The "melancholy" and musical Cowley was born in London the year 1618. He was the posthumous son of a worthy grocer who lived in Fleet Street, near the end of Chancery Lane, an who is supposed, from the omission of his name in the register of St. Dunstan's parish, to have been a Dissenter. His mother was left poor, but had a strong desire for her son's education and influence to get him admitted as a king's scholar in Westminster. His mind was almost preternaturally precocious and received early a strong and peculiar stimulus. A copy of Spenser lay in the window of his mother's apartment, and in he delighted to read, and became the devoted slave of poetry ever after. When only ten he wrote The Tragical History Pyramus and Thisbe, and at twelve Constantia and Philetus. Pope wrote a lampoon about the same age as Cowley these romantic narratives; and we have seen a pretty good copy of verses on Napoleon, written at the age of seven, by one of the most distinguished rising poets of our own day. When fifteen (Johnson calls it thirteen, but he and some other biographer were misled by the portrait of the poet being, by mistake marked thirteen) Cowley published some of his early effusions under the title of Poetical Blossoms. While at school he produced a comedy of a pastoral kind, entitled, Love's Riddle, but it was not published till he went to Cambridge. To that university he proceeded in 1636, and two years after, there appeared the above-mentioned comedy, with a poetical dedication to Sir Kenelm Digby, one of the marvellous men of that age; and Naufragium Joculare, a comedy in Latin, inscribed to Dr. Comber, master of the college. When the Prince of Wales afterwards visited Cambridge, the fertile Cowley got up the rough draft of another comedy, called The Guardian, which was repeated to His Royal Highness by the scholars. This was afterwards, to the poet's great annoyance, printed during his absence from the country. In 1643 he took his degree of A.M., and was, the same year, through the prevailing influence of the Parliament, ejected, with many others, from Cambridge. He took refuge in St. John's College, Oxford, where he published a satire, entitled The Puritan and Papist, and where, by his loyalty and genius, he gained the favour of such distinguished courtiers as Lord Falkland. During this agitated period he resided a good deal in the family of the Lord St. Albans; and when Oxford fell into the hands of the Parliament he followed the Queen to Paris, and there acted as Secretary to the same noble lord. He remained abroad about ten years, and during that period made various journeys in the furtherance of the Royal cause, visiting Flanders, Holland, Jersey, Scotland, &c. His chief employment, however, was carrying on a correspondence in cipher between the King and the Queen. Sprat says, "he ciphered and deciphered with his own hand the greatest part of the letters that passed between their Majesties, and managed a vast intelligence in other parts, which, for some years together, took up all his days and two or three nights every week." This does not seem employment very suitable to a man of genius. He seems, however, to have found time for more congenial avocations; and, in 1647, he published his Mistress, a work which seems to glow with amorous fire, although Barnes relates of the author that he was never in love but once, and then had not resolution to reveal his passion. And yet he wrote The Chronicle, from which we might infer that his heart was completely tinder, and that his series of love attachments had been an infinite one!
In 1556, being of no more use in Paris, Cowley was sent back to England, that "under pretence of privacy and retirement he might take occasion of giving notice of the posture of things in this nation." For some time he lay concealed in London, but was at length seized by mistake for another gentleman of the Royal party; and being thus discovered, he was continued in confinement, was several times examined, and ultimately succeeded, although with some difficulty, in obtaining his liberation, Dr. Scarborough becoming his bail for a thousand pounds. In the same year he published a collection of his poems, with a querulous preface, in which he expresses a strong desire to "retire to some of the American plantations, and to forsake the world for ever." Meanwhile he gave himself out as a physician till the death of Cromwell, when he returned to France, resumed his former occupation, and remained till the Restoration. In 1657 he was created Doctor of Medicine at Oxford. Having studied botany to qualify himself for his physician's degree, he was induced to publish in Latin some books on plants, flowers, and trees.
The Restoration brought him less advantage than he had anticipated. Probably he expected too mach, and had expressed his sanguine hopes in a song of triumph on the occasion. He had been promised, both by Charles I. and Charles II., the Mastership of the Savoy, (a forgotten sinecure office;) but lost it, says Wood, "by certain persons, enemies to the Muses." He brought on the stage at this time his old comedy of The Guardian, under the title of Cutter of Coleman Street; but it was thought a satire on the debauchery of the King's party, and was received with coldness. Cowley, according to Dryden, "received the news of his ill success not with so much firmness as might have been expected from so great a man." There are few who, like Dr. Johnson, have been able to declare, after the rejection of a play or poem, that they felt "like the Monument." Cowley not only entertained, but printed his dissatisfaction, in the form of a poem called The Complaint, which, like all selfish complaints, attracted little sympathy or attention. In this he calls himself the "melancholy Cowley," an epithet which has stuck to his memory.
