John Cowper Powys

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John Cowper Powys
John-Cowper-Powys 2.jpg
Born 8 October 1872
Shirley, Derbyshire
Died 17 June 1963
Blaenau Ffestiniog
Education Sherborne School and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge
Occupation Author and lecturer

John Cowper Powys (/ˌɒn ˌkpər ˈp.ɪs/; 8 October 1872 – 17 June 1963) was a British novelist, lecturer, philosopher, literary critic, and poet.


Powys was born in Shirley, Derbyshire, in 1872, the son of the Reverend Charles Francis Powys (1843–1923), who was vicar of Montacute, Somerset, for thirty-two years, and Mary Cowper Johnson, a descendent of the poet William Cowper. He came from a family of eleven children, many of whom were also talented. His two younger brothers Llewelyn Powys (1884–1939) and Theodore Francis Powys were well-known writers, while his sister Philippa published a novel and some poetry. Another sister Marian Powys was an authority on lace and lace-making and published a book on this subject. His brother A. R. Powys was Secretary of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, and published a number of books on architectural subjects.[1] John studied at Sherborne School and graduated from Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, June 1894.[2]

Montacute: Powys' father, the Reverend Charles Francis Powys (1843–1923) was the vicar between 1885 and 1918

On 6 April 1896 he married Margaret Lyon. They had a son, Littleton Alfred, in 1902.[3] The marriage was unsatisfactory, and Powys eventually lived a large part of each year in the USA, and had relationships with various women, before establishing a permanent relationship with Phyllis Playter in the 1920s.[4] However, he diligently supported Margaret and the education of their son.[5] Another important woman in his life was the American poet Frances Gregg, whom he first met in Philadelphia in 1912.[6] He was also a friend of the famous dancer Isadora Duncan.[7] Another friend and an important supporter in America was the novelist Theodore Dreiser.[8]

Powys's first employment was teaching in girls’ schools. He then worked as an Extension lecturer throughout England, for both Oxford and Cambridge Universities. From 1905 to the early 1930s, he lectured in the USA for the American Society for the Extension of University Teaching, gaining a reputation as a charismatic speaker.[9] He spent his summers in England. During this time he travelled the length and breadth of the USA, as well as into Canada. He engaged in public debate with the philosopher Bertrand Russell on marriage, as well as with the philosopher and historian Will Durant; he was also a witness in the obscenity trial of James Joyce's novel Ulysses[10] and was mentioned with approval in the autobiography of US feminist and anarchist, Emma Goldman. Powys would later share Goldman's support for the Spanish Revolution.[11]

His first published works were highly derivative collections of poetry ("very Hardyesque" was Philip Larkin's opinion),[12] published in the 1890s. His first novel Wood and Stone, dedicated to Thomas Hardy, was published in 1915. This was followed by a collection of literary essays Visions and Revisions in 1915 and his first full length work of popular philosophy, The Complex Vision, in 1920.

In 1921 he met Phyllis Playter, the twenty-six-year-old daughter of industrialist and business man Franklin Playter.[13] Eventually they established a permanent relationship, though he was unable to divorce his wife Margaret, who was a Catholic. Margaret Powys died in 1947, and his son Littleton Alfred in 1954.[14]

Politically, Powys described himself as an anarchist and was both anti-fascist and anti-Stalinist: "Powys already regarded fascism and Stalinism as appalling, but different, totalitarian regimes".[15]

It was not until 1929, with Wolf Solent, that Powys achieved any critical or financial success.[16] In that year Powys and Phyllis moved from Greenwich Village in New York City to rural upstate New York. One of Powys’s most admired novels, A Glastonbury Romance, published in 1932, sold well, though he made little if any money from it because of a libel lawsuit.[17] Another important work, Autobiography, was published in 1934. Then in June 1934 Powys and Phyllis left America and moved to England, living first in Dorchester, the setting for the final Wessex novel, Maiden Castle, before eventually moving in July 1935 to Corwen, North Wales,[18] with the help of the novelist James Hanley, who lived nearby. Here Powys immersed himself in Welsh literature, mythology and culture, including learning to read Welsh. The move inspired two major novels with Welsh settings, Owen Glendower (1941) and Porius (1951). They later moved, a final time, in May 1955, to Blaenau Ffestiniog in North Wales. John Cowper Powys died in 1963 and Phyllis Playter in 1982.[19]

Blaenau Ffestiniog, where Powys lived from 1955 until he died in 1963.


