The novels of John Cowper Powys are full of visionaries, priests and individuals pursuing their own private paths. Sometimes they occupy the central stage of the novel, or, like Sylvanus Cobbold in Weymouth Sands, a peripheral role. I have been fascinated by this character for a long time, particularly as, like Urien Quirm in Maiden Castle, he is trying to use his personal philosophy to burst through into another dimension. In Sylvanus' case it is to make contact with the Absolute God or the First Cause. This is some aim and it would take someone with extraordinary spirituality or occult powers to achieve such a thing. Of the two characters mentioned, only Sylvanus can be described as priest-like because he does have a following, however small. In such a secular place as Weymouth, it certainly makes him a distinctive character!
        How does he hope to effect this contact? With our knowledge of occult practises, including spiritualism, by the end of the novel there is no evidence of such things. All he seems to do is preach and have contact with young girls. We do not know what he preaches, only do we hear him talking:
        "It's girls like you, 'Melia, Celia and Sue, who are nearer (...) what lies at the bottom of life and death (...) because there's something in virginity (...) that is more passive to the ultimate forces." (Weymouth Sands, "The Sea-Serpent")
        We do see evidence of fetish worship, as part of JCP/Sylvanus' placating the "Gods" at the beginning of the day and the hint is that he has practised Tantric sex, where the delaying of the orgasm is supposed to be enormously powerful with the release of Kundalini energy. For this to be enacted, a virgin is required from whom to bounce off the power rather than to indulge in sexual intercourse. JCP used this idea again in The Brazen Head where Ghosta is used to breathe life, to animate it physically through her own virginity.
        At this point we may well ask, "What is Sylvanus up to?" It requires an Initiate with dedication and mystic powers totally unlike that of Sylvanus...,even (God forbid) a kind of Aleister Crowley and for both readers and JCP, we are on profoundly dangerous ground! Does this system work, as it is clearly part of Sylvanus' raison d'être? All he finds at the end is incarceration because of his madness and because he is a danger to young girls. The Absolute (or what you will) has let him down and we are left with the impression that he is merely deluded.

Robert Carrington

Robert Carrington lives in Portslade, near Brighton and teaches at a school in the area. He has deep knowledge of both 16th century and contemporary music. He also composes. The works of J.C. Powys have inspired several of his compositions.