1691 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Abraham Cowley

Gerard Langbaine, in Account of the English Dramatick Poets (1691) 77-88.



I have generally hitherto contented my self with giving a succinct Account of each Authors Affairs of Life, or Family: and chose rather to enlarge on their Works: but Mr. Cowley was a Person of so great Merit and Esteem in the world when Living; and his Memory so fresh in the minds of Learned Men, that I am oblig'd not to pass him slightly over. 'Tis true my Predecessors in this Work, I mean Mr. Phillips and Mr. Winstanley, have given but an imperfect account of Him, or his Writings: but as I propose not them for my Pattern in this Subject, so I must publickly own, that I have so great a Veneration for the Memory of this great Man, that methinks his very Name seems an Ornament to my Book, and deserves to be set in the best Light I can place it. Wherefore I shall be as careful in copying his Picture from his Writings, as an Artist would be in hitting the Features of his Sovereign.

To begin first with his Birth; the place of his Nativity was London, and the time which made his Virtuous Parents happy in him, was the year of our Lord 1618. Tho' his Mother had no prescience like Maia the Parent of the great Virgil, (who the Night before her delivery dreamt she brought forth a sprig of Lawrel, which upon the setting forthwith became a Tree;) yet it may be said, that this our English Maro, grew ripe with equal speed, as that famous Poplar Bough planted at the Roman Poets Birth, sprung up into a beautiful tall Tree, which overtopt several others of far riper Age. Virgil at Thirteen years of Age began his Studies at Millain; but this our Author writ his Tragical History of Pyramus and Thisbe, when he was but Ten years old; his Constantia and Philetus at Twelve; and at Thirteen had publisht not only these but several other Poetical Blossoms, which sufficiently prov'd the pregnancy of his Wit: and all this, whilst he was yet but a Westminster Schollar; before he could say with Juvenal,

Et nos ergo manum ferulae subduximus—

Nor is the Character he gives of himself less full of Admiration; "That even when he was a very young Boy at School, instead of running about on Holidays, and playing with his Fellows, he was wont to steal from them, and walk into the Fields, either alone with a Book; or with some One Companion, if he could find any of the same Temper."

His first Inclinations to Poetry, proceeded from his falling by chance on Spencer's Fairy Queen, "With which he was so infinitely delighted, and which by degrees so fill'd his head with the tinkling of the Rhime, and dance of the Numbers, that he had read him all over before he was Twelve years old, and was thus made a Poet as immediately as a Child is made an Eunuch." Thus he gradualy grew up to that maturity both of Fancy and Judgment, that (in the opinion of a great Man now living [author's note: Dr. Sprat. See his Life; in the last page], "Whoever would do him right, should not only equal him to the principal Ancient Writers of our own Nation, but should also rank his Name amongst the Authors of the true Antiquity, the best of the Greeks, and Romans." Nor is this the sence only of this Worthy Person, and Excellent Poet, but the general Opinion of the Wits of both Universities, and which will appear obvious to All that shall diligently read his Works: most of which were writ, or at least design'd whilst he was of Trinity Colledge in Cambridge, and of which I shall give a succinct Account, beginning first with his English Plays, which are Three in Number, viz.

Guardian, a Comedy printed in quarto Lond. 1650. "Made (says the Author) and acted before the Prince, or rather neither made nor acted, but rough-drawn only, and repeated; for the hast was so great, that it could neither be revised, or perfected by the Author, nor learned without Book by the Actors, nor set forth in any Measure tolerably by the Officers of the Colledge."

This Mr. Cowley thought fit to acquaint the Prince with, in the Prologue which was spoken to him at that time: as the Reader may see by the following Lines, being part of it.

Accept our hasty Zeal; a thing that's play'd
E're 'tis a Play, and acted e're 'tis made.
Our Ignorance, but our Duty too, we show:
I would all ignorant People would do so.
At other times, expect our Wit and Art;
This Comedy is acted by the Heart.

After the Representation (the Author tells us he began to look it over, and changed it very much, striking out some whole Parts, as that of the Poet, and the Souldier; but he having lost the Copy, durst not think it deserv'd the pains to write it again, which made him omit it in the publication of his Works in Folio; though (at that time he acknowledg'd) there were some things in it, which he was not asham'd of, taking the Excuse of his Age when he made it. But as it was he "accounted it only the hasty first-sitting of a Picture, and therefore like to resemble him accordingly."

