We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
  Abraham Cowley (1618–1667), by Sir Peter Lely, c.1666–7 Abraham Cowley (1618–1667), by Sir Peter Lely, c.1666–7
Cowley, Abraham (1618–1667), poet, was born in London, the seventh and posthumous son of Thomas Cowley (d. 1618), a stationer, and his wife, Thomasine. His mother obtained his admission as a king's scholar to Westminster School, which then enjoyed a considerable reputation. By his own account, Cowley had been first captivated by poetry as a child when he happened upon a copy of Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene in his mother's parlour. His own career as a published poet began extremely early: Poetical blossoms, a collection of five poems, appeared in 1633; a second edition, adding ‘Sylva, or Dyvers Copies of Verses’, in 1636; and a third edition in 1637. According to the preface, the narrative poems ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ and ‘Constantius and Philetus’ had been composed at the ages of ten and twelve respectively.

Cowley was admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge, as a pensioner on 21 April 1636, and became a scholar on 14 June 1637. Here on 2 February 1638 his Latin comedy Naufragium joculare was acted by members of his college before a university audience, and published subsequently; the same year saw the publication of an English pastoral comedy, Love's riddle, apparently written at the age of sixteen. On the occasion of Prince Charles's passing through Cambridge, Cowley's comedy The Guardian was acted for his entertainment on 12 March 1642. It remained unpublished until 1650, by which time Cowley had left England. Some non-dramatic poems can also be traced to these years, notably the elegy on his friend William Harvey.

Cowley had graduated BA in the winter of 1639/40, probably at the customary time in January; he was elected a ‘minor fellow’ of Trinity on 30 October 1640; and he proceeded MA in 1642. In 1643, however, in common with many Cambridge fellows of royalist sympathies, he was ejected, and retired to Oxford, where he resided in St John's College. According to different accounts it was through Harvey's brother John, or through Stephen Goffe, that he began his association with Henry Jermyn, Harvey's cousin, whose secretary he became. This year he published a vigorous couplet satire, The puritan and the papist, roundly attacking both religious extremes, but interestingly confessing that if forced to choose, it would be the latter. Another political satire dating from this period is ‘The Puritans Lecture’. It appeared in print under the title A satyre against separatists, ascribed to A. C. Generosus, in late 1642, and was reprinted in 1648 with The four ages of England, or, The iron age, both attributed to Cowley. In the preface to Poems (1656) Cowley denied all authorship of the latter, but remained silent on the question of the former poem.

The other important political poem from this period is The civil war, an unfinished epic poem celebrating the royalist successes up to the battle of Newbury and the heroic death of Lucius Cary, Viscount Falkland, whom Cowley had come to know and admire at Oxford. Cowley speaks of such a poem in the 1656 preface as abandoned when overtaken by events. A substantial portion of what is now known to be book 1 was published as A poem on the late civil war in 1679, but a mainly autograph manuscript of the full text, together with a transcript, was discovered among the Cowper (Panshanger) manuscripts at Hertfordshire Record Office (Herts. ALS) and published in 1973. It is now clear that Cowley adapted passages from The civil war for his biblical epic the Davideis, and also for the final book of the Plantarum libri sex.

Possibly as early as 1644, and certainly by the beginning of 1646, Cowley left England in Jermyn's service to follow Queen Henrietta Maria into France. He was employed in missions to Jersey, Scotland, and the Low Countries, and in conducting secret correspondence in cipher between members of the royalist party, including that which passed between the exiled queen and Charles I. During his absence from England his cycle of love poems The mistress was published in 1647. Two distinct editions of this work have now been identified. Its popularity is well attested by the frequency with which individual poems appear in contemporary manuscript miscellanies and commonplace books, and were set to music by some of the most eminent composers of the period.

