1812 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Dr. William Coward

Alexander Chalmers, in General Biographical Dictionary (1812-17) 10:373-79.



WILLIAM COWARD, a medical and metaphysical writer, was the son of Mr. William Coward of Winchester, where he was born in the year 1656 or 1657. It is not certain where young Coward received his grammatical education; but it was probably at Winchester-school. In his eighteenth year he was removed to Oxford, and in May 16 became a commoner of Hart-hall; the inducement to which might probably be, that his uncle was at the head of that seminary. However, he did not long continue there; for in the year following he was admitted a scholar of Wadham college. On the 27th of June, 1677, he took the degree of B.A. and in January 1680 he was chosen probationer fellow of Merton college. In the year 1681, was published Mr. Dryden's Absalom and Achitophel, a production on the celebrity of which we need not expatiate. At Oxford it could not fail to be greatly admired for its poetical merit; beside which, it might be the better received on account of its containing a severe satire on the duke of Monmouth and the earl of Shafteshury, two men who were certainly no favourites with that loyal university. Accordingly, the admiration of the poem produced two Latin versions of it, both of which were written and printed at Oxford; one by Mr. Francis Atterbury (afterwards the celebrated bishop of Rochester), who was assisted in it by Mr. Francis Hickman, a student of Christ-church; and the other by Mr. Coward. These translations were published in quarto, in 1682. Whatever proof Mr. Coward's version of the Absalom and Achitophel might afford of his progress in classical literature, he was not very fortunate in this first publication. It was compared with Mr. Atterbury's production, not a little to its disadvantage. According to Anthony Wood, he was schooled for it in the college; it was not well received in the university; and Atterbury's poem was extolled as greatly superior. To conceal, in some degree, Mr. Coward's mortification, a friend of his, in a public paper, advertised the translation, as written by a Walter Curle, of Hertford, gentleman; yet Coward's version was generally mistaken for Atterbury's, and a specimen given of it in Stackhouse's life of that prelate. On the 13th of December, 1683, Mr. Coward was admitted to the degree of M.A. Having determined to apply himself to the practice of medicine, he prosecuted his studies in that science, and took the degree of bachelor of physic on the 23d of June 1685, and of doctor on the 2d of July 1687. After his quitting Oxford he exercised his profession at Northampton, from which place he removed to London in 1693 or 1694, and settled in Lombard-street. In 1695 he published a tract in 8vo, entitled "De fermento volatili nutritio conjectura rationis, qua ostenditur spiritum volatilem oleosum, e sanguine suffusum, esse verum ac genuinum concoctionis ac nutritionis instrumentum." For this work he had an honourable approbation from the president and censors of the college of physicians. But it was not to medical studies only that Dr. Coward confined his attention. Besides being fond of polite learning, he entered deeply into metaphysical speculations, especially with regard to the nature of the soul, and the natural immortality of man. The result of his inquiries was his publication, in 1702, under the fictitious name of Estibius Psycalethes, entitled "Second Thoughts concerning Human Soul, demonstrating the notion of human soul, as believed to be a spiritual immortal substance united to a human body, to be a plain heathenish invention, and not consonant to the principles of philosophy, reason, or religion; but the ground only of many absurd and superstitious opinions, abominable to the reformed church, and derogatory in general to true Christianity." This work was dedicated by the doctor to the clergy of the church of England; and he professes at his setting out, "that the main stress of arguments, either to confound or support his opinion, must be drawn from those only credentials of true and orthodox divinity, the lively oracles of God, the Holy Scriptures." In another part, in answer to the question, Does man die like a brute beast? he says, "Yes, in respect to their end in this life; both their deaths consist in a privation of life." "But then," he adds, "man has this prerogative or pre-eminence above a brute, that he will be raised to life again, and be made partaker of eternal happiness in the world to come." Notwithstanding these professions to the authority of the Christian Scriptures, Dr. Coward has commonly been ranked with those who have been reputed to be the most rancorous and determined adversaries of Christianity. Swift has ranked him with Toland, Tindal, and Gildon; and passages to the like purpose are not unfrequent among controversial writers, especially during the former part of the last century. His denial of the immateriality and natural immortality of the soul, and of a separate state of existence between the time of death and the general resurrection, was so contrary to universal opinion, that it is not very surprising that he should be considered as an enemy to revelation. It might be expected that he would immediately meet with opponents; and accordingly he was attacked by various writers of different complexions and abilities; among whom were Dr. Nichols, Mr. John Broughton, and Mr. John Turner. Dr. Nichols took up the argument in his "Conference with a Theist." Mr. Broughton wrote a treatise entitled "Psychologia, or, an Account of the nature of the rational Soul, in two parts;" and Mr. Turner published a "Vindication of the separate existence of the Soul from a late author's Second Thoughts." Both these pieces appeared in 1703. Mr. Turner's publication was answered by Dr. Coward, in a pamphlet called "Farther Thoughts upon Second Thoughts," in which he acknowledges, that in Mr. Turner he had a rational and candid adversary. He had not the same opinion of Mr. Broughton; who therefore was treated by him with severity, in "An Epistolary Reply to Mr. Broughton's Psychologia;" which reply was not separately printed, but annexed to a work of the doctor's, published in the beginning of the year 1704, and entitled, "The Grand Essay; or, a Vindication of Reason and Religion against the impostures of Philosophy." In this last production, the idea of the human soul's being an immaterial substance was again vigorously attacked.

