A Note on Two Odes of Cowley
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

[ 579 A Note on Two Odes of Cowley1 The meaning of the term “metaphysical poetry” is stretched to its utmost to include Cowley; and in considering Cowley as a metaphysical poet, our interest in that subject is stretched to its utmost too. It is quite right that specimens by Cowley should be included in a volume of selections from the metaphysical poets; but if we were making a selection from Cowley we might be justified in omitting all of those poems which show direct indebtedness to Donne. Cowley’s relation to Donne, in The Mistress (e.g. “My Diet”),2 is that of an imitator; unlike Cleveland or Benlowes, he has no grain of originality, however perverse, to provide an interesting derivative. The poems included in Sir Herbert Grierson’s anthology exhibit Cowley at his mild best and most readable;3 and apart from these, he is perhaps best rememberedbythefewlineswhichprovidedDrydenwithamagnificent parody in Mac Flecknoe.4 But in Cowley’s poetry there is another interest, which belongs rather to the history of thought and sensibility than to the pleasures of art. Cowley is, I think, to be appreciated as an early Augustan as well as a late metaphysical. It has fallen to many small poets to be late followers of a distinguished school, and to be the authors of a few verses meriting a place in anthologies; and it has fallen to some to be interesting precursors. It cannot have fallen to many to occupy both positions, and in such a way as to providetheliteraryexpressionofastateofminddifferentfromeither .Cowley’s moderate talent placed him in this unusual position; with a more original, or a more adaptable fancy, he might have been more completely assimilated to an earlier or a later generation. He is neither Caroline nor Restoration: his state of mind would appear rather to be that of the Exile. In our historical reading of poetry we are apt to skip from type to type; we are influenced , because of natural inertia, by the classifications of the history books. We can place ourselves in a position to accept Donne and his immediate followers; or we can pass to the late seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries . Cowley is at a disadvantage compared with either those who preceded or those who followed him. I do not make pretensions for him by the standards of his greater precursors. But I think that there is a good case to be made out for him in a form in which he was preceded by Ben Jonson, Essays, Reviews, Commentaries, and Public Letters: 1938 580 ] and was followed by Dryden and by Collins and Gray, the so-called Pindaric ode.5 Whether the Pindaric ode is in itself a form of verse unsuited to the English language is an idle speculation, because everything is impossible until some one has done it. We can only say that this is a form which no one has yet practised successfully in English. To have made something of it would have strained the powers of a Milton. No one with less mastery could succeed with it, and only poets of less mastery have attempted it. But of those who did attempt it, I claim that it was Cowley who practised it most successfully. To have practised an alien and unassimilated form of verse better than any one else may seem a negligible distinction; yet to assert that Cowley’s odes are more interesting than those of Dryden, and much better than those of Gray and Collins, gives that distinction greater interest. My familiarity with the Greek language has never been adequate to the appreciation of Pindar’s odes in the original; and in translation they are very dull reading. I am therefore not in a position to affirm that those who profess to enjoy these odes are in reality mistaking their enjoyment of their own proficiency in Greek verse for enjoyment of poetry. But of English imitations, one may say that only a poet to whom sublimity came naturally, such as Milton, is qualified for such a task; and that to aim at sublimity and fail is one of the worst sins that a poet can commit. The odes of Dryden surprise and excite, and sustain a kind of interest to the end by the brilliance of tours de force; but content is sacrificed to magniloquence, and the music is harsh and metallic. The most admired odes of Gray, “The Bard” and “The Progress of Poesy,” have not even this virtue to recommend them...


pdf