He had always, according to his own statement, loved retirement. When he was a 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 alone with a book. This passion had been overlaid, but not extinguished, during his public life; and now, swelled by disgust, it came back upon him in great strength. He seems, too, if we can believe Sprat, to have had an extraordinary attachment to Nature, as it "was God's;" to the whole "compass of the creation, and all the wonderful effects of the Divine wisdom." At all events, he retired first to Barn Elms, and then to Chertsey in Surrey. He had obtained, through Lord St. Albans and the Duke of Buckingham, the lease of some lands belonging to the Queen, which brought him in an income of £300 a year. Here, then, having, at the age of forty-two, reached "the peaceful hermitage," he set himself with all his might to enjoy it. He cultivated his fields, and renewed his botanical studies in his woods and garden. He wrote letters to his friends, which are said to have been admirable, and might have ranked with those of Gray and Cowper, but unfortunately they have not been preserved. He renewed his intimacy with the Greek and Latin poets; and he set himself to retouch the Davideis, which he had begun in early youth, but which he never lived to finish, and to compose his beautiful prose essays. But he soon found that Chertsey, no more than Paris, was Paradise. He had no wife nor children. He had sweet solitude, but no one near him to whom to whisper "how sweet this solitude is!" The peasants were boors. His tenants would pay him no rent, and the cattle of his neighbours devoured his meadows. He was troubled with rheums and colds. He met a severe fall when he first came to Chertsey, of which he says, half in jest and half in earnest — "What this signifies, or may come to in time, God knows; if it be ominous, it can end in nothing less than hanging." Robert Hall said of Bishop Watson that he seemed to have wedded political integrity in early life, and to have spent all the rest of his days in quarrelling with his wife. So Cowley wedded his long-sought-for bride, Solitude, and led a miserable life with her ever after. Fortunately for him, if not for the world, his career soon came to a close.
One hot day in summer, he stayed too long among his labourers in the meadows, and was seized with a cold, which, being neglected, carried him off on the 28th of July 1667. He was not forty-nine years old. He died at the Porch House, Chertsey, and his remains were buried with great pomp near Chaucer and Spenser; and King Charles, who had neglected him during life, pronounced his panegyric after death, declaring that "Mr. Cowley had not left behind him a better man in England." It was in keeping with the character of Charles to make up for his deficiency in action, by his felicity of phrase.
If we may differ from such a high authority as "Old Rowley," we would venture to doubt whether Cowley was the best — certainly he was not the greatest — man then in England. Milton was alive, and the Paradise Lost appeared in the very year when the author of the Davideis departed. Cowley gives us the impression of having been an amiable and blameless, rather than a good or great man. At all events, there was nothing active in his goodness, and his greatness could not be called magnanimity. He was a scholar and a poet misplaced during early life; and when he gained that retirement for which he sighed, he had, by his habits of life, lost his capacity of relishing it, "He that would enjoy solitude," it has been said, "must either be a wild beast or a god;" and Cowley was neither. How different his grounds of dissatisfaction with the world from those of Milton! Cowley was wearied of ciphering, and his Cutter of Coleman Street had been cut; that was nearly the whole matter of his complaint; while Milton had fallen from being the second man in England into poverty, blindness, contempt, danger, and the disappointment of the most glorious hopes which ever heaved the bosom of patriot or saint.
We find the want of greatness which marked the mar. characterising the poet. Infinite ingenuity, a charming flexibility and abundance of fancy, a perception of remote analogies almost unrivalled, great command of versification and language, learning without bounds, and an occasional gracefulness and sparkling ease (as in The Chronicle) superior to even Herrick or Suckling, — are qualities that must be conceded to Cowley. But the most of his writings are cold and glittering as the sun-smitten glacier. He is seldom warm, except when he is proclaiming his own merits, or bewailing his own misfortunes. Hence his Wish, and even his Complaint, are very pleasing and natural specimens of poetry. But his Pindanic Odes, his Hymn to Light, and most of his Davideis, while displaying great power, shew at least equal perversion, and are more memorable for their faults than for their beauties. In the Davideis, he describes the attire of Gabriel in the spirit and language of a tailor; and there is no path so sacred or so lofty but he must sow it with conceits, — forced, false, and chilly. His Anacreontics, on the other hand, are in general felicitous in style and aerial in motion. And in his Translations, although too free, he is uniformly graceful and spirited; and his vast command of language and imagery enables him often to improve his author — to gild the refined gold, to paint the lily, and to throw a new perfume on the violet, of the Grecian and Roman masters.
In prose, Cowley is uniformly excellent. The prefaces to his poems, especially his defence of sacred song in the prefix to the Davideis, his short autobiography, the fragments of his letters which remain, and his posthumous essays, are all distinguished by a rich simplicity of style and by a copiousness of matter which excite in equal measure delight and surprise. He had written, it appears, three books on the Civil War, to the time of the battle of Newbury, which he destroyed. It is a pity, perhaps, that he had not preserved and completed the work. His intimacy with many of the leading characters and the secret springs of that remarkable period, — his clear and solid judgment, always so except when he was following the Daedalus Pindar upon waxen Icarian wings, or competing with Dr. Donne in the number of conceits which he could stuff, like cloves, into his subject-matter, — and the bewitching ease and elegance of his prose style, would have combined to render it an important contribution to English history, and a worthy monument of its author's highly-accomplished and diversified powers.