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the commencement of the Royal Society, of which an account has been given by Dr. Birch, he appears busy among the experimental philosophers, with the title of Dr. Cowley.
There is no reason for supposing, that he ever attempted practice; but his preparatory studies have contributed something to the honour of his country. Considering botany as necessary to a physician, he retired into Kent to gather plants; and, as the predominance of a favourite study affects all subordinate operations of the intellect, botany in the mind of Cowley turned into poetry. He composed in Latin several books on plants, of which the first and second display the qualities of herbs, in elegiac verse; the third and fourth, the beauties of flowers in various measures ; and the fifth and sixth, the use of trees, in heroic numbers.
At the same time were produced, from the same university, the two great poets, Cowley and Milton, of dissimilar genius, of opposite principles, but concurring in the cultivation of Latin poetry, in which the English, till their works and May's poem appeared, seemed unable to contest the palm with any other of the lettered nations.
If the Latin performances of Cowley and Milton be compared, (for May I hold to be superior to both) the advantage seems to lie on the side of Cowley. Milton is generally content to express the thoughts of the ancients in their language; Cowley, without much loss of purity or elegance, accommodates the diction of Rome to his own conceptions.
At the Restoration, after all the diligence of his long service, and with conscious. ness not only of the merit of fidelity, but of the dignity of great abilities, he naturally expected ample preferments, and, that he might not be forgotten by his own fault, wrote a song of triumph. But this was a time of such general hope, that great numbers were inevitably disappointed ; and Cowley found his reward very tediously delayed. He had been promised, by both Charles the First and Second, the mastership of the Savoy;“ but he lost it,” says Wood, “by certain persons, enemies to the Muses."
The neglect of the conrt was not his only mortification. Having, by such alteration as he thought proper, fitted his old comedy of The Guardian for the stage, he produced it 7 under the title of The Cutter of Coleman-street 8. It was treated on the stage with great severity, and was afterwards censured as a satire on the king's party.
Mr. Dryden, who went with Mr. Sprat to the first exhibition, related to Mr. Dennis, “ that when they told Cowley how little favour had been shown him, he received the news of his ill-success, not with so much firmness as might have been expected from so great a man.”
6 By May's poem we are here to understand a continuation of Lucan's Pharsalia to the death of Julius Cæsar, by Thomas May, an eminent poet and historian, who flourished in the reigns of Jamnes and Charles I. and of whom a life is given in the Biographia Britannica., H.
8 Here is an errour in the designation of this comedy, which our author copied from the titlepage of the latter editions of Cowley's works; the title of the play itself is without the article,“ Cutter of Coleman street," and that because a merry sharking fellow about the town, named Cutter, is a principal character in it., H.
What firmness they expected, or what weakness Cowley discovered, cannot be known. He that misses his end will never be as much pleased, as he that attains it, even when he can impute no part of his failure to himself; and, when the end is to please the multitude, no man, perhaps, has a right, in things admitting of gradation and comparison, to throw the whole blame upon his judges, and totally to exclude diffidence and shame by a haughty consciousness of his own excellence.
For the rejection of this play, it is difficult now to find the reason : it certainly has, in a very great degree, the power of fixing attention and exciting merriment. From the charge of disaffection he exculpates himself in his preface, by observing how un. likely it is, that, having followed the royal family through all their distresses, “ he should chuse the time of their restoration to begin a quarrel with them.” pears, however, from the Theatrical Register of Downes the prompter, to have been popularly considered as a satire on the royalists.
That he might shorten this tedious suspense, he published his pretensions and his discontent, in an ode called The Complaint; in which he styles himself the melancholy Cowley. This met with the usual fortune of complaints, and seems to have excited more contempt than pity.,
These unlucky incidents are brought, maliciously enough, together, in some stanzas, written about that time, on the choice of a laureat; a mode of satire, by which, since it was first introduced by Suckling, perhaps every generation of poets has been teased.
Savoy-missing Cowley came into the court,
Or printed his pitiful Melancholy. His vchement desire of retirement now came again upon him. “ Not finding,” says. the morose Wood, “ that proferment conferred upon him which he expected, while others for their money carried away most places, he retired discontented into Surrey."
“ He was now,” says the courtly Sprat, “weary of the vexations and formalities of an active condition. He had been perplexed with a long compliance to foreign man.
