Llewelyn Powys

'A Philosophical Poet'

llewelyn powys, the glory of life “No sight that the human eyes can look upon is more provocative of awe than is the night sky scattered thick with stars. But this silence made visible, this silence made audible, does not necessarily give rise to a religious mood. It may evoke a mood that neither requires nor postulates a God. On frosty January nights when I walk over the downs I feel myself to be passing through a lofty heathen temple, a temple without devil-affrighting steeple bells, without altars of stone or altars of wood. Constellation beyond constellation, the unaltering white splash of the Milky Way, and no sign of benison, no sign of bane, only the homely hedgerow shadows and the earth's resigned stillness outstretched under the unparticipating splendour of a physical absolute.”

Llewelyn Powys (1884-1939), Novelist and Essayist

Llewelyn was born at Dorchester, Dorset, on 13 August 1884, and spent his childhood at Montacute, Somerset. He was educated at Sherborne School, 1899-1903, and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, 1903-1906. He was a stock farmer in Kenya, 1914-1919, and a journalist in New York City, 1920-1925. After marrying Alyse Gregory (1884-1967) in 1924, Llewelyn returned to the Dorset headland and travelled with his wife, paying visits to Palestine (1928), and the West Indies (1930).  He and Alyse lived at Chydyock Farmhose where he continued to write many dozens of essays. He died in Switzerland on 2 December 1939.

llewelyn powys, ebony and ivory, powys societyOf all the Powys brothers, Llewelyn was recognized as the most cheerful, the most at ease with existence: the only one for whom a title such as Glory of Life could hold not a shadow of the ironic. Llewelyn's epicurean philosophy is intimately related to the tuberculosis with which he struggled for thirty years.

His twenty-six books include novels, essays descriptive and polemical, memoirs and reminiscences.

llewelyn powys, earth memories original edition, gertrude powys Among Llewelyn's best books are Black Laughter, about life in Africa; Apples be Ripe, a novel; Henry Hudson, a biography; Skin for Skin, a memoir of his first attack of tuberculosis and residence in a Swiss sanatorium; Impassioned Clay, a statement of his philosophical outlook; the essays collected in Earth Memories, Dorset Essay, Somerset Essays and Swiss Essays, and the fictionalized autobiography Love and Death. In their blend of the descriptive, the reminiscent, and the polemical, Llewelyn's best writings have retained both their urgency of appeal and their charm of evocation.

Malcolm Elwin, his first biographer, described Llewelyn Powys as ‘a philosophical poet relating the pleasures of his senses in the purest prose of his time’.

Major Works of Llewelyn Powys

Llewelyn Powys photo
Llewelyn Powys in New York, 1928. Photo by Doris Ulmann
  • Ebony and Ivory (1923)
  • Thirteen Worthies (1923)
  • Black Laughter (1924)
  • Skin for Skin (1925)
  • The Verdict of Bridlegoose (1926)
  • Henry Hudson (1927)
  • The Cradle of God (1929)
  • The Pathetic Fallacy (1930)
  • Apples Be Ripe (1930)
  • A Pagan’s Pilgrimage (1931)
  • Impassioned Clay (1931)
  • Glory of Life (1934)
  • Earth Memories (1934)
  • Damnable Opinions (1935)
  • Dorset Essays (1935)
  • The Twelve Months (1936)
  • Rats in the Sacristy (1937)
  • Somerset Essays (1937)
  • Love and Death (1939)
  • A Baker’s Dozen (1939)
  • Swiss Essays (1947)
  • Diaries, 1903, 1908, 1909, 1910, 1911 (ed. and intro. by Peter J. Foss)

Recently published paperbacks by Llewelyn Powys

From the Powys Press and available from our online shop:

llewelyn powys recalled to life, the powys society Recalled to Life: Llewelyn Powys a Consumptive's Diary 1911