Cowper Powys is a somewhat controversial writer "who evokes both massive contempt and near idolatry".[20] Thus while Walter Allen in Tradition and Dream recognizes Powys's genius, he is dissatisfied with what Powys has done with it, seeing Powys’s approach to the novel, as "so alien to the temper of the age as to be impossible for many people to take seriously".[21] Annie Dillard, however, views things quite differently: "John Cowper Powys is a powerful genius, whose novels stir us deeply."[22] What is noteworthy is that throughout his career he consistently gained the admiration of novelists as diverse as Theodore Dreiser, Henry Miller, Iris Murdoch, Margaret Drabble,[23] and James Purdy, as well as the academic critics George Painter, G. Wilson Knight, George Steiner,[24] Harald Fawkner, and Jerome McGann. In his autobiography, film director John Boorman wrote that he had contemplated a movie adaptation of A Glastonbury Romance early in his career [25]

Powys’s first published works were collections of poems published in 1896 and 1899, but these, and three subsequent volumes in 1915, 1916 and 1923, are of minor importance. However, the Welsh poet and critic Roland Mathias thought this side of Powys worthy of critical study and published The Hollowed-Out Elder Stalk: John Cowper Powys as Poet in 1979.[26] Belinda Humfrey, suggests that "[p]erhaps Powys's best poems are those given to Jason Otter in Wolf Solent and Taliessin in Porius.[27] It was not until 1915 that he published his first novel, Wood and Stone, which was dedicated to Thomas Hardy.

While he was a famous lecturer and published a variety of both fiction and non-fiction regularly from 1915, it was not until he was in his early fifties, with the publication of Wolf Solent in 1929, that he achieved critical and financial success as a novelist.[28] This novel was reprinted several times in both the USA and Britain. In the same year The Meaning of Culture was published and it, too, was frequently reprinted. In Defence of Sensuality, published at the end of the following year, was yet another best seller.[29] Before Wolf Solent there had been four earlier apprentice novels; Wood and Stone (1915), Rodmoor (1916), the posthumous After my Fashion (1980), which was written around 1919, and Ducdame (1925). Wolf Solent was the first of the so-called Wessex novels, which include A Glastonbury Romance (1932), Weymouth Sands (1934) and Maiden Castle (1936). The latter is set in Dorchester, Thomas Hardy's Casterbridge, and there are parallels with that earlier work. All the same, despite his indebtedness to the Victorian novel and his enthusiasm for Hardy and Walter Scott, as well as for lesser figures such as Ainsworth, Powys was clearly a modernist,[30] with affinities also with Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, Walter Pater, Marcel Proust, Carl Gustav Jung, Sigmund Freud, D. H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Dorothy Richardson, and the T. S. Eliot of The Waste Land.[31]

Patchin Place New York (2011) where Powys lived in Greenwich Village.

It is clear from Powys's diaries that his newfound success was greatly helped by the stability that his relationship with Phyllis Playter gave him and her frequent advice on his work in progress.[32]

A Glastonbury Romance sold particularly well in its British edition, though this was of little avail as it was the subject of an expensive libel case brought by Gerard Hodgkinson, the owner of the Wookey Hole Caves, who felt himself identifiably and unfairly portrayed in the character of Philip Crow.[33] First published in 1933, A Philosophy of Solitude was another best seller for Powys in the USA.[29]

While Welsh mythology was already important in A Glastonbury Romance and Maiden Castle it became even more important after he and Phyllis Playter moved to Corwen, Wales, in 1935, first in the minor novel Morwyn (1937). There then followed two major historical novels set in Wales, Owen Glendower (1941)[34] and Porius (1951). The first deals with the rebellion of the Welsh Prince Owen Glendower (A.D.1400-16), while Porius takes place in the time of the mythic King Arthur (A.D. 499). However, Arthur is a minor character compared with the Welsh Prince Porius, and the King’s magician Myrddin (Merlin). In both works, but especially Porius, Powys makes use of the mythology found in the Welsh classic The Mabinogion.[35] Just as the landscape of Dorset and Somerset, and the characters' deep personal relationships with it, had been of great importance in the great Wessex novels, so the landscape of Wales, especially that of the Corwen region, became now of equal significance.

