Abraham Cowley by Sir Peter Lely

Abraham Cowley (1618-1667). Portrait by Sir Peter Lely (1618-1680), circa 1667. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Abraham Cowley (1618 - 28 July 1667) was a leading English poet of the 17th century, with 14 printings of his Works published between 1668 and 1721.[1] The Encyclopædia Britannica notes that he "adapted the Pindaric ode to English verse."[2]



Cowley was the son of a grocer or stationer in London, where he was born. In childhood he was greatly influenced by reading Spenser, a copy of whose poems was in the possession of his mother. This, he said, made him a poet. His 1st book, Poetic Blossoms (1633), was publihed when he was only 15. After being at Westminster School he went to Cambridge, where he was distinguished for his graceful translations. On the outbreak of the Civil War he joined the Royalists, was turned out of his college, and in 1646 followed the Queen to Paris, where he remained for 10 or 12 years, during which he rendered unwearied service to the royal family. At the Restoration he wrote some loyal odes, but was disappointed by being refused the Mastership of the Savoy, and retired to the country. He received a lease of Crown lands, but his life in the country did not yield him the happiness he expected. He is said by Pope to have died of a fever brought on by lying in the fields after a drinking-bout. The drinking-bout, however, is perhaps an ill-natured addition. Cowley is buried in Westminster Abbey near Spenser.[3]

Youth and early writingEdit

Cowley was born in London in 1618. He was the 7th and posthumous child of his father, Thomas Cowley, a stationer,[4] who left £1,000 to be divided among his children. His mother obtained his admission as a king's scholar at Westminster. He had already been drawn to poetry by reading a copy of The Faerie Queene, which lay in his mother's parlor (Essay XI., "On Myself").[5]

Cowley's masters could never force him to undertake the drudgery of learning grammar, and excused him on the ground that his natural quickness made it needless. Perhaps his scholarship suffered, for he is said to have been an unsuccessful candidate for election to Cambridge in 1636. On 14 June 1637, however, he became a scholar of Trinity College (see extracts from College Register in J.R. Lumby's preface to Cowley's Prose Works, 1887).[5]

At the university he continued his poetical activity. In 1638 he published a pastoral drama called Love's Riddle, written about the age of 18. On 2 February 1638 his Latin comedy called Naufragium Joculare was played before the university by members of Trinity College, and was published soon afterwards.[5]

An elegy on the death of an intimate friend, William Harvey, introduced him to Harvey's brother John, who rendered him many services, and through whom, or through Stephen Goffe (Wood), he became known to Lord St. Albans.[5]

He earned a B.A., 1639; became a "minor fellow," 30 Octobr 1640; and earned an M.A., 1642. He appears never to have become a "major fellow" (Lumby).[5]

When Prince Charles was passing through Cambridge in 1641, he was entertained (12 March) by a comedy, The Guardian, hastily put together for the purpose by Cowley. It was not printed till 1650, when Cowley was out of England. Cowley (preface to ‘Cutter of Coleman Street’) says that it was several times acted privately during the suppression of the theatres. In 1658 he rewrote it, and it was performed as The Cutter of Coleman Street on 16 December 1661 at Lincoln's Inn Fields, when Pepys was present. Cowley published it in 1663. It was first taken (as he tells us) for an attack upon the "king's party," and, as Dryden told Dennis (dedication to ‘Comical Gallant’), was "barbarously treated," but afterwards succeeded tolerably. According to Downes it ran for "a whole week" with a full house.[5]

Exile and returnEdit

Cowley meanwhile continued to write poetry, composing many occasional pieces and much of his Davideis at the university. In 1643-4 he was ejected from Cambridge and retired to Oxford, whither his friend Crashaw had preceded him. A satire called The Puritan and the Papist, published in the same year, and republished in a collection called Wit and Loyalty revived (1682), is attributed to him by Wood, and was first added to his works by Johnson (it is also in Somers Tracts, v. 480–7).[5]

At Oxford he settled in St John's College, and here became intimate with Lord Falkland and other royalist leaders. He became a member of the family of Jermyn, afterwards earl of St. Albans, and in 1646 followed the queen to France. Here he found Crashaw in distress, and introduced him to the queen.[5]

