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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Thomas Raynesford Lounsbury (1838–1915)

By Abraham Cowley (1618–1667)

ABRAHAM COWLEY, the posthumous son of a citizen and stationer of London, was born in that city in the latter half of 1618. His early education was received at Westminster school. In 1637 he became a scholar of Trinity College, Cambridge, where in 1639 he took the degree of B. A., and in 1642 that of M. A. During the civil commotions that followed, he was ejected from Cambridge University and withdrew to Oxford, which had become for the time being the headquarters of the royalist party. While there he not only continued his studies, but was present and in service in several of King Charles’s journeys and expeditions. He finally became secretary to Lord Jermyn, who at the Restoration was created Earl of St. Albans. In this capacity he followed to France the Queen Henrietta Maria, who had left England for that country in 1644, and was there busily engaged in political intrigues to aid the cause of her husband. In her service Cowley was diligently employed, and was dispatched on missions to Jersey, Scotland, Flanders, and Holland. His principal and most absorbing occupation, however, was carrying on the cipher correspondence that took place between the King and the Queen. This, and duties allied to this, were so engrossing that according to Sprat, his intimate friend and first biographer, they “for some years together took up all his days and two or three nights every week.”

After the execution of Charles, Cowley remained in France until 1656. Then he returned to England, practically to play the part of a spy, if the testimony of the authority already quoted can be trusted. Once there, he was arrested and imprisoned, but subsequently was allowed to go at liberty on bail. After the death of Cromwell he went back to France. He returned at the Restoration, only to meet with the neglect which was incurred by all the followers of the exiled monarch who made the mistake of combining an objectionable sobriety and decency of life with loyalty to the house of Stuart. Furthermore, certain things he had done had made him an object of pretended suspicion. He had been created in 1657 a Doctor of Medicine by the University of Oxford, in obedience to an order of the government. There were passages also in the preface prefixed to the edition of his works published in 1656, which were taken to imply submissive acquiescence on his part in the new order of things. These were satisfactory pretexts for disregarding claims which the self-sacrificing service of years had established. The mastership of the Savoy, which he expected and which he had a right to expect, was given to another. But at last, more fortunate than many of his fellow-sufferers, he received through the influence of the Earl of St. Albans and the Duke of Buckingham a provision sufficient to maintain him in comfort. Withdrawing entirely from public life, he lived successively at Barn Elms and at Chertsey in Sussex. At the latter place he died on July 18th, 1667, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Such is a brief outline of the career of the man who during his lifetime was the most popular of English poets. In spite of occasional intervals of good fortune, it is on the whole a melancholy story. Such it seemed to Cowley himself. In the essay entitled ‘Of Myself,’ quoted below, and in ‘The Complaint,’ we get not only further details of the author’s personal fortunes, but an insight into the feelings of disappointment and dejection which came over him, as he contrasted the difference between what he had hoped and expected and what he had succeeded in achieving or gaining. We learn from the preface to the volume published in 1656, that long before that time he had been eager to withdraw from the harassing occupations in which much of his time had already been wasted, and to spend the remainder of his days in seclusion and study. “My desire,” he then wrote, “has been for some years past (though the execution has been accidentally diverted), and does still vehemently continue, to retire myself to some of our American plantations; not to seek for gold or to enrich myself with the traffic of those parts, which is the end of most men that travel thither,… but to forsake this world forever, with all the vanities and vexations of it, and to bury myself in some obscure retreat there, but not without the consolations of letters and philosophy.”

There seems no reason to doubt the genuineness of the feeling thus expressed, and there is little difficulty in tracing it to its cause. Unquestionably the political situation had a good deal to do with its manifestation at that particular time; but the source of his dejection lay deeper than any temporary overthrow of the side with which he sympathized. Cowley’s career, however successful, had not fulfilled the extraordinary promise of his youth. He made his appearance as a man of letters long before he became a man. Of all authors in our own tongue, perhaps in any tongue, he was the most precocious. This is not to say that others have not written as early as he, but that no one who wrote so early has written so well. In 1633, when he was but fifteen years old, he brought out a little volume containing over a thousand lines and entitled ‘Poetical Blossomes.’ It was made up mainly of two productions, entitled respectively ‘Constantia and Philautus’ and ‘Pyramus and Thisbe.’ Of this work a second edition appeared in 1636, with a number of additional poems. In the epistle prefixed to this impression, he states that ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ was composed at ten years of age and ‘Constantia and Philautus’ at thirteen. But much more important than either, appeared in this volume of 1636 a poem entitled ‘A Vote.’ It consists of eleven stanzas, the last three of which, with a few slight verbal alterations, were cited by Cowley in his essay upon himself. This poetry, which he never surpassed, he there tells us was written when he was thirteen years old. The early date given to its composition may have been due to a slip of memory; at any rate it was not until 1636 that the piece appeared in print. But even were it not written till the very year in which it was published, it must be regarded as a marvelous production for a boy, not alone for the poetic ability displayed in it, but for the philosophic view it takes of life.

