In one of the chapters on Wordsworth's Theory of Poetry in the Biographia Literaria, Coleridge says: "If I had happened to have had by me the Poems of Cotton, more but far less deservedly celebrated as the author of the Virgil Travestie, I should have indulged myself, and I think have gratified many who are not acquainted with his serious works, by selecting some admirable specimens of this style [the neutral style, i.e. that common to both Poetry and Prose]. There are not a few poems in that volume replete with every excellence of thought, image and passion which we expect or desire in the poetry of the milder muse; and yet so worded, that the reader sees no reason either in the selection or the order of the words, why he might not have said the very same in an appropriate conversation, and cannot conceive how indeed he could have expressed such thoughts otherwise, without loss or injury to his meaning."
As a poet Charles Cotton is, to-day, hardly known. In prose his name is familiar as the author of Part II of The Compleat Angler, a work which has gone through more editions than perhaps any other book in the English language, apart from Shakespeare's Plays or The Pilgrim's Progress; the catalogue in the British Museum is, in itself, an almost tedious testimony to its popularity. But Part II of The Compleat Angler, "being directions how to angle for a trout or grayling in a clear stream," beautiful prose though it is, is but an imitation of Walton's famous first and main part, and Cotton's Poems, were they better known, would certainly be recognized as his real contribution to English literature.
The truth is that if Cotton has benefited from his association with Walton, he has also suffered. The lustre of Izaak Walton's name has cast a faint reflected glow upon that of Charles Cotton, but it has also tended to obscure the true genius of Cotton, which lay in his poetry.
It is, indeed, curious that Cotton's poetical work should to-day be so little known, for just over a century ago not only Coleridge but Wordsworth and Charles Lamb were enthusiastic in their admiration of his Poems on several occasions, published two years after his death in 1689. But despite the good opinion of the most eminent literary authorities, no one has set to work to republish the rare edition of 1689, so that students of poetry and a wider public might have an opportunity of judging Cotton's merit as a Poet for themselves. It is true that Chalmers in his monumental edition of the Works of the English Poets, published in 1810, has included the greater number of Cotton's poems in his sixth volume, but it is an expensive business to purchase twenty volumes in order to read one poet, and to-day of course, Chalmers's work is almost unprocurable except at a prohibitive price. Sanford's production, The Works of the British Poets (1819), can be disregarded for our purpose as it only contains two of Cotton's poems. To come to more modern days, a very good selection was published in 1903 by Mr. J. R. Tutin of Cottingham, Hull, but this edition contains only forty-two out of some one hundred and eighty of Cotton's poems, excluding translations. It is noteworthy that The Oxford Book of English Verse contains only one small lyric by Cotton. Professor Saintsbury inserts four of the love lyrics in his excellent anthology of Seventeenth Century Lyrics.
That the Poems on several occasions should have been neglected so long, or, at least, known only to a few, is the more remarkable because certain other works in verse by Cotton had an immense popularity in his own day and throughout the eighteenth century. The Virgil Travestie went through edition after edition. It is a sort of burlesque of Books I and IV of the Aeneid in which Aeneas, Dido and the lesser human lights together with the gods are represented as the coarsest and commonest of beings. It is not simply obscene, it is exceedingly witty, but it is not poetry; it is a burlesque in verse intended to raise a laugh at the expense of gods and men.
At the foot of each page the original lines of Virgil are given. This is an excellent device and adds greatly to the point of the seventeenth satire. As far as I can gather from the British Museum catalogue, the last edition of this work was published in 1807.
The real Poetry, The Poems on several occasions, are many of them so personal that an appreciation of them will be rendered much easier by bearing in mind the outline of the Poet's life, the poetry and the life illustrating one another.
Charles Cotton was born on April 28th, 1630, at Beresford Hall, on the borders of Staffordshire and Derbyshire. His father, also Charles Cotton, was a "fine gentleman" of the day in the best sense of the term. His mother was the daughter of Sir John Stanhope of Elvaston, Knt. by his first wife, Olivia Beresford, to whom he was married in Fenny Bentley Church "uponn ye feast day of St. Michael ye Archangell," 1608. Olivia was the daughter of Edward Beresford, of Beresford, Esquire by his wife (and cousin) Dorothy, daughter of Aden Beresford of Fenny Bentley, Esquire, and it was through her that considerable estates in Staffordshire and Derbyshire passed eventually to her grandson, the Poet.
