1847 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Abraham Cowley

William Howitt, "Abraham Cowley" Homes and Haunts of the Most Eminent British Poets (1847) 1:59-66.



The chief places connected with the name of Cowley are Barn-Elms and Chertsey, both in Surrey. Cowley is one of those poets who had a great reputation in his own time, but who at the present day are only read by those who are anxious to know the real history of the poetry of their country. He is so overloaded with the most outrageous conceits, and his whole system of versification is at once so affected, artificial, and yet rugged and often mean, that he has, in the midst of so much more genuine inspiration, fallen into almost utter neglect. Johnson, often unjust to our poets, can hardly be said to have been so to Cowley, when he says of him and the other metaphysical poets, that "they were men of learning, and to show their learning was their whole endeavour; but unluckily resolving to show it in rhyme, instead of writing poetry, they wrote only verses, and very often such verses as stood the trial of the finger better than of the ear; for the modulation was so imperfect, that they were only found to be verses by counting the syllables."... From this account of their compositions it will be readily inferred, that they were not successful in representing or moving the affections. "For these reasons," Johnson adds, "that though in his own time considered of unrivalled excellence, and as having taken a flight beyond all that went before him, Cowley's reputation could not last. His character of writing was indeed not his own: he unhappily adopted that which was predominant. He saw a certain way to present praise; and, not sufficiently inquiring by what means the ancients have continued to delight through all the changes of human manners, he contented himself with a deciduous laurel, of which the verdure in its spring was bright and gay, but which time has been continually stealing from his brows."

In Cowley, in fact, you will find many beautiful sentiments, and much learning; but he seems always playing with his matter, not dealing earnestly with it; constructing toys and gewgaws, not everlasting structures. You have artifice instead of feeling, and conceits and often downright fustian instead of heart, soul, and human passion. Who would now willingly wade through pages of such doggrel as this?—

Since 'tis my doom, Love's undershrieve,
Why this reprieve?
Why doth my she advowson fly,
Incumbency?
To sell thyself dost thon intend
By candle's end;
And hold the contract thus in doubt,
Life's taper out?
Think but how soon the market fails, &c.

Who can tolerate, after being raised to some expectation by a beginning like the following, the end which comes?—

Begin the song, and strike the living lyre:
Lo! how the years to come a numerous and well-fitted quire,
All hand in hand do decently advance,
And to my song with smooth and equal measure dance;
While the dance lasts, how long soe'er it be,
My music's voice shall bear it company,
Till all gentle notes be drowned
In the last trumpet's dreadful sound....

But stop, my Muse—
Hold thy Pindaric Pegasus closely in,
Which does to rage begin—
—'Tis an unruly and a hard-mouth'd horse—
'Twill no unskilful touch endure,
But flings writer and reader too that sits not sure.

As a specimen of his fiction, Johnson has quoted his description of the archangel Gabriel:

He took for skin a cloud most soft and bright,
That e'er the mid-day sun pierced through with light;
Upon his cheeks a lively blush he spread,
Washed from the morning beauties' deepest red
An harmless, fluttering meteor shone for hair,
And fell adown his shoulders with loose care;
He cuts out a silk mantle from the skies,
Where the most sprightly azure pleased the eyes;
This he with starry vapours sprinkles all,
Took in their prime ere they grow ripe and fall;
Of a new rainbow, ere it fret or fade,
The choicest piece cut out, a scarf is made.

This comes but indifferently after a passage of Byron or Shelley. But, in fact, Cowley seems to have been a man who could not be permanently and decidedly anything. He could not rise out of affectations, and dubious, half-way sort of positions, either in poetry or in life. He would fain pass for an ardent lover, and general admirer of the fair sex, and published a poem called The Mistress, on the ground stated in the preface to one of its editions, "That poets are scarcely thought freemen of their company, without paying some duties, or obliging themselves to be true to love." This is genuine Cowley: he did not write a poem on a love subject because he was full of the subject, but because it seemed to be expected of a poet. It was not passion and admiration that fired him, but it was necessary to appearances that he should do it. He was unluckily always spying about on the outside of his subject, and never plunging boldly into it. He was like a man who, instead of enjoying his house, should always be standing in the front and asking passengers what they thought of it, and if it did not look very fine? or, if not, where he could lay on some plaster, or put up a veranda? If his heart and soul had been engaged, there would have been less opportunity for his eternal self-consciousness; he would have done his work for the love of it, and because he could not help it, and not because he found it becoming to do some sort of work. Of love, therefore, says his biographer, he never knew anything but once, and then dare not tell his passion.