A third edition of ‘Poetical Blossomes’ appeared in 1637. In 1638 came out a pastoral comedy, written while he was king’s scholar in Westminster School, and called ‘Love’s Riddle.’ During that same year a Latin comedy entitled ‘Naufragium Joculare’ had been acted by the students of Trinity College, and a little later was published. All the works mentioned, it will be seen, had been produced by him before he had completed, and most of them in fact before he had reached, his twentieth year. For one further dramatic production he is also responsible at a very early age. In 1641, when the King’s son Charles (afterwards Charles II.) passed through Cambridge, Cowley “made extempore,” as he says, a comedy which was acted, for the entertainment of the Prince, at Trinity College on March 12th. It was called ‘The Guardian,’ and in 1650 it was published. At a later period it was rewritten by the author, and in 1661 was brought out at the theatre in Lincoln’s Inn Fields with a fair degree of success. It was then entitled ‘Cutter of Coleman Street.’

From the time of leaving Cambridge, though he did not cease writing, nothing of his was published for a long while, at least under his own name. In 1647 appeared a volume entitled ‘The Mistress’; but even this the publisher professed to bring out wholly on his own responsibility. The work consisted entirely of love poems, and the very doubtful assertion is steadily repeated in all notices of Cowley’s life that they became the favorite ones of the age. If so, the age must have been peculiarly frigid in its feelings. Whatever excellences these pieces possess, they are not the excellences that characterize love poetry. It is hardly possible to speak of them as the transcript of any personal experiences. They are rather academic exercises, intellectual disquisitions upon the general subject of love, than the impassioned utterances of a man whose feelings have ever been profoundly stirred. The Greek scholar Joshua Barnes, who flourished a little later, declared that in spite of the sentiments expressed in these pieces, and in a subsequent poem called ‘The Chronicle,’ Cowley was never in love but once in his life. It could not be proved on the evidence of the verses contained in ‘The Mistress’ that he was ever in love at all. Still, if the poems lack fervor, they often exhibit ingenuity and grace.

On his return to England during the Protectorate he brought out a collected edition of his works in folio. It was published in 1656, and amongst the matter which then appeared for the first time were the odes written in professed imitation of Pindar. The composition of these set a literary fashion which did not die out till the latter half of the next century. To write so-called Pindaric odes became one of the regular duties of all who were in doubt about their poetic inspiration, and felt called upon to convince others as well as themselves of their possession of it. But Cowley introduced the term and not the thing. He seems to have fancied that to produce lines with a different number of feet, and stanzas with a different number of lines, was the proper method of representing the measure. But Pindar’s verse, if it can be called irregular at all, was regularly irregular. Cowley’s imitation was irregular and nothing else. Still, so great was his influence, that a plentiful crop of these spurious reproductions of an imaginary metrical form sprang up in the literature of the hundred years following the Restoration. Among them can occasionally be found genuine imitations of Pindar’s measure, such as are the odes of Congreve and of Gray; but of the countless number of all kinds produced, those of the last-named author are the only ones that can be said still to survive.

Another production that made its first appearance in the folio of 1656 was part of an epic poem, which Cowley had begun while he was at the university. Its subject was the life and exploits of King David, and his intention was to complete it in the orthodox number of twelve books. It would appear from his preface that the theme was chosen from a sense of duty as well as from inclination. Poetry, he there tells us, should no longer be pressed into the service of fable. The Devil had stolen it and alienated it from the service of the Deity; and it was time to recover it out of the tyrant’s power and restore it to the kingdom of God. If this doctrine be true, it must be conceded that Cowley’s hands were not the ones to effect the restoration. From what he did towards bringing about the result he deemed desirable, it looks rather as if the craft of the great Adversary of mankind had been put forth to defeat the end in view by instigating this particular poet to undertake this particular task. The ‘Davideis’ is written in rhymed heroic verse, of which Cowley never gained the full mastery. There is nothing in the matter to make amends for the versification, which is rarely well finished and is not unfrequently rough and inharmonious. In truth, the distinguishing characteristic of the work as a whole is its well-sustained tediousness. Fortunately it was not completed beyond the fourth book; it would not have lessened Cowley’s reputation if the first had never been begun.

