Abraham Cowley 1618–1667
English poet and essayist.
Abraham Cowley was the foremost poet of his time, celebrated for his versatility, his erudition, and his unique contributions to English verse and prose. He is frequently referred to as the last of the metaphysical poets, although it's widely agreed that he regarded himself as a follower of Spenser and Jonson rather than Donne. Throughout his career he employed a variety of poetic forms and styles, adapting classical and Renaissance models as well as imitating his immediate predecessors' use of elaborate, paradoxical metaphors. Cowley's prose style has been highly praised, from his own day to the present, for its naturalness, grace, and simplicity. His aesthetic theories, never codified, are implicit in many of his odes as well as more directly in prefaces and notes to major works. He regarded the concepts of order and decorum as central to the poet's art and believed that the study of natural philosophy would heighten the poet's ability to create a true representation of Divine order. His Davideis is the first English epic on a biblical theme, preceding Milton's Paradise Lost by more than two decades. In his adaptations of Anacreon, Horace, and Pindar, Cowley became the earliest English writer to repudiate word-for-word and line-for-line transcriptions in favor of much freer translations, and eighteenth-century translators and imitators of classical writings, including Alexander Pope, acknowledged their indebtedness to him. His Pindaric odes introduced the irregular ode in English and influenced such poets as Gray, Collins, Wordsworth, and Shelley. The Horatian themes of solitude, freedom, and the simple joys of rural life recur throughout Cowley's poems and essays, and these were taken up and developed by such Restoration poets as Lovelace, Vaughan, and Marvell. Cowley's literary reputation declined in the second half of the eighteenth-century, and two hundred years later commentators are divided on the question of his stature. While some stress his indebtedness to Donne, others emphasize the innovative nature of his most important work.
Cowley was born in London, a few months after the death of his father, who has been variously described by modern scholars as a stationer or a grocer. The family, including seven children, was moderately prosperous. Cowley entered Westminster School around 1628 and was soon elected a King's Scholar. An eminently
precocious student, he wrote prodigiously while at Westminster. He went up to Trinity College, Cambridge in 1636, received his B. A. in 1639, and was admitted to Trinity as a Minor Fellow in 1640. While he was at Cambridge, Cowley composed some of his most famous poems, among them the "Ode on the Death of Mr. William Hervey," which brought him to the attention of Henry Jermyn, a prominent courtier and later Earl of St. Albans. Cowley's inherent conservatism and his association with Royalists led him to flee Cambridge—a Puritan stronghold—sometime in 1642 or 1643. He went to Oxford, where Charles I had established his headquarters, and became increasingly involved with the king's cause. Cowley became an expatriate in the early years of the Civil War, settling in Paris, where Queen Henrietta Maria had established a court in exile. From 1644 to approximately 1654, Cowley was in the queen's service, acting as a cryptographer and messenger and making frequent trips on her behalf to Flanders, Holland, Scotland, and the Channel Islands. He returned to England and was arrested in London on April 12, 1655, by Cromwell's agents. Upon his release several months later, he found that he was distrusted by some Royalist factions as well as by Parliamentarians, partly because of his activities over the past decade and partly because of his writings while in prison. Cowley was disappointed in expectations of a significant reward for his services to the monarch, though his fellowship at Trinity was reinstated and patrons such as the Duke of Buckingham and the Earl of St. Albans took responsibility for his living arrangements throughout the remainder of his life. He began a course of study in medicine and was created "doctor of physic" by Oxford in 1657. During this period he was also actively engaged in the formation of the Royal Society, the oldest scientific society in Britain and one of the oldest in Europe. In the spring of 1663 he retired to Barn Elms in Surrey, continuing to see and correspond with friends and undertaking informal training as a botanist. After two years he left Barm Elms—and his carefully cultivated gardens—and moved to Chertsey, where he died on July 28, 1667. According to his friend, the diarist John Evelyn, Cowley's body was taken to Westminster Abbey "in a hearse with six horses and all funeral decency, near a hundred coaches of noblemen and persons of quality following." Cowley is buried in the Abbey, next to the remains of Chaucer and close by those of Spenser.
