John Cowper Powys and William Blake

John Cooper Powys
John Cooper Powys

‘A Bunch of Nutters!’. That is the title of a review in The Times of the biography of The Brothers Powys by Richard Perceval Graves in 1983. It is not an unusual comment from the literary world in its ambivalent and confused response to this Dorset family. Yet, it is a view, which overlooks an important element of the English spirit. In this essay, I want to illuminate some aspects of this spirit by drawing on the work of the eldest of the Powys Bothers – John Cowper – in connection with Blake.

A brief biography of John Cowper Powys can hardly be ‘brief’. Born in 1872, the eldest of eleven children, John Cowper could trace his ancestry to the ancient Welsh princes of Powysland on his father’s side, and directly to John Donne and the poet Cowper on his mother’s. His father, a Dorsetman, moved to become Rector in the Somerset village of Montacute.People who knew the family spoke of their clan-like existence; apparently living self-sufficiently in the large vicarage. They lived as upper middle class Victorians in a world of claustrophobic subjectivity.

Montacute nestles at the foot of St Michael’s Hill; Cadbury Castle is nearby; Glastonbury Tor is visible at a distance. The golden Ham stone used in buildings here gives radiance to its surroundings. The physical world is everywhere magical. The imagination of John Cowper sunk into these inner and outer worlds, which became literally larger than life.

John Cowper eventually attended Sherborne School where he suffered bullying and ‘torture’. When he went up to Cambridge, he took a revolver to scare off would-be aggressors! By his early adulthood, he was already the English eccentric. He was a big man, who immediately drew attention to himself. He would wear three waistcoats and two overcoats – even on a warm day! – the best way, he concluded, of transporting one’s wardrobe. He spoke animatedly, expressively, and gesticulated continuously. People would turn in the street to take a second glance! This idiosyncratic disposition fitted him perfectly for the job of travelling lecturer in America, where he first went in 1904, and where he mostly stayed for the next thirty years. Apparently, he held his audiences spellbound. Once started, he would run hopelessly over time, marching up and down like a frenetic spider.

Collections of poetry and essays followed, but it was not until 1915, when he was already 43, that his first novel Wood and Stone was published – the first of many to many to follow. The world they create is grotesque and phantasmagoric. The characters themselves are often presented as possessed by contraries: the heathen and the Christian, sexual obsessions and love, the material and the spiritual, the heroic and the pitiful. The world that surrounds them is a living universe, or multiverse, as John Cowper named it. As one character arrives at Waterloo Station in London, he looks up to see the sculptured stone faces on the outside gesturing to him. It is a world where leaves and trees have thoughts and feelings.In another novel, he describes what a corpse is thinking on its way to its own funeral. All this might seem mad at first, until we see that these things are exactly what might be pondered if indeed objects had thoughts and feelings.

John Cowper Powys recorded his own admiration for Blake in 1923, where he describes him as being ‘in harmony with the instincts of our most secret souls’. Of course, any developed comparison of Blake and John Cowper Powys would be the subject of a doctorate thesis – if not several! Simply reading their combined works is no small undertaking! However, I do want to consider some salient features, which they do share and which, I believe, are worth drawing attention to in appreciating their respective work.. These aspects also help us understand the spirit at large, which I refer to above.

Both John Cowper Powys and Blake were writing across the turn of centuries. Both were witnessing rapid changes in life and society. Such changes are probably most clearly expressed in oppositions between town and country. As Blake experienced the early years of industrialisation in Britain, Powys’ life extended from the first full-blown form of this revolution to its demise and the birth of the modern technological age (he died in 1963). The effects of these on the land were devastating. For Blake, industrialisation brought with it ‘dark satanic mills’. Powys had a rather more ambiguous relationship to modern technology. Late in old age, he was fascinated by the building of a hydroelectric dam, which he watched from his tiny cottage in Blaenau Ffestiniog. However, this thrill might be likened to that of a child watching a magic trick. Mostly, his heart was in life of the country, and it is from the land that he seems to have drawn his spiritual inspiration. As with Blake, he was suspicious of modern rationality. ‘More will perish because of Science than will be saved by it’, he exclaimed, and had a particular loathing for the treatment of animals. He was a militant anti-vivisectionist. But this relationship to nature goes beyond a protective concern. When Blake moved out of London to Felpham, we can track the impact the expanding sky and sea-line had on him; the smell of the wild thyme and the song of birds. Powys spent rather more of his life in the country than Blake; firstly in Montacute and Burpham in West Sussex and then, on his return from America in 1935, to Corwen in North Wales and then Blaenau. The effects of his rural surroundings are everywhere apparent in his writings. His three Wessex novels – Weymouth Sands, Maiden Castle and Glastonbury Romance – are set explicitly in particular places and build on their ancient spirits. In fact, the latter was written in America using an Ordinance Survey Map. The world constructed here is no less a private cosmos than Blake’s. But it is also a story of individuals struggling with personal identity and character in the face of the social and spiritual forces acting on them.