This Comedy, notwithstanding Mr. Cowley's modest Opinion of it, was acted not only at Cambridge, but several times after that privately, during the prohibition of the Stage, and after the King's Return, publickly at Dublin, and never fail'd of Applause. This I suppose put our Author upon revising it; and there being many things in it which he dislik't; and finding himself at leisure in the Country, he fell upon altring it almost throughout; and then permitted it to appear publickly on the Stage, under a new Title, as indeed 'twas in a manner a new Play, calling it

Cutter of Coleman-street, acted at his Royal Highness's Theatre, printed in quarto Lond. 1663. This Play met with some Opposition, at its Representation under this new Name, from some who envyed the Authors unshaken Loyalty to the Prince, and the Royal Cause, in the worst of Times; but afterwards I suppose the Authors Preface (to which I refer the Reader) dispell'd all those Clouds rais'd by the Faction; and I have seen it acted with universal Applause: and I believe generally speaking, all unbyass'd Judges that have read, or seen it acted, will give it the Approbation of an excellent Comedy: and for those who are unsatisfied concerning his Fidelity to his King, I must refer them to that admirable Defence writ by the Reverend Bishop of Rochester in behalf of this excellent Man, it being too copious to be inserted here.

Love's Riddle, a Pastoral Comedy, written at his time of being King's Scholar, in Westminster School; printed first with his Poetical Blossoms, in quarto Lond. 1633. but since printed in the Second Volume of his Works, in Fol. Lond. 1681. and dedicated by a Copy of Verses to the truly Worthy and Noble Sr. Kenelm Digby. If this Play be consider'd, according to the Authors years at that time, 'twill certainly be allow'd standard; or at least needs no other Apology then what the Author makes for it in his Dedication to his Patron:

Take it as early Fruits, which rare appear,
Though not half ripe, but worst of all the year,
And if it please your Taste, my Muse will say,
The Birch which crown'd her then, its grown a Bay.

It might be expected that I should give some Account either of the Plots of these Plays, or whence he has borrow'd: but let those that think so, be satisfied from the Famous Denham's Character, "That he is not an Author of that Stamp." I hope it will not be thought Foreign to my purpose, to transcribe part of that Copy which he writ on this Admirable Poets Death and Burial amongst the Ancient Poets. The whole Copy deserves to be engraved in Brass; but I shall here transcribe only what is to our purpose;

Old Mother Wit, and Nature gave
Shakespear, and Fletcher, all they have;
In Spencer, and in Johnson, Art,
Of slower Nature got the start;
But both in him so equal are,
None knows which bears the happy'st share;
To him no Author was unknown,
Yet what he wrote was all his own;
He melted not the ancient Gold,
Nor with Ben Johnson did make bold
To plunder all the Roman Stores
Of Poets, and of Orators:
Horace his Wit, and Virgil's State,
He did not steal, but emulate,
And when he would like them appear,
Their Garb, but not their Cloaths, did wear.

As to his other Works in English, they consist both of Verse and Prose: amongst which are his Love Verses, call'd The Mistress; which were first printed in octavo Lond. 1647. from a Correct Copy written by the Author himself, and since they are printed in Folio, with several of his other Pieces. These Poems are highly applauded by the generality of judicious Men, and notwithstanding the nice scruples of some, it is an undeniable Truth which the knowing Writer of his Life lays down, "That never yet so much was written on a Subject so Delicate, that can less offend the severest rules of Morality."

I dare not presume to give a particular Character of his Works: therefore I shall refer them to the large Account of his Life, written by the exact and ingenious Author above-mentioned, or to the Readers own judgment. They consist of Miscellanies, Anacreontiques, and Pindariques; or some Copies of Verses translated Paraphrastically out of Anacreon and Pindar: on the later he has writ Notes, as replete with Learning, as his Odes with Wit and Fancy, and which most admirably explain the most difficult and abstruse Passages.

Besides these he has publisht an Epique Poem call'd Davideis, a Sacred Poem of the Troubles of David, in Four Books: tho' design'd by the Author to be continu'd and extended to Twelve; not for the Tribes sake, but in imitation of Virgil. As it is a great grief to the Lovers of Poetry, that he liv'd not to finish the Work; so 'tis the Opinion of an eminent Critick [author's note: Mr. Rymer's Pref. to Aristotle's Treatise of Poesy], "That as it may be lamented, that he carried not on the Work so far as he design'd, so it might he wisht that he had liv'd to Revise what he did leave us: I think the Troubles of David is neither Title nor Matter proper for an Heroick Poem; seeing it is rather the Actions than his Sufferings, that make an Heroe: nor can it be defended by Homer's Odysseis, since Ulysses's Sufferings conclude with one great and perfect Action." Yet notwithstanding, this judicious Author allows, "That in the Davideis (Fragment and imperfect as it is) there shines something of a more fine, more free, more new, and more noble air, than appears in the Hierusalem of Tasso, which for all his care, is scarce perfectly purg'd from Pedantry. "And after all says, "That in the Lyrick way however Cowley far exceeds him, and all the rest of the Italians." Tho' Jacobus Philippus Tomasinus, Laur. Crasso, and other great Men give Tasso an extraordinary Character. But to return to our Author, whatever faults Mr. Cowley may have committed in the Oeconomy of his Poem, (as Mr. Rymer reckons up others) if it be consider'd, "That he writ the greatest part of it, (as the Author of his Life observes) whilst he was a young Student in Trinity College in Cambridge, and withal, reflect on the vastness of the Argument, and his manner of Handling it, he may seem like one of the Miracles he there adorns, like a Boy attempting Goliah." The rest of his Verses are written on several Occasions, and for what remains unspoken of in his Second Volume, they are Verses which he made when he was a King's Scholar, and to which he gave the Title of Sylva.

