"Life Is An Incurable Disease"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: Abraham Cowley was a precocious man: his first volume of poems was published when he was fifteen. He was given a good education and had received a Cambridge fellowship when he was dispossessed by the Puritan commissioners and left on his own resources. Following his royalist friends to Oxford, he entered the service of the king. He then followed the dispossessed Charles II to France. Cowley, however, had the misfortune to be born into a violent era that he could not cope with; he was a mild and unenthusiastic man, and his nature often placed him in dangerous or ridiculous situations. He was assigned to various secret service activities for which he seems to have been utterly unqualified: Charles II suspected him of treason, and Cromwell put him in prison as a spy. He finally retired to a quiet life in the country, where he studied medicine and botany. At the same time he continued to write poetry and essays. He is again unfortunate in that his unfinished Biblical epic Davideis is a failure compared to the Paradise Lost of John Milton; and his lyrical poems, inspired by Donne, suffer by comparison with the latter's work. Not a true metaphysical poet, Cowley enjoys intricate metaphors and plays on words; he is sometimes quietly witty and exhibits a cheerful pessimism. In 1656 he published his fifteen Pindaric Odes. These established his reputation and exerted a considerable influence for a time. The form he developed retains rhyme but in many ways resembles free verse; it does not actually employ the structure of Pindar's work but is strongly reminiscent of it and is rather impressive. The form enjoyed great popularity for many years, especially for ceremonials and dedications. One of Cowley's "pseudo-Pindaric" odes, honoring Dr. Charles Scarborough, provides a memorable tribute. The closing portion is given below:

And this great race of learning thou hast run,
Ere that of life be half yet done;
Thou see'st thyself still fresh and strong,
And like t' enjoy the conquests long.
The first fam'd aphorism thy great master spoke,
Did he live now he would revoke,
And better things of man report;
For thou dost make life long, and art but short.
Ah, learned friend! it grieves me, when I think
That thou with all thy art must die,
As certainly as I;
And all thy noble reparations sink
Into the sure-wrought mine of treacherous mortality.
Like Archimedes, honourably in vain,
Thou hold'st out towns that must at last be ta'en,
And thou thyself, their great defender, slain.
Let's e'en compound, and for the present live,
'Tis all the ready-money Fate can give;
Unbend sometimes thy restless care,
And let thy friends so happy be
T' enjoy at once their health and thee:
Some hours, at least, to thine own pleasures spare:
Since the whole stock may soon exhausted be,
Bestow 't not all in charity.
Let Nature and let Art do what they please,
When all's done, life's an incurable disease.