Charles Cotton, the elder, was a distinguished figure and knew most of the people worth knowing, John Fletcher, Ben Jonson, Sir Henry Wotton, Izaak Walton, Dr. Donne, Herrick, Lovelace, Davenant and Lord Clarendon. It is of him, whom he numbered among his "Chief Acquaintance," that Lord Clarendon in his autobiography has left an imperishable portrait:
"Charles Cotton was a gentleman born to a competent fortune, and so qualified in his person and education, that for many years he continued the greatest ornament of the town, in the esteem of those who had been best bred. His natural parts were very great, his wit flowing in all the parts of conversation; the superstructure of learning not raised to a considerable height, but having passed some years in Cambridge and then in France, and conversing always with learned men, his expressions were ever proper and significant, and gave great lustre to his discourse upon any argument; so that he was thought by those who were not intimate with him to have been much better acquainted with books than he was. 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 on his mind; which, being improved by domestic afflictions, and those indulgences 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."
It is now conclusively proved that Charles Cotton the elder and Olive Stanhope eloped in the most romantic manner conceivable, and that the marriage was much against the wish of Sir John Stanhope. Evidence of this is to be found not only in the account of certain curious legal proceedings (the case appears to have come before the Star Chamber) recorded in some documents in the Record Office (S.P. Dom. Jas. I, Vol. 204, No. 17), but much more vividly in a long statement written by Charles Cotton the Elder himself. The statement is as follows:
"The Several Answer of Charles Cotton, Esquire, to the Bill of Complaint of Sir John Stanhope, Knight, Complainant.
"This defendant is desirous with an humble submission to pacify the Complainant's displeasure, and to stir up his fatherly affection by all possible respects of obedience, and not to justify or excuse his actions, in hope that the complainant would be pleased to accept of his submission and to remit what is past upon trial to be made of this defendant's dutiful and respectful demeanour towards him in time to come which the Defendant both by himself and his Wife (the Complainant's child) in acknowledging his error and declaring that he is heartily penitent for the same, and also by the entreaty of many Honourable Friends this Defendant hath endeavoured to attain, and in obedience to the process of this most Honourable Court (saving to himself all advantage of exception to the insufficiency of the said Bill) for answer to the same sayeth that he hopeth to make it appear to this Honourable Court and to the Complainant that he is not of so poor means and estate as the Complainant hath been informed. For this Defendant sayeth that he is the son and heir of Sir George Cotton, late of Bedhampton, in the County of Southampton, Knight, and of Cassandra, his wife, who was one of the daughters and coheirs of Henry Mack-Williams of Stanburn Hall, in the County of Essex, Esquire, sometime one of the honourable band of pensioners to the late Queen of famous memory, Queen Elizabeth. So that this Defendant hopeth that neither this honourable Court nor the Complainant will conceive that any disparagement can redound to the Complainant or his Daughter by marriage with this Defendant. And further sayeth that he had an estate in Lands of Inheritance and Rents left unto him of the yearly value of £600 per annum, or thereabouts, which he yet hath, besides a personal estate of the value of one thousand marks or thereabouts. And if the same be not equivalent or proportionable to the Complainant's Daughter's estate this Defendant doubteth not but to supply any wants thereof by his affectionate love to his wife and respectful observation of such a father. And this Defendant further sayeth that he did not know that the said Olive was under the age of sixteen years, but was credibly informed she was of the age of sixteen years, nor knew what inheritance was descendable upon the Complainant's Daughter (now this Defendant's Wife) at the time that he sought to obtain her for his wife; his affections, being more fixed upon her person and the alliance of so noble a family than upon her estate; neither did he know that she was to have the lands in the bill mentioned, or what other lands she was to have either by descent or conveyance. But this Defendant sayeth that it is true that understanding of the virtuous disposition of the Complainant's Daughter, and receiving satisfaction of the good report he had heard by the sight of her person, he did by all possible means address himself to intimate unto her his desires, and having the opportunity to meet with her at the house of one of her Aunts, he, this Defendant did in short time discover her affection towards this Defendant and thereupon he was emboldened to proceed to move her in the way of marriage. And there were some Messages interchanged between them, whereby she signified