Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
 
Critical Introduction by A. W. Ward
Abraham Cowley (1618–1667)
 
[Born in London in 1618; educated at Westminster School and at Trinity College, Cambridge; ejected from his University in 1643–4, when he took up his residence at Oxford. He followed Queen Henrietta Maria to France in 1646, and served the royal family in various ways. On his return to England in 1656 he was arrested by mistake, but released on bail, under which he remained till the Restoration. Disappointed of the Mastership of the Savoy, he was at last enabled, by a favourable lease of royal lands, to retire into country life, and settled, first at Barn Elms, and in 1665 at Porch House, Chertsey, where he died on July 28, 1667.]  1
 
COWLEY’S last request to his literary executor was to excise from his works any word or phrase that might give the least offence to religion or good manners. This sincere expression of the piety which was in him—for, notwithstanding the florid exuberance of his pen, Cowley was as a writer, whether of poetry or of prose, quite free from affectation—should be cited at the head of any tribute, however slight, to his literary genius. Fortune plunged him in a long series of dubious activities from the day when he was driven from the gates of Trinity to that when he found refuge at last in his
        “… gentle, cool retreat
From all th’ immoderate heat,
In which this frantic world doth burn and sweat,”
and he drank almost to the dregs the cup of tarnished gold, which is filled with the miseriæ curialium. Yet he thought nobly of life and its purposes, and, above all, of that pursuit of letters to which, as a boy, he had been attracted by the copy of Spenser that lay in his mother’s parlour, and to which he remained true through all the vicissitudes of his career. Thus, while the decline of his poetic reputation is one which no revival awaits—for it is only out of the decay of another Elizabethan age that another fantastic epoch of literary taste could be generated,—the nearer we can come to him in his prose the more his individuality commends itself to our sympathies; and in this sense Pope’s well-worn “Still I love the language of his heart,” may fearlessly be cited once more.
  2
  Cowley’s prose is but little in quantity, and some of it hardly comes into the category of pure literature. His Proposition for the Advancement of Experimental Philosophy is one of the London University—and more especially the London Professorial University—projects of his day, and a very ardent plea for the endowment of research, on conditions (including that of celibacy) which appeared to Cowley indispensable for its prosecution. He was, it should be remembered, not only a fellow, but, so to speak, the poet laureate of the Royal Society. In his discourse by way of Vision concerning the Government of Oliver Cromwell he held a brief of a different kind, and this time before a tribunal in little need of being convinced on his side of the question. This piece, though its opening possesses a certain charm, is so rhetorically commonplace in thought that its plan at once sinks from grandeur into grotesqueness, and the Tutelar Angel, to speak profanely, only appears at the wicket in order to be bowled over. Cowley’s disposition, it is clear, was magnanimous; but the turbid political atmosphere of his times, of which not even a Milton could wholly escape the contagion, made it quite impossible for a henchman of the Stuarts to weigh the historic Cromwell. The attempt is a mere ambitious failure. Far happier, and deserving not to be altogether overlooked among its author’s prose writings, is the preface to the comedy of Cutter of Coleman Street (the revised Guardian of Cowley’s Cambridge days). He is here on firm ground, moving among the experiences and, it must be allowed, the convictions of his own career, with a temperate dignity commanding respect even for a comic dramatist of the Restoration.  3
  There remain the Discourses—they are but eleven in number, and so far as the prose in them is concerned, not one of them is too long—by way of Essays, in Verse and Prose. They are rightly considered to form a sort of half-way house between Bacon and Addison, and are thus never likely to fall out of notice. But their chief attraction lies in the personal savour which pervades them all, and makes them, collectively and individually, their author’s own. I cannot subscribe altogether to Johnson’s dictum, that “no author ever kept his verse and prose at a greater distance from each other”; for though Cowley’s prose is without the occasional turgidity of his verse, and without the occasional suggestion of a broken pinion in the midst of a Pindaric flight, it equally abounds in witty turns, while happily quotations, as a rule, do duty for mere conceits. Very manifestly (though I do not know that this has been pointed out) his immediate model as a prose essayist was Montaigne, to whom he refers more than once in passing, and with whose ways of thinking and writing, inseparable as these necessarily are in essays of the personal type, he may be supposed to have familiarised himself in the long days of his French exile. Such pieces as those Of Greatness and Of Myself could hardly have been written except by a diligent student of this exemplar. For the rest, I hardly know why Cowley should be grudged full credit for “the vehement love of retirement,” to use Johnson’s phrase, announced by the very titles of these essays—Of Liberty, Of Solitude, Of Obscurity, The Garden, The Dangers of an Honest Man in much Company. Professor Minto tells us that Cowley, in his constant enunciation of his philosophy of life, was “moved entirely by constitutional sentiment.” To be sure there is a difference between weariness and moral indignation; but Cowley’s desire for independence was not the less genuine because through most of his life he had been a bondsman, and he loved his fetters none the better because he had worn them till their rust had entered into his very soul.  4
  Nothing further need, I think, be said by way of introduction to extracts which, in this instance, it is easy enough to make, but which can hardly do justice to the pleasant continuity which is one of the principal attractions of essays in Cowley’s manner. He may himself have placed more value on the gems of wit glittering on the surface of everything he produced; did he not, forsooth, enter it as a count in his indictment against Oliver Cromwell that the Protector “left no wise or witty apophthegm behind him?” And he may have specially delighted in the echoes for which, in every one of these Essays, he found or made opportunity of those “chimes of verse” which “never left ringing in his head” since his boyhood; though, to our taste, this intermixture of prose and metre only serves to give to both something of the sprightly insincerity of the vaudeville. The familiar ease, never descending into what would misbecome either the man of breeding or the man of letters, is the true cause of the pleasure which cultivated readers have never ceased to derive from these Essays; and to enjoy this pleasure to the full, we should pace with their author the whole length of his modest garden walks; for his estate was not on the scale of his friend John Evelyn’s.  5
 
 
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