Home  »  Volume VII: English CAVALIER AND PURITAN  »  § 11. Cowley’s influence

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

III. Writers of the Couplet

§ 11. Cowley’s influence

Cowley’s work, in the development of the couplet form, was neither to smooth its roughnesses nor to disencumber it of superfluous content. He strove to make it an adequate vehicle for narrative verse, and to make its movement responsive to the demands of its subject. His weakness in perform ance lay in his self-conscious ambitiousness, and the mannerisms in which his thought habitually found expression. With out his example, however, the couplet could hardly have attained that force which, in combination with flexibility and ease, it acquired in Dryden’s hands. In many respects, the ease and majesty of Dryden’s couplets seem more closely allied to the masculine style of the earlier couplet-writers than to the artifices and not infrequent tameness of Cowley and Waller. Yet it is the case that the intermediary work of each, in its own way, made those qualities in Dryden possible, and that their efforts helped to give his couplets that polish and balance and good sense which, in his case, became a second nature.

After 1656, the poetical work of Cowley was small in volume. In 1643, he had written a bitter, but able, satire in couplets on puritanism, called The Puritan and the Papist. His first published work after the restoration was the attack, already alluded to, on the memory of Cromwell, which, although in prose, contains verses, and ends in a set of couplets. The Verses on Several Occasions, including the long Ode upon His Majesties Restoration and Return and the lively Ode Sitting and Drinking in the Chair, made out of the Reliques of Sir Francis Drake’s Ship, appeared in 1663. Another ode in the same collection, To the Royal Society, recalls the publication, in 1661, of Cowley’s brief prose Proposition for the Advancement of Experimental Philosophy. The folio edition of his works published in 1668 contained, in addition to the poems of 1656 and 1663, the Discourse on Cromwell, and the Several Discourses by way of Essays, in Verse and Prose. These later verses include odes and stanzas appropriate to the subjects of the essays, and a number of translations and imitations, chiefly of Horace. The prose Essays take their place more fittingly in a discussion of the development of English prose: their value in connection with the poetry of Cowley is that they give us, in language of great refinement and beauty, the key to his scholarly and sensitive nature. While thoroughly conscious of his own art, he obtruded himself but little into the text of his poems. Once, in his later years, disappointed of his hopes of court favour, he blamed himself, “the melancholy Cowley,” through the lips of his muse, for his “unlearn’d Apostacy” from poetry, and the devotion to affairs which had left him “gaping … upon the naked Beach, upon the Barren Sand,” while his fellow-voyagers pressed inland to their reward. He consoled himself by rebuking his mentor, and representing the favour of the king as still possible. This, however, is his one strictly auto-biographical poem. The true ambition and devotion of his life was centred in literature. In his own day, his reputation was very high. The influence of Donne, lord of “the universal monarchy of Wit,” was still powerful: its finer qualities were hidden by the passion for flights of artificial fancy which it had provoked, and one who surpassed Donne in outlandish variety of conceits might well be hailed as his legitimate successor and even superior. If the reputation of Cowley declined with surprising rapidity, while that of Waller and Denham remained undiminished, it was because, instead of pursuing, with them, the natural direction of poetry, he chose to limit his taste within the compass of fashions that were outworn, and to exhaust the last resources with which those fashions could supply their followers. Yet his influence on the verse of the younger generation of poets must not be judged entirely by the eclipse which overtook his fame within half a century of his death. That influence was summed up by Johnson at the end of the searching criticism of the fantastic school of poetry, and of Cowley as “the last of that race, and undoubtedly the best,” with which he concluded his Life of Cowley:

  • It may be affirmed, without any encomiastic fervour, that he brought to his poetic labours a mind replete with learning, and that his pages are embellished with all the ornaments which books could supply; that he was the first who imparted to English numbers the enthusiasm of the greater ode, and the gaiety of the less; that he was eqully qualified for spritely sallies, and for lofty flights; that he was among those who freed translation from servility, and, instead of following his author at a distance, walked by his side; and that, if he left versification yet improveable, he left likewise from time to time such specimens of excellence, as enabled succeeding poets to improve it.