ABRAHAM COWLEY, an eminent English poet, was born in London, 1613. His father, who was a grocer, dying before his birth, he was left to the care of his mother, who, by the interest of friends, procured him to be admitted a king's scholar in Westminster school. The occasion of his first inclination to poetry, was his casual meeting with Spenser's Fairy Queen. "I believe," says he, in his essay on himself, "I can tell the particular little chance that filled my head first with such chimes of verses as have never since left ringing there. For I remember, when I began to read, and to take some pleasure in it, there was wont to lie in my mother's parlour — I know not by what accident, for she herself never in her life read any book but of devotion; but there was wont to lie — Spenser's Works. This I happened to fall upon, and was infinitely delighted with the stories of the knights and giants, and monsters, and brave houses, which I found every-where, though my understanding had little to do with all this, and by degrees with the tinkling of the rhyme, and dance of the numbers; so that I think I had read him all over before I was twelve years old."
In 1633, being still at Westminster, and only fifteen years of age, he published a collection of poems, under the title of "Poetical Blossoms;" in which, says Sprat, there were many things that might well become the vigour and force of a manly wit. Of these his Pyramus and Thisbe was written at ten, and his Constantia and Philetus, at twelve years old. Cowley tells us of himself, that he had so defective a memory at that time, that he never could be brought to retain the ordinary rules of grammar; however, as Sprat observes, he abundantly supplied that want, by conversing with the books themselves, from whence those rules had been drawn. He was removed in 1636 from Westminster to Trinity-college, in Cambridge, where he wrote some, and laid the designs of most of those masculine works which he afterwards published. In 1638 he published his "Love's Riddle," a pastoral comedy, which was written while he was at Westminster, and dedicated in a copy of verses to sir Kenelm Digby; and a Latin comedy, called "Naufragium Joculare," or "The merry Shipwreck," after it had been acted before the university by the members of Trinity college.
At the beginning of the civil war, as the prince passed through Cambridge, in his way to York, he was entertained with a representation of the "Guardian," a comedy, which Cowley says was neither written nor acted, but rough-drawn by him, and repeated by the scholars. That this comedy was printed during his absence from his country, he appears to have considered as injurious to his reputation, though, during the suppression of the theatres, it was sometimes privately acted with sufficient approbation.
The first occasion of his entering into business, was an elegy he wrote on the death of Mr. William Hervey. This brought him into the acquaintance of John Hervey, the brother of his deceased friend, from whom he received many offices of kindness, and principally this, that by his means he came into the service of the lord St. Alban's. In 1643, being then M.A. he was, among many others, ejected his college and the university, by the prevalence of parliament; upon which, he retired to Oxford, settled in St. John's college there, and that same year, under the name of an Oxford Scholar, published a satire entitled "The Puritan and the Papist." His affection to the royal cause engaged him in the service of the king; and he attended in several of his majesty's journies and expeditions. Here he became intimately acquainted with lord Falkland, and other great men, whom the fortune of the war had drawn together. During the heat of the civil war, he was settled in the family of the earl of St. Alban's, and attended the queen mother when she was forced to retire into France. He was absent from England about ten years, says Wood; about twelve, says Sprat; which, be they more or less, were wholly spent, either in bearing a share in the distresses of the royal family, or in labouring in their affairs. To this purpose he performed several dangerous journies into Jersey, Scotland, Flanders, Holland, and elsewhere; and was the principal instrument in maintaining a correspondence between the king and his royal consort, whose letters he cyphered and decyphered with his own hand, an employment of the highest confidence and honour.
In 1647 his "Mistress" was published; for he imagined, as he declared in his preface to a subsequent edition, that "poets are scarcely thought freemen of their company, without paying some duties, or obliging themselves to be true to love." Barnes informs us, that whatever Cowley may talk of his own inflammability, and the variety of characters by which his heart was divided, he in reality was in love but once, and then never had the resolution to tell his passion. At Paris, however, he did not much employ his thoughts upon phantoms of gallantry, having constant employment as secretary to lord St. Alban's.
