Catharine Edith Philippa Powys (1886-1963) was born
at Montacute in Somerset, the ninth of eleven children in this multi-talented
family. She had no formal education and much of the knowledge she acquired in
youth was self-discovered. Her early adult life was spent farming, but in a
family of prodigious writers it was no surprise that her own creative energies
were channelled into literature from an early age.
In 1924 she moved
into Chydyok, an isolated farmhouse near the majestic Dorset coastline, with
her sister, the artist Gertrude Powys. A few years later her brother, Llewelyn
Powys, and his wife, Alyse Gregory, joined them to occupy the adjacent cottage.
Despite never achieving the success of her literary brothers she wrote at least two novels at
Chydyok that were never published – The Tragedy of Budvale and Joan
Callais – as well as a play, The Quick and the Dead. Subsequent
novels included The Path of the Gale and Further West, but these
too never saw the light of day. In 1930, she had a collection of poems
published titled Driftwood, and three short pamphlets of poems appeared
thereafter (many of them republished in 1992 in Driftwood and Other Poems).
That year also saw her only success as a novelist with The Blackthorn Winter,
published by Constable in London and by Richard R. Smith in New York: featuring
an Introduction by Glen Cavaliero, it was reissued in hardback in 2007 and in paperback in 2017 both by The Sundial Press
In The Blackthorn Winter a band of gipsy
travellers in the West Country catch the eye of a restless, young woman, Nancy
Mead, in particular the seductive Mike. Leaving behind her dull blacksmith
lover, Walter Westmacott, she elopes with him for a life of adventure on the
road. Soon enough the powers of desire and passion set off bitter conflicts
that bring remorse, revenge and death in their wake. The Blackthorn Winter
is an ardent and uncompromising portrayal of life in rural England in the
1920s, and of one woman’s battle with her own emotions.
‘A sense of immediacy
informs The Blackthorn Winter … The prose swerves from the
abrupt to the naive; it is full of inversions, as though the author were quite
unaware of the kind of language employed by her literary contemporaries. But
she is not writing for a conventional novel-reading public … The book is alive
with textures and smells; it is not written about country life but out of
direct experience of it, the kind of life a rural readership would recognise.’
— From the Introduction by Glen Cavaliero
‘There is a distinctive energy and wildness to this work; its scenes of the harsh and
peripatetic Gypsy life of the period are compelling and memorable.’ — The
Times Literary Supplement (March 2007)
‘The charm of the
book lies in its atmosphere – a heavy, slow, earthy atmosphere – and in the
power of the author to conjure up country sounds and scents and scenes to such
an extent that we almost cease to be readers and become participants in the
story.’ — Spectator
‘If the first pages
of The Blackthorn Winter seem unremarkable enough, the Introduction will
have given a foretaste of how unusual and original a book it is. Not a
difficult story to read, it is an easy story to misread. Like her brother, John
Cowper, Philippa Powys has a great sense of drama. Her plot is dramatically
simple, her dialogue spare, and the visual beauty of The Blackthorn Winter
has a cinematic quality. How interesting to imagine its author making a
film!’ — The Powys Society Newsletter
First Paperback edition: THE BLACKTHORN WINTER, with an introduction by Glen Cavaliero
The Sundial Press, paperback, ISBN: 978190827441 £12.50
If the first pages of The
Blackthorn Winter seem unremarkable enough, the Introduction will have
given a foretaste of how unusual and original a book it is. Not a difficult
story to read, it is an easy story to misread.
Like her brother, John Cowper,
Philippa Powys has a great sense of drama. Her plot is dramatically simple, her
dialogue spare, and the visual beauty of The Blackthom Winter has a cinematic
quality. How interesting to imagine its author making a film! Her profound
sensitivity to the nature (the "life'") of creatures and things would
have been recognized by John Cowper as his '"elementalism".
Associated with it and very present in her book is his "Homeric
sense" — a certain way of looking at things, happenings and rituals and a
certain way of recording them.
