Abraham Cowley Biography


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Abraham Cowley was born in the parish of St. Michael le Quern, Cheapside, in London, sometime after July, 1618, the seventh child and fifth son (born posthumously) of Thomas Cowley, a stationer and grocer, who left 1000 to be divided among his seven children. His mother was Thomasine Berrye, to whom Thomas Cowley had pledged his faith sometime in 1581. The widow did the best she could to educate her children through her own devices and then managed to send the boys off to more formal institutions. Thus, she obtained young Abraham’s admission as a king’s scholar at Westminster School, to which he proceeded armed with some acquaintance with Edmund Spenser. By the age of fifteen, he was already a published poet; his first collection of five pieces, entitled Poeticall Blossomes, was followed by a second edition three years later. One of the poems, “Pyramus and Thisbe,” some 226 lines long, had been written when he was ten; another, “Constantia and Philetus,” was written during the poet’s twelfth year.

Cowley’s scholarly skills unfortunately did not keep pace with the development of his poetic muse. Apparently the boy balked at the drudgeries of learning grammar and languages; furthermore, his masters contended that his natural quickness made such study unnecessary. In the end, he failed to gain election to Cambridge University in 1636 and had to wait until mid-June of the following year, at which time he became a scholar of Trinity College. Cambridge proved no deterrent to young Cowley’s poetic bent; in 1638, he published a pastoral drama, Loves Riddle, written at least four years previously. Then, on February 2, 1638, members of Trinity College performed his Latin comedy, Naufragium Joculare, which he published shortly thereafter. After taking his B.A. in 1639, Cowley remained at Cambridge through 1642, by which time he had earned the M.A. The year before, when Prince Charles had passed through Cambridge, the young poet had hastily prepared for the occasion a comedy...

(The entire section is 828 words.)


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Abraham Cowley (KOW-lee) was the seventh child of a London stationer who died before his child’s birth. Cowley’s mother obtained her son’s admittance to Westminster School as a king’s scholar, and very early the boy demonstrated his ability as a poet; at the age of fifteen he published a collection of poems, Poeticall Blossomes. In 1637 he entered Cambridge University, where he continued his literary efforts with a pastoral drama, Loves Riddle, and Naufragium Joculare, a Latin comedy. Cowley received his bachelor’s degree from Cambridge in 1639 and his master’s degree in 1642. During the English Civil War he sided with the Royalists against the Puritans and was forced to flee to France in 1646.

In exile he was sent by the Stuarts on diplomatic missions throughout western Europe. One of his chief tasks at court was to encode and decode the voluminous correspondence between Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria until Charles’s death at the hands of the regicides in 1649. A volume of love poetry, The Mistress: Or, Several Copies of Love Verses, was published in 1647 while the poet was in France. The book was popular throughout the seventeenth century. After Cowley’s return to England, his Miscellanies, a collection of his poetical works, appeared in 1656. This volume included his love poems, the “Pindarique Odes,” and his unfinished epic, “Davideis.” The odes were highly serious poems; the “Davideis” was a Biblical epic in rhymed verse that he had written in part while he was at Cambridge.

While in England, Cowley was arrested and imprisoned as a spy, but he was later released on bail. He studied medicine and was given a medical degree at Oxford in 1657. He then returned to France to remain there until the Restoration in 1660. Shortly after Charles II ascended the throne, Cowley, awarded a lease of land by the Crown, settled in the Surrey countryside, where he remained until his death. During his last years, living in quiet retirement, he wrote eleven essays in the style of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne and composed a series of poems in Latin on flowers and plants.