with Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Margaret

Drabble, the distinguished English novelist, believes, “we need to pay attention to this man.”

The fantasy world of his novels, she says, is “densely peopled, thickly forested, mountainous,

erudite, strangely self-sufficient. This country is less visited than Tolkien’s, but it is as

compelling, and it has more air.”

And, after reading Powys’s gigantic masterpiece A Glastonbury Romance, Henry Miller (yes,

that Henry Miller) wrote, “My head began bursting as I read [it]. No, I said to myself, it is

impossible that any man can put all this—so much—down on paper. It is super-human.”

Theodore Dreiser, J. B. Priestley, Will Durant, and Iris Murdoch were devoted admirers. And

today, the keeper of the flame is Dr. Morine Krissdóttir, a trained psychologist and Powys

scholar (the two go together like bread and butter). She has written a fine biography of this

controversial figure: Descents of Memory. Writing it was hard. “I have spent the last five

years of my life,” she says, “writing the biography of an author whom many critics loathe.”

But love him or loathe him, you can’t ignore him; Krissdóttir has no doubts on this score. She

says, “[His works] both attracted and repulsed me—they still do—but the greatness of this

wayward writer I have never questioned.”

She has done an outstanding job. More even than Powys’s own landmark Autobiography,

hers is the definitive analysis of his life.

The early part of that life was standard Victoriana. John Cowper Powys was born in 1872,

eldest son of the Rev. Charles Francis Powys, vicar of Shirley, Derbyshire, whose sprawling

brood of eleven so epitomized the Victorian age it could have been written into existence by

Trollope, a volume per child. The vicar’s wife, Mary Cowper Powys, was a gifted amateur

pianist doomed to creative frustration, like so many Victorian wives; the reverend had a tin

ear, alas, and no time for suffragists. Mary Cowper’s was a dreary life. But she was

descended from the poets John Donne and William Cowper, so art ran in her blood and in

that of her children, five of whom became artists of one kind or another, and three of whom,

John Cowper, Theodore Francis (“T.F.”), and Llewellyn, went on to become writers. John

Cowper became something more; I’m not quite sure what.

Like his father and brothers, he was educated at the ancient and prestigious Sherborne School

in Dorset, where he succeeded in keeping bullies at bay by aggressively playing the fool,

a skill he honed by practicing on his younger brothers. After Sherborne, still in the family

footsteps, he went to Corpus Christi College at Cambridge University. There he associated

with few, bar one or two fellow misfits; he kept a revolver in his rooms as a deterrent to

excessive socializing. After graduating with a second-class degree in History, he married and

fathered a son, and—having failed dismally at various kinds of teaching—he signed on with

the Oxford Extension public lecture program which, in 1904, sent him off on his first lecture

tour of the new world. Although he never became in the slightest bit American, America was

the making of him. He stayed for 25 years until, driven by financial necessity, homesickness,

and the need to be near the graves of his ancestors, he returned to Britain. He died in the

mountains of North Wales at age 90. In his long and erratic career he published 23 novels, 17

biographical and autobiographical works, 10 books of literary essays, 16 books of

philosophical essays, and 9 books of poetry and drama, as well as dozens of essays and

reviews in magazines and newspapers. His best-known books are Autobiography, Wolf

Solent, Glastonbury Romance, Weymouth Sands, Maiden Castle, and the sprawling Arthurian

epic Porius. His finest, in this reader’s opinion, are the first three.

All this and much more Morine Krissdóttir chronicles in her biography, with the painstaking

devotion of the acolyte, or martyr.

