Abraham Cowley is a transitional figure, a poet who tended to relinquish the emotional values of John Donne and George Herbert and grasp the edges of reason and wit. He was more versatile than the early Metaphysicals: He embraced the influence of Donne and Ben Jonson, relied on the Pindaric form that would take hold in the eighteenth century, conceived of an experimental biblical epic in English (Davideis) well in advance of John Milton’s major project, and demonstrated an open-mindedness that allowed him to write in support of Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, and the Royal Society. Cowley’s elegies on the deaths of William Hervey and Richard Crashaw are extremely frank poems of natural pain and loss, while at the same time the poet recognized the need for the human intellect to be aware of “Things Divine”—the dullness of the earthly as opposed to the reality of the heavenly.
Indeed, Cowley’s versatile imagination ranged far and wide, and he easily adapted diverse subjects to fit his own purposes. Unlike the poets of the Restoration and the early eighteenth century who followed him, he ignored various current fashions and concentrated on economy, unity, form, and imagination; he did not have to force the grotesque on his readers, nor did he have to inundate them with a pretense of art. Cowley was a master at what Bishop Thomas Sprat termed, in 1668, “harmonious artistry.” He turned his back on wild and affected extravagance and embraced propriety and measure; he applied wit to matter, combined philosophy with charity and religion. Even when writing amorous verse, he took inspiration both from the courtier and from the scholar—the passion of the one and the wisdom of the other.
Cowley launched his career as a serious poet at the age of fifteen, while still a student at Westminster School, with the publication of Poeticall Blossomes. In fact, there is evidence that the volume had been prepared in some form at least two years earlier. At any rate, what appeared was a rather high level of poetic juvenilia, five pieces in which both sound and sense reflected an ability far beyond the poet’s youth. The first, “Pyramus and Thisbe,” 226 lines, does not differ too markedly from Ovid’s tale, although Cowley’s Venus seems overly malevolent and the (then) ten-year-old poet carried to extremes the desired but untasted joys of love. Otherwise, the piece evidences a sense of discipline and knowledge often reserved for the mature imagination, as young Cowley attempted to control his phrasing and his verse form. The second poem in the collection, “Constantia and Philetus,” may serve as a companion to “Pyramus and Thisbe,” although it is certainly no mere imitation. Cowley, now about twelve, again chose as his subject a tragic love story, keeping hold on Venus, Cupid, and other deities. However, he shifted his setting from ancient Rome to the suburban surroundings of an Italian villa, there to unfold a rather conventional poetic narrative: two lovers, a rival favored by the parents, a sympathetic brother, and a dead heroine. He adorned the entire scene with amorous conceits and characters yearning for the beauties of the country and the consolations of nature.
In addition to the larger pieces, Poeticall Blossomes contained an interesting trio of shorter efforts. In “A Dream of Elysium,” Cowley, seemingly engaged in an exercise in poetic self-education, parades before a sleeping poet a host of classical favorites: Hyacinth, Narcissus, Apollo, Ovid, Homer, Cato, Leander, Hero, Portia, Brutus, Pyramus, and Thisbe. The final two poems of the volume constitute the young writer’s first attempts at what would become, for him, an important form—the occasional poem. Both pieces are elegies: One mourns the death of a public official, Dudley, Lord Carleton and Viscount Dorchester, who attended Westminster School, served as secretary of state, and died in February, 1632; the other was occasioned by the death of Cowley’s cousin, Richard Clerke, a student at Lincoln’s Inn. Naturally, the two poems contain extravagant praises and lofty figures, no doubt reflecting what the boy had read in his favorite, Spenser, and had been taught by his masters. There are those who speculate that had Cowley died in adolescence, as Thomas Chatterton did in the next century, the verses of Poeticall Blossomes would have sustained at least a very small poetic reputation in a very obscure niche of literary history. Cowley, however, despite a number of purely political distractions during his adult life, managed to extend his poetic talents beyond childhood exercises, and it is to the products of his maturity that one must turn for the comprehension and appreciation of his art.
Perhaps Cowley’s most important contribution to poetry came in 1656 with the publication of his extensive collection, Poems, several additions to which he made during his lifetime. Of more than passing interest is the preface to this volume, wherein Cowley attempts, by reference to his own personal situation, to explain the relationship between the poet and his environment. In 1656, he had little desire to write poetry, mainly because of the political instability of the moment, his own health, and his mental state. He admitted that a warlike, unstable, and even tragic age may be the best for the poet to write about, but it may also be the worst time in which to write. Living as he did, a stranger under surveillance in his own homeland, he felt restricted in his artistic endeavors. “The soul,” he complained in the preface, “must be filled with bright and delightful ideas when it undertakes to communicate delight to others, which is the main end of poesy.” Thus, he had given serious thought to abandoning Puritan England for the obscurity of some plantation in the Americas, and the 1656 Poems was to be his legacy to a world for whose conflicts and confrontations he no longer had any concern.
The Poems contain four divisions: the Miscellanies, including the Anacreontiques; The Mistress, a collection of love poems; Pindarique Odes; and the Davideis, a heroic epic focusing on the problems of the Old Testament king. In subsequent editions, Cowley and his editors added “Verses on Various Occasions” and “Several Discourses by Way of Essays in Prose and Verse.” Cowley himself informed his readers that the Miscellanies constituted poems preserved from earlier folios (some even from his school days); unfortunately, he made no distinction between the poor efforts and those of quality. Thus, an immature ode, “Here’s to thee, Dick,” stands near the serious and moving elegy “On the Death of Mr. William Hervey,” in which he conveys both universal meaning and personal tragedy and loss. Cowley, however, rarely allowed himself to travel the route of the strictly personal; for him, poetry required support from learning, from scholastic comparisons that did not always rise to poetical levels. The fine valedictory “To the Lord Falkland,” which celebrates the friendship between two interesting but divergent personalities, is sprinkled with lofty scientific comparisons to display the order that reigns in the crowded mind of his hero. Indeed, there are moments in Cowley’s elegies when the reader wonders if the poet was more interested in praising the virtues of science and learning than in mourning the loss of friends. Such high distractions, however, do not weaken the intensity of Cowley’s sincerity.
The Mistress, originally published as a separate volume in 1647, comprises one hundred love poems, or, in Cowley’s own terms, feigned addresses to some fair creature of the fancy. Almost apologetically, the poet...
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