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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

XVI. The Essay and the Beginning of Modern English Prose

§ 13. Cowley’s Essays

It was Abraham Cowley, a friend of St. Évremond, who gave a new turn to the essay. Cowley has often been called a transitional writer; but he is one in the sense, not that he dallied in a halfway house, but that, both in prose and verse, he made a complete transit from the old school to the new. It is particularly interesting to trace this progress in his prose writings. In the earlier of these, the preface to the 1656 edition of his poems, his sentences are at first cumbrous and involved, and though, when he warms to his work, they become shorter and better balanced, there remains a certain stiffness in the style quite unlike the conversational ease of his later essays. It is nearer to Jeremy Taylor (who was only five years Cowley’s senior, and who died in the same year) than to Dryden. To the older school also belongs the Discourse by way of Vision concerning the Government of Oliver Cromwell (1661), of which the latter part is a fine example of rhetorical prose. Even in the preface to Cutter of Coleman-Street (1663), though the sentences, as a rule, are short and well co-ordinated, Cowley has by no means shaken himself free from the old mannerism. The essays proper, eleven in number, were all written during the last four or five years of his life, and, to most of them, a more approximate date can be assigned. In 1663, having been disappointed of the mastership of the Savoy hospital, he accomplished his design of withdrawing himself from “all tumults and business of the world,” by retiring to Barn Elms on the Thames, then a favourite resort of Londoners. Before this, he must have written the essay entitled The Danger of Procrastination, in which he refers to his “design” as only in contemplation. It is not without charm, but long sentences still occur. Transitional in style, also, is the essay Of Agriculture, in which he proposes that “one college in each University should be erected and appropriated to this Study,” and the short essay entitled The Garden, dedicated to his friend Evelyn, which was written in 1664, between the publication of Evelyn’s Kalendarium Hortense and that of his Gardening. Cowley speaks of himself as “sticking still in the inn of a hired house and a garden.” In April, 1665, he moved to the Porch House, Chertsey, and there he died two years later. To these last two years of his life belong the essays Of Obscurity, Of My Self and that entitled The Dangers of an Honest man in such Company; and to the same period we may with all probability assign Of Solitude, Of Greatness and The Shortness of Life and uncertainty of Riches. In these six essays, Cowley has found his style and his method. The influence of Montaigne is unmistakable. In the two essays in which he is mentioned by name, Of Solitude and Of Greatness, not only the titles, but some of the contents, are borrowed from him. Of those chief characteristics which mark the essai of Montaigne in its final phase of development—the examples from classical and other authors, the personal element and the artistic workmanship—none is wanting in Cowley. Yet he is no mere satellite of Montaigne. He is saved from this by the personal element in his writings. In the words of his biographer, his essays are “a real chronicler of his own thoughts upon the point of his retirement.” In spite of The Spectator’s sneer that “he praised solitude when he despaired of shining in a court,” there is no reason to doubt his earnest affection for obscurity and retirement. We can see, too, in his essays, the other qualities ascribed to him by Sprat—his lack of affectation, his modesty and humility, and, above all, the pleasant gravity of his speech. The essay Of Greatness may be taken as an example of his method. Here we find, not the solitary self-communing of a Burton or a Browne, but a friendly interchange of confidence between author and reader—an anecdote freely translated from the elder Seneca, a few examples from Suetonius of the foibles of the Roman emperors; a pointed reference to “the late giant of our nation”; a quotation or two from the Latin poets; and a few lines of the author’s own. There is no disdain of commonplaces; but they are dressed up as “ridiculous paradoxes,” before being stripped and presented to the reader as brand-new truths. As for the style, it is neither stiff nor slovenly; neither a court suit, nor a dressing gown and slippers. The choice of words is fastidious, without being affected; the use of metaphor is restrained; sentences are well turned, but not all cut to the same pattern. The artist, in short, has concealed his art. Cowley, we are told, intended to publish a discourse upon style. It would have been agreeable reading; but it would doubtless have revealed as little of his secret as have similar treatises by later masters of the art of prose.

Cowley’s essays were first printed, under the title Several Discourses, by way of Essays, in Verse and Prose, in 1668, the year after his death. In the same year, his friend Thomas Sprat (afterwards bishop of Rochester) wrote an “elegant” account of his life and writings, which, unfortunately, is as sparing of facts as the same writer’s History of the Royal Society. Worse than this, having told us that Cowley excelled in his letters to his private friends—as we can well believe from the one letter of this sort which has escaped destruction—Sprat declines to publish them on the ground that “in such letters the souls of men should appear undressed; and in that negligent habit, they may be fit to be seen by one or two in a chamber, but not to go abroad into the street.”