During his lecturing years, John Cowper Powys became one of the best-known public

speakers in America. The early 1900s were the age of the Chautauqua public education

movement, that flamboyant combination of evangelism, pedagogy, and freak show, and

Powys was a natural. The only more popular speaker was William Jennings Bryan, whose

topic was usually politics, temperance, himself, or a combination thereof, whereas Powys, by

contrast, spoke almost exclusively on literature, in a throbbing, high-church kind of voice,

with many dramatic gestures. He lectured in every state in the Union, and drew huge crowds

that included such celebrities as Charlie Chaplin, Theodore Roosevelt, and Isadora Duncan

(with whom he had a fling). He became a star of the lecture circuit partly through his acting

talent—which was considerable, in a hammy, high-Victorian way—but mostly because he

communicated a genuine passion for his subject. Great books, to Powys as both reader and

writer, were far more than highbrow soap operas. They were as vital to life and well-being as

exercise or sunlight. To spread this gospel, he traveled all over the United States, raising high

the banners of Homer, Rabelais, Dostoevsky, Hardy, Shakespeare, Dante, and other

luminaries, exhorting ignorant provincials (most of whom were “staggering illiterates,” in his

words) to join the legions of the enlightened. Of course, Americans have always been up for a

dose of that old-time revivalism, with a dash of P. T. Barnum, but– literature? And the

bringer of literary wisdom to Utah and Texas and South Dakota a gangling Englishman with

a plummy accent and bizarre tics? That was the freak-show part, no doubt heightened when

he fell down onstage, as he did often, overcome by emotion and chronic gastritis. The crowds

roared, delighted by the theatrics, and in awe of Powys’s gift for entering his part completely.

When he spoke to them of Dickens or Hardy, the spirit of those writers seemed to inhabit


It is the way I always go to work in literary criticism, and it gives me the power, I will not say

of becoming the personality I am dealing with, but at least of diffusing my identity through its

identity and of realizing myself through the medium of its sensibility. The thing in its essence

is a kind of spiritual eroticism and in my case it is intimately connected with my vice as a


This passage quoted in Descents of Memory says much about the man. He reveled in selfanalysis,

even to the point of self-abnegation; just as he had preempted being bullied at

school by playing the clown, so he sought to ward off criticism by getting in the first blows to

himself, con gusto. He may or may not have been a real voyeur, for instance (although the

heroes of his novels tend to be), but he was certainly a great looker-out-of-windows,

especially if a “sylph-like” girl was on the other side. And “spiritual eroticism” was his ticket

to the cosmos, a sublimation of all earthly obsessions. But for all his eccentricities he exuded

a kind of ancient magic to which the unhappy, forgotten people of his day responded.

And he gave them what they wanted, year after year, adhering to a rigorous lecture schedule

across the North American continent throughout World War I (he was exempted from the

military for health reasons) and into the twenties. But by 1929 Hollywood was displacing the

Chautauqua circuit as prime-time popular entertainment, and the Great Depression was

lapping at the nation’s feet. So—incredibly, given his essential otherworldliness—Powys sat

down and wrote a bestseller.

It was called Wolf Solent. It was the chance discovery of that novel in a bookseller’s

clearance bin that led me to Powys’s work in the first place. Misled by the cover blurb

(Dorset setting, philosophizing rustics, life-and-death drama) into expecting Thomas Hardy

redux, I soon discovered a world of difference between Powys and Hardy as writers, and,

indeed, between Powys and anyone else. Where most writers are oblique, at least to some

degree, Powys writes from such a personal standpoint that all his heroes can be seen as

projections of himself onto the screen of fiction. As Krissdóttir remarks:

He had little patience with those critics who point out the danger of seeing the creative work

as a reflection of the life. So far as he was concerned, criticism of literature which has

nothing to say about the impulses that drive a writer forward ‘becomes as dull and

unenlightening as theology without the Real Presence.’

Take that, Jacques Lacan!

