Analysis of Abraham Cowley’s Poems

Abraham Cowley (1618—1667) is a transitional figure, a poet who tended to relinquish the emotional values of John Donne and George Herbert and grasp the edges of reason and wit.He was more versatile than the early Metaphysicals: He embraced the influence of Donne and Ben Jonson, relied on the Pindaric form that would take hold in the eighteenth century, conceived of an experimental biblical epic in English (Davideis) well in advance of John Milton’s major project, and demonstrated an open-mindedness that allowed him to write in support of Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, and the Royal Society. Cowley’s elegies on the deaths of William Hervey and Richard Crashaw are extremely frank poems of natural pain and loss, while at the same time the poet recognized the need for the human intellect to be aware of “Things Divine”—the dullness of the earthly as opposed to the reality of the heavenly.

Indeed, Cowley’s versatile imagination ranged far and wide, and he easily adapted diverse subjects to fit his own purposes. Unlike the poets of the Restoration and the early eighteenth century who followed him, he ignored various current fashions and concentrated on economy, unity, form, and imagination; he did not have to force the grotesque on his readers, nor did he have to inundate them with a pretense of art. Cowley was a master at what Bishop Thomas Sprat termed, in 1668, “harmonious artistry.” He turned his back on wild and affected extravagance and embraced propriety and measure; he applied wit to matter, combined philosophy with charity and religion. Even when writing amorous verse, he took inspiration both from the courtier and from the scholar—the passion of the one and the wisdom of the other.

Poeticall Blossomes

Cowley launched his career as a serious poet at the age of fifteen, while still a student at Westminster School, with the publication of Poeticall Blossomes. In fact, there is evidence that the volume had been prepared in some form at least two years earlier. At any rate, what appeared was a rather high level of poetic juvenilia, five pieces in which both sound and sense reflected an ability far beyond the poet’s youth. The first, “Pyramusand Thisbe,” 226 lines, does not differ too markedly from Ovid’s tale, although Cowley’s Venus seems overly malevolent and the (then) ten-year-old poet carried to extremes the desired but untasted joys of love. Otherwise, the piece evidences a sense of discipline and knowledge often reserved for the mature imagination, as young Cowley attempted to control his phrasing and his verse form. The second poem in the collection,“Constantia and Philetus,” may serve as a companion to “Pyramus and Thisbe,” al-though it is certainly no mere imitation. Cowley, now about twelve, again chose as his subject a tragic love story, keeping hold on Venus, Cupid, and other deities. However, he shifted his setting from ancient Rome to the suburban surroundings of an Italian villa,there to unfold a rather conventional poetic narrative: two lovers, a rival favored by the parents, a sympathetic brother, and a dead heroine. He adorned the entire scene with amorous conceits and characters yearning for the beauties of the country and the consolations of nature.

In addition to the larger pieces, Poeticall Blossomes contained an interesting trio of shorter efforts. In “A Dream of Elysium,” Cowley, seemingly engaged in an exercise in poetic self-education, parades before a sleeping poet a host of classical favorites: Hyacinth, Narcissus, Apollo, Ovid, Homer, Cato, Leander, Hero, Portia, Brutus, Pyramus, and Thisbe. The final two poems of the volume constitute the young writer’s first attempts at what would become, for him, an important form—the occasional poem. Both pieces are elegies: One mourns the death of a public official, Dudley, Lord Carleton and Viscount Dorchester, who attended Westminster School, served as secretary of state,and died in February, 1632; the other was occasioned by the death of Cowley’s cousin, Richard Clerke, a student at Lincoln’s Inn. Naturally, the two poems contain extravagant praises and lofty figures, no doubt reflecting what the boy had read in his favorite, Spenser, and had been taught by his masters. There are those who speculate that had Cowley died in adolescence, as Thomas Chatterton did in the next century, the verses of Poeticall Blossomes would have sustained at least a very small poetic reputation in a very obscure niche of literary history. Cowley, however, despite a number of purely political distractions during his adult life, managed to extend his poetic talents beyond childhood exercises, and it is to the products of his maturity that one must turn for the comprehension and appreciation of his art.

