As Spenser was the child of Chaucer, so was Cowley, while yet a boy, an admirer of the sweet founds, the rural music, of Spenser, and very soon lisped in numbers himself.
Having previously received the rudiments of his education at Westminster school, he was entered, in 1636, of Trinity-college, which receives the greater part of the youth educated in that royal foundation. He took his Bachelor's and Master's of Arts degree at Cambridge; but in 1643, by order of Parliament, hewn obliged to quit it. Bishop Spratt tells us, that his Exercises of all kinds were long remembered in the University with applause: it does not, however, appear, that he succeeded to a fellowship.
Cowley, amid the dissentions of those times, continued a staunch loyalist, devoutly attached to the Church, and overflowing with affection to alma mater. His enthusiasm for the University he forcibly expressed in an excellent Latin poems entitled, "Elegia dedicatoria ad Illustrissimam Academiam Cantabrigiensem," which is prefixed to Bishop Spratt's edition of his poems; and his sentiments on collegiate life may be collected from his plan of a college, a Proposition for the Advancement of Experimental Knowledge. In his elegy he gives the rein to his Muse, and knows not when to stop her:
O! mihi jucundum Grantae super omnia nomen!
O! penitus toto corde receptus amor!
O! pulchrae fine luxu aedes, vitaeq: beatae!
Spendida paupertas, ingenuusq: decor!
O! chara ante alias, magnorum nomine regum
Digna domus! Trini nomine digna Dei!
Oh! name by me most lov'd, to me most fair,
Granta, which shalt my heart's full worship share!
Oh! mansions bright but modest, blessed life
Great without wealth, and generous without strife!
Oh! house, before all houses, dear to me,
Worthy of mighty kings, and sacred Trinity.
In his Scheme of a College for Experimental Philosophy, a plan which was preparatory to the designs of the Royal Society, we behold too much of a monkish college; nor so much generosity for the fair-sex, as might have been expected from to gallant a poet; but sufficient liberality in speculative matters towards the students and professors: the latter were destined to live unblessed with wives, but were to be recompenced by unrestrained and unshackled consciences.
"Neither (says Cowley,) does it at all check or interfere with any parties in state or religion, but is indifferently to he embraced by all differences in religion, and can hardly be conceived capable (as many good institutions have done,) of degenerating into any thing harmful." Bishop Spratt, in his excellent History of the Royal Society, speaking of what he conceived to be the impracticable parts of Cowley's model, observes, "His purpose in it was, like himself, full of honour and goodness. Most of the other particulars of his draught the Royal Society is now Putting in practice."
The poetry of Cowley resembles a luxuriant vine, from which, were the exuberant branches lopt off, and some superfluous clusters taken away, what remains would he more agreeable to the sight, and richer to the taste. The two best-written accounts of his life present us with two views of his character: according to one, he was a man without a single blemish; according to the other, he was a lover without ardent passions: at all events he was a true poet, often a representative poet, in which character, with his own natural warmth, he mingles much that is artificial:
Ille poeta, meum qui pectus inaniter angit.
Cowley is juslty considered as one of the geniuses of Trinity College; and accordingly there is a bust of him in the Library, and his portrait is in the Hall.