When Charles Cotton was twelve years old, Puritan insurgents overthrew the monarchy of Charles I and established a Presbyterian commonwealth in its place. During the last years of his life, James II sought to restore Roman Catholicism, and Cotton just missed seeing the Bloodless Revolution of 1688, which banished James to the Continent and returned the monarchy to Protestantism. Of these momentous events, Cotton had surprisingly little to say. While “The Litany,” for example, is outspokenly anti-Cromwellian, it regards the Protector only as a vile nuisance, on a level with “ill wine” and “a domineering Spouse.” Similarly, Cotton was even more predisposed to ignore the religious controversies of his time. Only “On Christmas-Day, 1659” is significantly Christian; even in his several elegies, there is no specifically Christian consolation. Of the great subjects available to him, Cotton did little with politics (after 1651), very little with religion, and nothing with discovery or science.
Cotton’s subjects are the traditionally Horatian ones of leisure, relaxation, friendship, love, and drinking, with some special attention in his case to the river Dove, fishing, his fellow poets, and the scenery of the Peak District. He is also especially observant of rural life, so that many of his poems are designedly pastoral, including eclogues in which Cotton himself appears as a lovesick shepherd. When sadness intrudes upon these idyllic scenes, it is generally economic in origin: Poverty is another of Cotton’s themes, especially as it affects the literary life.
For all his love of retirement and solitude, Cotton was not a literary elitist. There are few barriers to the enjoyment of his poems, which are straightforwardly written in plain, colloquial English, as was thought appropriate to pastoral and the burlesque. Though influenced by his Metaphysical predecessors, John Donne especially, Cotton is more akin to Robert Herrick. Both Cotton and Herrick, for example, are observant regionalists particularly ready to celebrate the rewarding, if seemingly inconsequential, joys of rural life and of the milder emotions. Thus, Cotton generally prefers well-observed pastoral details and witty asides to complex imagery or erudite mythology. His contempt for classical learning was probably quite real. There is throughout Cotton’s work a serene complacency regarding the adequacy of his own lighthearted perceptions and the healthiness of his instincts. While Romantic critics such as Charles Lamb appreciated the accuracy and vigor of Cotton’s outlook, Victorians (such as the American James Russell Lowell) were frequently dismayed by his unapologetic “vulgarity” regarding bodily parts and functions.
A more serious objection to Cotton’s verse is its apparent lack of substance. Without quite achieving the epigrammatic quotability of, for example, Richard Lovelace or Andrew Marvell, Cotton resembles both in his largely traditional thematic concerns. He writes most obviously to amuse himself and sometimes to amuse, compliment, or insult others, but rarely to inspire deep feeling or thought. In several instances, his poems are overlong and drift into lower reaches of the imagination. In others, potentially fine lyrics are marred by inadequacies that a more serious poet would have been at pains to remove. Because poetry for Cotton was private and usually recreational, his work often lacks finality and polish. From a generic point of view, Cotton was most original in bringing to public notice the burlesque and the travel narrative as poetic forms. The other forms that he uses are generally conventional and had been used by his immediate predecessors. His lyrics, for example, are in form, technique, and substance, largely unoriginal, except insofar as they are infused by a unique and engaging personality.
Ultimately, this personableness is his greatest strength. Within his best poems (and his prose addition to Walton), Cotton is superbly himself, and nowhere more so than in “The Answer,” a verse epistle to Alexander Brome, whose minor verse helped to...
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