Cowley in the interregnum

In mid- to late 1654 Cowley returned to England. According to his earliest biographer, Thomas Sprat, who misdates his arrival 1656, this was apparently to feign compliance with the Cromwellian regime but really to act as a royalist agent. He was arrested on 12 April 1655, in the aftermath of the abortive royalist risings in Yorkshire and at Salisbury that March, though by accident; the authorities had actually been seeking another person. He was released on bail of £1000, for which Dr Thomas Scarborough stood security. While in prison Cowley had prepared a major collection of his verse for publication. Poems (1656) omits the juvenilia and the political poems, but reprints The mistress. It also includes Miscellanies, a gathering of occasional poems, among them the elegies on Harvey and Crashaw, and the Anacreontics, some innocently bacchanalian imitations of the Anacreontea, then thought to be authentic poems of Anacreon; four books of the Davideis, an unfinished epic on the early career of David; and the Pindarique odes, which include imitations of two of Pindar's odes and several original poems executed in the same semi-irregular strophaic form. Both the Davideis and Pindarique odes have copious notes which testify to Cowley's scholarship, but it was the latter which were to prove the most influential part of his oeuvre.

Unfortunately the preface to Poems contains a passage which Cowley would have cause to regret. Speaking of the omission of the political poems and the unfinished Civil War, Cowley observes that it is now time for the conquered to set such things aside, to abandon the cause for which they have so long contended, to acquiesce in the mercy accorded by the victorious side. Sprat omitted this when the preface was reprinted in Works (1668), and is at pains to defend it in his own ‘Account of the life and writings’: he asserts that on Cowley's return to England he had found the royalist party in a sorry plight, but still too eager for ill-advised and potentially disastrous ventures; furthermore that Cowley was obliged to profess a passive obedience to the régime to secure his release from custody and pursue the designs for which he had been sent. Certainly Cowley's preface suggests that at worst he had come to despair of the royalist cause, in which he was scarcely alone, and that, temperamentally unsuited for the role in which he had been cast, he desired only a quiet life. His behaviour was less ambivalent than that of many who would declare for the king at the Restoration, yet it does seem to have been held against him. One would really need to know more of his actual political activities after his release, and how far he was the victim of rivalries within the royalist camp itself, before passing judgment.

Ostensibly Cowley passed the last years of the protectorate in the study of botany and medicine at Oxford, and also spent some time in Kent collecting samples. He proceeded to the degree of doctor of physic in 1657, and at this time seems to have gathered the materials for his Latin didactic poem Plantarum libri sex. His exact movements following Cromwell's death are unclear, but he returned to France in 1659 to renew his contacts with the royalist party there, though he seems to have been coolly received. Back in London before the Restoration, he hailed that event with a long Pindaric, Ode: upon the blessed restoration and returne of his sacred majestie Charls the Second, in which the king is compared to David entering his kingdom after the death of Saul.

After the Restoration

Following the Restoration, Cowley published an unfinished political tract which he had begun during the protectorate of Richard Cromwell. The visions and prophecies concerning England, Scotland, and Ireland is dated 1661 on the title-page, though it was entered in the Stationers' register for October 1660, and dated November 1660 in the Thomason Tracts. In its preface it purports to be the posthumous work of Ezekiel Grebner, grandson of the Paul Grebner who had presented a book of prophecies, still extant in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge, to Elizabeth I. The younger Grebner is a former parliamentarian of the kind that had fought to rid Charles I of his evil counsellors, but sworn to preserve his crown and dignity, and has recoiled in horror at his execution. The work was to have been in three parts, of which only one is given here. After witnessing Oliver Cromwell's funeral, the author experiences a dream in which he encounters Cromwell's evil guardian angel and debates with him the deceased's character; the diabolic angel turns threatening, only to be driven off by the appearance of St George, the true guardian saint of England. The tract was reissued in 1661 under the title A vision, concerning his late pretended highness, Cromwell the wicked, under Cowley's own name. In a shortened preface, Cowley explains the original scope of the work which has become superfluous with the change of political events. The use of the Grebner persona, which seems to have been intended to appeal to moderate parliamentarians, is dropped entirely.

Cowley's scientific interests found expression in a short prose pamphlet entitled A proposition for the advancement of learning, also published in 1661, and reissued the same year under the alternative title A proposition for the advancement of experimental philosophy. This is an appeal for the foundation of a college for the pursuit of experiments, to which is attached a school providing a scientifically orientated education for boys. It outlines the design of the buildings, expenditure and regulations, staffing and stipends, and the curriculum of the school. His own botanical studies issued in the first two books of his Latin didactic poem, Plantarum, published in 1662. Contrary to what has been sometimes asserted, Cowley neither was a member of the Royal Society nor attended its meetings, but he was certainly highly sympathetic to its aims. In 1667, at the request of his friend John Evelyn, he contributed a prefatory ode ‘To the Royal Society’ to Thomas Sprat's History of the Royal Society; in this, the last poem published in his lifetime, and possibly the last which he wrote, Bacon is acclaimed as the Moses of the new science, who surveyed but never entered the promised land.

