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poor Sprat

HE Life of Cowley, notwithstanding the penury of English 1
biography 2, has been written by Dr. Sprat, an author whose
pregnancy of imagination and elegance of language have deservedly
set him high in the ranks of literature; but his zeal of friendship,
or ambition of eloquence, has produced a funeral oration rather-
than a history: he has given the character, not the life of Cowley;
for he writes with so little detail that scarcely any thing is
distinctly known, but all is shewn confused and enlarged through
the mist of panegyrick 3.

ABRAHAM COWLEY was born in the year one thousand 2
six hundred and eighteen. His father was a grocer, whose
condition Dr. Sprat conceals under the general appellation of
a citizen; and, what would probably not have been less carefully

'On July 27, 1778, Johnson wrote to John Nichols, the printer of the Lives :-' You have now all Cowley. I have been drawn to a great length, but Cowley or Waller never had any critical examination before.' Letters of Johnson, ii. 68.

The Life of Cowley Johnson himself considered as the best of the whole, on account of the dissertation which it contains on the Metaphysical Poets. Boswell's Johnson, iv. 38.

2' Talking of biography, Dr. Johnson said he did not think that the life of any literary man in England had been well written.' Boswell's Johnson, v. 240. See also ib. ii. 40.

3 Post, SPRAT, 7, 21. Sprat's Life of Cowley is given in Hurd's Select Works of Cowley, i. I.

Addison, in an early poem, absurdly praises Sprat. Addressing Cowley he says:

'Blest man! who now shalt be for ever known

In Sprat's successful labours and thy own.' Addison's Works, i. 24.

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'What literary man has not regretted the prudery of Sprat, in refusing to let his friend Cowley appear in his slippers and dressinggown?' COLERIDGE, Biog. Lit. 1847, i. 59; post, COWLEY, 45 n.

'His parents were citizens of a virtuous life and sufficient estate.' SPRAT, Hurd's Cowley, i. 4. 'He was borne in Fleet-street, near Chancery-lane; his father a grocer.' AUBREY, Brief Lives, i. 189. See also Wood's Fasti Oxon. ii. 209.

'His father, Thomas Cowley, was a citizen and stationer of the parish of St. Michael at Querne, a church in Cheapside, destroyed in the Great Fire, and not rebuilt. He died in Aug. 1618, and left £140 apiece to his six living children and his posthumous child.' Lives of the Poets, ed. Cunningham, i. 3. 'There is no reason why Cowley's father should not have been a grocer, and yet have held the freedom of the Stationers' Company. James I was a clothworker. N. & 2. 7 S. iii, 438.


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suppressed, the omission of his name in the register of St. Dunstan's parish' gives reason to suspect that his father was a sectary. Whoever he was, he died before the birth of his son, and consequently left him to the care of his mother, whom Wood represents as struggling earnestly to procure him a literary education, and who, as she lived to the age of eighty, had her solicitude rewarded by seeing her son eminent, and, I hope, by seeing him fortunate, and partaking his prosperity. We know at least, from Sprat's account, that he always acknowledged her care, and justly paid the dues of filial gratitude 3.

3 In the window of his mother's apartment lay Spenser's Fairy Queen, in which he very early took delight to read, till, by feeling the charms of verse, he became, as he relates, irrecoverably a poet*. Such are the accidents, which, sometimes remembered, and perhaps sometimes forgotten, produce that particular designation of mind and propensity for some certain science or employment, which is commonly called Genius. The true Genius is a mind of large general powers, accidentally determined to some particular direction. Sir Joshua Reynolds, the great Painter of the present age, had the first fondness for his art excited by the perusal of Richardson's treatise 6.

St. Dunstan's is in Fleet Street.
Fasti Oxon. ii. 209.

3 Hurd's Cowley, i. 45.

4 'I believe I can tell the particular little chance that filled my head first with such chimes of verse as have never since left ringing there; for I remember, when I began to read and to take some pleasure in it, there was wont to lie in my mother's parlour... Spenser's works; this I happened to fall upon, and was infinitely delighted with the stories of the knights, and giants, and monsters, and brave houses, which I found everywhere there; ... and by degrees, with the tinkling of the rhyme and dance of the numbers; so that I think I had read him all over before I was twelve years old, and was thus made a poet as immediately as a child is made an eunuch. Eng. Poets, ix. 122.

