Reference > Cambridge History > Cavalier and Puritan > Writers of the Couplet > Abraham Cowley
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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

III. Writers of the Couplet.

§ 7. Abraham Cowley.


Abraham Cowley, whose genius Denham declared to be twin to that of Vergil, occupies a place somewhat outside the main channel of the poetry of his day. He was born in Fleet street in 1618. His essay Of My Self tells us what we know of his earliest years, and how the early reading of a copy of Spenser, which lay in his mother’s parlour, “filled” his “head first with such Chimes of Verse, as have never since left ringing there.” He was sent to Westminster school, and, in 1633, when only in his fifteenth year, published a small volume entitled Poeticall Blossomes, dedicated to bishop Williams, then dean of Westminster. In 1636 appeared Sylva, a collection of occasional verses and odes; and the composition of the pastoral comedy called Love’s Riddle also belongs to his Westminster days. His two earliest pieces to which a date can be assigned are the narratives, Pyramus and Thisbe and Constantia and Philetus, written, on his own showing, in 1628 and 1630. These are in stanzas of six decasyllabic lines: the stanza of Pyramus and Thisbe has two rimes, the third and fourth lines forming a couplet riming with the first line, and the concluding couplet riming with the second line; while that of Constantia and Philetus consists of a quatrain with alternate rimes, and a final couplet. Spenser’s successors, rather than Spenser himself, appear to have been Cowley’s model. The two songs in Constantia and Philetus, and the epitaph at the end of Pyramus and Thisbe, in which the metre is varied by changes from iambic to trochaic lines, and vice versa, show that his ear was naturally sensitive to prosody. His delight in Latin poetry, and particularly in Horace, appears in the odes contained in Sylva. Of the last three verses of The Vote, written when he was thirteen, he was justly not ashamed at a more mature time of life; and, indeed, he did not often excel their heartfelt, if not wholly original, prayer for a moderate estate and a life of quiet study. The opening verses, with their keen and even humorous observation of typical characters, are evidence that, if he sat at the feet of Spenser and the Latin poets, he also had caught the tricks of Donne; and the “two or three sharpe curses” which he flings, in A Poeticall Revenge, at the “semigentleman of th’ Innes of Court” who struck him in Westminster hall are a direct reminiscence of Donne in his satiric mood.   20
  In 1637, Cowley entered Trinity college, Cambridge, as a scholar. He obtained his fellowship in 1640: ejected in 1644, he sought refuge at St. John’s college, Oxford. In his first year at Cambridge, he wrote a Latin comedy, Naufragium Joculare; and, on 12 March, 1640/1, his English comedy, The Guardian, which he brought out in an entirely new form after the restoration as Cutter of Coleman-Street, was acted at Trinity before prince Charles. Amid the troubles of the civil war, he acted as secretary in France to the queen and court in their correspondence with Charles I. The discovery of his cipher led to the flight of Denham, already recounted. Cowley’s fervent loyalty brought him into a way of life which was little to his taste. For a time, in 1656, he acted as a royalist spy in England. After detection and a narrow escape, he sheltered himself under the profession of a physician, but returned to France before the restoration. Although his detractors cast doubt on his loyalty to his old cause, his Discourse by way of Vision concerning the Government of Oliver Cromwell was the work of one who was heartily relieved to see the end of the protectorate. After the restoration, he was refused the mastership of the Savoy, and Cutter of Coleman-Street was a failure on the stage. He found patrons in the earl of St. Albans and the duke of Buckingham, and retired on a fair income to Chertsey, where he died in 1667.   21

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