Life can be hard and living it heroic. On one level, such spirit is a cause for celebration. Powys quotes Blake approvingly:

‘He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in Eternity’s sun-rise.”

And comments: ‘In the welling up, out of the world’s depth, of happiness like this, there is a sense of calm, of serenity, of immortal repose and full-brimmed ecstasy. It is the “energy without disturbance” which Aristotle indicates as the secret of the eternal Being himself. It is beyond the ordinary pleasures of sex, as it is beyond difference between good and evil. It is human and yet inhuman’. One recalls Blake’s prose inspired by standing in his garden in Felpham. Powys lived his life in connection with this spirit: when he sent a letter he would pray to the post-box to help it on its way; he constructed small stone cairns to his loved one against which he would place his head and pray; and he was known to fling himself on the ground whist out walking to worship ‘the god of the hill’ behind his house. However, he also understood, as Blake did, that this energy could be destructive as well as creative. Here he comments on this energy, reminiscent of Blake’s tiger in the forest: ‘Dim shapes – vast inchoate shadows – like dreams of forgotten worlds and shadows of worlds yet unborn, seem to pass backwards over the brooding waters of his spirit (Blake’s). There is no poet perhaps who gives such an impression of primordial creative force – force hewing at the roots of the world and weeping at the sheer pleasure at the touch of that dream stuff where of life is made’. The energy is fascinating and creative but also destructive and fearful.

Nowhere is the creation-destruction dichotomy more apparent than in the human body and psyche itself. The mystery of the body is ever present in Powys, around which he constructed his mythology. This mythology attempts, as Blake’s does, to contain these forces and, in some ways, reconcile them. Blake employs gender archetypes in his alchemy of the human spirit. For Powys too sex is the most powerful expression of the creative-destructive spirit. There are fantasies and daydreams in Powys. In America, he met and fell in love with Frances Gregg. Being married himself at that point, if somewhat estranged from his wife, he suggested she marry his best friend Louis Wilkinson, which she did! The distress of being with a woman he desired, but who remained untouchable and unobtainable comes out in letters to her, where he explicitly details what he imagines doing with her – such as smearing her with marmalade or treacle! These sorts of experiences fed his repressed desires, born out of Victorian morality, and resulted in distorted thoughts and feelings. It is Hell! He who desires but acts not breeds pestilence.

There is also sadism and masochism in the work of John Cowper Powys, and the shame and guilt of acknowledging this in oneself. These sentiments are brought to life in his characters. In Glastonbury Romance, the sadist Mr Evans, finally recognises himself for what he is. Here, we have the pathos of piteousness in the hopeless fact of being. The character comes close to breakdown as the only way to smash the hold of who he is over ‘him’. As in Blake, the Spectre rules the ‘true’ self. Evans’ form of self-induced humiliation was also within Powys’ own experience. In his ‘Autobiography'(1934), which, much to his amusement, was described in a contemporary review as ‘a rubbish heap of words’, he sets out the awful experiences of being picked on at Sherborne school. One night, he addressed the full school:

