B Y   G E O F F R E Y   W A L T O N

Professor of English, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, N. Nigeria

BY his extraordinary versatility as poet and prose writer, Cowley (1618-67) forms a living connexion between the literature of the early seventeenth century and that of the age of Dryden. An infant prodigy among poets, he began his career as probably the youngest of all the 'sons' of Ben Jonson. In mid career he borrowed extensively from Donne's love poetry.1  He ended it as a founder of the Royal Society, the leader, though characteristically in retirement, of the literary world and a rival of Butler as a best-seller.2  It is usual to bracket him with Waller and Denham, or even Dryden, to whom his authority was 'almost sacred', as a reformer of poetry.3  'He forsook the conversation, but never the language of the city and the court,' says that typical Restoration divine, Bishop Sprat, in his Life of Cowley.4  He was the effective if not the actual creator of the Pindarique ode.5   He began the first Neo-Classic epic in English.6  His prose and his more classical verse continued to be admired until well into the eighteenth century for what Sprat calls 'the unaffected modesty, the natural freedom and easie vigour, and chearful passions and innocent mirth that appeared in all his manners'. Dr Johnson, after all, thought him 'undoubtedly the best' Metaphysical poet;7  he wrote the kind of Metaphysical poetry that the gentleman in the coffee-house and the eighteenth-century common reader could enjoy without undue effort. As Coleridge said, he was a very fanciful poet. In his own way Cowley has notable qualities, especially of tone and accent, and it was largely through him — though Cleveland (1613-58) and Butler (1612-80) contributed to the process — that a stimulating infusion of Metaphysical wit was passed on into Neo-Classic poetry.8
     His Ode; Of Wit provides a series of pointers to the extent of his imaginative range and the quality of his sensibility. He begins with a brief introduction:

Tell me, O tell, what kind of thing is Wit,
Thou who Master art of it.
For the First matter loves Variety less;


Less Women lov't, either in Love or Dress.
    A thousand different shapes it bears,
    Comely in thousand shapes appears.
Yonder we saw it plain; and here 'tis now,
Like Spirits in a Place, we know not How.
Clearly wit implies a mass of varied material in the poet, viewed somewhat frivolously as for ornament or amusement. It is also a mysterious and pervasive spirit in the background. Cowley then proceeds to define wit mainly by negatives:     'Tis not a Tale, 'tis not a Jest
    Admir'd with Laughter at a feast,
Nor florid Talk which can that Title gain. . . .

Rather than all things Wit, let none be there.

'Tis not when two like words make up one noise;
    Jests for Dutch Men, and English Boys.
In which who finds out Wit, the same may see
In An'grams and Acrostiques Poetrie.
    Much less can that have any place
    At which a Virgin hides her face. . . .

'Tis not such Lines as almost crack the Stage
    When Bajazet begins to rage.*
Nor a tall Meta'phor in the Bombast way,
Nor the dry chips of short lung'd Seneca.¡
    Nor upon all things to obtrude
    And force some odd Similitude.

     These imply standards of correctness and decorum, literary and social — certain things are 'not done' in poetry — and when Dryden quotes the second passage in the Preface to An Evening's Love, the context is strongly social. No serious critic thinks that Donne is characterized by puns and odd similitudes, but nevertheless this disciplined, tidy, and sensible notion seems a long way from Donne's 'giant phansie' which almost burst the bonds of language and was 'longer a knowing than most wits do live', to quote Carew and Jonson. The positive account of wit is equally revealing:

* Turkish ruler as he appears in Marlowe's Tamburlaine.
¡  Latin model for epigrammatic style in prose.


The Proofs of Wit for ever must remain.

All ev'ry where, like Mans, must be the Soul,
And Reason the Inferior Powers controul.

In a true piece of Wit all things must be,
    Yet all things there agree.
As in the Ark, joyn'd without force or strife,
All Creatures dwelt; all Creatures that had Life.
    Or as the Primitive Forms of all
    (If we compare great things with small)
Which without Discord or Confusion lie,
In that strange Mirror of the Deitie.