Nancy Mead is a passionate, restless young woman who works on a Dorset farm and is set to marry Walter, the worthy
son of the village blacksmith. Instead she elopes with a young gypsy. It is a
story of enthralment and betrayal. Nancy, in her early twenties, fits the
pattern of romantic heroines in her wilfulness and changes of mood, but
Philippa Powys characteristically avoids cliche and makes her heroine pretty,
fair-haired and rounded — a wood pigeon to her creator's
On the day the gypsies arrive Nancy
sets off to explore their caravan quarters, "dauntless" and
"caring for no-one". Struck by the young gypsy's beauty she feels
"strangely taken aback". She is dismayed not only to have been struck
by his beauty but to find that she is physically moved by it.
Her heart trembled within her, as the leaves of an aspen when the breath of
wind is first upon it. The sensation was new; Walter had never stirred it...
She dared not observe closer […]
He glances at her and she "leaps" to help him attach the newly-shod horse to the cart. Their
fingers meet and he asks her, "Can I see thee tonight?" His hand
covers hers and, again, she is dangerously moved.
The two meet later in the lane and,
when Mike crosses toward Nancy, her apprehension amounts to terror. Her
misgivings are real but fleeting; we are left in no doubt as to which way her
promptings will lead her. When he asks her what she is afraid of, her answers
are a quaint and touching mixture of school-playground challenge and
flirtation. There is no reason to suppose that his "But I loves thee's
pretty face" is not perfectly genuine but, though a beautiful young man,
he is not at all a pleasant one and, with her countrywoman's knowledge,
Philippa Powys has this feral wooer linger around the farmyard for three days
without food in the hope of a meeting with Nancy. He is rewarded with food and
Nancy's company in the hay loft. Soon after that she joins the gypsies.
Her new companions are not, like
gypsies in most of the stories and paintings of the time, particularly
decorative or wholesome. Nancy has to share sleeping quarters with Mike's old
grandmother: "... the limited space of her present abode was stifling hot,
and was pervaded by a clinging and unwholesome smell which met her at every
indrawing of her breath". Writing of a woman in love, Philippa Powys is no
sentimentalist. One or two of the women treat Nancy kindly, but she is lonely,
and in the days that follow, though she comes to enjoy life in the open, times
are hard. Mike is volatile and unfaithful; others among the male gypsies are
worse. Walter comes to fetch her back but, under Mike's spell, she remains. A
child is born and various troubles in the camp force Mike and Nancy to leave.
Nancy is ill after walking long in the rain and later, abandoned by Mike, she
arrives near the village she left just after her baby has died in her arms. She
meets her faithful Walter again but, consistent with her truthfulness to life,
Philippa Powys leaves the story with a doubtful ending.
The name "blackthorn
winter" is given to that time of year, usually at the end of March, when
the sloe is in bloom and Spring is halted by a second brief very cold spell. It
arrives symbolically for Nancy after a day when she wakes to the feel of pure
air and the sound of lark song above the cliffs and rejoices in her life.
Drenching rain and cold bring an end to her short-lived contentment.
Louis Wilkinson writes of the "stammer" in Philippa Powys's writing. "Unless its stammer can
be cured, her work will never be generally received; but it has already been
received by more than a few as a thing of value, a wholly separate thing." 
Not surprisingly, she is most free of her "stammer" when she is writing of the country, which she does in
fine and loving detail, always correctly: she knows how clouds are likely to
look at a certain time of day in a particular place and season; that blackberry
leaves go purple in autumn. She writes not out of a world of her imagination,
but from the world she sees, knows and describes with imagination and startling
exactness, calling actual places to readers' minds and senses — heathland with
bilberries, wasteland with ragwort; the sound of cartwheels, the feel of the
shaking cart; the touch of a gate hasp under the hand, of turf underfoot. Her
actuality is magical.
