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Amber Paulen

Wolf Solent

John Cowper Powys

Wolf Solent

30 March 2008


He is an aqueous man with an aquiline nose. Who? the title above or the author below? What little I know of John Cowper Powys I’ve gleaned from his hero, Wolf Solent; what I know of Wolf Solent has been given to me by his creator, John Cowper Powys. Both are of aqueous form, both have an aquiline nose. Do not come unprepared unto this ground; do not get them confused.

As I skimmed through online articles while reading this book, I came across an image of this man, this eccentric writer, that lodged itself into my consciousness. It has been said that every morning before sitting down to write, John Cowper Powys would submerge his head into a bucket of water for as long as he could take it, so that he was better prepared when he sat down with his ledger to make good talk with the underwater fishes, to better understand the underside of flotsam and jetsam, to better grasp the sway of the seaweed on underwater breezes. If it is only this practice that led to such passages which evoke such rivers of consciousness that break out into veritable ponds, lakes and seas, perhaps I too, one day, will attempt such a humorous method.

It is John Cowper Powys’ eery ability to transcribe our most subterranean thoughts that have established him, in my self, as another mania. An author I will dog until I have exhausted every possibility of every word ever written by this mythopoesis. Unfortunate for such a mania to strike in a non-English speaking country, for my fixes promise to be few and far-between. But no matter, I will feast off of Wolf Solent for as long as I possibly can!

A great thanks goes out to Henry Miller who managed to forge this introduction over countries and ages. Both Miller and Powys share an adhesion to life; life in its most destructive, chaotic, ugly to life in the most divine and over-worldly. And like Henry Miller, I do not suggest Powys for the weak of heart or spirit; some passages are too brutal and ghastly in their naked truth. But do not let me to shy you away from this rare experience no other author offers.

“I refuse to believe,” Wolf said to himself, “and I never will believe until the day Nature kills me, that there’s such a thing as ‘reality,’ apart from the mind that looks at it!. . . The ‘thing in itself’ is as fluid and malleable as these trees.”

Wolf Solent has a ‘mythology.’

“Perhaps I have never known reality as other human beings know it,” he thought. “My life has been industrious, monotonous, patient. I’ve carried my load like a camel. And I’ve been able to do this because it hasn’t been my real life at all! My ‘mythology’ has been my real life.”

This ‘mythology’ is a life-illusion; the quickest way to go under water with the fishes, I presume. This ‘mythology’ is, as I understand it to be, Wolf Solent’s version of the story, our story, his story; this story constructed in a wild mind with wild characters and synopsises.

Wolf Solent slips into his ‘mythology’ on his epic walks through the West Country; giving way to epic thoughts that swing, weave, float through possibilities, impossible or not. Does Wolf Solent slip-in to escape and not to endure? What constitutes an escape on such terms? The mind, given free range to roam, constructs hefty edifices, chosen deliberately or stumbled upon quite by accident; edifices that build a castle or dig a tomb. The underwater mind takes underwater swims, looping through underwater breezes; an underwater mind that visualizes it all from the bottom, up.

Between your happiness and that face [on the Waterloo Steps, of Living Despair] there was an umbilical cord. All suffering was a martyr’s suffering, all happiness a martyr’s happiness, when once you got a glimpse of that cord! It was the existence in the world of those two gross, vulgar parodies of life, ennui and pleasure, that confused the issues, the blighted the distinctions.

Why not drift off for a little escape? Dive down to depths where all things become vaporous and where the lines between blur. Finishing Wolf Solent and coming upon the task of writing these notes I was seized by the book’s contradictory substance of underwater molecules: I attempted multiple drafts. Finally, I came upon the solution: the question, what is ‘mythology’ and what purpose does it hold?

