Past Conferences: 2018

Glastonbury Tor
Glastonbury Tor

A Wild Activity of Thoughts

The Conference was held at the Wessex Hotel, Street, Friday 10 August to Sunday 12 August 2018.

Conference Prospectus

In A Glastonbury Romance, Mr Geard declares, “Thought is a real thing. It is a live thing; it creates; it destroys; it begets...” Mr Geard seems to reflect JCP’s own conception in Autobiography that “Thoughts are of the utmost importance and have the power of projecting impalpable eidola.” The title of this year’s conference, which has been adapted from one of Coleridge’s letters to his friend Tom Wedgwood, is intended to convey the intensity of the creative lives of JCP, TFP, and Llewelyn. There is indeed much passion, wisdom and humour, as well as thinking, in all the writings of the Powyses. The mysterious transition from inner thought and idea to concrete word and image is a repeated theme that will be explored in the talks at this year’s conference. Our speakers will focus on specific works by JCP, as well as TFP and Llewelyn, to elicit the primacy of thinking and imaginative forces in their writing. Our speakers will also closely scrutinise the structure and meaning of individual passages and paragraphs in the fiction and non-fiction of the Powyses. Charles Lock will analyse some key passages in the chapter ‘Maundy Thursday’ in A Glastonbury Romance and will discuss differing responses to JCP’s style of writing; Anthony O’Hear will examine questions of illusion and reality, including the relation of the subjective mind to objective reality in Wolf Solent; Nicholas Birns will delve deeply into selected passages in works by JCP, TFP and Llewelyn; and Taliesin Gore will present the findings of his undergraduate dissertation on ideas about pan-psychism in Wolf Solent and A Glastonbury Romance.

On Saturday afternoon, there will be an opportunity to explore places associated with A Glastonbury Romance that are located within easy walking distance from the centre of Glastonbury. Ray Cox has devised a guided tour of the town visiting places named in the novel, including the Tor, with readings in situ at each place. Alternatively members can either begin at Stonedown, following in the footsteps of the Dekkers, or take a tour by car to Pennard Lane, and Redlake Farm, and then join a guided walk to Whitelake river, “the marshlands of Queen’s Sedgmoor”, and the possible location of Whitelake Cottage, near a tow path and small river weir, which are all described in chapter 5 of A Glastonbury Romance. Members will be provided with local maps and a list of references to the readings.

On Saturday evening we have arranged a panel discussion of A Glastonbury Romance. The event, chaired by Timothy Hyman, will include short presentations by Paul Cheshire, John Hodgson and Anthony O’Hear. Members are invited to participate in the discussion and contribute their views of JCP’s novel.

Giles Dawson, the son of artist, sculptor, and poet, Patricia Vaughan Dawson (1925-2013), has organised a small display of his mother’s sculptures, prints and coloured etchings, inspired by JCP’s novels, which can be viewed during the course of Sunday. Giles will also present a short introduction to Patricia’s work after the AGM on Sunday morning. The works on display will include Patricia’s illustrations to The Brazen Head and Porius. Some of these works have been reproduced in the Powys Society Newsletter, No.33, and in articles in the Powys Review, Nos 4 and 21. The Book Room will be open, at selected times, so please bring your donations for the book sale which will be very much appreciated.

Chris Thomas


Friday 10th August

16.00 Arrival
17.30 Reception
18.30 Dinner
20.00 Charles Lock: ‘What happens when we read JCP ’

Saturday 11th August

08.00 Breakfast
09.30 Anthony O’Hear: ‘Solent Solipsist — an interpretation of Wolf Solent’ (Anthony being absent due to sickness, this paper was read by Timothy Hyman)
10.45 Coffee
11.15 Nicholas Birns: ‘Close Reading the Powyses'
13.00 Lunch
Afternoon free – optional guided walks to places associated with A Glastonbury Romance
19.00 Dinner
20.30 A panel discussion of A Glastonbury Romance, chaired by Timothy Hyman, with Paul Cheshire, John Hodgson and the participation of members

Sunday 12th August

08.00 Breakfast
09.30 Taliesin Gore: ‘Pan-psychism in Wolf Solent and A Glastonbury Romance
10.45 Coffee
11.00 AGM
12.00 Giles Dawson: ‘Introduction to the art of Patricia Dawson and the inspiration of JCP’
13.00 Lunch
15.00 Departure

The Speakers

Charles Lock is Professor of English Literature at the University of Copenhagen. He is the editor of the Powys Journal and ex-officio member of the Powys Society committee. He has been a regular contributor to Powys Society conferences since 1978, and last gave a presentation at our conference in 2013 in Llangollen on Wolf Solent and World Literature. Charles organised a symposium at the University of Copenhagen, January 26-27, 2018, dedicated to Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011), author of Mani, Roumeli and A Time of Gifts. The symposium was attended by the Queen of Denmark and her sister, formerly the Queen of Greece. Charles's talk was on Leigh Fermor's distinction in Greek culture between the Hellenic and the Romaic. In February Charles was invited to give a series of lectures in Moscow, and in March he spoke on the idea of the apocryphal at a symposium held in Bad Homburg. In April he took part in a symposium on the topos of the beach in European literature, making much of Weymouth Sands, and in May he spoke on bones, skulls and ashes, with particular reference to JCP and James Purdy – whose correspondence he co-edited in the Powys Journal, Vol. XXIII. In his talk Charles Lock will make a detailed examination of selected paragraphs from a chapter of A Glastonbury Romance. Charles reflects that “We who are gathered here evidently enjoy reading John Cowper Powys, even to the end of A Glastonbury Romance. Why does not every reader respond to his writing as we do? To address this perplexing problem I shall take a paragraph or two, or three, from a single chapter of A Glastonbury Romance, 'Maundy Thursday'.”

