1795 ca. ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Abraham Cowley

Richard Hurd, "Mr. Abraham Cowley" 1795 ca.; Commonplace Book in Kilvert, Memoir of the Life and Writings of Richard Hurd (1860) 240-41.



To speak of this neglected writer as a poet. He had a quick and ready conception; the true enthusiasm of genius, and vast materials, with which learning as well as fancy had supplied him for it to work upon. He had besides a prodigious command of expression, had a natural and copious flow of eloquence on every occasion, and understood our language in all its force and energy. Yet betwixt the native exuberance of his wit, which hurried him frequently on conceits, and the epidemical contagion of that time, which possessed all writers with the love of points, of affected turns, and hard unnatural allusion, there are few of his poems which a man of just taste will read with admiration, or even with pleasure. Some few there are and enough to save his name from oblivion, or rather to consecrate it, with those of the master spirits of our country, to immortality. I would chiefly mention The Complaint, The Hymn to Light, and The Ode to the Royal Society. The first and last are of the Pindaric kind, and, I think, well deserve the character given them by Mr. W[aller] of being better than his master's. The plan and ordonnance of the first is most masterly, indeed equal to any thing of any writer in that way; but both are executed greatly. The Hymn to Light is thick set with poetic beauties, and is besides enriched with a vein of moral sentiment, the language of the heart, superior to all poetry. In his other things, though there are passages we must approve, yet in general they are composed in a manner vastly below what we should expect from these specimens of his genius and ability. On the whole, he is a remarkable instance of the hurt which immoderate praise does to a poet. His prodigious wit made him excessively admired in his own time, but, being in a false taste, that admiration could not last; and it is the humour of mankind to revenge themselves on a great writer who has engrossed more fame than he deserved, by denying him his due when his proper value comes to be once discovered.