her readiness to answer this Defendant's desires therein, and the difficulty to obtain her but by carrying of her away. And did herself appoint to come to this Defendant if he could come for her; whereupon he prepared a coach and in the evening of the day in the Bill mentioned, he came in a coach near unto Salisbury Court, where the Complainant dwelleth. And this Defendant's now wife came of her own accord to this Defendant and the same night he confesseth that they were married together and ever since cohabited together as Husband and Wife, in doing whereof if this Defendant's passion and fervency of affection have transported him beyond the bounds of wisdom, duty and good discretion, this Defendant doth most humbly crave the pardon and favourable construction of this most honourable Court and of the Complainant concerning the same. But as concerning any Riot or Riotous assembly this Defendant sayeth that he attended his Wife coming unto him being accompanied only with his ordinary attendance other than one gent. that then was in his company, and the minister who married them (being the Defendant's Kinsman) neither were they armed with any pistols, or otherwise than at other times they usually walked. And concerning the obtaining and suing out of the Licence in the bill mentioned or procuring Nicholas Butler and Richard Edmonds in the bill named or either of them or any other to make the oath in the bill mentioned, this Defendant sayeth that he never knew that any oath was made but by Report and that long after the same was done, nor ever saw the faces of the said Butler nor Edmonds to his knowledge, nor knoweth what they were or who produced them, nor ever made any use of the said Licence. And to all and every one the subornations of perjury, unlawful practices, or Conspiracies, Riots, or riotous Assemblies, or any other offence in and by the said Bill of complaint laid to the charge of this Defendant (except only the marrying of the said Complainant's daughter) in such sorte as formerly is expressed — Hereby this Defendant sayeth that he is not of them or any of them guilty in such as in and by the said Bill is declared. And humbly prayeth by the favour of this Honourable Court to be dismissed from any further attendance thereabouts."
The marriage was not upset, and this delightful elopement was followed by the birth of our poet, the younger Charles. But as the years went by the married relations of his parents became most unhappy, and the sombre conclusion of Lord Clarendon's account of the elder Cotton receives an ample explanation from a House of Lords manuscript, a brief summary of which is given in the Appendix to the Sixth Report of the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts. As this document, dated 1647, has never before been published and is of considerable interest, not only for the light it throws on the Cotton family history, but on the social history of the time, I have transcribed the Manuscript in full from the original in the House of Lords:
"To the Right Honorable the House of Lords in Parliament assembled.
"The humble petition of Mrs. Olive Cotton, the wife of Charles Cotton, Esq.
"That the petitioner about 18 years since did in her extreme affection marry her now husband to whom besides £1,500 in money she hath brought of inheritance at least £500 per annum already in possession and at least £800 per annum upon reversion after the death of her mother-in-law [i.e. stepmother]. And in all this time bath so demeaned herself towards him as that she hath never given any just occasion of exception.
"That notwithstanding her said husband having of late for many years absented himself from her, he hath also for above 9 months last past, exposed her to want and misery not only by keeping her out of her own house and estate, but also not allowing her abroad any maintenance for herself and family, enforcing her thereby to live (formerly upon her credit with strangers) and now at last upon the charity of her kindred and friends.
"That the petitioner upon an unwillingness to appear against her husband upon any public complaint, hath thus long suffered beyond ordinary extremities: And in the interim (though in vain) endeavoured all amiable ways by noble and indifferent friends to obtain from him (who hath four hundred pounds per ann. of his own) a poor alimony of £300 per ann. with a proportionate addition when her reversion shall fall being but one third part, and (as she humbly conceives) little enough, considering her quality and condition and the fortune she brought in marriage.
"That the petitioner is now compelled to think of relief in course of legal proceedings: and therefore craves leave to make this her humble address unto this honourable house, which in a case of this nature (and at this time specially) is the most proper (if not the only) judicatory whose wisdom and justice the Petitioner presumes that her husband would not (if he might) decline.
"And the petitioner (altogether otherwise hopeless) most humbly prays the honourable consideration of the premises and a speedy relief according to justice.
"And the petitioner shall ever pray.
