This poet was the son of Charles Cotton, esq. of Beresford, in Staffordshire, a man of considerable fortune and high accomplishments. Lord Clarendon says, he had all those qualities which in youth raise men to the reputation of being fine gentlemen: such a pleasantness and gaiety of humour, such a sweetness and gentleness of nature, and such a civility and delightfulness in conversation, that no man in the court, or out of it, appeared a more accomplished person: all these extraordinary qualifications being supported by as extraordinary a clearness of courage, and fearlessness of spirit, of which he gave too often manifestation. Some unhappy suits in law, and waste of his fortune in those suits, made some impression upon his mind; which being improved by domestic afflictions, and those indulgencies to himself which naturally attend those afflictions, rendered his age less reverenced than his youth had been; and gave his best friends cause to have wished that he had not lived so long."
His son, who inherited many of these characteristics, was born on the 28th of April, 1630, and educated at the university of Cambridge, where he had for his tutor Mr. Ralph Rawson, whom he celebrates in the translation of an ode of Johannes Secundus. At the university he is said to have studied the Greek and Roman classics with distinguished success, and to have become a perfect master of the French and Italian languages. It does not appear, however, that he took any degree, or studied with a view to any learned profession; but after his residence at Cambridge, travelled into France and other parts of the continent. On his return, he resided during the greater part of his life at the family seat at Beresford.
In 1656, when he was in his twenty-sixth year, he married Isabella, daughter of sir Thomas Hutchinson, knight, of Owthorp, in the county of Nottingham, a distant relation, and took her home to his father's house, as he had no other establishment. On his father's death, in 1658, he succeeded to the family estate, encumbered by those imprudencies noticed by lord Clarendon, from which it does not appear that be was ever able to relieve it.
From this time, almost all we have of his life is comprized in a list of his various publications, which were chiefly translations from the French, or imitations of the writers of that nation. In 1663, he published Mons. de Vaix's Moral Philosophy of the Stoics, in compliance, sir John Hawkins thinks, with the will of his father, who was accustomed to give him themes and authors for the exercise of his judgment and learning. In 1665, he translated the Horace of Corneille for the amusement of his sister, who, in 1670, consented that it should be printed. In this attempt he suffered little by being preceded by sir William Lower, and followed by Mrs. Catherine Phillips. In 1610, he published a translation of the Life of the Duke of d' Espernon; and about the same time, his affairs being much embarrassed, he obtained a captain's commission in the army, and went over to Ireland. Some adventures he met with on this occasion gave rise to his first burlesque poem, entitled A Voyage to Ireland, in three cantos. Of his more serious progress in the army, or when, or why he left it, we have no account.
In 1674, he published the translation of the Fair One of Tunis, a French novel; and of the Commentaries of Blaise de Montluc, marshal of France: and in 1675, The Planter's Manual, being instructions for cultivating all sorts of fruit trees. In 1678 appeared his most celebrated burlesque performance, entitled Scarronides, or Virgil Travestie: a Mock Poem, on the First and Fourth Books of Virgil's Aeneis, in English Burlesque. To this was afterwards added, Burlesque upon Burlesque, or the Scoffer scoffed: being some of Lucian's Dialogues newly put into English fustian.
In 1681, he published The Wonders of the Peak, an original poem; which, however, proved that be had not much talent for the descriptive branch of poetry. His next employment was a translation of Montaigne's Essays, which was highly praised by the marquis of Halifax, and has often been reprinted, as conveying the spirit and sense of the original with great felicity. His style certainly approaches very closely to the antiquated gossip of that "old prater."
The only remaining production of our author is connected with his private history. One of his favourite recreations was angling, which led to an intimacy between him and honest Isaac Walton, whom he called his father. His house was situated on the banks of the Dove, a fine trout stream, which divides the counties of Derby and Stafford. Here he built a little fishing house dedicated to anglers, "piscatoribus sacrum" over the door of which the initials of the names of Cotton and Walton were united in a cypher. The interior of this house was a cube of about fifteen feet, paved with black and white marble; the walls wainscoted, with painted pannels representing scenes of fishing: and on the doors of the beaufet were the portraits of Cotton and Walton. His partnership with Walton in this amusement induced him to write Instructions how to angle for a Trout or Grayling, in a clear Stream, which have since been published as a second part, or Supplement to Walton's Complete Angler.
At what time his first wife died, is not recorded. His second was Mary, countess dowager of Ardglass, widow of Wingfleld, lord Cromwell, second earl of Ardglass, who died in 1649. She must therefore have been considerably older than our poet, but she had a jointure of £1500 a year, which, although it afforded him many comforts, was secured from his imprudent management. He died in the parish of St. James's, Westminster, in 1681 and, it would appear, in a state of insolvency, as Elizabeth Bludworth, his principal creditor, administered to his effects, his widow and children having previously renounced the administration. These children were by the first wife. One of them, Mr. Beresford Cotton, published in 1694 the Memoirs of the Sieur de Pontis, translated by his father; and perhaps assisted in the collection of his poems which appeared in 1689. This gentleman had a company given him in a regiment of foot raised by the earl of Derby, for the service of king William: and one of his sisters was married to the celebrated Dr. George Stanhope, dean of Canterbury.
The leading features of Mr. Cotton's character may be gathered from the few circumstances we have of his life, and from the general tendency of his works. Like his father, he was regardless of pecuniary concerns, a lively and agreeable companion, a man of wit and pleasure, and frequently involved in difficulties from which he did not always escape without some loss of character. It has been reported that on one occasion he offended an aunt or grandmother, by introducing, in his Virgil Travestie, the mention of a singular ruff which she wore, and that this provoked the lady to revoke a clause in her will by which she had bequeathed an estate to him. The lines are supposed to be these.
And then there is a fair great ruff,
Made of a pure and costly stuff,
To wear about her highness' neck,
Like Mrs. Cockney's in the Peak.
But the story is probably not authentic. In his poems, we find a most affectionate epitaph on his aunt Mrs. Ann Stanhope.
His fate as a poet has been very singular. The Virgil Travestie and his other burlesque performances have been perpetuated by at least fifteen editions, while his poems, published in 1689 , in which he displays true taste and elegance, have never been reprinted until now. The present, indeed, is but a selection, as many of his smaller pieces abound in those indelicacies which were the reproach of the reign of Charles II. In what remain, we find a strange mixture of broad humour and drollery mixed with delicacy and tenderness of sentiment, and even with devotional poetry of a superior cast. His Pindarics will probably not be thought unworthy of a comparison with those of Cowley. His verses are often equally harmonious, while his thoughts are less encumbered with amplification. In his burlesque poems, Butler appears to have been his model, but we have the Hudibrastic measure only: nothing can be more vulgar, disgusting or licentious than his parodies on Virgil and Lucian. That they should have been so often reprinted, marks the slow progress of the refinement of public taste during time greater part of the eighteenth century: but within the last thirty years it has advanced with rapidity, and Cotton is no longer tolerated. The Travestie, indeed, even when executed with a more chaste humour than in Cotton's Virgil, or Bridges' Homer, is an extravagance pernicious to true taste, and ought never to be encouraged unless where the original is a legitimate object of ridicule.