He was a strong loyalist; went over to France after the queen of Charles I. retired thither, and became secretary to Lord Jermyn, afterwards Earl of St. Albans, and was employed in such compositions as the royal cause required, and particularly in copying and deciphering the letters which passed between the king and queen. He afterwards came back, and occupied the somewhat equivocal character of spy on the republican government, and detailer of its proceedings to the royal party abroad. "Under pretence of privacy and retirement, he was to take occasion of giving notice of the posture of things in this nation." This soon led to his arrest and incarceration; and he was not set at large without a guarantee of a thousand pounds. As it was supposed, he now published his poems, with the object of writing something in his preface which should give government an idea of the abatement of his loyalty. This gave great offence to the royal party, and was in subsequent editions withdrawn. Continuing to live in England as if contented with the existing government, on the death of Cromwell he wrote verses, as is said, in praise of him, and which verses he suppressed; and then went over again to France, as soon as the Commonwealth gave signs of dissolution; and came back in the crowd of royalists, eager for the spoil of the nation. Like many others, however, who had been more decided and consistent than himself, he did not get what he expected, the Mastership of the Savoy.

This, and the ill-success of his play, Cutter of Coleman Street, which also was accused of being a satire on the king, filled Cowley with a desperate desire of retreating into the country. Whenever he was in trouble at Court, this passion for solitude came rapidly upon him. Under the Commonwealth, when imprisoned as a spy, he introduced into the preface to his poems, that "his desire had been for some days past, and did still very vehemently continue, to retire himself to some of the American plantations, and to forsake this world for ever." His courtly ambition being now again disappointed, he styled himself the melancholy Cowley, and resolved to ruralize in earnest. He had formerly studied physic, and obtained a diploma, but never practised; having now however convinced himself that he was a lover of the country, he determined to practise that, and so betook himself to Barn-Elms. "He was now," says Sprat, "weary of the vexations and formalities of an active condition. He had been perplexed with a long compliance to foreign manners. He was satiated with the arts of a Court, which sort of life, though his virtue made it innocent to him, yet nothing could make it quiet. These were the reasons that moved him to follow the violent inclinations of his own mind, which in the greatest hurry of his own business, had still called upon him, and represented to him the delights of solitary studies, of temperate pleasures, and a moderate income below the malice and flatteries of fortune."

It was not from a mind like Cowley's that we should expect a deep contentment as the result of this choice, and it is said not to have been the case. At first his poverty debarred him the necessary domestic comfort, but through the influence of his old patrons, the Earl of St. Albans, and the Duke of Buckingham, he secured a lease of some of the Queen's lands, which afforded him an ample income.

Barn-Elms lies about half a mile from Barnes, near the road leading from Hammersmith suspension bridge to Wimbledon. It is an old estate, and in Cowley's time must have been tolerably solitary. Since then the road just mentioned has been made across the estate, and an inn built close to its entrance gate. It still, however, presents the aspect of antiquity. The land is rich and flat; and the present park is thickly scattered with the trees from which it derives its name. Some of these are reduced to mere massy fragments of trunks, which give a venerable aspect to the place. The house here is now occupied by Sir Lancelot Shadwell, the vice-chancellor of England. The spot is remarkable for many other associations than those with Cowley.

The old house here was called Queen Elizabeth's Dairy, and from the richness of the meadow land, seems admirably calculated for a dairy on a grand scale. The property belonged to the canons of St. Paul's, having been granted to them by king Athelstan, but it was leased to Queen Elizabeth, and she granted her interest in it to Sir Francis Walsingham and his heirs. Here, in 1589, that subtle courtier entertained the queen and her whole court, where I suppose they would drink milk and be very rural. The Earl of Essex married Sir Francis's daughter, the widow of Sir Philip Sidney, and resided here frequently. No other man than Jacob Tonson afterwards lived in this house to which he built a gallery, wherein he placed the portraits of the members of the Kit-kat Club, which had been painted for him by Kneller. The members of the club were also entertained here frequently by the munificent bookseller, their secretary. Garth wrote the verses for the toasting glasses of the club, which, as they are preserved in his works, have immortalized some of the principal beauties of the commencement of the last century: Lady Carlisle, Lady Essex, Lady Hyde, and Lady Wharton. Tonson's gallery was partly pulled down a good many years ago, and partly united to a barn, so as to form a riding school. The pictures were removed to Bayfordberry, the seat of William Baker, Esq. near Hertford.

