A Glastonbury Romance

AGRfHere’s another essay written for Jacqueline Peltier’s Lettre Powysienne, a little magazine in two languages for a list of subscribers. On her website you can only find her French translation, but I’ve fortunately kept the English original, written in 2005. When I mentioned “Amazon” in my first paragraph, she asked me to explain what it was, so I did. Thus in this and various ways, you’ll find it “dated”, a term often used in our brave new world to express vague disapproval by the language police. A good reason then to republish here, and be damn’d. It was originally titled “The Towers of Cybele”.

John Cowper Powys, master-weaver of myths old and new into the fabric of daily life, has himself fallen victim to persistent myths: that his writing is eccentric and flawed. Though A Glastonbury Romance is currently in print, it attracts mixed praise, as illustrated in these extracts from reader reviews in Amazon.com, the Internet-based bookseller:

. . . verbose prose that pushes itself to, and often over, the limit.

Some of this book (please read past the first page) is full of his bizarre nature-religion (the “First Cause”) . . .

“I’m so sorry I paid full price for this! After 200 pages—surely a fair test sample of a 1000+ page book—I hadn’t found one character to root for and couldn’t bear to plow through 800+ more pages with these ‘people.’”

. . . at times my patience was strained almost to breaking point . . . (from an otherwise favourable review, headed “Flawed powerful monster of a book”)

Powys’ philosophy of writing is why use one word when you can use ten! Even after drastic cuts he could still produce monsters like this one. . . . He writes of matters of great interest to himself, no doubt, but they fail to interest us. This book is unreadable.

These comments are not irrelevant, but I feel dismayed that the first Internet generation, which has so much to gain from Powys, might pass him by on account of snap judgements and ignorance. English-speaking readers get introduced to their “difficult” authors, such as Shakespeare, in school: after this, few venture into challenging territory unless their way is lit brightly by critical acclaim. Glastonbury, I believe, needs some kind of Introduction. The author’s own 1953 Preface is too personal, rambling and idiosyncratic to perform this function. It needs someone, outside his world rather than the magician at its centre, to bridge the gulf between his work of genius and today’s popular taste.

Clearly there are difficulties with the novel. Its style is out of step with the English literature of its time. The twentieth century, with its many modernist movements, was wresting the arts from the Classics’ bimillennial grip. It wasn’t a good time to bring out a novel which, echoing Homer, mingles the affairs of gods and men. Not that Glastonbury is at all archaic or academic. Its sense of a pervasive past is not antiquarian so much as evoking a reality which transcends time. The novel is contemporary in the sense that it reflects issues of the day in their social context—of course through the lens of its author’s idiosyncratic agenda. In fact it is overstuffed with so many rich ingredients that it promises a kind of novelistic entertainment which it then may seem not to consistently deliver. The author’s flow of description and narrative and stream-of-consciousness is so smooth and honeyed, so witty and fascinating, that the reader can get lulled into expectations that this is a straightforward novel; in which case the first few pages, and the last two, and various dithyrambs in between, would have to be considered lapses. And this is, as we have seen, exactly how many unprepared readers do consider them. I’m often tempted to use the term “self-indulgent” in relation to Powys, but it’s seldom appropriate. Though he has great fun giving free rein to his manias and mythologies, he succeeds in sharing the fun with the reader. But who is qualified to be the reader? And why is the novel not on the English Literature syllabus in our schools? They are ready to embrace subversive literature, so long as the radical agenda, like that of Lawrence, Forster or Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird), has become historical. Powys’ subversion, I suspect, is instinctively avoided by the Establishment without the reasons being consciously understood; and his time—when his views will be eagerly embraced—has hardly begun.

The author piles everything in: the entire life of an English town for one year, with every class and type of person, every kind of erotic obsession. Woven into the panorama are references to the best-loved myths of the British islands—Arthur, Merlin, the Grail, Joseph of Arimathea, perhaps the boy Jesus himself (“And did those feet in ancient time / Walk upon England’s mountains green?” in Blake’s famous poem which has become England’s unofficial national anthem). He places the present-day (c.1920) town of Glastonbury in a space-time continuum in which history, pre-history, racial and family groups seem to have a pervading and persisting presence; whilst the dual-natured First Cause (a god combining both good and evil), the various heavenly bodies and the Earth itself all exert influences upon the human characters in the book. Subtleties of the weather, little details of wild flowers, refuse thrown into a river, even the cogitations of elderly trees, the monologues of humble insects and the identification of subtle aromas, such as moss, are also given generous space. Sometimes we are told of the invisible watchers who observe everything that goes on in the town: he constructs new layers of mythology on top of the traditional Grail legend, which is re-enacted in the visions of certain characters who receive this privilege.