There is no record in the House of Lords papers of the result of this petition, and this is not surprising considering the time of civil commotion in which it was made. Whether the relations between Olive Cotton and her husband improved is not known, but there is a most charming letter of hers to her steward, dated May 10, 1650, which certainly seems cheerful enough. (This letter 7 will be found quoted in full in Appendix II.) Shortly afterwards she died in her thirty-eighth year. Sir Aston Cokayne, the poet, wrote the following beautiful "Epitaph on my dear cousin german Mrs. Olive Cotton":
Passenger, stay, and notice take of her
Whom this sepulchral marble doth inter:
For Sir John Stanhope's daughter, and his heir,
By his first wife, a Beresford, lies here.
Her husband of a noble house was, one
Everywhere for his worths beloved and known.
One only son she left, whom we presage
A grace t' his family, and to our age.
She was too good to live, and young to die,
Yet stay'd not to dispute with destiny
But (soon as she receiv'd the summons given),
Sent her fair soul to wait on God in Heaven.
Here, what was mortal of her turns to dust,
To rise a glorious body with the just.
Now thou may'st go; but take along with thee
(To guide thy life and death) her memory.
But if the concluding passage in Lord Clarendon's account of the elder Cotton's domestic failings is confirmed by his wife's tragic appeal to the House of Lords, the main and appreciative part of that account is also amply confirmed by a cloud of the most distinguished witnesses. Herrick, Lovelace, and Sir William Davenant all dedicated poems to the elder Cotton. Lovelace's dedicatory poem was the beautiful "Grasshopper" in Lucasta. Davenant's poem was written in 1652 from the Tower where he was then imprisoned:
And Charles, in that more civil century,
When this shall wholly fill the voice of fame,
The busy antiquaries then will try
To find among their Monarch's coin, thy name.
Much they will bless thy virtue, by whose fire
I'll keep my laurel warm, which else would fade,
And, thus inclos'd, think me of nature's quire,
Which still sings sweetest in the shade.
Charles Cotton, the younger, replied to Sir William Davenant on his father's behalf in a poem, even more charming:
Oh happy Fire, whose heat can thus control
The rust of age, and thaw the frost of death,
That renders man immortal, as his soul,
And swells his fame with everlasting breath.
Happy's that hand, that unto honour's clime
Can lift the subject of his living praise,
That rescues frailty from the scythe of time,
And equals glory to the length of days.
Blest is my Father, that has found his name
Among the heroes, by your pen revived,
By running in Time's wheel his thriving fame,
Shall still more youthful grow and longer liv'd.
Charles Cotton further mentions his father and his brilliant circle of friends in a poem addressed "to my old and most worthy friend Mr. Izaak Walton on his Life of Dr. Donne, etc.," a poem sometimes found in editions of The Compleat Angler on account of its historical interest in connection with the life of Walton, and also on account of its intrinsic beauty:
How happy was my father, then, to see
Those men he lov'd, by him he lov'd, to be
Rescued from frailties and mortality.
Wotton and Donne, to whom his soul was knit,
Those twins of virtue, eloquence and wit,
He saw in fame's eternal annals writ....
And even in their flowery characters
My father's grave part of your friendship shares
For you have honoured his in strewing theirs.
This poem was particularly loved by James Russell Lowell, who says some wise and beautiful things in praise of Cotton in the course of an introductory essay to an American edition of The Compleat Angler published in 1889 (see vol. i, pp. xliv-xlix).
Whether Charles Cotton the younger was educated at Oxford or Cambridge is not definitely known. It is certain that his tutor was Ralph Rawson, Fellow of Brasenose College, Oxford, because Cotton dedicated "An Ode of Johannes Secundus translated, to my dear tutor Mr. Ralph Rawson." Tradition, however, seems to favour Cambridge, perhaps because his father was there. Rawson was apparently ejected from his fellowship in 1648 by the Parliamentary visitors, but the eighteenth century scholar and antiquary, William Oldys, suggests that Rawson may have removed to Cambridge after his ejection from Oxford. It is, of course, possible that Cotton may have been at Cambridge and afterwards continued his studies under Rawson. He does not appear to have taken a degree. In any case he had the most excellent education which gave him a thorough knowledge of Greek, Latin, French and Italian. His translations in prose and verse from these languages are very good. His translation of Montaigne's essays, in particular, is held to be a masterpiece and has been through a large number of editions from his own time to the present. Sir Aston Cokayne, a cousin of Cotton's and himself a poet who wrote the most admirable epitaphs, celebrates Cotton's library in one of his verses:
D'Avila, Bentivoglio, Guicciardine,
And Machiavel, the subtle Florentine,
In their originals, I have read through,
Thanks to your library, and unto you.
