The reputation of Abraham Cowley has been affected more than that of many other English poets by the vicissitudes of literary taste. His contemporaries considered him one of their most distinguished poets. John Milton ranked him with William Shakespeare and Edmund Spenser. John Dryden considered him a model, following Cowley’s example in writing Pindaric odes. By the end of the eighteenth century, however, Cowley had fallen from favor, largely through the influential judgments rendered against him by Samuel Johnson in The Lives of the Poets (1779-1781).
The first poet to be immortalized in Johnson’s collection, Cowley is considered too irregular and “specific” a poet to be ranked among the greatest practitioners of the genre. Johnson found Cowley’s penchant for irregular versification and his tendency to reach for extraordinary and unusual comparisons disturbing. Johnson described the approach taken by Cowley—and his contemporaries John Donne, Andrew Marvell, Richard Crashaw, and George Herbert—in the term that became a touchstone for classifying many poets of the early seventeenth century: metaphysical. To Johnson, and to many readers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Cowley’s verse displayed more virtuoso learning than it did deep appreciation for that which is important to all humankind.
The charges against Cowley may be accurate in fact, but perhaps erroneous in implication. The verse forms Cowley uses, modeled on Greek writers such as Anacreon and Pindar, are not those that readers in the eighteenth century valued; individual poems contain within them lines of various lengths, irregular rhyme schemes, and varied stanzaic patterns. In addition, Cowley was intensely interested in capturing some of the new learning—scientific discoveries—in his work, and many of his unorthodox comparisons are attempts to integrate scientific learning into his art.
Tastes change, however, and by the middle of the nineteenth century, poets were returning to the practice of irregular versification and stanza patterns; by the twentieth century, the introduction of free verse and other forms of poetry expanded the boundaries of the definition of the genre so that Cowley’s works no longer seem so unusual. Readers who take the time to peruse the Miscellanies may discover that Cowley displays in his poetry the qualities of seriousness, learning, and imagination that characterize the best of the metaphysical poets.
Miscellanies is representative of Cowley’s work. The volume was published shortly after the poet’s return to England from France. Cowley, dispossessed of his fellowship at Cambridge University, had joined friends among the followers of Charles I at Oxford during the early years of the civil war. When many of the Royalists fled to France, Cowley was among them. In exile, he assisted the English queen in her correspondence with the king in England.
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