Philippa Powys

Novelist, poet and playwright

philippa powys, the powys society

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.

philippa powys by gertrude powys, the powys society

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

see below for: novels | biography | poetry |  letters from JCP


The Blackthorn Winter

philippa powys, the blackthorn winter

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

ORDER FROM THE SUNDIAL PRESS — Special price of £10.00 (incl p&p) to UK Powys Society members only

"A Wholly Separate Thing"

philippa powys, the blackthorn winter, the powys society, sundial pressIf 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 "sea-eagle". [1]

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." [2]

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.

Cicely Hill

[1]"Sea-Eagle": John Cowper Powys's nickname for Philippa (Katie).
[2] Welsh Ambassadors (Bertram Rota, London 1971), page 20.
*** The Blackthorn Winter was first published in 1930

A review of The Blackthorn Winter by John Vernon here

phillppa powys sorrel barn and the tragedy of budvale

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

Order from: The Sundial Press

'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 concerned.

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 memorable.

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 corn.’

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 life.

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’.

‘Katie is 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 by gertrude powys

Catharine Edith 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 reciprocated.

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.

chydyok farmhouse, philippa powys, llewelyn powys, gertrude powys, alyse gregory, the powys society
Chydok Farmhouse (photo Frank Kibblewhite)

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?

driftwood, philippa powys

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 Gertrude Powys.


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


'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!'

Copyright © The Estate of Philippa Powys 2017


The Letters of John Cowper Powys to Philippa Powys, Edited by Anthony Head

letters of john cowper powys to philippa powys 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

Tangible Life

Tangible life,
How frail thou art –
Frail as the gossamer webs
That thread the upland grass,
Below the pallid mists
Of an autumn morning.

Three oils by Gertrude Powys

chydyok, gertrude powys
Chydok Farmhouse
philippa powys, gertrude powys
Philippa Powys
katie powys on 'josephine' – gertrude Powys
Philippa on 'Josephine'