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Birth and Parentage - Genius - Educated at Westminster and Cam
bridge — His learned Puerilities -- His Mistress '-- His Compliance with the Times — His Latin Poetry - His Davideis'- His Love of Solitude — Death and Burial in Westminster Abbey — The Metaphysical Poets — Pindarism – Works and Character.
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 anything is distinctly known, but all is shown confused and enlarged through the mist of panegyric.
Abraham Cowley was born in the year 1618. 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
In 1668 in Latin, before a collection of Cowley's Latin Poems, afterwards in English, and enlarged before his English Works, 1669, folio.
? Johnson's account of Cowley's parentage is entirely erroneous. It is, however, still the received account, and is derived principally from Aubrey. Abraham Cowley was the posthumous son of Thomas Cowley, citizen and stationer, and of the parish of St. Michael at Querne, a church in Cheapside, destroyed in the Great Fire, and not rebuilt. His father died in August, 1618, and by will, dated 24th July in that year, left 1401. apiece to his six children, Peter, Andrew, John, William, Katherine, and Thomas, " and the child or children which my wife now goeth withal.” He leaves his wife his full and
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.
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.3
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 anything 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.
sole executrix. Those who remember Cowley's exquisite · Chronicle' will be glad to learn that his mother's Christian name was “ Thomasine," and that of his only sister “Katherine.”
3 After his oracle Dr. Johnson, my friend Sir Joshua Reynolds denies all original genius, any one natural propensity of the mind to one art or science rather than another. Without engaging in a metaphysical or rather verbal dispute, I know by experience that from my early youth I aspired to the character of an historian,--GIBBON; Autobiography, ed. Milman, p. 154.
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 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, “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 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.
• When I was a very young boy at school, instead of running about on holidays and playing with my fellows, I was wont to steal from them and walk into the fields, either alone with a book, or with some one companion, if I could find any of the same temper. I was then, too, so much an enemy to all constraint, that my masters could never prevail on me to learn without book the common rules of grammar, in which they dispensed with me alone, because they found I made a shift to do the usual exercise out of my own reading and observation.-COWLEY: “ Of Myself,' Essay xi.
s Printed 1633, in his fifteenth year. Dedicated to Williams, Bishop of Lincoln and Dean of Westminster. Johnson was misled by Sprat and by the portrait of Cowley at the age of 13, prefixed to the volume entitled Poetical Blossomes by A. C. London, 1633, small 4to. pp. 61. In the portrait he is represented as about to be crowned with laurel.
6 Preface to Poetical Blossomes, small 4to., 1633.
7 Love's Riddle, a Pastorall Comedie, written at the time of his being King's scholler in Westminster Schoole, by A. Cowley. London, 12mo., 1638.
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 contemporaries seem to have been ambitious, and “Naufragium Joculare,' 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.
At the beginning of the civil war, as the Prince 10 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 sometimes 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 the Papist,' which was only inserted in the last collection of his works, 12 and so
8 He was a candidate this year at Westminster School for election to Trinity College, but proved unsuccessful.
9 I have often heard you (Martin Clifford) declare that he had finished the greatest part of it (the Davideis] while he was yet a young student at Cambridge.-SPRAT: Life of Couley.
10 Afterwards Charles II. 11 It was printed in 4to., 1650, and without his consent or even knowledge.
12 The Puritan and the Papist was added to Cowley's Works in the collection which bears Dr. Johnson's name,