Nancy is not only at home in the
outdoor world and the elements, she is part of nature. Governed largely by her
instincts and seeming, at times, hardly an agent — any more than a rainbow or
a waterfall could be said to be an agent. She courts disaster. Her folly is
utter and her creator describes it all with a degree of honesty still not yet
entirely usual in the fiction of the time. More rare even is Powys's refusal to
idealize or defend. Nancy is not placed in a predicament which might seem to
pardon her waywardness. The company of her good man Walter is unsatisfying, but
her escape is not presented as a bid for some idealized freedom. She goes with
the gypsy because she wants the gypsy.
Whether in company or on her own,
Nancy is always alone. All the events are focused on her and the story is told
consecutively. Secondary characters are sketchy or absent. We know nothing of
her parents. But for the difficulty of language and dialect, the book could
well have been written in the first person. The author identifies closely with
the heroine, freeing the story from an omnipotent narrator's voice. Alone with
grief, hunger, bad weather and downright cruelty, Nancy is totally without
self-pity and she is not meant to invite pity.
Words beloved of former writers —
"wronged", "betrayed", "seduced",
"ruined" — apply to Nancy. She is, wittingly though unwarily,
seduced; wronged by ill treatment and abandonment. Not "ruined" —
she is what would now be called "a survivor". More significantly, she
is, like all her fictional predecessors, a victim; not the victim of villains,
nor a plaything of the gods or of God, but, in the tradition of great tragedy,
the victim of her own folly.
There are terrible events and
terrible images in The Blackthorn Winter and it is hard not to believe that more
of them than we might like to think must have been known, in some way, at close
hand, to Philippa Powys — who never writes about what she doesn't know. The
story of Nancy Mead is told proudly, directly, classically, and the teller
offers no verdicts.
A review of The Blackthorn Winter by John Vernon here
Sorrel Barn & The Tragedy of Budvale
Two previously unpublished novellas by Phillppa Powys
With an Introduction by Cicely Hill and Editor's Note by Louise de Bruin in a limited edition hardback with coloured endpapers, silk ribbon & dustjacket
'A FEW evenings later Zola found herself once more fetching water. The sun had
set, but darkness still held aloof from the fields. The winds were cold, though
the primroses crowded the woods, and violets lay concealed between their new
leaves; a great part of the fallow land remained bare. Through a border of
trees to a field below Zola followed the little foot-path, where behind a big
walnut there lay hidden among a network of bushes a clear spring of water.
Having first leant over to drink from the rising bubbles themselves, she filled
her pails, then turned to leave the well as she found it – a temple for the
birds. But almost as quickly she dropped them as she could not resist the
desire to pick the primroses which clustered yellow at different points on the
banks beside her. What joy they gave her, with their fragrance and their
delicacy!' (From Sorrel Barn
In these two West Country novellas, never before published, Philippa Powys pursued a theme
that was central to all her fiction - the entanglement of human passions caused
by unrestrained desire.
In The Tragedy of Budvale, written in the 1920s, the love of Christopher
Cary for his cousin Mary is set against her own attachment to her curious
suitor, the mild-mannered artist Wilfred Wurton, as well as the unreciprocated
feelings of the milk-maid Hazel Lee for the broody and impulsive Cary himself,
whose jealousy culminates in acts of violence that seal the fate of all
Sorrel Barn is the tale of an outsider – the vivacious
Romanian Zola – and her struggle to adapt to English country life with her
boorish husband Frank and the initially unnerving attentions of his employer,
the farmer John Marsh, himself the object of desire of a shy local girl. This
more mature work, finished at some point in the 1930s, centres on the anguish
of a passionate woman trapped in a passionless life, depicting loves denied,
embraced and lost.
In both stories, against the backdrop of vividly realised rural
scenes and landscapes, Philippa Powys paints some memorably unsentimental
portraits of individuals isolated in their private sufferings.
Impossible Longings by John Hodgson
Recalling his meeting with Philippa (‘Katie’) Powys shortly before her death, Glen Cavaliero writes, ‘she was, if one may say so, ultra-Powys. With her cropped hair, weatherbeaten face, stooped figure and corduroy trousers, she resembled an old countryman; her voice was vibrant and emphatic’. The Blackthorn Winter, recently republished by The Sundial Press, was the only one of her novels to appear in her lifetime.
