1882 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Abraham Cowley

Epes Sargent, in Harper's Cyclopaedia of British and American Poetry (1882) 109.



In the period of his reputation, Cowley (1618-1667) precedes Milton; he died in the year of the publication of Paradise Lost. He was the posthumous son of a London stationer; entered Cambridge University, and at the age of fifteen published a volume of poems, showing marvellous precocity. During the Civil Wars he was ejected from Cambridge, and went to Oxford. In 1646 he went with the Queen to Paris, and was active in managing the cipher correspondence between King Charles and his wife. In 1647 appeared Cowley's love poems, under the title of The Mistress. They are pure works of imagination. He never married; and it is said that although he was once, and only once, in love, he was too shy to tell his passion. He had "the modesty of a man of genius and the humility of a Christian." In his style he belongs to the metaphysical school, of which Donne was the founder: its chief characteristic being the affectation of remote and uncommon imagery and obscure conceits, often drawn from scientific sources, and attenuated to exhaustion. His praise of Brutus in one of his odes lost him the favor of Charles II. His Davideis is an unfinished epic in four books, written while he was at Cambridge. He died in his forty-ninth year, and was interred with great pomp in Westminster Abbey, between Chaucer and Spenser. No poet of his day was more popular than Cowley, though he is now but little read.