Reference > Cambridge History > Cavalier and Puritan > Writers of the Couplet > The Mistress
  Abraham Cowley Pindarique Odes  


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

III. Writers of the Couplet.

§ 8. The Mistress.

The Mistress first appeared in 1647, and was reprinted in 1656 as part of a four-fold collection of poems. His preface to the collected edition represents him as about to quit the exercise of poetry, and desirous to preserve all his writings which were worth preserving. He excluded his juvenile pieces, and all verses written by him with direct reference to the civil war. Part of a poem on the war in three books “reaching as far as the first Battle of Newbury,” was printed in 1679. The rest he divided into four parts, Miscellanies, The Mistress, Pindarique Odes and Davideis, of each of which he gave some explanation in his preface.   22
  The Miscellanies and The Mistress are composed of lyrics written in a variety of irregular metres. Of the Miscellanies, Cowley thought little; yet among these are most of the poems indispensable in any representative selection of his work. In his Anacreontiques, he used couplets in which the iambic line of eight, and trochaic line of seven, syllables mingle tunefully and naturally. The Chronicle, a great contrast to the tortuous fancies of his love-poems, is one of the best examples of English vers de société in any age. The stanzas On the Death of Mr. William Hervey, though disfigured by at least one frigid hyperbole, contain admirable lines, and were prompted by genuine affection. The same may be said of the couplets On the Death of Mr. Crashaw. Sincere feeling pervades Cowley’s excuse to his own church for celebrating a pervert from her doctrines; and, while the conceit in which Crashaw’s muse is likened to Mary is expressed tastelessly, nothing could be happier than the wording of the companion conceit. Angels are said to have carried the house of the Virgin to Loreto:
’T is surer much they brought thee there, and They,
And Thou, their charge, went singing all the way.
In The Mistress, Cowley was writing set verses on conventional topics, and proved himself capable of endless fluency and ingenuity of fancy. Donne’s superficial influence is obvious in the subject of such verses as the stanzas Written in Juice of Lemmon, or in The Prophet, where the man who proposes to teach the poet to love is given a list of arts and bidden teach them to their chief professors. From Donne are taken the trick of beginning a poem impatiently and abruptly, as though in exasperation, and an extravagant outburst like
Love thou ’rt a Devil; if I may call thee One,
For sure in Me thy name is Legion.  28 
Equally characteristic of Donne is Cowley’s free use of farfetched and unexpected simile. Love exercises an unbounded tyranny over him, and he calls in the other passions to drive this one out: so do the Indians seek to free themselves from the Spaniard by calling in the states of Holland. 29  His love is so violent that, though his life may be short, he may become “the great Methusalem of Love.” 30  On parting from his mistress, he recalls the sorrow with which men in Greenland see the sun sink for half a year under the horizon. 31  But, amid these vagaries, he does not give any sign of the capacity for phrases and thoughts of astonishing brilliance which underlies Donne’s extravagances. His aim is always to astonish his readers with some new invention of a learned and elaborate fancy. No genuine follower of Donne ever misused his cleverness so woefully as Cowley, when, in presenting his book to the Bodleian library, he called the store of God’s wonders “the Beatifick Bodley of the Deity.” True discipleship does not consist in the imitation of mannerisms; and, in the few poems of The Mistress in which Cowley chose to be natural, his manner was far more nearly allied to the level suavity of Waller than to the rugged and cloudy magnificence of Donne. Such are the stanzas called The Spring, and the beautiful lines in The Change, which begin, “Love in her Sunny Eyes does basking play.”

Note 28The Inconstant, st. 1. [ back ]
Note 29The Passions, st. 4. [ back ]
Note 30Love and Life, st. 1. [ back ]
Note 31The Parting, st. 1. [ back ]

  Abraham Cowley Pindarique Odes  

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