Apart from his original poetry, Charles Cotton also published translations and burlesques (now of minor interest), books on planting and gaming, and a treatise on fly-fishing that became The Compleat Angler, Part II (1676), the second part of Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler: Or, The Contemplative Man’s Recreation (1653) in its fifth edition. He is not known to have written fiction, essays, or pamphlets. As with most seventeenth century figures, he left no diary and not much correspondence. Consequently, information on Cotton’s day-to-day life is sparse, and many of his poems (which circulated in manuscript) cannot be precisely dated.
During his lifetime and throughout the eighteenth century, Charles Cotton was known almost exclusively as a writer of burlesques and translations. His rendering of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne into idiomatic English prose was particularly admired. Cotton has come to be esteemed as a congenial minor poet of the Restoration period who anticipated aspects of Romanticism in hisverse and who collaborated belatedly with Walton to produce one of the most popular books in English literature. However, Cotton is a significant landscape poet, a perceptive observer of rural life, an often graceful lyricist, and a distinguished regionalist.
Not until the Romantic period was Cotton taken seriously as an original versifier. Charles Lamb, a lover of old books, rediscovered Cotton’s Poems on Several Occasions more than a century after their publication and quoted several of them delightedly in a letter of March 5, 1803. He selected four examples of Cotton’s work to be included in Robert Southey’s Specimens of the Later English Poets (1807): “Song. Montross,” “The Litany,” “The Retirement,” and the “Morning” quatrain. William Wordsworth discussed, praised, and quoted Cotton’s “Winter” quatrains in his famous preface to his Poems (1815). Samuel Taylor Coleridge extolled Cotton’s Poems on Several Occasions in Biographia Literaria (1817), chapter 19. Lamb called special attention to Cotton’s poem “The New Year” in his essay “New Year’s Eve” (Essays of Elia, 1823), and with this, Cotton’s poetic reputation reached its peak. Cotton lost favor during the Victorian years and proved less interesting to the earlier twentieth century than more complicated Metaphysical poets such as John Donne. Though he holds a place in the literary history of seventeenth century England, Cotton has never been regarded as a major writer.
Beresford, John, ed. The Poems of Charles Cotton, 1630-1687. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1923. The introduction to this selection contains a lengthy biography, with primary source material, and draws on the poems themselves as biographical sources. Includes an overview of the poet’s general qualities and the range of his subjects. Examines the publication history and the credibility of the original 1689 edition of the poems.
Buxton, John, ed. The Poems of Charles Cotton. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1958. The introduction updates and expands on John Beresford’s earlier biographical notes. Explains the editor’s selections, which include important material from a previously lost manuscript. A section of critical commentary on Cotton contains notes, verse tributes, and references by other writers. The introductory material accompanies a good selection of the poet’s work.
Cotton, Charles. Charles Cotton’s Works, 1663-1665: Critical Editions of “The Valiant Knight” and “Scarronides.” Edited by A. I. Dust. New York: Garland, 1992. Editor Dust provides a close look at two burlesques by Cotton.
Hartle, P. N. “Mr. Cotton, of Merry Memory.” Neophilologus 74 (October, 1989): 605-619. This excellent essay examines the range of styles and the high quality found in Cotton’s poetry. Points out Cotton’s particular skill as a writer of burlesques and his sometimes obscene sense of humor. Contains quotations from Scarronides and Burlesque upon Burlesque. This lively piece captures the spirit of the writer in a most engaging way.
Nicolson, Marjorie Hope. Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1959. The author explores the reasons behind the differing perceptions of mountains in seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth century thought. The short reference to Cotton concerns only one poem, The Wonders of the Peake, and examines his attitude toward nature.
Robinson, Ken, ed. Charles Cotton: Selected Poems. Manchester, England: Fyfield Books, 1983. This representative selection of poems includes a handy chronological table and an introduction with explanatory textual notes. Places Cotton in a historical, social, and intellectual context, characterizing him as a classical skeptic. The author also looks at the simplicity in both his style and his worldview.
Sembower, Charles Jacob. The Life and the Poetry of Charles Cotton. 1911. Reprint. New York: New Library Press, 2007. This work examines Cotton’s life and how it shaped his poetry.