Representative Poetry Online
  Poet Index   Poem Index   Random   Search  
  Introduction   Timeline   Calendar   Glossary   Criticism   Bibliography  
  RPO   Canadian Poetry   UTEL  
by Name
by Date
by Title
by First Line
by Last Line
Poet
Poem
Short poem
Keyword
Concordance

Thomas Sprat (1635-1713)

An Account of the Life and Writings of Mr. Abraham Cowley (1668)

SIR,

¶1 MR. Cowley in his Will recommended to my care the revising of all his Works that were formerly printed, and the collecting of those Papers which he had design'd for the Press. And he did it with this particular Obliga tion, That I should be sure to let nothing pass that might seem the least offence to Religion or good Manners. A caution which you will judge to have been altogether needless. For certainly, in all Ancient or Modern Times, there can scarce any Authour be found, that has handled so many different Matters in such various sorts of Style, who less wants the correction of his Friends, or has less reason to fear the severity of Strangers.

¶2 According to his desire and his own intention, I have now set forth his Latin and English Writings, each in a Volume apart; and to that which was before extant in both Languages, I have added all that I could find in his Closet, which he had brought to any manner of perfection. I have thus, Sir, performed the Will of the Dead. But I doubt I shall not satisfie the expectation of the Living, unless some Account be here premis'd concerning this excellent Man. I know very well that he has given the World the best Image of his own mind in these immortal Monuments of his Wit. Yet there is still room enough left for one of his familiar acquaintance to say many things of his Poems, and chiefly of his life, that may serve for the information of his Readers, if not for the encrease of his Fame, which, without any such helps, is already sufficiently establish'd.

¶3 This, Sir, were an argument most proper for you to manage, in respect of your great abilities, and the long friendship you maintain'd with him. But you have an obstinate aversion from publishing any of your Writings. I guess what pretence you have for it, and that you are confirm'd in this resolution by the prodigious multitude and imperfections of us Writers of this Age. I will not now dispute whether you are in the right, though I am confident you would contribute more to our reformation by your example than reproofs. But, however, seeing you persist in your purpose, and have refus'd to adorn even this very subject which you love so well, I beg your assistance while I my self undertake it. This I do with the greater willingness, because I believe there is no man who speaks of |Mr.| Cowley that can want either matter or words. I only therefore intreat you to give me leave to make you a party in this Relation, by using your Name and Testimony. For by this means, though the memory of our Friend shall not he delivered to posterity with the advantage of your Wit, which were most to be desir'd, yet his praise will be strengthen'd by the consent of your judgment and the authority of your approbation.

¶4 |MR.| A. Cowley was born in the City of London, in the Year One thousand six hundred and eighteen. His Parents were Citizens of a virtuous life and sufficient Estate, and so the condition of his Fortune was equal to the temper of his mind, which was always content with moder ate things. The first years of his youth were spent in Westminster School, where he soon obtain'd and increas'd the noble Genius peculiar to that place. The occasion of his first inclination to Poetry was his casual lighting on Spencer's Fairy Queen, when he was but just able to read. That indeed is a Poem fitter for the examination of men than the consideration of a Child. But in him it met with a Fancy whose strength was not to be judged by the number of his years.

¶5 In the thirteenth year of his age there came forth a little Book under his Name, in which there were many things that might well become the vigour and force of a manly Wit. The first beginning of his Studies was a familarity with the most solid and unaffected Authors of Antiquity, which he fully digested not only in his memory but his judgment. By this advantage he learnt nothing while a Boy that he needed to forget or forsake when he came to be a man. His mind was rightly season'd at first, and he had nothing to do but still to proceed on the same Foundation on which he began.

¶6 He was wont to relate that he had this defect in his memory at that time, that his Teachers could never bring it to retain the ordinary Rules of Grammar. However, he supply'd that want, by conversing with the Books themselves from whence those Rules had been drawn. That no doubt was a better way, though much more difficult, and he after wards found this benefit by it, that having got the Greek and Roman Languages, as he had done his own, not by precept but use, he practis'd them not as a Scholar but a Native.

¶7 With these extraordinary hopes he was remov'd to Trinity Colledge in Cambridge, where by the progress and continuance of his Wit, it appear'd that two things were join'd in it which seldom meet together, that it was both early-ripe and lasting. This brought him into the love and esteem of the most eminent members of that famous Society, and principally of your Uncle |Mr.| Fotherby, whose favours he since abundantly acknowledg'd, when his Bene factor had quite forgot the obligation. His Exercises of all kinds are still remembred in that University with great applause, and with this particular praise, that they were not only fit for the obscurity of an Academical life, but to have been shown on the true Theater of the World. There it was that before the twentieth year of his Age, he laid the design of divers of his most Masculine Works that he finish'd long after. In which I know not whether I should most commend that a mind so young should conceive such great things, or that it should be able to perfect them with such felicity.

¶8 The first occasion of his entring into business was the Elegy that he writ on |Mr.| Herveys Death, wherein he described the highest Characters of Religion, Knowledge, and Friendship, in an Age when most other men scarce begin to learn them. This brought him into the acquaintance of |Mr.| John Hervey, the Brother of his deceased Friend, from whom he received many Offices of kindness through the whole course of his life, and principally this, that by his means he came into the service of my Lord St. Albans.

