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While he was yet at sehool, he produced a comedy, called, Love's Riddle, though it was not published, till he had been some time at Cambridge. This comedy is of the pastoral kind, which requires no acquaintance with the living world, and, therefore, the time at which it was composed adds little to the wonders of Cowley's minority.
In 1636, he was removed to Cambridge", where he continued his studies with great intenseness ; for he is said to bave written, wbile he was yet a young student, the greater part of his Davideis; a work of which the materials could not have been collected without the study of many years, but by a mind of the greatest vigour and activity.
Two years after his settlement at Cambridge he published Love's Riddle, with a poetical dedication to sir Kenelm Digby, of whose acquaintance all his contemporaries seem to have been ambitious; and Naufragium Joculare, a comedy, written in Latin, but without due attention to the ancient models; for it is not loose verse, but mere prose. It was printed with a dedication in verse, to Dr. Comber, master of the college; but, having neither the facility of a popular, nor the accuracy of a learned work, it seems to be now universally neglected.
At the beginning of the civil war, as the prince passed through Cambridge, in his way to York, he was entertained with a representation of the Guardian, a comedy, which, Cowley says, was neither written nor acted, but rough-drawn by him, and repeated by the scholars. That this comedy was printed during his absence from his country, he appears to have considered as injurious to his reputation; though, during the suppression of the theatres, it was sometimes privately acted with sufficient approbation.
In 1613, being now master of arts, he was, by the prevalence of the parliament, ejected from Cambridge, and sheltered himself at St. John's college, in Oxford ; where, as is said by Wood, he published a satire, called the
. He was a candidate this year at Westminster school for election to Trinity college, but proved unsuccessful.
Puritàn and Papist, which was only inserted in the last collection of his works, and so distinguished himself by the warmth of his loyalty and the elegance of his conversation, that he gained the kindness and confidence of those who attended the king, and, amongst others, of lord Falkland, whose notice cast a lustre on all to whom it was extended.
About the time when Oxford was surrendered to the parliament, he followed the queen to Paris, where he became secretary to the lord Jermyn, afterwards earl of St. Alban's, and was employed in such correspondence as the royal cause required, and particularly in ciphering and deciphering the letters that passed between the king and queen ; an employment of the highest confidence and honour. So wide was his province of intelligence, that, for several years, it filled all his days and two or three nights in the week.
In the year 1647, his Mistress was published; for he imagined, as he declared in his preface to a subsequent edition, that " poets are scarcely thought freemen of their company without paying some duties, or obliging themselves to be true to love."
This obligation to amorous ditties owes, I believe, its original to the fame of Petrarch, who, in an age rude and uncultivated, by bis tuneful homage to his Laura, refined the manners of the lettered world, and filled Europe with love and poetry. But the basis of all excellence is truth: he that professes love ought to feel its power. Petrarch was a real lover, and Laura doubtless deserved his tenderness. Of Cowley, we are told by Barnes, who had means enough of information, that, whatever he may talk of his own inflammability, and the variety of characters by which his heart was divided, he, in reality, was in love but once, and then never had resolution to tell his passion.
c In the first edition of this life, Dr. Johnson wrote, “which was never inserted in any collection of his works ;" but he altered the expression when the Lives were collected into volumes. The satire was added to Cowley's works by the particular direction of Dr. Johnson. N.
This consideration cannot but abate, in some measure, the reader's esteem for the work and the author. To love excellence is natural; it is natural, likewise, for the lover to solicit reciprocal regard by an elaborate display of his own qualifications. The desire of pleasing has, in different men, produced actions of heroism, and effusions of wit; but it seems as reasonable to appear the champion as the poet of an “ airy nothing,” and to quarrel as to write for what Cowley might have learned from his master Pindar, to call * the dream of a shadow.”
It is surely not difficult, in the solitude of a college, or in the bustle of the world, to find useful studies and serious employment. No man needs to be so burdened with life, as to squander it in voluntary dreams of fictitious occurrences. The man that sits down to suppose himself charged with treason or peculation, and heats his mind to an elaborate purgation of his character from crimes which he was never within the possibility of committing, differs only by the infrequency of his folly from 'im who praises beauty which he never saw; complains of jealousy which he never felt; supposes himself sometimes invited, and sometimes forsaken; fatigues bis fancy, and ransacks his memory, for images which may exhibit the gaiety of hope, or the gloominess of despair; and dresses his imaginary Chloris or Phyllis, sometimes in flowers fading as her beauty, and sometimes in gems lasting as her virtues.
At Paris, as secretary to lord Jermyn, he was engaged in transacting things of real importance with real men and real women, and, at that time, did not much employ his thoughts upon phantoms of gallantry. Some of his letters to Mr. Bennet, afterwards earl of Arlington, from April to December, in 1650, are preserved in Miscellanea Aulica, a collection of papers, published by Brown. These letters, being written, like those of other men, whose minds are more on things than words, contribute no otherwise to his reputation, than as they show him to have been above the affectation of upseasonable elegance, and to have known, that the business of a statesman can be little forwarded by flowers of rhetorick.
One passage, however, seems not unworthy of some notice. Speaking of the Scotch treaty, then in agitation :
“ The Scotch treaty," says he, " is the only thing now in which we are vitally concerned; I am one of the last hopers, and yet cannot now abstain from believing that an agreement will be made; all people upon the place incline to that of union. The Scotch will moderate something of the rigour of their demands; the mutual necessity of an accord is visible, the king is persuaded of it. And, to tell you the truth, which I take to be an argument above all the rest, Virgil has told the same thing to that purpose.”
This expression from a secretary of the present time would be considered as merely ludicrous, or, at most, as an ostentatious display of scholarship; but the manners of that time were so tinged with superstition, that I cannot but suspect Cowley of having consulted, on this great occasion, the Virgilian lots , and to have given some credit to the answer of his oracle.
• Consulting the Virgilian lots, Sortes Virgilianæ, is a method of divination by the opening of Virgil, and applying to the circumstances of the peruser the first passage in either of the two pages that he accidentally fixes his eye on. It is said, that king Charles the first, and lord Falkland, being in the Bodleian library, made this experiment of their future fortunes, and met with passages equally ominous to each. That of the king was the following:
At bello audacis populi vexatus et armis,
Some years afterwards, “business,” says Sprat," passed of course into other hands;" and Cowley, being no longer useful at Paris, was, in 1656, sent back into England, that, “under pretence of privacy and retirement, he might take occasion of giving notice of the posture of things in this nation.”
Soon after his return to London, he was seized by some messengers of the usurping powers, who were sent out in quest of another man; and, being examined, was put into confinement, from which he was not dismissed without the security of a thousand pounds, given by Dr. Scarborough.
This year he published his poems, with a preface, in which he seems to have inserted something suppressed in subsequent editions, which was interpreted to denote some relaxation of his loyalty. In this preface he declares, that “ his desire had been for some days past, and did still very vehemently continue, to retire himself to some of the American plantations, and to forsake this world for ever."
Lord Falkland's :
Non hæc, 0 Palla, dederas promissa parenti,
Æneid. xi. 152.
DRYDEN. Hoffman, in his Lexicon, gives a very satisfactory account of this practice of seeking fates in books: and says, that it was used by the pagans, the jewish rabbins, and even the early christians ; the latter taking the New Testament for their oracle.