Abraham Cowley

Anonymous, in Cibber-Shiels, Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland (1753) 2:42-56.

ABRAHAM COWLEY was the son of a Grocer, and born in London, in Fleet-street, near the end of Chancery Lane, in the year 1618. His mother, by the interest of her friends, procured him to be admitted a King's scholar in Westminster school; his early inclination to poetry was occasioned by reading accidentally Spencer's Fairy Queen, which, as he himself gives an account, "used to lye in his mother's parlour, he knew not by what accident, for she read no books but those of devotion; the knights, giants, and monsters filled his imagination; he read the whole over before he was 12 years old, and was made a poet, as immediately as a child is made an eunuch."

In the 16th year of his age, being still at Westminster school, he published a collection of poems, under the title of Poetical Blossoms, in which there are many things that bespeak a ripened genius, and a wit, rather manly than puerile. Mr. Cowley himself has given us a specimen in the latter end of an ode written when he was but 13 years of age. "The beginning of it, says he, is boyish, but of this part which I here set down, if a very little were corrected, I should not be much ashaimed of it." It is indeed so much superior to what might be expected from one of his years, that we shall satisfy the reader's curiosity by inserting it here.

This only grant me, that my means may lye,
Too law for envy, for contempt too high:
Some honour I would have
Not from great deeds, but good alone,
The unknown are better than ill known,
Rumour can ope the grave:
Acquaintance I would have, but when 't depends
Not on the number, but the choice of friends.

Books should, not business, entertain the light
And sleep, as undisturbed as death, the night:
My house a cottage, more
Than palace, and should fitting be
For all my use, no luxury:
My garden painted o'er
With nature's hand, not art; and pleasures yield,
Horace might envy in his Sabine field.

Thus would double my life's fading space,
For he that runs it well, twice runs his race
And in this true delight,
These unbought sports, that happy state,
I could not fear; nor wish my fate;
But boldly say, each night,
To-morrow let my sun his beams display,
Or in clouds hide them: I have lived to-day.

It is remarkable of Mr. Cowley, as he himself tells us, that he had this defect in his memory, that his teachers could never bring him to retain the ordinary rules of grammar, the want of which, however, he abundantly supplied by an intimate acquaintance with the books themselves, from whence those rules had been drawn. In 1636 he was removed to Trinity College in Cambridge, being elected a scholar of that house. His exercises of all kinds were highly applauded, with this peculiar praise, that they were fit, not only for the obscurity of an academical life, but to have made their appearance on the true theatre of the world; and there he laid the designs, and formed the plans of most of the masculine, and excellent attempts he afterwards happily finished. In 1638 he published his Love's Riddle, written at the time of his being a scholar in Westminster school, and dedicated by a copy of verses to Sir Kenelm Digby. He also wrote a Latin Comedy entitled Naufragium Joculare, or the Merry Shipwreck. The first occasion of his entering into business, was, an elegy, he wrote on the death of Mr. William Harvey, which introduced him to the acquaintance of Mr. John Harvey, the brother of his deceased friend, from whom he received many offices of kindness through the whole course of his life. In 1643, being then master of arts, he was, among many others, ejected his college, and the university; whereupon, retiring to Oxford, he settled in St. John's College, and that same year, under the name of a scholar of Oxford, published a satire entitled the Puritan and the Papist. His zeal in the Royal cause, engaged him in the service of the King, and he was present in many of his Majesty's journies and expeditions; by this means he gained an acquaintance and familiarity with the personages of the court and of the gown, and particularly had the entire friendship of my lord Falkland, one of the principal secretaries of state.

During the heat of the civil war, he was settled in the family of the earl of St. Alban's, and accompanied the Queen Mother, when the was obliged to retire into France. He was absent from his native country, says Wood, about ten years, during which time, he laboured in the affairs of the Royal Family, and bore part of the distresses inflicted upon the illustrious Exiles: for this purpose he took several dangerous journies into Jersey, Scotland, Flanders, Holland, and elsewhere, and was the principal instrument in maintaining a correspondence between the King and his Royal Consort, whose letters he cyphered and decyphered with his own hand.