As to his Pieces in English Prose, they are Discourses by way of Essays, upon grave and serious Subjects; where he gives the truest and best Character of himself, and his thoughts during his Retirement. These, with several others which he design'd to add; he intended had not Death prevented him, to have dedicated to his old Patron the Earl of St. Albans, "As a Testimony of his entire Respects to him: and a kind of Apology for having left humane Affairs in the strength of his Age, while he might still have been serviceable to his Country." But not withstanding his Death, his intentions are made good by his worthy Friend the careful Overseer to his Writings, who has paid in this Legacy according to the will and intention of the deceased Testator.

His Latine Works contain the two former Books of his Davideis; a Latine Comedy call'd Naufragium Joculare, which was acted before the University of Cambridge by the Members of Trinity Colledge, the second day of February 1638. and his Poemata Latina, printed in octavo 1668. consisting of Six Books of Plants, and One of Miscellanies; of whose several Character, you will find an account in his Life; where you may likewise find a description of his Temper, Conversation, &c. which would swell this Volume beyond its design'd Bulk, to relate. All that I shall acquaint you further with is, that this best of Poets, that ever our Nation produc'd, and a Man of so excellent a Temper, in the Opinion of King Charles the Second, that he was pleas'd to say of him upon the news of his death, that Mr. Cowley had not left a better Man behind him in England. This Excellent Man I say, Died after a Fortnights Sickness, of a Stoppage in his Breast and Throat, accompanied with a violent Defluction. He was Buried at Westminster Abby, near Two of our most eminent English Bards, Chaucer, and Spencer; his Corps being attended with a numerous Train of Persons of the most eminent Rank, both for Birth and Virtue, The late Duke of Buckingham his Noble Friend and Patron, has erected a Magnificent Monument over his Ashes in testimony of his Affection; whose Sculpture you may see at the beginning of his Second Volume. Tho' I take it for granted that every Lover of Poetry hath the Works of this Worthy Ornament of our Nation: (since in my weak judgment, what was said of d'Urffe's Astraea, by the great Cardinal Richlieu, may more truly be said of our Authors Works, That he was not fit to be admitted into the Academy, who had not been before well read in Astraea:) yet since his Epitaph may prove an Embellishment to this Work, I shall transcribe it.

ABRAHAMUS COWLEIUS,
Anglorum Pindarus, Flaccus, Maro,
Deliciae, Decus, Desiderium Aevi sui,
Hic juxta situs est.
Aurea dum volitant late tua scripta per orbem
Et Fama aeternum vivis Divine Poeta,
Hic placida jaceas requie, Custodiat urnam
Cana fides vigilentque perenni lampade Musae;
Sit sacer iste Locus, Nec quis temerarius ausit
Sacrilega turbare manu Venerabile Bustum.
Intacti maneant, maneant per secula Dulcis
COULEI cineres, serventque immobile saxum.
Sic Vovet
Votumque suum apud Posteros sacratum esse voluit,
Qui viro Incomparabi possuit sepulcrale marmor:
GEORGIUS DUX BUCKINGHAMIAE

I forgot to acquaint the Reader, that there have been two Pieces falsly ascrib'd to this Author, One a Poem call'd The Iron Age, which was publisht during our Authors residence in France, on which he himself has sharply reflected at the Entrance of his Preface to his Works. The other Poem is father'd upon him by Mr. Phillips and Mr. Winstanley, which they call Antonius and Mellida, which in truth is not a Poem, but a Play in Two Parts, written by John Marston. Tho' I can give no Account how Mr. Phillips fell into this mistake, yet I know very well, that the little Poem he speaks of is call'd Constantia and Philetus. As for Mr. Winstanley, he like blind Bayard boldly follows the former at a venture; but he may by this learn the truth of that old Proverb; Mali Corvi malum ovum, Like Carpenter, like Chips. There is an Ode written by Mr. Cowley for her Majesty, Queen to King Charles the First, printed in the begining of Mr. Tate's Collection of Poems on several Occasions, printed in octavo Lond. 1685. There was a New Edition of his Works with a Table, and the Verses that were made on his Death, by the Wits of the Age, printed in Fol. Lond. 1688. I shall close all with the Commendation given him by Mr. Evelyn, in his Imitation of Ovid's Elegy ad Invidos.

So long shall Cowley be admir'd above
The Croud, as David's Troubles pity move,
Till Woman cease to charm, and Youth to love.