Edited by Peter J. Foss, The Powys Press, 2016

By the spring of 1911, the writer Llewelyn Powys (1884-1939) – then only 26 – had spent eighteen months at a Swiss sanatorium, being treated for the tuberculosis which the previous year had nearly killed him. Still frail, he returned to England, and to Montacute, the Somerset home of his family, where his father had been vicar for 26 years.

llewelyn powys diary 1910The Conqueror Worm: Llewelyn Powys a Consumptive's Diary, 1910

Edited by Peter J. Foss, The Powys Press, 2015

Like Katherine Mansfield’s journal from the same period, Llewelyn Powys’s diary is a major record from inside the consumptive experience. The diary he began at a sanatorium in Clavadel, near Davos Platz, Switzerland, adds significantly to our understanding of the ordeal of this deadly and durable disease in the first half of the twentieth century.

From Little Toller Books:

Earth Memories by Llewelyn Powys

Llewelyn Powys, Earth Memories

With An Introduction by John Gray

‘These essays celebrate the life of the spirit – not by turning to an otherworldly realm, or retreating into the shadowy depths of the mind, but by standing still and looking anew at the sun and rain and the changing seasons. As Powys shows, the human spirit is reborn when it sees the natural world as it actually is – a spectacle of inexhaustible beauty.’ 


From Llewelyn Powys and the Senses, Michael Caines, TLS 20 Aug 2015

Llewelyn PowysEarth Memories opens with an essay called “A Struggle for Life”, that describes the course of his consumption, and how Kenya was good for his health, despite its hardships. Back in England, Powys invests in a “revolving shelter” and puts it in a hermit’s spot near Weymouth. “In the early mornings I would wake to look upon a small still bay with rocks and rippling pools. Little hedge birds would begin to twitter on the grey stone wall near the empty nettle-filled well, while over a restless sea, behind the outline of a cornfield, black hungry cormorants would follow each other on their way to their distant feeding places.” Occasionally puffed up with Augustan effort, prone to grandiloquent if often charming quirks, Powys’s prose falls easily into this manner of general description, as it hops from phrase to descriptive phrase.

From Conspicuous Consumption, John Gray, in The Literary Review

The youngest of three brothers who became highly distinctive writers in the early decades of the last century, Llewelyn Powys is today the least read. This is surprising, since in some ways he is now the most resonant. At the present time religion and atheism contend in much the same way they did nearly a century ago when Powys first began to publish on the subject, and now as then his approach to this conflict is refreshingly unorthodox. Like his brothers (there were eleven siblings in total), Llewelyn rejected the Christianity of his father, a Somerset parson whom they all loved and revered. But while John Cowper Powys ended up in a Montaigne-like scepticism and Theodore Powys settled into an earthy acceptance of mystery and mortality, Llewelyn became a passionate opponent of religion – a latter-day Lucretius who railed against otherworldly faith as an illusion that spoilt the joy of life. Unlike our more pedestrian atheists, he also recognised the human value of religion, seeing it as a poetic response to the encounter with death that was his own most formative experience.

In November 1909, at the age of twenty-five, Llewelyn discovered he had consumption:

The shock of discovering myself to be really ill had the strangest effect on me. I became like one drunken with wine. A torrent of words flowed from my mouth. I acted as if death were not the end of every child born into the world, but an event which for some mysterious reason had been reserved for me alone. I felt nothing but pride in finding myself laid by the heels so neatly. I liked to get what sensation I could out of it; and yet, deep in my heart, I refused to realise how grave my sickness was. I liked to talk about dying, but I had no mind to die. I liked to rail against God, but I had no mind that He should hear me … My head had been completely turned, and I chittered at Death like a little grey squirrel who is up a fir tree out of harm’s way.

This passage comes from Powys’s Skin for Skin (1925), an unsparing and yet often lyrical memoir of his encounter with the pulmonary tuberculosis from which he would suffer for the rest of his life. When writing the memoir, Powys mined a diary he kept during his year in a sanatorium at Clavadel near Davos in Switzerland, and it is this journal, meticulously edited and annotated so the reader can catch the significance of its many literary allusions, that the Powys scholar Peter Foss has given us.