Several more remain in manuscript, and here we have two of them, The Tragedy of Budvale, written in the 1920s, and Sorrel Barn from about ten years later.
Katie’s life was tragically scarred by unrequited love, and it is the violence
of frustrated passion ‘nearly beyond the control of the mind’ and its
concomitant jealousies that propel her stories. In Budvale, Kit Cary is
driven to rape and murder by his ungovernable passion for his cousin May. In Sorrel
Barn, the Romanian Zola, unhappily married to the boorish ex-soldier Frank,
is in love with the farmer John Marsh. Although her love is reciprocated, the
impossibility of this relationship unhinges the farmer’s brain. The authentic
ferocity of the anguish in these stark stories commands respect, but it must be
admitted that Philippa’s psychological range is narrow, and in each story the
only way out of hopelessness is in melodrama. In her sensitive introduction, Cicely
Hill quotes Llewelyn Powys writing of Philippa, ‘… if only the gods had given
her the mastery of language that she has of imagination, the world would have
welcomed more of her novels’. But the truth might be the other way round, for
it is their evocation of the Wessex countryside that makes these stories
Philippa writes with an unmistakeably Powysian
voice which is yet entirely different from any of her brothers. Philippa’s
countryside is a place of work, and she writes vividly of agricultural tasks,
milking cows, making cheese, washing sheep. Philippa’s cows and horses live and
breathe with a vivid presence that recalls her beloved Whitman – ‘I think I
could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain’d’ – and
they are everywhere. Even a mat on the floor is ‘dog-lain’. Her ‘bird haunted’
landscapes are precise, beautifully spatial, economical, punctuated by sounds:
‘The weather for the last two weeks had broken up, and there had been a spell
of rainy days, with winds that made the leaves rustle and laid low the coming
Philippa’s natural world offers no assuagement or
philosophical consolation: her cabbages ‘sleep a vegetable sleep’ without
becoming symbolic or metaphysical. Her descriptions of village life are also
busy and populated. Her villagers are not comic rustics, but are gossipy and
intrusive and express themselves in a version of Dorset dialect that is more
fluent and less mannered than we are used to in John Cowper or T. F. Powys.
Philippa’s writing is most successful when it makes
least effort. Her narrative climaxes are cries of despair, but besides ‘the
frustrations of impossible longings’ that are Philippa’s theme, there is still
an indomitability of spirit and steadiness of vision that give these stories
The book has been published by The Sundial Press,
with evident love and dedication, as a handsome and opulent hardback. This
limited edition of 100 copies is not aimed at a wide audience, but no Powysian
advanced motorist will want to be without it.
Philippa Powys — Biography
Philippa Powys belonged to one of the most distinguished families in modern literature. Among
her brothers were the novelists John Cowper Powys (1872-1963) and Theodore
Francis Powys (1875-1953) and the essayist Llewelyn Powys (1884-1939) as well
as Littleton Powys, headmaster of Sherborne Prep School, and the architect A.
R. Powys who was Secretary of the Society for the Protection of Ancient
Buildings and published several books on architecture. Of her sisters, Gertrude
Powys was a painter of striking portraits and powerful landscapes, Marian Powys
an authority on lace and lace-making. Philippa Powys was the ninth of eleven
children in the Powys family's largest and most talented generation and was
known to relatives and friends as ‘Katie’.
the most delightful person to show over anywhere - so enthusiastic.’ Llewelyn
Powys, her most beloved brother, wrote of his teenage sister in 1903 after a
visit to Sherborne with her. Over 60 years later his widow Alyse Gregory wrote
of Katie, 'I have wondered who has ever really known her heart where so many
turbulent battles have raged, so many bitter disenchantments been brought
to terms.' Between these extremes of time and mood was a life of rare
sensibility and emotional intensity, of who was, as Alyse Gregory wrote, 'so
delicately balanced, combining so vigorous an egoism with so burning a capacity
for love and so great a need for reassurance.'