His poem called the Mistress was published at London 1647, of which he himself says, "That it was composed when he was very young. Poets (says he) are scarce thought free men of their company, without paying some duties and obliging themselves to be true to love. Sooner or later they must all pass through that trial, like some Mahometan monks, who are bound by their order once at least in their life, to make a pilgrimage to Mecca. But we must not always make a judgment of their manners from their writings of this kind, as the Romanists uncharitably do of Beza for a few lascivious sonnets composed by him in his youth. It is not in this sense that poetry is said to be a kind of painting: It is not the picture of the poet, but of things, and persons imagined by him. He may be in his practice and disposition a philosopher, and yet sometimes speak with the softness of an amorous Sappho. I would not be misunderstood, as if I affected so much gravity as to be ashamed to be thought really in love. On the contrary; I cannot have a good opinion of any man who is not at least capable of being so." What opinion Dr. Sprat had of Mr. Cowley's Mistress, appears by the following passage extracted from his Life of Cowley. "If there needed any excuse to be made that his love-verses took up so great a share in his works, it may be alledged that they were composed when he was very young; but it is a vain thing to make any kind of apology for that sort of writing. If devout or virtuous men will superciliously forbid the minds of the young to adorn those subjects about which they are most conversant, they would put them out of all capacity of performing graver matters, when they come to them for the exercise of all men's wit must be always proper for their age, and never too much above it, and by practice and use in lighter arguments, they grow up at last to excell in the most weighty. I am not therefore ashamed to commend Mr. Cowley's Mistress. I only except one or two expressions, which I wish I could have prevailed with those that had the right of the other edition to have left out; but of all the rest, I dare boldly pronounce; that never yet was written so much on a subject so delicate, that can less offend the severest rules of morality. The whole passion of love is intimately described by all its mighty train of hopes, joys and disquiets. Besides this amorous tenderness, I know not how in every copy there is something of more useful knowledge gracefully insinuated; and every where there is something feigned to inform the minds of wise men, as well as to move the hearts of young men or women."

Our author's comedy, named the Guardian, he afterwards altered, and published under the title of the Cutter of Coleman-Street. Langbaine says, notwithstanding Mr. Cowley's modest opinion of this play, it was acted not only at Cambridge, but several times afterwards privately, during the prohibition of the stage, and after the King's return publickly at Dublin and always with applause. It was this probably that put the author upon revising it; after which he permitted it to appear publickly on the stage under a new title, at his royal highness the Duke of York's theatre. It met with opposition at first from some who envied the author's unshaken loyalty; but afterwards it was acted with general applause, and was esteemed by the critics an excellent comedy. In the year 1656 it was judged proper by those on whom Mr. Cowley depended, that he should come over into England, and under pretence of privacy and retirement, give notice of the situation of affairs in this nation. Upon his return he published a new edition of all his poems, consisting of four parts, viz.

1. Miscellanies.
2. The Mistress; or several copies of love-verses.
3. Pindarique Odes, written in imitation of the stile and manner of Pindar.
4. Davedeis, a sacred poem of the troubles of David in four books.

