The Powys Society Conference 2023: Speakers

Colin Laker has been a member of the Powys Society for a number of years, his journey in teaching showing a geographical similarity to JCP in some ways, involving stints in Dorset, Brighton & Hove and the Staffordshire/Derbyshire border, before settling in Wales (though Ceredigion rather than Clwyd or Gwynedd). He recently successfully completed an MA in Celtic Studies at the University of Wales, Trinity Saint David, in Lampeter with a dissertation on the theme of his talk at this year’s conference. Colin will discuss the significance of JCP’s claim to a Welsh identity which he often made during the course of his life. Several commentators have noted JCP’s fascination with Wales and the Welsh. Few, however, have concentrated on what Powys himself meant by those concepts, and even fewer have examined how those concepts changed over time, especially once he moved to Wales in 1935 (first to Corwen and then, in 1955, to Blaenau Ffestiniog, until his death in 1963). Colin’s talk will be concerned with two main issues. Firstly, to examine Powys’s concepts concerning Wales and Welsh identity over time and to chart how and why they changed. Secondly, to attempt to show how those changing ideas were manifested in his writing and influenced the fiction he produced in America, England, and Wales. It will suggest that a crucial stage in the development of Powys’s conceptualisation of Welsh identity was his move to live in the country in 1935, opening him up to the reality of the Welsh people, landscape and culture, as well as his reading of anthropologists of Welshness. These changing conceptualisations can be detected especially in a reading of Powys’s novels A Glastonbury Romance, Maiden Castle, Owen Glendower and Porius;use will also be made ofhis collection of non-fiction essays Obstinate Cymric as well as unpublished extracts from his diaries in the National Library of Wales.

Paul Cheshire is Chair of the Powys Society. He has lectured extensively at conferences in the UK and the United States. He has written over twenty-five articles on S.T. Coleridge and his circle. His book William Gilbert and Esoteric Romanticism is a pioneering study of a little-known astrologer and hermetic magician who was friends with Coleridge and Wordsworth in the 1790s when they lived near Bristol. Paul has also written on John Cowper Powys for the Powys Journal and the Newsletter, as well as on the traces of seventeenth-century hermetic philosophy in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Paul edits the Powys Society’s website and is acting Hon. Treasurer. Paul’s contributions to the Powys Journal include, JCP and William Wordsworth in Vol. XXVI, 2016; ‘subhuman or super-human consciousness’ in A Glastonbury Romance in Vol. XXVII, 2017 and A Glastonbury Romance: Cuts and Alterations to the UK printed texts, 1932-1955 in Vol. XXVII, 2017. Forthcoming in 2023 is an article by Paul for Vol. XXXIII of the Powys Journal entitled Powys’s Cronos: Punishment, Rebellion and the Golden Age. Paul’s talk will focus on JCP’s second published novel Rodmoor. Paul notes that Adrian Sorio, who is the protagonist of Rodmoor, is writing a book to show how what every living thing really aims at is to escape from itself … by the destruction of itself. He rages against philosophical systems based on ‘self-assertion’ and ‘self-realization’, in favour of a perverted interpretation of Spinoza’s philosophy as a wish to annihilate nature. JCP portrayed characters who engaged with this negative philosophy again and again in his fiction: Geard’s embrace of death in the Glastonbury flood, and Merlin’s esplumeoir in Porius are the most successful and balanced representations of this longing to go beyond. ‘What lies beyond life’ is usually represented in JCP’s novels as an alternative non-human place of existence: a mythic or daemonic world. In Rodmoor JCP places particular emphasis on the destructive nature of this other world. The novel ends in death and madness. Susan Rands has recognised that Rodmoor’s epigraph, which is taken from ‘Thomas the Rhymer’, a ballad of faery abduction, is a key to the work as a whole. Rodmoor is pervaded by allusions to ballads and poems about the dangers of faery or daemonic possession.