No prodigy, Powys had published his first novel, Wood and Stone, at 43, and four more had

followed. All sank into the swamp of critical indifference. Wolf Solent was published in 1929,

when he was 57 and still making a part-time living from his mobile lecture show. An

unsparingly analytical, intensely poetic character-study of the kind that became his specialty,

it was his debut as a mature novelist. Here are all the elements of standard Powysian

psychodrama: a conflict between brothers; the hypnotic eroticism of girls; depraved elders;

and the remains of innocence. Wolf Solent is no nostalgic pastorale. Powys, who eulogized

the beauties of Nature, never balked at revealing its horrors. His work is full of implications

of violence. To him it was a mistake not to see what he, in a somewhat Zen manner, called

“the necessity of opposition”: Good and Evil; Male and Female; Life and Death; Appearance

and Reality. All these, he says,

have to be joined together, have to be forced into one another, have to be proved dependent

upon each other, while all solid entities have to dissolve, if they are to outlast their

momentary appearance, into atmosphere.

The novel, on the surface, is a fairly straightforward story of a native son’s return, along the

lines of Hardy’s Return of the Native. Wolf, the eponymous hero, returns to his hometown on

England’s South Coast after suffering a mental breakdown in London. But instead of

recovering his innocence at home, he loses it completely. He becomes entangled in various

affairs, romantic and professional, and uncovers horrible truths about some old friends and

neighbors. In the end he returns, disillusioned, to the anonymity of London. You can’t go

home again sums up the novel in a nutshell; but a nutshell is far too small for Powys. It is

what throbs beneath the surface of this novel, and all of Powys’s novels, that matters. “The

mood [of Wolf Solent],” says Margaret Drabble, “is charged with a strange psychic intensity.”

And biographer Krissdóttir observes:

The entire novel is studded with images taken from poetry, plays, classical myth, folklore,

nursery rhymes . . . This vast literary undercurrent is in part what gives his novels their

richness and complexity . . .

Powys’s books are all about the importance of the personal mythologies, or “life-illusions,”

as he calls them, that are needed to block out the world’s ugliness, to which Powys is always

sensitive. Incest and sadism are onstage together with beauty and sensuality; the trickery of

our “life-illusions” is all we have to sustain us. But the good news is that we can find this

sustenance anywhere. In one scene in Wolf Solent, for example, an imaginary conversation

with the skull of his father, from whom he was long estranged, gives Wolf insight into his

own, appropriately Hamlet-like dilemma. The language is biblical; the sentiments, pagan; the

resonance, Shakespearean.

Wolf . . . lifted up his worm’s voice within that mocker and cried out upon its lewd clay-cold

cunning, “There is no reality but what the mind fashions out of itself. There is nothing but a

mirror opposite a mirror, and a round crystal opposite a round crystal, and a sky in water

opposite water in a sky.”

“Ho! Ho! You worm of my folly,” laughed the hollow skull. “I am alive still, though I am

dead; and you are dead, though you’re alive. For life is beyond your mirrors and your waters.

It’s at the bottom of your pond; it’s in the body of your sun; it’s in the dust of your star spaces

. . .”

It moves him, ultimately, to return to the all-embracing, indifferent metropolis.

In another scene, a bluebottle fly is a character. Insects and rocks and deep wells play a

central role in Powysland. They all have names and voices. Much is made of the evocative

power of moss on stones, and felled branches, and dripping eaves, and a rook’s call, and the

swelling tide. Forgotten memories and long-ago sensations come back to life; youth’s

squirming discomfort and squalid yearnings are reborn, but so is youth’s exultation at life’s

wonders. Those everyday marvels and long-ago memories form a kind of synthesis of

Proust’s “involuntary memory” and Joyce’s “epiphanies.” Nature is ubiquitous. The rank

richness of cow manure and rain-soaked soil seems to rise from the pages. The reader senses

the presence of a disturbing universal reality that, in the author’s own words, resides

somewhere “between the urinal and the stars”; a spooky, almost God-like all-knowingness, in

fact, that includes an obsession with sensuality and eroticism. Wolf, like all Powys’s

characters—like Powys himself—survives by embracing those “life-illusions.”

