John Cowper Powys Essay - Critical Essays

Powys, John Cowper (Vol. 125)


John Cowper Powys 1872–1963

English novelist, essayist, poet, and critic.

The following entry presents criticism on Powys's career through 1995. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 9, 15, and 46.

John Cowper Powys is considered one of the great modern English Romantic authors. A prolific writer of poetry and essays on philosophy, religion, and literature, as well as his remarkable Autobiography (1934), he is best known for his highly original novels. These fall into three categories: the twentieth-century stories of his beloved southwestern England, his "Wessex romances"; historical romances of ancient Wales; and his smaller science fantasies written after 1952. His masterpieces include A Glastonbury Romance (1932), Owen Glendower (1940), and Porius (1951). Typically Powys's novels are massive in size and complexity, with interconnected plots, strong characters, and vivid detail. He probes his characters' psyches by embodying modern psychology in Celtic mythology and natural settings. His themes of reconciling individual strife with cosmic forces, and sexual urges with mystical redemption reflect his own struggle for self-understanding. Critics have compared his novels to the works of William Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy, Walter Scott, James Joyce, and D. H. Lawrence.

Biographical Information

Born a parson's son, Powys was the eldest of eleven children and brother of two other notable writers. T. F. Powys and Llewellyn Powys. He was raised in the Dorset-Somerset countryside, the setting of his future "Wessex romances." His father claimed descendancy from a Welsh lord, and his mother's family tree included poets John Cowper and John Donne. Powys cultivated a certain eccentricity during his schooldays, although he was later renowned for his graciousness and amiability. He attended Sherbourne and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and became a lecturer in literature. Hoping to build a career from his poetry, he published his first volumes in 1896 and 1899. However, an estrangement from his wife and the need to support an only son led to a public speaking career in America in 1910. Speaking engagements took him to scores of public halls, colleges, and universities including public debates with Will Durant and Bertrand Russell. While lecturing set his reputation as a keen interpreter of literature and philosophy, he published prodigiously, including his first novel Wood and Stone (1915) and eleven other books and articles from 1915 to 1923. In 1929 he gave up public speaking, due to poor health, for full-time writing. He lived in upstate New York with his life-companion Phyllis Playter and published, among other important works, his first masterpiece A Glastonbury Romance (1932). Although Powys claimed his years in America were his best, he longed for Wales, his ancestral home. In 1936 he moved to Blaenau-Festiniog in North Wales and produced two more masterpieces Owen Glendower (1940) and Porius (1951). Powys wrote his last full-length novel in 1960 as he approached the age of ninety.

Major Works

Powys's finest philosophic writing includes his best-seller The Meaning of Culture (1929), A Philosophy of Solitude (1933), and The Art of Happiness (1935). His Autobiography (1934) is considered incomparable for its candor, its self-denigration, and its humor. One Hundred Best Books (1916). The Pleasures of Literature (1938) (published as The Enjoyment of Literature in the United States), Dostoievsky (1946), and Rabelais (1948) represent his best literary criticism. His poem Lucifer (composed in 1906, published in 1956) is considered his most eloquent. Powys's first novels Wood and Stone (1915), Rodmoor (1916), and Ducdame (1925) introduce the use of natural elements as forces driving the actions of his characters. His first "Wessex romance" Wolf Solent (1929) establishes him as an author of esoteric interest. It concerns Wolf's return home to Dorset and his ordeal of writing an "underground history" of the community that emphasizes its evil. In contrast to this single-character study, A Glastonbury Romance (1932), the second "Wessex" piece, is a tour de force that rolls back the centuries to connect multiple characters in modern-day Glastonbury with the Holy Grail and the First Cause. Weymouth Sands (1934) and Maiden Castle (1936) complete this series. Powys's first historical romance Owen Glendower (1940) chronicles Owen's ill-fated push to free Wales from English rule during the fifteenth century. In the second, Porius (1951), a Welsh prince prepares to take over his father's throne in a world of giants, Mithraic cults, and Arthurian legend after the fall of Rome. Toward the end of Powys's life, his interest turns increasingly to fantasy, evident in his novels Atlantis (1954) and The Brazen Head (1956).