Kim Wheatley is a Professor of English at William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. She is the author of two books: Shelley and His Readers: Beyond Paranoid Politics and Romantic Feuds: Transcending the ‘Age of Personality’. She also edited Romantic Periodicals and Print Culture. She has written four articles on JCP: ‘John Cowper Powys and the Inhuman Wordsworth’, published in European Romantic Review in 2017; ‘John Cowper Powys on the Genius of Charles Lamb’, published in The Powys Journal XXXI in 2021; an article on JCP’s Autobiography, forthcoming in Romanticism; and ‘“The Poet of Fear”: John Cowper Powys on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’, forthcoming in The Powys Journal XXXIII in 2023. 
Kim says: “The Blind Beggar. The Leech-Gatherer. The Discharged Soldier. The Idiot Boy. These disabled and deprived characters appear in the poetry of William Wordsworth, JCP’s ‘great master’. My lecture will explore JCP’s re-imagining of these Wordsworthian ‘outsiders and idiots’ (as Belinda Humfrey refers to them) in his fiction and autobiographical writings. I will argue that in rewriting Wordsworth’s scenes of encounter with marginalised human beings, Powys implicitly rebukes the poet for an insufficiently ethical response and at the same time dramatizes, sometimes comically the limits of the ethical treatment of strangers. My examples will be drawn from Wolf Solent, Powys’s Autobiography and diaries, and The Inmates.”

Mick Wood currently works as an English Teacher at a secondary school in Doncaster. His interest in the Powys family culminated in his PhD – The Ecological Imagination of John Cowper Powys: Writing, “Nature” and the Non-human – which was completed in 2017 at The University of Leeds. Mick is particularly interested in the relationships between modernist writing and the environment; hence both his doctoral work and an earlier MA thesis that explored the relationship between the writings of John Cowper Powys and D.H. Lawrence. Mick says “My talk takes as its starting point the ongoing “green” turn in literary studies – sometimes referred to as ecocriticism – to ask after the timeliness of JCP’s writings in our moment of ecological crisis. In particular, I will discuss the ways in which Powys’s experimentation with perspective and scale shapes, and is shaped by, an ethical sensibility towards nonhuman forms and forces. Reading some of the images of earthly continuity and discontinuity, of evolutionary forces, and of material and historical entanglement between humanity and nature that we find in Wolf Solent and A Glastonbury Romance, I want to suggest that Powys deserves to be acknowledged by recent scholarly readings of a “green” modernism, in which questions of the human’s position in a more-than-human world are of central concern. In doing so, I want to push back against critical discussion that has dismissed or neglected Powys as offering a comparatively naïve alternative to a more urban modernism by emphasising his experimental literary responses to the modernity of his historical moment, and – hopefully – its relevance to our own.” Mick writes about his doctoral thesis and his interest in the Powys family in Newsletter 99, March 2020.

Ben Thomson is currently studying for his MA at the Humboldt University of Berlin, with particular focus on medieval literature, the modernist novel, and literary form. His recent essay on length and genre in the prose fiction of Dorothy Richardson was awarded the 2021 Dorothy Richardson Essay Prize. Ben says his talk “will apply the issue of length to John Cowper Powys's major novels, particularly A Glastonbury Romance. Whilst the inordinate length of his novels is often one of the first things mentioned in introducing Powys, the aesthetic and philosophical implications of this characteristic have rarely been examined, and, furthermore, the matter of length is something that has been largely ignored in literary criticism as a whole. In light of recent work suggesting the 'long modernist novel' as a distinct and important genre - "an excessive form that attempts and fails to achieve the impossible" - this talk will emphasise the formal experimentalism in Powys's novels, which is intrinsically connected to their excessive length. This also involves arguing for the oft-overlooked modernist qualities in Powys's work, and places him in a select group of writers whose lives' works were the long modernist novel, alongside Richardson, Proust, and Thomas Mann.”