Abraham Cowley

Thomas Humphry Ward, in The English Poets: Selections with Critical Introductions, ed. Thomas Humphry Ward (1880) 2:234-43.

The history of Cowley's reputation offers an easy text for a discourse on the variations of the standard of taste. A marvel of precocity, widely known as a poet at fifteen; the poetical wonder of Cambridge; so famous at thirty that pirates and forgers made free with his name on their title-pages while he was serving the exiled queen; issuing in self-defence, at thirty-eight, a folio of his poems which was destined to pass through eight editions in a generation; accepted by his literary contemporaries, men of cultivated intelligence, as not only the greatest among themselves, but greater than all that had gone before; buried in state at Westminster by the side of Chaucer and Spenser, and ranked by his biographer, a sober critic, as equal not only to them but to "the authors of that true antiquity, the best of the Greeks and Romans"; — in thirty years he had sunk out of notice and his name had become mere memory, mentioned "honoris causa" but no more. "Though he must always be thought a great poet, he is is no longer esteemed a good writer," said Dryden in 1700. Addison prais'd him with even more discrimination. Two editions of his works appeared early in the eighteenth century, but in 1737 Pope was able to ask "Who now reads Cowley?" Then followed Johnson's Life, which has eclipsed for almost every one the works of its subject. Except for a few students like Lamb and Sir Egerton Brydges, Cowley's verse is in this century unread and unreadable. Not even the antiquarian curiosity of an age which reprints Brathwaite and Crowne has yet availed to present him in a new edition. The reasons of this extraordinary decline in a poetical reputation are not difficult to find; Dryden absorbed all that was best in Cowley, and superseded him for the readers of the eighteenth century, and the nineteenth century, which reads Dryden little, naturally reads Cowley less. Yet criticism has to justify great names. There must be something in a man who was regarded by his age, and that an age which boasted of having outgrown all illusions, as the most profound and ingenious of its writers. A rapid review of Cowley's work will help us to judge between the estimate of his time and the estimate of posterity.

With the volume of Poetical Blossomes which he published at fifteen, when he was a schoolboy at Westminster, we are not further concerned than to note its vast superiority to the verses of most clever boys. If Cowley, like Chatterton, had died before manhood, these verses might perhaps have kept his name alive; but as it is he soon outdid them, and in his mature writings he valued them justly as "commendable extravagance in a boy," but declined to give them a place in the permanent collection of his poems. Some stanzas from The Wish he excepted, quoting them in his pleasant essay Of Myself as verses of which "I should hardly now be ashamed." He wrote them at thirteen, he says; and our extracts may fairly begin with them. But in the main we shall be right in confining ourselves to the mature poems of the Folio of 1656, with the additions that were made to it during his lifetime. He meant it to be a definitive edition of his poems; he excluded much from it deliberately, and he intended to add nothing to it. In 1656, as he says in his most interesting Preface — a class of writing which he raised to a new importance — in 1656 he felt in no mood for making poetry. The times were against it, his own health of body and mind were against it. "A warlike, various, and tragical age is best to write of, but worst to write in." Living as a political suspect, with scanty means and no prospects, he had no encouragement to write. "The soul must be filled with bright and delightful ideas when it undertakes to communicate delight to others, which is the main end of poesy." He was seriously turning his thoughts away from Cromwell's England; planning an "obscure retreat" in the American plantations; and the book was to be a legacy to the world to which he would soon be dead. As everyone knows, times changed, and he did not go to America. The Restoration brought him, not success indeed — his failure to obtain the Mastership of the Savoy was pathetically bewailed by him — but relief from all pressing necessities, and a quiet home first at Barnes and then at Chertsey, not beyond the reach of visits from Evelyn and Dean Sprat and other appreciative friends. In such surroundings he made his peace with the Muse and wrote during the years that remained to him some of his best poems.

The divisions of the Folio are (1) Miscellanies, including Anacreontiques (2) The Mistress, a collection of love poems; (3) Pindarique Odes; (4) Davideis, an heroic poem of the troubles of David; and, in the later issues, (5) Verses on various occasions, and (6) Several Discourses by way of Essays in verse and prose. The Miscellanies, he tells us, are poems preserved by chance from a much larger number — some of them the works of his early youth, and some, like the celebrated Elegy on Crashaw, belonging to his best years. What we notice in these pages, at in all that Cowley published, is his curious inability to distinguish good from bad; he prints rubbish, like the intolerable Ode "Here's to thee Dick," side by side with the touching verses on the death of his friend Mr. William Hervey; he mars poem after poem with some scholastic absurdity or comparison drawn from a science that has nothing to do with poetry. The fine lines on Falkland, for example — lines that we should prize if only as a memorial of the friendship between two such interesting men — these lines are ruined, poetically speaking, by Cowley's science. Falkland is gone on the expedition against the Scots, and the poet addresses the North:—

Great is thy charge, O North! be wise and just:
England commits her Falkland to thy trust;
Return him safe; Learning would rather choose
Her Bodley or her Vatican to lose.
All things that are but writ or printed there
In his unbounded breast engraven are.

