Abraham Cowley

Mary Russell Mitford, "Old Authors. Abraham Cowley" Recollections of a Literary Life; or Books, Places, and People (1852) 36-51.

As in the case of Ben Jonson, posterity values his writings for very different qualities from those which obtained his high reputation among his cotemporaries, so it has happened to Cowley.

Praised in his day as a great poet, the head of the school of poets called metaphysical, he is now chiefly known by those prose essays, all too short and all too few, which, whether for thought or for expression, have rarely been excelled by any writer in any language. They are eminently distinguished for the grace, the finish, and the clearness which his verse too often wants. That there is one cry which pervades them — vanity of vanities! all is vanity — that there is an almost ostentatious longing for obscurity and retirement, may be accounted for by the fact that at an early age Cowley was thrown among the cavaliers of the civil wars, sharing the exile and the return of the Stuarts, and doubtless disgusted, as so pure a writer was pretty sure to be, by a dissolute Court, with whom he would find it easier to sympathize in its misery than in its triumph. Buckingham, with the fellow-feeling of talent for talent, appears to have been kind to him; and when he fled from the world (not very far, he found his beloved solitude at Chertsey), it is satisfactory to know that he so far escaped the proverbial ingratitude of the Restoration as to carry with him an income sufficient for his moderate wants. He did not long survive a retirement which, Sprat says, in a curious life prefixed to the edition of his works in 1719, "agreed better with his mind than his body."

It is difficult to select from a volume so abundant in riches but I will begin by his opinion of theatrical audiences contained in "The Preface to the Cutter of Coleman Street:"

"There is no writer but may fail sometimes in point of wit; and it is no less frequent for the auditors to fail in point of judgment. I perceive plainly by daily experience that Fortune is mistress of the theater, as Tully says it is of all popular assemblies. No man can tell sometimes from whence the invisible winds rise that move them. There are a multitude of people who are truly and only spectators of a play without any use of their understanding; and these carry it sometimes by the strength of their numbers. There are others who use their understandings too much; who think it a sign of weakness and stupidity to let any thing pass by them unattacked, and that the honor of their judgment (as some mortals imagine of their courage) consists in quarreling with every thing. We are, therefore, wonderful wise men, and have a fine business of it, we who spend our time in poetry. I do sometimes laugh, and am often angry with myself when I think on it; and if I had a son inclined by nature to the same folly, I believe I should bind him from it by the strictest conjurations of a paternal blessing. For what can be more ridiculous than to labor to give men delight, while they labor on their part more earnestly to take offense? to expose oneself voluntarily and frankly to all the dangers of that narrow passage to unprofitable fame, which is defended by rude multitudes of the ignorant, and by armed troops of the malicious? If we do ill, many discover it, and all despise us. If we do well, but few men find it out, and fewer entertain it kindly. If we commit errors, there is no pardon; if we could do wonders, there would be but little thanks, and that too extorted from unwilling givers."

Of course his play had been coldly received. Here is another bit of autobiography, singularly interesting, as coming from one who, although he never could retain the rules of grammar, was an eminent scholar, and the most precocious of all poets. It forms part of the essay, headed "Of Myself."

"It is a hard and a nice subject for a man to write of himself. It pains his own heart to say any thing of disparagement, and the reader's ears to hear any thing of praise from him. There is no danger from me of my offending him in that kind; neither my mind, nor my body, nor my fortune, allow me any materials for that vanity.


"As far as my memory can return back into my past life before I knew, or was capable of guessing, what the world, or the glories or business of it were, the natural affections of my soul gave me a secret bent of aversion from them, as some plants are said to turn away from others by an antipathy, imperceptible to themselves and inscrutable to man's understanding. Even when I was a very young boy at school, instead of roaming about on holydays, and playing with my fellows, I was wont to steal front them, and walk into the fields, either alone with a book, or with some one companion if I could find him of the same temper. I was then, too, so much an enemy to all constraint, that my masters could never prevail on me by any persuasions or encouragements to learn without book the common rules of grammar; in which they dispensed with me alone, because they found I made a shift to do the same exercise out of my own reading and observation. That I was then of the same mind that I am now (which, I confess, I wonder at myself) may appear by the latter end of an ode, which I made when I was but thirteen years old, and which was then printed with many other verses. The beginning of it is boyish, but of this part which I have set down (if a very little were corrected) I should hardly now be much ashamed"

This only grant me, that my means may lie,
Too low for envy, for contempt too high.
Some honor I would have,
Not from great deeds, but good alone;
The unknown are better than ill known;
Rumor can ope the grave.
Acquaintance I would have, but when't depends,
Not on the number, but the choice of friends.

