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LIVES OF THE ENGLISH POETS.
HE 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 panegyric.
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 parishgance, of a particular provision made by Nature 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.
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.
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 Cowley was fifteen years old. Dr. Johnson, as well as former biographers, seems to have been misled by the portrait of Cowley being by mistake marked with the age of thirteen years.-R. A
cal compositions, "The tragical History of Pyramus and Thisbe," written when he was ten years old; and "Constantia and Philetus," written two years after.
elegance of his conversation, that he gained the kindness and confidence of those who attended the King, and amongst others of Lord Falkland, whose notice cast a lustre on all to whom it was extended.
About the time when Oxford was surrender
While he was yet at school he produced a comedy called "Love's Riddle," though it was not published till he had been sometime ated to the parliament, he followed the Queen to 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.
Two years after his settlement at Cambridge he published" Love's Riddle," with a poetical dedication to Sir Kenelm Digby; of whose acquaintance 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.
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.
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; and so distinguished himself by the warmth of his loyalty and the
Paris, where he became secretary to the Lord Jermyn, afterwards Earl of St. Alban's, and was employed in such correspondence as the royal cause required, and particularly in cyphering and decyphering the letters that passed between the King and Queen; an employment of the highest confidence and honour. So wide was his province of intelligence, that, for several years, it filled all his days and two or three nights in the week.
In the year 1647, his "Mistress" was published; for he imagined, as he declared in his preface to a subsequent edition, that "poets are scarcely thought freemen of their company without paying some duties, or obliging themselves to be true to Love."
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, 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
*He was a candidate this year at Westminster squander it in voluntary dreams of fictitious o School for election to Trinity College, but proved uns successful.-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.
currences. The man that sits down to suppose himself charged with treason peculation, and heats 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.
At Paris, as secretary to Lord Jermyn, he was engaged in transacting things of real importance with real men and real women, and at that time did not much employ his thoughts 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.
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 net with passages equally ominous to each. That of the King was the following:
At bello audacis populi vexatus et armis, Finibus extorris, complexu avulsus Iuli, Auxilium imploret, videatque indigna suorum
Some years afterwards, "business," says Sprat," 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 another man; and, being examined, was put into confinement, from which he was not dismissed without the security of a thousand pounds given by Dr. Scarborough.
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
Funera: nec, cum se sub leges pacis iniquæ
Yet let a race untamed, and haughty foes,
Non hæc, O Pålla, dederas promissa parenți,
Et prædulce decus primo certamine posset.
Eneid xi. 152.
O Pallas, thou hast fail'd thy plighted word, To fight with caution, not to tempt the sword; I warn'd thee, but in vain, for well I knew What perils youthful ardour would pursue; That boiling blood would carry thee too far, Young as thou wert to dangers, raw to war. O curs'd essay of arms, disastrous doom, Prelude of bloody fields and fights to come! Hard elements of unauspicious war, Vain vows to Heaven, and unavailing care!
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.
From the obloquy which the appearance of submission to the usurpers brought upon him, his biographer has been very diligent to clear him; and indeed it does not seem to have lessened his reputation. His wish for retirement we can easily believe to be undissembled; a man harassed in one kingdom, and persecuted in another, who, after a course of business that employed all his days and half his nights, in cyphering and decyphering, comes to his own country, and steps into a prison, will be willing enough to retire to some place of quiet and of safety. Yet let neither our reverence for a genius, nor our pity for a sufferer, dispose us to forget that, if his activity was virtue, his retreat was cowardice.
He then took upon himself the character of physician, still, according to Sprat, with intention" to dissemble the main design of his coming over ;" and, as Mr. Wood relates, "complying with the men then in power (which was much taken notice of by the royal party,) he obtained an order to be created doctor of physic; which being done to his mind (whereby he gained the ill-will of some of his friends) he went into France again, having made a copy of verses on Oliver's death."
This is no favourable representation, yet even in this not much wrong can be discovered. How far he complied with the men in power, is to be inquired before he can be blamed. It is not said that he told them any secrets, or assisted them by intelligence or any other act. If he only promised to be quiet, that they in whose hands he was, might free him from confinement, he did what no law of society prohibits.
The man whose miscarriage in a just cause has put him in the power of his enemy may, without any violation of his integrity, regain his liberty, or preserve his life, by a promise of neutrality: for, the stipulation gives the enemy nothing which he had not before; the neutrality of a captive may be always secured by his imprisonment or death. He that is at the disposal of another may not promise to aid him in any injurious act, because no power can compel active obedience. He may engage to do nothing, but not to do ill.
There is reason to think that Cowley promised little. It does not appear that his compliance gained him confidence enough to be trusted without security, for the bond of his bail was never cancelled: nor that it made him think himself *secure; for at that dissolution of government which followed the death of Oliver, he returned into France, where he resumed his former station, and staid till the Restoration.
these bonds till the general deliverance;" it is therefore to be supposed, that he did not go to France, and act again for the King, without the consent of his bondsman; that he did not show his loyalty at the hazard of his friend, but by his friend's permission.