So far the conceit may pass; but what are we to say of the illustrations by which Cowley would show us the order that reigns in the crowded mind of his hero?

So thousand divers species fill the air,
Yet neither crowd nor mix confusedly there.

What are we to say of the political image under which, with elephantine humour, he pretends to complain of Falkland's too great learning?

How could he answer't, if the State saw fit
To question a monopoly of wit?

It is a painful but inevitable thought that Cowley was better pleased with his "species" and his "monopoly" than with the noble lines which follow — lines whose force, condensation, dignity and rhythm have hardly been surpassed by Dryden himself:—

Such is the man whom we require the same
We lent the North, untouched as is his fame.
He is too good for war, and ought to be
As far from danger as from fear he's free.
Those men alone (and they are useful too)
Whose valour is the only art they know
Were for sad war and bloody battles born:
Let them the state defend, and he adorn!

The Mistress (which had been printed in 1647) is a collection of about a hundred love-poems, explained by the author in the preface to the Folio as being mere feigned addresses to some fair creature of the fancy. "So it is that Poets are scarce thought Freemen of the Company without paying some duties and obliging themselves to be true to Love." The apology, even if true, was hardly required even by Puritan strictness; for with two or three exceptions the poems are as cold as icy conceits can make them. Johnson's characteristic judgment is hardly too severe: "the compositions are such as might have been written for penance by a hermit, or for hire by a philosophical rhymer who had only heard of another sex." It is as though in the course of a hundred years the worst fancies which Wyatt had borrowed from Petrarch had become fossilized, and were yet brought out by Cowley to do duty for living thoughts. What is love? he seems so ask: it is an interchange of hearts, a flame, a worship, a river to be frozen by disdain — he has a hundred such physical and psychological images of it; and the poetry consists in taking the images one by one and developing them in merciless disregard of taste and truth of feeling. Is love fire? (we may give two or three of his illustrations even after Addison's page-long summary):—

Another from my mistress' door
Saw me with eyes all watery come;
Nor could the hidden cause explore,
But thought some smoke was in the room:—
Such ignorance from unwounded learning came;
He knew tears made by smoke, but not by flame!

The lover writes his love-letters in lemon-juice, that the fire of his mistress' eyes may bring the letters to light. At another time he pictures his heart as not inflammable only, but explosive:—

Woe to her stubborn heart if once mine come
Into the selfsame room!
'Twill tear and blew up all within,
Like a grenado shot into a magazine.

At another, the story of his love cut in the bark has burnt and withered up the tree. Again, if love is worship, his mistress, who has proved unfaithful, is like the idolators of old who sinned against light:—

So the vain Gentiles, when they left t' adore
One Deity, could not step at thousands more...
Ah, fair Apostate! could'st thou think to flee
From Truth and Goodness, yet keep Unity?

Or again; is his mistress dressed out for conquest? Then her beauty, which had been a civil government before, becomes a tyranny. But we have said enough: The Mistress, Cowley's most elaborate and sustained effort, is clearly a failure. Nothing of what we require of love-poetry is there — neither grace nor glow nor tenderness nor truth. The passion is neither deeply felt nor lightly uttered.

We cannot judge so simply the Pindarique Odes, a form of composition of which CowIey was the inventor, and which found universal favour in England down to the time of Gray. He was well aware that in writing in this way, which he thought to be an imitation of Pindar, he was making a questionable innovation. "I am in great doubt," he says, "whether they will be understood by most readers; nay even by very many who are well enough acquainted with the common roads and ordinary tracks of poesy. The digressions are many and sudden, and sometimes long, according to the fashion of all lyrics, and of Pindar above all men living. The figures are unusual and bold, even to temerity, and such as I durst not have to do withal in any other kind of poetry; the numbers are various and irregular, and sometimes, especially some of the long ones, seem harsh and uncouth if the just measures and cadences be not observed in the pronunciation. So that almost all their sweetness and numerosity (which is to he found, if I mistake not, in the roughest, if rightly repeated) lies in a manner wholly at the mercy of the reader." For himself, however, he had no doubts about the value of the new style of poetry; nay, he found a pleasure in comparing the "liberty" of the ode with the moral liberty of which he was always a votary:—

If Life should a well-ordered poem be
(In which he only hits the white
Who joins true profit with the best delight)
The more heroic way let others take,
Mine the Pindaric way I'll make.
The matter shall be grave, the numbers loose and free.