Cowley was employed in various diplomatic services by the exiled court. He was sent on missions to Jersey, Holland, and elsewhere, and was afterwards employed in conducting a correspondence in cipher between Charles I and his wife. His work, we are told, occupied all his days and 2 or 3 nights a week.[5]

In 1656 Cowley was sent to England, in order (as Sprat says) that he might obtain information while affecting compliance and wish for retirement. He was arrested by mistake for another person, but was only released upon bail for £1,000, for which Dr. (afterwards Sir) Charles Scarborough, to whom one of his odes is addressed, became security. He remained under bail until the Restoration.[6]

He now took to medicine, as a blind, according to Sprat, for his real designs. He was created M.D. at Oxford on 2 Dec. 1657, by an order from the government, which, according to Wood, gave offence to his friends. He retired to "a fruitful part of Kent to pursue the study of simples," and wrote a Latin poem, Plantarum Libri duo (1662); it was included in ‘Poemata Latina in quibus continentur sex Libri Plantarum et unus Miscellaniorum,’ 1668 (2nd ed. 1678).[6]

Cowley again retired to France.[6]

After the RestorationEdit

He tried to put himself forward at the Restoration. In 1660 he published a heavy "Ode upon the Blessed Restoration." In 1661 appeared his fine Vision, concerning his late pretended Highness, Cromwell the Wicked; containing a Discourse in Vindication of him by a pretended Angel and the confutation thereof by the author, Abraham Cowley. In 1661 appeared also A Proposition for the Advancement of Experimental Philosophy.[6]

He also wrote an Ode to the Royal Society. "Dr. Cowley" took an interest, like all the cultivated men of the time, in the foundation of this society, and was one of the 1st members incorporated (Birch, Royal Society, i. 4). He was associated with Evelyn and others in a project for the foundation of a philosophical college, for which he gives a plan in his Essays. His Ode to Hobbes gives further proof of his interest in new speculations.[6]

His claims were at last acknowledged by a favourable lease of the queen's lands obtained for him by the Earl of St. Albans and the Duke of Buckingham. He was now enabled to live at his ease in the retirement which he often professed to love. He settled at Barn Elms, and afterwards in the ‘Porch House’ at Chertsey. He moved there in April 1665.[6]

His health declined, and from a letter to Sprat, 21 May 1665, preserved by Peck, we find that his tenants did not pay their rents, and that a fall had injured his ribs. He died on 28 July 1667; Sprat declares that his death was occasioned by his "very delight in the country and the fields." He caught cold, according to Sprat, after apparently recovering from his accident, by staying out too long "amongst his labourers in the meadows." A different tradition, preserved by Pope (Spence's Anecdotes, p. 13), states that Cowley and Sprat came home late from a too jovial dinner with a neighbor and had to pass the night under a hedge. Stebbing points out that there is probably some confusion with a "dean" mentioned in a letter from Cowley to Sprat, probably the nickname of some convivial neighbor. Warton says that his income was about 300l. a year, and that in his last years he avoided female society. He was buried with great pomp in Westminster Abbey, near Chaucer and Spenser, and Charles II declared that he had not left a better man behind him in England.[6]


Early worksEdit

A collection of 5 poems called Poetical Blossoms was published in 1633. A 2nd edition, with the addition of "Sylva, or dyvers copies of verses," appeared in 1636, and a 3rd in 1637. It is probable that no poet has given more remarkable proofs of precocity. He says in his preface that he wrote 1 of the pieces, the "Pyramus and Thisbe," at the age of 10, and the "Constantius and Philetus" 2 years later.[5]

The collection of his poems called The Mistress appeared in London in 1647. They became the favorite love poems of the age. Barnes (Anacreon, 1705, xxxii.) states that whatever Cowley may say in his poetry, he was never in love but once, and then had not the courage to avow his passion. Pope says that Cowley's only love was the Leonora of his Chronicle who married Sprat's brother (Spence, p. 286).[5]

In 1648 2 satires, The Four Ages of England; or, The iron age, and A Satyre against Separatists, were published in 1 volume under his name, but were disavowed by him in the preface to his Poems (1656). Though he only mentions the "Iron Age," he doubtless refers to the whole volume.[5]

