was an English
England is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It shares land borders with Scotland to the north and Wales to the west; the Irish Sea is to the north west, the Celtic Sea to the south west, with the North Sea to the east and the English Channel to the south separating it from continental...
A poet is a person who writes poetry. A poet's work can be literal, meaning that his work is derived from a specific event, or metaphorical, meaning that his work can take on many meanings and forms. Poets have existed since antiquity, in nearly all languages, and have produced works that vary...
born in the City of London
The City of London is a small area within Greater London, England. It is the historic core of London around which the modern conurbation grew and has held city status since time immemorial. The City’s boundaries have remained almost unchanged since the Middle Ages, and it is now only a tiny part of...
late in 1618. He was one of the leading English poets of the 17th century, with 14 printings of his Works
published between 1668 and 1721.
Early life and career
His father, a wealthy citizen, who died shortly before his birth, was a stationer. His mother was wholly given to works of devotion, but it happened that there lay in her parlour a copy of The Faerie Queene
The Faerie Queene is an incomplete English epic poem by Edmund Spenser. The first half was published in 1590, and a second installment was published in 1596. The Faerie Queene is notable for its form: it was the first work written in Spenserian stanza and is one of the longest poems in the English...
. This became the favourite reading of her son, and he had twice devoured it all before he was sent to school.
As early as 1628, that is, in his tenth year, he composed his Tragicall History of Piramus and Thisbe
, an epic romance written in a six-line stanza, a style of his own invention. It is not too much to say that this work is the most astonishing feat of imaginative precocity on record; it is marked by no great faults of immaturity, and possesses constructive merits of a very high order.
Two years later the child wrote another and still more ambitious poem, Constantia and Philetus
, being sent about the same time to Westminster School
The Royal College of St. Peter in Westminster, almost always known as Westminster School, is one of Britain's leading independent schools, with the highest Oxford and Cambridge acceptance rate of any secondary school or college in Britain...
. Here he displayed extraordinary mental precocity and versatility, and wrote in his thirteenth year the Elegy on the Death of Dudley, Lord Carlton
. These three poems of considerable size, and some smaller ones, were collected in 1633, and published in a volume entitled Poetical Blossoms
, dedicated to the head master of the school, and prefaced by many laudatory verses by schoolfellows.
The author at once became famous, although he had not, even yet, completed his fifteenth year. His next composition was a pastoral comedy, entitled Love's Riddle
, a marvelous production for a boy of sixteen, airy, correct and harmonious in language, and rapid in movement. The style is not without resemblance to that of Randolph
Thomas Randolph may refer to:* Thomas Randolph * Thomas Randolph , English poet and dramatist* Thomas Randolph , Virginia politician...
, whose earliest works, however, were at that time only just printed.
In 1637 Cowley was elected into Trinity College, Cambridge
Trinity College is a constituent college of the University of Cambridge. Trinity has more members than any other college in Cambridge or Oxford, with around 700 undergraduates, 430 graduates, and over 170 Fellows...
, where he betook himself with enthusiasm to the study of all kinds of learning, and early distinguished himself as a ripe scholar. It was about this time that he composed his scriptural epic on the history of King David, one book of which still exists in the Latin original, the rest being superseded in favour of an English version in four books, called the Davideis
, which were published after his death. The epic, written in a very dreary and turgid manner, but in good rhymed heroic verse, deals with the adventures of King David from his boyhood to the smiting of Amalek
The Amalekites are a people mentioned a number of times in the Hebrew Bible. They are considered to be descended from an ancestor Amalek....
According to the Bible, Saul was the first king of the united Kingdom of Israel. He was anointed by the prophet Samuel and reigned from Gibeah. He commited suicide to avoid arrest in the battle against the Philistines at Mount Gilboa, during which three of his sons were also killed...
, where it abruptly closes.
In 1638 Love's Riddle
and a Latin comedy, the Naufragium Joculare
, were printed, and in 1641 the passage of Prince Charles
Charles II was monarch of the three kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland.Charles II's father, King Charles I, was executed at Whitehall on 30 January 1649, at the climax of the English Civil War...
through Cambridge gave occasion to the production of another dramatic work, The Guardian
, which was acted before the royal visitor with much success. During the civil war this play was privately performed at Dublin
, but it was not printed till 1650. It is bright and amusing, in the style common to the "sons" of Ben Jonson
Benjamin Jonson was an English Renaissance dramatist, poet and actor. A contemporary of William Shakespeare, he is best known for his satirical plays, particularly Volpone, The Alchemist, and Bartholomew Fair, which are considered his best, and his lyric poems...