"Which, says Dr. Sprat, was written in so young an age, that if we shall reflect on the vastness of the argument, and his manner of handling it, be may seem like one of the miracles that he there adorns; like a boy attempting Goliah. This perhaps, may be the reason, that in some places, there may be more youthfulness and redundance of fancy, than his riper judgement would have allowed. But for the main of it I will affirm, that it is a better instance and beginning of a divine poem, than ever I yet saw in any language. The contrivance is perfectly ancient, which is certainly the true form of an heroic poem, and such as was never yet done by any new devices of modern wits. The subject was truly divine, even according to God's own heart. The matters of his invention, all the treasures of knowledge and histories of the bible. The model of it comprehended all the learning of the East. The characters lofty and various; the numbers firm and powerful; the digressions beautiful and proportionable. The design, to submit mortal wit to heavenly truths. In all, there is an admirable mixture of human virtues and passions with religious raptures. The truth is, continues. Dr. Sprat, methinks in other matters his wit exceeded all other men's, but in his moral and divine works it out-did itself; and no doubt it proceeded from this cause, that in the lighter kinds of poetry he chiefly represented the humours and affections of others; but in these he fat to himself, and drew the figure of his own mind. We have the first book of the Davideis translated out of English into very elegant Latin by Mr. Cowley himself." Dr. Sprat says of his Latin poetry, "that he has expressed to admiration all the numbers of verse and figures of poetry, that are scattered up and down amongst the ancients; and that there is hardly to be found in them any good fashion of speech, or colour of measure but he has comprehended it, and given instances of it, according as his several argumen required either a majestic spirit, or passionate, or pleasant. This he observes, is the more extraordinary, in that it was never yet performed by any single poet of the ancient Romans themselves."

The same author has told us, that the occasion of Mr. Cowley's falling on the pindarique way of writing, was his accidentally meeting with Pindar's works in a place where he had no other books to direct him. Having thus considered at leisure the heighth of his invention, and the majesty of his stile, he tried immediately to imitate it in English, and he performed it, says the Dr. without the danger that Horace presaged to the man that should attempt it. Two of our greatest poets, after allowing Mr. Cowley to have been a successful imitator of Pindar, yet, find fault with his numbers. Mr. Dryden having told us, that our author brought Pindaric verse a near perfection as possible in so short a time, adds, "But if I may be allowed to speak my mind modestly, and without injury to his sacred ashes, somewhat of the purity of English, somewhat of more sweetness in the numbers, in a word, somewhat of a finer turn and more lyical verse is yet wanting;" and Mr. Congreve having excepted against the irregularity of the measure of the English Pindaric odes, yet observes, "that the beauty of Mr. Cowley's verses are an attonement for the irregularity of his stanzas; and tho' he did not imitate Pindar in the strictness of his numbers he has very often happily copied him in the force of his figures, and sublimity of his stile and sentiments."

Soon after his return to England, he was seized upon thro' mistake; the search being intended after another gentleman of considerable note in the King's party. The Republicans, who were sensible how much they needed the assistance and coalition of good men, endeavoured sometimes by promises, and sometimes by threatning, to bring our author over to their interest; but all their attempts proving fruitless, he was committed to a severe confinement, and with some difficulty at last obtained his liberty, after giving a thousand pounds bail, which Dr. Scarborough in a friendly manner took upon himself. Under these bonds he continued till Cromwell's death, when he ventured back into France, and there remained, as Dr. Sprat says, in the same situation as before, till near the time of the King's return. This account is a sufficient vindication of Mr. Cowley's unshaken loyalty, which some called in question; and as this is a material circumstance in the life of Cowley, we shall give an account of it in the words of the elegant writer of his life just now mentioned, as it is impossible to set it in a fairer, or more striking light than is already done by that excellent prelate. "The cause of his loyalty being called in question, he tells us, was a few lines in a preface to one of his books; the objection, says he, I must not pass in silence, because it was the only part of his life that was liable to misinterpretation, even by the confession of those that envied his fame.

