Abraham Cowley

FROM  Poems, 1656


When I consider this, and how many other bright and magnificent subjects of the like nature the Holy Scripture affords and proffers, as it were, to Poesie, in the wise managing and illustrating whereof the Glory of God Almighty might be joyned with the singular utility and noblest delight of Mankinde: 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 usurpt as Poetry. It is time to recover it out of the Tyrants hands, and to restore it to the Kingdom of God, who is the Father of it. It is time to Baptise it in Jordan, for it will never become clean by bathing in the Waters of Damascus. There wants, methinks, but the Conversion of That and the Jews, for the accomplishing of the Kingdom of Christ. And as men before their receiving of the Faith do not without some carnal reluctancies apprehend the bonds and fetters of it, but finde it afterwards to be the truest and greatest Liberty: It will fare no otherwise with this Art, after the Regeneration of it; it will meet with wonderful variety of new, more beautiful, and more delightful Objects; neither will it want Room, by being confined to Heaven.

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What can we imagine more proper for the ornaments of Wit or Learning in the story of Deucalion then in that of Noah? why will not the actions of Sampson afford as plentiful matter as the Labors of Hercules? why is not Jeptha's Daughter as good a woman as Iphigenia, and the friendship of David and Jonathan more worthy celebration than that of Theseus and Perithous? Does not the passage of Moses and the Israelites into the Holy Land yield incomparably more Poetical variety than the voyages of Ulysses or Æneas? Are the obsolete threadbare tales of Thebes and Troy half so stored with great, heroical, and supernatural actions (since Verse will needs finde or make such) as the wars of Joshua, of the Judges, of David, and divers others? Can all the Transformations of the Gods give such copious hints to flourish and expatiate on as the true Miracles of Christ, or of his Prophets and Apostles? What do I instance in these few particulars? All the Books of the Bible are either already most admirable and exalted pieces of Poesie, or are the best Materials in the world for it. Yet, though they be in themselves so proper to be made use of for this purpose, None but a good Artist will know how to do it; neither must we think to cut and polish Diamonds with so little pains and skill as we do Marble. For if any man design to compose a Sacred Poem by onely turning a story of the Scripture, like Mr Quarles's, or some other godly matter, like Mr Heywood of Angels, into Rhyme, He is so far from elevating of Poesie that he onely abases Divinity. In brief, he who can write a prophane Poem well may write a Divine one better; but he who can do that but ill will do this much worse. The same fertility of Invention, the same wisdom of Disposition, the same Judgement in observance of Decencies, the same lustre and vigor of Elocution, the same modesty and majestie of Number, briefly, the same kinde of Habit, is required to both; only this latter allows better stuff, and therefore would look more deformedly, if ill drest in it.

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