Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
Poetry as a Mistress
By Abraham Cowley (16181667)
From the Essay Of Myself
I WAS even then acquainted with the poets (for the conclusion is taken out of Horace); and perhaps it was the immature and immoderate love of them which stamped first, or rather engraved, the characters in me; they were like letters cut in the bark of a young tree, which with the tree still grow proportionably. But, how this love came to be produced in me so early, is a hard question: I believe I can tell the particular little chance which 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 take some pleasure in it, there was wont to lie in my mothers 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 Spensers works; this I happened to fall upon, and was infinitely delighted with the stories of the knights, and giants, and monsters, and brave houses, which I found everywhere there (though my understanding had little to do with all this), and by degrees, with the tinkling of the rhyme, and dance of the numbers; so that I think I had read him all over before I was twelve years old, and was thus made a poet as immediately as a child is made an eunuch. With these affections of mind, and my heart wholly set upon letters, I went to the university; but was soon torn from thence by that public violent storm which would suffer nothing to stand where it did, but rooted up every plant, even from the princely cedars, to me, the hyssop. Yet I had as good fortune as could have befallen me in such a tempest; for I was cast by it into the family of one of the best persons, and into the court of one of the best princesses in the world. Now though I was here engaged in ways most contrary to the original design of my life, that is, into much company, and no small business, and into a daily fight of greatness, both militant and triumphant (for that was the state then of the English and the French courts), yet all this was so far from altering my opinion, that it only added the confirmation of reason to that which was before but natural inclination. I saw plainly all the paint of that kind of life, the nearer I came to it; and that beauty which I did not fall in love with, when for aught I knew it was real, was not like to bewitch or entice me, when I saw it was adulterate. I met with several great persons, whom I liked very well, but could not perceive that any part of their greatness was to be liked or desired, no more than I would be glad, or content to be in a storm, though I saw many ships which rid safely and bravely in it. A storm would not agree with my stomach if it did with my courage; 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 conveniencies 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 school-boys wish in a copy of verses to the same effect.
And I never then proposed to myself any other advantage from his Majestys 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 . But God laughs at a man who says to his soul, Take thy ease: I met presently not only with many little encumbrances and impediments, but with so much sickness, (a new misfortune to me), as would have spoiled the happiness of an Emperor as well as mine: yet I do neither repent nor alter my course. Non ego perfidum dixi sacramentum: nothing shall separate me from a mistress which I have loved so long, and have now at last married: though she neither has brought me a rich portion, nor lived yet so quietly with me as I hoped from her.