Lying upon that rank, drenched grass, he drew a deep sigh of obliterating release. It was not

that his troubles were merely assuaged. They were swallowed up. They were lost in the

primal dew of the earth’s first twilights. They were absorbed in the chemistry, faint, flowing,

and dim, of that strange vegetable flesh which is so far older than the flesh of man or beast . .

This “onanistic ‘obliterating release,’” remarks Krisdóttir, “is not just an escape from

possessive love, but also an escape from the unhappiness of the world, from the drudgery of

work. It is a way of ‘losing oneself’; more importantly, this kind of ecstasy demands nothing

in return.”

The success of Wolf Solent enabled Powys to escape awhile from his own unhappiness and

drudgery. He quit his lectures, bought an old farmhouse in upstate New York, and named the

place Phudd Bottom: the bottom of a hill he had christened “Mr. Phudd.” (All his life he gave

“magical,” frequently silly, names to people, places, and things.) Under such benign

circumstances, his creative forces peaked and in little over a year he wrote his masterpiece, A

Glastonbury Romance.

This is the novel George Steiner had in mind when he compared Powys’s work to that of

Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. More like Dostoevsky, actually; this is Powys’s The Idiot. It teems

with religion, myth, sex, and symbolism. Krissdóttir (who in her thoroughness seems to have

read every letter her subject ever wrote), quotes from a letter Powys wrote to his publisher. In

it he says that in Romance his intention had been to describe,

the effect of a particular legend, a special myth, a unique tradition, from the remotest past in

human history, upon a particular spot on the surface of this planet together with its crowd of

inhabitants of every age and of every type of character.

According to legend, Glastonbury, Somerset (a place Powys knew well in his childhood), is

where the Holy Grail itself ended up, carried there from the Holy Land by Joseph of

Arimathea. John Geard, mayor of Powys’s Glastonbury, tries to revive the town’s fortunes by

exploiting this legend with a pageant modeled after the Oberammergau passion play.

Meanwhile, Owen Evans, a freaky antiquarian with S&M tendencies, seeks redemption at the

pageant through suffering—as Jesus suffered on the cross. At this point, the reader might be

tempted to tune out, but persistence pays off. An immense teeming spectacle is slowly

revealed, with a cast of thousands that out-DeMilles DeMille and out-Dickenses Dickens. To

name a very few: the resident “Perceval,” Sam Dekker, lecher and holy man; Persephone, icy,

beauteous daughter of the earth mother; Phillip Crow, a ruthless capitalist; Sergeant Blimp, a

stolid policeman; Capporelli, a creepy French or Italian clown; disgruntled elders; and

legions of excessively folkloric country folk with names like Zoyland, Weatherwax, and

Stickles. But Powys maneuvers this mob of personalities with the precision of a maestro.

Indeed, Jane Austen, with whom he shares an ability to fuse the comic and the dramatic,

could have done no better. But Austen’s characters are all of this earth, whereas in Romance

we are put on notice right from the start that other forces are in the wings. “Invisible

watchers” observe Glastonbury. All objects and beings have their own points of view. Above

and beyond it all is the First Cause, a.k.a. God, who steps in on page one:

At the striking of noon on a certain fifth of March, there occurred within a causal radius of

Brandon railway station and yet beyond the deepest pools of emptiness between the uttermost

stellar systems one of those infinitesimal ripples in the creative silence of the First Cause

which always occur when an exceptional stir of consciousness agitates any living

consciousness in this astronomical universe. Something passed at that moment, a wave, a

motion, a vibration, too tenuous to be called magnetic, too subliminal to be called spiritual,

between the soul of a particular human being who was emerging from a third-class carriage

of the twelve-nineteen train from London and the divine-diabolic soul of the First Cause of

all life.Powys is so distinctive a writer that any paragraph taken at random contains within it

the essence of all others. In this paragraph, he takes a banal enough scene—someone arriving

somewhere by train—and reads every possible meaning into it, from the most minute to the

most cosmic. Throughout the novel—all 1120 pages of it in the Overlook edition—Powys