He was satiated with the arts of a court; which sort of life, though his vir. tue made it innocent to him, yet nothing could make it quiet. Those were the reasons that made him 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 a moderate revenue below the malice and flatteries of fortune."
So differently are things seen! and so differently are they shown! but actions are visible, though motives are secret. Cowicy certainly retired, first to Barn-elms, and afterwards to Chertsey, in Surrey. He seems, however, to have lost part of his dread of the hum of men). He thought himself now safe enough from intrusion, with.
9 L'Allegro of Milton. Dr. J.
out the defence of mountains and oceans; and, instead of seeking shelter in America, wisely went only so far from the bustle of life, as that he might easily find his way back, when solitude should grow tedious. His retreat was at first but slenderly accommodated; yet he soon obtained, by the interest of the earl of St. Alban’s and the duke of Buckingham, such a lease of the queen's lands, as af. forded him an ample income.
By the lovers of virtue and of wit it will be solicitously asked, if he now was happy. Let them peruse one of his letters accidentally preserved by Peck, which I recom, mend' to the consideration of all that may hereafter pant for solitude.
C6 To Dr. Thomas Sprat.
Chertsey, May 21, 1665. “ 'The first night that I came hither, I caught so great a cold with a defluxion of rheum, as made me keep my chamber ten days. And, two after, had such a bruise on my ribs with a fall, that I am yet unable to move or turn myself in my bed. This is my personal fortune here to begin with. And besides, I can get no money from my tenants, and have my meadows eaten up every night by cattle put in by my neighbours. What this signifies, or may come to in time, God knows. If it be ominous, it can end in nothing less than hanging. Another misfortune has been, and stranger than all the rest, that you have broke your word with me, and failed to come, even though you told Mr. Bois that you would. This is what they call monstri simile. I do hope to recover my late hurt so farre within five or six days (though it be uncertain yet whether I shall ever recover it) as to walk about again. And then, methinks, you and I and the dean might be very merry upon St. Ann's Hill. You might very conveniently come hither the way of Hampton town, lying there one night. I write this in pain, and can say no more: verbum sapienti."
He did not long enjoy the pleasure or suffer the uneasiness of solitude ; for he died at the Porch-house' in Chertsey, in 1667, in the 49th year of his age.
He was buried with great pomp near Chaucer and Spenser; and king Charles pro. nounced, " that Mr. Cowley had not left behind him a better man in England.” He is represented by Dr. Sprat as the most amiable of mankind; and this posthumous praise may safely becredited, as it has never been contradicted by envy or by faction.
Such are the remarks and memorials which I have been able to add to the narrative of Dr. Sprat ; who, writing when the feuds of the civil war were yet recent, and the minds of either party were easily irritated, was obliged to pass over many transactions in general expressions, and to leave curiosity often unsatisfied. What he did not tell, cannot however now be known; I must therefore recommend the peo rusal of his work, to which my narration can be considered only as a slender supplement.
1 Now in the possession of Mr. Clark, alderman of London. Mr. Clark was in 1798 elected to the important office of chamberlain of London, and has every year since been unanimously re-elected. N.
Cowley, like other poets who have written with narrow views, and, instead of tracing intellectual pleasures in the minds of men, paid their court to temporary prejudices, has been at one time too much praised, and too much neglected at another.
Wit, like all other things subject by their nature to the choice of man, has its changes and fashions, and at different times takes different forms. About the bcginning of the seventeenth century, appeared a race of writers, that may be ternied the metaphysical poets; of whom, in a criticism on the works of Cowley, it is not improper to give some account.
The metaphysical poets were men of learning, and to show their learning was their whole endeavour: but, unluckily resolving to show it in rhyme, instead of writing poetry they only wrote verses, and very often such verses, as stood the trial of the finger better than of the ear; for the modulation was so imperfect, that they were only found to be verses by counting the syllables.
If the father of criticism has rightly denominated poetry téxem ferueniloxen, an imita. tipe art, these writers will, without great wrong, lose their right to the name of poets; for they cannot be said to have imitated any thing; they neither copied na. ture nor life; neither painted the forms of matter, nor represented the operations of intellect.