¶9 When the Civil War broke out, his affection to the Kings Cause drew him to Oxford, as soon as it began to be the chief seat of the Royal Party. In that University he prosecuted the same Studies with a like success. Nor in the mean time was he wanting to his duty in the War it self, for he was present and in service in several of the Kings Journeys and Expeditions. By these occasions and the report of his high deserts, he speedily grew familiar to the chief men of the Court and the Gown, whom the Fortune of the War had drawn together. And particularly, though he was then very young, he had the entire friendship of my Lord Falkland, one of the Principal Secretaries of State. That affection was contracted by the agreement of their Learning and Manners. For you may remember, Sir, we have often heard |Mr.| Cowley admire him, not only for the profoundness of his Knowledge, which was applauded by all the world, but more especially for those qualities which he himself more regarded, for his generosity of mind and his neglect of the vain pomp of humane greatness.

¶10 During the heat of the Civil War, he was setled in my Lord St. Albans Family, and attended her Majesty the Queen-Mother, when by the unjust persecution of her Subjects she was forc'd to retire into France. Upon this wandring condition of the most vigorous part of his life, he was wont to reflect, as the cause of the long interruption of his Studies. Yet we have no reason to think that he lost so great a space of Time, if we consider in what business he employ'd his banishment. He was absent from his native Country above twelve years, which were wholly spent either in bearing a share in the distresses of the Royal Family or in labouring in their Affairs. To this purpose he performed several dangerous journeys into Jersey, Scotland, Flanders, Holland, or wherever else the Kings Troubles requir'd 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 un suspected secrecy. For he cypher'd and decypher'd 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.

¶11 At length upon his present Majesties removal out of France, and the Queen-Mothers staying behind, the business of that nature passed of course into other hands. Then it was thought fit by those on whom he depended, that he should come over into England, and under pretence of privacy and retirement, should take occasion of giving notice of the posture of things in this Nation. Upon his return he found his Country groaning under the oppression of an unjust Usurpation. And he soon felt the effects of it. For while he lay hid in London, he was seiz'd on by a mistake, the search having been intended after another Gentleman, of considerable note in the Kings Party. Being made a Prisoner, he was often examined before the Usurpers, who tryed all imaginable ways to make him serviceable to their ends. That course not prevailing, he was committed to a severe restraint; and scarce at last obtained his liberty upon the hard terms of a Thousand pound Bail, which burden Dr. Scarborough very honourably took upon himself. Under these Bonds he continued till the general redemption. Yet taking the opportunity of the Confusions that followed upon Cromwels death, he ventured back into France, and there remained in the same Station as before, till neer the time of the Kings return.

¶12 This certainly, Sir, is abundantly sufflcient to justifie his Loyalty to all the world, though some have indeavoured to bring it in question, upon occasion of a few lines in the Preface to one of his Books. The Objection I must not pass by in silence, because it was the only part of his life that was lyable to mis-interpretation, even by the confession of those that envyed his Fame. In this case perhaps it were enough to alledge for him to men of moderate minds, that what he there said was published before a Book of Poetry, and so ought rather to be esteemed as a Probleme of his Fancy and Invention than as the real Image of his Judgment. But his defence in this matter may be laid on a surer Foundation. This is the true reason that is to be given of his delivering that opinion. Upon his coming over he found the state of the Royal Party very desperate. He perceived the strength of their Enemies so united, that till it should begin to break within it self, all endeavours against it were like to prove unsuccessful. On the other side he beheld their zeal for his Majesties Cause to be still so active, that it often hurryed them into inevitable ruine. He saw this with much grief. And though he approv'd their constancy as much as any man living, yet he found their unseasonable shewing it did only disable themselves, and give their Adversaries great advantages of riches and strength by their defeats. He therefore believed that it would be a meritorious service to the King, if any man who was known to have followed his interest could insinuate into the Usurpers minds, that men of his Principles were now willing to be quiet, and could perswade the poor oppressed Royalists to conceal their affections for better occasions. And as for his own particular, he was a close Prisoner, when he writ that against which the exception is made; so that he saw it was impossible for him to pursue the ends for which he came hither, if he did not make some kind of declaration of his peaceable intentions. This was then his opinion. And the success of things seems to prove that it was not very ill grounded. For certainly it was one of the greatest helps to the Kings Affairs, about the latter end of that Tyranny, that many of his best Friends dissembled their Counsels, and acted the same Designs, under the Disguises and Names of other Parties.

¶13 This, Sir, you can testifie to have been the innocent occa sion of these words on which so much clamour was rais'd. Yet seeing his good intentions were so ill interpreted, he told me, the last time that ever I saw him, that he would have them omitted in the next Impression: of which his Friend |Mr.| Cook is a witness. However, if we should take them in the worst sense of which they are capable, yet methinks for his maintaining one false Tenent in the Political Philosophy, he made a sufficient atonement by a continual service of twenty years, by the perpetual loyalty of his Discourse, and by many of his other Writings, wherein he has largely defended and adorned the Royal Cause. And to speak of him not as our Friend, but accord ing to the common Laws of Humanity, certainly that life must needs be very unblamable, which had been tryed in business of the highest consequence, and practis'd in the hazardous secrets of Courts and Cabinets, and yet there can nothing disgraceful be produc'd against it, but only the errour of one Paragraph and a single Metaphor.