"In this case it were enough to alledge for him to men of moderate minds, that what he there said was published before a book of poetry and so ought rather to be esteemed as a problem of his fancy and invention, than as a real image of his judgement; but his defence in this matter may be laid on a surer foundation. This is the true reason to be given of his delivering that opinion: Upon his coming over he found the state of the royal party very desperate. He perceived the strength of their enemies so united, that till it should begin to break within itself, all endeavours against it were like to prove unsuccessful. On the other side he beheld their zeal for his Majesty's cause to be still so active, that often hurried them into inevitable ruin. He saw this with much grief; and tho' he approved their constancy as much as any man living, yet he found their unreasonable shewing it, did only disable themselves, and give their adversaries great advantages of riches and strength by their defeats. He therefore believed it would be a meritorious service to the King, if any man who was known to have followed his interest, could insinuate into the Usurper's minds, that men of his principles were now willing to be quiet, and could persuade the poor oppressed Royalists to conceal their affections for better occasions. And as for his own particular, he was a close prisoner when he writ that against which the exception is made; so that he saw it was impossible for him to pursue the ends for which he came hither, if he did not make some kind of declaration of his peaceable intentions. This was then his opinion; and the success of the thing seems to prove that it was not ill-grounded. For certainly it was one of the greatest helps to the King's affairs about the latter end of that tyranny, that many of his best friends dissembled their counsels, and acted the same designs under the disguises and names of other parties. The prelate concludes this account with observing, that, that life must needs be very unblameable, which had been tried in business of the highest consequence, and praised in the hazardous secrets of courts and cabinets, and yet there can nothing disgraceful be produced against it, but only the error of one paragraph, and single metaphor."

About the year 1662, his two Books of Plants were published, to which he added afterwards four more, and all these together, with his Latin poems, were printed in London, 1678; his Books on Plants was written during his residence in England, in the time of the usurpation, the better to distinguish his real intention, by the study of physic, to which he applied.

It appears by Wood's Fasti Oxon. that our poet was created Dr. of Physic at Oxford, December 2, 1657, by virtue of a mandamus from the then government. After the King's restoration, Mr. Cowley, being then past the 40th year of his age, the greatest part of which had been spent in a various and tempestuous condition, resolved to pass the remainder of his life in a studious retirement: In a letter to one of his friends, he talks of making a voyage to America, not from a view of accumulating wealth, but there to chuse a habitation, and shut himself up from the busy world for ever. This scheme was wildly romantic, and discovered some degree of vanity in the author; for Mr. Cowley needed but retire a few miles out of town, and cease from appearing abroad, and he might have been sufficiently secured against the intrusion of company, nor was he of so much consequence as to be forced from his retirement; but this visionary scheme could not be carried into execution, by means of Mr. Cowley's want of money, for he had never been much on the road of gain. Upon the settlement of the peace of the nation, he obtained a competent estate, by the favour of his principal patrons, the duke of Buckingham, and the earl of St. Albans. Thus furnished for a retreat, he spent the last seven or eight years of his life in his beloved obscurity, and possessed (says Sprat) that solitude, which from his very childhood he so passionately desired. This great poet, and worthy man, died at a house called the Porch-house, towards the West end of the town of Chertsey in Surry, July 28, 1667, in the 49th year of his age. His solitude, from the very beginning, had never agreed so well with the constitution of his body, as his mind: out of haste, to abandon the tumult of the city, he had not prepared a healthful situation in the country, as he might have done, had he been more deliberate in his choice; of this, he soon began to find the inconvenience at Barn-elms, where he was afflicted with a dangerous and lingring lever. Shortly after his removal to Chertsey, he fell into another consuming disease: having languished under this for some months, he seemed to be pretty well cured of its ill symptoms, but in the heat of the summer, by staying too long amongst his labourers in the meadows, he was taken with a violent defluxion, and stoppage in his breast and throat; this he neglected, as an ordinary cold, and refused to send for his usual physicians, 'till it was past all remedy, and so in the end, after a fortnight's sickness, it proved mortal to him.

He was buried in Westminster Abbey, the 3d of August following, near the ashes of Chaucer and Spenser. King Charles II. was pleased to bestow upon him the best character, when, upon the news of his death, his Majesty declared, that Mr. Cowley had not left a better man behind him in England. A monument was erected to his memory a May 1675, by George, duke of Buckingham, with a Latin inscription, written by Dr. Sprat, afterwards lord bishop of Rochester.