, the university wits who wrote more for the closet than the public stage.
Royalist in exile
The learned quiet of the young poet's life was broken up by the Civil War
The English Civil War was a series of armed conflicts and political machinations between Parliamentarians and Royalists...
; he warmly espoused the royalist side. He became a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, but was ejected by the Parliamentarians in 1643. He made his way to Oxford, where he enjoyed the friendship of Lord Falkland, and was tossed, in the tumult of affairs, into the personal confidence of the royal family itself
After the battle of Marston Moor
The Battle of Marston Moor was fought on 2 July 1644, during the First English Civil War of 1642–1646. The combined forces of the Scottish Covenanters under the Earl of Leven and the English Parliamentarians under Lord Fairfax and the Earl of Manchester defeated the Royalists commanded by Prince...
he followed the queen to Paris, and the exile so commenced lasted twelve years. This period was spent almost entirely in the royal service, "bearing a share in the distresses of the royal family, or labouring in their affairs. To this purpose he performed several dangerous journeys into Jersey
Jersey, officially the Bailiwick of Jersey is a British Crown Dependency off the coast of Normandy, France. As well as the island of Jersey itself, the bailiwick includes two groups of small islands that are no longer permanently inhabited, the Minquiers and Écréhous, and the Pierres de Lecq and...
Scotland is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. Occupying the northern third of the island of Great Britain, it shares a border with England to the south and is bounded by the North Sea to the east, the Atlantic Ocean to the north and west, and the North Channel and Irish Sea to the...
Flanders is the community of the Flemings but also one of the institutions in Belgium, and a geographical region located in parts of present-day Belgium, France and the Netherlands. "Flanders" can also refer to the northern part of Belgium that contains Brussels, Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp...
, the Netherlands
The Netherlands is a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, located mainly in North-West Europe and with several islands in the Caribbean. Mainland Netherlands borders the North Sea to the north and west, Belgium to the south, and Germany to the east, and shares maritime borders...
, or wherever else the king's troubles required his attendance. But the chief testimony of his fidelity was the laborious service he underwent in maintaining the constant correspondence between the late king and the queen his wife. In that weighty trust he behaved himself with indefatigable integrity and unsuspected secrecy; for he ciphered and deciphered with his own hand the greatest part of all the letters that passed between their majesties, and managed a vast intelligence in many other parts, which for some years together took up all his days, and two or three nights every week."
In spite of these labours he did not refrain from literary industry. During his exile he met with the works of Pindar
Pindar , was an Ancient Greek lyric poet. Of the canonical nine lyric poets of ancient Greece, his work is the best preserved. Quintilian described him as "by far the greatest of the nine lyric poets, in virtue of his inspired magnificence, the beauty of his thoughts and figures, the rich...
, and determined to reproduce their lofty lyric passion in English. It must be noted, however, that Cowley misunderstood Pindar's metrical practice and therefore his reproduction of the Pindaric Ode
Ode is a type of lyrical verse. A classic ode is structured in three major parts: the strophe, the antistrophe, and the epode. Different forms such as the homostrophic ode and the irregular ode also exist...
form in English does not accurately reflect Pindar's poetics. But despite this problem, Cowley's use of iambic lines of irregular length, pattern, and rhyme scheme was very influential and is still known as English "Pindarick" Ode
Pindarics , the name by which was known a class of loose and irregular odes greatly in fashion in England during the close of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th century...
, or Irregular Ode. One of the most famous odes written after Cowley in the Pindaric tradition is Wordsworth's "Intimations of Immortality
Intimations of Immortality, Op. 29, an ode for tenor, chorus, and orchestra, is one of the best-known works by English composer Gerald Finzi. It is a setting of nine of the eleven stanzas of William Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality", cast as a single continuous movement...
During this same time, Cowley occupied himself in writing a history of the Civil War (which did not get published in full until 1973). In the preface to his 1656 Poems
, Cowley mentioned that he had completed three books of an epic poem on the Civil War, but had left it unfinished after the First Battle of Newbury
The First Battle of Newbury was a battle of the First English Civil War that was fought on 20 September 1643 between a Royalist army, under the personal command of King Charles, and a Parliamentarian force led by the Earl of Essex...
when the Royalist cause began to lose significant ground. In the preface Cowley indicated that he had destroyed all copies of the poem, but this was not precisely the truth. In 1697, twelve years after Cowley's death, a shortened version of the first book of the poem, called A Poem on the Late Civil War
was published. It was assumed that the rest of the poem had indeed been destroyed or lost until the mid-20th century when scholar Allan Pritchard discovered the first of two extant manuscript copies of the whole poem among the Cowper family papers. Thus, the three completed books of Cowley's great (albeit unfinished) English epic, The Civill Warre
(otherwise spelled "The Civil War"), was finally published in full for the first time in 1973.
