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LIVES OF THE ENGLISH POETS.
THE 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 pane
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 goon 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 comABRAHAM COWLEY was born in the year one modious incident, though the book to which he thousand six hundred and eighteen. His fath-prefixed his narrative contained his confutation. er was a grocer, whose condition Dr. Sprat A memory admitting some things, and rejectconceals under the general appellation of a citi-ing others, an intellectual digestion that conzen; and, what would probably not have been cocted the pulp of learning, but refused the less carefully suppressed, the omission of his husks, had the appearance of an instinctive elename in the register of St. Dunstan's parish gance, of a particular provision made by Nature gives reason to suspect that his father was a for literary politeness. But in the author's sectary. Whoever he was, he died before the own honest relation, the marvel vanishes: he birth of his son, and consequently left him to was, he says, such "an enemy to all constraint, the care of his mother; whom Wood represents that his master never could prevail on him to as struggling earnestly to procure him a literary learn the rules without book." He does not education, and who, as she lived to the age of tell that he could not learn the rules; but that, eighty, had her solicitude rewarded by seeing being able to perform his exercises without her son eminent, and, I hope, by seeing him them, and being an "enemy to constraint," he fortunate, and partaking his prosperity. We spared himself the labour. 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
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
Among the English poets, Cowley, Milton, and Pope, might 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 seem 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 poeti
• This volume was not published before 1633, when as former biographers, seems to have been misled Cowley was fifteen years old. Dr. Johnson, as well· by the portrait of Cowley being by mistake marked with the age of thirteen years.-R.
cal compositions, "The tragical History of Pyramus and Thisbe," written when he was ten years old; and "Constantia and Philetus," written two years after.
While he was yet at school he produced a comedy called "Love's Riddle," though it was 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 his 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.
At the beginning of the civil war, as the Prince passed through Cambridge in his way to York, he was entertained with a 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 some times privately acted with sufficient approbation.
Two years after his settlement at Cambridge he published" Love's Riddle," with a poetical dedication to Sir Kenelm Digby; of whose ac-selves to be true to Love." quaintance all his cotemporaries seem to have been ambitious; and " Naufragium Joculare," a comedy written in Latin, but without due attention to the ancient models; for it was 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.
In 1643, being now master of arts, he was, by the prevalence of the parliament, ejected from Cambridge, 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 only inserted in the last collection of his Works;t and so distinguished himself by the warmth of his loyalty and the
elegance of his conversation, that he gained the
About the time when Oxford was surrender
• He was candidate this year at Westminste School for election to Trinity College, but proved unsuccessful.-N.
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.-N.
he followed the
Paris, where he became secretary to the Lord
In the year 1647, his "Mistress" was publish-
This obligation to amorous ditties owes, I believe, its original to the fame of Petrarch, who, in an age rude and uncultivated, by his tuneful homage to his Laura, refined the manners of the lettered world, and filled Europe with love and poetry. But the basis of all excellence is truth: he that professes love ought to feel its power. Petrarch was a real lover, and Laura doubtless deserved his tenderness. Of Cowley, we are told by Barnes, who had means enough of information, that, whatever he may talk of his own inflammability, and the variety of characters by which his heart was divided, he in reality was in love but once, and then never had resolution to tell his passion.
This consideration cannot but abate, in some measure, the reader's esteem for the work and the author. To love excellence, is natural; it is natural likewise for the lover to solicit reciprocal regard by an elaborate display of his own qualifications. The desire of pleasing has in different men produced actions of heroism, and effusions of wit; but it seems as reasonable to appear the champion as the poet of an "airy nothing," and to quarrel as to write for what Cowley might have learned from his master Pindar to call " the dream of a shadow.”
It is surely not difficult in the solitude of a college, or in the bustle of the world, to find useful studies and serious employment. No man needs to be so burdened with life as to squander it in voluntary dreams of fictitious occurrences. The man that sits down to suppose himself charged with treason or peculation, andheats his mind to an elaborate purgation of his character from crimes which he was never within the possibility of committing, differs only
Barnesii Anacreontem.Dr. J.
by the infrequency of his folly from him who praises beauty which he never saw; complains of jealousy which he never felt; supposes himself sometimes invited, and sometimes forsaken; fatigues his fancy, and ransacks his memory, for images which may exhibit the gayety of hope, or the gloominess of despair; and dresses his imaginary Chloris or Phyllis, sometimes in flowers fading as her beauty, and sometimes in gems lasting as her virtues.
Some years afterwards, "business," says Sprat, 66 passed of course into other hands; and Cowley, being no longer useful at Paris, was in 1656, sent back into England, that “under pretence of privacy and retirement, he might take occasion of giving notice of the posture of things in this nation."
Soon after his return to London, he was seized by some messengers of the usurping powers who were sent out in quest of ano
At Paris, as secretary to Lord Jermyn, hether man; and, being examined, was put inwas engaged in transacting things of real im- to confinement, from which he was not dismisportance with real men and real women, and at sed without the security of a thousand pounds that time did not much employ his thoughts given by Dr. Scarborough. upon phantoms of gallantry. Some of his letters to Mr. Bennett, afterwards Earl of Arlington, from April to December, in 1650, are preserved in" Miscellanea Aulica," a collection of papers published by Brown. These letters, being written like those of other men whose minds are more on things than words, contribute no otherwise to his reputation than as they show him to have been above the affectation of unseasonable elegance, and to have known that the business of a statesman can be little forwarded by flowers of rhetoric.
This year he published his poems, with a preface, in which he seems to have inserted something suppressed in subsequent editions, which was interpreted to denote some relaxation of his loyalty. In this preface he declares, that
One passage, however, seems not unworthy of some notice. Speaking of the Scotch treaty then in agitation:
"The Scotch treaty," says he, "is the only thing now in which we are vitally concerned: I am one of the last hopers, and yet cannot now abstain from believing, that an agreement will be made; all people upon the place incline to that of union. The Scotch will moderate something of the rigour of their demands; the mutual necessity of an accord is visible, the King is persuaded of it. And to tell you the truth (which I take to be an argument above all the rest,) Virgil has told the same thing to that purpose."
This expression from a secretary of the present time would be considered as merely ludicrous, or at most as an ostentatious display of scholarship; but the manners of that time were so tinged with superstition, that I cannot but suspect Cowley of having consulted on this great occasion the Virgilian Lots,* and to have given some credit to the answer of his oracle.
Consulting the Virgilian Lots, Sortes Virgilianæ, is a method of divination by the opening of Virgil, and applying to the circumstances of the peruser the first passage in either of the two pages that he accidentally fixes his eye on. It is said that King Charles I. and Lord Falkland being in the Bodleian Library, made this experiment of their future fortunes, and met with passages equally ominous to each. That of the King was the following:
At hello audacis populi vexatus et armis,
Funera: nec, cum se sub leges pacis iniquæ
Yet let a race untamed, and haughty foes,
Non hæc, O Palla, dederas promissa parenti,
Et prædulce decus primo certamine posset.
Eneid xi. 152.
O Pallas, thou hast fail'd thy plighted word,
DRYDEN. Hoffman, in his Lexicon, gives a very satisfactory account of this practice of seeking fates in books; and says, that it was used by the Pagans, the Jewish Rabbins, and even the early Christians; the latter taking the New Testament for their oracle.-H.