1656 PoemsEdit

In the preface to his next book (1656) he declares his intention of abandoning poetry and "burying himself in some obscure retreat in America." A passage in which he intimates a disposition to acquiesce in the new order was omitted by Sprat from the preface when republished, and provoked, as Sprat admits, some disapproval from his own party. This book is his most important collection of poems. It consists of (1) ‘Miscellanies,’ including, with his juvenile pieces, many later poems, especially the spirited ‘Chronicle’ and the fine elegies on Harvey and Crashaw; (2) ‘The Mistress,’ reprinted from the edition of 1647. (3) ‘Pindarique Odes;’ (4) the ‘Davideis;’ 4 books out of 12 as originally designed. This ponderous epic was chiefly written at college, and Cowley says that he has now neither the leisure nor the appetite to finish it. There is quite enough as it is.[6]

Among the "Miscellanies" are to be found Cowley's most vital pieces. This section of his works opens with the famous aspiration:

"What shall I do to be for ever known,
And make the coming age my own?"

It contains elegies on Wotton, Vandyck, Falkland, William Hervey and Crashaw, the last 2 being among Cowley's finest poems, brilliant, sonorous and original; the amusing ballad of The Chronicle, giving a fictitious catalogue of his supposed amours; various gnomic pieces; and some charming paraphrases from Anacreon.[7]

The Pindarique Odes contain weighty lines and passages, buried in irregular and inharmonious masses of moral verbiage. Not more than 1 or 2 are good throughout, but a full posy of beauties may easily be culled from them. The long cadences of the Alexandrines with which most of the strophes close, continued to echo in English poetry from Dryden down to Gray, but the Odes themselves, which were found to be obscure by the poet's contemporaries, immediately fell into disesteem.[7]

Later workEdit

In 1663 appeared Verses upon several occasions (after a piratical publication in Dublin). In one of these, called "The Complaint," he describes himself as "the melancholy Cowley," and bewails his neglect. He applied unsuccessfully for the mastership of the Savoy (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1661–2, p. 210). Some verses of the "Session of the Poets" in State Poems 1697 allude to this and the failure of his play:—

Savoy missing Cowley came into the court,
   Making apologies for his bad play;
Every one gave him so good a report,
   That Apollo gave heed to all he could say,
Nor would he have had, 'tis thought, a rebuke
   Unless he had done some notable folly;
Writ verses unjustly in praise of Sam Tuke
   Or printed his pitiful melancholy.[6]

Critical reputationEdit

Cowley's fame among his contemporaries was much greater than that which posterity has accorded to him. His poems are marred by conceits and a forced and artificial brilliancy. In some of them, however, he sings pleasantly of gardens and country scenes. He is at his best in such imitations of Anacreon as "The Grasshopper." His prose, especially in his Essays, though now almost unread, is better than his verse; simple and manly, it sometimes rises to eloquence.[3]

Cowley's reputation was at its highest during his lifetime, when he was regarded as the model of cultivated poetry. Dryden's frequent references to Cowley show that his reputation was beginning to decline. Dryden says (Essay on Heroic Plays, 1672) that "his authority is almost sacred to me." He elsewhere calls Cowley the darling of his youth (Essay on Satire, 1693). He complains of the Davideis as full of "points of wit and quirks of epigram" (Essay on Satire). He greatly prefers the "Pindaric odes" to the Mistress, and thinks Cowley's latest compositions undoubtedly the best of his poems.[8]

From Dryden's preface to the State of Innocence (1674) it seems that the odes were already condemned for their "fustian" by some critics, and in the preface to his Fables (1700) he remarks that Cowley is so sunk in reputation that now only 100 copies are sold in a year instead of 10 editions in 10 years.[8]

Addison, in his Epistle to Sacheverell (1694), is enthusiastic over the odes, but hints that Cowley's "only fault is wit in its excess." Congreve, in the preface to his "Ode upon Blenheim," complains, while professing the highest admiration for Cowley, of the irregularity of his stanzas in the so-called Pindaric Ode.[8]

The precedent set by Cowley of formless versification has found many imitations in spite of Congreve's protests and the later influence of Collins and Gray. Cowley's odes themselves have followed most of his poetry into oblivion. Pope's often-quoted phrase, epistle to Augustus (75–78), gives the opinion which was orthodox in 1737:—