Cowley continued to write after this volume was published; but a good deal of his later production was in the Latin tongue, and has in consequence been condemned to perpetual obscurity. Interest in that could be least expected to survive the general decay of interest which gradually overtook his writings. His fame stood highest in his own century, and he is perhaps as much underestimated now as he was overestimated then. His collected works passed through edition after edition, and by 1681 had reached the seventh. Such a sale in those days of mighty folios and comparatively few readers indicated great and general popularity. But by the end of the century his influence had begun to decline. Dryden at the outset of his literary career had been one of his most fervent admirers; but in the preface to his last book, which appeared in 1700, he censured his faults severely, and declared that he had so sunk in his reputation that for ten impressions which his works had had in so many successive years, scarcely a hundred copies were purchased during a twelvemonth at the time of his writing. This statement reflected more the feelings of the critic than it represented the actual facts, for between 1699 and 1721 four editions of Cowley’s works appeared. Still it is none the less true that Cowley’s reputation was then steadily sinking, and was destined to sink still lower. In 1737 Pope directly referred to the fact in the following lines, which have been repeatedly quoted in connection with it:—

  • “Who now reads Cowley? If he pleases yet,
  • It is his moral pleases, not his wit;
  • Forgot his epic, nay, Pindaric art,
  • But still I love the language of his heart.”
  • Between 1721 indeed and 1802 not a single separate edition of his works was published; though selections were edited by Bishop Hurd in the interval, and of course his poems were included in the great collections of the booksellers, and of Anderson and Chalmers. In 1881 an edition limited to one hundred copies of his works in verse and prose, for the first time completely collected, was brought out by Grosart as a part of the Chertsey Worthies’ Library.

    The reasons for the decay of Cowley’s reputation are not hard to find. It was due to what Pope called his wit, or what more specifically was criticized by Addison in No. 62 of the Spectator as his false wit. “He could never,” says Dryden, “forgive any conceit which came in his way, but swept like a drag-net great and small.” There are accordingly but few poems of his that can be read with unmixed pleasure. Even when the piece as a whole is admirable, the reader is always in danger of finding somewhat to jar upon his taste in details. A passage containing lofty thoughts nobly expressed is liable to be followed by another, in which forced and unnatural images or far-fetched conceits utterly destroy the impression wrought by the majestic simplicity of what has preceded. This inequality began early to lower him in general esteem. Even as far back as the seventeenth century, Lord Rochester is reported by Dryden as having said of him very pertinently, if somewhat profanely, that “Not being of God, he could not stand.”

    From this censure, which is too applicable to most of his work, there are portions that are absolutely free. These are his translations and his prose pieces. In the former—especially in his versions of Anacreon—the necessity of adhering to his original rendered it impracticable for him to go straying after these meretricious beauties of style. But for them in the latter he seems never to have had the least inclination. Here his expression never suffered from the perversion of his taste. He preceded Dryden in introducing into our language that simple structure, that easy natural mode of expression which is peculiarly adapted to the genius of our tongue, and forms the greatest possible contrast to the Latinized diction, the involved constructions, the sometimes stately but frequently cumbrous sentences of the men of the former age, like Hooker and Milton. Cowley was in fact the first regular writer of modern prose. In certain particulars his work in that line has rarely been surpassed. It is simple and straightforward, never sinking into commonplace when treating of the common, never lacking in dignity when occasion demands it to rise. The longest and most important of these prose pieces—nearly all of which are interspersed with poetry—is the one entitled ‘A Discourse concerning the Government of Oliver Cromwell.’ It was written shortly after the Protector’s death, though not published until 1661. In spite of the fact that it is mainly an elaborate attack upon that great ruler, the opening pages prove how profound had been the impression produced upon Cowley by the personality of the man.

    Cowley is perhaps the chief of the poets who for some inexplicable reason have been termed metaphysical. The peculiarities of style which led to this school being so designated, were exemplified in passages taken from his works, in the elaborate criticism given of him by Dr. Johnson in the biography he prepared. To most persons that account is now better known than the productions of the man who was its subject. It is not to be expected indeed that Cowley will ever again be a popular author. But he will always be a favorite to a certain extent of a small body of cultivated men, who will overlook his faults for the sake of the lofty morality couched in lofty diction that is scattered through his writings, and even more for that undertone of plaintive tenderness which Pope aptly styled “the language of his heart.” In literary history he will have a place of his own, as having founded in the so-called Pindaric odes a temporary fashion of writing; and a more exalted position for having been the pioneer in the production of our present prose style.