The main emphasis is on 'Reason', 'agree', 'without Discord or Confusion'; we have also been told that the judgement is like a 'Multiplying Glass', or telescope, to give greater clarity of vision. One now feels that intellectual discipline has been added to the definition, and one may compare Cowley's poem with the severely analytic definition of Hobbes and the later and more genial and discursive definition of Dryden. On the other hand, one has been told that wit is 'like Spirits in a Place' and later it is compared to 'the Power Divine'. Cowley's conception of the poetic imagination would therefore seem to combine the ideas of inspiration and variety of material with those of selection and conscious art. By a certain superficiality and looseness of texture — for none of the ode requires close textual analysis — one sees that he himself lacks the imaginative concentration and tension of the great Metaphysicals and, in fact, exemplifies the type of wit he is describing. In this way he is a representative transitional poet.9
     Cowley did not, however, progress simply from one style to another. His Hymn to Light, an impressive but not entirely satisfactory Metaphysical work, was written at the end of his life, the Davideis, Metaphysical in imagery but Neo-Classic in form, at Cambridge immediately before the Civil War.'10  Much of his best poetry was written about this early time when, as he says in the extremely interesting preface to his folio of 1656, he was 'in the good humour' and had the 'serenity and chearfulness of Spirit' necessary 'for a man to write well'. The chief poem of this period is On the Death of Mr Crashaw, written in couplets. Cowley celebrates his friend's double character, literary and religious, with sustained and calculated hyper-


bole. The manner and mood vary considerably paragraph by paragraph from the satiric to the elegaic and the matter-of-fact argumentative. At the end Cowley salutes Crashaw with Neo-Classic magniloquence and Metaphysical ingenuity of analogy: Thou from low earth in nobler Flames didst rise,
And like Elijah, mount Alive the skies.
Elisha—like (but with a wish much less,
More fit thy Greatness, and my Littleness)
Lo here I beg (I whom thou once didst prove
So humble to Esteem, so Good to Love)
Not that thy Spirit might on me Doubled be,
I ask but Half thy mighty Spirit for Me.
And when my Muse soars with so strong a Wing,
'Twill learn of things Divine, and first of Thee to sing.
     It is the most emotional, not to say rhapsodic, poem that Cowley wrote — far more so than any of his odes, but the lack of irony in the attitude to his main theme and the simple stately organization show him to be a contemporary of Waller and already practising the kind of literary decorum that one finds in the grandiose elegies and complimentary poems of the Restoration. The elegy On the Death of Mr William Hervey is scarcely Metaphysical at all except in a few slight touches; it combines a polite, quiet tone and discursive manner with poignant personal feeling. The dramatically ominous and pathetic scene with which Cowley opens the poem illustrates the personal directness of treatment: It was a dismal, and a fearful night,
Scarce could the Morn drive on th' unwilling Light,
When Sleep, Death's Image, left my troubled brest,
    By something liker Death possest.
My eyes with Tears did uncommanded flow,
    And on my Soul hung the dull weight
    Of some Intolerable Fate.
What Bell was that? Ah me ! Too much I know.
He gives a (for the time) unusually intimate account of the friendship: Ye fields of Cambridge, our dear Cambridge, say,
Have ye not seen us walking every day?
Was there a Tree about which did not know
    The Love betwixt us two?


Henceforth, ye gentle Trees, for ever fade;
Or your sad branches thicker joyn,
And into darksome shades combine,
Dark as the Grave wherein my Friend is laid.
     It is worth drawing attention to the fact, as a sign of the movement of poetic taste in Cowley, that Johnson admired the poem for its naturalness, and that Gray seems to have drawn upon it for an important phase in the Elegy. Compared with both the early Metaphysical elegies and the formal elegies of Dryden, informality is its salient quality.
     Cowley's The Mistress brought him his first contemporary fame and seems to have been considered a kind of ars amatoria. He himself eschews any responsibility other than poetic for the collection. These poems belong with the Cavalier lyric; they depend heavily on Donne in dealing with the themes of body and soul and union and separation, but never have the tautness of rhythm and precision of phrase which give these themes realization. There is also an explicit aspiration to emulate Waller. Many of the poems are characterized by mere exaggeration and ingenuity with nothing alive behind them. The successful and amusing ones are unexpectedly in the manner of Suckling when he most resembles the Dorsets and the Sedleys who succeeded him. Discretion, The Frailty, The Waiting-Maid, Honour, The Dissembler, My Dyet are all in this racy, carefree, conversational manner. The Rich Rival has probably the finest management of rhythm and tone:       They say you're angry, and rant mightilie, Because I love the same as you;

Alas! you're very rich; 'tis true;

      But prithee Fool, what's that to Love and Me. You have Land and Money, let that serve;       And know you have more by that than you deserve.
Thus the intellectual love lyric petered out. The taste in poetry represented by Dryden's jibe that Cowley imitated Donne to a fault in affecting. the 'metaphysics' instead of writing of the 'softnesses' of love is not very different from that of his admirer, Sprat, who thought that 'in every copy, there is something of more useful knowledge very naturally and gracefully insinuated'. In both cases conceits and