¶14 But to return to my Narration which this Digression has interrupted: Upon the Kings happy Restauration |Mr.| Cowley was past the fortieth year of his Age, of which the greatest part had been spent in a various and tempes tuous condition. He now thought he had sacrificed enough of his life to his curiosity and experience. He had enjoyed many excellent occasions of observation. He had been present in many great revolutions, which in that tumultuous time disturb'd the peace of all our Neighbour-States as well as our own. He had neerly beheld all the splendour of the highest part of mankind. He had lived in the presence of Princes, and familiarly converst with greatness in all its degrees, which was necessary for one that would contemn it aright; for to scorn the pomp of the World before a man knows it does commonly proceed rather from ill Manners than a true Magnanimity.

¶15 He was now weary of the vexations and formalities of an active condition. He had been perplexed with a long compliance to Foreign Manners. He was satiated with the Arts of Court, which sort of life, though his virtu had made innocent to him, yet nothing could make it quiet. These were the reasons that moved him to forego all Public Employments, and to follow the violent inclination of his own mind, which in the greatest throng of his former business had still called upon him, and represented to him the true delights of solitary Studies, of temperate Pleasures, and of a moderate Revenue, below the malice and flatteries of Fortune.

¶16 At first he was but slenderly provided for such a retire ment, by reason of his Travels and the Affliction of the Party to which he adhered, which had put him quite out of all the rodes of gain. Yet, notwithstanding the narrow ness of his Income, he remained fixed to his resolution, upon his confidence in the temper of his own mind, which he knew had contracted its desires into so small a compass that a very few things would supply them all. But upon the setlement of the Peace of our Nation, this hinderance of his design was soon remov'd; for he then obtain'd a plentiful Estate by the favour of my Lord St. Albans and the bounty of my Lord Duke of Buckingham, to whom he was always most dear, and whom he ever respected as his principal Patrons. The last of which great men, you know, Sir, it is my duty to mention, not only for |Mr.| Cowleys sake, but my own; though I cannot do it without being asham'd, that having the same Encourager of my Studies, I should deserve his Patronage so much less.

¶17 Thus he was sufficiently furnished for his retreat. And immediately he gave over all pursuit of Honour and Riches, in a time when, if any ambitious or covetous thoughts had remain'd in his mind, he might justly have expected to have them readily satisfied. In his last seven or eight years he was conceal'd in his beloved obscurity, and possess'd that Solitude which from his very childhood he had always most passionately desired. Though he had frequent invitations to return into business, yet he never gave ear to any per swasions of Profit or Preferment. His visits to the City and Court were very few: his stays in Town were only as a Passenger, not an Inhabitant. The Places that he chose for the Seats of his declining life were two or three Villages on the Bank of the Thames. During this recess his mind was rather exercised on what was to come than what was pass'd; he suffer'd no more business nor cares of life to come neer him than what were enough to keep his Soul awake, but not to disturb it. Some few Friends and Books, a cheerful heart, and innocent conscience were his constant Companions. His Poetry indeed he took with him, but he made that an Anchorite as well as himself: he only dedi cated it to the service of his Maker, to describe the great images of Religion and Virtue wherewith his mind abounded. And he employed his Musick to no other use than as his own David did towards Saul, by singing the Praises of God and of Nature, to drive the evil Spirit out of mens minds.

¶18 Of his Works that are Publish'd it is hard to give one general Character, because of the difference of their subjects and the various forms and distant times of their writing. Yet this is true of them all, that in all the several shapes of his Style there is still very much of the likeness and impression of the same mind: the same unaffected modesty, and natural freedom, and easie vigour, and chearful passions, and innocent mirth, which appear'd in all his Manners. We have many things that he writ in two very un like conditions, in the University and the Court. But in his Poetry as well as his Life, he mingled with excellent skill what was good in both states. In his life he join'd the innocence and sincerity of the Scholar with the humanity and good behaviour of the Courtier. In his Poems he united the Solidity and Art of the one with the Gentility and Gracefulness of the other.

¶19 If any shall think that he was not wonderfully curious in the choice and elegance of all his words, I will affirm with more truth on the other side, that he had no manner of affectation in them: he took them as he found them made to his hands; he neither went before nor came after the use of the Age. He forsook the Conversation, but never the Language, of the City and Court. He understood exceeding well all the variety and power of Poetical Numbers, and practis'd all sorts with great happiness. If his Verses in some places seem not as soft and flowing as some would have them, it was his choice, not his fault. He knew that in diverting mens minds there should be the same variety observ'd as in the prospects of their Eyes, where a Rock, a Precipice, or a rising Wave is often more delighful than a smooth, even ground or a calm Sea. Where the matter required it, he was as gentle as any man. But where higher Virtues were chiefly to be regarded, an exact numerosity was not then his main care. This may serve to answer those who upbraid some of his Pieces with roughness, and with more contractions than they are willing to allow. But these Admirers of gentlenesse without sinews should know that different Arguments must have different Colours of Speech: that there is a kind of variety of Sexes in Poetry as well as in Mankind: that as the peculiar excellence of the Feminine Kind is smoothnesse and beauty, so strength is the chief praise of the Masculine.

¶20 He had a perfect mastery in both the Languages in which he writ. But each of them kept a just distance from the other: neither did his Latin make his English too old, nor his English make his Latin too modern. He excelled both in Prose and Verse; and both together have that per fection which is commended by some of the Antients above all others, that they are very obvious to the conception, but most difficult in the imitation.

