John Cowper Powys (POH-uhs), born in Derbyshire, England, on October 8, 1872, was a member of an extraordinarily artistic family. His father was a minister of the Church of England, his mother a descendant of the poets William Cowper and John Donne. John Cowper Powys was an exceptionally prolific writer, and his two brothers, Llewelyn and Theodore Francis, each turned out a volume of work almost equal to his own. Of the other eight Powys children, one sister became a novelist and poet, another sister a painter, another brother an architect. All shared an inheritance of English common sense and Celtic imagination.
Powys, once graduated from Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, began his career as a lecturer in the United States and Britain. His approach to figures such as Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson was peculiarly romantic; he would try to intuit the essential nature of the man about whom he was speaking and would often identify himself with that person. As a result, his literary criticism is emotionally based, and his comments frequently reveal more about Powys than they do about the ostensible subject of the lecture. Despite this subjective quality, or perhaps because of it, he was a very successful lecturer.
His father having granted him an annuity of sixty pounds, Powys began the risky career of writing. He had been influenced by the pantheism of William Wordsworth and the Celtic romanticism of the early William Butler Yeats. Soon after his graduation from Cambridge he met Thomas Hardy, who was the principal influence on Powys’s fiction. At first, Powys wrote regional romances in the style of Hardy’s early-to mid-career fiction, but later he turned to the encyclopedic mysticism of books such as A Glastonbury Romance and Owen Glendower. Frequently Powys’s later novels deal with subject matter from the Welsh past that lends itself to a presentation of grotesque and fantastic scenes. Porius, for example, explores fifth century Wales, drawing on its Arthurian romance and the religious rituals of the Druids. His historical novels allow his imagination free rein; as a result they are frequently polymorphous, involving many different genres, shapes, and forms in order to emphasize their depiction of the spiritual totality of the human experience.
After 1910 a case of ulcers caused Powys frequently to spend his winters in the United States. In 1928 he settled there, living mostly in New York City, where he was a valued member of the bohemian literary scene in Greenwich Village, and at a cottage named Phudd Bottom in upstate New York. Having returned to Britain in 1934, he lived out the rest of his life accompanied by his companion, Phyllis Playter, in Wales, the land in which his imagination almost continually dwelt.