Critical Reception

As a young man, Powys had many friends among the leading writers of the day in Wales and America, and devoted readers throughout the world, but only an insistent minority of critics to praise him. Since his death, however, critical assessment of his literary canon has become increasingly widespread and positive. Yet questions remain concerning the size and complexity of his novels. Among these, A Glastonbury Romance, Owen Glendower, and Porius are considered masterpieces because they best illustrate Powys's gift for blending high drama with intuitive insight into the human psyche. But some reviewers have been put off by their epic proportions in terms of the number of words and pages, the number of characters and plots, and the layers of allegory that seem to intrude on each other and cause confusion. Critic Jerome McGann believes that the problem lies not with Powys's works, but rather with the reader's expectations. He compares Porius to Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, arguing that, like Joyce, Powys was moving his writing to a "new order and level." According to McGann, Wolf Solent was Powys's last "novel," and A Glastonbury Romance was one of the "first of the unique prose inventions [Powys] sometimes called 'romances' [which attempt to] incorporate the novel back into its romance origins … the exact reverse of Scott's move … to accommodate romance fiction to the novel." Renowned critic G. Wilson Knight nominated Powys for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1959. He has compared Powys to Shakespeare for his "visionary penetration and mastery of the concrete." Angus Wilson likens him to Dickens for his "genius for comedy and crowd, for larger-than-life characters…." George Steiner sees in Wolf Solent as in no other English fiction "that realization of the meshing of human and natural presences which marks Tolstoy," and in Owen Glendower, Powys's remarkable ability to make the past into the present.

Principal Works

Wood and Stone (novel) 1915
One Hundred Best Books (essays) 1916
Rodmoor (novel) 1916
Ducdame (novel) 1925
The Meaning of Culture (essays) 1929
Wolf Solent (novel) 1929
A Glastonbury Romance (novel) 1932
A Philosophy of Solitude (essays) 1933
Autobiography (autobiography) 1934
Weymouth Sands (novel) 1934
The Art of Happiness (essays) 1935
Maiden Castle (novel) 1936
The Pleasures of Literature (essays) 1938
Owen Glendower (novel) 1940
Dostoievsky (essays) 1946
Rabelais (essays) 1948
Porius (novel) 1951
Atlantis (novel)...

(The entire section is 67 words.)


G. Arnold Shaw (review date June 1915)

SOURCE: A review of Visions and Revisions in The North American Review, Vol. CCI, June, 1915, pp. 923-25.

[In the following review of Visions and Revisions, Shaw praises Powys's gift for literary criticism, but pans his indulgent view of great writers.]

Mr. Powys is a critic of astonishing brilliancy and insight. Among modern writers upon literature there are few who approach him in the power of perfectly identifying himself with the spirit of the writer whom he describes; there is hardly one who so often gives the reader occasion for a kind of inward shout of joy. A hatred of shallow creeds and narrow dogmas gives vigor and point to his style; a serious...

(The entire section is 908 words.)

Lawrence Gilman (review data September 1916)

SOURCE: "The Immortals and Mr. Powys," in The North American Review, Vol. CCIV, September, 1916, pp. 457-60.

[In the following review, Gilman discusses some of Powys's surprising choices for inclusion in his One Hundred Best Books.]

As soon as we encountered Mr. John Cowper Powys's One Hundred Best Books, With a Commentary and An Essay on Books and Reading, we proceeded to follow the habit of Emerson (or was it Lamb or Hazlitt!—we have looked it up repeatedly, but we always forget). That is to say, coming upon a new book, we turned away and read an old one; but in this case, the old one was also by Mr. John Cowper Powys. It was his share of a volume called...