Philippa Powys was born on 8 May 1886 at Montacute in Somerset, where her
father had been installed as vicar the previous year. She received some
schooling from governesses at the rectory, in the manner of the day, but had no
formal education, and most of the knowledge she acquired in her youth was
self-discovered or taught by her brothers and sisters. Imaginative,
inquisitive, adventurous, living in a part of rural England idyllic in its
beauty and growing under the tutelage of affectionate and liberal-minded
parents, they were a self-sufficient breed, indeed a happy one. Not for the
Powys children the miserable tedium of Victorian rectory life or the stifling
Christian severities that so affected a Samuel Butler or an Edmund Gosse.
But when Katie was only seven, this idyll was shattered by the death of her 14-year-old
sister Nelly. Perhaps the very closeness of the brothers and sisters helped
them recover from this devastation; but it must have struck Katie in later
years that it was a harbinger of the irreparable process of loss which often
seemed to characterise her life.
Perhaps, too, the death of an elder sister encouraged in Katie an especially protective
affection for her younger one, Lucy, with whom she developed in adolescence a
particularly close relationship and on whom she became increasingly dependent
for companionship and emotional support. She spent the summer holiday of 1909
with her at Sidmouth in Devon, and there became friendly with two local
fishermen brothers, Bob and Tom Woolley, and with their lodger, Stephen
Reynolds, a handsome, well-educated young socialist. He discussed literature
and politics with Katie, and encouraged her opinions. He gave her his own newly
published book to read - A Poor Man's House, about his life among the
Sidmouth fishermen - and read to her from Walt Whitman, her favourite poet.
John Cowper had recently introduced her to Whitman and she was to maintain an
almost mystical devotion to him throughout her life, rarely travelling without
a copy of Leaves of Grass to hand. Reynolds introduced her to Nietzsche too,
bringing to life her dormant intellect and also, unbeknown to him at first, a
romantic and soon obsessive passion. But the few letters he wrote to her, one
of which she forever kept in her copy of Whitman, began 'Dear Miss Powys' and
did not exceed the bounds of propriety and tact. Her veneration was not
In 1910 she moved with Lucy to join her younger brother Will at the farm their father
had purchased for him at Witcombe, near Montacute. But her imagined life of
happy companionship with her youngest sister ended almost as soon as it began.
In May, a friend of Will's — Hounsell Penny — visited them. By August he and
Lucy were engaged, and by the spring of next year married. Katie was secretly
inconsolable. The crossroads were reached where Lucy and I parted,' she
confided in the diary she had started in 1903, and was to keep on and off for
the next 60 years. 'She crossed the bridge and now we can only talk over it.'
As if to cushion the emotional blow of Lucy's departure, Katie's fantasies homed in
again on Stephen Reynolds. She had seen him in the summer of 1910, and briefly
after Lucy's marriage in 1911, but that was to be their last meeting. In that
year she broke off her diary, and over the next year her simmering emotional
tensions boiled over into a nervous breakdown. Brought back to Montacute
Vicarage, she had to be constantly nursed, threatening suicide if not allowed
to see Reynolds - who kept his distance. By September 1912 she was in such a
serious condition that her father finally submitted to pressure within the
family and agreed to have her admitted to a sanatorium in Bristol, where she
recovered in good time. In 1913 she began training at an agricultural college
in Warwickshire and spent the summer of 1914 on a women's co-operative farm in
Sussex. That year her mother died and Katie returned to Montacute, renting a
small dairy, 'Roper's Farm', there where she lived with a few cows, making
butter and selling milk.
