Cowley’s Essays

Author: Abraham Cowley


Abraham Cowley was the son of Thomas Cowley, stationer, and citizen of London in the parish of St. Michael le Querne, Cheapside. Thomas
Cowley signed his will on the 24th of July, 1618, and it was proved on the 11th of the next month by his widow, Thomasine. He left six children, Peter, Audrey, John, William, Katherine, and Thomas, with a child unborn for whom the will made equal provision with the rest.
The seventh child, born before the end of the same year, was named
Abraham, and lived to take high place among the English Poets.

The calm spirit of Cowley’s "Essays" was in all his life. As he tells us in his Essay "On Myself," even when he was a very young boy at school, instead of running about on holidays and playing with his fellows, he was wont to steal from them and walk into the fields,
either alone with a book or with some one companion, if he could find any of the same temper. He wrote verse when very young, and says, "I believe I can tell the particular little chance that filled my head first with such chimes of verse as have never since left ringing there; for I remember when I began to read and to take some pleasure in it, there was wont to lie in my mother’s parlour (I know not by what accident, for she herself never in her life read any book but of devotion), but there was wont to lie Spenser’s works."
The delight in Spenser wakened all the music in him, and in 1628, in his tenth year, he wrote a "Tragical Historie of Pyramus and

In his twelfth year Cowley wrote another piece, also in sixteen stanzas, with songs interspersed, which was placed first in the little volume of Poetical Blossoms, by A. C., published in 1633. It was a little quarto of thirty-two leaves, with a portrait of the author, taken at the age of thirteen. This pamphlet, dedicated to the Dean of Westminster, and with introductory verses by Cowley and two of his schoolfellows, contained "Constantia and Philetus," with the "Pyramus and Thisbe," written earlier, and three pieces written later, namely, two Elegies and "A Dream of Elysium." The inscription round the portrait describes Cowley as a King’s Scholar of Westminster School; and "Pyramus and Thisbe" has a special dedication to the Head Master, Lambert Osbalston. As schoolboy,
Cowley tells us that he read the Latin authors, but could not be made to learn grammar rules by rote. He was a candidate at his school in 1636 for a scholarship at Cambridge, but was not elected.
In that year, however, he went to Cambridge and obtained a scholarship at Trinity.

Cowley carried to Cambridge and extended there his reputation as boy poet. In 1636 the "Poetical Blossoms" were re-issued with an appendix of sixteen more pieces under the head of "Sylva." A third edition of the "Poetical Blossoms" was printed in 1637—the year of
Milton’s "Lycidas" and of Ben Johnson’s death. Cowley had written a five-act pastoral comedy, "Love’s Riddle," while yet at school, and this was published in 1638. In the same year, 1638, when Cowley’s age was twenty, a Latin comedy of his, "Naufragium Joculare," was acted by men of his College, and in the same year printed, with a dedication to Dr. Comber, Dean of Carlisle, who was Master of
Trinity. The poet Richard Crashaw, who was about two years older than Cowley, and, having entered Pembroke Hall in 1632, became a
Fellow of Peterhouse in 1637, sent Cowley a June present of two unripe apricots with pleasant verses of compliment on his own early ripeness, on his April-Autumn:-

"Take them, and me, in them acknowledging
How much my Summer waits upon thy Spring."

Cowley was able afterwards to help Crashaw materially, and wrote some lines upon his early death.

In 1639 Cowley took the degree of B.A. In 1640 he was chosen a
Minor Fellow, and in 1642 a Major Fellow, of Trinity, and he proceeded to his M.A. in due course. In March, 1641, when Prince
Charles visited Cambridge, a comedy called "The Guardian," hastily written by Cowley, was acted at Trinity College for the Prince’s entertainment. Cowley is said also to have written during three years at Cambridge the greater part of his heroic poem on the history of David, the "Davideis." One of the occasional poems written at this time by Cowley was on the early and sudden death of his most intimate friend at the University, William Hervey, to whom he was dearer than all but his brothers and sisters, and, says

"Even in that we did agree,
For much above myself I loved them too."

Hervey and Cowley had walked daily together, and had spent nights in joint study of philosophy and poetry. Hervey "had all the light of youth, of the fire none."

