Abraham Cowley Analysis

Other literary forms

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

From time to time, Abraham Cowley (KOW-lee) interrupted his poetic activity with bits of drama and prose. The former were light, immature attempts: a pastoral drama, Loves Riddle (pb. 1638); a Latin comedy entitled Naufragium Joculare (pr., pb. 1638); another comedy, The Guardian (pr. 1641), hastily put together when Prince Charles passed through Cambridge, but rewritten as Cutter of Coleman-Street (pb. 1663). His serious prose is direct and concise, although the pieces tend to repeat the traditional Renaissance theme of solitude. His most notable prose work was a pamphlet, A Proposition for the Advancement of Experimental Philosophy (1661), which may have hastened the founding of the Royal Society.


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

In the 1930’s, the respected critic and literary historian Douglas Bush suggested that Abraham Cowley needed to be seen and understood as a man of his own age, rather than as an artist whose appeal is timeless. That statement may well be the key to assessing Cowley’s achievement. During his own day, he secured a considerable reputation as a poet that endured well into the eighteenth century. Then, in 1779, Samuel Johnson issued, as the initial piece to what became Lives of the Poets (1779-1781), his Life of Cowley. With his usual rhetorical balance, Johnson described Cowley as a poet who had been “at one time too much praised and too much neglected at another.” The London sage, through laborious comparison, classified his subject among the Metaphysical poets of the first half of the seventeenth century—a group that he could not always discuss in positive terms. Johnson, however, did single out Cowley as the best among the Metaphysicals and also the last of them. In general, Johnson praised the “Ode of Wit” (1668), turned a neutral ear toward the Pindarique Odes (1656), and evaluated the prose as possessing smooth and placid “equability.” Cowley was all but forgotten during the nineteenth century, and not until after World War I, when critics such as Sir Herbert J. C. Grierson and T. S. Eliot began to rediscover Metaphysical verse, did his achievement begin to be understood.

Perhaps Cowley’s greatest...

(The entire section is 424 words.)


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Dykstal, Timothy. “The Epic Reticence of Abraham Cowley.” Studies in English Literature 31, no. 1 (Winter, 1991): 95. An analysis of Cowley’s Davideis and John Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Hinman, Robert B. Abraham Cowley’s World of Order. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960. Summarizes Cowley’s scholarship, outlines his notions about art, examines the influence of Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes, reads the poems in terms of “order,” and evaluates Cowley’s position as a poet. Contains an extensive bibliography.

Nethercot, Arthur H. Abraham Cowley: The Muse’s Hannibal. 1931. Reprint. New York: Russell & Russell, 1967. The definitive biography, this book discusses Cowley’s literary work, citing his composition of the first religious epic in English, his development of the Pindaric ode, and his literary criticism. Includes an extensive bibliography, several illustrations, and some documents, one of which is Cowley’s will.

Pebworth, Ted-Larry. “Cowley’s Davideis and the Exaltation of Friendship.” In The David Myth in Western Literature, edited by Raymond-Jean Frontain and Jan Wojcik. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1980. Essay concerns the friendship of David and Jonathan, which is compared to the classical friendships of...

(The entire section is 575 words.)