Stephen Reynolds died in the influenza epidemic of 1919, but he remained the great love
of Katie's life. She is still recording his birthday and her feelings in her
diary 20 years later. She made frequent pilgrimages to his grave in Sidmouth,
noting in one entry, 'I ran to Steve's grave with mackerel from the sea and bay
leaves and Walt Whitman as well.’ After a visit to the house where they had
last met (about 16 years earlier), she reflects on her fate 'to have seen so
little of him and then at the last only to have a memory - a memory which
brings tears, for longing of what cannot be.' The painful experience of her
passion for Reynolds she evoked in a 'prose-poem' The Phoenix, an excerpt from
which was published in The Dial in 1928. She remained lifelong friends with the
Woolleys and the fishermen of Sidmouth, and wrote about them both a play, The
Quick and the Dead, and later a novel, Further West, neither of them ever
published. In later years she rented a cottage near the sea-front in Sidmouth,
to be near them and share in their lives as he had done, dispensing cups of tea
to the fishermen returning from their all-night catches and going out with them
sometimes on their early morning expeditions.
Katie worked on her farm for several years, living there with Emily Clare, the children's
old nanny, until 1923, when a fall from her horse necessitated having her teeth
extracted - a painful and humiliating experience which may have precipitated
her decision to give up farming. She went to Paris to visit Gertrude (trying to
pick up the threads of her career as an artist), and in November 1923 arrived
in New York to visit John Cowper and Llewelyn, both now living there with
Phyllis Playter and Alyse Gregory. The four months she spent in America were
among the happiest of her life, capped perhaps by a visit to Walt Whitman's
house where, in an act of devotional vandalism, she secretly carved her
initials on the chair in his study.
Katie returned to
England in April 1924 and with Gertrude, herself back from Paris and freed from
the care of looking after their father, who had died the year before, moved
into Chydyok, an isolated house on the headland between the sheer Dorset cliffs
and the village of East Chaldon in the rolling green downlands where Theodore
Powys had also settled. And it was largely through Theodore's encouragement
that, in April 1927, after a trip to Ireland where she met 'AE' (George William
Russell), who discoursed on Whitman for her, she took up her diary again. 'Now
I am so old as 40 I feel less and less inclined towards strangers and towards
ordinary teaparty conversation,' she wrote, and life at Chydyok suited her
accordingly. She rode her pony Josephine, grew vegetables in the garden and
combed the beach for driftwood, recording her happiness in finding one day a
box bearing the word STEPHEN washed ashore. She sat on it for a while, then
carried it up the cliff and buried it under a clump of elders.
Another diary entry of this time gives a fleeting indication of her struggle with her
emotions. 'I achieved today the feeling that I used to have,' she notes, in a
particular mood of peace and security after a visit to her brother Theodore.
Emotions, for Katie, were not only to be felt; they were something to be
achieved. A few months later she is admonishing herself over her feelings for
Llewelyn, on the verge of a return visit to America - 'I must learn not to
love.' And when his departure is imminent, she falls into a heightened,
psalm-like prose, wanting to feel more important to her brother than she felt
she was: 'Oh my God, my God why hast thou made me so. My life is like a spring
that flows over rough stones and fertilizes no pastures. Where I would have it
warmed by a sun, instead the frost covers it with cold ice...' She was
depressed too by her lack of achievement: 'I have done some writing but my farming
has failed; and as I am slow and uncertain in my writing it is of no commercial
value. Thus the good my life is to mankind, is NIL.'
Out of this spiritual impasse - and promptly into another - Katie was led by the
enticingly androgynous figure of the young Valentine Ackland, who had settled
in East Chaldon in 1925 to escape an unhappy marriage and who offered her
encouragement with her writing, being herself a budding poet. It was not long
before Katie was hoping she might offer something more, and found herself
overtaken by new but familiarly intense and frustrating passions. But Valentine
was 20 years her junior and was often up in London. She also attracted, and was
attracted to, a variety of other women—and Katie was not emotionally equipped
to interpret or deal with Valentine's behaviour.