Books should, as business, entertain the light,
And sleep as undisturbed as death, the night.
My house, a cottage more
Than palace; and should fitting be

For all my use, no luxury.
My garden painted o'er
With nature's hand, not art's; and pleasures yield,
Horace might envy in his Sabine field.

Thus would I double! my life's fading space,
For he that runs it well, twice runs his race.
And in this true delight,
These unbought sports, this happy state,
I would not fear, nor wish my fate;
But boldly say each night,
To-morrow let my sun his beams display,
Or in clouds hide them — I have lived to-day.

"You may see by it I was even then acquainted with the poets (for the conclusion is taken out of Horace); and perhaps it was the immature and immoderate love of them which stamped first, or rather engraved these characters in me: they were like letters cut into the bark of a young tree, which, with the tree, still grows proportionably. But how this love came to be produced in me so early is a hard question. I believe I can tell the particular little chance that filled my head first with such chimes of verse 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 parlor (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 everywhere there (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, and was thus made a poet.

"With these affections of mind, and my heart wholly set upon letters, I went to the University; but was soon torn from thence by that violent public storm which would suffer nothing to stand whore it did, but rooted up every plant, even from the princely cedars to me the hyssop. Yet I had as good fortune as could have befallen in such a tempest; for I was cast by it into the family of one of the best persons, and into the Court of one of the best princesses of the world. Now, though I was here engaged in ways most contrary to the original design of my life, that is, into much company, and no small business, and into a daily sight of greatness, both militant and triumphant (for that was the state then of the English and French Courts); yet all this was so far from altering my opinion, that it only added the confirmation of reason to that which was before but natural inclination. I saw clearly all the paint of that kind of life, the nearer I came to it; and that beauty which I did not fall in love with, when, for aught I knew, it was real, was not like to bewilder or entice me, when I saw that it was adulterate. I met with several great persons whom I liked very well, but could not perceive that any part of their greatness was to be liked or desired, no more than I would be glad or content to be in a storm although I saw many ships which rid safely and bravely in it: a storm would not agree with my stomach, if it did with my courage. Though I was in a crowd of as good company as could be found anywhere, though I was in business of great and honorable trust, though I ate at the best table, and enjoyed the best conveniences for present subsistence that ought to be desired by a man of my condition in banishment and public distresses, yet I could not abstain from renewing my old school-boy's wish in a copy of verses to the same effect:

Well, then, I now do plainly see,
This busy world and I shall ne'er agree.

"And I never then proposed to myself any other advantage from his Majesty's happy Restoration, but the getting into some moderately convenient retreat in the country, which I thought in that case I might easily have compassed, as well as some others, who, with no greater probabilities or pretenses, have arrived to extraordinary fortune: but I had before written a shrewd prophecy against myself; and I think Apollo inspired me in the truth, though not in the elegance of it:

Thou neither great at court, nor in the war,
Nor at the exchange shalt be, nor at the wrangling bar.
Content thyself with the small barren praise,
Which neglected verse doth raise.

"However, by the failing of the forces which I had expected, I did not quit the design which I had resolved on. I cast myself into it a 'corps perdu' without making capitulations, or taking counsel of Fortune. But God laughs at a man who says to his soul, Take thy ease. I met presently not only with many little incumbrances and impediments, but with so much sickness (a new misfortune to me) as would have spoilt the happiness of an emperor, as well as mine. Yet do I neither repent nor alter my course 'non ego perfidem dixi sacramentum,' nothing shall separate me from a mistress which I have loved so long, and have now at last married, though she neither has brought me a rich portion, nor lived yet so quietly with me as I hoped from her.