An unprepared reader might gain the impression that Powys, through some kind of sloppiness and want of self-discipline, ruined an otherwise excellent novel by interlarding the action with long passages of mythological speculation and other fanciful material which more astute editing would have suppressed. Such a reader might be under the false impression that novelists should be driven by the impulse to produce, by any means, best-sellers or winners of literary prizes. That is to say, they should be attentive to the zeitgeist. This was far from the approach of John Cowper Powys.

He is philosopher-preacher as well as novelist, and the extended passages which readers may or may not tolerate are important aspects of his message. He puts his ideas into the mouths or minds of the characters, and thus avoids any taint of earnestness, except where earnestness is gently mocked, as with Red Robinson who is motivated by hate rather than the Communist idealism he professes. Sam Dekker, too, becomes afflicted with enthusiasm, when he sacrifices adulterous love of Nell for renunciation in the manner of St Augustine or St Thomas à Kempis in the Imitation of Christ. Even the characters afflicted with evil propensities: sadist Evans, sinister tramp Toller, Mad Bet, Dr Fell with murderous thoughts towards his sister, are shown with affection and sympathy. We recognise the evil; but it is not beyond our comprehension. The dual-natured First Cause, so irrelevant to certain readers as we have seen, is one of the most important characters, for It is the source of all evil. The tortured Dr Fell, whose own life is hell and who has seen terrible suffering in his professional duties, is the most outspoken:

“…I think that God Himself, the great Living God, responsible for it all . . . ought to have such a Cancer——. . . as would keep him Alive and Howling for a Million Years!”

This theme, that God is the real culprit, not man, recurs in various forms throughout the book, and would be enough, I suppose, to keep it from many school booklists.

The scope of the author’s message resists summarising: it can only attain its complete expression in the full length of the novel. It is pluralistic, as the author’s Preface explains:

Its message is that no one receptacle of Life and no one fountain of Life poured in the receptacle can contain or explain what the world offers us.

It is egalitarian: only “personality” is immortal, and life is the sum of all the individual worlds which collide and overlap in its cosmic comedy. In the passage below, John Crow is waiting outside the Chalice Spring, whilst “Bloody Johnny” Geard calls down healing powers to eliminate Tittie Petherton’s cancer.

Crow imagines that a louse, fleeing from Tittie’s unwashed body during her immersion in the healing spring, encounters a local wood-louse:

“All is strange to me,” said the human louse to the wood louse. He spoke the lice language with its beautiful vowel sounds to perfection.

“On the contrary,” said the wood louse, speaking the same ancient tongue but with a rude rural intonation, “you are the only strange thing here to me.”

“Could you direct me—” the human louse enquired, giving its words a classical resonance, indicative of the fact that its ancestors had lived with the Romans, “to any human skin in this vicinity?” (P706)

In his novel, Powys combines many authorial voices to conjure up the illusion of a complete and diverse world. The conversation of the lice is not just a comic interlude but a glimpse into the consequences of seeing all creatures as equal. Geard may have his miracle but it’s at the price of a starved louse. John Crow is able to discern the possibility of such a value-free world because he is unencumbered by belief-systems, but it is too dizzying even for him:

“God! What a mix-up it all is. I don’t care! I didn’t make the world. I’m not responsible.” (P706).

The novel is a metaphysical, theological meditation. Without setting out to do so, he illustrates answers to these questions: —Who or what is in charge of what goes on? —What is the texture of reality? —What are myths, and how do they stay alive for succeeding generations? —What is time? —What is space? His answers are radical yet classical. They fill a gap for our generation: no one else has answers as elegant or wise.

Throughout the book, Powys embodies one important principle, one to which he devoted his entire life, the Rabelaisian one of “Fay ce que vouldras”. He followed his own inclinations, intensely and uncompromisingly, within a clear ethical system of his own devising. Though his Glastonbury characters are meant to be a spectrum of mankind, a slice of life in a time and place, they are all reflections of the author, or his preoccupations, or what Jung would call his shadow—the dark suppressed side which is inverse of the conscious. They see things their own way and do their own thing, mostly with little inhibition about conventions. The plot is built around the clash of political, social and philosophical values; but we cannot track any victory of good over evil, or even the reverse. All the main plotlines and outcomes are foreshadowed in Glastonbury gossip. This has the effect of trading suspense for a sense of inevitability. Any dramatic opposition of forces occurs not between but within the characters, like Owen Evans and Sam Dekker in their different ways struggling between lust and conscience, or John Crow vowing he will never compete (pp73, 84).

