Charles Cotton Biography


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Charles Cotton was born at Beresford Hall, Staffordshire, on April 28, 1630. The only child of Charles and Olive Stanhope Cotton, he was, like his father, a country squire with literary interests—and a Royalist. The English Civil War, which began when he was twelve, inspired Cotton with a vision of worldwide chaos that he soon expressed in verse through descriptions of the adjacent Peak District scenery in Derbyshire. From about 1648 to 1655, young Charles was tutored by Ralph Rawson, who is mentioned in several of Cotton’s early poems and who in turn addressed a poem to him. Cotton’s first published poem was “An Elegie upon the Lord Hastings,” which appeared in 1649; Hastings had died earlier that year at the age of nineteen. Other poems lamenting Hasting’s death were written by John Dryden, Robert Herrick, Andrew Marvell, John Denham, Sir Aston Cokayne, Alexander Brome, and John Bancroft. It cannot be said that Cotton’s was the best. In 1651, he wrote another elegy, on Lord Derby, a Royalist who was captured after the Battle of Worcester and beheaded on October 15, 1651. His strong political feelings were made further apparent in “The Litany” and in “To Poet E—— W——,” the latter castigating Edmund Waller for his servile obsequiousness in the face of the Cromwellian regime. Cotton wrote all these potentially seditious poems as a young bachelor in his twenties. Like almost all his shorter verse, they remained unpublished during his lifetime.

Throughout the winter of 1655-1656, Cotton was in France. From there, he addressed several poems of amorous longing to Isabella “Chloris” Hutchinson, whom he married on June 30, 1656, and who bore him nine children before her death in 1669. She may also have been the inspiration for “On Christmas-Day, 1659,” which is the only one of Cotton’s major poems to be concerned with orthodox religion. Its happy mood anticipated the impending restoration of the monarchy, which took place on May 29, 1660; Cotton then wrote A Panegyrick to the King’s Most Excellent Majesty, celebrating a day that must have been as exhilarating to him as that of his own wedding.

For the next twenty-five years, Cotton published the literary works (not all of them precisely datable) upon which his immediate reputation would rest. Thus, in 1661, “The Answer” (to Alexander Brome) celebrated that “dusty corner of the World” which Cotton called his own and the return of his humble Muse, which for the next few years manifested itself primarily in translations. A prose translation of The Morall Philosophy of the Stoicks (1664), from the French of Guillaume Du Vair, preceded Cotton’s famous Scarronides, a daringly bawdy verse burlesque of Vergil. Named for a previous French work (Paul Scarron’s Virgile travesti, 1648), it became Cotton’s most popular poem, which Samuel Pepys, among others, thought “extraordinary good”...

(The entire section is 1201 words.)