…the moment came and I stood up. The extraordinary, nay!, the unique nature of this revolution held all the boys spellbound. You could have heard, as they say, a pin drop. And then, beginning lamely enough, but quickly catching my cue, I poured forth a flood of tumultuous speech. Out of my foolishness it came, out of my humiliation, out of my inverted pride. It came literally de profundis. I had prayed in the chapel; “And take not thy Holy Spirit from us!” but whether the torrent of self-accusations, of self-incriminations, of wild self, proceeded from the Creator Spiritus, or from the Devil, I cannot tell. I dragged in every single detail they derided me for, I exposed my lacerations, my shames, my idiocies. “Mooney” was talking at last out of the madness of the mistress of his horoscope! I referred to the great dilapidated umbrella I placed such stock in. I referred to my obscene fashion of chewing my food with my front teeth. I stripped myself naked before them…

There is liberation in such openness. However, it is freedom bought at a cost. I have already referred to the way he seemed ‘uncomfortable’ in his body. He suffered from psychosomatic ill health for most of his life. Each year he had a different food fad and there seemed little he could stomach. For two years he lived on olive oil! The physical and psychological warring that went on inside John Cowper Powys is akin to the struggle of Blake’s Albion and his archetypal Zoas. Similarly, there is the sense of physical embodiment, indeed, of the mystical significance of organs and limbs in conducting psychic forces. It is as if the body is available where the mind isn’t, as the repository of experience, past and present. Of course, for Blake, escape from the fall comes through Christian resurrection as imagination and creativity, which reconciles the warring factions of the mind and body. Each element knows its place and performs its particular function and no other, contributing to the whole.

Powys had no affinity for Christian theology, no matter how Gnostic. Nevertheless, his path seems to have followed one parallel to Blake’s own. In his essay on Blake, Powys focuses on ‘the immortal and undying child to be found in the heart of every man and every woman’. As Powys grew old, he became more and more child-like. In 1944, he wrote The Art of Growing Old. Clearly, he welcomed the giving up of youthful responsibility for an ‘at-play’ like state of returned childhood. Blake, he wrote, ‘brought the ‘child in the house’ into the clear sunlight of an almost religious appreciation’. However, the child for Powys should not be confused with an affected version of benign purity. For him, the child is to be associated with experience as well as innocence, with love and wrath. He quotes Nietzsche on the child who will come at last to inaugurate the beginning of the ‘Great Noon’:

And there the lion’s ruddy eyes Shall flow with tears of gold And pitying the tender cries And walking round the fold Saying, ‘Wrath by his weakness And by his health sickness Are driven away From our immortal day.

Of course, here the child is Christ himself, a figure ‘possessed of a power drawn from the depths of the universe…(Blake) boldly associates this Christ of his – this man-child who is to redeem the race – with a temper the very opposite to the ascetic one’. As Blake, he rails against Protestant Puritanism. He celebrates Catholic Faith and Pagan Freedom equally, and praises the way Blake ‘disentangles the phenomenon of sexual love from any notion or idea of sin and shame’. Powys writes in a Blakean manner: ‘The man-child whose pitiful heart and whose tenderness toward the weak and unhappy are drawn from the Christ-story, takes almost form of a Pagan Eros – the full-grown, soft-limbed Eros of later Greek fancy – when the question of restraint or renunciation or ascetic chastity is brought forward’. Moving towards this childlike state is far from assuming naivety. Rather it is innocence regained, or innocence through experience where nothing is lost from the process which gives rise to it. It is present in the creative act, which it implies. Robert Fripp describes it as ‘the assumption of innocence within a context (or field) of experience’ and as a characteristic of mastery (sic.).