The first collection of Cowley's works, Poeticall Blossoms, was published when he was fifteen years old. In addition to elegies and other occasional poems in the style of Spenser, it contains two plays. The first, Pyramus and Thisbe, written when Cowley was ten, is a verse romance in heroic couplets that shows the author's familiarity not only with Ovid's Metamorphoses but with the Petrarchan tradition as well. The second, Constantia and Philetus, composed two years later, is a tragic romance that combines dazzling Ovidian conceits with Horatian themes of rural simplicity and tranquility. Before he left Westminster, Cowley began work on Loves Riddle, a pastoral comedy in blank verse and song whose sources include Terence, Plautus, Sidney, Daniel, Shakespeare, and Guarini; he completed this play while at Cambridge and wrote two others there as well, both of which were performed at Trinity College. Naufragium Joculare (The Comic Shipwreck), a satire on education, schoolmasters, and students, is a five-act Latin comedy with plot outlines borrowed from Terence and Plautus. The Guardian was written—within a week, according to its author—for the visit to Cambridge by the Prince of Wales, later Charles II, on March 12, 1641; a "comedy of humours" after the style of Jonson but also derivative of Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Kyd, it satirizes Puritans in particular and contemporary society in general. Nearly twenty years later, Cowley revised this as Cutter of Coleman Street; his only professionally produced play, it was frequently performed in the Restoration period and continued to be staged well into the eighteenth-century. The Mistresse, a series of love poems probably written between 1636 and 1646, was published in 1647. An enormously popular collection that was reprinted throughout the seventeenth-century, it is modeled on Donne and reflects the contemporary fashion for amorous lyrics replete with paradox, hyperbole, and extended conceits. These poems also form part of The Miscellanies, published nine years later, but from a modern perspective other parts of this volume are much more significant, specifically the Pindariques, the Davideis, "Of Wit, "On the Death of Mr. William Hervey," "On the Death of Mr. Crashaw," and the author's notes and prefaces. The Pindaric odes are imitations rather than translations. Rich in wit and ingenuity, they exhibit a variety of rhyme scheme as well as line and stanza length. In such Pindarics as "The Resurrection," "The Muse," and "To Mr. Hobbes," Cowley focuses on the function of poetry and its complementary relationship with philosophy. The Davideis, begun while the author was at Cambridge, was intended to comprise twelve books celebrating the Old Testament hero David, but Cowley ceased work on it after completing four. Written in heroic, rhymed couplets and varied by the insertion of Alexandrines and interpolated songs, the epic has been characterized by Cowley's twentieth-century biographer Arthur H. Nethercot as an "ambitious failure." "Of Wit" is a critical analysis of aesthetic theory that emphasizes the poet's capacity to create order out of disparate elements. Other poems in this volume that modern commentators single out as among Cowley's finest are elegies mourning the loss of two close friends. "On the Death of Mr. William Hervey," written in 1642, is noteworthy for directness of expression and simple yet eloquent tone. "On the Death of Mr. Crashaw," written sometime after its subject died in 1649, is universally admired for its stately mood, harmonious organization, and balanced couplets. The final collection of Cowley's writing published during his lifetime is Verses, Lately Written upon Several Occasions, consisting of prose essays followed by poems that are mostly imitations of Horace and Virgil. The prose style is groundbreaking—colloquial yet classical. The theme is highly personal, as Cowley reviews his career and recalls his early, conflicting impulses toward solitude and obscurity on the one hand and poetic fame on the other. The Librii Plantarum, written while the author was living in rural retirement, represent both his passionate interest in botanical lore and his lifelong concern with the relationship between man and nature. Other significant works from the last years of Cowley's life include A Proposition for the Advancement of Experimental Philosophy (1661), a meticulously detailed plan for educational reform; "To the Royal Society" (1667), a Pindaric ode in praise of Bacon and the "new philosophy"; and eleven short essays, published after his death, that exalt the Horatian ideal of retirement from the world in prose that is notable for clarity, wit, and grace.
During Cowley's lifetime and throughout the Restoration, critics praised his ingenuity and eloquence. Milton is reported to have declared that Spenser, Shakespeare, and Cowley were England's three greatest poets. Well into the eighteenth-century, commentators hailed the range and scope of Cowley's work, his inventiveness, and his versatility. Samuel Johnson's evaluation, published in 1779, reflects a change in attitude and has remained extremely influential, particularly with respect to his categorization of Cowley as one of the last of the metaphysical poets. For nearly two hundred years thereafter, Cowley had few defenders. Commentators generally patronized him as a transitional figure, the ultimate practitioner of a style in decline, sensitive to popular tastes and movements but lacking any deeply held convictions about his art. In 1931, Arthur Nethercot published a book-length study of Cowley that emphasized the author's unique contributions to English literature. Twenty-five years later, Robert Hinman similarly attempted to resuscitate Cowley's reputation, calling attention to the poet's repeated attempts to reconcile seventeenth-century intellectual movements with traditional aesthetic and religious thought. In 1963, David Rawlinson advanced modern appreciation of Cowley's work by stressing his originality, immediacy, and clarity of expression. Five years later, Harvey Goldstein offered a close reading of the ode "Of Wit," interpreting it as an embodiment of Cowley's conviction that the poet should subordinate linguistic elements to the superior concerns of design and structure. Also examining Cowley's poetic theories, Paul Korshin found evidence in several works of an increasing movement away from the excesses of the metaphysical style toward an emphasis on balanced judgment and the regulation of wit by the intellect. Comparing the influence of disparate traditions on Cowley's work, Timothy Dykstal discerned in the Davideis a conflict between Christian rationalism and classical ideals; in the critic's judgment, the epic is incomplete because Cowley's religious perspective prevented him from representing the virtues of pagan heroism in the context of a biblical narrative. Three critics who have emphasized the impact of topical events on Cowley's work include Allan Pritchard, Thomas Osborne, and James Keough. Pritchard evaluated The Civil War in the context of its composition during the early days of that conflict. Calhoun focused on other partisan propaganda written by Cowley during this period: his two verse satires. And Keough offered a new reading of the "Brutus" ode—written in 1655, after the establishment of the Protectorate—as a statement of resigned acceptance of the Royalist defeat.