Lamb, describing 'an old great house' in which part of his childhood was spent, mentions 'the cheerful store-room, in whose hot window

seat I used to sit and read Cowley.' Essays of Elia, p. 206.

Cowley, according to Dryden, looked upon Chaucer as 'a dry oldfashioned wit, not worth reviving. Having read him over at the Earl of Leicester's request, he declared he had no taste of him.' Dryden's Works, xi. 232.

5'Every age has a kind of universal genius which inclines those that live in it to some particular studies.' DRYDEN, ib. xv. 293.

'I am persuaded,' wrote Cowper (Works, vi. 94), 'that Milton did not write his Paradise Lost, nor Homer his Iliad, nor Newton his Principia, without immense labour. Nature gave them a bias to their respective pursuits, and that strong propensity, I suppose, is what we mean by Genius. The rest they gave themselves.' See also Boswell's Johnson, ii. 437; John. Misc. i. 314; ii. 287; and Gibbon's Memoirs, pp. 143, 303.

• Two Discourses on the Art of Criticism as it relates to Painting,

By his mother's solicitation he was admitted into West- 4Westminster

minster school', where he was soon distinguished. 'He was wont,' says Sprat, 'to relate that he had this defect in his memory at that time, that his teachers never could bring it to retain the ordinary rules of grammar 2.


On critic

This is an instance of the natural desire of man to propagate 5 a wonder3. It is surely very difficult to tell any thing as it was heard, when Sprat could not refrain from amplifying a commodious incident, though the book to which he prefixed his narrative contained its confutation. A memory admitting some things and rejecting others, an intellectual digestion that concocted the pulp of learning, but refused the husks, had the appearance of an instinctive elegance, of a particular provision made by Nature for literary politeness. But in the author's own honest relation, the marvel vanishes: he was, he says, such an enemy to all constraint, that his master never could prevail on him to learn the rules without book. He does not tell that he could not learn the rules, but that, being able to perform his exercises without them, and being an enemy to constraint,' he spared himself the labour.

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Among the English poets, Cowley, Milton, and Pope might 6 be said to lisp in numbers", and have given such early proofs, not only of powers of language, but of comprehension of things, as to more tardy minds seems scarcely credible. But of the learned puerilities of Cowley there is no doubt, since a volume of his poems was not only written but printed in his thirteenth year, containing, with other poetical compositions,

&c., 1719. By Jonathan Richardson. See Northcote's Reynolds, i. 14, and Leslie and Taylor's Reynolds, i. 9. Reynolds told Malone that 'the first book that gave him a turn for painting was the Jesuit's Perspective, a book which happened to be in the parlour window in the house of his father.' Prior's Malone, p. 389. Johnson, who must have heard Reynolds tell the same story, transferred 'the parlour window' to the house of Cowley's mother. In the first edition of the Lives Reynolds's name is not given. 1 Fasti Oxon. ii. 209.

Hurd's Cowley, i. 6.

3 'Wonders are willingly told and willingly heard.' Post, POPE, 199.

See also Boswell's Johnson, iii. 229;
John. Misc. i. 241-4.

4 See Appendix A.

5 POPE, Prol. Sat. 1. 128; post, POPE, 8.


Johnson here follows Sprat,
Hurd's Cowley, i. 5. Cowley, men-
tioning an ode, continues:-"which
I made when I was but thirteen
years old and which was then printed
with many other verses.' Eng. Poets,
ix. 120. In 1656 he writes that 'the
poems he wrote at school from the
age of ten till after fifteen have already
past through several editions.' lb.
vii. 15.
They were published in
1633, when he was fifteen. He
quotes (ib. ix. 121) three stanzas of


بن مقليلة

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The tragical History of Pyramus and Thisbe, written when he was ten years old, and Constantia and Philetus, written two years after 1.

While he was yet at school he produced a comedy called Love's Riddle, though it was not published till he had been some time at Cambridge. This comedy is of the pastoral kind, which requires no acquaintance with the living world, and therefore the time at which it was composed adds little to the wonders of Cowley's minority.

In 1636, he was removed to Cambridge, where he continued

Ghis studies with great intenseness; for he is said to have written.. while he was yet a young student, the greater part of his Davideis a work of which the materials could not have been collected without the study of many years but by a mind of the greatest vigour and activity.