For several years she was preoccupied with her feelings for Valentine. She visited her in London
early in 1929, but noted how she ‘was screened from me after the usual manner
of lovers, thus stirring that love to wilder force.’ Valentine excited and
depressed her more than anyone in the world. ‘How I wished she loved me as I
love her but it can't be so . . .’ She visited her there again the following
year and felt again self-conscious of her ‘clumsy body’ and frustrated by their
‘inability to surmount the last barrier of our friendship.’ But 1930 had its
compensations. After her failure to find a publisher for two previous novels — Budvale
and Joan Callais — her novel The Blackthorn Winter was published,
quickly followed by Driftwood, an aptly-named volume of 24 poems, some
of which Valentine had helped her with, and which Katie dedicated to her
accordingly. This must have done much to restore Katie's self-esteem. But in
the autumn of that same year, the novelist Sylvia Townsend Warner, a friend of
her brother Theodore, arrived in East Chaldon and it was soon common knowledge
that she and Valentine had become lovers — a knowledge which produced some
hysteria from Katie and some violent imagery in her diary.
Poetry: 'The only ‘real poet’ in the Powys Family.
John Cowper Powys delighted in telling Philippa she was the only ‘real Poet’ in the
family, even when it had long become apparent that the bulk of her literary
output would never see the light of day. In this, though, he was not insincere.
He was not alone in detecting in his sister's work qualities to be admired, and
he never ceased to encourage and advise, praising her for successes, consoling
her for disappointments, and characteristically playing down his own
achievements. He helped in the practical business of the correcting and typing
of her manuscripts and in communicating with publishers, and her ultimate
failure to achieve a popular profile or stature equivalent to those of her
three literary brothers did not dampen his faith in her potential or alter the
fact of her own achievements. Was it not rather the public, or the publishers,
who had failed to appreciate her qualities?
In the year that
saw the publication of The Blackthorn Winter, Philippa Powys’s main
collection of poems, Driftwood, was also published, by E. Lahr in the
Blue Moon Booklets series. This aptly-named volume of twenty-four poems was
‘Dedicated to “Valentine.”,’ the poet Valentine Ackland who offered
her encouragement with her writing.
In addition to the ordinary trade edition of Driftwood, a hundred numbered copies were
printed on large paper and ten numbered and signed copies bound in white buckram.
Subsequently, three pamphlets were published, Poems (Sidmouth, 1932), Some Poems
(Sidmouth, no date), and Four Poems (no place of publication or date).
In 1992, The Powys
Society issued a collected edition of Philippa Powys’s poems, Driftwood and
Other Poems, which gathered together all her published poems as well as
eight previously unpublished poems and included a portrait of the poet by
SONG OF THE WIND
Blessed is the wild rough weather,
Blessed is the whistle of the wind.
Blessed indeed is the wind that hath the breath of life:
Blessed is the Spirit that joins its voice to that of the wind;
Blest again is the Spirit that hears the voice and cannot reach it.
Blessed above all are they, for they suffer not alone but in sympathy.
Blow, blow thou harder, thou inspirer of wishes,
Blow, O, Blessed Friend that consoles,
Blow thou on, until unspoken wishes are scattered as a cloud,
Blow, till more pass on, ere they shall drop or not as thy force increases:
Blow, blow until they shall fall on some unwatered field.
Blow thou on, thou wind, Inhabitant of heaven and earth.
Thou that canst appease the suffering and yet augment:
Blessed still art thou, thou unembodied spirit.
Blow thou Consoler of prisoners:
Blow thou envy of freedom,
Blow that the bitterness of the thoughts that are towered within,
May be shattered.
Then shall the fragments be covered with the weeds of the earth,
The bramble shall twine around and bear fruit;
The gorse shall bloom and become the golden symbol of friendship;
The nettle shall shelter the home of the brown hedge-sparrow.
Blow, blow thou great Consoler.
Rise and curse the fate which runs through this sad and battered earth.
Blow, blow and stir the emotions deeper till men gather the truth and make bold in thought.
Blow thou over the wilderness, then shall we see beyond;
Clear thou the mists, so that sight may pierce the ether above.
Blessed indeed art thou,O Wind !
Scatterer of the wild desires;
Appeaser of the desperate;
Rousing the seas to anger, so that man's great brain is foiled
While in thy might, joined with that of the waves, men become
as autumn leaves.
Play on them, play on them faster,
Put fear about them, till they fall before thee,
O ! thou Great Omnipotent Power.
Winds of the fells and the sea, join and become one, so that man may tremble again.