So obnoxious were Dr. Coward's positions, that on Friday, March 10, 1704, a complaint was made to the house of commons of the "Second Thoughts" and the "Grand Essay;" which books were brought up to the table, and some parts of them read. The consequence of this was, an order, "that a committee be appointed to examine the said books, and collect such parts thereof as are offensive; and to examine who is the author, printer, and pubusher thereof." At the same time the matter was referred to a committee, who were directed to meet that afternoon, and had power given them to send for persons, papers, and records. On the 17th of March, Sir David Cullum, the chairman, reported from the committee, that they had examined the books, and had collected out of them several passages which they conceived to be offensive, and that they found that Dr. Coward was the author of them; that Mr. David Edwards was the printer of the one, and Mr. W. Pierson of the other; and that both the books were published by Mr. Basset. Sir David Cullum having read the report in his place, and the same being read again, after it had been delivered in at the clerks' table, the house proceeded to the examination of the evidence with regard to the writing, printing, and vending of the two books. Sufficient proof having been produced- with respect to the writer of them, Dr. Coward was called in. Being examined accordingly, he acknowledged that he was the author of the books, and declared that he never intended any thing against religion; that there was nothing contained in them contrary either to morality or religion; and that if there were any thing therein contrary to religion or morality, he was heartily sorry, and ready to recant the same. The house then resolved, "that the said books do contain therein divers doctrines and positions contrary to the doctrine of the church of England, and tending to the subversion of the Christian religion;" and ordered that they should be burnt, next day, by the common hangman, in New Palace-yard, Westminster; which order was carried into execution. Notwithstanding this proceeding, in the course of the same year he published a new edition of his "Second Thoughts;" which was followed by a treatise, entitled, "The just Scrutiny; or, a serious inquiry into the modern notions of the Soul."

After this the doctor returned to the studies belonging to his profession; and in 1706 published a tract, entitled "Ophthalmiatria," which he dedicated to his patron Manuel Sorrel, esq. In this dedication Mr. Sorrel is complimented as a man of learning and judgment, in whose approbation of his works our author declares himself satisfied and happy, and enabled to despise the idle and profane mob of sciolists, whom "certain pious agents of sedition" had encouraged to calumniate him. Dr. Coward, in the first chapter of his "Ophthalmiatria," the title of which is "De oculo ejusque partibus," speaking of the manner in which vision is performed and accounted for, diverts himself with the notion of an immaterial substance residing in the pineal gland; by the help of which, he tells us, the philosophers of the day accounted for every phaenomenon relating to sensation. Having exposed this hypothesis as empty and unphilosophical, so far as relates to vision, he adds, that he has said enough on the subject elsewhere; and exhorts the learned of all countries to examine, thoroughly and candidly, what absurd and ridiculous, and almost blasphemous opinions, follow from this doctrine of an immaterial substance. He hints, at the same time, that his domestic adversaries, not being able to confute him by reasoning, had endeavoured to silence him by fire and faggot.

