P.J.Kavanagh on A Glastonbury Romance


In dimensions, and in plan, A Glastonbury Romance is the kind of large episodic book stuffed with characters that was common in the 1930s, like South Riding, like The Good Companions. It is set in the Glastonbury of its time, more or less. People fall in and out of love, Town Councils are elected, factories go bust, people discuss their troubles, a plot summary could make it sound deceptively ordinary. But it is different from all other books of this kind — I nearly said from all other books — because it goes beyond social description, and psychology (though it contains plenty of both) and ventures, with splendid unembarrassment, into the indefinable area of impulses and glimpses, of joys and horrors, of miracles, of gods and devils and energies and influences, that novelists understandably shy away from and leave to poor devils of poets. And he does this without losing grip of the story or trying to carry us so far he loses his grip on us. In short, while you are reading it it makes all other novels — all other novels — seem thin.

So why has nobody forced such a writer on our attention? The answer is that they have.  Angus Wilson said Powys would stand with Henry James, D.H. Lawrence and Joyce in the eyes of future critics. Henry Miller called A Glastonbury Romance unique in Eng­lish literature and couldn’t bear to come to the end of it. J.B. Priestley writes of Powys with the nearest approach to awe that is possible for a Yorkshireman, and Professor Wilson Knight says that we may expect his works to grow steadily in repute, until their stupendous qualities are known. Well, they haven’t grown, despite the eulogies of these very different men and many others. Powys is still little read. But before we try to think of reasons why, it might be useful to say a few words about the man.

He was born in 1872 in Derbyshire, the first of eleven children, and was the son of a well-to-do clergyman. When he was eight years old his father moved to Wessex and eventually to a village not far from Glastonbury. Two of his brothers were also writers, T.F. Powys and Llewelyn. The brothers were close and this perhaps gave rise to a public impression of an enclosed Powys circle into which only the initiate could penetrate. This is untrue as well as unfair.

John Cowper Powys began as a fairly typical poet of the 1890s, which is hard to imagine when we are faced with the Olympian sweep of A Glastonbury Romance, published when he was sixty-one, which sounds throughout as though a loquacious and unjudging god has found himself poised only a very few feet above the ground with a pen in his hand.

He had sixty pounds a year from his father, a wife and child to support, so he gave lectures. All his life he appears to have been without ordinary vanity; this had been cauterized perhaps by his experiences at school, where his gigantic appearance, his habit of slobbering his food and his untypical enthusiasms made him the butt of his companions, until one day he verbally turned on his tormentors and found he had the gift of utterance. So he became a lecturer. For thirty years he toured the United States - one-night stands, sleeping in trains, in cheap hotel rooms, speaking to few people sometimes, sometimes to thousands, improvising without a note, mainly on books: Homer, Dante, Rabelais, Dostoevsky. What his audiences of tin miners, city clerks, and suburban housewives made of him we cannot know; perhaps a great deal, because any contemporary account of those performances describes them as electrifying. He was half-moun­tebank and half-sage - a Holy Fool perhaps. The young Henry Miller attended one of these lectures and Powys immediately became his god and remained so to the end. Powys was often in great pain from stomach ulcers, exacerbated, presumably, by the unusual discomforts of his life and not helped by his nervous obsessions. He had mental torments as well as physical ones: detesting cruelty he found in himself tendencies towards sadism, or so he is constantly telling us. He was also a compulsive voyeur and haunted the burlesque shows of North America in an attempt to satisfy his endearing mania for female ankles. All this he con­fesses, cheerful as always, in his Autobiography, which J.B. Priestley is not alone in thinking the best in the language. It’s worth men­tioning what Priestley rightly finds one of the most interesting things about Powys: the way he cuts right across our daft contem­porary notion of the artist’s life. We are used to the idea of the artist burning himself up, destroying his life, for the sake of his art. Powys did the opposite, he cured himself through his art, cured both his illnesses and his obsessions. As soon as he began to write constantly in his fifties, and he never stopped again, his vigour and his happiness increased. He died full of both, aged ninety-one, in 1963, and Henry Miller visited him in Wales shortly before this and says he found the same wonderful being he had idolized in youth, only he had grown younger, healthier, gayer. I look with even more respect on work that could have such an effect on its author.