The landscape and the intimate relationship that characters have with the elements, including the sky, wind, plants, animals, and insects, are of great significance in all Powys's works.[36] These are linked to another major influence on Powys, Romanticism, especially William Wordsworth[37] and writers influenced by Wordsworth such as Walter Pater.[38] Powys was also an admirer of Goethe and Rousseau.[39] Words such as mysticism[40] and pantheism[41] are sometimes used in discussing Powys’s attitude to nature, but what he is concerned with is an ecstatic response to the natural world, epiphanies such as Wordsworth describes in his "Ode: Intimations of Immortality",[42] with an important difference in that Powys believes that the ecstasy of the young child can be retained by any adult who actively cultivates the power of the imagination. Some have compared this to zen and such contemplative practices,[43] and for Powys, and the protagonists of his novels who usually resemble him, the cultivation of a psycho-sensuous philosophy is as important as the Christian religion was for an earlier generation.[44]

Porius is, for some, the crowning achievement of Powys's maturity, but others are repelled by its obscurity. It was originally severely cut for publication, but in recent years two attempts have been made to recreate Powys's original intent.[45]

Caer Drewyn, Corwen, locally known as Mynydd-y-Gaer, the hill fort where Powys completed Owen Glendower on 24 December 1939. It is also an important setting in Porius.

The novels that followed Porius are more minor in scale and an element of fantasy is a special characteristic of them. In Atlantis even the inanimate world is allowed to speak.

One of Powys's most important works, his Autobiography, was published in 1934. While he sets out to be totally frank about himself, and especially his sexual peculiarities and perversions, he largely excludes any substantial discussion of the women in his life. The reason for this is now much clearer because we now know that it was written while he was still married to Margaret, though he was living in a permanent relationship with Phyllis Playter.

Periodically, over almost 50 years, starting with Confessions of Two Brothers in 1916, Powys wrote works that present his personal philosophy of life. These are not works of philosophy in the academic sense, and in a bookstore the appropriate section might be self-help. Powys describes A Philosophy of Solitude (1933) as a "short textbook of the various mental tricks by which the human soul can obtain […] comparative happiness beneath the normal burden of human fate". It might seem that Powys's various works of popular philosophy were mere potboilers, written to help their finances while he was working on his novels, but critics like Denis Lane, Harald Fawkner, and Janina Nordius believe that they give insight into "the intellectual structures that form the metastructures of the great novels".[46]

Taking advantage of his reputation as an itinerant lecturer, Powys published in 1915 a collection of literary essays, Visions and Revisions. In the next forty years he published a couple of similar works, as well as three studies of writers, Dorothy Richardson (1931), Dostoevsky (1947), and Rabelais (1948). While not especially profound or original in their insights, they are full of the author’s infectious enthusiasm for literature.[note 1] There is also a work on John Keats, part of which was published posthumously, and a study of Aristophanes that Powys was working on in his later years.[47]

John Cowper Powys was a prolific writer of letters, many of which have been published, and kept a diary from 1929; several diaries, including this one, have been published. Among his correspondents were the novelists Theodore Dreiser, James Purdy, James Hanley, Henry Miller and Dorothy Richardson, but he also replied to the many ordinary admirers who wrote to him.[48]

One repeated theme in Powys's work, especially Morwyn, or The Vengeance of God (1937), and Weymouth Sands (1934) is condemnation of animal cruelty, especially vivisection.[49] As a result, some writers have claimed he anticipated the modern animal rights movement.[50][51]