Nor by me e'er shall you,
You, of all names, the sweetest and the best,
You, Muses, books, and liberty, and rest;
You, gardens, fields, and woods, forsaken be,
As long as life itself forsakes not me."

The same vein runs through the charming Essay "Of Obscurity."

* * * "The pleasantest condition of life is in 'incognito.' What a brave privilege is it to be free from all contentions, from all envying, or being envied, from receiving or paying all kind of ceremonies It is, in my mind, a very delightful pastime for two good and agreeable friends to travel up and down together in places where they are by nobody known, nor know any body. It was the case of Aeneas and his Achates, when they walked invisibly about the fields and streets of Carthage. Venus herself,

A vail of thickened air around them cast,
That none might know or see them as they passed.

The common story of Demosthenes' confession, that he had taken a great pleasure in hearing of a basket-woman say, as he passed: 'This is that Demosthenes,' is wonderful ridiculous from so solid an orator. I myself have often met with that temptation, to vanity (if it were any); but am so far from finding it any pleasure, that it only makes me run faster from the place till I get (as it were) out of sight-shot. Democritus relates, and in such a manner as if he gloried in the good-fortune and commodity of it, that when he came to Athens, nobody there did so much as take notice of him; and Epicurus lived there very well, that is, lay hid many years in his gardens, so famous since that time, with his friend Metrodorus; after whose death, making in one of his letters a kind commemoration of the happiness which they two had enjoyed together, he adds at last, that he thought it no disparagement to those qualifications of their life, that, in the midst of the most talked-of and talking country in the world, they had lived so long, not only without fame, but almost without being heard of. And yet, within a few years afterward, there were no two names of men more known, or more generally celebrated. If we engage into a large acquaintance, and various familiarities, we set open our gates to the invaders of most of our time; we expose our life to a quotidian ague of frigid impertinence, which would make a wise man tremble to think of. Now, as for being known much by sight, and pointed at, I can not comprehend the honor that lies in that. Whatsoever it be, every mountebank has it more than the best orator, and the hangman more than the Lord Chief Justice of a city. Every creature has it, both of nature and art, if it be anywise extraordinary. It was as often said, This is that Bucephalus, or, This is that Incitatus, when they were led prancing through the streets, as, This is that Alexander, or, This is that Domitian; and truly for the latter, I take Incitatus to have been a much more honorable beast than his master, and more deserving the consulship than he the empire.

"I love and commend a true, good fame, because it is the shadow of virtue; not that it doth any good to the body which it accompanies, but it is an efficacious shadow, and like that of St. Peter, cures the diseases of others. The best kind of glory, no doubt, is that which is reflected from honesty, such as is the glory of Cato and Aristides; but it was painful to them both, and is seldom beneficial to any man while he lives. What it is to him after his death, I can not say, because I love not philosophy merely notional and conjectural, and no man who has made the experiment has been so kind as to come back to inform us. Upon the whole matter, I account a person who has a moderate mind and fortune, and lives in the conversation of two or three agreeable friends, with little commerce in the world besides, who is esteemed well enough by his few neighbors that know him, and is truly irreproachable by any body; and so, after a healthful quiet life, before the great inconveniences of old age, goes more silently out of it than he came in (for I would not have him so much as cry in his exit); this innocent deceiver of the world, as Horace calls him, this 'muta persona,' I take to have been more happy in his part than the greatest actors that fill the stage with show and noise, nay, even than Augustus himself, who asked with his last breath, whether 'he had not played his farce very well?'"

We find another graceful bit of autobiography in an Essay addressed to Evelyn, and called "The Garden:"

"I never had any other desire so strong and so like to covetousness, as that one which I have had always, that I might be master, at last of a small house and large garden, with very moderate conveniences joined to them, and there dedicate the remainder of my life only to the culture of them and study of nature;