Sir Aston Cokayne had an unbounded admiration for his cousin's works and eulogized him with quite an embarrassing extravagance:
The world will find your lines are great and strong,
The nihil ultra of the English tongue,
he says in one of his poems. Gerard Langbaine (1656-1692) in his memoir of Cotton in An Account of the English Dramatick Poets says that he was an "excellent Lyric Poet."
But Sir Aston Cokayne was not by any means alone among contemporary poets in admiring him. Another poet with a more illustrious name, Colonel Richard Lovelace, dedicated "The triumphs of Philamore and Amoret, to the noblest of our youth and best of friends, Charles Cotton, Esquire, being at Beresford, at his house in Staffordshire, from London." This was some time between 1649 and 1658. When in 1658 Lovelace died in a garret in London, Cotton wrote a poem to his memory which appears in the present edition.
It seems from a statement of Aubrey's (in his Lives of Eminent Men) that Cotton had helped Lovelace in his poverty. Aubrey says: "George Petty, haberdasher in Fleet Street, carried twenty shillings to him every Monday morning from Sir — Many, and Charles Cotton, Esq., for months but was never repaid." Aubrey's statement is corroborated by some lines in the "Philamore and Amoret" poem. This testimony is interesting because Cotton has been censured for reckless extravagance. Certainly he dissipated most of his patrimony before his death, but extravagance which also extends itself in charity becomes a shining virtue as compared with purely personal extravagance on the one hand, or the selfish accumulation of riches on the other. Nevertheless, the effect of Cotton's extravagance, whatever may have been its cause, was the one thorn in the flesh which disturbed what appears otherwise to have been a very happy life. The process of alienating the ancestral estates was definitely begun by the elder Cotton. It was carried a stage further in 1656 when the younger Cotton married his cousin Isabella, daughter of Sir Thomas Hutchinson of Owthorpe in Nottinghamshire and step-sister of the celebrated Colonel Hutchinson, whose beautiful character and devoted life shed such a lustre on the Parliamentary cause. The estates, including the Manors of Beresford, Bentley and Borrowash, were then vested in trustees who were to sell such as would pay off a considerable mortgage and hold the rest in trust for the poet and his heirs. In 1659, in consideration of £650, Cotton conveyed some property situated in Marston, Sandon and Salt to one Abraham Fowler of Salt. Some six years later and again in 1675 in order to meet liabilities amounting to about £8,000, a Private Act of Parliament enabled more lands to be sold by the Trustees. Just before 1675, Cotton, who had had nine children by his first wife, — she died in April, 1669, and was buried at Alstonfield, close to Beresford, — married a second time, a widow, the Right Honourable Dame Mary, Countess Dowager of Ardglass, who had considerable means of her own. But as Sir Harris Nicolas observes, "this increase in his income did not prevent the necessity of his again applying to Parliament," i.e. in 1675 as above recited. The consequence of his (or his father's) financial carelessness was that he was every now and again reduced to a state of gentlemanly poverty, of all forms of poverty the most distressing. This greatly weighed on his mind and is a constant theme of regret and melancholy in the poems. In his Ode to Poverty he describes how he is pursued and badgered by "obstreperous creditors."
In another ode on Death (which he calls a "Child's Bug-bear because:
The Nurse to keep the child in fear,
Discreetly tells it, it must die.
Be put into a hole, eaten with worms;
Presenting Death in thousand ugly forms,
but which by the wise is esteemed the greatest felicity) he welcomes the thought of the peace of the grave:
The grave is privileg'd from noise, and care,
From tyranny, and wild oppression,
Violence has so little power there,
Even worst oppressors let the dead alone;
We're there secure from Prince's frowns,
The insolences of the great,
From the rude hands of barb'rous clowns,
And policies of those that sweat
The simple to betray, and cheat;
Or, if some one with sacrilegious hand
Would persecute us after Death,
His want of power shall his will withstand,
And he shall only lose his breath;
For all that he by that shall gain,
Will be dishonour for his pain,
And all the clutter he can keep
Will only serve to rock us while we soundly sleep....
No loss of substance, parents, children, friends,
Either his peace, or sleep offends.