  • Wood and Stone (1915) online text [3]
  • Rodmoor (1916) online text [4]
  • After My Fashion (written 1919, published 1980)
  • Ducdame (1925)
  • Wolf Solent (1929) online text [5]
  • A Glastonbury Romance (1933)
  • Weymouth Sands (1934) online text [6]
  • Jobber Skald (heavily edited version of the above for UK market, 1935).
  • Maiden Castle (1936)
  • Morwyn: or The Vengeance of God (1937)
  • Owen Glendower. New York, [1941]
  • Porius: A Romance of the Dark Ages (1951), restored texts 1994 and 2007.
  • The Inmates (1952)
  • Atlantis (1954)
  • The Brazen Head (1956)
  • Up and Out (two novellas, 1957)
  • Homer and the Aether (1959)
  • All or Nothing (1960)
  • Real Wraiths (novella, 1974)
  • Two and Two (novella, 1974)
  • You and Me (novella, 1975)

Short stories[edit]

  • The Owl, The Duck, and - Miss Rowe! Miss Rowe! (1930)
  • Romer Mowl and Other Stories (collection published 1974)
  • Three Fantasies (collection published 1985)
    • Abertackle
    • Cataclysm
    • Topsy-Turvy


  • The War and Culture (1914)
  • The Complex Vision (1920): Project Gutenberg [7]
  • Psychoanalysis and Morality (1923).
  • The Meaning of Culture (1929)
  • In Defence of Sensuality (1930)
  • A Philosophy of Solitude (1933)
  • The Art of Happiness (1935)
  • Mortal Strife (1942)
  • The Art of Growing Old (1944)
  • In Spite of: A Philosophy for Everyman (1953)

Literary essays and studies; essays[edit]

  • Visions and Revisions (1915) Online text [8]
  • Suspended Judgements (1916): Project Gutenberg [9]
  • One Hundred Best Books (1916): Project Gutenberg [10]
  • Dorothy Richardson (London: Joiner, 1931)
  • The Enjoyment of Literature (1938; revised British version: The Pleasures of Literature)
  • Obstinate Cymric: Essays 1935-47 (1947)
  • Dostoevsky (1947)
  • Rabelais (1948)


  • Odes and Other Poems (1896)
  • Poems 1899
  • Wolf's Bane: Rhymes (1916) Online [11]
  • Mandragora: Poems (1917) Online text [12]
  • Samphire (1922) Online text [13]
  • Lucifer: A Poem (1956)
  • John Cowper Powys: A Selection from His Poems, ed. Kenneth Hopkins. London: Macdonald, 1964

Autobiographical, diaries and letters[edit]

  • Autobiography (1934)
  • The Diary of John Cowper Powys for 1929, ed. Anthony Head. London: Cecil Woolf, 1998
  • The Diary of John Cowper Powys 1930, ed. Frederick Davies (1987)
  • The Diary of John Cowper Powys 1931 (editor not named but published by Jeffrey Kwinter) (1990)
  • Petrushka and the Dancer: The Diaries of John Cowper Powys 1929-1939, ed. Morine Krissdóttir (1995)
  • 1939 Diary ms, National Library of Wales, available online: [14]
  • Letters of John Cowper Powys to Louis Wilkinson 1935-1956 (1958)
  • Letters of John Cowper Powys to His Brother Llewelyn, ed. Malcolm Elwin. 2 vols., (1975)
  • Jack and Frances: The Love Letters of John Cowper Powys to Frances Gregg 2 vols., ed. Oliver Wilkinson, assisted by Christopher Wilkinson (1994)
  • Powys and Dorothy Richardson: Letters of John Cowper Powys and Dorothy Richardson, ed. Janet Fouli (2008)
  • Powys and Emma Goldman: Letters of John Cowper Powys and Emma Goldman, ed. David Goodway (2008)
  • John Cowper Powy: Letters to Nicholas Ross (Selected by Nicholas and Adelaide Ross), ed. Arthur Uphill (1971)
  • Powys to Sea Eagle: Letters of John Cowper Powys to Philipa Powys, ed. Anthony Head (1996)
  • Letters to Henry Miller from John Cowper Powys (1975)
  • Powys to Knight: Letters of John Cowper Powys to G. R. Wilson Knight, ed. Robert Blackmore (1983)
  • John Cowper Powys: Letters 1937-54, ed. Iorwerth C. Peate, (1974)
  • "The Correspondence of James Purdy and John Cowper Powys 1956-1963", edited with an introduction by Michael Ballin and Charles Lock. Powys Journal, Vol. XXIII (August 2013)