Wolf Solent ‘looses’ his ‘mythology.’ He gives in to the evil behind Mr. Urquart’s preposterous book: the perverted record of Dorset’s residents, past and present. As Wolf Solent gets paid to finish this project, which he was summoned to Dorset to do, his secret ‘mythology’ loses the ability to oppose some equally secret “evil” in the world around him. The downright ‘evilness’ of this Urquart is apparent in the state of Wolf’s unfortunate predecessor, who occupies a plot in the local cemetery. Poor Redfern, he just couldn’t take it!

Oh, it was Wolf Solent’s own mind that was diseased. . . not Nature. Well, diseased or not, it was all he had! Henceforth he was going to take as the talisman of his days endure or escape.

With the ‘mythology’ gone I didn’t find much changed in Wolf’s days, besides a wizened outlook and a more leveled ability to not jump hastily to wild conclusions. For the final scene, when Lord Carafax is seen to have taken the ‘stunning’ Gerda upon his knee—as much a child as Wolf’s wife—Wolf reacts ‘normally.’ He goes out behind the pigsty to rattle the contents of his mind with his adroit and perpetual analyzations. He is then able to enter his gate almost humming! Wolf Solent endures. That he will spend the rest of his days as a teacher of history in the grammar school; that he will live on Preston Lane; that he is married to one girl who is his ‘grounding’ and has another girl who is his ‘true love.’ All this will pass and pass well or not well, but pass-on. To endure or escape? Or as his father, the skull six-feet below the earth, says, ‘forgive and forget.’

I find myself clinging to the phrase, ‘as malleable as the trees,’ as I pass through the undulations of the Italian countryside; the sturdiness of trunks and limbs sway under the effects of my straying vision. In John Cowper Powys’ potent descriptions of Nature the threads of his life-illusion glint with a silver-light. I stand at my own sentinella. Jagged snow peaked mountains rise at the furthest periphery. It is only in Nature where the simplistic nature of all the above blather, is restored. A simple complexity, ‘good’ and ‘evil’ and everything in between.

“Walking is my cure,” he thought. “As long as I can walk I can get my soul into shape!”

Elements of John Cowper Powys are not suited for everybody. Despite being dubbed as an English “Great,” not many have tried him. John Cowper Powys’ words ring strong, smashing the confines of literature built by that drudge, academia. His colors are too dazzling: look how his metallic scales glitter when caught in the ray’s angle of deep-sea light! Lusterful pinks and greens! What an aquamarine and perfect celeste to smash-up any academic and intellectual dull-grey!

Reading John Cowper Powys is a lesson in the vagrancy of vocabulary and a glimpse into the true freedom of written form. He plunges straight to the heart of the eternal questions that have stuck around since the beginning of written time. Reading John Cowper Powys is at once a descent and a flight. I have another addiction. I must read more!

Please see also my more recent and more in-depth second reading.



Commentary for Wolf Solent


1 On Tuesday 04 November 2008 chris james wrote:

well done.
I agree “Wolf Solent” is a greatly under appreciated novel.

2 On Tuesday 23 March 2010 joanna Aston wrote:

This was very helpful for the piece I am writing about Wolf Solent for a book club, a more positive, less ‘dark’ view of Powys’ writing than many other critics I have read- I myself found something rather disturbing even in his most lyric descriptions of the dorset countryside. Certainly not a ‘light’ novel.

3 On Wednesday 16 May 2012 Adrian McMahon wrote:

Piece together the ‘subjective realities’ of Solent, Malakite, Valley, Gaunt and so on to understand Solent’s manichean mythology and whether Powys is laughing at the great absurdity of reality rather than in despair over its futility. It’s a journey through a mythic landscape and the digging up of Jimmy Redfern is the guilt at its occasional consequences when it goes awry. Solent does much good for others on his road to enlightened disillusion but he holds the centre together in the end..he will endure

4 On Wednesday 16 May 2012 Amber wrote:

Adrian, Thank you for your thoughtful comment. Reading it made me want to read Wolf Solent again. I will always go back to it for that “mythic landscape” Powys is a master of conjuring.


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