In another half sad, half humorous "Epistle to the Earl of —" (Philip Stanhope, 2nd Earl of Chesterfield, Cotton's cousin) he describes an approaching financial catastrophe and seems to contemplate seeking refuge from his importunate creditors by flying to France.
In a note to Sir John Hawkins's amended Memoir of Cotton a tradition is mentioned that Cotton used to seek refuge from his creditors in a cave wonderfully concealed in the wild romantic grounds of Beresford Hall, grounds which, in part, precipitously overlook the river Dove. "But a few years since," it is stated, "the grand-daughter of the faithful woman who carried him food while in that humiliating retreat, was living." This seems a most probable story as Cotton himself in one of his poems ("The Retirement — to Mr. Izaak Walton") refers to his
Beloved caves! from dog-star heats
And hotter persecution safe retreats.
It is not necessary here to dwell further on this aspect of Cotton's life which is emphasized in a number of his poems; enough has been said to show how it influenced his mind. Apart from this probably intermittent, though while it lasted deadly anxiety, Cotton's life seems to have been really happy. From his many fine lyrics it is clear that he was an ardent lover, and when at the age of twenty-six he settled down to marriage, he appears to have been devoted to his wife and his children. That he was a person of quite remarkable industry and knowledge a glance at the Bibliography of his original works and translations at the end of this volume (Appendix III) will sufficiently indicate. Only those who will take the trouble to look up his now forgotten translations (except his Montaigne which has been repeatedly republished) can form any adequate notion of his activity in this branch of letters alone. And it must be remembered that he was not merely a literary man, but a soldier and country squire as well. He held a Captain's commission in the regiment of his cousin, Lord Chesterfield, he was a justice of the Peace for Staffordshire, he was His Majesty's "Lieutenant of Needwood Forest and his High Steward of the honour of Tutbury." Every now and then he went on a jaunt to London, and on one occasion, — apparently in the year 1670, — to Ireland. This latter expedition is celebrated in a long poem, "A voyage to Ireland in burlesque," an admirable story brimful of humour and vivid description. You ride with him all the way from Beresford to the coast, where the poem unfortunately ends, stop at an inn or two to drink ale of unutterable excellence, stop the week-end at Chester, attend service in the Cathedral and sup with the Mayor, and then on again through Wales, led by a guide mounted on a scarecrow of a horse.
Cotton does not appear to have taken any public part in the civil and political turmoils of his time, though it is clear from his writings that he was a devoted Royalist. Apart from his journey to Ireland and travels abroad in his youth, and occasional expeditions to London, he seems to have lived most of his life at Beresford Hall on the banks of the Dove. He could hardly have lived in a more beautiful spot. Izaak Walton, who used to stay with him there, says of the place, "the pleasantness of the river, mountains and meadows about it, cannot be described; unless Sir Philip Sidney, or Mr. Cotton's father were alive again to do it." So quiet and beautiful are the surroundings that it would be difficult to live there and not write poetry! To Cotton, a countryman born and bred, and an accomplished angler, his home was clearly an earthly paradise, and some of the most beautiful of the poems are written about it, and the country side around. Of all Cotton's poetry, — the love lyrics, the odes, the burlesques, the excellent drinking songs, — the poems on Nature are, perhaps, the best, — certainly the most noteworthy.
Allowing for the century and more that separated them, and the vast difference of the age in which they lived, it is not extravagant to describe Cotton as being in some sense a forerunner of Wordsworth. Unlike others of that divine choir of seventeenth-century singers, the appeal of Nature to Cotton lay not in its elaborate beauty, but in its primitive and profound simplicity. Wordsworth was himself a great admirer of Cotton's work and it is noteworthy that he should have compared him with another great poet of Nature, Robert Burns. In his brilliant ,Letter to a friend of Robert Burns," he observes "that this highly gifted man (Cotton) ... in versatility of genius, bore no unobvious resemblance to the Scottish bard." This comparison pleased the unerring judgment of Charles Lamb who, writing to Wordsworth in 1816 says: "The parallel of Cotton with Burns I heartily approve." I ought perhaps to add that Wordsworth in the manner where humour always failed him, the manner of public moralist, also indicates that Cotton and Burns were alike in the looseness of their lives. As to this it should be said that apart from the freedom of language in the travesties of the Eneid and Lucian's Dialogues, and one or two of the Poems, a fashion of his time, there is no evidence of looseness of life. All we know is that he married twice and, by his first wife, had nine children in lawful wedlock; Wordsworth should not have jumped to conclusions! Mr. Richard Le Gallienne has very properly trounced Dr. Bethune, an American editor of The Compleat Angler, for representing Cotton as such a debauched character as almost to be unworthy the society of the saintly Walton. He may have been lax, but we do not know. Even if he was, Wordsworth's own most admirable apologia for Robert Burns contains the final word on such matters. In contrast to Dr. Bethune, I should add that his eminent compatriot Lowell has nothing but praise not only for Cotton's genius, but for his character.