With an immediacy the exquisitely written memoir cannot match, the diary reveals how this high-spirited young Edwardian reacted to the onset of a disease that, before the advent of antibiotic treatment, was commonly regarded as a death sentence. Powys lived on for thirty years, dying only in December 1939 as a result of a perforated ulcer. During all of this time he fought ceaselessly against the disease without sacrificing what he regarded as life’s supreme pleasures. For him the sanatorium was not only a place where death was always near, but a sexual playground where the morality in which he had been reared could be shaken off and forgotten.

On Sunday 10 July 1910, Powys suffered a haemorrhage. At this point the diary entries come to a stop with the word BLOOD, which is itself written in blood. When the entries are resumed, over a month later, they record Powys continuing in erotic encounters with fellow patients by whom he risked being reinfected and dallying with a girl he met on one of his no less perilous mountain walks. Amid these interludes and bouts of fever and coughing, Powys fortified himself with readings from Andrew Marvell and Thomas Hardy, Pater and Maupassant, Nietzsche and Wilde. This rich intellectual fare nourished the philosophy that was emerging in him – a starkly uncompromising version of hedonism, which unlike that of Lucretius was willing to risk peace of mind, even life itself, in the pursuit of heightened sensation.

In all of Powys’s writings – the two books of impressions of Africa he wrote after travelling there for his health and spending five years in the bush as a sheep farmer, his accounts of his travels in Palestine, America and the Caribbean, the dozens of short articles and essays celebrating the landscape and life of Dorset, where he later settled, and the ‘imaginary autobiography’ Love and Death, completed a year before he died – he presents life as a gift of chance, which can only be fully appreciated once any belief that it has intrinsic meaning or purpose has been left behind. Accepting that his illness was incurable, he knew that the pursuit of pleasure would never be without pain. As Philip Larkin wrote, Llewelyn Powys is ‘one of the few writers who teach endurance of life as well as its enjoyment’.

In a richly illuminating introduction, Foss situates Powys’s diary in an early 20th-century literature of the tuberculous experience of which Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (1924) is the best-known example. To my mind the vignettes in Powys’s diary are more vividly memorable than Mann’s set pieces: Powys’s fellow patient ‘the philosophic Hungarian’ Dr Szende, author of a book on Napoleon, lying dying in bed reading Schopenhauer while ‘inhaling some white powder and smoking an enormous cigar’; the aftermath of the death of ‘the pachydermatous German’, when ‘four figures tip-toed along the white corridors and down the marble staircase, bearing on their shoulders a long and heavy burden’ to be taken to ‘the Dead house in Davos’; Powys on a twilit balcony shrinking from a lover, a ‘beautiful white-limbed vampire’ with whom he had recklessly frolicked; or talking with his closest friend in the sanatorium, an English ‘scholar and gentleman’ called Wilbraham, whose conventional pieties Powys mercilessly mocked. At times the atmosphere recorded in the diary is so heavily sexualised that Foss comments, ‘One can almost smell the semen on the page.’ At others the mood is one of pathos, as when Powys writes of the girl from Cornwall who yearned for nothing more than the companionship of her dogs.

An unfinished story written in 1912–13 that Foss includes at the end of The Conqueror Worm makes clear the lesson Powys took from his illness. The experience did not make him more prudent or in any conventional sense more moral. Instead it strengthened his resolve to enjoy life ‘without restrictions’. ‘If God restored me’, Powys wrote, ‘I thought I would live more eagerly, more wickedly than ever and with far more craft.’ Recording a bold and original mind seeking and finding delight in life while facing the prospect of imminent death, this must surely be one of the most remarkable diaries that has been published in many years.

A New Kind of Atheism, John Gray podcast from BBC R4

llewelyn powys, damnable opinions, powys societyJohn Gray looks to history to argue that it's time to rethink today's narrow view of atheism. He ponders the lives of two little known atheists from the past - the nineteenth century Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi and the Somerset essayist and novelist Llewelyn Powys. He says their work shows how atheism can be far richer and subtler than the version we're familiar with.

