Tuesday, July 09, 2013

John Cowper Powys - 50th Anniversary

While the 50th anniversary of The Beatles' first album has been commented upon, the 50th anniversary of John Cowper Powys's death has gone largely unremarked by the world at large. Powys died at home in north Wales on 17 June 1963, in his 91st year. It's probably true to say he was out of fashion even then - perhaps an unavoidable hazard when you live so long, and have a career lasting almost 70 (!) years. (Powys's first book, Odes and Other Poems, was published in 1896; his first novel, Wood and Stone, in 1915.) When commented on at all these days, it's usually to admit briefly that he is a writer who sharply divides critics one way or the other, from being called unreadable, pretentious and dated to being described as the only British writer who can hold a candle to Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.

Pic: John Cowper Powys, around the time he wrote Wolf Solent (1929).

I am of the latter camp. Whether it's growing up halfway between Wales and Glastonbury, but Powys has always been a figure in my mental landscape, a sort of Easter Island head (he has the face for one) in the world of my imagination. Always there, whatever the weather, critical or literal. Few writers these days have the scope of Powys, who was at home in philosophy and criticism as he was in fiction, poetry and drama. (The only writer who comes to mind off the top of my head is the vastly different David Foster Wallace.) 'Epic', 'mythic' and 'mystical' are words that seem overused when mentioning JCP, but give you some idea of the Powys project, if I can call it that. A flavour of his work and outlook can be gleaned from this extract from Autobiography (1934):

"I touch here upon what is to me one of the profoundest philosophical mysteries: I mean the power of the individual mind to create its own world, not in complete independence of what is called "the objective world," but in a steadily growing independence of the attitudes of the minds toward this world. For what people call the objective world is really a most fluid, flexible, malleable thing. It is like the wine of the Priestess Bacbuc in Rabelais. It tastes differently; it is a different cosmos, to every man, woman, and child. To analyse this "objective" world is all very well, as long as you don't forget that the power to rebuild it by emphasis and rejection is synonymous with your being alive."

Despite a certain amount of critical neglect, much of JCP has now been made available again by the good offices of Duckworth and Faber. Some of the major novels from his great middle period are available from Duckworth, while Faber do a lot of the early and late work. The late novel Porius has also recently been published in its original form for the first time. General resources can be found on the Powys Society website


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