B Y G E O F F R E Y W A L T O
Professor of English, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria,
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
Tell me, O tell, what kind of thing is Wit,
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:
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
'Tis not a Tale, 'tis
not a Jest
Admir'd with Laughter at a
Nor florid Talk which can that Title gain.
. . .
Rather than all things Wit, let none be
'Tis not when two like words make up one noise;
Jests for Dutch Men, and English
In which who finds out Wit, the same may
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
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:
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.
* Turkish ruler as he appears
in Marlowe's Tamburlaine.
¡ Latin model for epigrammatic style
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,
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
Yet all things there agree.
As in the Ark, joyn'd without force or strife,
All Creatures dwelt; all Creatures that
Or as the Primitive Forms of
(If we compare great things with small)
Which without Discord or Confusion lie,
In that strange Mirror of the Deitie.
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
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
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,
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
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
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
To the Graves
We call here Life; but Life's
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
He broke that Monstrous God which
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!)
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
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
2. Contemporary references to Cowley can be studied in
Mr Nethercot's 'Cowley's Reputation in England, 1660—1800' (Section I),
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
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.