Lely, Peter, 1618-1680; Abraham Cowley (1618-1667), Poet and Diplomat


Perhaps Cowley’s most important contribution to poetry came in 1656 with the publication of his extensive collection, Poems, several additions to which he made during his lifetime. Of more than passing interest is the preface to this volume, wherein Cowley attempts, by reference to his own personal situation, to explain the relationship between the poet and his environment. In 1656, he had little desire to write poetry, mainly because of the political instability of the moment, his own health, and his mental state. He admitted that a warlike, unstable, and even tragic age may be the best for the poet to write about, but it may also be the worst time in which to write. Living as he did, a stranger under surveillance in his own homeland, he felt restricted in his artistic endeavors. “The soul,” he complained in the preface, “must be filled with bright and delightful ideas when it undertakes to communicate delight to others, which is the main end of poesy.” Thus, he had given serious thought to abandoning Puritan England for the obscurity of some plantation in the Americas, and the 1656 Poems was to be his legacy to a world for whose conflicts and confrontations he no longer had any concern.

The Poems contain four divisions: the Miscellanies, including the Anacreontiques; The Mistress, a collection of love poems; Pindarique Odes; and the Davideis, a heroic epic focusing on the problems of the Old Testament king. In subsequent editions, Cowley and his editors added “Verses on Various Occasions” and “Several Discourses by Way of Essays in Prose and Verse.” Cowley himself informed his readers that the Miscellanies constituted poems preserved from earlier folios (some even from his schooldays); unfortunately, he made no distinction between the poor efforts and those of quality. Thus, an immature ode, “Here’s to thee, Dick,” stands near the serious and moving elegy “On the Death of Mr. William Hervey,” in which he conveys both universal meaning and personal tragedy and loss. Cowley, however, rarely allowed himself to travel the route of the strictly personal; for him, poetry required support from learning,from scholastic comparisons that did not always rise to poetical levels. The fine valedictory “To the Lord Falkland,” which celebrates the friendship between two interesting but divergent personalities, is sprinkled with lofty scientific comparisons to display the order that reigns in the crowded mind of his hero. Indeed, there are moments in Cowley’s elegies when the reader wonders if the poet was more interested in praising the virtues of science and learning than in mourning the loss of friends. Such high distractions,however, do not weaken the intensity of Cowley’s sincerity.

The Mistress

The Mistress, originally published as a separate volume in 1647, comprises one hundred love poems, or, in Cowley’s own terms, feigned addresses to some fair creature of the fancy. Almost apologetically, the poet explains in the prefatory remarks that all writers of verse must at one time or another pay some service to Love, to prove themselves true to Love. Unfortunately, Cowley evidences difficulty in warming to the occasion,perhaps held back by the prevalent mood of Puritan strictness that then dominated the art. Thus, many of his physical and psychological images of Love come from traditions rather than from the heart: Love is an interchange of hearts, a flame, a worship, a river frozen by disdain. On the other hand, Cowley’s original, nontraditional images and similes are often wildly incongruous, even unintentionally comical, and lacking in true feeling.

Tears are made by smoke but not by flame; the lover’s heart bursts on its object “Like a grenado shot into a magazine”; a love story cut into bark burns and withers the tree; a young lady’s beauty changes from civil government to tyranny. Certainly,The Mistress reveals that Cowley could employ an obvious degree of playfulness in verse; he could counterfeit, with ease and ingenuity, a series of love adventures; he could sustain some semblance of unity in a seeming hodgepodge of romantic episodes; he could amuse his readers. For those of his age who took their love poetry seriously, however—for those who expected grace, warmth, tenderness, even truth—The Mistress must have been rather disappointing.

Pindarique Odes

There is some confusion concerning the form of the Pindarique Odes. Cowley may have wanted readers to believe that he was writing the true Pindaric ode: strophe, anti-strophe (alike in form), and epode (different in form from the first two divisions), with varying meter and verse lengths within a strophe, but nevertheless regular metrical schemes established for corresponding divisions. Actually, he created a new form, an irregular ode: He discarded the usual stanza patterns, varied the length of lines and the number of lines within the strophes, and varied the meter with shifts in emotional intensity. He obviously knew what he was doing and probably chose the title for the section to disguise a questionable innovation. In fact, he doubted (in the preface) whether the form would be understood by most of his readers, even those acquainted with the principles of poetry. Nevertheless, he employed sudden and lengthy digressions, “unusual and bold” figures, and various and irregular numbers. Cowley’s purpose throughout was to achieve a sense of harmony between what he viewed as the liberty of the ode and the moral liberty of life, the latter combining responsibility and freedom. Through moral liberty, he hoped to find simplicity, retirement, and charm; the liberty of the ode,he thought, might allow for a greater participation in intellectual exercise.

