1860 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Charles Cotton

George Gilfillan, in Specimens with Memoirs of the less-known British Poets (1860) 2:201-02.



Hearty, careless "Charley Cotton" was born in 1630. His father, Sir George Cotton, was improvident and intemperate in his latter days, and left the poet an encumbered estate situated at Ashbourne, in Derbyshire, near the river Dove. This place will recall the words quoted by O'Connell in Parliament in reference to the present Lord Derby:—

Down thy fair banks, romantic Ashbourne, glides
The Derby dilly, with its six insides.

Charles studied at Cambridge; and after travelling abroad, married the daughter of Sir Thomas Owthorp in Nottinghamshire, who does not appear to have lived long. His extravagance keeping him poor, he was compelled to eke out his means by translating works from the French and Italian, including those of a spirit somewhat kindred to his own — Montaigne. At the age of forty, he obtained a captain's commission in the army, and went to Ireland. There he met with his second wife, Mary, Countess Dowager of Ardglass, the widow of Lord Cornwall. She possessed a jointure of 1500 a-year, secured, however, after marriage, from her husband's imprudent and reckless management. He returned to his English estate, where he became passionately fond of fishing, — intimate with Izaak Walton, whom he invited in a poem, although now eighty-three years old, to visit him in the country-and where he built a fishing -house, with the initials of Izaak's name and his own united in ciphers over the door; the walls, too, being painted with fishing scenes, and the portraits of Cotton and Walton appearing upon the beaufet. Poor Charles had a less fortunate career than his friend, dying insolvent at Westminster in 1687.

Careless gaiety and reckless extravagance, blended with heart, sense, and sincerity, were the characteristics of Cotton as a man, and were, as is usually the case, transferred to his poetry. He squandered his pence and his powers with equal profusion. His travestie of the Aeneid is pronounced by Christopher North (who must have read it, however,) a beastly book. Campbell says, with striking justice, of another of Cotton's productions, "His imitations of Lucian betray the grossest misconception of humorous effect, when he attempts to burlesque that which is ludicrous already." It is like trying to turn the Tale of a Tub into ridicule. But Cotton's own vein, as exhibited in his Invitation to Walton, his New Year, and his Voyage to Ireland, (which anticipates in some measure the style of Anstey in the New Bath Guide,) is very rich and varied, full of ease, picturesque spirit, and humour, and stamps him a genuine, if not a great poet.