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© March 2005
revised 7 March 2007

The following biography of Cowley was written by one of his contemporaries, John Aubrey (1626–1697). I take my text here from Oliver Lawson Dick’s modernized edition of Aubrey’s mss., Brief lives. Edited from the original manuscripts and with an introduction by Oliver Lawson Dick (1949; rpt. London: Secker and Warburg, 1960), pp. 75–76.

Dick introduces Aubrey’s biography with a quick summary statement of his own: “Poet. In childhood [Cowley] was greatly influenced by reading Spenser, a copy of whose poems was in the possession of his mother. This, he said, made him a poet. His first book, Poetic Blossoms, was written when he was only ten and published when he was fifteen. At Cambridge he was distinguished for his graceful translations. On the outbreak of the Civil War he joined the Royalists, was turned out of his College, and in 1646 followed the Queen to Paris, where he remained for twelve years, during which time he rendered unwearied service to the royal family and was employed on delicate diplomatic missions. At the Restoration he wrote some loyal odes, but was disappointed by being refused the Mastership of the Savoy, and retired to the country. Cowley’s fame among his contemporaries was much greater than that which posterity has accorded to him. He is said by [the 18th-century poet, Alexander] Pope to have died of a fever brought on by lying in the fields after a drinking-bout in 1667.”

Abraham Cowley (1618–1667)

“MR. ABRAHAM COWLEY: he was borne in Fleet-street, London, neer Chancery-lane; his father a Grocer.

“He writ when a Boy at Westminster Poems and a Comedy called Love’s Riddle, dedicated to Sir Kenelme Digby.

A. C. discoursed very ill, and with hesitation.

“In December 1648, King Charles the first, being in great trouble, and prisoner at Caeresbroke, or to be brought to London to his Triall; Charles Prince of Wales being then at Paris, and in profound sorrow for his father, Mr. Abraham Cowley went to wayte on him; his Highnesse asked him whether he would play at Cards, to diverte his sad thoughts. Mr. Cowley replied, he did not care to play at cards; but if his Highness pleasd, they would use Sortes Virgilianae (Mr. Cowley always had a Virgil in his pocket). The Prince accepted the proposal, and prick’t his pinne in the fourth booke of the AEneids. The Prince understood not Latin well, and desired Mr. Cowley to translate the verses, which he did admirably well, and Mr. George Ent (who lived in his house at Chertsey, in the great plague 1665) shewed me Mr. Cowley’s owne hand writing.

By a bold people’s stubborn arms opprest,
Forced to forsake the land he once possess’t,
Torn from his dearest sonne, let him in vaine
Seeke help, and see his friends unjustly slain.
Let him to base unequal termes submit,
In hope to save his crown, yet loose both it
And life at once, untimely let him dy,
And on an open stage unburied ly.

“Now as to the last part, I well remember it was frequently and soberly affirmed by officers of the army, &c. Grandees, that the body of King Charles the First was privately putt into the Sand about White-hall; and the coffin that was carried to Windsor and layd in King Henry 8th’s vault was filled with rubbish, or brick-batts. Mr. Fabian Philips, who adventured his life before the King’s Tryall, by printing, assures me, that the Kings Coffin did cost but six shillings: a plain deale coffin.

“He was Secretarie to the Earle of St. Albans (then Lord Jermyn) at Paris. When his Majestie returned, George, Duke of Bucks, hearing that at Chertsey was a good Farme belonging to the Queene-mother goes to the Earl of St. Alban’s and the commissioners to take a Lease of it. Said the Earle to him, That is beneath your Grace, to take a Lease. That is all one, qd. he, I desire to have the favour to buy it for my money. He payd for it, and had it, and freely and generously gave it to his deare and ingeniose friend, Mr. Abraham Cowley, for whom purposely he bought it: which ought not to be forgotten.

“He lies interred at Westminster Abbey, next to Sir Jeffrey Chaucer, where the Duke of Bucks has putte a neate Monument of white marble; above that a very faire Urne, with a kind of Ghirland of Ivy about it. His Grace the Duke of Bucks held a tassell of the Pall.

Vide his Will, scilicet for his true and lasting Charity, that is, he settles his Estate in such a manner that every yeare so much is to be payd for the enlarging of poor Prisoners cast into Gaole by cruel Creditors for small Debts. I doe think this memorable Benefaction is not mentioned in his life in print before his Workes; it is certainly the best method of Charity.”
John Aubrey's monogram



portraits of Cowley in the GALLERY exhibit on melancholy (Introduction)

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discussion of Cowley’s design for a philosophical college in the GALLERY exhibit on Chambers’ Cyclopædia

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a transcription of Cowley’s verses “To the Royal Society” (1667) in the LIBRARY, wherein he challenges the visual artist to forego traditional feminine representations of the sciences: the new science, argues Cowley, is properly a “He, For ... It a Male Virtu seems to me.”

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additional discussion of Cowley’s scientific interests in the IN BRIEF topics on Cowley’s He-philosophy and Fontenelle’s Entretiens sur la Pluralité des Mondes

“A. C. discoursed very ill, and with hesitation.

Here Aubrey appends some verses by the witty poet and architect, Sir John Denham (1615–1669):

Had Cowley ne’re spoke, nor Th. Killigrew writt,
They’d both have made a [very] good witt.

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