In 1647 a collection of his love verses, entitled The Mistress
, was published, and in the next year a volume of wretched satires, The Four Ages of England
, was brought out under his name, with the composition of which he had nothing to do.
In spite of the troubles of the times, so fatal to poetic fame, his reputation steadily increased, and when, on his return to England in 1656, he published a volume of his collected poetical works, he found himself without a rival in public esteem. This volume included the later works already mentioned, the Pindarique Odes
, the Davideis
, the Mistress
and some Miscellanies
. Among the latter are to be found Cowley's most vital pieces. This section of his works opens with the famous aspiration:
- "What shall I do to be for ever known,
- And make the coming age my own?"
It contains elegies on Wotton
Sir Henry Wotton was an English author and diplomat. He is often quoted as saying, "An ambassador is an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country." -Life:The son of Thomas Wotton , brother of Edward Wotton, 1st Baron Wotton, and grandnephew of the diplomat...
Sir Anthony van Dyck was a Flemish Baroque artist who became the leading court painter in England. He is most famous for his portraits of Charles I of England and his family and court, painted with a relaxed elegance that was to be the dominant influence on English portrait-painting for the next...
, Falkland, William Hervey and Crashaw
Richard Crashaw , English poet, styled "the divine," was part of the Seventeenth-century Metaphysical School of poets.-Life:...
, the last two being among Cowley's finest poems, brilliant, sonorous and original; the amusing ballad of The Chronicle
, giving a fictitious catalogue of his supposed amours; various gnomic
A gnomic aspect , sometimes called a neutral, generic or universal aspect or tense, is a grammatical aspect that expresses general truths or aphorisms—such as birds fly, sugar is sweet, a mother can always tell...
pieces; and some charming paraphrases from Anacreon. The Pindarique Odes
contain weighty Lines and passages, buried in irregular and inharmonious masses of moral verbiage. Not more than one or two are good throughout, but a full posy of beauties may easily be culled from them. The long cadences of the Alexandrine
An alexandrine is a line of poetic meter comprising 12 syllables. Alexandrines are common in the German literature of the Baroque period and in French poetry of the early modern and modern periods. Drama in English often used alexandrines before Marlowe and Shakespeare, by whom it was supplanted...
with which most of the strophes close, continued to echo in English poetry from Dryden
John Dryden was an influential English poet, literary critic, translator, and playwright who dominated the literary life of Restoration England to such a point that the period came to be known in literary circles as the Age of Dryden.Walter Scott called him "Glorious John." He was made Poet...
down to Gray
Thomas Gray was a poet, letter-writer, classical scholar and professor at Cambridge University.-Early life and education:...
, but the Odes
themselves, which were found to be obscure by the poet's contemporaries, immediately fell into disesteem.
was the most popular poetic reading of the age, and is now the least read of all Cowley's works. It was the last and most violent expression of the amatory affectation of the 17th century, an affectation which had been endurable in Donne
John Donne 31 March 1631), English poet, satirist, lawyer, and priest, is now considered the preeminent representative of the metaphysical poets. His works are notable for their strong and sensual style and include sonnets, love poetry, religious poems, Latin translations, epigrams, elegies, songs,...
and other early writers because it had been the vehicle of sincere emotion, but was unendurable in Cowley because in him it represented nothing but a perfunctory exercise, a mere exhibition of literary calisthenics. He appears to have been of a cold, or at least of a timid, disposition; in the face of these elaborately erotic volumes, we are told that to the end of his days he never summoned up courage to speak of love to a single woman in real life. The "Leonora" of The Chronicle
is said to have been the only woman he ever loved, and she married the brother of his biographer, Sprat.
