ABRAHAM COWLEY, a poet of considerable distinction, was born at London, in 1618. His father, who was a grocer by trade, died before his birth. but his mother, through the interest of her friends, procured his admission into Westminster school as a king's scholar. He has represented himself as so deficient in memory, as to have been unable to retain the common rules of grammar: it is, however, certain that, by some process, he became an elegant and correct classical scholar. He early imbibed a taste for poetry; and so soon did it germinate in his youthful mind, that, while yet at school, in his fifteenth or sixteenth year, he published a collection of verses, under the appropriate title of Poetical Blossoms.
In 1686 he was elected a scholar of Trinity college, Cambridge. In this favourable situation he obtained much praise for his academical exercises; and he again appeared as an author, in a pastoral comedy, called Love's Riddle, and a Latin comedy, entitled, Naufragium Joculare; the last of which was acted before the university, by the members of Trinity college. He continued to reside at Cambridge till 1643, and was a Master of Arts when he was ejected from the university by the puritanical visitors. He thence removed to Oxford, and fixed himself in St. John's college. It was here that he engaged actively in the royal cause, and was present in several of the king's journeys and expeditions, but in what quality, does not appear. He ingratiated himself, however, with the principal persons about the court, and was particularly honoured with the friendship of Lord Falkland.
When the events of the war obliged the queen-mother to quit the kingdom, Cowley accompanied her to France, and obtained a settlement at Paris, in the family of the Earl of St. Alban's. During an absence of nearly ten years from his native country, he took various journeys into Jersey, Scotland, Holland, and Flanders; and it was principally through his instrumentality that a correspondence was maintained between the king and his consort. The business of cyphering and decyphering their letters was entrusted to his care, and often occupied his nights, as well as his days. It is no wonder that, after the Restoration, he long complained of the neglect with which he was treated. In 1656, having no longer any affairs to transact abroad, he returned to England; still, it is supposed, engaged in the service of his party, as a medium of secret intelligence. Soon after his arrival, he published an edition of his poems, containing most of those which now appear in his works. In a search for another person, he was apprehended by the messengers of the ruling powers, and committed to custody; from which he was liberated, by that generous and learned physician, Dr. Scarborough, who bailed him in the sum of a thousand pounds. This, however, was possibly the sum at which he was rated as a physician, a character he assumed by virtue of a degree which he obtained, by mandamus, from Oxford, in December, 1657.
After the death of Cromwell, Cowley returned to France, and resumed his station as an agent in the royal cause, the hopes of which now began to revive. The Restoration reinstated him, with other royalists, in his own country; and he naturally expected a reward for his long services. He had been promised, both by Charles I. and Charles II., the Mastership of the Savoy, but was unsuccessful in both his applications. He had also the misfortune of displeasing his party, by his revived comedy of The Cutter of Coleman-street, which was construed as a satire on the cavaliers. At length, through the interest of the Duke of Buckingham and the Earl of St. Alban's, he obtained a lease of a farm at Chertsey, held under the queen, by which his income was raised to about £300 per annum. From early youth a country retirement had been a real or imaginary object of his wishes; and, though a late eminent critic and moralist, who had himself no sensibility to rural pleasures, treats this taste with severity and ridicule, there seems little reason to decry a propensity, nourished by the favourite strains of poets, and natural to a mind long tossed by the anxieties of business, and the vicissitudes of an unsettled condition.
Cowley took up his abode first at Barn-elms, on the banks of the Thames; but this place not agreeing with his health, he removed to Chertsey. Here his life was soon brought to a close. According to his biographer, Dr. Sprat, the fatal disease was an affection of the lungs, the consequence of staying too late in the fields among his labourers. Dr. Warton, however, from the authority of Mr. Spence, gives a different account of the matter. He says, that Cowley, with his friend Sprat, paid a visit on foot to a gentleman in the neighbourhood of Chertsey, which they prolonged, in free conviviality, till midnight; and that missing their way on their return, they were obliged to pass the night under a hedge, which gave to the poet a severe cold and fever, which terminated in his death. He died on July 28. 1667, and was interred, with a most honourable attendance of persons of distinction, in Westminster-abbey, near the remains of Chaucer and Spenser. King Charles II. pronounced his eulogy, by declaring, "that Mr. Cowley had not left a better man behind him in England."
At the time of his death, Cowley certainly ranked as the first poet in England; for Milton lay under a cloud, nor was the age qualified to taste him. And although a large portion of Cowley's celebrity has since vanished, there still remains enough to raise him to a considerable rank among the British poets. It may be proper here to add, that as a prose writer, particularly in the department of essays, there are few who can compare with him in elegant simplicity.