In Wordsworth's essay "Of Poetry as observation and description," after drawing that curious distinction between Imagination and Fancy, "Fancy is given to quicken and to beguile the temporal part of our nature, Imagination to incite and to support the eternal," — he takes Cotton's "Ode upon Winter, an admirable composition ... for a general illustration of the characteristics of Fancy." The poem pleases him so much that he "cannot resist the pleasure of transcribing some eleven stanzas." "Winter" is certainly one of Cotton's masterpieces and by itself should make his name immortal. It consists in all of some fifty-three stanzas, but despite its length, the brilliance of description and of rhyme is sustained throughout. Winter is seen sailing to England on a tempest-tossed ship with his armed soldiers of Winds and Snow, Hail and Ice. I do not know of any poem which so riots with metaphorical excellence or makes one shiver more from the utter cold.
It will be seen that there are two other poems about Winter, both of them, in their way, excellent. Cotton was always complaining of the bitter cold in his bleak Staffordshire and Derbyshire country, just as he complains of its remoteness, but in reality he was in love with the beauty there of winter, of summer, and of solitude. In those wonderful "stanzes irreguliers" to Izaak Walton, first published in the famous fifth edition of The Compleat Angler in 1676, you read:
Good God! how sweet are all things here!
How beautiful the fields appear!
How cleanly do we feed and lie!
Lord! what good hours do we keep!
How quietly we sleep!
What peace! what unanimity!
How innocent from the lewd fashion,
Is all our business, all our conversation!
These irregular stanzas were a favourite with Charles Lamb, who quotes from them with obvious delight in a letter to Thomas Hood written in 1827. Izaak Walton refers to this poem in his letter to Cotton dated April 29th, 1676, accompanying the newly printed edition of The Compleat Angler of that year: "And Sir, I have ventured to fill a part of your margin by way of paraphrase, for the reader's clearer understanding the situation, both of your Fishing-House and the pleasantness of that you dwell in. And I have ventured also to give him a copy of Verses that you were pleased to send me, now, some years past, in which he may see a good picture of both; and so much of your own mind too, as will make any reader, that is blest with a generous soul to love you the better. I confess that for doing this you may justly judge me too bold; if you do, I will say so too; and so far commute for my offence that, though I be more than a hundred miles from you, and in the eighty-third year of my age, yet will I forget both, and next month begin a pilgrimage to beg your pardon; for I would die in your favour, and till then will live, Sir, your most affectionate Father and Friend, Izaak Walton."
One of the main characteristics of Cotton's poetry is its extraordinary directness. He had an astonishing gift of saying what he really meant and felt in the simplest and most appropriate words. He had perhaps the greatest of all moral and poetic qualities, sincerity. Contrasted with some of the great poets of his century he is "a plain man," but he is none the less for that a poet. His poetry is not "metaphysical," and Professor Grierson's recent most excellent anthology of Metaphysical Poetry contains nothing from his pen. It is true that a few of the poems are of the metaphysical school, poems like "The Tempest," but in the main Cotton is quite out of the current of that magnificent and many-winding metaphysical stream which flowed through the seventeenth century, and is that century's distinctive contribution to the genius of English Poetry.
But it is just because Cotton is, in this sense, not of his age that his work is so interesting. He is a hundred years ahead of his time, and it is doubtless for this very reason that Coleridge and Wordsworth and Lamb found his work so pleasant. His soul delighted not so much in those choice gardens (of which Donne and Marvell and Cowley have left the living fragrance) but rather in the bitterness and wildness of winter in the Peak country, or the deep solitude of his river valley in the height of summer, silent but for the field-fare, the bittern or the thrush. And it is not only in the poems especially about Nature that you hear the new voice. There are whispers of it in the love lyrics, and the more conventional poetic forms of the time. Who, in his century, but Cotton would have dreamed of describing a beautiful courtezan as:
As soft, and snowy, as that down
Adorns the blow-ball's frizzled crown;...