Who now reads Cowley? If he pleases yet,
His moral pleases, not his pointed wit;
Forgot his epic, nay Pindaric art,
But still I love the language of his heart.[8]

Cowley was still mentioned with high respect during the 18th century, and was the first poet in the collection to which Johnson contributed prefaces. Johnson's life in that collection was famous for its criticism of the "metaphysical" poets, the hint of which is given in Dryden's Essay on Satire. It assigns the obvious cause for the decline of Cowley's fame.[8]

The "metaphysical poets" are courtier pedants. They represent the intrusion into poetry of the love of dialectical subtlety encouraged by the still prevalent system of scholastic disputation. In Cowley's poems, as in Donne's, there are many examples of the technical language of the schools, and the habit of thought is perceptible throughout. In the next generation the method became obsolete and then offensive. Cowley can only be said to survive in the few pieces where he condescends to be unaffected, and especially in the prose of his essays, which are among the earliest examples in the language of simple and graceful prose, with some charming poetry interspersed.[8]

The first collection of his works, in 1 volume folio, appeared in 1668, and in this, for the 1st time, were included Several Discourses by way of Essays in Prose and Verse. 8 editions appeared before 1700, a 9th in 1700, and many more later. Hurd's Selections appeared in 1772, and Works by Aikin, in 3 volumes, in 1802.[8]

Critical introductionEdit

by Thomas Humphry Ward

The history of Cowley’s reputation offers an easy text for a discourse on the variations of the standard of taste. A marvel of precocity, widely known as a poet at 15; the poetical wonder of Cambridge; so famous at 30 that pirates and forgers made free with his name on their title-pages while he was serving the exiled queen; issuing in self-defence, at 38, a folio of his poems which was destined to pass through 8 editions in a generation; accepted by his literary contemporaries, men of cultivated intelligence, as not only the greatest among themselves, but greater than all that had gone before; buried in state at Westminster by the side of Chaucer and Spenser, and ranked by his biographer, a sober critic, as equal not only to them but to "the authors of that true antiquity, the best of the Greeks and Romans";— in 30 years he had sunk out of notice and his name had become a mere memory, mentioned honoris causa but no more.

"Though he must always be thought a great poet, he is no longer esteemed a good writer," said Dryden in 1700. Addison praised him with even more discrimination. 2 editions of his works appeared early in the eighteenth century, but in 1737 Pope was able to ask "Who now reads Cowley?" Then followed Johnson’s celebrated Life, which has eclipsed for almost every one the works of its subject. Except for a few students like Lamb and Sir Egerton Brydges, Cowley’s verse is in this century unread and unreadable. Not even the antiquarian curiosity of an age which reprints Brathwaite and Crowne has yet availed to present him in a new edition.

The reasons of this extraordinary decline in a poetical reputation are not difficult to find; Dryden absorbed all that was best in Cowley, and superseded him for the readers of the eighteenth century, and the nineteenth century, which reads Dryden little, naturally reads Cowley less. Yet criticism has to justify great names. There must be something in a man who was regarded by his age, and that an age which boasted of having outgrown all illusions, as the most profound and ingenious of its writers. A rapid review of Cowley’s work will help us to judge between the estimate of his time and the estimate of posterity.

With the volume of Poetical Blossomes which he published at 15, when he was a schoolboy at Westminster, we are not further concerned than to note its vast superiority to the verses of most clever boys. If Cowley, like Chatterton, had died before manhood, these verses might perhaps have kept his name alive; but as it is he soon outdid them, and in his mature writings he valued them justly as "commendable extravagance in a boy," but declined to give them a place in the permanent collection of his poems. Some stanzas from "The Wish" he excepted, quoting them in his pleasant essay "Of Myself" as verses of which "I should hardly now be ashamed." He wrote them at 13, he says.

But in the main we shall be right in confining ourselves to the mature poems of the Folio of 1656, with the additions that were made to it during his lifetime. He meant it to be a definitive edition of his poems; he excluded much from it deliberately, and he intended to add nothing to it. In 1656, as he says in his most interesting Preface — a class of writing which he raised to a new importance — in 1656 he felt in no mood for making poetry. The times were against it, his own health of body and mind were against it. "A warlike, various, and tragical age is best to write of, but worst to write in." Living as a political suspect, with scanty means and no prospects, he had no encouragement to write. "The soul must be filled with bright and delightful ideas when it undertakes to communicate delight to others, which is the main end of poesy." He was seriously turning his thoughts away from Cromwell’s England; planning an "obscure retreat" in the American plantations; and the book was to be a legacy to the world to which he would soon be dead.