In George the Second's time, Heydegger, his master of the revels, was the tenant, and the following whim of his was played off on his royal master. The king gave him notice that he would sup with him one evening, and that he would come from Richmond by water. It was Heydegger's profession to invent novel amusements, and he was resolved to surprise his Majesty with a specimen of his art. The king's attendants, who were in the secret, contrived that he should not arrive at Barn-Elms before night, and it was with difficulty that he found his way up the avenue to the house. When he came to the door all was dark; and he began to be angry that Heydegger should be so ill-prepared for his reception. Heydegger suffered the king to vent his anger, and affected to make some awkward apologies, when, in an instant, the house and avenues were in a blaze of light, a great number of lamps having been so disposed as to communicate with each other, and to be lit at the same instant. The king heartily laughed at the device, and went away much pleased with his entertainment.

Adjoining the park, and not far from the house, is the farm and farm-yard of William Cobbett. Here that extraordinary man, as much attached to agriculture as to politics, had a sort of domicile and sleeping-place made for him in the farm-buildings, and used to survey his planting and ploughing as assiduously as if there were no corruptions to root up, and no rank weeds to extirpate in the great estate of the nation.

Cobbett's farm-yard still stands to remind you of him, but the house which Cowley inhabited has long been pulled down. From what I could learn on the spot, and it was little, it seems to have stood near the present stable-yard. The walls of the old gardens still remain, and old mulberry and other fruit-trees bear testimony to the occupation by wealthy families for ages. The grounds are now disposed in the fashion of a considerable park, with these old gardens and extensive shrubberies adjoining. A carriage drive of considerable extent leads from the Barnes road down to the house, on one hand giving a level prospect over the meadows towards Hammersmith, and on the other bounded with the tall hedge and thick trees inclosing the park. The whole, with its rich meadow-land, its old elms, and old gardens and shrubberies of fine evergreens, is almost too goodly for our ideas of the fortunes of a poet, and accords more truly with the prestige of a successful lawyer.

The house of Cowley at Chertsey yet remains, though it has been considerably altered: it is still called the Porch-house, but the porch has been cut away because it projected into the street. Over the front door is a tablet of stone, let into the wall, on which is inscribed — "Here the last accents fell from Cowley's tongue."

His garden and grounds were on the level of the meadows, as level as the meadows of Barn Elms. These meadows lie along the road, as you go from Weybridge to St. Ann's-hill, and a pleasant brook runs through them, skirting the garden. The country around is very agreeable, and the nearness of St. Ann's-hill, with its heathy sides, and noble views far and wide, is a great advantage. For a heart that loved solitude, there need have been no pleasanter spot, especially as the little town of Chertsey could afford all creature comforts, and the occasional chat of the clergyman, the doctor, and a resident family or two. But in Cowley's time, how much deeper must have been the retirement of such a retreat here; how much further it was from London! Now it is only a few hours' distance, by the South Western Railway; then, it was a journey — they took a night's rest on the way! His letter to Sprat from this place gives us an odd kind of idea of his enjoyment of the place.

"To DR. THOMAS SPRAT.

Chertsey, May 21, 1665.

The first night that I came hither I caught so great a cold, with a defluxion of rheum, as made me keep my chamber ten days; and, two after, had such a bruise on my ribs with a fall, that I am yet unable to move or turn myself in my bed. This is my personal picture here to begin with. And besides, I can get no money from my tenants, and have my meadows eaten up every night by cattle put in by my neighbours. What this signifies, or may come to in time, God knows; if it be ominous, it can end in nothing less than hanging. Another misfortune has been, and stranger than all the rest, that you have broke your word with me, and failed to come, even though you told Mr. Bois you would. This is what they call 'Monstri simile.' I do hope to recover my late hurt so far within five or six days, though it be uncertain whether I shall ever recover it, as to walk about again. And then, methinks, you and I, and the Dean, might be very merry upon St. Ann's-hill. You might very conveniently come hither the way of Hampton-court, lying there one night. I write this in pain, and can say no more. Verbum sapienti."

Poor Cowley did not long enjoy his retreat here, if he did enjoy it at all. Within two years he died at the Porch House (in 1667,) in the forty-ninth year of his age. He was buried with great pomp in Westminster Abbey, near Chaucer and Spenser.