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Two years after his settlement at Cambridge he published Love's Riddle, with a poetical dedication to Sir Kenelm Digby 5, of whose acquaintance all his contemporaries seem to have been ambitious, and Naufragium Foculare', a comedy written in Latin, but without due attention to the ancient models: for it is not loose verse, but mere prose. It was printed with a dedication in verse to Dr. Comber, master of the college, but having neither the facility of a popular nor the accuracy of a learned work, it seems to be now universally neglected.


the ode written at thirteen. The title
of the poems was Poeticall Blossomes.
Eng. Poets, vii. 31, 33, 56. In the
third edition of Poeticall Blossomes,
1637, Cowley says of Pyramus and
Thisbe:-'I hope a pardon may
easily be gotten for the errors of ten
years old. My Constantia and
Philetus confesseth me two years
older when I writ it.'

2 Post, MILTON, 181; POPE, 313.
3 Hurd's Cowley, i. 29; post,
COWLEY, 145.

Loues Riddle. A Pastoral Com-
aedie. Written at the time of his
being Kings Scholler in Westminster
Schoole by A. Cowley. London, 1638.
The frontispiece is a portrait of
Cowley, with a cherub hovering over
him, holding a pen in its right hand,
and a laurel chaplet in its left. There
is an inscription, Aetatis suae 13.
5 The Dedication ends :-

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At the beginning of the civil war, as the Prince passed 10 through Cambridge in his way to York, he was entertained with the representation of The Guardian, a comedy which Cowley says was neither written nor acted, but rough-drawn by him, and repeated by the scholars'. That this comedy was printed during his absence from his country, he appears to have considered as injurious to his reputation; though during the suppression of the theatres, it was sometimes privately acted with sufficient approbation 2.

In 1643, being now master of arts, he was, by the prevalence 11 of the parliament, ejected from Cambridge 3, and sheltered himself at St. John's College in Oxford, where, as is said by Wood, he published a satire called The Puritan and Papist, which was

by Cowley.

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only inserted in the last collection of his works; and so dis- und of

tinguished himself by the warmth of his loyalty, and the elegance of his conversation, that he gained the kindness and confidence of those who attended the King, and amongst others of Lord


'It was printed in 1650.... It was neither made nor acted, but rough-drawn only, and repeated.' Hurd's Cowley, i. 65. In the Prologue he says:

'Accept our hasty zeal; a thing that's play'd

Ere 'tis a play, and acted ere 'tis made.' Eng. Poets, vii. 128.

In March, 1641-2, the Prince of Wales [Charles II], in his twelfth year, visited Cambridge. A letterwriter tells how 'he went to Trinity College, where, after dinner, he saw a comedy in English, and gave all sighnes of great acceptance which he could, and more than the University dared expect.' Cooper's Annals of Cambridge, iii. 321. In 'the Extraor

dinaries in the Senior Bursar's book for 1642 is the following:-'To Mr. Willis for Ds. [Dominus] Cooley's Comedy. lxvli. xvi s. [£65 16s.].' The spelling seems to show that Cowley was pronounced Cooley, as the poet Cowper's name was pronounced Cooper. The name also appears as 'Cooley' in the books, as Mr. W. Aldis Wright informs me.

2 Cowley states this in the Preface to Cutter of Coleman Street (post, COWLEY, 36). Hurd's Cowley, i. 91.

3 For the facts in the following note I am obliged to Mr. W. Aldis Wright: Cowley was admitted Minor Fellow on Oct. 30, 1640, when there was no vacancy. He received his stipend as a Scholar up to Michaelmas, 1643, in which year he took his M.A. degree. By the statutes he could have retained his Fellowship, without taking orders, for seven years from this degree; but as he was at once ejected the King, on the Restoration, got the College to allow him to count his seven years from his reinstatement as Fellow. He lived long enough nearly to exhaust his seven years.

Fasti Oxon. ii. 210, where it is stated that Cowley published this satire 'under the name of a Scholar of Oxford.'

'In the first edition of this Life Dr. Johnson wrote, " which was never inserted in any collection of his works," but he altered the expression when the Lives were collected into volumes. The satire was added to Cowley's works by the particular direction of Dr. Johnson.' NICHOLS, Johnson's Works, vii. 4. See Eng. Poets, vii. 171.

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