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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

III. Writers of the Couplet.

§ 9. Pindarique Odes.


The Pindarique Odes, prefaced by paraphrases of Pindar’s second Olympian and first Nemean odes, were introduced by Cowley with a little diffidence. He is afraid that even experienced readers will not understand them. Their voluble licence of metre may give the mistaken impression that they are easy to compose. The “sweetness and numerosity” of the irregular lines may be overlooked by a disregard of the necessary cadences in pronunciation. He had little or no insight into Pindar’s metrical schemes: his imitations of the “stile and manner” of his author follow no fixed system of prosody. The quality which he sought to reproduce was the “Enthusiastical manner” of Pindar, with its digressions and bold figures, clothed in “that kind of Stile which Dion. Halicarnasseus calls M [char], and which he attributes to Alcaeus.” Cowley dsecribes the “Pindarique Pegasus” on which he is mounted:
       
’T is an unruly, and a hard-mouth’d Horse,
Fierce, and unbroken yet,
Impatient of the Spur or Bit,
Now praunces stately, and anon flies o’re the place,
Disdains the servile Law of any settled pace,
Conscious and proud of his own natural force.
’T will no unskilful Touch endure,
But flings Writer and Reader too that sits not sure.  32 
Thus he fortifies himself against charges of unskilful horsemanship. It is possible that he himself remained firm in the saddle when he wrote the lines:
       
Thy task was harder much then his,
For thy learn’d America is
Not onely found out first by Thee;  33 
but the reader endures a fall before he makes the discovery that the last syllable of “America” has to be elided. Again, the line, “Which Father-Sun, Mother-Earth below,” 34  may be made into eight syllables by eliding the last syllable of “Mother”; but the reader may be excused another stumble. Cowley’s critical notes on the odes serve unconsciously to set his own faults in relief. For the metaphor at the beginning of The Muse, he cites the second strophe of Pindar’s sixth Olympian. But Pindar uses the metaphor merely to introduce what follows, nor does he wear it threadbare. Cowley, on the other hand, harnesses to the muse’s chariot six abstract qualities and the suggestion of more; Nature becomes its postilion, Art its coachman, Figures, Conceits and other qualities its running footmen; and the whole four stanzas, in lines varying from two to twelve syllables, describe its progress with a prodigal use of fancies, which are astonishing merely in their extravagance and want of grace. Amid these things, lines occur in which Cowley’s natural melancholy speaks with a note of music—for example, “And Life, alas, allows but one ill winters Day.” But these moments are few and far between. The poet is bent on being clever at the expense of all else besides. Conceits in which the years to come are conceived as eggs within their shell, 35  in which Elijah becomes
       
The second Man, who leapt the Ditch where all
The rest of Mankind fall,
And went not downwards to the skie, 36 
are faults of ambition from which Cowley’s humour was not capable of saving him.
  24

Note 32The Resurrection, st. 4. [ back ]
Note 33To Mr. Hobs, st. 4. [ back ]
Note 34To Dr. Scarborough, st. 4. [ back ]
Note 35The Muse, st. 3. [ back ]
Note 36The Extasie, st. 7 [ back ]

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