Reference > Cambridge History > Cavalier and Puritan > Writers of the Couplet > Davideis
  Pindarique Odes Cowley’s influence  

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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

III. Writers of the Couplet.

§ 10. Davideis.


The fourth part of the volume was occupied by the four books of Davideis, a Sacred Poem of the Troubles of David, in decasyllabic couplets. Cowley’s deep conviction of religion, though tinged with decided fatalism, prompted him to compose a sacred epic; and David, as the ancestor of Jesus, and as a hero who attained success through sufferings of an epic cast, suggested a possibly fertile subject. Vergil was the model of the poem, which, designed to be in twelve books, like the Aeneid, was to conclude with the lament of David over Saul and Jonathan. Whether the subject was suited for epic treatment on this scale is a purely aesthetic question, which Cowley, at any rate, answered in the affirmative. His handling of it was hampered by a passion for digression, and the determination to crowd all his biblical learning into the poem. The first book, after the preliminary invocation, and a description of the opposed councils of hell and heaven, proceeds with the history of Saul’s anger, the preservation of David by Michal, his flight to Ramah and the appearance of Saul among the prophets. The charm of David’s music suggests a disquisition, containing some staggering analogies on the harmony designed by God in creation. David’s visit to Ramah calls for a minute description of the prophets’ college, and a less interesting résumé of their course of instruction. Balaam’s prophecy is applied, happily, to Saul’s change of heart. In the second book, a rhapsody on the nature of love introduces us to Jonathan. The celebration of the feast of the new moon brings us to the hall of Saul’s palace, where we read the story of Abraham portrayed in the tapestry hangings. David, absent from the feast, is regaled by a vision selected by an angel from the miscellaneous treasury of fancy, and sees the history of his royal house unfolded before him until, to his waking ears, Gabriel, an elegant figure clothed in a blue silk mantle cut from the skies, with a scarf formed of the choicest piece of an undimmed rainbow, prophesies the birth of the Messiah. The third book brings us into a labyrinth of retrospect. David escapes to Nob and Gath: his heroes join him at Adullam, and accompany him to Moab. The king of Moab, full of epic curiosity to hear a story of adventure, hears from Joab the tale of David and Goliath and the marriage of David and Michal. With the next morning, the fourth book begins. The last three leagues of the way to “gameful Nebo” are beguiled by David with a sketch of the constitution of Israel under the judges, and a review of the early part of the reign of Saul. Much still remains to be told after the end of the Philistine war; but, with the arrival of the hunters at Nebo, the poem closes.   25
  That Cowley had some narrative art must be admitted: the poem is not dull, and his consistent cleverness stimulates the reader’s curiosity, if it does not provoke his admiration. In notes, full of learning, he discusses and defends his embroideries on the sacred story, and explains what may seem to be the novelties of his versification. His couplet has in it more of the weight of Sandys and the older couplet-writers than of the somewhat emasculated melody of Waller or the pointed brevity of Denham. He occasionally allows himself a triplet. Sandys however, in his Ovid, had used triplets, though on a very few occasions, and had written several of his Psalms in octosyllabic triplets; and, at least once, a triplet is to be found in Waller. Twelve-syllabled lines occur from time to time in Davideis, and, in the fourth book, the oracle at Shiloh speaks in this measure. In Davideis, such variations are used to express the sense of the passage more thoroughly by the sound. The overflowing of a river, the infinitude of the glory of heaven, the incessant halleluia of the angels—“Halleluia” was a word which led Cowley into strange metrical gymnastics—the hugeness of the appearance of Goliath, the height of Saul, all give occasion to the serviceable alexandrine; and Cowley feels himself bound to call the reader’s possibly neglectful attention to this. He indeed refined too greatly on the effect produced by wedding sound to sense. Of the two examples to which he directs us in the second book, one, the line describing the meteor worn instead of hair by Gabriel, 37  is too subtle to make its intended point clear; while the other, describing the doom of the Edomites at the hands of Amaziah, 38  defies all scansion in its effort to be graphic. The fact that Cowley always kept his meaning before him, and sought, with high ideals, for the most effective way of expressing it, is the leading virtue of this, his most ambitious work. Valuing every artifice which may give vivacity to the expression of emotion, he condemns the “putid officiousness” of the grammarians who finished Vergil’s incomplete lines; 39  and, where words or description fail him, he himself suppresses the end of his line and the conclusion of his couplet.   26

Note 37. Book II, 1. 802. [ back ]
Note 38. Book II, 1. 611. [ back ]
Note 39. Book I, note 14. [ back ]

CONTENTS · VOLUME CONTENTS · INDEX OF ALL CHAPTERS · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
  Pindarique Odes Cowley’s influence  
 
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