‘The predominant strand of contemporary unbelief, which aims to convert the world to a scientific view of things, is only one way of living without an idea of God’, writes Gray.

BBC Radio 4: A Point of View

Skin for Skin by Llewelyn Powys

llewelyn powys, skin for skinFirst published in 1925, Skin For Skin is a deeply personal account of Llewelyn Powys’ encounter with tuberculosis, which he contracted in 1909 at the age of twenty-five. In those days, prior to the discovery of antibiotics, TB - or consumption as it was then called - was a leading cause of death; for Powys, the bubbling sensation in his lungs and the blood in his mouth amounted to a sentence of death. In the pages of this uncompromising memoir we accompany him to a Swiss sanitarium to recover his health, then back to the south of England for a period of convalescence, hoping that the symptoms of the “hideous complaint” do not return.

Hoping - but not praying. For Powys, an atheist, there is no comfort in a belief in God and an immortal soul, and so he finds himself staring into the abyss. The experience, as so much else in the book, is recounted in powerfully vivid, lyrical prose: “I would wake in the small hours of the morning swaddled in fear. With scared eyes I would peer into the darkness of my room, and into the unknown days before me, and come to realize, during those tense, suspended moments, how completely unattended, how intolerably alone we are, each one of us, like cattle herded into a merciless stockyard, to be driven into the shambles, separately, when our turn comes.”

And yet, despite the soulless darkness, there is reason for existence. As we see in Skin For Skin, Powys finds it in enjoying life to the fullest, in feasting upon it while he has it, in squeezing the last drop of joy from each day. As the Brooklyn Daily Eagle concluded in its review in 1925, “Rugged, brutal and yet, in spots, tender, Skin For Skin makes life worth living after all”.

Bats Head

(Published in Dorset Essays)

llewelyn powys bat's headTo anyone with good eyesight, the great promontory of Bats Head can be seen from Weymouth Esplanade. It projects into the sea a few miles to the west of Lulworth, and far below on each side of its perpendicular chalk face lie two deserted beaches, the one to the east falling away to the Durdle Door, and the other to the west extending as far as White Nose. It is a remarkable headland. On afternoons of the wildest weather a man may rest here in tranquillity, some peculiarity in the structure of the cliff causing the rushing gales to cast themselves straight up from its sheer walls, so that the crest of the headland remains in an absolute calm. Seated on this halcyon ledge it is possible to observe in peace the riot of the sea-coast below; to look down upon great black-backed gulls flying in wide circles along the margins of the breaking waves; or to watch at close quarters the cormorants pressing their bodies in mid-air against the wind, their black necks tilted upwards.

Wessex MemoriesThere is something outlandish and forbidding about cormorants. Milton must have recognised a turpitude in them or he would never have made Satan select this particular disguise for entering the tropical acres of the Garden of Eden. How obstinate an egoism have these gluttonous sea-crows! Wherever they are it is the same, whether settling upon the water like mallards, or in groups upon a rock stretching out their wings like black fans to dry, or when, with the deliberation characteristic of them, they sweep forward through a marine twilight to their selected roosting places. What secret mandate are they obeying on such occasions? At whose word do these impious birds direct their unerring flight over the face of the waters? Bewick says that in some parts of the world men make leather jackets out of cormorant skins. How admirable to be defended against wind and sleet by a jerkin of cormorant pelts! In the reign of Charles I the position of Master of the Cormorants was a much-prized office – and no wonder. Who could aspire to a more impressive and singular title? Imagine the curtains of the royal audience-room thrown open and the doorkeeper announcing the entrance of so carefree a functionary!