In 1656 he was sent over into England, with all imaginable secrecy, to take cognizance of the state of affairs here; but soon after his arrival, while he lay hid in London, he was seized on by a mistake, the search having been intended after another gentleman of considerable note in the king's party. He was often examined before the usurpers, who tried all methods to make him serviceable to their purposes; but proving inflexible, he was committed to close imprisonment, and scarce at last obtained his liberty upon the terms of £1000 bail, which was tendered by Dr. Scarborough. Thus he continued a prisoner at large, till the general redemption; yet, taking the opportunity of the confusions that followed upon Cromwell's death, he ventured back into France, and there remained in the same situation as before, till near the time of the king's return. Upon his return to England, in 1656, he published a new edition of all his poems, consisting of four parts; viz. I. Miscellanies. 2. The Mistress. 3. Pindaric Odes. 4. "Davideis." The "Mistress" had been published in his absence, and his comedy called "The Guardian," afterwards altered and published under the title of "Cutter of Coleman-street," but both very incorrectly. In the preface to his poems, he complains of the publication of some things of his, without his consent or knowledge; and those very mangled and imperfect, particularly of the "Guardian," already noticed. In this preface also he seems to have inserted something suppressed in subsequent editions, which was interpreted to denote some relaxation of his loyalty. He declares, that "his desire had been for some days past, and did still very vehemently continue, to retire himself to some of the American plantations, and to forsake this world for ever." From the obloquy which the appearance of submission to the usurpers brought upon him, Dr. Sprat and Dr. Johnson have successfully laboured to clear him, and indeed it does not seem to have lessened his reputation. His wish for retirement, says Dr. Johnson, we can easily believe to be undissembled; a man harassed in one kingdom, and persecuted in another, who, after a course of business that employed all his days and half his nights in cyphering and decyphering, comes to his own country and steps into a prison, will be willing enough to retire to some place of quiet and safety. As to the verses on Oliver's death, which Ant. Wood seems to hint were of the encomiastic kind, no judgment can be formed, since they have not been published. There is, indeed, a discourse concerning his government, with verses intermixed, but such as certainly gained its author no friends among the abettors of usurpation.
During his stay in England, he wrote his two books of Plants, published first in 1662, to which he afterwards added four books more; and all the six, together with his other Latin poems, were printed after his death at London, in 1678. The occasion of his choosing the subject of his six books of plants, Dr. Sprat tells us, was this: When he returned into England, he was advised to dissemble the main intention of his coming over, under the disguise of applying himself to some settled profession; and that of physic was thought most proper. To this purpose, after many anatomical dissections, he proceeded to the consideration of simples, and having furnished himself with books of that nature, retired into a fruitful part of Kent, where every field and wood might shew him the real figures of those plants of which he read. Thus he soon mastered that part of the art of medicine; but then, instead of employing his skill for practice and profit, he laboured to digest it into its present form. The two first books treat of Herbs, in a style, says Sprat, resembling the elegies of Ovid and Tibullus; the two next, of Flowers, in all the variety of Catullus and Horace's numbers, for which last author he is said to have had a peculiar reverence; and the two last, of Trees, in the way of Virgil's Georgics. Of these, the sixth book is wholly dedicated to the honour of his country; for, making the British oak to preside in the assembly of the forest trees, he takes that occasion to enlarge upon the history of the late troubles, the king's affliction and return, and the beginning of the Dutch war; and he does it in a way which is honourable to the nation. Such is Dr. Sprat's judgment. A more recent and accomplished botanical critic, however, observes that neither the text, nor the notes, manifest sufficient proof of Cowley's intimate acquaintance with those authors of true fame, among the moderns, through whose assistance the want of that information might in some measure have been supplied. Nevertheless, as in the language of Dr. Johnson, "botany, in the mind of Cowley, turned into poetry," to those who are alike enamoured with the charms of both, the poems of Cowley must yield delight; since his fertile imagination has adorned his subject with all the beautiful allusions that ancient poets and mythologists could supply; and even the fancies of the modern Signatores, of Baptista Porta, Crollius, and their disciples, who saw the virtues of plants in the physiognomy, or agreement in colour or externall forms with the parts of the human body, assisted to embellish his verse.