As every one knows, times changed, and he did not go to America. The Restoration brought him, not success indeed — his failure to obtain the Mastership of the Savoy was pathetically bewailed by him — but relief from all pressing necessities, and a quiet home first at Barnes and then at Chertsey, not beyond the reach of visits from Evelyn and Dean Sprat and other appreciative friends. In such surroundings he made his peace with the Muse and wrote during the years that remained to him some of his best poems.

The divisions of the Folio are (1) Miscellanies, including Anacreontiques; (2) The Mistress, a collection of love poems; (3) Pindarique Odes; (4) Davideis, an heroic poem of the troubles of David; and, in the later issues, (5) Verses on various occasions, and (6) Several Discourses by way of Essays in verse and prose. The Miscellanies, he tells us, are poems preserved by chance from a much larger number — some of them the works of his early youth, and some, like the celebrated Elegy on Crashaw, belonging to his best years. What we notice in these pages, as in all that Cowley published, is his curious inability to distinguish good from bad; he prints rubbish, like the intolerable Ode "Here ’s to thee Dick," side by side with the touching verses on the death of his friend Mr. William Hervey; he mars poem after poem with some scholastic absurdity or comparison drawn from a science that has nothing to do with poetry. The fine lines on Falkland, for example — lines that we should prize if only as a memorial of the friendship between two such interesting men — these lines are ruined, poetically speaking, by Cowley’s science. Falkland is gone on the expedition against the Scots, and the poet addresses the North:—

  ‘Great is thy charge, O North! be wise and just:
England commits her Falkland to thy trust;
Return him safe; Learning would rather choose
Her Bodley or her Vatican to lose.
All things that are but writ or printed there
In his unbounded breast engraven are.’

So far the conceit may pass; but what are we to say of the illustrations by which Cowley would show us the order that reigns in the crowded mind of his hero?

‘So thousand divers species fill the air,
Yet neither crowd nor mix confusedly there.’

What are we to say of the political image under which, with elephantine humour, he pretends to complain of Falkland’s too great learning?

‘How could he answer ’t, if the State saw fit
To question a monopoly of wit?’

It is a painful but inevitable thought that Cowley was better pleased with his "species" and his "monopoly" than with the noble lines which follow — lines whose force, condensation, dignity and rhythm have hardly been surpassed by Dryden himself:—

  ‘Such is the man whom we require the same
We lent the North, untouched as is his fame.
He is too good for war, and ought to be
As far from danger as from fear he ’s free.
Those men alone (and they are useful too)
Whose valour is the only art they know
Were for sad war and bloody battles born:
Let them the state defend, and he adorn!

The Mistress (which had been printed in 1647) is a collection of about a hundred love-poems, explained by the author in the preface to the Folio as being mere feigned addresses to some fair creature of the fancy. "So it is that Poets are scarce thought Freemen of the Company without paying some duties and obliging themselves to be true to Love." The apology, even if true, was hardly required even by Puritan strictness; for with two or three exceptions the poems are as cold as icy conceits can make them. Johnson’s characteristic judgment is hardly too severe: "the compositions are such as might have been written for penance by a hermit, or for hire by a philosophical rhymer who had only heard of another sex." It is as though in the course of a hundred years the worst fancies which Wyatt had borrowed from Petrarch had become fossilized, and were yet brought out by Cowley to do duty for living thoughts. What is love? he seems to ask: it is an interchange of hearts, a flame, a worship, a river to be frozen by disdain — he has a hundred such physical and psychological images of it; and the poetry consists in taking the images one by one and developing them in merciless disregard of taste and truth of feeling. Is love fire? (we may give two or three of his illustrations even after Addison’s page-long summary):—

  ‘Another from my mistress’ door
  Saw me with eyes all watery come;
Nor could the hidden cause explore,
  But thought some smoke was in the room:—
Such ignorance from unwounded learning came;
He knew tears made by smoke, but not by flame!’

