ABRAHAM COWLEY was perhaps the most popular English poet of his times. Waller stood next in public estimation. Dryden had as yet done nothing to stamp his name, and Milton's minor poems had not earned for him a national reputation: the same year that witnessed the death of Cowley ushered the "Paradise Lost" into the world. Cowley was born in London in the year 1618, and was the posthumous son of a respectable grocer. His mother had influence enough to procure admission for him as a king's scholar at Westminster; and in his eighteenth year he was elected of Trinity college, Cambridge. Cowley "lisped in numbers;" he published a volume of poems in his thirteenth year. A copy of Spenser used to lie in his mother's parlour, with which he was infinitely delighted, and which helped to make him a poet. The intensity of his youthful ambition may be seen from the two first lines in his miscellanies—
What shall I do to be for ever known,
And make the age to come my own?
Cowley, being a royalist, was ejected from Cambridge, and afterwards studied at Oxford. He went with the queen-mother to France, where he remained twelve years. He was sent on various embassies, and deciphered the correspondence of Charles and his queen, which, for some years, took up all his days, and two or three nights every week. At last the Restoration came with all its hopes and fears. England looked for happy days, and loyalty for its reward, but in both cases the cup of joy was dashed with disappointment. Cowley expected to be made master of the Savoy, or to receive some other appointment, but his claims were overlooked. In his youth he had written an ode to Brutus, which was remembered to his disadvantage; and a dramatic production, the Cutter of Coleman Street, which Cowley brought out shortly after the Restoration, and in which the jollity and debauchery of the cavaliers are painted in strong colours, was misrepresented or misconstrued at court. It is certain that Cowley felt his disappointment keenly, and he resolved to retire into the country. He had only just passed his fortieth year, but the greater part of his time had been spent in incessant labour, amidst dangers and suspense. "He always professed," says Dr Sprat, his biographer, "that he went out of the world as it was man's, into the same world as it was nature's and as it was God's. The whole compass of the creation, and all the wonderful effects of the divine wisdom, were the constant prospect of his senses and his thoughts. And, indeed, he entered with great advantage on the studies of nature, even as the first great men of antiquity did, who were generally both poets and philosophers." Cowley had obtained, through Lord St. Albans and the Duke of Buckingham, the lease of some lands belonging to the queen, worth about £300 per annum — a decent provision for his retirement. The poet finally settled at Chertsey, on the banks of the Thames, where his house still remains. Here he cultivated his fields, his garden, and his plants; he wrote of solitude and obscurity, of the perils of greatness, and the happiness of liberty. He renewed his acquaintance with the beloved poets of antiquity, whom he rivalled occasionally in ease and elegance, and in commemorating the charms of a country life; and he composed his fine prose discourses, so full of gentle thoughts and well-digested knowledge, heightened by a delightful bonhommie and communicativeness worthy of Horace or Montaigne. The style of these discourses is pure, natural, and lively. Sprat mentions that Cowley excelled in letter-writing, and that he and Mr. M. Clifford had a large collection of his letters, but they had decided that nothing of that kind should be published. This is much to be regretted. The private letters of a distinguished author are generally read with as much interest as his works, and Cowper and others owe much of their fame to such confidential disclosures of their habits, opinions, and daily life. Cowley was not happy in his retirement. Solitude that had so long wooed him to her arms, was a phantom that vanished in his embrace. He had attained the long-wished object of his studious youth and busy manhood; the woods and fields at length enclosed the "melancholy Cowley" in their shades. But happiness was still distant. He had quitted the "monster London;" he had gone out from Sodom, but had not found the little Zoar of his dreams. The place of his retreat was ill selected, and his health was affected by the change of situation. The people of the country, he found, were not a whit better or more innocent than those of the town. He could get no money from his tenants, and his meadows were eaten up every night by cattle put in by his neighbours. Dr Johnson, who would have preferred Fleet Street to all the charms of Arcadia and the golden age, has published, with a sort of malicious satisfaction, a letter of Cowley's, dated from Chertsey, in which the poet makes a querulous and rueful complaint over the downfall of his rural prospects and enjoyment. His retirement extended over a period of only seven years. One day, in the heat of summer, he had stayed too long amongst his labourers in the meadows, and was seized with a cold, which, being neglected, proved fatal in a fortnight. The death of this amiable and accomplished man of genius took place on the 28th of July, 1667. His remains were taken by water to Westminster, and interred with great pomp in the abbey. "The king himself," says Sprat, "was pleased to bestow on him the best epitaph, when, upon the news of his death, his majesty declared that Mr Cowley had not left a better man behind him."
Cowley's poetical works are divided into four parts — "Miscellanies," the "Mistress or Love Verses," "Pindaric Odes," and the "Davideis, a heroical poem of the Troubles of David." The character of his genius is well expressed by Pope—
Who now reads Cowley? If he pleases yet,
His moral pleases, not his pointed wit:
Forgot his epic, nay, Pindaric art,
But still I love the language of his heart.
Cowper has also drawn a sketch of Cowley in his "Task," in which he laments that his "splendid wit" should have been entangled in the "cobwebs of the schools." The manners of the court and the age inspired Cowley with a portion of gallantry, but be seems to have had no deep or permanent passion. He expresses his love in a style almost as fantastic as the euphuism of old Lyly or Sir Percie Shafton. "Poets," he says, "are scarce thought freemen of their company, without paying some duties, and obliging themselves to be true to love;" and it is evident that he himself composed his "Mistress" as a sort of task-work. There is so much of this wit-writing in Cowley's poetry, that the reader is generally glad to escape from it into his prose, where he has good sense and right feeling, instead of cold though glittering conceits, forced analogies, and counterfeited passion. His anacreontic pieces are the happiest of his poems; in them he is easy, lively, and fall of spirit. They are redolent of joy and youth, and of images of natural and poetic beauty, that touch the feelings as well as the fancy. His "Pindaric Odes," though deformed by metaphysical conceits, though they do not roll the full flood of Pindar's unnavigable song, though we admit that even the art of Gray was higher, yet contain some noble lines and illustrations. The best pieces of his "Miscellanies," next to the "Anacreontics," are his lines on the death of his college companion, Harvey, and his elegy on the religions poet, Crashaw, which are tender and imaginative. The "Davideis" is tedious and unfinished, but we have extracted a specimen to show how well Cowley could sometimes write in the heroic couplet. It is evident that Milton had read this neglected poem.