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ABRAHAM COWLEY

1618-1667

Is it the fault of our age, or of Cowley's, of himself, or nobody's, that the ordinary reader has no longer eyes for the merits of a writer accounted in his own time 'incomparable ', 'most incomparable ', ' Prince of Poets'? When first I really studied him in early middle life, I came to the conclusion that he had greatness in him. On an independent review now of my past judgement, I find little or nothing to recall, though something perhaps to add.

Sweetness stands high among the qualities of genuine poetry; and Cowley can be sweet. Sweetness in him is not of springtide, as Chaucer's, of whom ', Dryden reports, ' he had no taste ’. It is autumnal, measured, and lingering; a fragrance, as from stately, ancient gardens. That is my feeling as I read the lovely fifth and sixth stanzas of the elegy on William Hervey :

Say, for you saw us, ye immortal lights,
How oft unweary'd have we spent the nights,
Till the Ledaean stars, so fam'd for Jove,

Wonder'd at us from above !
We spent them not in toys, in lusts, or wine ;

But search of deep Philosophy,

Wit, Eloquence, and Poetry,
Arts which I lov’d, for they, my friend, were thine.
Ye fields of Cambridge, our dear Cambridge, say
Have ye not seen us walking every day?
Was there a tree about which did not know

The love betwixt us two ?

Henceforth, ye gentle trees, for ever fade ;

Or you sad branches thicker join,

And into darksome shades combine,

Dark as the grave wherein my friend is laid ! 1 The lines can compare in tenderness with Lycidas, or with The Scholar Gipsy. But thoughtfulness, rising, deepening, to sublimity, was his forte; as in his rebuke of the scoffers at the infant Royal Society ;

The things which these proud men despise, and call

Impertinent, and vain, and small,
Those smallest things of nature let me know,
Rather than all their greatest actions do !
Whoever would deposèd Truth advance

Into the throne usurp'd from it,
Must feel at first the blows of Ignorance,

And the sharp points of envious Wit.
So, when, by various turns of the celestial dance,

In many thousand years

A star, so long unknown, appears,
Though heaven itself more beauteous by it grow,
It troubles and alarms the world below;

Does to the wise a star, to fools a meteor, show. The same qualities mark his congratulations to Hobbes on his Leviathan :

I little thought before
That all the wardrobe of rich Eloquence

Could have afforded half enough

Of bright, of new, and lasting stuff

To cloathe the mighty limbs of thy gigantic sense ; 3 his elegy on Crashaw, Poet and Saint, whom he had saved from something like starvation to be wafted by Angels to Loretto, like its black Virgin :

'Tis surer much they brought thee there ; and they

And thou, their charge, went singing all the way ; and the eulogium, in the Ode to the Royal Society, of Bacon, chosen by his King, and by Nature,

Lord Chancellor of both their laws ; who, in Science,

Like Moses, led us forth at last ;
The barren wilderness he past ;
Did on the very border stand

Of the blest, promis'd land;
And from the mountain's top of his exalted wit,

Saw it himself, and shew'd us it.5 Grand conceptions these, yet hardly so overflowing, teeming, as that of the noble Hymn to Light :

Thou, Scythian-like, dost round thy lands above

The sun's gilt tents for ever move,

And still, as thou in pomp dost go,
The shining pageants of the world attend thy show;
Nor amidst all these triumphs dost thou scorn

The humble glow-worms to adorn,

And with those living spangles gild—
O greatness without pride !—the bushes of the field ;
When, Goddess ! thou lift’st up thy waken'd head,

Out of the morning's purple bed,

Thy quire of birds about thee play,
And all the joyful world salutes the rising day.
All the world's bravery that delights our eyes,

Is but thy several liveries.

Thou the rich dye on them bestow'st,
Thy nimble pencil paints this landscape as thou go'st.
A crimson garment in the rose thou wear'st;

A crown of studded gold thou bear'st ;

The virgin lilies in their white
Are clad but with the lawn of almost naked light.
The violet, Spring's little infant, stands

Girt in thy purple swaddling bands;

On the fair tulip thou dost doat; Thou cloath'st it in a gay and party-colour'd coat.6 Again, to measure the force, the compass of his fancy, savour his scorn of the abuse of the term Life :

Life's a name
That nothing here can truly claim ;
This wretched inn, where we scarce stay to bait,

We call our dwelling-place !
And mighty voyages we take,

And mighty journeys seem to make,
O’er sea and land, the little point that has no space.

Because we fight and battles gain,
Some captives call, and say, 'the rest are slain ’;
Because we heap up yellow earth, and so
Rich, valiant, wise, and virtuous seem to grow;
Because we draw a long nobility
From hieroglyphic proofs of heraldry,
And impudently talk of a posterity-
We grow at last by Custom to believe,

That really we Live ;
Whilst all these Shadows, that for Things we take,

Are but the empty Dreams which in Death's sleep we make.? Yet again-how we feel the breeze tossing his proud fancy round the globe, as he sits and drinks in the Chair constructed of timber from Drake's ship !

Cheer up, my mates, the wind does fairly blow;

Clap on more sail, and never spare ;
Farewell all lande, for now we are

In the wide sea of drink, and merrily we go.
Bless me, 'tis hot! another bowl of wine,

And we shall cut the burning Line :
Hey, boys ! she scuds away, and by my head I know

We round the world are sailing now.
What dull men are those that tarry at home,
When abroad they might wantonly roam,

And gain such experience, and spy too

Such countries and wonders, as I do!
But pr’ythee, good pilot, take heed what you do,

And fail not to touch at Peru !
With gold there the vessel we'll store,
And never, and never be poor,
No, never be poor any more.

He wakes from his dream, to find the last timber of the gallant ship a dry motionless log, but consoles himself and it nobly :

Great relick! thou too, in this port of ease,
Hast still one way of making voyages ;
The breath of Fame, like an auspicious gale,

The great trade-wind which ne'er does fail,
Shall drive thee round the world, and thou shalt run,

As long around it as the sun.
The streights of Time too narrow are for thee;
Launch forth into an undiscover'd sea,
And steer the endless course of vast Eternity !

Take for thy sail this verse, and for thy pilot, me ! 8
His subtlety was only too eager, as Cowper laments :

splendid wit Entangled in the cobwebs of the schools. But, much as he was addicted to high, bewildering speculation, curiosity as to his own powers impelled him to play with them all. He tried them upon every sort of subject. His fancy he held as if in a leash. He could let it slip upon any theme, with a fair certainty that it would run it down. Being a Cavalier, and a Courtier, as well as by profession a Poet, he esteemed it a duty to sing of Love. He discoursed of it under many aspects, and with an extraordinary ingenuity. Few prettier sketches have been drawn of natural womanly fascinations than in the opening stanza of The Change :

Love in her sunny eyes does basking play ;
Love walks the pleasant mazes of her hair ;
Love doth on both her lips for ever stray,

And sows and reaps a thousand kisses there. 9
Seldom has a compliment been more delicately insinuated
than when he deprecates embellishment by a Waiting-
Maid's appliances :

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