The novel is not about the conflict of egos and the outcome of power-struggles. It is about the coexistence and interlacing of different subjectivities, often expressed in mythical terms. If certain readers find the novel too verbose, it’s not because the narrative is reducible to fewer words without loss. It’s because the author is inviting them to enter worlds of greater expanse and intensity than those to which they are used, or prepared to enter. In daily life our consciousness is pruned and trimmed to the limited topics of shared discourse, but Powys opens a door, if we are willing to enter, to a teeming world where so much more can be apprehended and shared. The adventures he relates are not projected into a remote “fantasy” world of science fiction or magic. They happen to realistic characters in an identifiable town in a real epoch of recent history in England.

To appreciate any work of art it should not be necessary to know the artist’s life story, but it helps to know that John Cowper Powys dedicated his life from an early age to following the dictates of his own originality. He achieved this in defiance of the indoctrination that boys of the English upper-middle-class received from a system of private education designed to mould them into conformity with a particular culture, so that they could enter one or other of the various professions which underpinned a great Victorian Empire. At the age of nine, he created the “Volentiã Army”, which was not “a mere game of robbers, or pirates. I surrounded it on every side by the mythological!” At that time, it was his way of using

. . . 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 attitude of other minds towards this world. For what people call the objective world is really a most fluid, flexible, malleable thing . . . 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. (Autobiography, p 62-63)

Certainly in A Glastonbury Romance, he exercised this power with full mastery. In the following passage he describes his childish creativity, but it applies just the same to his mature work:

Indeed the pleasure I derived from all this must have been more akin to the sense of power in an Arch-Medicine-Man, or a Super-High-Priest, who invents a ritual for subsequent generations to follow than anything merely scholarly. (Autobiography p 65)

In his diary of 3rd August 1929 he records:

I prayed to the actual stones of Stonehenge. I said – ‘O Stonehenge help me to write such a book on Glastonbury as has never been writ of any place.’ I drank rainwater out of a hollow in the stone of Sacrifice. I knelt on the edge of the altar-stone. I invoked Merlin and my Three Great Spirits of the Earth. I carried water in the palm of my hand for the handle of my stick.

This encounter with the stones is echoed in John Crow’s visit to these same stones, in the company of Owen Evans, as described in the “Stonehenge chapter”. Here, as I think also in everything that he did, but especially here, it’s plain that he allowed himself to be driven by his intense experience, rather than by any plan or ambition for success in the world. And here a proviso must be made, and I can do no better than to quote from Glen Cavaliero: “Powys’ greatness as a novelist is independent of his status as a seer, although, having said that, one must add that the actual breadth and wisdom of his total outlook is part of the secret of that greatness.”[1]

Young writers in the Thirties were proudly modernistic, condemning to obscurity those whose style and views were “out of date”, even if, like Kipling, they were still alive and creative. Powys satirises the opposing views of the time in his May Day chapter of Glastonbury where the farmer-poet Ned Athling wants to adopt the “new forms coming into Art” despite the protests of his lover, Lady Rachel, who expostulates:

“What’s poetry if it isn’t something that has to fight for the unseen against the seen, for the dead against the living, for the mysterious against the obvious? Poetry always takes sides. It’s the only lost cause we’ve got left! It fights for the . . . for the . . . for the Impossible!” (Glastonbury, p529)

And this could be the author speaking of his own book, whose intention is closer to poetry than most novels. Like Milton in Paradise Lost, this son of a parson is not without the urge to “assert eternal providence and justify the ways of God to man,” reinventing an epic tradition going back to Homer. And what Professor Luce says about Homer applies to Powys too:

One should not, I think, dismiss it out of hand as outmoded superstition, but view it sympathetically as a serious and creative attempt to picture the totality of human experience in relation to the unseen world of mind and spirit. [2]

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the book’s final paragraphs, which to a careless reader at first appear like irrelevant bathos after a sublime description of the death by drowning of the central character John Geard. I know, because I was that careless reader. To me, there was enough poignancy in Geard’s final moments. I did not have the patience, at first, to reflect on the significance of a dithyramb about the “Goddess of the Turrets” whose crown is shaped like a city wall; for my head was full of all the characters whose lives I had shared in such intimacy and immediacy. To every reader, the temptation is presented to read Glastonbury as merely the tale of the dramatis personae. But Powys, though no scholar, is steeped in Homer, if not also in the Greek tragedians; where the deeds of men are enacted against a backdrop of a cosmic worldview, in which the gods also exert their influence. He is poet rather than theologian, and it’s not relevant whether he actually believes (or whether we believe) the dual nature of the First Cause, or the influence of the Sun and Moon, or the powers of the Goddess Cybele:

“. . . she still upholds her cause: the cause of the unseen against the seen, of the weak against the strong, of that which is not, and yet is, against that which is, and yet is not.”