Biography and critical studies[edit]

  • Cavaliero, Glen. John Cowper Powys, Novelist
  • Coates, C.A. John Cowper Powys in Search of a Landscape. Totowa, NJ: Barnes and Noble, 1982
  • Graves, Richard Perceval. The Brothers Powys (1983)
  • Hooker, Jeremy. John Cowper Powys. Cardiff (1973)
  • Humfrey, Belinda, ed.The Powys Review. Index to critical articles and other material
  • Knight, G. Wilson. The Saturnian Quest
  • Krissdottir, Morine. Descents of Memory: The Life of John Cowper Powys. New York: Overlook Duckworth, 2007
  • Lane, Denis, ed. In the Spirit of Powys: New Essays. New York (1990)
  • Nordius, Janina. I Am Myself Alone: Solitude and Transcendence in John Cowper Powys
  • Williams, Herbert. John Cowper Powys. (1997)


  • Langridge, Derek. John Cowper Powys: A Record of Achievement (1966)
  • Thomas, Dante. A Bibliography of the Principal Writings of John Cowper Powys, Ph.D, State University of New York, at Albany, 1971. Published as A Bibliography of the Writings of John Cowper Powys. Mamaroneck, NY: Appel, 1975.


  1. ^ "Mr. Powys is most enthusiastic": Review of John Cowper Powys's Rabelais by H. Carrington Lancaster, in Modern Language Notes, vol. 67, no.2 (Feb., 1952), pp. 137-8; see also review of John Cowper Powys's Dostoievsky by Helen Muchnic in American Slavic and East European Review, vol. 6, no. 3/4 (Dec., 1946), p.193.