¶21 His Fancy flow'd with great speed, and therefore it was very fortunate to him that his Judgment was equal to manage it. He never runs his Reader nor his Argument out of Breath. He perfectly practises the hardest secret of good Writing, to know when he has done enough. He always leaves off in such a manner that it appears it was in his power to have said much more. In the particular expressions there is still much to be Applauded, but more in the disposition and order of the whole. From thence there springs a new comliness, besides the feature of each part. His Invention is powerful and large as can be desir'd. But it seems all to arise out of the Nature of the subject, and to be just fitted for the thing of which he speaks. If ever he goes far for it, he dissembles his pains admirably well.

¶22 The variety of Arguments that he has manag'd is so large that there is scarce any particular of all the passions of Men or works of Nature and Providence which he has pass'd by undescrib'd. Yet he still observes the rules of Decence with so much care, that whether he inflames his Reader with the softer Affections, or delights him with inoffensive Raillery, or teaches the familiar manners of Life, or adorns the discoveries of Philosophy, or inspires him with the Heroick Characters of Charity and Religion: To all these matters that are so wide asunder, he still propor tions a due figure of Speech and a proper measure of Wit. This indeed is most remarkable, that a Man who was so constant and fix'd in the Moral Ideas of his mind should yet be so changeable in his Intellectual, and in both to the highest degree of Excellence.

¶23 If there needed any excuse to be made that his Love Verses should take up so great a share in his Works, it may be alledg'd that they were compos'd when he was very young. But it is a vain thing to make any kind of Apology for that sort of Writings. If Devout or Virtuous Men will superciliously forbid the minds of the young to adorn those subjects about which they are most conversant: They would put them out of all capacity of performing graver matters, when they come to them. For the exercises of all Mens Wits must be always proper for their Age, and never too much above it: And by practice and use in lighter Argu ments, they grow up at last to excel in the most weighty. I am not therefore asham'd to commend |Mr.| Cowley's Mistress. I only except one or two Expressions, which I wish I could have prevail'd with those that had the right of the other Edition to have left out. But of all the rest I dare boldly pronounce, that never yet so much was written on a subject so Delicate, that can less offend the severest rules of Morality. The whole Passion of Love is inimitably describ'd, with all its mighty Train of Hopes, and Joys, and Disquiets. Besides this amorous tenderness, I know not how in every Copy there is something of more useful Knowledge very naturally and gracefully insinuated, and every where there may be something found to inform the minds of wise Men as well as to move the hearts of young Men or Women.

¶24 The occasion of his falling on the Pindaric way of Writing was his accidental meeting with Pindars Works in a place where he had no other Books to direct him. Having then considered at leisure the height of his Inven tion and the Majesty of his Style, he try'd immediately to imitate it in English. And he perform'd it without the danger that Horace presag'd to the Man who should dare to attempt it.

¶25 If any are displeas'd at the boldness of his Metaphors and length of his Digressions they contend not against |Mr.| Cowley, but Pindar himself, who was so much reverenc'd by all Antiquity that the place of his Birth was preserv'd as Sacred, when his Native City was twice destroy'd by the fury of two Conquerours. If the irregularity of the number disgust them, they may observe that this very thing makes that kind of Poesie fit for all manner of subjects: For the Pleasant, the Grave, the Amorous, the Heroic, the Philo sophical, the Moral, the Divine. Besides this they will find that the frequent alteration of the Rhythm and Feet affects the mind with a more various delight, while it is soon apt to be tyr'd by the setled pace of any one constant measure. But that for which I think this inequality of number is chiefly to be preferr'd is its near affinity with Prose: From which all other kinds of English Verse are so far distant that it is very seldom found that the same Man excels in both ways. But now this loose and unconfin'd measure has all the Grace and Harmony of the most Confin'd. And withal it is so large and free, that the practice of it will only exalt, not corrupt our Prose, which is certainly the most useful kind of Writing of all others, for it is the style of all business and conversation.

¶26 Besides this imitating of Pindar, which may perhaps be thought rather a new sort of Writing than a restoring of an Ancient, he has also been wonderfully happy in Translating many difficult parts of the Noblest Poets of Antiquity. To perform this according to the Dignity of the attempt, he had, as it was necessary he should have, not only the Elegance of both the Languages, but the true spirit of both the Poetries. This way of leaving Verbal Translations, and chiefly regarding the Sense and Genius of the Author, was scarce heard of in England before this present Age. I will not presume to say that |Mr.| Cowley was the absolute Inventor of it. Nay, I know that others had the good luck to recommend it first in Print. Yet I appeal to you, Sir, whether he did not conceive it, and discourse of it, and practise it, as soon as any Man.

¶27 His Davideis was wholly written in so young an Age, that if we shall reflect on the vastness of the Argument, and his manner of handling it, he may seem like one of the Miracles that he there adorns, like a Boy attempting Goliah. I have often heard you declare that he had finish'd the greatest part of it while he was yet a young Student at Cambridge. This perhaps may be the reason that in some few places there is more youthfulness and redundance of Fancy than his riper judgment would have allow'd. I know, Sir, you will give me leave to use this liberty of censure; for I do not here pretend to a profess'd Panegyrick, but rather to give a just opinion concerning him. But for the main of it, I will affirm, that it is a better instance and beginning of a Divine Poem than I ever yet saw in any Language. The contrivance is perfectly antient, which is certainly the true form of Heroic Poetry, and such as was never yet outdone by any new Devices of Modern Wits. The subject was truly Divine, even according to Gods own heart: The matter of his invention, all the Treasures of Knowledge and Histories in the Bible. The model of it comprehended all the Learning of the East: The Characters, lofty and various; The Numbers, firm and powerful; The Digressions, beautiful and proportion able; The Design, to submit mortal Wit to heavenly Truths: in all there is an admirable mixture of humane Virtues and Passions with religious Raptures.

