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The Booksellers having determined to publish a body of English Poetry, I was persuaded to promise them a preface to the works of each author; an undertaking, as it was then presented to my mind, not very extensive or difficult.
My purpose was only to have allotted to every poet an advertisement, like those which we find in the French Miscellanies, containing a few dates and a general character ; but I have been led beyond my intention, I hope by the honest desire of giving useful pleasure.
In this minute kind of history the succession of facts is not easily discovered ; and I am not without suspicion that some of Dryden's works are placed in wrong years. I have followed Langbaine, as the best authority for plays: and if I shall hereafter obtain a more correct chronology, will publish it; but I do not yet know that my account is erroneous.
Dryden's remarks on Rymer have been somewhere printed before. The former edition I have not seen. This was transcribed for the press from his own manuscript.
As this undertaking was occasional and unforeseen, I must be supposed to have engaged in it with less provision of materials than might have been accumulated by longer premeditation. Of the later writers at least I might, by attention and inquiry, have gleaned many particulars which would have diversified and enlivened my biography These omissions, which it is now useless to lament, have been often supplied by the kindness of Mr. Steevens and other friends; and great assistance has been given me by Mr. Spence's Collections, of which I consider the communication as a favour worthy of public acknowledgement.
The Life of Cowley, notwithstanding the penury of English biography, 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 shown confused and enlarged through the mist of panegyrick.
ABRAHAM COWLEY was born in the year one thousand 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 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
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.
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.
By his mother's solicitation he was admitted into Westminster-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.”
This is an instance of the natural desire of man to propagate a wonder. 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