(The entire section is 1536 words.)

Mary Ross (review date 19 May 1929)

SOURCE: "Beyond the Beckoning Waters," in New York Herald Tribune Books, Vol. 5, No. 35, May 19, 1929, pp. 1-2.

[In the following review, Ross commends Powys for the powerful narrative and fresh imagery of Wolf Solent.]

The old Quaker's observation that every one but thee and me is a little mad, and thee is not quite above suspicion, might serve as a smug comment on the magnificent story of Wolf Solent. But its smugness would be untrue to the spirit of Wolf and his creator. Those aberrant impulses that lure us toward the bright circle of lunacy except no man, though many of us are too fearful to admit them to even our most secret thinking. But Mr. Powys looks...

(The entire section is 1338 words.)

Henry James Forman (review date 10 November 1929)

SOURCE: "Mr. Powys Inquires Into the Meaning of Culture, in New York Times Book Review, November 10, 1929, p. 2.

[In the following review of The Meaning of Culture, Forman discusses Powys's "working substitute" for religious faith.]

It is not for nothing that Mr. Powys in the book under review addresses himself primarily to the young. The maturer consciousness, the character that is already formed and set, how tolerant so ever it may be, must nevertheless constantly rebel at any one else's idea of what culture should be. For culture is one of those elusive attributes in the individual at least as difficult to define as what makes a gentleman. Indeed, both of...

(The entire section is 1214 words.)

Leonard Woolf (review date 3 January 1931)

SOURCE: "Much Ado About Nothing," in The Nation & Athenaeum, January 3, 1931, pp. 461-62.

[In the following excerpt, Woolf pans In Defence of Sensuality for its prolixity.]

One must begin a review of this book by taking one's hat off to and acknowledging Mr. Powys's obvious sincerity. His book contains so much quackery and gush, such an enormous k of words for so small a kernel of matter, that it would be easy to make a great mistake and think that the author must be posturing. That is clearly not the case; Mr. Powys is terrifically in earnest and believes every word that he says. But sincerity is not enough. The youth of seventeen who discovers that...

(The entire section is 1479 words.)

Mary Ross (review date 27 March 1932)

SOURCE: "A Cosmology For Hero," in New York Herald Tribune Books, Vol. 8, No. 29, March 27, 1932. p. 7.

[In the following excerpt, Ross compares A Glastonbury Romance to Wolf Solent, and faults the former for its lack of coherence.]

At the striking of noon on a certain March 5 there occurred within a causal radius of Brandon railway station and yet beyond the deepest pools of emptyness, between the uttermost stellar systems, one of those infinitesimal ripples in the creative silence of the First Cause, which always occur when an exceptional stir of heightened consciousness agitates any living organism in this astronomical universe....

(The entire section is 972 words.)

Percy Hutchison (review date 20 November 1938)

SOURCE: "Adventures Among Masterpieces," in New York Times Book Review, November 20, 1938, p. 2.

[In the following excerpt, Hutchison favorably reviews Enjoyment of Literature.]

For upward of forty years Mr. Powys has traveled widely in the realms of gold, and his individualistic and penetrating appraisals of their States and goodly kingdoms have won him the confidence of hosts of readers. The present book embodies the maturity of Mr. Powys's thinking; in it he reviews his literary adventures among the masterpieces of the world. The pages flame with what is almost a religious ardor of passionate love for these masterpieces. And because Mr. Powys has the power to...

(The entire section is 1370 words.)

Mary Ross (review date 26 January 1941)

SOURCE: "Vast Novel of Medieval Wales" in New York Herald Tribune Books, January 26, 1941, p. 4.

[In the following excerpt, Ross gives a mixed review of Owen Glendower.]