And there (with no design beyond my wall), whole and entire to lie,

In no unactive ease and no unglorious poverty;

or, as Virgil has said, shorter and better for me, that I might there

Studiis florere ignobilis oti,

"(Although I could wish that he had rather said, 'nobilis oti,' when he spoke of his own). But several accidents of my ill-fortune have disappointed me hitherto, and do still of that felicity; for though I have made the first and hardest step to it by abandoning all ambitions and hopes in this world, and by retiring from the noise of all business, and almost company, yet I stick still in the inn of a hired house and garden, among weeds and rubbish; and without that pleasantest work of human industry, the improvement of something which we call (not very properly, but yet we call) our own. I am gone out from Sodom, but I am not yet arrived at my little Zoar. O let me escape thither (is it not a little one?) and my soul shall live. I do not look back yet, but I have been forced to stop and make too many halts. You may wonder, Sir (for this seems a little too extravagant and pindarical for prose), what I mean by all this preface; it is to let you know that though I have missed, like a chemist, my great end, yet I account my affections and endeavors well rewarded by something that I have met with, by the bye, which is, that they have procured to me some part in your kindness and esteem."

Here is a fine passage from the Essay "Of Solitude:"

* * * "Happy had it been for Hannibal, if adversity could have taught him as much wisdom as was learned by Scipio from the highest prosperities. This would be no wonder, if it were as truly as it is colorably and wittily said by Monsieur do Montaigue, 'That ambition itself might teach us to love solitude; there is nothing that does so much hate to have companions.' It is true it loves to have its elbows free; it detests to have company on either side; but it delights, above all things, in a train behind, ay, and a cheer too before it. And the greatest part of men are so far from the opinion of that noble Roman, that if they chance to be at any time without company, they are like a becalmed ship; they never move but by the wind of other men's breath, and have no oars of their own to steer withal."

The whole Essay "Of Liberty" is full of the happiest adaptations of classical examples to Cowley's peculiar views. He speedily dismisses the public side of the question, and enlarges on the slavery to which ambitious men (Catiline unfortunate in his ambition, Caesar prosperous) voluntarily subject themselves in the pursuit of their object. There are in this eloquent discourse many felicitous translations from Cicero and Sallust, which; taken with the specimens of Anacreon (which my readers will find further on), may lead us to lament deeply that in that age of translators, Cowley did not devote his cherished leisure to versions of some of the great masters of antiquity, especially the orators and historians.

I prefer, however, to give an extract from the curious fragment which he has entitled, "On the Government of Oliver Cromwell;" a strange vision, of which the whole tenor is strongly against the Great Protector; but into the midst of which, put, it is true, into the mouth of a bad angel, the following character of Cromwell is introduced, as if by an instinct of truth and candor which the writer found it impossible to resist. Hume has inserted this character "altered," as he says, "in some particulars," in his history. Why altered? The Scottish historian is a most clear and pleasant narrator, but surely he does not pretend to improve Cowley's prose. I give it from the original. The spokesman is the evil angel:

"And pray, countryman," said he, very kindly and very flatteringly, "for I would not have you fall into the general error of the world, that detests and decries so extraordinary a virtue, what can be more extraordinary than that a person of mean birth, no fortune, no eminent qualities of body, which have sometimes, or of mind which have often, raised men to the highest dignities, should have the courage to attempt, and the happiness to succeed in so improbable a design as the destruction of one of the most ancient and most solidly-founded monarchies upon the earth? that he should have the power or boldness to put his Prince and master to an open and infamous death; to banish that numerous and strongly-allied family; to do all this under the name and wages of a Parliament; to trample upon them too as he pleased, and spurn them out of doors when he grew weary of them; to raise up a new and unheard-of monster out of their ashes; to stifle that in the very infancy, and set up himself above all things that ever were called Sovereigns in England; to oppress all his enemies by arms, and all his friends afterward by artifice; to serve all parties patiently for awhile, and to command them victoriously at last; to overrun each corner of the three nations, and overcome with equal facility both the riches of the south and the poverty of the north; to be feared and courted by all foreign princes, and adopted a brother to the gods of the earth; to call together Parliaments with a word of his pen, and scatter them again with the breath of his mouth; to be hourly and daily petitioned that he would please to be hired at the rate of two millions a-year to be the master of those who had hired him before to be their servant; to have the estates and lives of three kingdoms as much at his disposal as was the little inheritance of his father, and to be as noble and liberal in the spending of them; and lastly (for there is no end of all the particulars of his glory), to bequeath all this with one word to his posterity; to die with peace at home and triumph abroad; to be buried among kings and with more than regal solemnity, and to leave a name behind him not to be extinguished but with the whole world; which as it is now too little for his praises, so it might have been too for his conquests, if the short time of his human life could have been stretched out to the extent of his immortal design."

