1837 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Abraham Cowley

Henry Hallam, in Introduction to the Literature of Europe of the Fifteenth, Sixteenth, and Seventeenth Centuries (1837-39; 1882) 3:249.



In the next year, 1617, Cowley's Mistress appeared; the most celebrated performance of the miscalled metaphysical poets. It is a series of short amatory poems, in the Italian style of the age, full of analogies that have no semblance of truth, except from the double sense of words and thoughts that unite the coldness of subtilty with the hyperbolical extravagance of counterfeited passion. A few Anacreontic poems, and some other light pieces of Cowley, have a spirit and raciness very unlike these frigid conceits; and, in the ode on the death of his friend Mr. Harvey, he gave some proof of real sensibility and poetic grace. The Pindaric odes of Cowley were not published within this period [1600-50]. But it is not worth while to defer mention of them. They contain, like all his poetry, from time to time, very beautiful lines; but the faults are still of the same kind: his sensibility and good sense, nor has any poet more, are choked by false taste; and it would be difficult to fix on any one poem in which the beauties are more frequent than the blemishes. Johnson has selected the elegy on Crashaw as the finest of Cowley's works. It begins with a very beautiful couplet, but I confess that little else seems, to my taste, of much value. The Complaint, probably better known than any other poem, appears to me the best in itself. His disappointed hopes give a not unpleasing melancholy to several passages. But his Latin ode in a similar strain is much more perfect. Cowley, perhaps, upon the whole, has had a reputation more above his deserts than any English poet; yet it is very easy to perceive that some, who wrote better than he, did not possess so fine a genius.