The lover writes his love-letters in lemon-juice, that the fire of his mistress’ eyes may bring the letters to light. At another time he pictures his heart as not inflammable only, but explosive:—

  ‘Woe to her stubborn heart if once mine come
    Into the selfsame room!
’Twill tear and blow up all within,
    Like a grenado shot into a magazine.’

At another, the story of his love cut in the bark has burnt and withered up the tree. Again, if love is worship, his mistress, who has proved unfaithful, is like the idolators of old who sinned against light:—

  ‘So the vain Gentiles, when they left t’adore
One Deity, could not stop at thousands more …
Ah, fair Apostate! could’st thou think to flee
From Truth and Goodness, yet keep Unity?’

Or again; is his mistress dressed out for conquest? Then her beauty, which had been a civil government before, becomes a tyranny. But we have said enough: The Mistress, Cowley’s most elaborate and sustained effort, is clearly a failure. Nothing of what we require of love-poetry is there — neither grace nor glow nor tenderness nor truth. The passion is neither deeply felt nor lightly uttered.

We cannot judge so simply the Pindarique Odes, a form of composition of which Cowley was the inventor, and which found universal favour in England down to the time of Gray. He was well aware that in writing in this way, which he thought to be an imitation of Pindar, he was making a questionable innovation. "I am in great doubt," he says, "whether they will be understood by most readers; nay even by very many who are well enough acquainted with the common roads and ordinary tracks of poesy.... The digressions are many and sudden, and sometimes long, according to the fashion of all lyrics, and of Pindar above all men living. The figures are unusual and bold, even to temerity, and such as I durst not have to do withal in any other kind of poetry; the numbers are various and irregular, and sometimes, especially some of the long ones, seem harsh and uncouth if the just measures and cadences be not observed in the pronunciation. So that almost all their sweetness and numerosity (which is to be found, if I mistake not, in the roughest, if rightly repeated) lies in a manner wholly at the mercy of the reader." For himself, however, he had no doubts about the value of the new style of poetry; nay, he found a pleasure in comparing the "liberty" of the ode with the moral liberty of which he was always a votary:—

  ‘If Life should a well-ordered poem be
    (In which he only hits the white
Who joins true profit with the best delight)
The more heroic way let others take,
    Mine the Pindaric way I’ll make.
The matter shall be grave, the numbers loose and free.’

But the analogy was a very imperfect one with him; for while the moral liberty which he enjoyed led him to a life of great simplicity, unworldliness and charm, his liberty of verse led him too often into mere intellectual athleticism and display. "That for which I think this inequality of number is chiefly to be preferred," says Dr. Sprat with great artlessness, "is its affinity with prose"; and that no doubt was the reason which induced the Flatmans and the Samuel Wesleys of the next generation to choose that mode of dress for their platitudes. But with Cowley the attractiveness of the Ode seems to have been the wealth of opportunity which it afforded for what he called "bold figures," that is, for imagery such as could and would have occurred to no one else than to himself. Only Cowley, and only in an Ode, could have paused in the midst of a solemn address to the Muse and bidden her "rein her Pindaric Pegasus closely in"— for

‘’Tis an unruly and a hard-mouthed horse.’

Only Cowley, and only in an Ode, could have set the same Muse in her chariot, with Eloquence and Wit and Memory and Invention in the traces and the ‘airy footmen’ of Conceits to run by her side, and then have suddenly turned to compare this Muse with the Creator:—

  ‘Where never yet did pry
      The busy Morning’s curious eye,
The wheels of thy bold Coach pass quick and free,
      And all ’s an open road to thee.
      Whatever God did say
Is all thy plain and smooth uninterrupted way.
Nay, even beyond his works thy voyages are known,
      Thou ’st thousand worlds too of thine own.
Thou speak’st, Great Queen, in the same style as he,
And a new world leaps forth when thou say’st, Let it be!’

The very apparatus of notes with which it was permissible to issue the Odes enlarged the poet’s opportunities. In the "Praise of Pindar", for example, we have —

  ‘So Pindar does new words and figures roll
Down his impetuous dithyrambic tide.
    Which in no channel deigns to abide,
    Which neither banks nor dikes control;’

on which the note is, "Banks, natural; Dikes, artificial. It will neither be bounded nor circumscribed by nature nor by art." With such a means of interpretation at hand, what limit need the poet set on his invention?