From a letter of our author to Dr. Hans Sloane, dated May 26, 1706, it appears that he was in habits of intimacy with this eminent physician and naturalist. Dr. Sloane carried his friendship so far as take upon himself the supervisa[ of the "Ophthaliniatria." As the letter to Dr. Sloane is dated from the Green Bell, over against the Castle tavern, near Holborn, in Fetter-lane, there is reason to believe that Dr. Coward had quitted London, and was now only a visitant in town, for the purpose of his publication. Indeed the fact is ascertained from the list of the college of physicians for 1706, where Dr. William Coward, who stands under the head of candidates, is then for the first time mentioned as residing in the country. The opposition he had wet with, and the unpopularity arising from his works, might be inducements with him for leaving the metropolis. It does not appear, for twelve years, to what part of the kingdom he had retired; nor, from this period, do we hear more of Dr. Coward as a medical or metaphysical writer. Even when he had been the most engaged in abstruse and scientific inquiries, he had not omitted the study of polite literature; for we are told, that in 1705 he published the "Lives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob," an heroic poem, which was little noticed at first, and soon sunk in total oblivion. Another poetical performance by Dr. Coward, and the last of his writings that has come to our knowledge, was published in 1709, and is entitled, "Licentia poetica discussed; or, the true Test of Poetry: without which it is difficult to judge of or compose a correct English poem. To which are added, critical observations on the principal ancient and modern poets, viz. Homer, Horace, Virgil, Milton, Cowley, Dryden, &c. as frequently liable to just censure." This work, which is divided into two books, is dedicated to the duke of Shrewsbury, and introduced by a long and learned preface. Prefixed are three copies of commendatory verses, signed A. Hill, J. Gay, and Sam. Barklay. The two former, Aaron Hill and John Gay, were then young poets, who afterwards, as is well known, rose to a considerable degree of reputation. Coward is celebrated by them as a great bard, a title to which he had certainly no claim; though his "Licentia," considered as a didactic poem, and as such poems were then generally written, is not contemptible. It is not so correct as lord Roscommon's essay on translated verse; but it is little, if at all, inferior to the duke of Buckingham's essay on poetry, which was so much extolled in its day. The rules laid down by Dr. Coward for poetical composition are often minute, but usually, though not universally, founded on good sense and just taste; but he had not enough of the latter to feel the harmony and variety of Milton's numbers. Triplets, double, rhymes, and Alexandrines, are condemned by him; the last of which, however, he admits on some great occasion. The notes, which are large and numerous, display no small extent of reading; and to the whole is added, by way of appendix, a political essay, from which it appears that our author was a very zealous whig.

In the list of the college of physicians for 1718, Dr. Coward begins to be mentioned as residing at Ipswich. From this place he wrote, in 1722, a letter to his old friend, sir Hans Sloane, the occasion of which is somewhat curious. He had learned from the newspapers, that the duchess dowager of Marlborough proposed to give five hundred guineas to any person who should present her with an epitaph, suitable to the late duke her husband's character. — "Now," says he, "I have one by me, which gives him his just character, without flattery or ostentation, and which I verily believe may be acceptable to any learned man." He adds, that he hears it was to be approved by Dr. Hare, Dr. Freind of Westminster-school, and Dr. Bland of Eton-school; and, if this be true, he begs that sir Hans would give him leave to send it for his approbation and recommendation. What was the issue of this we know not. From the omission of Dr. Coward's name in the catalogue of the college of physicians for 1725, it is evident that he was then dead. Though his medical works are now in no reputation, and his other writings are but little attended to, it is nevertheless certain that he was a man of considerable abilities and literature. We cannot dismiss this article without taking notice of a mistake which was committed by the late Dr. Caleb Fleming; who, in the year 1758, published a treatise, entitled "A Survey of the Search after Souls," imagining that he was writing against Dr. Coward. But the Search after Souls was the production of Henry Layton, a barrister of Gray's Inn.