Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Cowley, Abraham
COWLEY, ABRAHAM (1618–1667), poet, was born in London in 1618. He was the seventh and posthumous child of his father, Thomas Cowley, a stationer (see Notes and Queries, 4th ser. xi. 340, 371, 389, 429, 450, 530), who left 1,000l. 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 ‘Faërie Queen,’ which lay in his mother's parlour (Essay XI., ‘On Myself’). A collection of five poems called ‘Poetical Blossoms’ was published in 1633. A second edition, with the addition of ‘Sylva, or dyvers copies of verses,’ appeared in 1636, and a third in 1637. It is probable that no poet has given more remarkable proofs of precocity. He says in his preface that he wrote one of the pieces, the ‘Pyramus and Thisbe,’ at the age of ten, and the ‘Constantius and Philetus’ two years later. Cowley's masters could never force him to undertake the drudgery of learning his 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). At the university he continued his poetical activity. In 1638 he published a pastoral drama called ‘Love's Riddle,’ written about the age of sixteen. On 2 Feb. 1638 his Latin comedy called ‘Naufragium Joculare’ was played before the university by members of Trinity College, and was published soon afterwards. 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. He was B.A., 1639; ‘minor fellow,’ 30 Oct. 1640; and M.A., 1642. He appears never to have become a ‘major fellow’ (Lumby). 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 Dec. 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.
Cowley meanwhile continued to write poetry, composing many occasional pieces and great part 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). 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. 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 two or three nights a week. The collection of his poems called ‘The Mistress’ appeared in London in 1647. They became the favourite 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). In 1648 two satires, ‘The Four Ages of England, or the Iron Age,’ and ‘A Satyre against Separatists,’ were published in one 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.
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 1,000l., for which Dr. (afterwards Sir) Charles Scarborough [q. v.], to whom one of his odes is addressed, became security. He remained under bail until the Restoration. 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;’ four books out of twelve 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. The preface refers to an unfinished poem ‘On the Civil War.’ A poem professing to be the one mentioned was published in 1679, and is in later collections. 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).
Cowley again retired to France. 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.’ 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 first 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. 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.
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 removed thither in April 1665. 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 neighbour and had to pass the night under a hedge. Mr. 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 neighbour. 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. His will (dated 28 Sept. 1665) leaves the care of his works to Sprat. The property is left to his brother Thomas, with a good many small legacies. He gave some books to Trinity College. Cowley's house is now called by his name, and is on the west side of Guildford Street, near the railway station. The porch from which it was named was removed by Alderman Clarke, a later occupant of the house, in 1786 (Thorne, Environs of London).
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. 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 a hundred copies are sold in a twelvemonth instead of ten editions in ten years. 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.’ 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.
Cowley was still mentioned with high respect during the eighteenth 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. 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.
The first collection of his works, in one volume folio, appeared in 1668, and in this, for the first time, were included ‘Several Discourses by way of Essays in Prose and Verse.’ Eight editions appeared before 1700, a ninth in 1700, and many more later. Hurd's ‘Selections’ appeared in 1772, and ‘Works’ by Aikin, 3 vols., 1802.
Two 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 thirteen is prefixed to the ‘Poetical Blossoms,’ but is missing in most copies.
[Sprat's Life of Cowley (first published in Works, 1668. Sprat's life has been praised, at least as much as it deserves, for its elegance, but is provokingly wanting in detail, and Sprat thought it wrong to publish Cowley's letters, while assuring us that they were charming); Johnson's Lives of the Poets; Wood's Fasti, ii. 209–14; Langbaine, pp. 77–88; Gosse's Seventeenth Century Studies, pp. 169–203; Stebbing's Verdicts of History Reviewed, pp. 47–82; Genest's History of the Stage, i. 41, x. 62; Aubrey's Letters (1813), ii. 295–6; Miscellanea Aulica (1702), pp. 130–60 (Cowley's letters from Paris to H. Bennet, afterwards lord Arlington). A complete edition of Cowley, edited by Grosart (1880–1), forms part of the Chertsey Worthies Library. A ‘memorial introduction’ collects most of the information about Cowley. Nichols's Illustrations, iv. 398.]