It appears by Wood's Fasti, that Cowley was created M.D. at Oxford, Dec. 2, 1657, who says, that he had this degree conferred upon him by virtue of a mandamus from the then prevailing powers, and that the thing was much taken notice of by the royal party. At the commencement of the royal society, according to Dr. Birch's history, he appears busy among the experimental philosophers, with the title of Dr. Cowley, but there is no reason for supposing that he ever attempted practice.
After the king's restoration, being then past his 40th year, of which the greatest part had been spent in a various and tempestuous condition, he resolved to pass the remainder of his life in a studious retirement; which Sprat represents as the effect of choice, and not of discontent. At first, says the doctor, he was but slenderly provided for such a retirement, by reason of his travels, and the afflictions of the party to which he adhered, which had put him quite out of all the roads of gain. Yet, notwithstanding the narrowness of his income, he remained fixed to his resolution, having contracted his desires into a small compass, and knowing that a very few things would supply them all. But upon the settlement of the peace of the nation, this hindrance of his design was soon removed; for he then obtained a plentiful estate by the favour of the lord St. Alban's, and the bounty of the duke of Buckingham. All this may be true, but it is certain he was neglected by the court, nor was this his only mortification. Having altered his comedy of "The Guardian" for the stage, he produced it under the title of "Cutter of Coleman-street," and it was not only treated on the stage with great severity, but was afterwards censured as a satire on the king's party. From this charge of disaffection he exculpates himself in his preface, by observing how unlikely it is, that, having followed the royal family through all their distresses, "he should chuse the time of their restoration to begin a quarrel with them."
To these calumnies, says Mr. D'Israeli, it would appear that others were added of a deeper dye, and in malignant whispers distilled into the ear of royalty. Cowley has commemorated the genius of Brutus in an Ode, with all the enthusiasm of a votary of liberty. After the king's return, when Cowley solicited some reward for his sufferings and services in the royal cause, the chancellor is said to have turned on him with a severe countenance, saying: "Mr. Cowley, your pardon is your reward." All these causes evidently operated to incline Cowley to retirement; and accordingly he spent the last seven or eight years in his beloved obscurity, and possessed that solitude, which, from his very childhood, he had always most passionately desired. His works, especially his essays in prose and verse, abound with the praises of solitude and retirement. His three first essays are on the subjects of liberty, solitude, and obscurity; and most of the translations are of such passages from the classic authors, as display the pleasures of a country life, particularly Virgil's "O fortunatos nimium, &c." Horace's "Beatus ille qui procul, &c." Claudian's "Old Man of Verona," and Martial's "Vitam quae faciunt beatiorem, &c." But his solitude, from the very beginning, had never agreed so well with the constitution of his body, as of his mind. The chief cause of it was, that out of haste to be gone away from the tumult and noise of the town, he had not prepared so healthful a situation in the country as he might have done if he had made a more leisureable choice. Of this he soon began to find the inconvenience at Barn-Elms, where he was afflicted with a dangerous and lingering fever. After that, he scarce ever recovered his former health, though his mind was restored to its perfect vigour; as may be seen, says Sprat, from his two last books of plants, which were written since that time, and may at least be compared with the best of his other works. Shortly after his removal to Chertsey, where he was disappointed of his expectations of finding a place of solitude and rural simplicity, he fell into another consuming disease; under which, having languished for some months, he seemed to he pretty well cured of its bad symptoms. But in the heat of the summer, by staying too long amongst his labourers in the meadows, he was taken with a violent defluxion and stoppage in his breast and throat. This he at first neglected as an ordinary cold, and refused to send for his usual physicians, till it was past all remedies; and so in the end, after a fortnight's sickness, it proved mortal to him . He died at Chertsey, July 28, 1667, in his 49th year, in the house that has long been inhabited by an amiable and worthy magistrate, Richard Clark, esq. formerly alderman, sheriff, and lord mayor, and now chamberlain of London. Cowley was buried in Westminster-abbey, near Chaucer and Spenser, where a monument was erected to his memory, in May 1675, by George duke of Buckingham, with a Latin inscription by Dr. Sprat. When Charles II. heard of his death, he was pleased to say, "that Mr. Cowley had not left a better man behind him in England."
