1656
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Davideis, a Sacred Poem of the Troubles of David. In Four Books.

Poems: viz. I. Miscellanies. II. The Mistress, or, Love Verses. III. Pindarique Odes. and IV. Davideis, or a Sacred Poem of the Troubles of David. Written by A. Cowley.

Abraham Cowley


The character of Envy in Abraham Cowley's biblical epic is adapted from the famous passages in Ovid and Spenser.

Samuel Wesley the elder: "It has Gondibert's Majesty without his stiffness, and something of Spencer's Sweetness and Variety, without his irregularity" Essay on Heroic Poetry (1693) Sig. a4v.

Samuel Richardson to Miss Suzanna Highmore: "I am glad that Cowley takes his turn with you. Cowley has great merit with me; and the greater as he is out of fashion in this age of taste. And yet I wonder he is so absolutely neglected, as he wants not point and turn, and wit, and fancy, and an imagination very brilliant: nor puts a reader to vast trouble to understand him — a great matter in this age of dictionary and index learning, in which our study is to get knowledge without study (if I may so express myself) and a smattering is almost all that is aimed at" 4 June 1750 in letters in Correspondence of Samuel Richardson (1804) 2:229.

Samuel Johnson: "a poem which the author designed to have extended to twelve books, merely, as he makes no scruple of declaring, because the Aeneid had that number; but he had leisure or perseverance only to write the third part. Epick poems have been left unfinished by Virgil, Statius, Spenser, and Cowley. That we have not the whole Davideis is, however, not much to be regretted, for in this undertaking Cowley is, tacitly at least, confessed to have miscarried. There are not many examples of so great a work produced by an author generally read and generally praised that has crept through a century with so little regard. Whatever is said of Cowley, is meant of his other works. Of the Davideis no mention is made; it never appears in books, nor emerges in conversation. By the Spectator it has once been quoted, by Rymer it has once been praised, and by Dryden, in Mac Flecknoe, it has once been imitated; nor do I recollect much other notice from its publication till now in the whole succession of English literature.... Lucifer makes a speech to the inferior agents of mischief, in which there is something of heathenism, and therefore of impropriety; and to give efficacy to his words, condludes by lashing 'his breast with his long tail.' Envy, after a pause steps out, and among other declarations of her zeal utters these lines: "Do thou but threat, loud storms shall make reply | And thunder echo to the trembling sky [. . .].' Every reader feels himself weary with this useless talk of an allegorical being" "Abraham Cowley" in Lives of the English Poets (1779-81); ed. Hill (1905) 1:48-51.

John Aikin: "There are two descriptions of ENVY in the Fairy Queen; both of them loathsome and disgusting, and, though manifestly imitated from that of Ovid, less distinct and consistent as allegories. The only additional circumstance that I think worth remarking is, that the garment of Envy is painted full of eyes; an emblem, I conceive, of the sharp-sightedness of envious persons in discerning the faults of their neighbours. Cowley, in his DAVIDEIS, gives a portrait of Envy, drawn with much strength, and with some novelty" "Personification in Poetry" Monthly Magazine 6 (September 1798) 180.

Henry Neele: "The Davideis is much more disfigured by far-fetched conceits than even his odes; and they offend still more against good taste, when we find them mixed up with the sobriety of narration, than when they mingle in his Pindaric extasies. The narrative itself is also heavy and uninteresting; there are no strongly drawn or predominating characters; and the allegorical personages, who are the chief actors, do not, of course, excite any strong interest, or greatly arrest the attention. Still there are many scattered beauties throughout the poem; many original ideas, and much brilliant versification" Russell Institution Lectures on English Poetry, 1827; in Remains (1829) 54.

W. J. Courthope: "For the purpose of showing that the classical form of the epic could be applied to a Christian subject, the history of Abraham or of Moses might have been chosen quite as fitly as that of David: neither the one nor the other is in touch with that idea of action in the reader which is the moving cause of every really great epic poem. As in the case of the Thebais of Statius, the subject of the Davideis recommended itself to the poet chiefly because it was universally known, and in all those parts of the structure in which the interest depends on the representation of action — the incidents, the characters, the speeches, the sentiments — the mode of conception is felt to be frigid. Cowley is very careful in the framework of his poem to follow closely in the footsteps of Homer and Virgil; in the plan of the first book he imitates Marino's Strage degli Innocenti almost with servility" History of English Poetry (1895-1910) 3:347.

Arthur H. Nethercot: "Cowley could never accompany [Henry] More in his pursuit of the soul through the strange and awful caverns of life and death into the pure and dazzling heights of immortality. Even though More was an avowed imitator of Spenser in both versification and language, Cowley could never whirl with him out into the other worlds of an infinite universe, or see in the pre-existence of the soul a proof of the actuality of spirits, ghosts, and disembodied beings. Cowley's touch of Platonism was of a more orthodox and less rhapsodic nature" Cowley, the Muses' Hannibal (1931) 57.

On Spenserian influence in Cowley's verse generally, see Traugott Bohme (1911) 87-88.



Envy at last crawls forth from that dire throng,
Of all the direful'st; her black locks hung long,
Attir'd with curling Serpents; her pale skin
Was almost dropt from the sharp bones within,
And at her breast stuck Vipers which did prey
Upon her panting heart, both night and day
Sucking black bloud from thence, which to repaire
Both night and day they left fresh poysons there.
Her garments were deep stain'd in humane gore,
And torn by her own hands, in which she bore
A knotted whip, and bowl, that to the brim
Did with green gall, and juice of worm wood swim.
With which when she was drunk, she furious grew
And lasht herself; thus from th' accursed crew;
Envy, the worst of Fiends, herself presents;
Envy, good only when she herself torments.

[Book I; Poems (1681) 8]