Pleasant as th' odorous month of May:
As glorious, and as light as Day.
The subject, the turn of the verse and the "wit " are of the seventeenth century, but the imagery is that of Burns or Wordsworth.
A notable characteristic of Cotton's work is its wide range. I do not, of course, claim for a moment that he did not write a certain amount of indifferent stuff. What poet, other than the supreme beings, has not? But much of the more mediocre work is "lighted up," as Professor Saintsbury says of Chamberlayne's poetry, "by splendid shooting stars," and throughout there is invariably wit and an extraordinary humanness. To Lamb he was "hearty, cheerful Mr. Cotton." He makes you share immediately in his wealth and in his poverty, in his sorrow and his gaiety, in his boisterousness and in his peace. In a word, he is direct, natural, sincere.
Charles Lamb in his essay on "New Year's Eve," at the end of which he quotes in full Cotton's poem on "The New Year," speaks of that poem as "the purging sunlight of clear poetry." This praise might be applied to a great number, if not a majority, of the poems in this volume. Whether they are love poems, or poems on Nature, or odes in the classical style, or drinking songs they are always unaffected and straightforward. Even in an artificial form of poem, such as "an epigram writ in Calista's Prayer Book," or an epitaph "on the lamented death of my dear Uncle, Mr. Radcliff Stanhope," there is the same unelaborateness and justness of expression.
In a postscript to a letter written to Coleridge on November 8th, 1796, Lamb gives this excellent advice about the writing of poetry:
"Cultivate simplicity, Coleridge; or rather, I should say, banish elaborateness; for simplicity springs spontaneous from the heart, and carries into daylight its own modest buds, and genuine, sweet and clear flowers of expression; I allow no hot-beds in the gardens of Parnassus."
We must complete the story of Cotton's life. In 1681 he published a long poem, called The Wonders of the Peak, which he dedicated to the Countess of Devonshire, among the Wonders described being Chatsworth. This poem went through several editions and will be found in the collection of his two other long works in verse, the Virgil Travestie and The Scoffer Scoft (a burlesque of some of Lucian's dialogues) which went through so many editions in the eighteenth century. It is amusing that The Wonders of the Peak was written in imitation of a Latin Poem, "De mirabilibus Pecci," by the philosopher Hobbes. The last work completed before his death was his translation of Montaigne's Essays in three volumes which Sir Harris Nicolas says "is considered to be his most important contribution to English literature; for unlike translations in general, it is said rather to excel than be inferior to the original." In February, 1687, Cotton died of a fever in London and was buried in St. James's Church, Piccadilly, not St. Martin's in the Fields, as has been stated on the authority of a contemporary MS. Diary.
Two years after his death Poems on Several Occasions made their appearance, though no one knows who was responsible for an edition which bears the marks of having been put hastily together, some of the poems appearing twice over. This manner of publishing his father's poems caused the eldest son, Beresford Cotton, much distress, and in the Publisher's preface to his father's translation of the "Memoirs of the Sieur de Pontis," it is stated. "If the person who disposed of those Poems to the booksellers, had consulted Mr. Cotton's relations, as he ought to have done, both his memory and the world had been much more obliged to him. For by these ungenerous proceedings he hath obstructed the publishing of a collection very different from that; and well chosen by the author, with a preface by himself and all copied out for the press. This digression I thought due to the character of a person, whose other performances have been so well received, who knew how to distinguish between writing for his own diversion, and the entertainment of others; and had a better judgment than to thrust anything abroad unworthy himself or his readers. I only beg pardon for being in one sense very unreasonable; for, in truth, the world ought to have been undeceived in this point a great deal sooner, and by an advertisement very different from this."
The "obstruction" has continued to this day, and the edition of 1689 itself, which in the absence of Cotton's own, "all copied out for the press," must remain the authoritative one, has hitherto never been completely or separately republished. The present edition endeavours, in the main, to supply the deficiency, and to remedy some of the faults of the original edition.