¶28 The truth is, Sir, methinks in other matters his Wit excell'd most other mens; but in his Moral and Divine Works it outdid it self. And no doubt it proceeded from this Cause, that in other lighter kinds of Poetry he chiefly represented the humours and affections of others; but in these he sat to himself and drew the figure of his own mind. I know it has been objected against him by some morose Zealots, that he has done an injury to the Scripture by sprinkling all his Works with many Allusions and Similitudes that he took out of the Bible. But to these men it were a sufficient reply to compare their own Practise with his in this particular. They make use of Scripture Phrases and Quotations in all their common Discourse. They employ the words of Holy Writ to countenance the extravagance of their own opinions and affections. And why then might not he take the liberty to fetch from thence some ornament for the innocent Passions, and natural Truths, and moral Virtues which he describes?

¶29 This is confutation enough to that sort of men. As to the thing itself, it is so far from being a debasing of Divinity to make some parts of it the subjects of our Fancy, that it is a sure way to establish it familiarly on the hearts of the people, and to give it a durable impression on the minds of wise men. Of this we have a powerful instance amongst the Antients. For their Wit has lasted much longer than the Practise of any of their Religions. And the very memory of most of their Divine Worship had perished, if it had not been expressed and preserved by their Poets. But |Mr.| Cowley himself did of all men living abhor the abuse of Scripture by licentious Raillery, which ought not only to be esteemed the meanest kind of Wit, but the worst sort of ill Manners. This perhaps some men would be loth to hear proved, who practise it under the false title of a Gentile Quality: But the truth of it is unquestionable. For the ordinary ill breeding is only an indecence and offence against some particular Custom, or Gesture, or Behaviour in use. But this prophaneness is a violation of the very support of humane Society, and a rudeness against the best Manners that all mankind can practise, which is a just reverence of the Supreme Power of all the World.

¶30 In his Latin Poems he has expressed to admiration all the Numbers of Verse and Figures of Poesie that are scattered up and down amongst the Antients. There is hardly to be found in them all any good fashion of Speech, or colour of Measure, but he has comprehended it, and given instances of it, according as his several Arguments required either a Majestick Spirit, or a passionate, or a pleasant. This is the more extraordinary in that it was never yet performed by any single Poet of the Antient Romans themselves. They had the Language natural to them, and so might easily have moulded it into what form or humour they pleas'd: Yet it was their constant Custom to confine all their thoughts and practice to one or two ways of Writing, as despairing ever to compass all together. This is evident in those that excelled in Odes and Songs, in the Comical, Tragical, Epical, Elegiacal, or Satyrical way. And this perhaps occasioned the first distinction and number of the Muses. For they thought the task too hard for any one of them, though they fancied them to be Goddesses. And therefore they divided it amongst them all, and only recommended to each of them the care of a distinct Character of Poetry and Musick.

¶31 The occasion of his chusing the subject of his six Books of Plants was this: when he returned into England, he was advised to dissemble the main intention of his coming over under the disguise of applying himself to some setled Pro fession. And that of Physic was thought most proper. To this purpose, after many Anatomical Dissections, he proceeded to the consideration of Simples; and having furnish'd himself with Books of that Nature, he retir'd into a fruitful part of Kent, where every Field and Wood might shew him the real Figures of those Plants of which he read. Thus he speedily Master'd that part of the Art of Medicine. But then, as one of the Antients did before him in the study of Law, instead of employing his Skill for practice and profit, he presently digested it into that form which we behold.

¶32 The two first Books Treat of Herbs, in a style resembling the Elegies of Ovid and Tibullus in the sweetness and freedom of the Verse: But excelling them in the strength of the Fancy and vigour of the Sense. The third and fourth discourse of Flowers in all the variety of Catullus and Horaces Numbers: For the last of which Authors he had a peculiar Reverence, and imitated him, not only in the stately and numerous pace of his Odes and Epodes, but in the familiar easiness of his Epistles and Speeches. The two last speak of Trees, in the way of Virgils Georgics. Of these the sixth Book is wholly Dedicated to the Honour of his Country. For making the British Oak to preside in the Assembly of the Forrest Trees, upon that occasion he enlarges on the History of our late Troubles, the Kings Affliction and Return, and the beginning of the Dutch War; and Manages all in a style that (to say all in a word) is equal to the Greatness and Valour of the English Nation.