Such is Cowley as a prose writer. And yet one of the most accomplished persons whom I have ever known assured me the other day that, excepting among a few men of very refined taste, he believed the Essays to be little read. They will rise in demand soon I hope, for my friend Mr. Willmott, a writer deservedly popular, has praised them in one of his charming volumes just as they ought to be praised. It would be difficult to say more.

The poems are singularly unequal. But as I for my own private recreation am wont to resort to such innocent gayeties as the fathers of song have bequeathed to us, so I seldom fail to present them to my readers; and it happens that this philosopher, whom we have seen dealing with high and lofty thoughts, descanting like a hermit on the joys of solitude and the delights of the country, — and in this respect his odes are nothing inferior to his Essays; — it happens that this identical Cowley hath left behind him the pleasantest of all pleasant ballads, which could hardly have been produced by any one except a thorough man of the world. It is entitled "The Chronicle," and contains a catalogue of all the fair ladies with whom he had at different times been enamored. Never was list more amusing. It abounds in happy traits, — especially the one, which tells to half an hour how long a silly beauty may hope to retain the heart of a man of sense. The expression when the haughty Isabella, unconscious of her conquest, and marching on to fresh triumphs, beats out Susan "by the bye" has passed into one of those proverbs, of which doubtless, as of many other by-words, they who use them little guess the origin.

"The Chronicle" was written two hundred years ago. Ladies, dear ladies, if one could be sure that no man would open this book, if we were altogether in (female) parliament assembled, without a single male creature within hearing, might we not acknowledge that the sex, especially that part of it formerly called coquette, and now known by the name of flirt, is very little altered since the days of the Merry Monarch? and that a similar list compiled by some gay bachelor of Belgravia might, allowing for differences of custom and of costume, serve very well as a companion to Master Cowley's catalogue? I would not have a man read this admission for the world.

Margarita first possessed,
If I remember well, my breast,
Margarita first of all;
But when awhile the wanton maid,
With my restless heart had played,
Martha took the flying ball.

Martha soon did it resign,
To the beauteous Catherine:
Beauteous Catherine gave place,
(Though loth and angry she to part
With the possession of my heart,)
To Eliza's conquering face.

Eliza to this hour might reign,
Had she not evil counsels ta'en:
Fundamental laws she broke,
And stilt new favorites she chose,
Till up in arms my passions rose,
And cast away her yoke.

Mary then, and gentle Anne,
Both to reign at once began;
Alternately they swayed,
And sometimes Mary was the fair,
And sometimes Anne the crown did wear,
And sometimes both, I obeyed.

Another Mary then arose,
Who did rigorous laws impose,
A mighty tyrant she!
Long, alas! should I have been
Under that iron-sceptered queen,
Had not Rebecca set me free.

When fair Rebecca set me free,
'Twas then a golden time with me,
But soon those pleasures fled;
For the gracious princess died,
In her youth and beauty's pride,
And Judith reigned in her stead.

One month three days and half an hour,
Judith held the sovereign power:
Wondrous beautiful her face,
But so weak and small her wit,
That she to govern was unfit,
And so Susannah took her place.

But when Isabella came,
Armed with a resistless flame;
By the artillery of her eye,
While she proudly marched about,
Greater conquests to find out,
She beat out Susan, by the bye.

But in her place, I then obeyed
Black-eyed Bess, her viceroy-maid,
To whom ensued a vacancy.
Thousand worse passions then possessed,
The interregnum of my breast,—
Bless me from such an anarchy!

Gentle Henrietta then,
And a third Mary next began;
Then Joan and Jane, and Audria,
And then a pretty Thomasine,
And then another Catherine,
And then a long et cetera.

But should I now to you relate,
The strength and riches of their state,
The powder, patches, and the pins,
The ribbons, jewels, and the rings,
The lace, the paint, and warlike things,
That make up all their magazines.