Besides his works already mentioned, we have of his, 1. "A proposition for the advancement of Experimental Philosophy;" and, 2. "A discourse, by way of vision, concerning the Government of Oliver Cromwell." He had designed, also, a discourse concerning style, and a review of the principles of the primitive Christian church; but was prevented by death. A spurious piece, entitled the "Iron Age," was published under his name, during his absence abroad; of which he speaks, in the preface to his poems, with some asperity and concern. "I wondered very much," says he, " how one who could be so foolish to write so ill verses, should yet be so wise to set them forth as another man's, rather than his own; though perhaps he might have made a better choice, and not fathered the bastard upon such a person, whose stock of reputation is, I fear, little, enough for the maintenance of his own numerous legitimate offspring of that kind. It would have been much less injurious, if it had pleased the author to put forth some of my writings under his own name, rather than his own under mine. He had been in that a more pardonable plagiary, and had done less wrong by robbery, than he does by such a bounty; for nobody can be justified by the imputation even of another's merit, and our own coarse clothes are like to become us better than those of another man's, though never so rich. But these, to say the truth, were so beggarly, that I myself was ashamed to wear them."
Dr. Johnson's character of Cowley is so complete and so superior to any criticism with which we are acquainted, that it may be referred to with the utmost confidence. His life of Cowley yields only, if indeed it does yield, to those of Milton, Dryden, and Pope, and his account of the class of poets to whom Cowley belongs, the metaphysical poets, is highly ingenious and original. Two short passages, only, from Cowley's life, may not inaptly conclude the present article, the one relating to his prose, the other to his poetry.
"After so much criticism on his poems, the essays which accompany them must not be forgotten. What is said by Sprat of his conversation, that no man could draw from it any suspicion of his excellence in poetry, may be applied to these compositions. No author ever kept his verse and his prose at a greater distance from each other. His thoughts are natural, and his style has a smooth and placid equability, which has never yet obtained its due commendation. Nothing is far-sought, or hard-laboured; but all is easy without feebleness, and familiar without grossness." Of his poetry, Dr. Johnson subjoins; that "it may be affirmed, without any encomiastic fervour, that he brought to his poetic labours a mind replete with learning, and that his passages are embellished with all the ornaments which books could supply; that he was the first who imparted to English numbers the enthusiasm of the greater ode, and the gaiety of the less; that he was qualified for sprightly sallies, and for lofty flights; that he was among those who freed translation from servility, and, instead of following his author at a distance, walked by his side; and that if he left versification yet improvable, he left likewise from time to time such specimens of excellence as enabled succeeding poets to improve it."
Cowley's poems for many years after his death enjoyed a large share of popularity. In 1707 a tenth edition was printed by Jacob Tonson, in 2 vols. 8vo, but exclusive of his Latin poems, which used to form a third. We recollect no subsequent edition, except those given in Dr. Johnson's and other general collections. In 1772, the late bishop of Worcester, Dr. Hurd, published a selection from Cowley's poems, in 2 small vols. which had the usual fate of selections, to be censured by those critics who thought they could have made a better; nor indeed did it ever become a popular book.