Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Cotton, Charles (1630-1687)
COTTON, CHARLES (1630–1687), poet, friend of Izaak Walton, and translator of Montaigne's ‘Essays,’ born at Beresford in Staffordshire 28 April 1630, was the only child of the Charles Cotton whose brilliant abilities are extolled in Clarendon's ‘Life’ (i. 36, ed. 1827). His father inherited a competent fortune, and by his marriage with Olive, daughter of Sir John Stanhope of Elvaston in Derbyshire, became possessed of estates in Derbyshire and Staffordshire. In Herrick's ‘Hesperides’ there is a poem addressed to the elder Cotton, and Richard Brome dedicated to him (in 1639) Fletcher's ‘Monsieur Thomas.’ Among his friends were Ben Jonson, Donne, Selden, Sir Henry Wotton, Izaak Walton, and other famous writers. The younger Cotton was a pupil of Ralph Rawson of Brasenose College, Oxford, who was ejected from his fellowship by the parliamentary visitors in 1648. There is no evidence to show that Cotton received an academical training, but Cole in his ‘Athenæ’ (Add. MS. 5865, f. 47) claims him for Cambridge. His classical attainments were considerable, and he had a close knowledge of French and Italian literature. In early manhood he travelled in France and probably in Italy. He seems to have adopted no profession, but to have devoted himself from his youth upwards to literary pursuits. In 1649 he contributed an elegy on Henry, lord Hastings, to Richard Brome's ‘Lachrymæ Musarum,’ and in 1651 he prefixed some commendatory verses to Edmund Prestwich's translation of Seneca's ‘Hippolytus.’ No collection of Cotton's poems was published until after his death, but they had been passed among his friends in manuscript. Sir Aston Cokayne, who was constantly singing his praises, in some verses addressed ‘To my most honoured cousin, Mr. Charles Cotton, upon his excellent poems,’ speaks of his early poems in terms of most extravagant eulogy. Lovelace dedicated ‘The Triumphs of Philamore and Amoret’ to ‘the noblest of our youth and best of friends, Charles Cotton, Esquire,’ and hints not obscurely in the dedicatory verses that he was under pecuniary obligations to Cotton. Aubrey states (Wood, Athenæ Oxon., ed. Bliss, iii. 462–3) that Lovelace was for many months a pensioner on Cotton's bounty. One of the elegies on Lovelace, printed at the end of ‘Lucasta,’ 1659, is by Cotton. He was an ardent royalist, and Waller's eulogy on Oliver Cromwell (written about 1654) provoked from him some bitterly satirical verses; but neither he nor his father appears to have suffered any persecution at the hands of the Commonwealth party. In the summer of 1656 he married his cousin Isabella, daughter of Sir Thomas Hutchinson of Owthorpe in Nottinghamshire, and sister of Colonel Hutchinson. Before the marriage took place he and his father vested the manors of Bentley, Borrowashe, and Beresford, with other lands, in trustees, to sell off so much of the property as would pay a mortgage of 1,700l., and to hold the rest in trust for the younger Cotton and his heirs. The elder Cotton, who had greatly injured his estate by lawsuits, died in 1658. At the Restoration, in 1660, Cotton published a panegyric in prose on Charles II; and in 1664 issued anonymously his burlesque poem ‘Scarronides, or the First Book of Virgil Travestie,’ which was reprinted (with a travesty of the fourth book) in 1670. Six editions of ‘Scarronides’ appeared during the author's lifetime; and it is noticeable that the later editions are more gross than the earlier. There is a tradition that a kinswoman of Cotton's, who had determined to leave him her fortune, took offence at a satirical allusion made in the poem to her ruff and revoked her intention. In 1665 Cotton was empowered by an act of parliament to sell part of his estates in order to pay his debts; and in the same year, for the diversion of his wife's sister, Miss Stanhope Hutchinson, he wrote a translation, which was published in 1671, of Corneille's ‘Horace.’ Another of Cotton's translations, ‘The Moral Philosophy of the Stoics,’ from the French of Du Vair, had appeared in 1667. From the dedication to his friend and kinsman, John Ferrers, dated 27 Feb. 1663–4, we learn that the translation had been undertaken some years previously at the instance of the elder Cotton. The posthumous collection of Alexander Brome's ‘Poems,’ 1668, contains an epistle by Brome to Cotton, and a reply, in which Cotton mournfully states that his only visitors were duns, whose approach drove him to take sanctuary in the neighbouring rocks. About 1670 he composed ‘A Voyage to Ireland in Burlesque,’ a spirited poem full of autobiographical interest. It was ‘neither improvement nor profit’ that induced him to take the journey, but having entered the army and received a captain's commission, he was ordered to proceed to Ireland. He expresses his regret at being obliged to abandon his favourite pursuit of angling. At Chester he was invited to supper by the mayor, and, being requested to give some account of his personal history, he informed his host,
That of land I had both sorts, some good and evil,
But that a great part on't was pawn'd to the devil;
That as for my parts, they were such as he saw;
That indeed I had a small smatt'ring of law,
Which I lately had got more by practice than reading,
By sitting o' th' bench whilst others were pleading.