On 16 December 1661 a revised version of Cowley's comedy The Guardian was produced under the new title Cutter of Coleman-Street by Sir William Davenant's company at the Duke's Theatre, Lincoln's Inn Fields. According to Cowley's preface to the 1663 printing of the play, on the opening night it met a hostile reception from part of the audience, who affected to see a satire upon the cavaliers at large in the characters of Colonel Cutter and Captain Worm, who are in fact mere raffish hangers-on disgracing the cause. Nevertheless the play enjoyed a successful run of a full week, and was revived several times after Cowley's death, the last occasion being in 1723.

In 1663 there appeared in Dublin a miscellany entitled Poems by several persons, containing verse mainly by Cowley, together with poems by Roger Boyle, Lord Orrery, Katherine Philips, and Clement Paman. Just how a Dublin printer should have come by the texts of poems by Cowley, some of them previously unpublished, is not entirely clear, though it seems plausible that Orrery, as a sometime patron of Cowley's, may have been responsible. Be that as it may, Cowley and his new publisher, Henry Herringman, acted quickly to secure the English copyright and supply a more accurate version of the texts, Verses, lately written upon several occasions. This slim volume contains emended texts of Cowley's poems from the Dublin volume, a reprint of his Restoration ode, and a previously unpublished ode upon Dr William Hervey, discoverer of the circulation of the blood. That it was very much an interim publication is shown by the subsequent relocation of six of the poems within the posthumous Essays in verse and prose.

One of the poems in the 1663 volume, ‘The Complaint’, voices in general terms Cowley's discontent at not having received the rewards he felt due to him for his services to the royal party. In particular he felt aggrieved that the mastership of the Savoy, which he believed to have been promised to him by both Charles I and Charles II, had been given to Gilbert Sheldon in 1661, and then to Henry Killigrew in 1663. This verse appeal for patronage had no effect upon the king, who indeed was often regarded by old royalists as readier to secure the loyalty of former opponents than to reward the faithful. Cowley was, however, relieved by the generosity of Jermyn, now earl of St Albans, and George Villiers, second duke of Buckingham, who procured him a lease on some of the queen mother's lands in Surrey. He settled at Barns Elms, and after two years moved to the Porch House at Chertsey in April 1665. The life of a Horatian gentleman farmer did not prove quite as he expected; in a letter to Sprat of 21 May 1665 he complained that both his tenants and his neighbours' cattle were troublesome, and that he had injured his ribs in a fall. Ironically, bucolic retirement proved the death of him: according to Sprat, he caught a chill while supervising his labourers in the fields, and died at Chertsey after a fortnight on 28 July 1667. On hearing of his death, Charles II observed that he had not left a better man behind him in England. Cowley received the most lavish funeral which had ever been given to a mere man of letters in England; he was buried on 3 August in Westminster Abbey, next to Chaucer and Spenser. His monument, erected by Buckingham, proclaims him ‘Anglorum Pindarus, Flaccus, Maro, Deliciae, Decus, Desiderium aevi sui’ (‘The Pindar, Horace, and Virgil of the English, the glory and favourite of his age’).

Posthumous reputation

Under Cowley's will, dated 28 September 1665, Sprat had been appointed his literary executor. Under his supervision, a folio edition of the Works appeared in 1668. This reprints the contents of Poems (1656), together with the two prose tracts of 1661, and the 1663 Verses with some additional poems, published and unpublished; the most significant new material is Several discourses by way of essays in verse and prose, a collection of prose essays interspersed and accompanied by poems, dealing with such topics as ‘Of Liberty’, ‘Of Agriculture’, ‘The Garden’ (addressed to Evelyn), and ‘Of Myself’. Sprat also undertook the publication of Poemata Latina, which includes the complete text of the Plantarum in six books. Of these the last, ‘Sylva’, is of great interest, centring upon a meditation on the oak as the national tree of England, and, through the royal oak which concealed Charles II in his flight from the battle of Worcester, proceeds to Cowley's final reflections upon the civil war. The juvenilia and the university plays were reprinted as The second part of the works in 1681.

