« PreviousContinue »
THE Life of Cowley, notwithstanding the penury
1 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 shewn confused and enlarged through the mist of panegyrick.
ABRAHAM COWLEY was born in the year one thousand fix 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 supo pressed, the onillion of liis name in the register of St. Dunstan's parish gives reason to suspect that his father was a sectary. Whoever he was, lle died before the birth of bis son, and consequently left him to the care of his inother; whom Wood repre. Vol. IX.
sents fents 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 emi. nent, 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 Spencers' 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 remem
bered, 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 fond. ness 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 66 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
fome 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.
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 poetical compositions, “ The tragical şi 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 Cainbridge This comedy is of the pastoral kind, which requires no acquaintance with the living world, and therefore
* This volume was not published before 1633, when Cowley was fifteen years old. Dr. Johnson, as well as former Biogra. phers, seems to have been mitled by the portrait of Cowley being by mistake marked with the age of thirteen years. R. B 2
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 ftudent, 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 prole. 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 neg. lected..
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 “ Guar" dian,” 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
* He was a candidate this year at Westminster-school for election to Trinity-college, but proved unsuccessful. N.