¶33 I told you, Sir, that he was very happy in the way of Horaces Speeches. But of this there are but two Instances preserv'd: that part of an Epistle to |Mr.| Creswel with which he concludes his Preface to his Book of Plants, and that Copy which is written to your self. I confess I heartily wish he had left more Examples behind him of this kind, because I esteem it to be one of the best and most difficult of all those that Antiquity has taught us. It is certainly the very Original of true Raillery, and differs as much from some of the other Latin Satyrs, as the pleasant reproofs of a Gentleman from the severity of a School-master. I know some Men dis-approve it, because the Verse seems to be loose, and near to the plainness of common Discourse. But that which was admir'd by the Court of Augustus never ought to be esteem'd flat or vulgar. And the same judgment should be made of Mens styles as of their behaviour and carriage: wherein that is most courtly and hardest to be imitated, which consists of a Natural easiness and unaffected Grace, where nothing seems to be studied, yet everything is extraordinary.

¶34 This familiar way of Verse puts me in mind of one kind of Prose wherein |Mr.| Cowley was excellent, and that is his Letters to his private Friends. In these he always express'd the Native tenderness and Innocent gayety of his Mind. I think, Sir, you and I have the greatest Collection of this sort. But I know you agree with me that nothing of this Nature should be publish'd: And herein you have always consented to approve of the modest Judgment of our Country-men above the practice of some of our Neighbours, and chiefly of the French. I make no manner of question but the English at this time are infinitely improv'd in this way above the skill of former Ages, nay, of all Countries round about us that pretend to greater Eloquence. Yet they have been always judiciously sparing in Printing such composures, while some other Witty Nations have tyr'd all their Presses and Readers with them. The truth is, the Letters that pass between particular Friends, if they are written as they ought to be, can scarce ever be fit to see the light. They should not consist of fulsom Complements, or tedious Politicks, or elaborate Elegancies, or general Fancies. But they should have a Native clearness and shortness, a Domestical plaines, and a peculiar kind of Familiarity, which can only affect the humour of those to whom they were intended. The very same passages which make Writings of this Nature delightful amongst Friends will lose all manner of taste when they come to be read by those that are in different. In such Letters the Souls of Men should appear undress'd: And in that negligent habit they may be fit to be seen by one or two in a Chamber, but not to go abroad into the Streets.

¶35 The last Pieces that we have from his hands are Dis courses, by way of Essays, upon some of the gravest subjects that concern the Contentment of a Virtuous Mind. These he intended as a real Character of his own thoughts upon the point of his Retirement. And accordingly you may observe that in the Prose of them there is little Curiosity of Ornament, but they are written in a lower and humbler style than the rest, and as an unfeigned Image of his Soul should be drawn without Flattery. I do not speak this to their disadvantage. For the true perfection of Wit is to be plyable to all occasions, to walk or flye, according to the Nature of every subject. And there is no doubt as much Art to have only plain Conceptions on some Argu ments as there is in others to have extraordinary Flights.

¶36 To these that he has here left scarce finish'd, it was his design to have added many others. And a little before his death he communicated to me his resolutions to have dedicated them all to my Lord St. Albans, as a testimony of his entire respects to him, and a kind of Apology for having left humane Affairs, in the strength of his Age, while he might still have been serviceable to his Country. But though he was prevented in this purpose by his death, yet it becomes the Office of a Friend to make good his intentions. I therefore here presume to make a Present of them to his Lordship. I doubt not but according to his usual humanity, he will accept this imperfect Legacy of the man whom he long honoured with his domestic conversation. And I am confident his Lordship will believe it to be no injury to his Fame that in these Papers my Lord St. Albans and |Mr.| Cowleys name shall be read together by posterity.

¶37 I might, Sir, have made a longer Discourse of his Writings, but that I think it fit to direct my Speech concerning him by the same rule by which he was wont to judge of others. In his esteem of other men, he constantly prefer'd the good temper of their minds and honesty of their Actions above all the excellencies of their Eloquence or Knowledge. The same course I will take in his praise, which chiefly ought to be fixed on his life. For that he deserves more applause from the most virtuous men than for his other abilities he ever obtained from the Learned.

¶38 He had indeed a perfect natural goodness, which neither the uncertainties of his condition nor the largeness of his wit could pervert. He had a firmness and strength of mind that was of proof against the Art of Poetry it self. Nothing vain or fantastical, nothing flattering or insolent appeared in his humour. He had a great integrity and plainness of Manners, which he preserv'd to the last, though much of his time was spent in a Nation, and way of life, that is not very famous for sincerity. But the truth of his heart was above the corruption of ill examples: And therefore the sight of them rather confirm'd him in the contrary Virtues.

¶39 There was nothing affected or singular in his habit, or person, or gesture. He understood the forms of good breeding enough to practise them without burdening him self or others. He never opprest any mans parts, nor ever put any man out of countenance. He never had any emulation for Fame or contention for Profit with any man. When he was in business he suffer'd others importunities with much easiness: When he was out of it he was never importunate himself. His modesty and humility were so great, that if he had not had many other equal Virtues, they might have been thought dissimulation.

¶40 His Conversation was certainly of the most excellent kind, for it was such as was rather admired by his familiar Friends than by Strangers at first sight. He surpriz'd no man at first with any extraordinary appearance: he never thrust himself violently into the good opinion of his company. He was content to be known by leisure and by degrees; and so the esteem that was conceiv'd of him was better grounded and more lasting.

¶41 In his Speech, neither the pleasantness excluded gravity, nor was the sobriety of it inconsistent with delight. No man parted willingly from his Discourse; for he so ordered it that every man was satisfied that he had his share. He govern'd his Passions with great moderation. His Virtues were never troublesome or uneasy to any. Whatever he disliked in others, he only corrected it by the silent reproof of a better practise.