If I should tell the politic arts,
To take and keep men's hearts,
The letters, embassies, and spies,
The frowns, the smiles, the flatteries,
The quarrels, tears, and perjuries.
Numberless, nameless mysteries!

And all the little lime-twigs laid,
By Machiavel the waiting-maid;
I more voluminous should grow,
Chiefly if I, like them should tell,
All change of weather that befell,
Than Hollinshed or Stowe.

But I will briefer with them be,
Since few of them were long with me.
An higher and a nobler strain
My present empress doth claim,
Heleonora first o' the name,
Whom God grant long to reign!

I add a few original stanzas, which show Cowley's characteristic merits and defects; — very few, since I must find room for some of those translations from Anacreon, which for grace, spirit, and delicacy, will never be surpassed.

Hail, old patrician trees, so great and good!
Hail, ye plebeian underwood!
Where the poetic birds rejoice,
And for their quiet nests and plenteous food,
Pay with their grateful voice.

Here let me careless and unthoughtful lying,
Hear the soft winds above me flying;
With all their wanton boughs dispute,
And the more tuneful birds to both replying,
Nor be myself, too, mute.

A silver stream shall roll his waters near,
Gilt with the sunbeams here and there,
On whose enameled bank I'll walk,
And see how prettily they smile,
And hear how prettily they talk.

Ah! wretched and too solitary he,
Who loves not his own company!
He'll feel the weight of it many a day,
Unless he call in sin or vanity,
To help to bear it away.

Happy insect! what can be
In happiness compared to thee?
Fed with nourishment divine,
The dewy morning's gentle wine!
Nature waits upon thee still,
And thy verdant cup doth fill;
'Tis filled wherever thou dost tread,
Nature's self, thy Ganymede.
Thou dost drink, and dance, and sing,
Happier than the happiest king!
All the fields which thou dost see,
All the plants belong to thee;
All that summer hours produce,
Fertile made with early juice:
Man for thee doth sow and plow,
Farmer he, and landlord thou!
Thou dost innocently joy,
Nor dost thy luxury destroy.
The shepherd gladly heareth thee,
More harmonious than he,
Thee country hinds with gladness hear,
Prophet of the ripened year!
Thee Phoebus loves and doth inspire;
Phoebus is himself thy sire.
To thee, of all things upon earth,
Life is no longer than thy mirth.
Happy insect! happy thou,
Dost neither age nor winter know;
But when thou'st drunk, and danced, and sung
Thy fill, the flowery leaves among,
(Voluptuous and wise withal,
Epicurean animal!)
Sated with thy summer feast,
Thou retir'st to endless rest.

DRINKING. From Anacreon.
The thirsty earth soaks up the rain,
And drinks and gapes for drink again;
The plants suck in the earth, and are
With constant drinking fresh and fair;
The sea itself, which one would think,
Should have but little need of drink,
Drinks ten thousand rivers up,
So filled that they o'erflow the cup.
The busy sun, and one would guess,
By's drunken fiery face, no less,
Drinks up the sea, and when he's done,
The moon and stars drink up the sun.
They drink and dance by their own light,
They drink and revel all the night.
Nothing in nature's sober found,
But an eternal health goes round.
Fill up the bowl then, fill it high!
Fill all the glasses there! for why
Should every creature drink but I?
Why, men of morals, tell me why?

GOLD. From Anacreon.
A mighty pain to love it is,
And 'tis a pain that pain to miss;
But of all pain the greatest pain,
It is to love, and love in vain.
Virtue now nor noble blood,
Nor wit by love is understood,
Gold alone does passion move,
Gold monopolizes love!
A curse on her, and on the man,
Who this traffic first began!
A curse on him who found the ore!
A curse on him who digged the store!
A curse on him who did refine it!
A curse on him who first did coin it!
A curse, all curses else above,
On him who used it first in love!
Gold begets in brethren hate;
Gold in families debate;
Gold does friendship separate;
Gold does civil wars create;
These the smallest harms of it!
Gold, alas! does love beget.

I can not conclude without a word of detestation toward Sprat, who, Goth and Vandal that he was, destroyed Cowley's familiar letters.