sets up a series of confrontations and culture clashes, not only among the more than forty

main characters but also between disparate local groups, each representing a single aspect of

twentieth century civilization. In one corner are the mystics, led by the mystical/mercantile

mayor; next to them, Crow, the greedy capitalist who wants to turn the town into a silver

mining and industrial center; and sundry anarchists and radicals (“Bolsheviki”) intent on

turning Glastonbury into a kind of autonomous kibbutz, or commune. By the end of the novel

everyone has obtained at least part of their desires: the commune exists; the mystical mayor is

busy promoting his Grail tourism; and industry is taking hold. But that cunning old First

Cause, with all his “divine-diabolic soul,” has other ideas; in a magnificent passage, He

shows His hand by raising the Atlantic Ocean and steering it to flood.

Up the sands and shoals and mudflats, up the inlets and estuaries and backwaters of that

channel-shore raced steadily, higher and higher as day followed day, these irresistible hosts

of invading waters . . . There was a strange colour upon them, too, these far-travelled deepsea

waves, and a strange smell rose up from them, a smell that came from the far off mid-

Atlantic for many days. They were like the death mounds of some huge wasteful battlefield

carried along by an earthquake and tossed up into millions of hill summits and dragged down

into millions of valley hollows as the whole earth heaved . . . Many of these incoming deepsea

waves had curving crest-heads that were smooth and slippery as the purest marble, heads

that seemed to grow steadily darker and darker as they gathered toward the land, till they

added something menacing to every dawn and to every twilight.

In one of the many essays on literature Powys reworked from his lectures, he said of Balzac:

“A thundering tide of subterranean energy, furious and titanic, sweeps, with its weight of

ponderous details, through every page.” He could have been thinking of his own work, and

probably was.

Alas, like Moby Dick, with which it can reasonably be compared, as a mythological, titanic,

waterborne work of genius, Glastonbury was a commercial flop. For a while Powys brooded,

depressed, in his farmhouse; but soon enough, cheered by his isolation, he recovered his

spirits, partly because he had new projects to work on, partly because his isolation at Phudd

Bottom was not complete. With him was his mistress and lifelong companion, the woman of

his life, Phyllis Plater, or “T.T.” (for “Tiny Thin,” another of Powys’s nicknames), whose

existence he and his numerous friends and siblings strove mightily to keep a secret from his

wife and son in England. This endeavor was successful until 1934, by which time wife and

husband, son and father, had been separated for at least half of each of the previous eighteen

years, and it hardly mattered. Still, Powys was always punctilious in sending home half his

pay, and when his father the reverend died, he promptly signed over his considerable share of

the inheritance to his wife and son (who, incidentally, became a reverend as well; Powys the

pagan was bookended by clergymen). It was his way of buying them off. He never quite

succeeded in silencing the inner voice of his own guilt, but guilt was John Cowper Powys’s

natural habitat. It was the devil that drove him.

He said as much in his Autobiography, a remarkable achievement—I am tempted to say, one

of his best novels. It is, at least, the most accessible of his books; yet, ironically—for Powys

believed all his life that he was never less than brutally honest with himself—it is also the

most disingenuous. Krissdóttir points out that Powys’s memory “was always skewed by

defences against too much reality.” In short, he was a novelist first and last, and he saw

everything, even his life, as a form of his own fiction. In Autobiography he claims to recall

the most minute details of his life, and he parades a good number of them, some of

astonishing obscurity, some doubtless true; but others are made up out of the fictioneer’s

whole cloth, whatever best suits the overall pattern.

The book’s opening sentences are stately, resonant, and very English, like the first movement

of Elgar’s Cello Concerto.

The part of Derbyshire which centres around the Peak is like the boss of a shield. Dovedale

must be included in the circumference of this Omphalos of England; and with some largess of

extension, like the elaborate margin of a Homeric shield, the little pastoral villages around the

country town of Ashbourne might be regarded as coming into this formidable circle.