¶42 His Wit was so temper'd that no man had ever reason to wish it had been less: he prevented other mens severity upon it by his own: he never willingly recited any of his Writings. None but his intimate friends ever discovered he was a great Poet by his discourse. His Learning was large and profound, well compos'd of all Antient and Modern Knowledge. But it sat exceeding close and handsomly upon him: it was not imbossed on his mind, but enamelled.

¶43 He never guided his life by the whispers or opinions of the World. Yet he had a great reverence for a good reputation. He hearkened to Fame when it was a just Censurer: But not when an extravagant Babler. He was a passionate lover of Liberty and Freedom from restraint both in Actions and Words. But what honesty others receive from the direction of Laws, he had by native Inclination: And he was not beholding to other mens wills but to his own for his Innocence.

¶44 He perform'd all his Natural and Civil Duties with admirable tenderness. Having been Born after his Fathers Death and bred up under the Discipline of his Mother, he gratefully acknowledg'd her care of his Educa tion to her Death, which was in the Eightieth year of her Age. For his three Brothers he always maintain'd a constant affection. And having surviv'd the two first, he made the third his Heir. In his long dependance on my Lord St. Albans, there never happened any manner of difference between them, except a little at last, because he would leave his service: which only shewed the innocence of the Servant and the kindness of the Master. His Friendships were inviolable. The same men with whom he was familiar in his Youth were his neerest acquaintance at the day of his Death. If the private Course of his last years made him contract his Conversation to a few, yet he only withdrew, not broke off, from any of the others. His thoughts were never above nor below his condition. He never wished his Estate much larger. Yet he enjoyed what he had with all innocent Freedom; he never made his present life uncomfortable by undue expectations of future things. Whatever disappointments he met with, they only made him understand Fortune better, not repine at her the more: His Muse indeed once complain'd, but never his Mind. He was accomplish'd with all manner of Abilities for the greatest business, If he would but have thought so himself.

¶45 If any thing ought to have been chang'd in his Temper and Disposition, It was his earnest Affection for Obscurity and Retirement. This, Sir, give me leave to condemn, even to you, who I know agreed with him in the same humour. I acknowledge he chose that state of Life, not out of any Poetical Rapture, but upon a steady and sober experience of Humane things. But however I cannot applaud it in him. It is certainly a great disparagement to Virtue and Learning it self, that those very things which only make Men useful in the World should encline them to leave it. This ought never to be allow'd to good Men, unless the bad had the same moderation, and were willing to follow them into the Wilderness. But if the one shall contend to get out of Employment while the other strive to get into it, the affairs of Mankind are like to be in so ill a posture, that even the good Men themselves will hardly be able to enjoy their very retreats in security.

¶46 Yet I confess, if any deserv'd to have this priviledge, it ought to have been granted to him as soon as any Man living, upon consideration of the manner in which he spent the Liberty that he got. For he withdrew himself out of the crowd with desires of enlightning and instructing the minds of those that remain'd in it. It was his resolution in that Station to search into the Secrets of Divine and Humane Knowledge, and to communicate what he should observe. He always profess'd that he went out of the world as it was mans, into the same World as it was Natures and as it was Gods. The whole compass of the Creation, and all the wonderful effects of the Divine Wisdom, were the constant Prospect of his Senses and his Thoughts. And indeed he enter'd with great advantage on the studies of Nature, even as the first great Men of Antiquity did, who were generally both Poets and Philo sophers. He betook himself to its Contemplation, as well furnish'd with sound Judgment and diligent Observation and good Method to discover its Mysteries, as with Abilities to set it forth in all its Ornaments.

¶47 This labour about Natural Science was the perpetual and uninterrupted task of that obscure part of his life. Besides this, we had perswaded him to look back into his former Studies and to publish a Discourse concerning Style. In this he had design'd to give an account of the proper sorts of writing that were fit for all manner of Arguments, to compare the perfections and imperfections of the Authors of Antiquity with those of this present Age, and to deduce all down to the particular use of the English Genius and Language. This subject he was very fit to perform: It being most proper for him to be the Judge who had been the best Practiser. But he scarce liv'd to draw the first lines of it. All the footsteps that I can find remaining of it are only some indigested Characters of Antient and Modern Authors. And now for the future I almost despair ever to see it well accomplished, unless you, Sir, would give me leave to name the man that should undertake it. But his last and principal Design was that which ought to be the principal to every wise man, the establishing his mind in the Faith he professed. He was in his practise exactly obedient to the Use and Precepts of our Church. Nor was he inclined to any uncertainty and doubt, as abhorring all contention in indifferent things, and much more in sacred. But he beheld the Divisions of Christen dom: he saw how many controversies had been introduced by zeal or ignorance, and continued by Faction. He had therefore an earnest intention of taking a Review of the Original Principles of the Primitive Church, believing that every true Christian had no better means to settle his spirit than that which was proposed to {AE}neas and his Followers to be the end of their wandrings, Antiquam exquirite Matrem.

¶48 This examination he purposed should reach to our Saviours and the Apostles lives, and their immediate Successors, for four or five Centuries, till Interest and Policy prevailed over Devotion. He hoped to have absolutely compassed it in three or four years, and when that was done, there to have fixed for ever, without any shaking or alteration in his judgment. Indeed it was a great damage to our Church that he lived not to perform it. For very much of the Primitive Light might have been expected from a mind that was endued with the primitive meekness and innocence. And besides, such a Work, coming from one that was no Divine, might have been very useful for this age, wherein it is one of the principal Cavils against Religion that it is only a matter of interest, and only supported for the gain of a particular Profession.