Those however who deny them to be poets allow them to be wits. Dryden confesses of himself and his contemporaries, that they fall below Donne in wit, but maintains, that they surpass him in poetry.
If wit be well described by Pope, as being “ that which has been often thought, but was never before so well expressed,” they certainly never attained, nor ever sought it; for they endeavoured to be singular in their thoughts, and were careless of their diction. But Pope's account of wit is undoubtedly erroneous: he depresses it below its natural dignity, and reduces it from strength of thought to happiness of language.
If, by a more noble and more adequate conception, that be considered as wit, which is at once natural and new, that, which, though not obvious, is, upon its first production, acknowledged to be just; if it be that, which he that never found it wonders how he missed; to wit of this kind the metaphysical poets have seldom risen. Their thoughts are often new, but seldom natural; they are not obvious, but neither are they just; and the reader, far from wondering that he missed them, wonders more frequently by what perverseness of industry they were ever found.
But wit, abstracted from its effects upon the hearer, may be more rigorously and philosophically considered as a kind of discordia concors, a combination of dissimi. lar images, or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike. of wit, thus defined, they have more than enough. The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, compari. sons, and allusions; their learning instructs, and their subtlety surprises; but the reader commonly thinks his improvement dearly bought, and, though he sometimes admires, is seldom pleased.
From this account of their compositions it will be readily inferred, that they were not successful in representing or moving the affections. As they were wholly employed on something unexpected and surprising, they had no regard to that unifor.
mity of sentiment, which enables us to conceive and to excite the pains and the plea. sure of other minds; they never enquired what, on any occasion, they should have said or done; but wrote rather as beholders than partakers of human nature, as be. ngs looking upon good and evil, impassive and at leisure, as Epicurean deities, making remarks on the actions of men, and the vicissitudes of life, without interest and without emotion. Their courtship was void of fondness, and their lamentation of sorrow. Their wish was only to say what they hoped had never been said before.
Nor was the sublime more within their reach than the pathetic; for they never attempted that comprehension and expanse of thought, which at once fills the whole mind, and of which the first effect is sudden astonishment, and the second rational admiration. Sublimity is produced by aggregation, and littleness by dispersion. Great thoughts are always general, and consist in positions not limited by exceptions, and in descriptions not descending to minuteness. It is with great propriety that subtlety, which in its original import means exility of particles, is taken in its metaphorical meaning for nicety of distinction. Those writers, who lay on the watch for novelty, could have little hope of greatness; for great things cannot have escaped former observation, Their attempts were always analytic; they broke every image into fragments, and could no more represent, by their slender conceits and Jaboured particularities, the prospects of nature, or the scenes of life, than he, who dissects a sun-beam with a prism, can exhibit the wide effulgence of a summer noon.
What they wanted however of the sublime, they endeavoured to supply by hyperbole; their amplification had no limits; they left not only reason but fancy be. hind them, and produced combinations of confused magnificence, that not only could not be credited, but could not be imagined.
Yet great labour, directed by great abilities, is never wholly lost: if they fre. quently threw away their wit upon false conceits, they likewise sometimes struck. out unexpected truth: if their conceits were far-fetched, they were often worth the carriage. To write on their plan it was at least necessary to read and think. No man could be born a metaphysical poet, nor assume the dignity of a writer, by de. scriptions copied from descriptions, by imitations borrowed from imitations, by traditional imagery, and hereditary similes, by readiness of rhyme, and volubility of syllables.
In perusing the works of this race of authors, the mind is exercised either by re. collection or inquiry: either something already learned is to be retrieved, or something new is to be examined. If their greatness seldom elevates, their acuteness often surprises; if the imagination is not always gratified, at least the powers of reflection aod comparison are employed; and in the mass of materials which ingenious absurdity has thrown together, genuine wit and useful knowledge may be sometimes found buried perhaps in grossness of expression, but useful to those who know their value, and such as, when they are expanded to perspicuity, and polished to ele. gance, may give lustre to works, which have more propriety, though less copiousness, of sentiment.
This kind of writing, which was, I believe, borrowed from Marino and his fol. lowers, had been recommended by the example of Donne, a man of very extensive and various knowledge; and by Jonson, whose manner resembled that of Donne more in the ruggedness of his lines, than in the cast of his sentiments,