"With as much zeal, devotion, piety,
He always lived as other saints do die.
Still with his soul severe account he kept,
Weeping all debts out ere he slept;
Then down in peace and innocence he lay,
Like the sun’s laborious light,
Which still in water sets at night,
Unsullied with the journey of the day."

Cowley’s friendship with this family affected the course of his life. He received many kindnesses from his friend’s brother John
Hervey, including introduction to Henry Jermyn, one of the most trusted friends of Queen Henrietta Maria, the friend who was created by her wish Baron Jermyn of St. Edmondsbury, who was addressed by
Charles I. as "Harry," and was created by Charles II., in April,
1660, Earl of St. Albans. He was described in Queen Henrietta’s time by a political scandal-monger, as "something too ugly for a lady’s favourite, yet that is nothing to some." In 1643 Cowley was driven from Cambridge, and went to St. John’s College, Oxford. To
Oxford at the end of that year the king summoned a Parliament, which met on the 22nd of January, 1644. This brought to Oxford many peers and Royalists, who deserted the Parliament at Westminster for the king’s Parliament at Oxford. It continued to sit until the 16th of
April, by which time the king had found even his own Parliament to be in many respects too independent. In 1644 the queen, about to become a mother, withdrew to Exeter from Oxford, against which an army was advancing; and the parting at Oxford proved to be the last between her and her husband. A daughter was born at Exeter on the
16th of June. Within two weeks afterwards the advance of an army towards Exeter caused the queen to rise from her bed in a dangerous state of health, and, leaving her child in good keeping, escape to
Plymouth, where she reached Pendennis Castle on the 29th of June.
On the 2nd of July the king’s forces were defeated at Marston Moor.
On the 14th of July the queen escaped from Falmouth to Brest. After some rest at the baths of Bourbon, she went on to Paris, where she was lodged in the Louvre, and well cared for. Jermyn was still her treasurer, her minister, and the friend for whose counsel she cared most.

It was into the service of this Lord Jermyn that Cowley had been introduced through his friendship with the Herveys. He went to
Paris as Lord Jermyn’s secretary, had charge of the queen’s political correspondence, ciphered and deciphered letters between
Queen Henrietta and King Charles, and was thus employed so actively under Lord Jermyn that his work filled all his days, and many of his nights. He was sent also on journeys to Jersey, Scotland, Flanders,
Holland, or wherever else the king’s troubles required his attendance. In 1647 Cowley published his volume of forty-four love poems, called "The Mistress." He was himself no gallant, neither paid court to ladies, nor married. His love poetry was hypothetical; and of his life at this time he says: "Though I was in a crowd of as good company as could be found anywhere; though I
was in business of great and honourable trust; though I ate at the best table, and enjoyed the best convenience for present subsistence that ought to be desired by a man of my condition in banishment and public distresses, yet I could not abstain from renewing my old schoolboy’s wish in a copy of verses to the same effect:-

"’Well, then, I now do plainly see
This busy world and I shall ne’er agree,’ &c.,

and I never then proposed to myself any other advantage from his
Majesty’s happy restoration, but the getting into some moderately convenient retreat in the country, which I thought, in that case, I
might easily have compassed, as well as some others who, with no greater probabilities or pretences, have arrived to extraordinary fortunes."

In 1654 Queen Henrietta, under influence of a new confessor, had left the Louvre, and, with the little daughter born at Exeter, taken up her quarters in a foundation of her own, at Chaillot, for nuns of the visitation of St. Mary. Lord Jermyn having little use left for a secretary in Paris, Cowley in 1656, after twelve years’ service in
France, was sent to England that he might there live in the retirement he preferred, and with the understanding that he would be able to send information upon the course of home affairs. In
England he was presently seized by mistake for another man, and,
when his name and position were known, he was imprisoned, until a friendly physician, Sir Charles Scarborough, undertook to be security in a thousand pounds for his good conduct. In this year,
1656, Cowley published the first folio volume of his Poems, prepared in prison, and suggested, he said, by his finding, when he returned to England, a book called "The Iron Age," which had been published as his, and caused him to wonder that any one foolish enough to write such bad verses should yet be so wise as to publish them under another man’s name. Cowley thought then that he had taken leave of verse, which needed less troubled times for its reading, and a mind less troubled in the writer. He left out of his book, he said, the pieces written during the Civil War, including three books of the
Civil War itself, reaching as far as the first battle of Newbury.
These he had burnt, for, he said, "I would have it accounted no less unlawful to rip up old wounds than to give new ones." "When the event of battle and the unaccountable Will of God has determined the controversy, and that we have submitted to the will of the conqueror, we must lay down our pens as well as arms." The first part of this folio contained early poems; the second part "The
Mistress;" the third part "Pindaric Odes;" and the fourth and last his "Davideis."