Return to England
Soon after his return to England he was seized in mistake for another person, and only obtained his liberty on a bail of £1000. In 1658 he revised and altered his play of The Guardian
, and prepared it for the press under the title of The Cutter of Coleman Street
, but it did not appear until 1661. Late in 1658 Oliver Cromwell
Oliver Cromwell was an English military and political leader who overthrew the English monarchy and temporarily turned England into a republican Commonwealth, and served as Lord Protector of England, Scotland, and Ireland....
died, and Cowley took advantage of the confusion of affairs to escape to Paris, where he remained until the Restoration brought him back in Charles's train. He published in 1663 Verses upon several occasions
, in which The Complaint
Cowley obtained permission to retire into the country; and through his friend, Lord St Albans
Henry Jermyn, 1st Earl of Saint Albans KG was an English politician and courtier. He sat in the in the House of Commons at various times between 1625 and 1643 when he was raised to the peerage as Baron Jermyn...
, he obtained a property near Chertsey
Chertsey is a town in Surrey, England, on the River Thames and its tributary rivers such as the River Bourne. It can be accessed by road from junction 11 of the M25 London orbital motorway. It shares borders with Staines, Laleham, Shepperton, Addlestone, Woking, Thorpe and Egham...
, where, devoting himself to botany and books, he lived in comparative solitude until his death. He took a practical interest in experimental science, and he was one of those advocating the foundation of an academy
During the early part of the 17th century, and persisting in some form into the early 18th century, there were a number of proposals for an English Academy: some form of learned institution, conceived as having royal backing and a leading role in the intellectual life of the nation...
for the protection of scientific enterprise. Cowley's pamphlet on The Advancement of Experimental Philosophy
, 1661, immediately preceded the foundation of the Royal Society
The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, known simply as the Royal Society, is a learned society for science, and is possibly the oldest such society in existence. Founded in November 1660, it was granted a Royal Charter by King Charles II as the "Royal Society of London"...
; to which Cowley, in March 1667, at the suggestion of John Evelyn
John Evelyn was an English writer, gardener and diarist.Evelyn's diaries or Memoirs are largely contemporaneous with those of the other noted diarist of the time, Samuel Pepys, and cast considerable light on the art, culture and politics of the time John Evelyn (31 October 1620 – 27 February...
, addressed an ode
Ode is a type of lyrical verse. A classic ode is structured in three major parts: the strophe, the antistrophe, and the epode. Different forms such as the homostrophic ode and the irregular ode also exist...
. He died in the Porch House, in Chertsey, in consequence of having caught a cold while superintending his farm-labourers in the meadows late on a summer evening. On 3 August, Cowley was buried in Westminster Abbey
The Collegiate Church of St Peter at Westminster, popularly known as Westminster Abbey, is a large, mainly Gothic church, in the City of Westminster, London, United Kingdom, located just to the west of the Palace of Westminster. It is the traditional place of coronation and burial site for English,...
beside the ashes of Chaucer
Geoffrey Chaucer , known as the Father of English literature, is widely considered the greatest English poet of the Middle Ages and was the first poet to have been buried in Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey...
Edmund Spenser was an English poet best known for The Faerie Queene, an epic poem and fantastical allegory celebrating the Tudor dynasty and Elizabeth I. He is recognised as one of the premier craftsmen of Modern English verse in its infancy, and one of the greatest poets in the English...
, where in 1675 the duke of Buckingham
John Sheffield, 1st Duke of Buckingham and Normanby, KG, PC , was a poet and notable Tory politician of the late Stuart period, who served as Lord Privy Seal and Lord President of the Council.-Career:...
erected a monument to his memory. His Poemata Latina
, including six books "Plantarum," were printed in 1668. The poetry of Cowley rapidly fell into neglect.
The works of Cowley were collected in 1668, when Thomas Sprat
Thomas Sprat , English divine, was born at Beaminster, Dorset, and educated at Wadham College, Oxford, where he held a fellowship from 1657 to 1670.Having taken orders he became a prebendary of Lincoln Cathedral in 1660...
brought out an edition in folio, to which he prefixed a life of the poet. There were many reprints of this collection, which formed the standard edition till 1881, when it was superseded by Alexander Balloch Grosart
Alexander Balloch Grosart was a Scottish clergyman and literary editor. He is chiefly remembered for reprinting much rare Elizabethan literature, a work which he undertook because of his interest in Puritan theology.-Life:...
's privately printed edition in two volumes, for the Chertsey Worthies library. The Essays
have frequently been revived.
A Satire Against Separatists
, printed in 1675, has been variously attributed to Cowley and to Peter Hausted
Peter Hausted , Doctor of Divinity, was a "playwright, poet, preacher" in early 17th-century England. In his own time, he was notorious as a flamboyant preacher against Puritan and sectarian dissent in the Church of England, and was remembered for the riot that accompanied the 1632 debut of his...