Abraham Cowley was a leading English writer and poet belonging to the 17th century with fourteen different printings of his works published during his life and posthumously. He was also a royalist and spent most of the period during the Civil War, serving the royal family as a personal confidante
Early Life & Career
Abraham Cowley was born in 1618 in the City of London to a wealthy household. His father died shortly before his birth and his mother devoted most of her time reading ‘The Faerie Queene’ to her enthusiastic son, who would read the story twice before heading to school every day. The boy, at the age of ten, composed his first works, ‘Tragicall History of Piramus and Thisbe’, which was written in a six line stanza— a first of its kind. Imaginative giftedness and maturity were some of the many talents of Cowley.
A couple of years later, he precociously wrote some more poems and short stories such as ‘Elegy on the Death of Dudley’ and ‘Lord Carlton’, while studying at Westminster School. Most of these poems were collected and published in his first poetical publications, ‘Poetical Blossoms’ in 1633, when he was only 15 years old. He then started gaining recognition as a writer and poet before leaving to Oxford to study medicine. Here, he earned a doctorate in 1657. Cowley also wrote plays while he was at Cambridge, including ‘The Guardian’ and ‘The Cutter of Coleman Street’. As a poet, his career peaked and he was delivering some of his best works. A collection of revised poems such as ‘Poems of 1656’, ‘Mistress’ and ‘Davideis’, a biblical epic, followed. During the same time, the poet’s life was broken due to a looming Civil War and in spite of his poetical labors, he was forced to travel along with the Royal Family as he was obligated in service to them as a confidante. During one such travel, Cowley was introduced to the works of Pindar and his metrical practice. This inspired him to come up with a new technique to write poems with irregular iambic schemes, patterns and rhyming techniques known as the ‘Pindarick Ode’, which is one of his most famous works.
One of the first poets to be nominated in the Royal Society, Abraham Cowley’s reputation as poet was greater than ever, posthumously. He passed away on July 28, 1667 and was given the funeral of a king—the most lavish funeral for a poet yet.
Abraham Cowley was a prolific 17th century Cavalier poet. Some of his major works include- “The Mistress; or, Several Copies of Love Verses” “Poetical Blossoms” “Poems – 1656” “Naufragium Ioculare” “The First Nemeaean Ode of Pindar” “The Resurrection” “Versus Written on Several Occasions” “Works” “The Guardian” “De Plantis Libri VI” “Tragicall History of Piramus and Thisbe” “The Civil Warre”
Legacy And Contributions
Following Abraham Cowley’s death in 1667, he was interred beside Chaucer and Spenser, two prominent personalities. His works on the Pindaric Code earned him a lot of recognition and he was given a lavish funeral. In his memory, the duke of Buckingham erected a monument right above his tombstone. His works, ‘Poemata Latina’ were published posthumously, and soon enough, many of his works fell into neglect before they were revived by many of his contemporaries such as Thomas Sprat and Alexander Balloch Grosart in in the 18th and 19th centuries. *One of Abraham Cowley’s greatest contributions was the development of the ‘Pindarick Ode’, in Pindaric tradition. These consisted of iambic pentameters and phrases of irregular lengths with a unique rhyming scheme. This changed the styles of writing poetry which reflected in the works of many other poets later.
Many of Abraham Cowley’s unfinished and unpublished works were collated by Thomas Sprat, a divine, which he summed into a folio and prefixed it ‘A life of a poet’. Many reprints and additions were made to this folio much later and by 1881, this was superseded by Alexander Balloch Grosart. Since then, many of his essays and poems have been repeatedly revived time and again.
Most of Abraham Cowley’s works were inspired by the works of Pindar, an ancient Greek poet. He was mesmerized by the unique rhyming system and decided to develop on the same. However, it is believed that Cowley misunderstood the lyrical metric practice of Pindar and reproduced the ‘Pindarick Ode’, which turned out to be totally different. One of his most influential ‘Pindarick Ode’ poems was ‘Intimations of Immortality’, which was known for its lofty lyrical schemes.
Legend has it, that Abraham Cowley was torn by the Civil War. The life experiences during the Civil War led him to advocate the royals. After being tossed in tumultuous affairs, he became a personal confidante to the royal family itself. He would often accompany the queen on her trips and spent most of his free time, serving the royals. He was also an aide to the king and often underwent dangerous trials while accompanying the king and the royals on many death-defying journeys. However, in spite of these labors, he never refrained from the world of literature and writing.
1618: Abraham Cowley was born into a wealthy family.
1628: He composed his first six-stanza poem, ‘Tragicall History of Piramus and Thisbe’.
1633: He collected and published his poems in a single edition called, ‘Poetical Blossoms’.
1643: Cowley became a royalist and became a personal confidante to the royal family.
1656: His most celebrated works called ‘Works’ was published this year.
1667: Abraham Cowley passed away after he was afflicted with the flu on 28th July.