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  • Abraham Cowley’s Odes “rightly repeated”
  • Thomas Ward

In his Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1779–81), Samuel Johnson criticizes Abraham Cowley’s Pindarique Odes on the grounds that their “lax and lawless versification” undermines “the great pleasure of verse,” which “arises from the known measure of the lines, and uniform structure of the stanzas, by which the voice is regulated and the memory relieved.”1 Cowley’s preface to the 1656 Poems, where the Pindarique Odes were first printed, anticipates just this sort of criticism. The preface casts the act of reading aloud not in terms of free, unregulated voice but as a site for negotiating a relationship of trust and good faith between the author and readers encountering his verse as it circulates beyond his immediate control. Cowley admits that “The Numbers are various and irregular,” but he goes on to assert that the poems only “seem harsh and uncouth, if the just measures and cadencies be not observed in the Pronunciation”: “almost all their Sweetness and Numerosity,” he maintains, “is to be found . . . in the roughest, if rightly repeated” and thus “lies in a maner wholly at the Mercy of the Reader.”2 In this hypothetical scene of right repetition, the ideal reader responds to the irregular lines, with all their meandering indentation and uneven spacing, not with “lax and lawless” vocalization, but rather through attentive observation of the poems’ “just measures and cadencies.” Indeed, as I shall argue, the very looseness of Cowely’s poetry, its apparent failure to adhere to regular metrical structures, also had the potential to serve as an invitation into a tight-knit imagined community of poetically like-minded readers who were capable of discovering—and performing—the verse’s hidden harmonies.

Readers attempting to observe the poems’ “just measures and cadencies” in their “Pronunciation” might be prompted to look to certain elements of the 1656 printed text for clues. For example, some sense of a particular line’s weight might be indicated by the unusually liberal use of italics, which, according to Thomas O. Calhoun and Laurence [End Page 39] Heyworth, are “similar in effect to musical notation for stress or emphasis, or a stage director’s instruction to the actor on how to deliver a line.”3 Likewise, special care seems to have been taken with the apostrophes to indicate syllabic elisions. Over a hundred new elision markings were introduced into the 1656 folio text of The Mistress (the section immediately preceding the Pindarique Odes), as compared to its earlier printing by Humphrey Moseley in the octavo of 1647.4 Elision markings also abound in the Odes themselves, and a missing one is even noted on the errata page, correcting “to had” in line 13 of page 34 (2F1v) to “t’had.”5 The presence of manuscript corrections of this and other elision marks in extant copies of the 1656 folio gives some indication of the close attention readers paid to these guides to pronunciation. The annotator of a copy held at the University of Pennsylvania Special Collections went so far as to use his or her own metrical judgment to make an emendation not specified in the errata, crossing out the existing apostrophe of “Farewel to’ye all in haste” (line 3 of “The Extasie” as printed in the folio), and supplying a new one so that the line reads “Farewel to y’all in haste” (see fig. 1).

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Figure 1.

Correction of an elision in a copy of Abraham Cowley, Poems (London, 1656). University of Pennsylvania Libraries, Rare Book Collection Folio EC65 C8395 656p, [gg]1r.

Image courtesy of University of Pennsylvania Special Collections; used with permission.

In addition to the italicization and the elision markings, the Odes’ meandering layout on the page could have provided guidance in matters of oral performance, particularly if readers associated the poems’ complicated patterns of indentation with their metrical structures. In his Mechanick Exercises on the Whole Art of Printing (1683), Joseph Moxon explains a system in which shorter lines are preceded by a number of quadrats, or spacers, that increases in inverse proportion to the length of the line: “when Verses are...


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