It appears from another copy of verses (‘Poems,’ 1689, p. 199) that he narrowly escaped shipwreck on his voyage to Ireland. In an ‘Epistle to Sir Clifford Clifton, then sitting in Parliament,’ he states that he had ‘grown something swab with drinking good ale’ (for he frankly confesses that ‘his delight is to toss the can merrily round’), and again refers to the fact that he was besieged by duns. In 1670 he published a translation of Gerard's ‘History of the Life of the Duke of Espernon,’ with a dedicatory epistle, dated from Beresford 30 Oct. 1669, to Archbishop Sheldon. He mentions in the preface that the translation had been begun about three years earlier, but that owing to a long and painful illness he had been obliged to desist from literary labour; and he hints that his former literary ventures had been financially unprofitable. Another translation from Cotton's pen, ‘The Commentaries of De Montluc, Marshal of France,’ was published in 1674, with a dedication to his relative the Earl of Chesterfield, and commendatory verses by Newcourt and Flatman. A curious and valuable anonymous work entitled ‘The Complete Gamester,’ which first appeared in 1674, and was frequently reprinted, has been attributed to Cotton. The second and third parts of ‘The Compleat Gamester: in Three Parts … written for the Young Princesses, by Richard Seymour, Esq. The Fifth Edition,’ 1734, are compiled from the earlier ‘Complete Gamester,’ and in the preface it is stated that ‘The Second and Third Parts of this Treatise were originally written by Charles Cotton, Esq., some years since.’ Another anonymous book published in 1674, ‘The Fair One of Tunis, or the Generous Mistress,’ which purports to be a translation from the French, is assigned to Cotton in the catalogue of Henry Brome's publications at the end of ‘The Planter's Manual,’ 1675. ‘Burlesque upon Burlesque, or the Scoffer Scoft, being some of Lucian's Dialogues, newly put into English Fustian,’ appeared anonymously in 1675, and was frequently reprinted. In the prologue the author states that the work was ‘both begun and ended’ in a month, and he promised to travesty the ‘Dialogues of the Dead’ if the public would give him encouragement; but the promise was not redeemed. Not only was Cotton an accomplished angler, but he was well skilled in horticulture. The taste which he showed in planting his grounds at Beresford is commended by Cokayne; and his treatise, ‘The Planter's Manual, being instructions for the raising, planting, and cultivating all sorts of Fruit-Trees, whether stone-fruits or pepin-fruits, with their natures and seasons,’ first published in 1675, imparts practical information in a plain and easy style. He tells us that it was originally written ‘for the private satisfaction of a very worthy gentleman, who is exceedingly curious in the choice of his fruits, and has great judgment in planting.’ About 1670 Cotton lost his wife, who had borne him three sons and five daughters, and at some time before 1675 he married Mary, eldest daughter of Sir William Russell, bart., of Strensham in Worcestershire, and widow of Wingfield, fifth baron Cromwell, and second earl of Ardglass. His second wife had a jointure of 1,500l. per annum, but this accession of fortune did not relieve him from pecuniary embarrassment, for in 1675 he was again allowed by an act of parliament to sell part of his estates in order to pay his debts. To the fifth edition (1676) of Walton's ‘Complete Angler,’ Cotton contributed a treatise on fly-fishing as a ‘Second Part.’ Prefixed is an epistle, dated from Beresford 10 March 1675–6, ‘To my most worthy father and friend, Mr. Izaak Walton the elder,’ from which we learn that Cotton's treatise had been hurriedly written in ten days. At the end of the ‘Second Part’ Walton printed an epistle to Cotton, dated from London 29 April 1676, and Cotton's fine verses (written some years earlier) entitled ‘The Retirement.’ In the epistle Walton promised that, though he was in his eighty-third year and at a distance of more than a hundred miles, he would pay a visit to Beresford in the following month. Cotton was singularly devoted to his old friend, who had also been a friend of the elder Cotton. To the 1675 edition of Walton's ‘Lives’ Cotton prefixed a copy of commendatory verses, dated 17 Jan. 1672–3, in which he speaks of Walton as ‘the best friend I now or ever knew;’ and in the Second Part of the ‘Complete Angler’ he writes: ‘I have the happiness to know his person, and to be intimately acquainted with him; and in him to know the worthiest man and to enjoy the best and the truest friend ever man had.’ One of his most charming poems is an invitation (undated) to Walton to visit him at Beresford in the spring; and another poem addressed to Walton, ‘The Contentation,’ is equally attractive. In 1674 Cotton built his little fishing-house on the banks of the Dove, and set over the door a stone on which were inscribed his own initials and Walton's, ‘twisted in cypher.’ The room was wainscoted, and on the larger panels were paintings of angling subjects; in the right-hand corner was a buffet with folding doors, in which were portraits of Walton, Cotton, and a boy servant. In 1681 Cotton published a descriptive poem, ‘The Wonders of the Peak,’ written in imitation of Hobbes's ‘De Mirabilibus Pecci.’ It was dedicated to the Countess of Devonshire. The last work published in his lifetime was his translation of Montaigne's ‘Essays,’ 3 vols. 8vo, 1685, which he dedicated to George Savile, marquis of Halifax. Cotton's ‘Montaigne’ ranks among the acknowledged masterpieces of translation; it has been frequently reprinted. At the time of the publication of his ‘Montaigne,’ Cotton was undoubtedly living at Beresford. Plot, in his ‘Natural History of Staffordshire,’ which was licensed to be printed in April 1686, frequently mentions his ‘most worthy friend, the worshipful Charles Cotton of Beresford, Esquire,’ and speaks of ‘his pleasant mansion at Beresford.’ But in Blore's ‘MS. Collections for a History of Staffordshire’ it is stated that Cotton surrendered his Beresford property on 26 March 1681 to Joseph Woodhouse of Wollescote in Derbyshire, gentleman, who sold it in the same year to John Beresford, esq., of Newton Grange in that county. After publishing his translation of Montaigne's ‘Essays,’ Cotton proceeded to translate the ‘Memoirs of the Sieur de Pontis,’ but he did not live to finish the translation. In the burial register of St. James's, Piccadilly, is the entry, ‘1686–1687, Feb. 16, Charles Cotton, m.’ (Gent. Mag. 1851, ii. 367). A contemporary manuscript diary (quoted by Oldys) records the fact that he died of a fever. Letters of administration of his effects were granted 12 Sept. 1687 to ‘Elizabeth Bludworth, widow, his principal creditrix, the Honorable Mary, Countess-dowager of Ardglass, his widow, Beresford Cotton, esq., Olive Cotton, Katherine Cotton, Jane Cotton, and Mary Cotton, his natural and lawful children, first renouncing.’ An unauthorised collection of Cotton's poems was published in 1689. From the publisher's preface to Cotton's translation of the ‘Memoirs of the Sieur de Pontis,’ 1694, it appears that Cotton had prepared a copy of his poems for the press, and that the publication of this authentic edition had been prevented by the ‘ungenerous proceedings’ of the piratical publisher.
Cotton was a man of brilliant and versatile genius. His ‘Ode to Winter,’ a favourite poem with Wordsworth and Lamb, is a triumph of jubilant and exuberant fancy; and the fresh-coloured, fragrant stanzas entitled ‘The Retirement’ are of rare beauty. ‘There are not a few of his poems,’ says Coleridge (Biographia Literaria, ii. 96), ‘replete with every excellence of thought, images, and passions which we expect or desire in the poetry of the milder muse; and yet so worded that the reader sees no one reason, either in the selection or the order of the words, why he might not have said the very same in an appropriate conversation, and cannot conceive how indeed he could have expressed such thoughts otherwise, without loss or injury to his meaning.’ His prose-style is always easy and perspicuous, instinct with energy and life. Though his pecuniary difficulties, which were doubtless largely due to his own improvidence, caused him constant anxiety, his cheerfulness was unfailing. He was loyal to his friends, and generous to the poor; he loved good company and good liquor; he was an excellent angler, a devoted husband, and a man of unaffected piety. The portrait painted by his friend Lely shows him to have been handsome in person, with an engaging, frank countenance.
In addition to the works already mentioned, two anonymous pieces have been ascribed to Cotton: 1. ‘The Valiant Knight, or the Legend of St. Peregrine,’ 1663. 2. ‘The Confinement. A Poem, with Annotations,’ 1679. A copy of commendatory verses by Cotton is prefixed to Thomas Flatman's ‘Poems and Songs,’ 1674. Some letters of Cotton to Philip Kynder, who had projected a ‘Natural History of Derbyshire,’ are preserved among the Ashmolean MSS. The 1689 collection of Cotton's poems has not been reprinted, but selections are given by Chalmers and Sanford. In 1715 was printed ‘The Genuine Works of Charles Cotton,’ comprising ‘Scarronides,’ ‘Lucian Burlesqued,’ ‘The Wonders of the Peak,’ and ‘The Planter's Manual;’ it reached the sixth edition in 1771. The translation of Montaigne's ‘Essays’ has been frequently reprinted down to the present time.
[Memoir by W. O[ldys] prefixed to the Second Part of the Complete Angler, 1760; Langbaine's Dramatick Poets, with Oldys's manuscript annotations; Memoir by Sir Harris Nicolas; Hunter's MS. Chorus Vatum; Hazlitt's Bibliographical Collections; Cotton's Works.]