In sophisticated subtlety the cormorant is not to be compared with the guillemots. There is a narrow ledge halfway up Bats Head where the guillemots have congregated in the nesting season for time out of mind. Here they will stand for hours upon their black webbed feet, nodding like punctilious mandarins at each other, until embarrassed by their own self-conscious manners they dive off from their chalky platform, and with their odd mechanical flight circle down to the sea. With us the return of the guillemots each spring is a recording place in the advance of the seasons. ‘The foolish guillemots have come,’ we say, as others speak of the first arrival of the swallows. What a commentary it is upon the brutal insensitiveness of man that these refined birds should have won for themselves the epithet of foolish; foolish, forsooth, because ‘in their piety’ they will remain upon their eggs until fishermen can catch them and wring their necks.

It is, of course, the herring gulls which through spring, summer, autumn, and winter, make up the real bird-population of these cliffs. It is their hungry call that first breaks the religious stillness of the winter dawn, vexing the waking dreams of the countrymen with their wild insistent crying, before even the red glow is to be seen through the lowest branches of the naked hedge. It is these birds which may also be seen walking on the grasslands in November, white as a flock of fairy-tale geese, or rising up suddenly out of rain-soaked stubble, like a shower of snow in a child’s glass ball. At this time of the year they come in from the restless sea, from the ridged weed-drifting margins of the shingle, to glut their insatiable appetites upon the lowly victuals of the soil. Up into the cloudy winter sky they mount with their free strong flight, a flight so different from that of a chapel of starlings suddenly flushed and close-clustering as a swarm of bees.

How the knavish cliff-jackdaws are forever striving to imitate the balance, the aerial poise, of these incomparable white birds, and yet for all their javeline dartings they can never escape the ordained limitations of their being.

The White Nose ravens seem entirely to disregard all other fowl. Their dark shadows cross and recross the sloping shoulders of the downs, but they are always flying alone, the male and the female, with solitary, mutual love. In February, when they prepare for their first clutch of eggs, they are self-sufficient, and in mid-winter, when they come in over Swyre Head after a morning’s scavenging on the Chesil Beach, it is the same. What a massive self-absorption is suggested by the croak of a raven, as it disturbs the stillness of a Sunday afternoon far up above the gorse and carline thistles. No wonder to primitive minds this harsh utterance seemed to conceal hidden meanings, dark occult messages, decrees of a dolorous Fate.

There is only one pair of ravens nesting now at White Nose. Each autumn they drive their offspring westward. These unnatural battles usually take place above the undercliff, towards Ringstead. I was once told by the late Mr Hardy that when he was a boy it was a common thing to see village people bless themselves as these birds flew above the thatched roofs of their cottages far inland, so that seventy or eighty years ago ravens must have been less rare in Dorset than now.

Aloof though the White Nose ravens are there is one bird that breaks in upon their proud isolation. For some obscure reason the heavy, dark flight of these giants of the air is exasperating to peregrine falcons. The war between the ravens and these hawks is as perennial as the traditional contest between pigmies and cranes. A peregrine falcon will pester a raven in its flight for several miles together, soaring high up above it and then with a deadly swoop darting downwards. I have seen them knock feathers out of the raven’s body, but never do serious harm, and it is astonishing how the great bird knows when to turn upon its back in mid-air at the very instant when in its downward rush the peregrine is ready to strike. If the peregrine’s attacks become too insistent the raven will fly to the ground, and whenever it is driven to this extremity the hawk will molest it no further, appreciating, I suppose, how formidable a weapon is its heavy, black, hollow beak – a true Saxon battle-axe!

Men have sought for the secret of life in temples and in cathedrals. They have worshipped in moonlit groves and before the sacrificial stones of monolithic circles. With closed lips and shut eyes they have waited and listened for God in cornfields and vine-yards. I think there are few places more fitted for such moods of religious receptivity than is this undisturbed sea-cliff. Here for thousands upon thousands of years the sunlight and the sea and the masterless winds have held tryst together, and nature, under the sway of so mighty a trinity, shows without reluctance her hidden moods, moods violent and material, moods of a severe and chaste beauty, and moods that are full of a deep and tremulous earth-poetry.

llewelyn powys, sherborne School
Llewelyn Powys at Sherborne School