Thou art the boon of my Spirit, the healing of my broken sores
Thou Confessor ! How shall I tell ?
I am a prodigal: with wishes that are intensified, but must be kept hidden;
Whirl them further from me, O, Blessed Deliverer !
Toss them above me, disperse the belt of thought which follows.
Bitter are the clouds of remembrance.
Away with the despairable droppings of the rain,
Hurl them away as thou wouldst that craft upon the water,
Race behind them that they do not take dominion over me.
Blow, blow for ever, O, Blessed Messenger of Heaven !
Blessed is the cry of the wind that fore-runs the rushing gales
LOVED AND LOST
'Seagull! Seagull! Why so fast ?'
'O Child of Fate, I cannot stay.'
'Speak, O Seagull ! Speak to me
Flying there over high white cliffs.
'My heart is sore, my heart is torn,
Thy cries re-echo my broken soul.
Hover near and comfort me,
Who in thee findeth a soothing hope.
My love is dead, I wander far,
To find him whom I so much love.
My cries ring sharp like the moaning winds,
My tears are salt like thy own sea-waves.
I cannot find him, even though,
Tis only to see him from afar.
O Bird of Space ! Bring him to me,
Surely he will hear thy call.'
'Never, never will my cry break upon his listening ears,
Never, never will my wings brush awake those lids of sleep.
He is dead, no more to rise, lying
Where buttercups and daisies grow.'
'Stay, O Seagull, Stay with me;
Tell me how to pass these days
Reft of passion and of joy,
Starved of sunshine and of hope.'
'Hearken now, though not in life, you'll hear his voice
In the whirl of the wind; in the changing of clouds;
And in the blackness of night the foaming breakers shall
declare his spirit.
By day the sands shall mark his name,
And the sight of boats shall testify
That you knew him, and he knew you.'
'O Bird of Sky, it is not enough.
I want him, himself; in body, in life,
To walk these hills and hear the lark
And smell the scent of the golden gorse,
And you too say, he lies stiff-cold
Under clods of earth . . .
O! God forbid! O! Miserable day!'
POWYS TO SEA EAGLE
The Letters of John Cowper Powys to Philippa Powys, Edited by Anthony Head
Collected here for the first time are more than 200 letters from the tireless
pen of John Cowper Powys to his sister Philippa, whom he dubbed his ‘Sea
Eagle’. The period they span, from his early days of lecturing in the United
States during the First World War to his 88th year in 1961, is greater than any
volume of Powys's letters published so far. Catharine Edith Philippa Powys,
known in the family as Katie, had a novel and a volume of poems published in
1930. ‘Write, write, write, O Sea Eagle!’ says Powys, ‘write with a great
flying feather from your own strong wing — for only you only you alone — can
write books like this.’
But despite such encouragement, none of her half dozen other novels was ever to find a
publisher, while the works of her famous literary brothers — John Cowper,
Theodore and Llewelyn — continued to appear and attract admirers. How crushing
that must have been in one so sensitive and passionate, but how alive to her
griefs and struggle with life these letters show John Cowper to be, how
consolatory to her restless spirit. Whether writing from hotel rooms across the
States or from his tiny house in the Welsh mountains, these letters to Katie,
at home in the Dorset countryside, brim with humour, wisdom and zest for life
that were Powys's own, from observations of wayside flowers to reflections on
the atom-bomb. As always, the presence of literary spirits is everywhere felt —
Dostoievsky, Nietzsche, Tennyson, Pater, Charles Lamb and Shelley, and Walt
Whitman in particular, Katie's favourite poet. The widely-scattered but
tight-knit Powys family haunt these pages too, replete with nostalgia for a
shared Victorian childhood, as the world lurches from one catastrophe to
another. How lovingly John Cowper wrote these letters; how eagerly must Katie
have awaited them.
Cecil Woolf Publishers ISBN 0-900821-51-5 £35.00
How frail thou art –
Frail as the gossamer webs
That thread the upland grass,
Below the pallid mists
Of an autumn morning.