And yet, when the subject is one that interests him, Cowley has something to say that we should not wish unsaid or said differently. Sonorousness counts for something, after all, in the treatment of such themes as the future of knowledge or the fate of a hero and a cause. The two odes ... "To Mr. Hobbes" and that called "Brutus" — are rightly grandiose, and are therefore successful. Like the other leading spirits of his age, Cowley looked across the passing troubles of the day to the new world to which Bacon had pointed, and which Bacon’s followers were hastening to occupy; and of this feeling the "Ode to Mr. Hobbes" is the best expression.

Again, the dominant fact in contemporary history (the Odes were published in 1656) was the success of the new Cæsar, Cromwell. Conscientious royalists like Cowley, such at least as were men of contemplation not of action, threw themselves back on history and philosophy, and if they could not explain the evil they paralleled it with other evils from which good had seemed to flow. Brutus, the slayer of Cæsar, the avenger of his country’s murder, is himself slain; but what then? Virtue is for all that not an idol or a name:—

  ‘Hold, noble Brutus, and restrain
The bold voice of thy generous disdain.
      These mighty gulfs are yet
Too deep for all thy judgment and thy wit.’

The two odes are brilliant examples of what Cowley could do when he left what he was conventionally expected to feel for what he really felt.

About the Davideis, the epic of whose twelve books fortunately only four came to the birth, perhaps the less said the better. We do not altogether wish it away, on account of the vigorous pages which it inspired in the preface; the pages which contain Cowley’s eloquent and almost Miltonic plea for sacred poetry:—

It is not without grief and indignation that I behold that divine science employing all her inexhaustible riches of wit and eloquence, either in the wicked and beggarly flattery of great persons, or the unmanly idolizing of foolish women, or the wretched affectation of scurril laughter, or at best on the confused antiquated dreams of senseless fables and metamorphoses. Amongst all holy and consecrated things which the devil ever stole and alienated from the service of the deity; as altars, temples, sacrifices, prayers, and the like; there is none that he so universally, and so long usurped, as poetry. It is time to recover it out of the tyrant’s hands, and to restore it to the kingdom of God, who is the Father of it. It is time to baptize it in Jordan, for it will never become clean by bathing in the water of Damascus.

But if we ask how Cowley realised his aspirations, how he succeeded in "elevating poesy" rather than "abasing divinity," the answer must be disappointing. The Davideis is a school exercise, no more.... But it is a consolation to be able to believe that Cowley was dissatisfied with the Davideis, and that in his maturity he regarded it as merely indicating to others the poetical capabilities of the Bible history. "I shall be ambitious of no other fruit from this weak and imperfect attempt of mine," he says at the end of the preface, "but the opening of a way to the courage and industry of some other persons, who may be better able to perform it throughly and successfully." Eleven years after these words were written appeared Paradise Lost.

The subsequent editions of the folio contain other writings, both verse and prose, that Cowley published in his later years, and some of the verse we give in our selections. There are no general features however by which we can distinguish these poems from the rest of his work: sometimes, as in the beautiful stanzas ... from the "Hymn to Light", or in the verses which close the "Essay on Solitude", or in the "Ode on the Royal Society", he rises to his highest point; sometimes, as in what he wrote on the death of "the matchless Orinda,"’ and in the poem on "The Garden", he sinks to his lowest.

Addison’s Essay[9] and Johnson’s Life have said the last word on Cowley’s "mixed wit," "metaphysics," or "conceits"; and we need hardly dwell at any greater length on what is the first, most obvious, and most disastrous quality of his muse. He owes to it his poetical effacement with posterity, as he owed to it his first success with his contemporaries; and it would be ungracious as well as uncritical to fasten our attention solely upon that canker of his style. He lived at the end of one intellectual epoch and at the beginning of another; he held of both, and he was marred by the vices of the decadence as much as, but no more than, he was glorified by the dawning splendours of the new age.

