Dictionary of Welsh Biography

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POWYS , JOHN COWPER ( 1872 - 1963 ), novelist, poet, literary critic and popular philosopher ,

the only one of the eleven children of the Rev. Charles Francis Powys to lay special claim to his father's Welsh ancestry. As he narrates in Autobiography ( 1934 ), his father would announce his descent from ‘ Roderic Mawr , King of all Wales . His father's ancestry can be traced back some six centuries to Powyses of Montgomery , and to, more recently, the first Sir Thomas Powys of Lilford (d. 1719 ). From his mother, Mary Cowper-Johnson , he derived the more literary blood of the poets John Donne and William Cowper . Born 8 Oct. 1872 in Shirley , Derbyshire , his father's first parish, but in 1879 the family moved to Dorchester , Dorset , then, in 1885 , to Montacute vicarage, Somerset . He was educated at Sherborne School and Corpus Christi College , Cambridge , and in 1894 drifted into the post of lecturing at several girls' schools at Hove , Sussex . His first publication, 1896 , was Odes and Other Poems . In the same year he m. Margaret Alice Lyon ; they had one son; both wife and son predeceased him. In 1899 , after a preliminary lecture on Sir John Rhys ( DWB , 844-5) he was appointed peripatetic lecturer for Oxford University Extension and began his life of wandering, first in England and to pioneer courses at Dresden and Leipzig , then, from 1905 , in America . He began his highly successful lecturing career in America with a winter tour under the auspices of the Philadelphia -based Society for the Extension of University Teaching ; from 1909 to 1929 he lectured full-time in America (with summers in England ), visiting all but two of the States. In 1914 his stage manager , Arnold Shaw , a Yorkshireman, turned publisher , and Powys 's writing career began, with an essay on The Menace of German Culture . In two to three years he produced for Shaw his first two novels, Wood and Stone and Rodmoor , two volumes of literary criticism, Visions and Revisions and Suspended Judgements , and two volumes of poetry, Wolf's Bane and Mandragora , and his large part of Confessions of Two Brothers (with Llewelyn Powys ) for another publisher. He went on writing , mainly philosophical works on ‘the Art of Happiness’, in trains and hotel rooms, until the publication of Wolf Solent ( 1929 ). Then in retirement in Upstate New York , he wrote A Glastonbury Romance , Weymouth Sands and Autobiography . In 1934 he returned to Dorset , and in 1935 he retired finally to north Wales , according to a wish cherished from youth, first to Corwen , then, in 1951 , to Blaenau Ffestiniog , where he died, 17 June 1963 aged ninety-one. The Wessex novels carry Welsh characters and subjects, but in Wales he wrote the novels Morwyn ( 1937 ), Owen Glendower ( 1940 ) and his ‘masterpiece’ Porius ( 1951 ) set in a Wales of 499 A.D. His other notable works of this prolific period include books on his masters Dostoievsky ( 1947 ) and Rabelais ( 1948 ) and experimental fiction like Up and Out ( 1957 ), Homer and the Aether ( 1959 ) and All or Nothing ( 1960 ). He learned Welsh and corresponded with many distinguished Welshmen of letters; his non-fictional writings about Wales and the Welsh were collected in Obstinate Cymric ( 1947 ).


  • Personal research;
  • see also Jeremy Hooker , John Cowper Powys (1973) (1973) ;
  • and The Powys Review (Cambridge) ;
  • [some of his papers are in N.L.W.].


Belinda Humfrey, Lampeter

Published date: 2001