ABRAHAM COWLEY was the posthumous son of a reputable citizen of London, and born in 1618. At an early age, he evinced such a precocity of talents, that his mother, a woman of sense and virtue, felt an anxious desire to give him a learned education, and by means of some friends procured his admission into Westminster school.
It is said, that the Fairy Queen of Spenser gave an impulse to his native propensity to the muses, and stamped his future life. At the age of thirteen he actually published a volume of poems, some of which were written when he was only ten.
In 1636 he entered of Cambridge, where he composed the greatest part of his Davideis, without neglecting the severer academical studies; but finding his situation uncomfortable there from the prevalence of the parliamentary faction, he removed in 1643 to Oxford, and was much noticed by the royalists for his unshaken loyalty and the suavity of his manners, particularly by the great and good Lord Falkland.
Having in the sequel accompanied Queen Henrietta to Paris, he was afterwards employed in services of the highest confidence and honor for several years; but being dispatched to England in 1656, he was seized and committed to prison. By the intercession of some friends he procured his enlargement; soon after which he published his poems, and took a degree in physic at Oxford, though he never practiced medicine as a profession.
About this period he seems to have been disgusted with the world, and declared his intention to retire to distant regions, where he might enjoy in peace the muse he loved. But poets are sometimes fickle in their resolves; and Cowley, having seen the happy restoration of the royal family, settled first at Barn Elms, and afterwards at Chertsey in Surry, at which last named place he died, in 1667, in the 48th year of his age, admired and lamented by all who knew him.
Of Cowley it may be truly said, that his manners were amiable, that he possessed wit without satire, and religion without bigotry. His countenance and deportment prepossessed those who could form no estimate of his genius; while his genius reflected lustre on his external accomplishments.
As a poet, though he wrote much, his works are too metaphysical in general and perhaps too quaint. His amatory effusions are evidently drawn from the head rather than the heart; and some of his larger poems, particularly Of Plants are only ingenious incongruities. Yet some of his smaller pieces possess much splendid imagery, set off by harmonious numbers and sterling sentiments; and it will be long before the rust of time is able to tarnish their splendour: and we may sum up his character in the words of one of the many poets who lamented his death:
It is not now as't was in former days,
When all the streets of Rome were strow'd with bays,
To receive Petrarch, who through arches rode,
Triumphal arches! honour'd as a demigod,
Not for towns conquer'd, or for battles won,
But vict'ries which were more his own;
For victories of Wit, and victories of Art,
In which blind undiscerning Fortune had no part.
Though Cowley ne'er such honours did attain,
As long as Petrarch's Cowley's name shall reign:
'Tis but his dross that's in the grave,
His mem'ry Fame from death shall save;
His bays shall flourish and be ever green,
When those of conq'rors are not to be seen.