Anthony O’Hear is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Buckingham and Head of the Department of Education. He is Honorary Director of the Royal Institute of Philosophy and editor of the journal Philosophy. He is also co-editor of The Fortnightly Review and has been a special advisor to the government on education. Publications include: Plato's Children (2006) and The Great Books: From The Iliad and The Odyssey to Goethe's Faust: A journey through 2,500 years of the West's classic literature (2007). Professor O’Hear presented a talk at the Powys Society conference in 2010 in Street on A Philosophical Interpretation of A Glastonbury Romance. Anthoy O’Hear’s subject at this year’s conference is Wolf Solent: “According to Wolf Solent” says Anthony, “there is no such thing as ‘reality’ apart from the mind that looks at it... no living thing has seen reality in itself'. Even stronger, he also says that ‘there is no reality but what the mind fashions out of itself’. One of the things Wolf's mind fashions is his mythology, his ‘life-illusion’. So do we ever understand anything else? How might we be able to say that it is an illusion? Does Wolf contrast the illusion with ‘reality’, given that ‘reality’ is what his mind fashions? How (to use his own mode of thinking) do we penetrate beneath the skulls of others? Can we? Wolf thinks that, in contrast to the passively childish-sensual Gerda Torp, Christie Malakite is a kindred spirit, but she admonishes him: ‘Everything that happens is only something to be fixed up in your own mind... (yet) events are something outside any person's mind.’ How far does Wolf reach beyond his own mind? How successful is Powys in resolving the contradictions in Wolf's character, and indeed in his own portrayal of Wolf's situation?”

Nicholas Birns is Associate Professor at the Center for Applied Liberal Arts, New York University. He is the author of Understanding Anthony Powell (University of South Carolina Press, 2004). His Theory After Theory: An Intellectual History of Literary Theory from 1950 to the Early 21st Century appeared from Broadview in 2010. Other books include Barbarian Memory: The Legacy of Early Medieval History in Early Modern Literature (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), Contemporary Australian Literature: A World Not Yet Dead, (Sydney University Press, 2015). His co-edited Options for Teaching Australian and New Zealand Literature was published by the MLA in 2017. He has contributed to The New York Times Book Review, The Hollins Critic, Exemplaria, MLQ, and Partial Answers. Nicholas Birns gave a talk at the 2015 conference in Llangollen on J.C. Powys’s radical medievalism: Porius and Owen Glendower. Nicholas says that “Close reading is a literary strategy focusing on scrupulous, minute examination of the actual text of the literary work, focusing on concrete touchstones, phrases, words, or motifs. It is perhaps more often talked about as a strategy than actually performed in literary criticism, but it still an invaluable reading tool. Both because of the Powys brothers’ commitment to provocative and expansive subject matter, and in the case of JCP’s novels, their voluminous and crowded plots, close reading has not been dominant in Powys criticism. This presentation will close-read passages of all three brothers, including early and late JCP, his fiction and nonfiction, in order to canvas how and whether the concrete pattern of their words matter. But, given the interest of the Powys brothers in place, we will also assay another dimension of close reading: as a palpable, observant response to place. In comparing JCP’s and Llewelyn’s embrace of a focused attachment to place as well as Theodore’s existential rejection of place, we will see if close reading, in the first, verbal sense, can entail amore precise and nuanced close reading, in the geographical sense.”

Taliesin Gore is currently taking his MA in English Literary Studies at the University of Exeter, where, last summer, he wrote his undergraduate dissertation on the subject of pan-psychism in JCP’s philosophy and fiction. Taliesin plans to further his study of JCP in his MA dissertation this summer. “For John Cowper Powys”, says Taliesin, “the ‘material’ world was simply the outward manifestation of a primary psychic reality. The world his novels depict is not simply permeated by the psychic. It is essentially psychic; or, to borrow JCP’s own phrasing, everything is ‘personality’. Within philosophy, this position is known as pan-psychism. Nowhere in literature has the idea been realised so fully as in JCP’s novels, Wolf Solent and A Glastonbury Romance. This talk will examine the different roles played by pan-psychism in these novels.”

Saturday afternoon walk: ‘the lane where the two giant oaks grew. Mr. Evans had talked to [Cordelia] many times about these oaks. He of course associated them with the Druids. But Cordelia had heard quite a different story from her father's new secretary who had informed her that they had been planted to mark the spot where the Vikings had landed!’ — (A Glastonbury Romance, p. 215)