In September of the following year, 1657, Cowley acted as best man to George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, on his marriage at Bolton
Percy, to Fairfax’s daughter; Cowley wrote also a sonnet for the bride. In December he obtained, by influence of friends, the degree of M.D. from the University of Oxford, and retired into Kent to study botany. Such study caused him then to write a Latin poem upon
Plants, in six books: the first two on Herbs, in elegiac verse; the next two on Flowers, in various measures; and the last two on Trees,
in heroic numbers:- "Plantarum, Libri VI."

After the death of Cromwell, Cowley returned to France, but he came back to England in 1660, when he published an "Ode on His Majesty’s
Restoration and Return," and "A Discourse by way of Vision concerning the Government of Oliver Cromwell." He was admitted, as
Dr. Cowley, among the first members of the Royal Society then founded; but he was excluded from the favour of the king. He had written an "Ode to Brutus," for which, said his Majesty, it was enough for Mr. Cowley to be forgiven. A noble lord replied to
Cowley’s Ode, in praise of Brutus, with an Ode against that Rebel.
Cowley’s old friend, Lord Jermyn, now made Earl of St. Alban’s,
joined, however, with George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, in providing for the poet all that was required to secure to him the quiet life that he desired. Provision to such end had been promised him both by Charles I. and Charles II., in the definite form of the office of Master of the Savoy, but the post was given by Charles II.
to a brother of one of his mistresses.

Cowley recast his old comedy of "The Guardian," and produced it in
December, 1661, as "Cutter of Coleman Street." It was played for a week to a full audience, though some condemned it on the supposition it was a satire upon the king’s party. Cowley certainly was too pure and thoughtful to be a fit associate for Charles II. and many of his friends. The help that came from the Earl of St. Albans and the Duke of Buckingham, was in the form of such a lease of the
Queen’s lands as gave the poet a sufficient income. Others who had served little were enriched; but he was set at ease, and sought no more. He then made his home by the Thames, first at Barn Elms, and afterwards at Chertsey, at which latter place he lived for about a year in the Porch House, that yet stands. Cowley was living at
Chertsey when a July evening in damp meadows gave him a cold, of which he died within a fortnight. That was in the year 1667, year also of the death of Jeremy Taylor, and of the birth of Jonathan

Abraham Cowley is at his truest in these ESSAYS, written during the last seven years of his life. Their style is simple, and their thoughts are pure. They have, for their keynote, the happiness of one who loves true liberty in quiet possession of himself. When he turns to the Latins, his translations are all from those lines which would have dwelt most pleasantly upon a mind that to the last held by the devout wish expressed by himself in a poem of his early youth—(A Vote, in "Sylva"):

"Books should, not business, entertain the light,
And sleep, as undisturbed as death, the night.
My house a cottage more
Than palace, and should fitting be
For all my use, no luxury.
My garden, painted o’er
With Nature’s hand, not Art’s, should pleasures yield,
Horace might envy in his Sabine field."

H. M.


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Chicago: Abraham Cowley, "Introduction.," Cowley’s Essays, ed. Keil, Heinrich, 1822-1894 and trans. Seaton, R. C. in Cowley’s Essays (New York: George E. Wood, ""Death-bed"" edition, 1892), Original Sources, accessed December 7, 2022,

MLA: Cowley, Abraham. "Introduction." Cowley’s Essays, edited by Keil, Heinrich, 1822-1894, and translated by Seaton, R. C., in Cowley’s Essays, New York, George E. Wood, ""Death-bed"" edition, 1892, Original Sources. 7 Dec. 2022.

Harvard: Cowley, A, 'Introduction.' in Cowley’s Essays, ed. and trans. . cited in ""Death-bed"" edition, 1892, Cowley’s Essays, George E. Wood, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 7 December 2022, from