¶49 But alas ! while he was framing these great things in his thoughts, they were unfortunately cut off together with his life. His Solitude from the very beginning had never agreed so well with the constitution of his Body as of his Mind. The chief cause of it was that out of hast to be gone away from the Tumult and Noyse of the City, he had not prepar'd so healthful a situation in the Country as he might have done if he had made a more leasurable choice. Of this he soon began to find the inconvenience at Barn Elms, where he was afflicted with a dangerous and lingring Fever. After that he scarce ever recover'd his former Health, though his Mind was restor'd to its perfect Vigour; as may be seen by his two last Books of Plants, that were written since that time, and may at least be compar'd with the best of his other Works. Shortly after his removal to Chertsea, he fell into another consuming Disease. Having languish'd under this for some months, he seem'd to be pretty well cured of its ill Symptomes. But in the heat of the last Summer, by staying too long amongst his Laborers in the Medows, he was taken with a violent Defluxion and Stoppage in his Breast and Throat. This he at first neglected as an ordinary Cold, and refus'd to send for his usual Physicians till it was past all remedies; and so in the end, after a fortnight sickness, it prov'd mortal to him.

¶50 Who can here, Sir, forbear exclaiming on the weak hopes and frail condition of humane Nature? For as long as |Mr.| Cowley was pursuing the course of Ambition in an active life, which he scarce esteem'd his true life, he never wanted a constant health and strength of body. But as soon as ever he had found an opportunity of beginning indeed to live, and to enjoy himself in security, his content ment was first broken by Sickness, and at last his death was occasion'd by his very delight in the Country and the Fields, which he had long fancied above all other Pleasures. But let us not grieve at this fatal accident upon his account, lest we should seem to repine at the happy change of his condition, and not to know that the loss of a few years, which he might longer have liv'd, will be recompenc'd by an immortal Memory. If we complain, let it only be for our own sakes, -- that in him we are at once depriv'd of the greatest natural and improv'd abilities, of the usefullest conversation, of the faithfullest Friendship, of a mind that practis'd the best Virtues it self, and a Wit that was best able to recommend them to others.

¶51 His Body was attended to Westminster Abby by a great number of Persons of the most eminent quality, and follow'd with the praises of all good and Learned Men. It lies near the Ashes of Chaucer and Spencer, the two most Famous English Poets of former times. But whoever would do him right should not only equal him to the Principal Ancient Writers of our own Nation, but should also rank his name amongst the Authors of the true Antiquity, the best of the Greeks and Romans. In that place there is a Monument design'd for him by my Lord Duke of Buckingham in Testimony of his Affection. And the King himself was pleas'd to bestow on him the best Epitaph, when upon the news of his Death his Majesty declar'd, That |Mr.| Cowley had not left a better Man behind him in England.

¶52 This, Sir, is the account that I thought fit to present the World concerning him. Perhaps it may be judged that I have spent too many words on a private man and a Scholar, whose life was not remarkable for such a variety of Events as are wont to be the Ornaments of this kind of Relations. I know it is the custom of the World to prefer the pompous Histories of great Men, before the greatest Virtues of others whose lives have been led in a course less illustrious. This indeed is the general humour. But I believe it to be an errour in mens judgments. For certainly that is a more profitable instruction which may be taken from the eminent goodness of men of lower rank, than that which we learn from the splendid representations of the Battels, and Victories, and Buildings, and Sayings of great Commanders and Princes. Such specious matters, as they are seldom delivered with fidelity, so they serve but for the imitation of a very few, and rather make for the ostentation than the true information of humane life: Whereas it is from the practice of men equal to our selves that we are more naturally taught how to command our Passions, to direct our Knowledge, and to govern our Actions.

¶53 For this reason I have some hope that a Character of |Mr.| Cowley may be of good advantage to our Nation. For what he wanted in Titles of Honour and the Gifts of Fortune was plentifully supplyed by many other Excel lencies, which make perhaps less noise, but are more beneficial for Example. This, Sir, was the principal end of this long Discourse. Besides this, I had another design in it, that only concerns our selves; that having this Picture of his life set before us, we may still keep him alive in our memories, and by this means we may have some small reparation for our inexpressible loss by his death.

Sir, I am

Your most humble, and most affectionate Servant,

T. SPRAT.


Copytext: Spingarn 1908: 119-46.
Source: The Works of Mr. Abraham Cowley. Herringman, 1668.
Ed. (text): Ian Lancashire, Rep. Criticism On-line (1996).

Editorial Conventions

This edition does not encode signatures, page numbers, or catchwords. Old spelling is retained except for ligatured letters, which are normalized. Contractions and abbreviations are placed within vertical bars. Italics and lineation are retained, but not small capitals and the text of catchwords, signatures, and running titles. Original lineation and irregularities in spacing are ignored. Reference citations are by page numbers and editorial through-text paragraph numbers.


Online text copyright © 2005, Ian Lancashire for the Department of English, University of Toronto.
Published by the Web Development Group, Information Technology Services, University of Toronto Libraries.


Other works by Thomas Sprat