But the analogy was a very imperfect one with him; for while the moral liberty which he enjoyed led him so a life of great simplicity, unworldliness and charm, his liberty of verse led him too often into mere intellectual athleticism and display. "That for which I think this inequality of number is chiefly to be preferred," says Dr. Sprat with great artlessness, "is its affinity with prose"; and that no doubt was the reason which induced the Flatmans and the Samuel Wesleys of the next generation to choose that mode of dress for their platitudes. But with Cowley the attractiveness of the Ode seems to have been the wealth of opportunity which it afforded for what he called "bold figures," that is, for imagery such as could and would have occurred to no one else than to himself. Only Cowley, and only in an Ode, could have paused in the midst of a solemn address so the Muse and bidden her "rein her Pindaric Pelisses closely in" — for "'Tis an unruly and a hard-mouthed horse." Only Cowley, and only in an Ode, could have set the same Muse in her chariot, with Eloquence and Wit and Memory and Invention in the traces and the "airy footmen" of Conceits to run by her side, and then have suddenly turned to compare this Muse with the Creator:—

Where never yet did pry
The busy Morning's curious eye,
The wheels of thy bold Coach pass quick and free,
And all's an open road to thee.
Whatever God did say
Is all thy plain and smooth uninterrupted way.
Nay, even beyond his works thy voyages art known,
Thou'st thousand worlds too of thine own.
Thou speak'st Great Queen, in the same style as he,
And a new world leaps forth when thou say'st, Let it be!

The very apparatus of notes with which it was permissible to issue the Odes enlarged the poet's opportunities. In the Praise of Pindar, for example, we have—

So Pindar does new words and figures roll
Down his impetuous dithyrambic tide,
Which in no channel deigns to abide,
Which neither banks nor dikes control;

on which the note is, "Banks, natural; Dikes, artificial. It will neither be bounded nor circumscribed by nature nor by art." With such a means of interpretation at hand, what limit need the poet set on his invention?

And yet, when the subject is one that interests him, Cowley has something to say that we should not wish unsaid or said differently. Sonorousness counts for something, after all, in the treatment of such themes as the future of knowledge or the fate of a hero and a cause. The two odes which we have chosen for quotation — that To Mr. Hobbes and that called Brutus — are rightly grandiose, and are therefore successful. Like the other leading spirits of his age, Cowley looked across the passing troubles of the day to the new world to which Bacon had pointed, and which Bacon's followers were hastening to occupy; and of this feeling the Ode to Mr. Hobbes is the best expression. Again, the dominant fact in contemporary history (the Odes were published in 1656) was the success of the new Caesar, Cromwell. Conscientious royalists like Cowley, such at least as were men of contemplation not of action, threw themselves back on history and philosophy, and if they could not explain the evil they paralleled it with other evils from which good had seemed to flow. Brutus, the slayer of Caesar, the avenger of his country's murder, is himself slain; but what then? Virtue is for all that not an idol or a name:—

Hold, noble Brutus, and restrain,
The bold voice of thy generous disdain.
These mighty gulfs are yet
Too deep for all thy judgment and thy wit.

The two odes are brilliant examples what has Cowley could do when he left what he was conventionally expected to feel for what he really felt.

About the Davideis, the epic of whose twelve books fortunately only four came to the birth, perhaps the less said the better. We do not altogether wish it away, on account of the vigorous pages which it inspired in the preface; the pages which contain Cowley's eloquent and almost Miltonic plea for sacred poetry:—

"It in not without grief and indignation that I behold that divine science employing all her inexhaustible riches of wit and eloquence, either in the wicked and beggarly flattery of great persons, or the unmanly idolizing of foolish women, or the wretched affectation of scurril laughter, or at best on the confused antiquated dreams of senseless fables and metamorphoses. Amongst all holy and consecrated things which the devil ever stole and alienated from the service of the deity; as altars, temples, sacrifices, prayers, and the like; there is none that he so universally, and so long usurped, as poetry. It is time to recover is out of the tyrant's hands, and to restore it to the kingdom of God, who is the Father of it. It in time to baptize it in Jordan, for it will never become clean by bathing in the water of Damascus."

