Past Events Archive: 2015

5 December 2015: The Pleasures of Literature: A Discussion led by John Hodgson

Bunhill Meeting House, London EC1Y 8QQ

Our past Chairman, John Hodgson, will lead a discussion of The Pleasures of Literature, by John Cowper Powys, published in the UK by Cassell & Co., in November 1938. The American edition was published in October 1938 under the title The Enjoyment of Literature, by Simon & Schuster. Derek Langridge in (1966) noted variations between the two editions. The American edition for instance lacks the long essay on St. Paul, which JCP's American editor, Quincey Howe, disliked. Our discussion will focus on JCP's attitude to world literature and his favourite authors, expressed especially in the Introduction and the Conclusion, comparing his choice of writers with the authors he discusses in John Cowper Powys, A Record of Achievement: Visions and Revisions (1915), 100 Best Books (1916), and Suspended Judgements (1916).

JCP's response to literature, which determined his choice of writers, can be found in summary at the end of the Introduction to The Pleasures of Literature: “Books...are man's word against the cosmic dumbness, man's life against the planetary death, man's revelation of the God within him, man's repartee to the God without him.” JCP wrote most of the essays in The Pleasures of Literature in 1937 following a commission from Simon and Schuster in 1936, between the publication of Maiden Castle (1936), Morwyn (1937) and finishing Owen Glendower (first published 1940 in USA).

20 June 2015: John Cowper Powys and Wordsworth’s ‘cerebral mystical passion for young women', a talk by Paul Cheshire

At the Dorset County Museum Dorchester, Paul Cheshire will take as his theme the passage in Autobiography about JCP’s perception of Wordsworth’s “abnormally sensual sensitiveness to the elements”. In his talk Paul Cheshire will explore the relationship between JCP and Wordsworth. Paul says that “to call Wordsworth ‘my great master’ is a sure sign of JCP’s feeling of indebtedness to him. However, the ‘cerebral mystical passion’ he attributes to Wordsworth is a prominent feature in his own fiction and in his self-styling as a nympholept. This is not simply a projection on JCP’s part: if one re-reads Wordsworth’s Lucy poems while under the influence of JCP’s sensibility, those poems resonate as if he has provided a key to their secret life. Wordsworth ‘Imagining himself a girl’ may push beyond the demonstrable, but this provocative Powysian reading also beckons to be explored. The other ‘mystical passion’ these two writers share is their sense of a near-erotic pagan numinosity of the dead who lie beneath the earth. Wordsworth’s Lucy would have particular interest to JCP, who held so many dialogues with inhabitants of graves real and imaginary in his novels and in his life. Thomas Hardy’s Egdon Heath — where King Lear was stripped of all his vanities — is a fit Dorchester setting for these meditations, as Hardy too has much to say about death and sacrifice on the heath”.

Until recently Paul Cheshire served as a Trustee of the Friends of Coleridge. He has written a number of articles on Coleridge and his contemporaries, including a chapter on Coleridge’s notebooks for the Oxford Handbook of S.T. Coleridge. He has also written on the influence of seventeenth-century hermetic philosophy on Milton. He is currently researching the life and thought of Coleridge’s little-known friend, William Gilbert, astrologer and author of an eccentric theosophical poem, The Hurricane, which shows the hermetic tradition surviving into the romantic era. He has created a website dedicated to William Gilbert:

25 April 2015: A Discussion of Wood and Stone, led by Chris Thomas

The Kings Arms, Montacute

This year marks the centenary of Wood and Stone which was first published in America by G. Arnold Shaw in November 1915 and in the UK by Heinemann in February 1917. Wood and Stone was reprinted by the Village Press in 1974 and by Faber in 2008. Wood and Stone can also be found on-line at the Internet Archive. Chris Thomas will lead a discussion of Wood and Stone in its original location and setting. The venue for the meeting is The Kings Arms located opposite St Catherine’s church. The village of Nevilton, in Wood and Stone, with its twin hills, is of course recognisably Montacute. The invented names of local places in the novel such as Leo’s Hill, Badger’s Bottom, Root Thatch Lane and Dead Man’s Lane, are clearly based on the real places JCP knew so well. JCP evokes with intense memory recall the place of his childhood and youth, its fields, lanes and orchards: “What enchantments were all around him”, says the author, “What memories! What dumb voices.” But he also knew its suffocating claustrophobia: “English vicarages are dreadful places”, he says. Wood and Stone was written during the summer of 1915 in Burpham. Apparently, according to JCP, it was his wife, Margaret, who suggested the title. She must have read the novel in manuscript and perhaps she was inspired by the passage about wood against stone, tears weeping into stone and men transformed into the elements. The book was very popular with its first readers although the reviewers on both sides of the Atlantic were divided about its qualities. Arnold Shaw, cranking up his publicity machine, ranked it alongside Dostovesky. One of the first detractors of the novel was Louis Wilkinson who lambasted it in Blasphemy and Religion (1916), and compared it unfavourably to TFP’s Soliloquy of a Hermit which he considered a work of art. JCP himself seems to have been dissatisfied with the book, and looking back called it “a silly novel”. A useful place to start a discussion of Wood and Stone is JCP’s lofty Preface, which introduces the grandiose theme of the struggle between power and love and tyranny and freedom, and includes references to Nietzsche, cosmic chaos, the “imaginative mirror of art”, the secret of the universe, a critique of the modern novel and a tribute to Thomas Hardy and his adherence to “the old ample ironic way” which JCP clearly also wants to adopt. There is hardly any plot in Wood and Stone. JCP’s intention seems to be to try and capture a sense of the panorama of life and the effect of the spirit of a particular place on the lives of his characters. Wood and Stone prefigures the great novels of his maturity, he demonstrates psychological insight into the inner world of his people, the characters have distinctive Powysian names such as Mr Wone, Mr Quincunx, Witch-Bessie, and Mrs Wotnot, the language and imagery have what we now recognise to be characteristic Powysian features, there is a powerful sense of umbrageous plenitude, of the “indolent luxuriousness” and “leafy exuberance” of nature. The novel is notable for its wealth of classical allusions (sometimes he hardly seem to advanced beyond the poem To Montacute in Odes and Other Poems, 1896), as well as for JCP’s ability to evoke effects of light and colour, the changing seasons, and his ability to recreate the minute particulars of things such as “oozy stalks”, and “moist adhesive tendrils”. We are made to experience the breathing of the earth itself as if everything is alive. Yet there is also a sense of the dark downward pull of the earth suggesting a sinister and unpleasant atmosphere. This kind of writing reaches its apogee in chapters IX, X, and XII. Because Wood and Stone stands at the beginning of JCP’s career as a published novelist this makes it very well worth our study and attention. Our discussion will also consider Wood and Stone in the context of other contemporary novels.

For helpful background reading to Wood and Stone see articles by W J Keith in Powys Notes, Winter 1998, Paul Roberts in the Powys Journal, vol. IX, 1999, Arjen Mulder, in the Powys Journal, vol. XIX, 2009, Penny Smith in the Powys Review, No.11,1982/1983 and by Margaret Moran in the Powys Review, No.17, 1985. In the afternoon members may wish to explore Montacute and visit places mentioned in the novel such as St Catherine’s church and churchyard, the Priory Farm, take a tour of Montacute House, gardens and the parklands or walk to Montacute Hill and the “thyrsus” shaped tower or walk to Ham Hill Country Park (Leo’s Hill) from where there are fine views of the surrounding countryside.