  1. ^ John Cowper Powys, Autobiography (1934). London: Macdonald, 1967. The most up-to-date biographical information is found in Morine Krissdottir's, Descents of Memory: The Life of John Cowper Powys. New York: Overlook Duckworth, 2007.
  2. ^ "Powys, John Cowper (PWS891JC)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge. 
  3. ^ Herbert Williams, John Cowper Powys. Bridgend, Wales: Seren,1997, pp.36, 44.
  4. ^ Herbert Williams, John Cowper Powys. pp.38-9; p.52-3; p.72
  5. ^ Morine Krissdottir, Descents of Memory", pp.72, 86-90, 170, 298.
  6. ^ [1]
  7. ^ Herbert Williams, John Cowper Powys, pp.83-4.
  8. ^ Autobiography (1967), pp.528, 550-5.
  9. ^ Herbert Williams, John Cowper Powys, pp.52-3.
  10. ^ Morine Krissdottir's, Descents of Memory, pp.235-6; p.212; p.135.
  11. ^ Vision on fire: Emma Goldman on the Spanish Revolution edited by David Porter, AK Press, 2006, p.48.
  12. ^ Philip Larkin, Letter to Monica Jones, 26 October 1969 - Letters to Monica, p.402 Faber 2010
  13. ^ Morine Krissdottir's, Descents of Memory, pp.170
  14. ^ Morine Krissdottir's, Descents of Memory, pp.370, 407.
  15. ^ H. Gustav Klaus and Stephen Thomas Knight, To Hell with Culture: Anarchism and Twentieth-Century British Literature. University of Wales Press, 2005. ISBN0708318983. p.127.
  16. ^ C. A. Coates. John Cowper Powys in Search of a Landscape. Totowa, NJ: Barnes and Nonle, 1982, p. 90.
  17. ^ Coates, p.90.
  18. ^ Morine Krissdottir, The Guardian, Oct 11 2007
  19. ^ See Powys’s Autobiography (1967) and Descents of Memory by Morine Krissdottir.
  20. ^ C. A. Coates, John Cowper Powys in Search of a Landscape (179)
  21. ^ Quoted. By C.A. Coates
  22. ^ Writers Choice: A Library of Rediscoveries. Ed. Katz and Katz (95)
  23. ^ A Guardian article Aug. 2006 by Margaret Drabble: Overview of works and career of Powys
  24. ^ : Review by George Steiner in the New Yorker, 2 May 1988
  25. ^ [2] David Thomson, "Making masterpieces": a review of John Boorman's Adventures of a Suburban Boy. The Guardian, Saturday 13 September 2003.
  26. ^ London: Enitharmon Press.
  27. ^ "Introduction" to Essays on John Cowper Powys, ed. Belinda Humfrey (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1972), p.24.
  28. ^ C. A. Coates, John Cowper Powys in Search of a Landscape. Totowa, NJ: Barnes and Noble, 1982, p. 90.
  29. ^ a b Derek Langridge, John Cowper Powys: A Record of Achievement
  30. ^ See In the Spirit of Powys: New Essays, ed. Denis Lane, especially the "Foreword" by Jerome J. McGann and Lane's "Introduction".
  31. ^ He published short studies of both Dostoievsky and Richardson and corresponded with Richardson; re Nietzsche, Pater, Proust, Eliot see references in Autobiography. Re Jung, see Morine Krissdottir's, Descents of Memory, pp.267-8, and Freud pp.403-4.
  32. ^ Morine Krissdottir's, Descents of Memory, p.281.
  33. ^ There were five impressions of the novel in Britain, but Morine Krissdottir suggests that it was less successful in the USA, A Descent of Memory. (New York: Overlook Duckworth, 2007), p.263. Re the libel case, see Krissdottir pp.301-2, 304-8.
  34. ^ Issued January 24, 1941. Dante Thomas A Bibliography of the Principal Writings of John Cowper Powys
  35. ^ See index of Morine Krissdottir's, Descents of Memory, for this.
  36. ^ See especially Denis Lane, "Elementalism in John Cowper Powys' Porius. Papers on Language and Literature 17, no. 4 (1981), pp.381-404.
  37. ^ "my great master", Autobiography (1967), p.275.
  38. ^ Autobiography, pp.301, 391.
  39. ^ John Cowper Powys, Enjoyment of Literature, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1938, pp.276-308 and Autobiography (1967), p.626.
  40. ^ For Harald Fawkner, Powys is "one of the great mystic writers of all time". "Porius and Exteriority", Powys Notes, vol.10, no.1, 1995, pp.28, 38.
  41. ^ C. A. Coates, pp.152-3.
  42. ^ Autobiography (1967), pp.38, 286.
  43. ^ Ichiro Hara, "John Cowper Powys and Zen". The Powys Review, vol. IIiii (no.7) Winter 1980, pp.24-34 and Cicely Hill "'Susukeshi Hina Mo': John Cowper Powys and the Chuang-Tse Legacy", The Powys Review (no.7), pp.34-44.
  44. ^ See Powys's Autobiography (1967) pp.35, 414 and C. A Coates, pp. 151-3,165-9, especially.
  45. ^ Colgate University Press, 1994, ed. Wilbur T. Albrecht, and OverlookDuckworth, 2007, ed. Judith Bond and Morine Krissdottir.
  46. ^ Harald Fawkner quoted by Janina Nordius in '"I Am Myself Alone",' p.16.
  47. ^ John Cowper Powys. John Keats: or Popular Paganism, ed. Cedric Hentschel. London: Cecil Woolf, 1993. Re Aristophanes see Morine Krissdottir's, Descents of Memory, p.409.
  48. ^ See letters of Theodore Dreisser, and for Purdy, Miller, Richardson, and others in the bibliography. With regard to James Hanley, letters can be found in the National Library of Wales and Liverpool Record Office and Local History Service.
  49. ^ For Morwyn see Herbert Williams, John Cowper Powys, p.130, and re Weymouth Sands Morine Krissdottir, Descents of Memory, p. 278; also John Cowper Powys, Autobiography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1934, pp.583-4,
  50. ^ Richard Dudley Ryder, Animal revolution: changing attitudes toward speciesism. Berg Publishers, 2000, p.269.
  51. ^ John M. Kistler, People Promoting and People Opposing Animal Rights: In Their Own Words. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002, p.161.

External links[edit]