But if we ask how Cowley realised his aspirations, how he succeeded in "elevating poesy" rather than "abasing divinity," the answer must be disappointing. The Davideis is a school exercise, no more. It is at least no injustice to take as a specimen the most famous of the descriptive passages, the picture of Hell:—

Beneath the silent chambers of the earth,
Where the sun's fruitful beams give metals birth,
Where he the growth of fatal gold doth see,
Gold which above more influence has than he;
Beneath the dens where unfledged tempests lie,
And infant winds their tender voices try;
Beneath the mighty ocean's wealthy cares,
Beneath th' eternal fountain of all waves,
Where their vast court the mother-waters keep,
And undisturb'd by moons in silence sleep;
There is a place deep, wondrous deep below.
Which genuine night and horror does o'erflow;
No bound controls th' unwearied space, but hell
Endless as those dire pains that in it dwell.
Here no dear glimpse of the sun's lovely face
Strikes through the solid darkness of the place;
No dawning morn does her kind reds display;
One slight weak beam would here be thought the day.
No gentle stars with their fair gems of light
Offend the tyrannous and unquestion'd right.
Here Lucifer the mighty captive reigns,
Proud, 'midst his woes, and tyrant in his chains.

We are driven in sheer despair to Milton:—

He views
The dismal situation waste and wild
A dungeon horrible on all sides round
As one great furnace famed: yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible,
Served only to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades—

Here are two nearly contemporary pictures: the one full of gloom, profundity, terror, all coming directly from Milton's simple handling of simple elements. Fire and darkness — these are the physical materials of his hell, and they are left to produce their effect upon the reader by their own intensity and vastness, while the spiritual side of hell is presented in that ceaseless note of woe, "Regions of sorrow, doleful shades." In Milton, in effect, we have that "union of simplicity with greatness" that marks the true epic. But Cowley's hell is shown to us as lying piled with imaginary cosmical lumber, under the caverns where metals are bred, under the nests of the callow crying tempests, under the court of the waters. He cannot take us to it except through a labyrinth of details, on each of which he would dwell for a moment, losing sight of the end. "Infant winds," "tender voices," "the vast court of the mother waters," the influence of gold, the cause of tides and tidelessness — what have these to do with hell, that is, with the deepest conception of dread and darkness which the mind can form? But it is a consolation to be able to believe that Cowley was dissatisfied with the Davideis, and that in his maturity he regarded it as merely indicating to others the poetical capabilities of the Bible history. "I shall be ambitious of no other fruit from this weak and imperfect attempt of mine," he says at the end of the preface, "but the opening of a way to the courage and industry of some other persons, who may be better able to perform it thoroughly and successfully." Eleven years after these words were written appeared Paradise Lost.

The subsequent editions of the folio contain other writings, both verse and prose, that Cowley published in his later years, and some of the verse we give in our selections. There are no general features however by which we an distinguish these poems from the rest of his work: sometimes, as in the beautiful stanzas which we quote from the Hymn to Light, or in the verses which close the Essay on Solitude, or in the Ode on the Royal Society, he rises to his highest point; sometimes as in what he wrote on the death of "the matchless Orinda," and in the poem on The Garden, he sinks to his lowest.

Addison's Essay and Johnson's Life have said the last word on Cowley's "mixed wit," "metaphysics," or "conceits"; and we need hardly dwell at any greater length on what is the first most obvious, and most disastrous quality of his muse. He owes to it his poetical effacement with posterity, as he owed to it his first success with his contemporaries; and it would be ungracious as well as uncritical to fasten our attention solely upon that canker of his style. He lived at the end of one intellectual epoch and at the beginning of another; he held of both, and he was marred by the vices of the decadence at much as, but no more than, he was glorified by the dawning splendours of the new age. What had been the extravagance of a young and uncontrolled imagination in Lyly and Sidney became the pedantry of ingenuity in the sane and learned Cowley, the master of two or three positive sciences and of all the literatures of Europe. But this pedantry was not all. "I cannot conclude this head of mixed wit," says Addison, "without owning that the admirable poet out of whom I have taken the examples of it had as much true wit as any author that ever writ, and indeed all other talents of an extraordinary genius." Not, perhaps, all other talents of an extraordinary genius, but knowledge, reflection, calmness and clearness of judgment; in a word, the gifts of the age of science and of prose which set in with the Restoration and with these a rhetorical and moral fervour that made him a power in our literature greater, for the moment, than any that had gone before.