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.
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.
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).
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.