1720 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Abraham Cowley

Giles Jacob, in Historical Account of the Lives and Writings of our most considerable English Poets (1720) 250-52.



The Life of this admirable Poet, with a short Character of his Talents in general, being inserted in my first Volume of this Work, I shall here descend to some Particulars, for the Compleature of the Account of our English Pindar. Dr. Sprat, late Bishop of Rochester, in his Life of Mr. Cowley, tells us, he understood exceeding well the Variety and Power of Poetical Numbers, and practis'd them with great Happiness. If his Verses in some Places seem not so soft and flowing as some would have them, it was his Choice, not his Fault. He knew that in diverting Mens Minds there should be the same Variety observ'd, as in the Prospects of their Eyes; where a Rock, a Precipice, or a rising Wave, is often more delightful than a smooth even Ground, or a calm Sea. His Invention was great and powerful, and the Variety of his Arguments, that he has manag'd, is so large, that there is scarce any Particular of all the Passions of Men, or Works of Nature and Providence, which he has pass'd by undescrib'd; and in all he observes the Rules of Decency, a due Figure of Speech, and a proper Measure of Wit. He had a perfect Mastery in both the Languages in which he writ. He excell'd both in Prose and Verse; and both together have that Perfection, which is commended by some of the antient Writers, above all others, that they are very obvious to the Conception, but most difficult in the Imitation. In his Latin Poems, he has express'd to Admiration all the Numbers of Verses, and Figures of Poesy, that are scatter'd up and down among the Antients: This is the more extraordinary, in that it was never yet perform'd by any single Poet of the antient Romans themselves. And he imitated Pindar in English, without the Danger that Horace presag'd to the Man who should dare to attempt it. His Works, when they were first printed, were divided into four Parts, viz.

I. His Mistress; which describes the Passion of Love more lively, and shews the prodigious Wit of the Author, beyond any Poetry ever printed in the English Tongue.

II. His Miscellaneous Works; or, Poems on several Occasions: which are also incomparable.

III. Davideis, an Heroick Poem. This Divine Piece has a Greatness of Spirit, and Sublimity of Thought rarely to be met with; and tho' Mr. Rimer would not allow the Troubles of David to be a Title or Matter proper for an Heroick Poem, yet he says, there is something of a more fine, more free, and more noble Air in Cowley's Davideis, than in the Hierusalem of Tasso.

IV. His Pindarique Odes, excellent, beyond all others written of his time or since.

He likewise wrote a Volume of Latin Poems, and translated two Books of his Davideis into Latin Verse. Mr. Flatman tells us, Cowley as Apollo's Columbus, found out new worlds of Poetry, and has these Lines upon him,

He, like an Eagle, soar'd aloft,
To seize his noble Prey,
Yet, as a Dove's, his Soul was soft,
Calm as the Night, but bright as Day.