Indeed, the entirety of Autobiography is structured like a concerto or symphony, with motifs,

themes, and subthemes stated and restated. This, too, is ironic because, despite his musical

mother, Powys had no ear for music at all. But he could structure a theme in words. Vladimir

Nabokov said the true purpose of autobiography is “the following of . . . thematic designs

through one’s life,” and life recalled from the distance of time exposes its major themes more

clearly, like the shoals of a bay seen from space. But this does not preclude a certain

elaboration; life, too, is art, in the right hands. One of Powys’s motifs is madness, with

himself as clown at school, idiot savant onstage, and Druidic elder, babbling to the trees.

We must cherish our mania, or our madness if you prefer that word, as we would cherish a

second self; for our madness is our second self.

But this madness is a subtheme, the main theme being fantasy: the identification with fools

and jesters and ancient wizards such as Taliesin and Merlyn, all the “life-illusions” that fight

off despair. Powys saw himself as a shape-shifter, a warrior, or a king.

My dominant desire during the whole of my school life . . . was to lead a double existence,

and while just “getting by” in the School Dimension, to find my real happiness in a secret

subjective Dimension where I was “monarch of all I surveyed.”

Famously, Autobiography contains few women, whereas Powys’s life contained a good

many. Readers have long puzzled over this, and Powys may have intended them to for

publicity purposes. But the omission may also have arisen out of a genuine desire to spare the

feelings of the most important women in his life: his wife Margaret, and his mistress Phyllis.

When he was planning the book Powys wrote to his sister,

I shall not only avoid hurting feelings whether of the dead or living but steer clear of any risk

of such a thing . . . This book . . . will contain No Women at all—not even Mother . . .

But then he adds, “Nor will it deal very much with Men either.”

It may be that he simply couldn’t spare the psychological energy for anyone but himself:

In this ticklish business of writing an autobiography I am going to play safe—so fantastically

& exaggeratedly safe indeed that from this ‘safety’ itself will emerge a quite special sort of

irony . . . of a kind for which at present there is no name.

The memoirs of Casanova and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were his models, and Powys rivals

them in his sometimes hilarious descriptions of his own follies. These outbursts of frankness

are intended to distract from his evasions, his inconsistency, and emotional intensity. But as

we read further, and encounter prostitutes, fishermen, priests, ticket collectors, publishers,

poets, and all the hoi polloi from a thousand railway journeys and lecture halls and bars and

ocean voyages, we begin to appreciate the underlying generosity and life-democracy (to coin

a Powysian term) of this book and its author. We are never manipulated toward a social or

political message. Powys sees relationships as meetings of solitudes; he has no interest in

social hierarchies, politics, worldliness, or ambition. He never moralizes about sex. And he

has no time for religions and creeds that lack aesthetic qualities; to him, religion is art, or it is


Krissdóttir says the reader “can be forgiven for thinking that Powys is describing his own

autobiography” when he writes elsewhere of Rousseau’s “mania for self-exposure” and

“passion for self-humiliation.” Humiliation there may be, but there is humility too, and

pride—all part of Life itself.

Now, . . . when I look back at the path behind me and the path before me it seems as if it had

taken me half a century merely to learn with what weapons, and with what surrender of

weapons, I am to begin to live my life.

As the narrative of one man’s uncertain pilgrimage, this book is a fine work, evasiveness,

fabrications, delusions, and all. Tolstoy (himself a fairly creative memoirist) once said, “The

aims of art are not to resolve a question irrefutably, but to compel one to love life in all its

manifestations.” This Powys does.

Powys scholars such as Krissdóttir have stressed the importance of the circumstances under

which he worked on the book. He was relatively content (despite his chronic gastritis), retired

from the lecture circuit, writing copiously and well, and he had found his ideal mate in

Phyllis Plater. In short, he was living out his “life-illusion” at his remote farmhouse. “Phudd

Bottom,” says Krissdóttir, “gave him that wonderful combination of physical and psychic

freedom that writers long for and seldom have.”

