Edited by Cedric Hentschel
Enthralled by Keats since childhood, John Cowper Powys when in his early thirties a poet not yet turned novelist sought to distil the essence of 'this sensuous Cockney boy' in a major critical study. His idiosyncratic and uncompromising approach to his task, which had made his book unpublishable in 1910, may with hindsight be viewed a great deal less harshly. The robust portrait of Keats which emerges is that of an Englishman true to his 'popular instincts', to 'pagan' ideals in life as in literature. In presenting Keats to the reader, his biographer seldom strays far from self-analysis; and this oblique self-portrait is one which Powys enthusiasts cannot ignore.
Caught up in the intellectual ferment of the Edwardian era, Powys rails at many of his favourite targets Browning and blue-stockings, dons and Thackeray condemning, above all, the Victorian hypocrisy which had obscured Keats's liberating message. At the same time he develops, in the forthright manifesto of his Epistle Dedicatory, his personal theories of Socialism and Anarchism and of the role of the individual in society.
In his wide-ranging introduction, Dr Hentschel examines the genesis of the work, considers the influence of Nietzsche and Pater on the interpretation of Keats's paganism, and explores some of the enigmas associated with Powys's first important venture into prose: the significance of his surprising dedicatee, 'Aunt Betsy Plantagenet of Tunbridge Wells'; his rivalry with the scholar-don, Ernest de Selincourt; and the erotic 'undercurrents' flowing from his acquaintance with Tom Jones and his Liverpool circle.
'This book of mine is an interpretation of what Keats felt when he was left to himself,' wrote Powys, 'when he was thrown back upon himself, and it is just then that we find him most pagan and most popular.'
Powys's lively appraisal may not substantially modify our perception of Keats and his poetic achievement; but it does bring into sharper focus than hitherto the well-springs of John Cowper Powys's own radicalism, together with a prime source of that perennial philosophy which, two decades later, was to inspire In Defence of Sensuality.
215mm x 138mm, 160 pp.
ISBN 0-900821-98-1. £19.95