Reference > Cambridge History > Cavalier and Puritan > Jacobean and Caroline Criticism > D’Avenant and Cowley
  The aesthetics of Hobbes The growth of literary characterisation and “appreciation”  


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

XI. Jacobean and Caroline Criticism.

§ 8. D’Avenant and Cowley.

D’Avenant’s long preface to Gondibert (1650) is a dilution of the aesthetic theory of Hobbes, but Tasso’s discourses on the epic and Chapelain’s preface to Marino’s Adone, doubtless, served as his models. Nothing could differ more widely than the prose styles of the two men; the style of Hobbes foreshadows Rymer, while Cowley and D’Avenant prepare the way for Dryden and Temple. Of the four men who associated themselves with the composition of Gondibert in Paris, Hobbes was sixty-two years of age, D’Avenant and Waller forty-four and Cowley thirty-two; obviously, the eldest of these was less likely than the others to succumb to the influences of French taste. The heroic poem (like the pastoral, an artificial product of the later renascence) was in the air in Paris at that time. Chapelain had been at work on La Pucelle for nearly fifteen years, Lemoyne on his Saint Louis somewhat less; and D’Avenant’s preface bears a remarkable resemblance to those which were soon to precede these and many other French epics in the dozen years that followed. The spirit with which they worked explains that of D’Avenant. It explains his conception of epic practice as a merely mechanical consequence of epic theory; it explains how experience of human nature, which Hobbes considered essential to the writing of great poetry, tends to limit itself to “conversation”; it explains the talk about “nature,” which was to be more and more fundamental for English criticism, and the attack on “conceits,” one of the first of its kind in our language. The concetti of the Italians had lost ground in France for some time; D’Avenant was a pioneer in a campaign that, thenceforth, was sustained without a break in England. In both countries, there had been a metaphysical school of poetry; but only in Italy did the principles of the school receive a critical formulation; and neither England nor France had any contemporary equivalent for such important works as Tesauro’s Cannocchiale Aristotelico or Pellegrini’s Fonti dell’ Ingegno. D’Avenant himself shows his natural leanings toward the older school in his conception of poetry as a presentation of truth “through unfrequented and new ways, and from the most remote Shades, by representing Nature, though not in an affected, yet in an unusual dress.” This is Bacon’s “strangeness added to beauty,” and is far from the principle of Pope’s “what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed.” The defence of the stanza form, the confused conception of “wit,” the insistence on religion as well as nature and reason as the basis of poetry, all suggest D’Avenant’s place in this transitional period of English criticism.   17
  Cowley, the junior of D’Avenant by a dozen years, occupies a similar position. The influence of his poetry on contemporary taste was powerful; but taste does not become criticism until it has received reasoned expression. His keenest intellectual powers expressed themselves, however, in his verse; in his prose, he aimed rather at charm and clarity, after the fashion of the new standards of France: here, his critical opinions are casual and fragmentary, and, unlike Milton’s, they explain the externals rather than the essence of his own poetic practice. His chief critical utterances are contained in the 1656 edition of his poems, both in the general preface and in the notes to Davideis. This preface contains a passage acknowledging the triumph of the commonwealth which he omitted from later editions, and for which his first biographer apologises at some length. The spirit of the commonwealth exhibits itself in the insistence that poets should avoid obscenity and profaneness, and in the impassioned defence of Biblical material for modern poetry. In the decade which opens with D’Avenant’s preface to Gondibert (in which the Christian epic had been defended), heroic poems, sacred and profane, were coming forth from French presses with the speed of the modern novel; Mambrun had published his treatise De Poemate Epico; and Desmarets de Saint-Sorlin inaugurated his long campaign in favour of the merveilleux chrétien. Cowley does not accept their moralistic theory; for him, as for Waller, “to communicate delight to others is the main end of Poesie,” and a soul “filled with bright and delightful Idæas” the fountain of poetic creation. In charming prose, he has paraphrased Ovid’s complaint that poetry will not bear fruit in a troubled mind or body, and he has extended the principle to the influence of climate and of a “warlike, various, and a tragical age,” which is “best to write of, but worst to write in”: this is the logical outcome of Hobbes’s psychology. His later work connects itself largely with the foundation and progress of the Royal Society, and, through it, with the Baconian tradition; and he played so important a part (if we may believe Evelyn) in the attempt of the Society to organise a literary academy for the refinement of English, that, at his death, the whole scheme was dropped.   18

  The aesthetics of Hobbes The growth of literary characterisation and “appreciation”  

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