So what could be more natural than for him to give it all up and move halfway across the


In fact, there were sound reasons, not the least of which was monetary. He was going broke.

Although Wolf Solent had been a bestseller, none of its successors—Weymouth Sands (which

also became the object of a libel suit), Maiden Castle and A Glastonbury Romance—had sold

well, or, at least, not well enough to compensate for Powys’s thoughtless spending habits and

apparent determination to wreck his own interests. (When his publisher, Simon & Schuster,

generously offered to sell Glastonbury to “the movies,” a gesture that could have made

Powys’s fortune, he imperiously dismissed all notion of dealing with “unspeakable

Hollywood vulgarians.”) Krissdóttir makes the dry remark “Powys never let money get in the

way of his principles.” But those same principles impelled him back to Britain, where, he

said, life would be financially cheaper and psychologically richer; and anyway, as Krissdóttir


America had served its purpose as a place of exile. Powys knew his Odyssey at least as well

as James Joyce did; he once wrote that he read it daily as a breviary.

Also, he had in mind a majestic Welsh chronicle or two, so it was time for the old chthonic

forces to work their magic. Only in Wales, land of his distant ancestors, could he write his

intended magnum opus. So he sold Phudd Bottom and sailed for home. After a stint in

Dorset, he settled in his long-desired ancestral home of Wales in 1935, with Phyllis (having

come to a more-or-less amicable settlement of his long-dead marriage) at his side. He found a

welcome in the home of ancient Powyses. In May 1936 at the Corwen Eisteddfod, the Welsh

national festival of literature, he was invested with the title of Bard. This greatly pleased him,

although others received the same honor that year, which pleased him less: for all his selfcriticism

and showy humility, Powys never had any doubts about his own genius. Other

honors slowly came his way; so did vilification, but he achieved sufficient serenity of spirit to

ignore it. Admirers such as Henry Miller made the pilgrimage to North Wales to visit the old

sage. He received them courteously, but never went abroad himself again. Buried in his hills,

he continued writing until he was 90, and produced two more notable novels: Owen

Glendower, a strange and compelling historical fiction about the Welsh national hero; and,

stranger still, Porius: A Romance of the Dark Ages, a mystical, poetic epic of ancient Britain

best reserved for Powys initiates: If you’ve read Glastonbury, you’re ready for Porius. The

world, unfortunately, was not; the book sold poorly, but has recently been reissued. Powys

wrote little of significance after Porius; a sketch here, a pamphlet there. He died on June 17,

1963, aged 90. A photograph taken of him not long before his death shows him wearing a

cloak and peering at distant mountains, and looking, says Margaret Drabble, “like a cross

between an aged werewolf and a puzzled child.” Which is a pretty fair description of the man.

English literature, like English history, teems with inspired dreamers and eccentrics: Bunyan,

Blake, Hazlitt, Tolkien, and others, but none is quite as much of an all-rounder as Powys. He

is as spiritual as Bunyan, as fantastical as Blake, as down-to-earth as Hazlitt, and every bit as

much a fabulist as Tolkien. He is a unique necromancer of literature. He comforts and

discomfits in equal measure. The word weird might have been invented just for him. Whereas

Joseph Conrad contended that “it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given

epoch of one’s existence . . . its subtle and penetrating essence,” this is precisely what Powys

succeeds in conveying. Henry Miller, who put so much so badly, put this well:

I had an unholy veneration for the man. Every word he uttered seemed to go straight to the

mark. All the authors I was then passionate about were the authors he was writing and

lecturing about. He was like an oracle . . . Leaving the hall after his lectures, I often felt as if

he had put a spell upon me.

It is that spell that weaves its magic in the pages of Powys’s novels, and it hovers yet over

Morine Krissdóttir’s splendid biography.


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