But how to realise it? This state of innocence/experience is an important element in Powys’ work as it was for Blake. It is central to the English spirit I wrote of above. For Blake, it is a product of the process of resurrection as an existential event. A death and resurrection. ‘Each day I die’, wrote St Paul. And it occurs whenever ‘error is put off’. There is no lack of energy available from the fission and fusion present in Blake’s intellectual warfare of archetypes. But, for him, deliverance comes through the integration of the members of the dramatis personae of his psychic theatre of war, rather than the rejection of any one individual element. In the novels of Powys, the characters engage in similar encounters and generate similar forces, which is why he quotes Blake so enthusiastically. For Powys, however, deliverance comes about more as a result of the Pagan than the Christian. Here, I am reminded of J.G Bennett in The Masters of Wisdom. Bennett argues that we can observe two principal strands in the early years of Christianity. One he refers to as humiliation and transformation; the other as the ‘forgiveness of sins’. He attributes the latter to Pauline theology and its preoccupation to make good the sins of the world. Clearly, the philosophy of Powys is more akin to the acceptance and acknowledgement of the ‘sin’ of individual personality trait, whatever the consequences – humiliation and transformation. And this is so much like Blake: ‘To annihilate the Self-hood of Deceit and False Forgiveness’. Real transformation is quite simple but very hard to achieve. This type of ‘burning off of cultural masks (the Spectre) to reveal some inner ‘true-self’ is clearly present in both Blake and Powys; although the consequence is less Christian Gnostic in Powys. It is a process, which can also be linked to the work of such diverse figures as Bataille, Artaud, and Foucault – not to mention de Sade. But here my references begin to run away with themselves! Nonetheless, Powys had affinities with Tolstoy, Hardy, Dickens, Lawrence and Dostoyevsky. Reading him is life-enhancing. I started this essay by referring to a particular character of English spirit. It is not exclusively English. My last references are French and my Gnostic links go beyond European boundaries.

I have here drawn attention to a peculiar manifestation of this spirit in the work of Blake and Powys. Of course, they possessed distinct and separate missions. They did, however, share elements of this spirit. Besides the mythical and psychological tracks they followed in parallel, both shared the voice of English dissent. Blake was a radical supporter of republicanism and the overturning of the status quo. Powys, in his turn, was on the side of anarchists and communists in the United States in the 1920s and 30s and, on his return to Britain, hailed the socialist victory of 1945. It is a position, which has been described as ‘deeply unclubbable’ in terms of the English way of being in the world.

Powys’ lack of solemnity and dignity in much of his writings is no less audacious as Blake’s in his observations and intentions. The ‘come off it’ attitude of the English, whose sole purpose in life is to avoid embarrassment, is the direct opposite to Powys’ hysterics and intensity or Blake’s didactic prophecies. It is unsurprising, therefore, if the work of Powys has largely been overlooked. By the early 1960s, no-one, it seems, was interested in Powys. However, the spirit I write of struck a chord with the hippies and flower children of the late sixties. Both Blake and Powys appealed to the ‘Tolkien generation’; although, it is debatable how many got far beyond an intuitive acknowledgement of kindred spirit. Today, it is also possible to see Powys as a precursor to ‘magical realism’; although, here again, this hardly makes him more readable in contemporary terms (I have heard reading his complete works described as a definition of purgatory!). Who now read novels of over a thousand pages? When reading him, time slows down – and passes very quickly! Nevertheless, the work of John Cowper Powys, as that of William Blake, continues to live a life of its own and makes excluded knowledge present and available.



Sources and Acknowledgements

As far as I know, there are only two of Powys’ novels currently available in print: Glastonbury Romance and Wolf Solent. Neither of these is a bad place to start with reading Powys. Other novels and books of essays and ideas are less easy to find. However, many of the reprints in Village Press can be found in second hand bookshops. Village Press was the outlet of the Village Bookshop in Regents Street, London, now sadly long-since closed. We have the Powys enthusiast Geoffrey Quintnor to thank for reprinting the Powys oeuvre and thus making it available to a wider public. Mr Quintnor in fact owned the Village Menswear shop, also in Regents Street, but that is another story…. Another story, or stories, would be the lives and associations of the two other principal writer brothers of John Cowper: Theodore (usually known as T.F.) and Llewelyn. The best ways to explore these two would be to begin with The Brothers Powys by Richard Perceval Graves (1983). It is still possible to visit the villages where they lived and thus connect with the countryside, which inspired them all. There has been a Powys Journal and Powys Review and, indeed, Powys Society. I would be grateful for any news of their continued existence or, indeed, any comments or questions on this essay. E-mail: I would like to acknowledge a very helpful BBC radio programme on John Cowper Powys, broadcast on the 17th June 1983, for drawing my attention to features of his life and work. Thanks also to Robert Fripp for permission to quote from his monograph The Act of Music.