Of the verses on Oliver's death, in which Wood's narrative seems to imply something encomiastic, there has been no appearance. There is a discourse concerning his government, indeed, with verses intermixed, but such as certainly gained its author no friends among the abettors of usurpation.
A doctor of physic however he was made at Oxford in December, 1657; and in the commencement of the Royal Society, of which an account has been given by Dr. Birch, he appears busy among the experimental philosophers with the title of Dr. Cowley.
There is no reason for supposing that he ever attempted practice; but his preparatory studies have contributed something to the honour of his country. Considering botany as necessary to a physician, he retired into Kent to gather plants; and as the predominance of a favourite study affects all subordinate operations of the intellect, botany in the mind of Cowley turned into poetry. He composed in Latin several books on plants, of which the first and second display the qualities of herbs, in elegiac verse; the third and fourth, the beauties of flowers in various measures; and the fifth and sixth, the uses of trees, in heroic numbers.
At the same time were produced, from the same university, the two great poets, Cowley and Milton, of dissimilar genius, of opposite principles; but concurring in the cultivation of Latin poetry, in which the English, till their works and May's poem appeared,* seemed unable to contest the palm with any other of the lettered nations.
If the Latin performances of Cowley and Milton be compared (for May I hold to be superior to both,) the advantage seems to lie on the side of Cowley. Milton is generally content to express the thoughts of the ancients in their language; Cowley, without much loss of purity or elegance, accommodates the diction of Rome to his own conceptions.
At the Restoration, after all the diligence of his long service, and with consciousness not only of the merit of fidelity, but of the dignity of great abilities, he naturally expected ample preferments; and, that he might not be forgotten by his own fault, wrote a Song of Triumph. But this was a time of such general hope, that
By May's poem we are here to understand a continuation of Lucan's Pharsalia to the death of Julius Cæsar, by Thomas May, an eminent poet and historian, who flourished in the reigns of James and Charles I. and of whom a life is given in the Bio
"He continued," says his biographer, "under graphia Britannica.-H.
The neglect of the court was not his only mortification; having, by such alteration as thought proper, fitted his old comedy of " The Guardian" for the stage, he produced it* under the title of "The Cutter of Coleman street."+ It was treated on the stage with great severity, and was afterward censured as a satire on the King's party. des
His vehement desire of retirement now came ri again upon him." Not finding,” says the mos preferment conferred upon rose Wood, that p him which he expected, while others for their o Mr. Dryden, who went with Mr. Sprat to money carried away most places, he retired disco the first exhibition, related to Mr. Dennis, contented into Surry." 908 of 91der of devons "That, when they told Cowley "He was now," says the courtly Sprat, how little favour had been shown him, he received the "wetry of the vexations and formalities of an news of his ill-success, not with so much firm-active condition. He had been perplexed with ness as might have been expected from so great a long compliance to foreign manners. He was Desatiated with the arts of a court; which sort of
a man. God sár az zmídia de beh
6 What firmness they expected, or what weak-
For the rejection splay it is difficult now to find the reason; it certainly has, in a very great degree, the of and the power fixing attention and exciting merriment. From the charge of disaffection he pates himself in his preface, by observing how having ving followed the royal family through all their disunlikely tresses, "he should choose the time of their restoration to begin a quarrel with them." It appears, from the Theatrical Register however, ve been popularly
life, though his virtue made it innocent to him, the reasons that made him to follow the violent yet nothing could make it quiet. Those were inclination of his own mind, which, in the greatest throng of his former business, had still called upon him, band represented ota shim i the true delights of solitary studies, of temperate pleasures, and a moderate revenue below the malice and flatteries of fortune" oni tas
So differently are things seen! and so differently are they shown! but actions are visible, though motives are secrets Cowley certainly retired: "first to Barn-elms, and afterwards to Chertsey, in Surry. He seems, however, to have lost part of his dread of the hum of men. thought himself now safe enough from intrusion, without the defence of mountains and oceans; and, instead of seeking shelter, in onesies wisely went only so far from the bustle of life as that he might easily find his way back, when solitude should grow tedious. His retreat was at first but slenderly accommodated; yet he
of Downes, the prompter have be of your soon obtained, by the interest of the Earl of St.
considered as a satire on
seems to have
That he might shorten this tedious suspense, he published his pretensions ions and his discontent, in an ode called "The Complaint;"in which he styles fes himself melancholy Cowley. This net with the cited usual fortune of complaints, and more contempt than pity. unlucky incidents are brought, maliciously enough, together in some stanzas, written about that time, on the choice of a laureat; a mode of satire, by which, since it was first dgour to B006 & 90w lust no sin d *60* expond to 1119% Zew adt und
Alban's and the Duke of Buckingham, such a
ara enw find eut Chertsey, May 21, 1665. saat The first night that I came hither, I caught so great a cold with a defluxion of rheum, as made me keep my chamber ten days or And, two after, had such a bruise on my ribs with a