Many motives, presumably, may underlie the writing of a historical novel. There may be a desire to escape from one's own time to an era where, at least in retrospect, the brave were braver and the fair more fair and all more picturesquely dressed. There may be a desire, as in Elizabeth Page's "The Tree of Liberty," to see the longer perspective of distant-period forces which illuminate our own; or as in L. H. Myers's remarkable trilogy, "The Root and the Flower," the author may choose a remote time and...

(The entire section is 976 words.)

Jane Spence Southron (review date 26 January 1941)

SOURCE: "Mr. Powys Writes of Ancient Wales," in New York Times Book Review, January 26, 1941, p. 7.

[In the following review, Southron commends Owen Glendower for its faithfulness to early Welsh tradition.]

Any one not Welsh who, like this reviewer, has lived in Wales and so become more than casually acquainted with the Welsh people of both north and south knows that the outstanding characteristics of the race are an inherent poetical quality, an ineradicable mysticism, an innate aristocracy of soul and a hard, stiffening core of realistic perception. No one alive today could be more fitted and qualified to interpret his people and country to the modern world...

(The entire section is 727 words.)

Harry Thornton Moore (review date 14 April 1941)

SOURCE: "Mystics and Rebels," in The New Republic, Vol. 104, No. 15, April 14, 1941, p. 509.

[In the following excerpt, Moore extols Owen Glendower for its drama and "evocation of the past," but takes exception to its disproportionate size and style.]

We all know Glendower through Shakespeare, who presents the Welsh hero as a strutting and irascible star-gazer: Owen was politically in the wrong camp and, besides, Shakespeare liked to kid the Welsh. John Cowper Powys' two-volume novel gives us a different Owen—mystic, with a power of letting his spirit float away from his body, but in the main a practical and brilliant leader of an oppressed minority. Owen...

(The entire section is 580 words.)

Henry Miller (review date January 1963)

SOURCE: "The Immortal Bard," in A Review of English Literature, Vol. IV, No. 1, January, 1963, pp. 21-24.

[In the following review, Miller gives a brief account of Powys's life, and praises his Autobiography and A Glastonbury Romance.]

My admiration, love and reverence for John Cowper Powys began when I was in my twenties and has continued ever since, which is to say for a period of almost fifty years. Some thirty years or more after I first heard him lecture I had the rare good fortune to visit him at his home in Corwen, Wales. I found the same wonderful being whom I had idolised in my youth, only he had grown younger, healthier, gayer. There he was, remote...

(The entire section is 1316 words.)

Douglas Robillard (essay date October 1968)

SOURCE: "Landscape with Figures: The Early Fiction of John Cowper Powys," in Studies in the Literary Imagination, October, 1968, pp. 51-58.

[In the following essay, Robillard gives a detailed overview of Powys's early fiction, including Wood and Stone, Rodmoor, Ducdame, Wolf Solent, and A Glastonbury Romance.]

The present critical reputation of John Cowper Powys (1872–1963) can be illustrated by the surprise with which his name was mentioned in a recent piece in the New York Times Book Review. In reviewing George Steiner's Language and Silence, the writer took note of the value Steiner seemed to place upon Powys's work; and, indeed, Steiner, who...

(The entire section is 3740 words.)

David A. Cook (essay date Summer 1972)

SOURCE: "John Cowper Powys' A Glastonbury Romance; A Modern Mystery Play," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. XIII, No. 3, Summer, 1972, pp. 341-60.

[In the following essay, Cook explores the themes and characters of A Glastonbury Romance, and compares its style to the novels of Dostoevsky.]

The psychic history of a place like Glastonbury is not an easy thing to write down in set terms, for not only does chance play an enormous part in it, but there are many forces at work for which human language has at present no fit terms.

John Cowper Powys' first important work, Wolf Solent (1929), is a novel...

(The entire section is 7568 words.)

G. Wilson Knight (review date February 1973)

SOURCE: "John Cowper Powys as Humorist," in Contemporary Review, Vol. 222, No. 1285, February, 1973, pp. 78-83.

[In the following review, Knight highlights humorous excerpts from the works of Powys.]