In America, in April 1930 at the age of nearly sixty, after about thirty years of public performances, he settled down to write A Glastonbury Romance. He had written other novels before but now he had come to the end of his long apprenticeship as a lecturer on other people’s fictions and was ready to commit him­self full time to his own. It is a gigantic work, at least half a million words long. The effect on reviewers must have been literally stunning. Henry Miller says it took him a year to read, in joyous sips, and the average reviewer can hardly have been half-way through before he had to give an opinion. Surely this must have had something to do with the public myth of the interminable vapourings of an outmoded Sage? I wouldn’t have it one page shorter, and when I tried to choose some passages to quote here I found it was like trying to tear a piece of tight knitting. Every paragraph contains a surprise: impossible to fore­cast what is going to happen next or even what a character is going to say next, though when it happens or when it is said it sounds inevitable. There is no skill apparent in the book, though it is skilful, by which I mean there is no sense of character-charts and plot lines pinned to the study wall. There is only a sense of a man spinning creations out of the largeness of himself as easily and unselfconsciously as God on the First Day. 

What Powys did have in his American study was a large-scale map of Glastonbury and its surroundings, and his book is as localized and detailed as the Dublin of James Joyce’s Ulysses — a book which he knew and helped to defend in court more than a decade before. Also, like Joyce, he used a peg upon which to hang his huge narrative, the story of the Grail. Unlike Joyce there is no word-play (nor for that matter any sign of old scores being settled back home) nor is the complex and ambiguous Grail legend allowed to distort or in any way change the natural flow of the story. As detailed as Joyce he is without his pedantry, as intense as D.H. Lawrence he is without his aggressiveness.

He chose Glastonbury for his Romance — and it is a Romance, with a capital ‘R’, there is wizardry in it — because of the extraor­dinarily rich history of that place. As he says himself, ‘the most materialistic of human beings must allow that at certain epochs in the life of any history-charged spot there whirls up an abnormal stir and fume and frenzy among the invisible elements that ema­nate from the soil.’

Whether everybody would allow that is doubtful - all his life Powys had a genial faith that others thought and felt roughly as he did - but I have no difficulty; and it is into this fume and frenzy that he puts his Mayors and brothel-keepers, his several pairs of lovers young and old, heterosexual and homosexual, his sadists, maiden ladies, murderers, communists, capitalists, his revivalist preacher, his antiquarians and his aristocrats, as well as a mass of walking-on parts, and watches them submit to the forces inside and outside themselves. None of these is only a type, each of them is an individual flame, dancing with the other flames, fed by the same wantonly variable forces that are flowing through them and around them. The book is no mere pageant, though it contains a pageant, one of the great set-pieces of the story. These high spots occur regularly. There’s a christening for example, where the putative father gets drunk and hurls the christening cup in the river and the sturdy old vicar suffers agonies of guilty love for his son’s mistress, the mother of the child. In this scene, the cross-currents of feeling become so intricate and are navigated by the author so surely, the climax when it comes is so unexpected and right, that I wanted to take the whole thing out and put it in an anthology of great passages of the world. But I can’t because it’s too much a part of the book. Then there’s the description of the mistress of the vicar’s son preparing the nuptial couch for her lover, boiling eggs for them and making toast, which is the best account of a sacramental moment in sexual love I have read. While she does all this her unfortunate lover is condemned to stumble about outside, not sure whether what he wants to happen is going to - a naturalistic touch. But the insight into the earthy mental processes of the girl are poetry precisely because they are earthy. Powys’s sympathy with women seems complete - elderly unmarried ones and mannish ones as well as young ones in love.

You have to be careful with Powys, not to be too overwhelmed. He should not be set up as a sage, though he entered into the business himself by publishing books of philosophizing essays. He is a magician, as he himself knew very well, not a teacher in the ordinary sense. He transmits a world that reflects in the mirror of our own world and makes ours flash.

Technically, A Glastonbury Romance breaks no new ground. To the possible distress of critics it shows no signs of being ‘modern’; though it seems today, because of its intentional timeless-ness, undated, except perhaps in very minor details. What it does is to go back (consciously but not self-consciously) to the narrative speed, in which gods and men so naturally mingle, of Powys’s adored Homer. And here, in these gods and energies, I think we come to the heart of the resistance to Cowper Powys, and also to his great contribution. Those readers who cannot believe in anything outside themselves must find him unendur­able. Those who do so believe are likely to be some sort of Christian, and Powys’s easy way with exterior forces, with energies and demiurges, from the Primal Cause to Merlin, from the Sun God to Christ to grey-eyed Athene, must often sound disturbing, not to say potty. Thus at the outset he loses two audiences at once. Perhaps more readers are ready for him now. On the other hand, writers and readers have often been impatient with the novel as a form. Analysis of human relations is not enough, nor are social observations enough; even taken together they leave out too much of the elusive richness of our experience. What Cowper Powys wanted to do, and this is why a critic has said of A Glastonbury Romance that it makes even some classic novels read like escapist fiction, was to put back what gets left out. He does this by endowing everything that moves, and everything that doesn’t, with a life and spirit of its own, with an energy, however tiny, that affects the other energies around it. This is no more than Words worth did in his poems —but then the English never believe poets mean what they say. Novelists they call to account. Whether Powys believed in his Primal Cause, letting fall evil and good, arbitrarily, on poor unwitting earth, whether he believed that trees, after their own fashion, could really think, is no more worth asking than whether Homer believed in his pantheon. Powys probably did. I see no reason why he shouldn’t. So possibly did Homer. He certainly didn’t think them merely quaint. What is important is that this machinery of other-than-human forces gave Homer, as it gave Powys, the chance to enrich, dignify and in the widest sense explain his story. It gave Homer the opportunity to describe Odysseus visiting the dead. It enables Powys, within the first few pages of A Glastonbury Romance to describe the thoughts of a corpse in his coffin, review­ing his past life with the detached curiosity of a botanist. As soon as I read that, Cowper Powys had me at his mercy, because that’s exactly how a corpse in a coffin would feel, if it felt anything at all. The coffin-thoughts speedily and economically help the story along.

