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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 teazed.
Savoy-missing Cowley came into the court,
Making apologies for his bad play ;
That Apollo gave heed to all he could say:
Unless he had done some notable folly ;
Or printed his pitiful melancholy.
weary of the
His vehement desire of retirement now came again upon him. “ Not finding,” says the morose Wood, ferment 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, 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 a court; which sort of life, though his virtue made it innocent to him, yet nothing could make it quiet. Those were the reasons that moved 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 shewn! But actions are visible, though motives are secret.
Cowley certainly retired; first to Barn-elms, and afterwards to Chertsey, in Surrey. He seems, however, to have !ost part of his dread of the hum of men*. He thought himself now safe enough from intrusion, without 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 afforded 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 recommend to the consideration of all that may hereafter pant for solitude.
“ 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 far, 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
• L'Allegro of Milton.
St Ann's hill. You might very conveniently come bither the way of Hampton town, lying there one night. I write this in pain, and can say no more.
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 an Spenser; and king Charles pronounced, “ 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 be credited, 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 perusal of his work, to which my narration can be considered only as a slender supplement.
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 beginning of the 17th century, appeared a race of writers that may be termed 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 shew their learning was their whole endeavour: but, uriluckily resolving to shew it in rhymne, instead of writing poetry, they only wrote verses, and
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 TĖxon juje tis), an imitative 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 nature 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 contemporarics, 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 naturalfdignity, 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 dissimilar 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, comparisons, 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 uniformity of sentiment which enables us to conceive, and to excite, the pains and the pleasures of other minds. They never inquired what, on any occasion, they should have said or done ; but wrote rather as beholders than partakers of human nature; as beings 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 laboured 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 behind them;