If A Glastonbury Romance ever becomes a standard set book for English Literature examinations, an examiner might well set this as an essay topic: “In what way are the book’s closing paragraphs, on Cybele, relevant to the novel as a whole?” For this is a way to see if the attentive reader has understood the author’s intentions.

If we read this novel as it is meant to be read, every paragraph is an essential part of the whole; every juxtaposition of events in its complex plot is intentional. Critics are of course free to point out lapses in Powys’ writing, but he can only be judged by what he was trying to do, not by any established canons of style. What I would like to see published is not another scholarly critical work but an Introduction that would help the general reader appreciate the novel’s vastness and depth.

[1] Glen Cavaliero, John Cowper Powys, Novelist, Oxford, 1973, p157.

[2] From a shortened version of Professor Luce’s address to the Classical Association of Ireland delivered in November 1995.

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7 thoughts on “A Glastonbury Romance

  1. I’m all for a writer being out of step with their time. I can even allow some lattitude for using ten words when one would do. After all, isn’t it sometimes better to stroll at leisure through a garden of words, rather than just sprint across it in a straight line?

    Last fall I took a Survey of American Lit I class, when really I should have taken II instead. The courses were chronological, so the Survey I course covered everything prior to the Civil War, a lot of it involving a period before America even HAD a fledgling literary tradition of its own. There was a lot of very dense, difficult writing, weird sentence contructions and unfamiliar word usages. Plus, most of it was very dry stuff, like journals from explorers or early settlers or politicians. You’d think that would be interesting, but, aside from a few exceptions, I didn’t really find that to be the case. All semester I regretted not taking the more contemporary class.

    I guess my point is: there’s a difference between a writer that weaves ornate words around your head like dazzling threads of expensive silk, and writing that you have to chisel your way through with a rusty pickax. If Powys is in the former category, he’s got my vote.

  2. Honestly, after reading what you have to say about him, I feel like I’ve found my new favorite writer, and yet I haven’t read a page of his work.

  3. I’m glad to hear this, Bryan, especially as I could put up three more essays with little effort: on his Autobiography; his historical novel Owen Glendower, and his debut novel Wood and Stone. I hadn’t thought this far ahead, but to have one interested reader is enough, and the ratio of words published to effort involved will be attractively high. And it’s occupational therapy for me!

  4. By the way, you’ll see above a link to a post called “The Nothing Girl”, with another quote from Weymouth Sands.

  5. Thanks for sharing your review. I particularly liked these lines:

    “He followed his own inclinations, intensely and uncompromisingly, within a clear ethical system of his own devising. Though his Glastonbury characters are meant to be a spectrum of mankind, a slice of life in a time and place, they are all reflections of the author, or his preoccupations, or what Jung would call his shadow—the dark suppressed side which is inverse of the conscious. They see things their own way and do their own thing, mostly with little inhibition about conventions.”

    “In daily life our consciousness is pruned and trimmed to the limited topics of shared discourse, but Powys opens a door, if we are willing to enter, to a teeming world where so much more can be apprehended and shared.”

    Light without shadow reveals very little. Perhaps we have to walk through the valley of the shadow before we can apprehend that evil is not to be feared. Every attempt to share what we learn from confronting our own darkness increases the circumference of perception.

    Letter to Thomas Butts by William Blake:
    “In our Shadows on Earth
    Like a weak mortal birth
    My Eyes more & more Like a Sea without shore
    Continue Expanding
    The Heavens commanding
    Till the jewels of Light
    Heavenly Men beaming bright
    Appeard as One Man”

  6. That was beautifully written, Vincent. It makes me long to read Powys, though I don’t know if I ever will. My time-sliced life seems to direct me to ever shorter forms of reading-matter – so short story writers like Kipling and Katherine Mansfield are my passion at the moment, but Adam Bede has been languishing half-way through for a couple years now… Nevertheless, you make Powys sound freshly fascinating… and any post that talks about Stonehenge is sure to absorb my attention….

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