w j keith, ultimate things


Christianity, Myth and the Powyses


July 2013 • pb 9781874559443 • 191pp • £10.00

If we consider the religious variety embraced by the offspring of CF. Powys and Mary Cowper Johnson, the full range of modern western spiritual experience is represented. It extends from full acceptance of Roman Catholicism (Littleton Alfred Powys, JCP's son, who died a priest) to total rejection of Christian claims (Llewelyn). In between, there are numerous gradations: a considered preparedness to conform outwardly to tradition (Littleton, Bertie, Will, and Lucy), a reformulated faith in the Christian vision (Gerard Casey), as well as a stubborn, resistant independence detectible in various ways in Gertrude, Marian, and Katie - and, of course, the special cases of Theodore's one-of-a-kind enigmatic private world-view, and JCP's imaginative acceptance of all possibilities in a world recognized as fascinating, mysterious, and ultimately inscrutable. If in their basic solidarity they seem 'one monstrous Powys', as individuals they were indeed 'many'.

W.J. Keith


Prefatory Note ix

Explanations and Acknowledgments xi


Chapter 1: Background Information

Christianity and Myth 13

Theologians and Philosophers versus Writers and Artists 17

Chapter 2: Life at Montacute

The Role of the Father 24

The Shadow of the Vicarage 26

Sibling Variations 34

Chapter 3: Two Meanings of Myth

Llewelyn and ‘Luluization’ 40

Theodore and the Making of a Recluse 44

JCP and ‘Life-illusion’ 47

Chapter 4: Llewelyn

Autobiography and the Shocks of Circumstance 52

Llewelyn as a Professional Writer 57

The Religion of an Atheist 61

Llewelyn: The Pros and the Cons 66

The Llewelyn Stone 74

Chapter 5: Theodore

Was Theodore a Christian? 82

Theodore’s Earliest Non-Fiction Writings 90

Interpreting Soliloquies of a Hermit 94

Theodore’s Thought in Fiction 101

Chapter 6: John Cowper

From Faith to Scepticism 108

Encountering William James 116

JCP’s ‘Saint Paul’ 119

The Soul, Other Dimensions, and Mystery 128

The Culmination in Porius 132

Chapter 7: The Next Generation:

Mary and Gerard Casey

The Biographical Background 139

Mary’s The Kingfisher’s Wing and A Net in Water 143

Gerard’s Night Horizons 146

The Powys Influence 150

Chapter 8: The Powyses in the Modern World

‘Many Gods’ and ‘Sacred Places’ 158

One Powys or Many Powyses? 163

The Importance of the Powyses 166

Conclusion 170



Textual Problems in Soliloquies of a Hermit 173

Works Cited 176

Index 186



Background Information

Christianity and Myth

The Reverend C.F. Powys (1843-1923) was successively a curate at Bradford Abbas in Dorset (1867-72), vicar of Shirley in Derbyshire (1872-9), a curate at Dorchester in Dorset (1879-85), and vicar of Montacute in Somerset (1885-1918). Between 1872 and 1890, he and his wife produced eleven children, of which, remarkably for that period, ten lived to maturity; moreover, four of them survived into or beyond their ninetieth year. It was an exceptionally gifted family. The three best known – John Cowper (1872-1963), Theodore (1875-1953), and Llewelyn (1884-1939) – had substantial literary careers, while four others each published at least one book. Most of them, indeed, distinguished themselves in some sort of artistic or intellectual endeavour. Littleton became an influential headmaster, Gertrude an artist of considerable ability studying and exhibiting in London and Paris, A.R. (Bertie) a well-known architect, while Marian was recognized as a leading authority on the creating and conservation of lace. Philippa (Katie to family and friends), though hardly a successful writer, published a slim volume of poetry and one novel in her lifetime, but more fiction, poems and considerable extracts from her diaries are now available. Interestingly, almost all of them moved away from the Anglican Church in which they had been born and brought up; at the same time, they remained acutely responsive to religious issues and explored alternative religious – or, at least, spiritual – beliefs.

   In view of the religious preoccupations that dominate the writings of John Cowper, Theodore and Llewelyn, it seems essential that we establish, as precisely as we can, not only the positions that individual members of the family embraced, but also, as far as possible, what they believed (and did not believe) at various stages of their careers. By the same token, we need to determine the extent to which they discussed religious matters with each other, and in some cases notably influenced each other. However, the Powyses themselves rarely made attempts to arrive at any systematic conclusions.