We could say that there are three main myths in modern Europe: the Faust myth, the Don Juan myth and the Prometheus myth; the first covering evil and tragedy, the second sex and comedy, and the third something ahead of us, Nietzsche's superman, an extension of human consciousness. Powys's fictions cover the first two, his philosophical books, In Spite Of especially, lay foundations for the third. Here I discuss, primarily, the play of humour suffusing, and at times...

(The entire section is 3033 words.)

George Steiner (review date 16 May 1975)

SOURCE: "The Problem of Powys," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 3819, May 16, 1975, p. 541.

[In the following excerpt, Steiner discusses the reception of Powys's works in England and elsewhere.]

There is, of course, a Powys problem. For G. Wilson Knight, perhaps the noblest of our critics, John Cowper Powys is a writer whose powers, whose visionary penetration and mastery of the concrete are, not in any loose metaphoric sense but by virtue of closely argued analogy and estimate, Shakespearean. Angus Wilson finds in Powys a novelist whose genius for comedy and crowd, for larger-than-life characters shaping and being shaped by the animate agencies of the environment is...

(The entire section is 2480 words.)

Denis Lane (review date Fall 1981)

SOURCE: "The Reemergence of John Cowper Powys," in The Antioch Review, Vol. 39, No. 4, Fall, 1981, pp. 422-30.

[In the following excerpt, Lane favorably reviews Powys's major literary works in light of renewed interest in England.]

Pause at the bookstall of any airport or railway station in England and you are almost sure to find numerous handsome Penguin or Picador editions of the works of John Cowper Powys. Once a newsmaker in the United States, a popular figure of the lecturing circuit for almost twenty-five years, Powys is now largely unknown in America, except among a coterie of devoted scholars and those readers of novels who can remember the original publication...

(The entire section is 3360 words.)

A. N. Wilson (review date 22 April 1995)

SOURCE: "Strangest of Geniuses," in The Spectator, Vol. 224, No. 8702, April 22, 1995, pp. 32-33.

[In the following review of Petrushka and the Dancer, Wilson credits Powys's companion Phyllis Playter for her inspirational support.]

It would be interesting to know how these diaries would strike a reader who did not know the four great novels of John Cowper Powys: Wolf Solent, A Glastonbury Romance, Weymouth Sands and Maiden Castle, or his magnificent collection of essays, The Pleasures of Literature; or his superb essay on "The Art of Happiness," or his Autobiography, which deserves to be placed on the shelf beside Saint Augustine and...

(The entire section is 1784 words.)

John Bayley (essay date 19 May 1995)

SOURCE: "A Seer of the Flesh," in the Times Literary Supplement, No. 4807, May 19, 1995, pp.3-4.

[In the following excerpt, Bayley praises Petrushka and the Dancer and The Letters of John Cowper Powys to Frances Gregg, Vol. 1 (edited by Oliver Marlow Wilkinson and Christopher Wilkinson).]

It seems unlikely that the critics will ever resolve the question of John Cowper Powys's status as a novelist. There is no version of the canon, or the "hundred best novels", in which his inclusion is taken for granted; he is not a standard author in any series, or regularly revived in paperback, like most classics. But in a sense this absence is itself his status. It...

(The entire section is 3139 words.)

Further Reading


Anderson, John Redwood. "John Cowper Powys's Lucifer, An Appreciation." The Dublin Magazine XXXII, No. 3 (July-September 1957): 37-43.

Compares this "great poem" to Milton's Paradise Lost and Shelley's Prometheus Unbound.

Bullett, Gerald, Review of Ducdame by John Cowper Powys. Saturday Review 140 (22 August 1925): 214-15.

Faults Ducdame for its trite ideas, poor paragraph construction, and prolixity.

Coombes, Harry. "John Cowper Powys: A Modern Merlin?" The Southern Review XI, No. 4...

(The entire section is 250 words.)