What had been the extravagance of a young and uncontrolled imagination in Lyly and Sidney became the pedantry of ingenuity in the sane and learned Cowley, the master of two or three positive sciences and of all the literatures of Europe. But this pedantry was not all. "I cannot conclude this head of mixed wit," says Addison, "without owning that the admirable poet out of whom I have taken the examples of it had as much true wit as any author that ever writ, and indeed all other talents of an extraordinary genius." Not, perhaps, all other talents of an extraordinary genius, but knowledge, reflection, calmness and clearness of judgment; in a word, the gifts of the age of science and of prose which set in with the Restoration; and with these a rhetorical and moral fervour that made him a power in our literature greater, for the moment, than any that had gone before.[10]


On 3 August, 1667, Cowley was buried in Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey, beside the ashes of Geoffrey Chaucer and Edmund Spenser, where in 1675 John Sheffield, 1st Duke of Buckingham and Normanby erected a monument to his memory.[7]

2 portraits of Cowley are in the Bodleian. A portrait by Lely was bought by the nation in Peel's collection. In Trinity College there is a crayon drawing in the master's lodge, presented in 1824 by R. Clarke, chamberlain of the city of London, and a portrait in the hall, probably a copy from an earlier picture. Engravings by Faithorne are prefixed to his Latin Poems (1668) and to his Works (1668). An engraving of him at the age of 13 is prefixed to the Poetical Blossoms, but is missing in most copies.[8]

Samuel Johnson included Cowley in his Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets.

5 of his poems ("Anacreontics 1. Drinking," "Anacreontics 2. The Epicure," "Anacreontics 3. The Swallow," "On the Death of Mr. William Hervey," and "The Wish") were included in the Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1900.[11]





Collected editionsEdit

  • The Works of Mr. Abraham Cowley: Consisting of those which were formerly printed, and those which he design'd for the press, now published out of the authors original copies (edited by Thomas Sprat). London: printed by J.M. for Henry Herringman, 1668; London: Jacob Tonson, 1710; London: G. Kearsley, 1806.
  • Select Works (edited by Richard Hurd). (2 volumes), London: Printed by W. Bowyer and J. Nichols, for T. Cadell, 1772. Volume I, Volume II.
  • Essays in Prose and Verse. London: John Sharpe, 1819; Boston: 1820.
  • Complete Works in Verse and Prose (edited by Alexander Balloch Grosart). privately printed, 1881. Volume I,
  • Essays, Plays, and sundry verses (edited by A.R. Waller). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1906.
  • Collected Works (edited by Thomas O'Calhoun). Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 1989.

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy WorldCat.[12]

Drinking by Abraham Cowley

Drinking by Abraham Cowley

See alsoEdit


  • PD-icon.svg Stephen, Leslie (1887) "Cowley, Abraham" in Stephen, Leslie Dictionary of National Biography 12 London: Smith, Elder, pp. 379-382  Wikisource, Web, Dec. 30, 2017.


  1. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography "Abraham Cowley"
  2. Abraham Cowley, Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica Inc. Web, Sep. 22, 2013.
  3. 3.0 3.1 John William Cousin, "Cowley, Abraham," A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature, 1910, 96-97. Web, Dec. 29, 2017.
  4. see Notes and Queries, 4th ser. xi. 340, 371, 389, 429, 450, 530; Stephen, 379.
  5. 5.00 5.01 5.02 5.03 5.04 5.05 5.06 5.07 5.08 5.09 5.10 5.11 Stephen, 380.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 6.6 6.7 6.8 Stephen, 381.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Cowley, Abraham Encyclopædia Britannica 1911, 7, 347. Wikisource, Web, Dec. 29, 2017.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 8.6 8.7 Stephen, 382.
  9. Spectator, no. 62.
  10. from Thomas Humphry Ward, "Critical Introduction: Abraham Cowley (1618–1667)," The English Poets: Selections with critical introductions (edited by Thomas Humphry Ward). New York & London: Macmillan, 1880-1918. Web, Feb. 14, 2016.
  11. Alphabetical list of authors: Brontë, Emily to Cutts, Lord, Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1900 (edited by Arthur Quiller-Couch). Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1919)., Web, May 16, 2012.
  12. Search results = au:Abraham Cowley, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, Sep. 22, 2013.

External links Edit

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PD-icon.svg This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain, the Dictionary of National Biography (edited by Leslie Stephen). London: Smith, Elder, 1885-1900. Original article is at: Cowley, Abraham

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