In practice, the ode allowed Cowley the opportunity to subject his readers to a host of what he had termed “bold figures,” images that would have occurred to no one other than he. Thus, on one occasion he asks his Muse to “rein her Pindaric Pegasus closely in,” since the beast is “an unruly and a hardmouthed horse.” At another time, the Muse appears in her chariot, with Eloquence, Wit, Memory, and Invention running by her side. Suddenly, Cowley stops the action to compare the Muse with the Creator and with the two worlds that they have created. Such comparisons, with their accompanying“bold” images, allowed the poet to display his learning, to set down explanatory notes of definition, explication, and interpretation—whether his readers needed them or not. As long as he could serve as his own explicator, there seemed no limit to his invention. Generally, though, Cowley’s odes fall short of their intentions as complete pieces of poetry.The digressions—the instruments of the poet’s new-found intellectual freedom—may strike and impress the reader momentarily, but they also distract and divert the attention from the main idea of the poem.

Not all of Cowley’s odes fall short of the mark. He succeeded when his subject interested him enough to say something substantive about it. In both “To Mr. Hobbes” and“Brutus” he followed the serious thinkers of his time. The first poem finds him looking beyond the transitory troubles of the moment to a new day. The second allows him to observe Oliver Cromwell, the Caesar of his time and, like the conscientious Royalist of the period, seek contemplation rather than action. He looks to history and philosophy to explain the evils of tyranny and to find parallels with other evils that eventually gave way to good. In the ode to Hobbes, Cowley finds solace in the fact that all ideas and concepts of permanent value must remain young and fresh forever. In the ode to Brutus, the poet discovers that odd events, evil men, and wretched actions are not themselves sufficient to destroy or even obscure virtue. Again, the particular circumstances of the moment and his deep personal disappointment gave Cowley the conviction to express what he actually felt.


It is tempting to dismiss Davideis as another example of Cowley’s juvenilia. Of the twelve books planned, only four were finished, and those were written while Cowley was still at Cambridge. By 1656, and perhaps even before, Cowley had lost his taste for the epic and determined not to finish it. If anything can be salvaged from Davideis it maybe found in the preface, where the poet makes an eloquent plea for sacred poetry. Cowley complains that for too long wit and eloquence have been wasted on the beggarly flattery of important persons, idolizing of foolish women, and senseless fables. The time has come, he announces, to recover poetry from the devil and restore it to the kingdom of God, to rescue it from the impure waters of Damascus and baptize it in the Jordan.

Unfortunately, the epic that follows never rises to the elegance or merit of the prefatory prose. The poem simply sinks from its own weight. Cowley’s Hell, for example, is a labyrinth of cosmic elements: caverns that breed rare metals; nests of infant, weeping winds; a complex court of mother waters. The journey there is indeed long and laborious, and the relationship between all those cosmic details (gold, winds, voices, tides,and tidelessness) and Hell is never made clear. Cowley himself acknowledged the immaturity and weakness of the epic, but he also saw it as an adumbration of the poetic potential of biblical history. Eleven years after the publication of Davideis in the collected Poems, John Milton published Paradise Lost (1667, 1674).

Hymn to Light

Cowley added to the collected editions of his poems as they were issued between 1656 and his death in 1667. As with the contents of the first edition, the pieces vary in quality. In “Hymn to Light,” the poet manages to achieve a proper balance between hislearning and his imagination. The reader senses that Cowley has actually observed the“winged arrows” shooting from the “golden quiver of the sky,” the result of a long succession of fresh and bright dawns rising in the English countryside. Those very dawns seem to have frightened “sleep, the lazy owl of night,” turning the face of “cloudy care”into a “gentle, beamy smile.” During those blessed years of retirement, away from the unnatural complications and intrigues of the political world, Cowley turned more and more toward the beauty of nature as a source of pleasure. Although in “Hymn to Light” he labels light an offspring of chaos, its very beams embrace and enhance the charms and beauty of the world, while at the same time tempting the selfish and inconsiderate by shining on valuable elements. Toward the end of the poem, he conceives of light as a“clear river” that pours forth its radiance from the vast ocean of the sky; it collects in pools and lakes when its course is opposed by some firm body—the earth, for example.Such a conceit may appear overly abstract and abstruse, but it is perhaps the most extreme figure of the poem, demonstrating the degree to which the mature Cowley had advanced beyond his juvenile epic endeavors.

Ode to the Royal Society

There are critics who assert that with the “Ode to the Royal Society” (1667), Cowley rose to his highest level. That is debatable, but it is certainly his last important poem. The poem was written at the request of Cowley’s friend, the diarist John Evelyn, who asked for a tribute to the Royal Society to complement the official history being undertaken by Thomas Sprat, bishop of Rochester. The poem, published the same year as Sprat’s History of the Royal Society, focused not so much on the institution in question or even on science in general but on the evolution of philosophy, which Cowley placed into two chronological periods: before and after Francis Bacon. The poet dwells briefly on the constrictions of the early philosophies, which merely wandered among the labyrinths of endless discourse, with little or no positive effect on humankind. Then follows an impassioned attack on pure authority, which arrived at erroneous scientific and intellectual conclusions and stubbornly clung to them.