ideas are thought of as something extraneous to the poetry, which expresses — or fails to express — sentiment. Later Johnson remarked in this connexion that The Mistress might have been 'written by a hermit for penance'. One feels of these poems that it is Cowley's wit in the narrow senses of fanciful ingenuity and humour that survives. The odes in which Cowley thought he was nearest to Pindar's 'way and manner of speaking' seem, as he himself feared of a translation, little more than a jumble of words. But certain Pindariques, such as Destinie, Life, and The Resurrection, which are really Metaphysical poems in loose irregular stanzas, have the same kind of conversational liveliness as the love lyrics and a great virtuosity in conceits, for example: We're ill by those Grammarians us'd;
We are abus'd by Words, grossly abus'd;
       From the Maternal Tomb,
       To the Graves fruitful Womb,
   We call here Life; but Life's a name
   That nothing here can truly claim:
This wretched Inn. . . .
Dryden learnt much from these as well as from the more solemn odes. The following stanza from the ode To the Royal Society will illustrate Cowley's representative position as thinker as well as the later development of his style: Autority, which did a Body boast,
Though 'twas but Air condens'd, and stalk'd about,
Like some old Giants more Gigantic Ghost,
    To terrifie the Learned Rout
With the plain Magick of true Reasons Light,
    He chac'd out of our sight,
Nor suffer's Living Men to be misled
    By the vain shadows of the Dead:
To Graves, from whence it rose, the conquer'd Phantome fled;
    He broke that Monstrous God which stood
In the midst of th' Orchard, and the whole did claim,
    Which with a useless Sith of Wood,
    And something else not worth a name.
    (Both vast for shew, yet neither fit


    Or to Defend, or to Beget;
    Ridiculous and senceless Terrors!) made
Children and superstitious Men afraid.
    The Orchard's open now, and free;
Bacon has broke the Scar-crow Deitie;
    Come, enter, all that will,
Behold rip'ned Fruit, come gather now their Fill.
    Yet still, methinks, we fain would be
    Catching at the Forbidden Tree,
    We would be like the Deitie,
When Truth and Falsehood, Good and Evil; we
Without the Sences aid within our selves would see;
    For 'tis God only who can find
    All Nature in his Mind.
This is poetry with the prose virtues, a vigorous and vivid paragraph. Scholasticism is seen as an absurd and obscene, but still dangerous, Idol of the Tribe which has been overthrown by the great intellectual image-breaker and liberator. The interpretation of the Tree of Knowledge story comes straight from Book I of the Advancement of Learning. Cowley like his master felt that for the present enough time and energy had been devoted to the study of Final Causes and the ultimate truths — which still remained true — and that the learned should concentrate on experimental philosophy.11  The Royal Society was doing this.
     Cowley was living in retirement in the country when he wrote this ode at the request of Sprat and Evelyn. There he felt himself, and was felt by others, to be the Horace of his time, and he composed his last work, his Essays, in Verse and Prose. The verse, whether in couplets or stanzas, represents a further refinement, in every sense, of his conversational style; the prose is moving towards a lucid modern medium, polite but intimate. In fact, Cowley in his latest work, which earned the admiration of both Pope and Gray, was almost more of a minor Augustan than a seventeenth-century Metaphysical, and his attack on '... The Great Vulgar, and the Small"12   became widely current in eighteenth-century society.



1. See Mr. John Sparrow's preface in his edition of The Mistress.
2. Contemporary references to Cowley can be studied in Mr Nethercot's 'Cowley's Reputation in England, 1660—1800' (Section I), P.M.L.A. xxxviii.
3. Dryden's comments and their context are often illuminating. See Essays, ed. W. P. Ker.
4. Sprat's Life, Critical Essays of the XVIIth Century, ed. Spingarn, Vol. II gives an extremely interesting and valuable survey of his work and personality — one must allow, of course, for the obituary eulogy.
5. For his position in the history of the ode, sec Robert Shafer, The English Ode to 1660.
6. For his position in the history of the epic, see E. M. W. Tillyard's The English Epic and its Background.
7. Metaphysical poetry was not congenial to Dr Johnson, but his severe, reasoned criticism should be considered.
8. For a fuller treatment of this, see Metaphysical to Augustan by the present author (chapter II).
9. T. S. Eliot interprets the ode rather differently in 'A Note on Two Odes of Cowley' in XVIIth Century Studies presented to Sir H. Grierson. Chapter II of my Metaphysical to Augustan contains a comparison with the re]evant passages of Hobbes and Dryden.
10. For the date of the Davideis, see Professor F. Kermode, Review of English Studies, 1946.
11. See Professor Willey's Seventeenth Century Background, especially chapter ii, for a fuller treatment of this topic.
12. Bishop Hurd's Select Works of Cowley, 1772, contains a note that this phrase had become part of the language and gives other interesting indications of eighteenth-century taste in Cowley.

Walton, Geoffrey. "Abraham Cowley."  The Pelican Guide to English Literature, v. 3.
Boris Ford, Ed.  Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1956;1974 repr.  233-240.

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