Everything does that. Snails, lice, trees, stones, all have their part to play, their small energies mingle with the vastness by which they are surrounded — what Powys called ‘The Multiverse’ rather than the Universe. The wind carries the troubled dreams of sleeping Glastonbury, each of them particularized, towards Salisbury Plain.

By burdening itself with the greedy dreams of Nell’s little boy, who cried in his sleep because the nurse refused to wake his mother so that he might be suckled, and with the vegetative feelings of Tossie’s little girls, who seemed perfectly prepared to let off their mother and enjoy alien nourishment at any moment, the wind seemed to need a greater momentum to carry it away northeast, towards its resting place on Salisbury Plain, than it possessed. It flagged a little by the time it reached West Pennard. It dropped some of its tiny moss-spores, its infinitesimal lichen-scales, its fungus odours, its oak-apple dust, its sterile bracken-pollen, its wisps of fluff from the bellies of Sedgemoor wild-fowl, its feathery husks from the rushes of Mark Moor, its salt-weed pungencies from the Bay of Bridgwater.

That is a very particular wind, we even begin to feel sorry for it, and by the time it sinks down and falls at Stonehenge, deposit­ing its seeds and smells and what he calls ‘the more psychic part of its aerial burden’, he has managed to bring in the sleeping thoughts of most of his characters, the nature and contents of the wind and, with Stonehenge, time and history itself.

This is typical of his method. In even the greatest nature-writ­ers, at the heart of their work, there seems an inhumanity, an over-intensity; whereas in Powys, as in Hardy, nature is the backdrop. His characters arc rooted in the non-human world because we all are whether we like it or not, but it is the human world which is centre-stage. Stonehenge, after all, was made by men. But he entirely lacks Hardy’s pessimism, without in any sense being complacent; he seems as far above facile optimism, as a novelist, as he is above good and evil. Physical pain, hopeless poverty, he confronts head-on. So great is his mastery over the reader by that time that you wonder if at last someone is going to teach you how properly to regard such things. You are left with a feeling that he has found a way, and it is a possible one. For hovering beside his book is the captivating personality of its author, one of his own greatest inventions. There is a wonderful lack of separation between the writer and the man; you feel certain he has given himself to you fully, without evasion or embarrass­ment, and if you met him he would talk in the way that he writes.

He says himself of this book that it is the sort into which he flings his whole  nature.

I work almost unconsciously as far as life and reality and nature and human character are concerned... the faith I try to advo­cate is the acceptance of our human life in a spirit of absolutely undogmatic ignorance. Whether death is a waking from one dream to another, or a total snuffing-out and entire oblitera­tion, we simply do not know. In either case the symbolism of the Grail represents a lapping up of one perfect drop of noon-day happiness, as Nietzsche in his poignant words would say, or as nature herself, according to the hint given us by Goethe, whispers to us in more voices than at present we are able to hear, or to understand when we do hear.

He wrote that in 1953 during what was surely the most tentative and self-limited period in our literary, and therefore in our spiritual, history. It was an age when Philip Larkin, finding him­self in an empty church, slipped off his cycle-clips ‘with awkward reverence’ and poets wrote poems about not being able to write poems.

Perhaps the time has come when we can find again the courage to stop limiting ourselves, to discover that our definition of what is ‘real’ in life is too small, that we are feeding ourselves on unnecessarily thin gruel. If the time has come Cowper Powys is our man. He doesn’t shirk the pain and indignities of life — far from it — but he doesn’t shirk the other aspects of it either, as many of us do. I put down his book with more life in me than when I picked it up.

Theology, 1977
(in People and Places, Carcanet 1988)