Cowley never married. According to a story retailed by Samuel Johnson among others, he was in love only once in his life and lacked the courage to declare himself. Alexander Pope gave a more elaborate version to Joseph Spence, claiming that the lady, who eventually married Sprat's brother, was the Helenora of the poem ‘The Chronicle’, and that in his later years Cowley showed an aversion to women's society (Spence, 1.192); as Nethercot points out, the former story is most unlikely given that Cowley was seventeen years Sprat's senior and the two men seem not to have met until the late 1650s (Nethercot, 103). The truth is that these statements belong to the realm of posthumous, unsubstantiated tradition.

Something of Cowley's high reputation among his contemporaries has already been suggested. Some fourteen printings of the Works can be identified between 1668 and 1721. His impact upon later seventeenth-century poetry was profound: he carried Caroline wit-writing into the early Restoration period, and he received the tributes of both imitation and avowed admiration from such important poets as the earl of Rochester, John Oldham, and John Dryden, to say nothing of minor period figures whose verse is permeated by Cowley's influence. By the mid-eighteenth century, a taste for Cowley had come to seem old-fashioned, but he still found qualified praise from Pope, William Cowper, and Samuel Johnson. The latter's critical estimate is severely judicious, but recognizes that Cowley's ‘volatility is not the flutter of a light, but the bound of an elastick mind’ (Johnson, Poets, 1.37), and emphasizes his achievement in the ode and in the classical translation. If not the peer of Spenser and Milton which his own age thought him, Cowley remains a poet of varied and considerable gifts, and of great historical importance.

Alexander Lindsay


T. Sprat, ‘An account of the life and writing’, in The works of Mr Abraham Cowley (1668) · A. Cowley, preface, Poems (1656) · A. Cowley, Collected works, ed. T. Calhoun and others, 6 vols. (Newark, NJ, 1989–) · M. R. Perkin, Abraham Cowley: a bibliography (1977) · S. Johnson, Lives of the English poets, ed. G. B. Hill [new edn], 3 vols. (1905) · J. Loiseau, Abraham Cowley: sa vie, son oeuvre (Paris, 1931) · A. H. Nethercot, Abraham Cowley: the muse's Hannibal (1931) · Wood, Ath. Oxon., 1st edn · J. Spence, Observations, anecdotes, and characters, of books and men, ed. J. M. Osborn, new edn, 2 vols. (1966) · Brief lives, chiefly of contemporaries, set down by John Aubrey, between the years 1669 and 1696, ed. A. Clark, 2 vols. (1898) · Pepys, Diary · T. Sprat, ‘De vita et scriptis A. Couleii’, Poemata Latina (1668)


BL, letters · Harvard U., letters · Morgan L., letters · NRA, letters and literary MSS · Princeton University Library, New Jersey, letters |  Bodl. Oxf., Clarendon and Carte MSS, letters · Herts. ALS, letters to Sir William Cowper and others · Yale U., Osborn collection, letters


P. Lely, oils, 1646? (Young man as a shepherd), Dulwich College, London · oils, c.1660 (after P. Lely), NPG · P. Lely, oils, c.1666–1667, NPG [see illus.] · M. Beale, portrait, Merton Oxf. · M. Beale?, portraits, Bodl. Oxf., Merton Oxf. · W. Faithorne, line engraving (after lost portrait by P. Lely, c.1660), BM, NPG; repro. in Works (1668), frontispiece · J. Hall, engraving, repro. in Select works of Mr. A. Cowley, ed. R. Hurd, 2 vols. (1772) · crayon drawing, Trinity Cam. · mezzotint (after unknown artist), NPG · pen-and-ink drawing (after engraving by R. Vaughan), NPG · portraits (after W. Faithorne), Trinity Cam.

Wealth at death  

see will, 18 Sept 1665, printed in Nethercot, Abraham Cowley, 296–7