Besides Mr. Cowley's works already mentioned, we have, by the same hand, A Proposition for the advancement of Experimental Philosophy. A Discourse, by way of Vision concerning the Government of Oliver Cromwel, and several Discourses, by way of Essays, in Prose and Verse. Mr. Cowley had designed a Discourse on Stile, and a Review of the Principles of the Primitive Christian Church, but was prevented by death. In Mr. Dryden's Miscellany Poems, we find a poem on the Civil War, said to be written by our author, but not extant in any edition of his works: Dr. Sprat mentions, as very excellent in their kind, Mr. Cowley's Letters to his private friends, none of which were published. As a poet, Mr. Cowley has had tribute paid him from the greatest names in all knowledge, Dryden, Addison, Sir John Denham, and Pope. He is blamed for a redundance of wit, and roughness of versification, but as allowed to have possessed a fine understanding, great reading, and a variety of genius. Let us see how Mr. Addison characterizes him in his Account of the great English Poets.

Great Cowley then (a mighty genius) wrote,
O'errun with wit, and lavish of his thought;
His turns too closely on the readers press,
He more had pleased us, had he pleased us less:
One glittering thought no sooner strikes our eyes,
With silent wonder, but new wonders rise.
As in the milky way, a shining white
O'erflows the heavens with one continued light;
That not a single star can shew his rays,
Whilst jointly all promote the common blaze.
Pardon, great poet, that I dare to name,
Th' uncumber'd beauties of thy verse with blame;
Thy fault is only wit in its excess,
But wit like thine, in any shape will please.

In his public capacity, he preserved an inviolable honour and loyalty, and exerted great activity, with discernment: in private life, he was easy of access, gentle, polite, and modest; none but his intimate friends ever discovered, by his discourse, that he was a great poet; he was generous in his disposition, temperate in his life, devout and pious in his religion, a warm friend, and a social companion. Such is the character of the great Mr. Cowley, who deserves the highest gratitude from posterity, as well for his public a private conduct. He never prostituted his muse to the purposes of lewdness and folly, and it is with pleasure we can except him from the general, and too just, charge brought against the poets; That they have abilities to do the greatest service, and by misdirecting them, too frequently fawn the harlot face of loose indulgence, and by dressing up pleasure in an elegant attire, procure votaries so her altar, who pay too dear for gazing at the shewy phantom by loss of their virtue. It is no compliment to the taste of the present age, that the works of Mr. Cowley are falling into disesteem; they certainly contain more wit, and good sense, than the works of many other poets, whom it is now fashionable to read; that kind of poetry, which is known by the name of Light, he succeeds beyond any of his cotemporaries, or successors; no love verses, in our language, have so much true wit, and expressive tenderness, as Cowley's Mistress, which is indeed prefect in its kind. What Mr. Addison observes, is certainly true. "He more had pleased us, had he pleased us less." He had a soul too full, an imagination too fertile to be restrained, and because he has more wit than any other poet, an ordinary reader is somehow disposed to think he had less. In the particular of wit, none but Shakespear ever exceeded Cowley, and he was certainly as cultivated a scholar, as a great natural a natural genius. In that kind of poetry which is grave, and demands extensive thinking, no poet has a right to be compared with Cowley: Pope and Dryden, who are as remarkable for a force of thinking, as elegance of poetry, are yet inferior to him; there are more ideas in one of Cowley's pindaric odes, than in any piece of equal length by those two great genius's (St. Caecilia's ode excepted) and his pindaric odes being now neglected, can proceed from no other cause, than that they demand too much attention for a common reader, and contain sentiments so sublimely noble, as not to be comprehended by a vulgar mind; but to those who think, and are accustomed to contemplation, they appear great and ravishing. In order to illustrate this, we shall quote specimens in both kinds of poetry; the first taken from his Mistress called Beauty, the other is a Hymn to Light, both of which, are so excellent in their kind, that whoever reads them without rapture, may be well assured, that he has no poetry in his soul, and is insensible to the flow of numbers, and the charms of sense [verses omitted].