Cowley compares Francis Bacon—who, with his Advancement of Learning (1605), Novum Organum (1620), and De Augmentis Scientiarum (1623), had initiated a new age of philosophy—to Moses; men of intellect were led out of the barren wasteland of the past to the very borders of exalted wit. Only Bacon, maintains Cowley, was willing to act and capable of routing the ghostlike body of authority that had for so long misled people with its dead thoughts. The philosophers of the past were but mechanics, copiers of others’ work; Bacon summoned the mind away from words, the mere pictures of thoughts, and redirected it toward objects, the proper focus of the mind. Thus, the poet paid tribute to the philosopher as the proper predecessor of the Royal Society; his investigations paved the way for the significant accomplishments of that institution. The immediate success of the poem may have been due in part to Cowley’s personal ties with the Royal Society—particularly as a friend of both Sprat and Evelyn and as the author of A Proposition for the Advancement of Experimental Philosophy. Those critics who have praised the piece for its pure poetic merit, however, have rightly identified it as theculmination of Cowley’s contributions to the English ode.


Beginning with Joseph Addison’s negative criticism (The Spectator 62, May, 1711) and extending through the critique in Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets, Cowley’sreputation has endured the accusations of mixed wit and strained metaphysical conceits.Obviously, Addison and Johnson, even though they represent opposite chronological poles of the eighteenth century, were still too close to their subject to assess him objectively and to recognize him as a transitional figure. Cowley lived during the end of one intellectual age and the beginning of another. He belonged alongside John Donne, Richard Crashaw, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, Thomas Traherne, and Andrew Marvell; he owed equal allegiance to the writers of the early Restoration, to such classicists as John Denham and Edmund Waller. Thus, his poetry reflects the traditions of one period and the freshness of another, the extravagances of youth and the freedom to combine ingenuity with reason and learning. Cowley also had the distinct advantage of apoint of view resulting from the mastery of several positive sciences and of practically all the literature of Europe. Knowledge, reflection, control, clear judgment: These he carried with him from the Puritan Revolution into the Restoration and then to his own retirement. He belonged to an age principally of learning and of prose; he wrote poetry with the sustained rhetorical and emotional force that often results in greatness.Unfortunately, his meteor merely approached greatness, flaring only for a brief moment on the literary horizon.

Major Works
Plays:  Loves Riddle, pb. 1638; Naufragium Joculare, pr., pb. 1638; The Guardian, pr. 1641 (revised as Cutter of Coleman Street, pb. 1663).
Nonfiction: A Proposition for the Advancement of Experimental Philosophy,1661; A Vision, Concerning His Late Pretended Highnesse, Cromwell the Wicked, 1661; Several Discourses by Way of Essays in Prose and Verse, 1668.
Miscellaneous: The Works of Mr. Abraham Cowley, 1668, 1681, 1689.

Dykstal, Timothy. “The Epic Reticence of Abraham Cowley.” Studies in English Literature 31, no. 1 (Winter, 1991): 95.
Hinman, Robert B. Abraham Cowley’s World of Order. Cambridge, Mass.:  Harvard University Press, 1960.
Nethercot, Arthur H.Abraham Cowley:  The Muse’s Hannibal. 1931. Reprint. New York:  Russell & Russell, 1967.
Pebworth, TedLarry. “Cowley’s Davideis and the Exaltation of Friendship.” In The David Myth in Western Literature, edited by Raymond Jean Frontain and Jan Wojcik. West Lafayette, Ind.:  Purdue University Press, 1980.
Revard, Stella P. “Cowley’s Pindarique Odes and the Politics of the Inter Regnum.”Criticism 35, no. 3 (Summer, 1993):  391.
Taaffe, James G.Abraham Cowley. New York:  Twayne, 1972.
Trotter, David.The Poetry of Abraham Cowley. Totowa, N.J.:  Rowman & Littlefield,1979.
Walton, Geoffrey. “Abraham Cowley.” InFrom Donne to Marvell. Vol. 3 inA Guide to English Literature, edited by Boris Ford. London:  Cassell, 1956.
Welch, Anthony. “Epic Romance, Royalist Retreat, and the English Civil War.”Modern Philology105, no. 3 (February, 2008):  570.
Williamson, George.Six Metaphysical Poets:  A Reader’s Guide. New York:  Farrar,Straus and Giroux, 1967.

Categories: History of English Literature, Literature

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