Page images



The poetry of Milton, though principally produced after the Restoration, belongs in everything but in date to the preceding age ; and this is also nearly as true of that of Cowley. Abraham Cowley, born in London in 1618; published his first volume of verse, under the title of Poetic Blossoms, in 1633, when he was yet only a boy of fifteen : one piece contained in this publication, indeed, — The Tragical History of Pyramus and Thisbe, written when he was only in his tenth year. The four books of his unfinished epic entitled Davideis were mostly written while he was a student at Trinity College, Cambridge. His pastoral drama of Love's Riddle, and his Latin comedy called Naufragium Joculare, were both published in 1638. In 1647 appeared his collection of amatory poems entitled The Mistress, and in 1653 his comedy of The Guardian, afterwards altered, and republished as The Cutter of Coleman Street. After the Restoration he collected such of his pieces as he thought worth preserving, and republished them, together with some additional productions, of which the most important were his Davideis, and his Pindarique Odes.

Few poets have been more popular, or more praised, in their own time than Cowley. Milton is said to have declared that the three greatest English poets were Spenser, Shakspeare, and Cowley; though it does not follow that he held all three to be equally great. Sir John Denham, in some verses on Cowley's Death and Burial amongst the Ancient Poets in Westminster Abbey, sets him above all the English poets that had gone before him, and prophesies that posterity will hold him to have been equalled by Virgil alone among those of antiquity. For a long time, too, his works appear to have been more generally read than those of any other English poet, if a judgment may be formed from the frequency with which they were reprinted, and the numerous copies of them in various forms that still exist. This popular favor they seem to have shared with those of Donne, whose legitimate successor Cowley was considered to be; or, rather, when the poetry of Donne became obsolete or unfashionable, that of Cowley took its place in

1 A twelfth edition of the collection formed by Cowley himself was published by Tonson in 1721.

the reading and admiration of the poetical part of the public Cowley, indeed, is in the main a mere modernization and dilution of Donne. With the same general characteristics of manner, he is somewhat less forced and fantastical, a good deal less daring in every way, but unfortunately also infinitely less poetical. Everything about him, in short, is less deep, strong, and genuine. His imagination is tinsel, or mere surface gilding, compared to Donne's solid gold ; his wit little better than word-catching, to the profound meditative quaintness of the elder poet; and of passion, with which all Donne's finest lines are tremulous, Cowley has none. Considerable grace and dignity occasionally distinguish his Pindaric Odes (which, however, are Pindaric only in name); and he has shown much elegant playfulness of style and fancy in his translations from and imitations of Anacreon, and in some other verses written in the same manner. As for what he intends for loveverses, some of them are pretty enough frost-work; but the only sort of love there is in them is the love of point and sparkle.


This manner of writing is more fitly applied by another celebrated poet of the same date, Samuel Butler, the immortal author of Hudibras. Butler, born in 1612, is said to have written most of his great poem during the interregnum ; but the first part of it was not published till 1663. The poetry of Butler has been very happily designated as merely the comedy of that style of composition which Donne and Cowley practised in its more serious form, the difference between the two modes of writing being much the same with that which is presented by a countenance of a peculiar cast of features when solemnized by deep reflection, and the same countenance when lighted up by cheerfulness or distorted by mirth. And it may be added, that the gayer and more animated expression is here, upon the whole, the more natural. The quantity of explosive matter of all kinds which Butler has contrived to pack up in his verses is amazing ; it is crack upon crack, flash upon dash, from the first line of his long poem to the last. Much of

1 Scott, in Life of Dryden.

this incessant bedazzlement is, of course, merely verbal, or otherwise of the humblest species of wit; but an infinite number of the happiest things are also thrown out. And Hudibras is far from being all mere broad farce. Butler's power of arguing in verse, in his own way, may almost be put on a par with Dryden's in his ; and, perseveringly as he devotes himself upon system to the exhibition of the ludicrous and grotesque, he sometimes surprises us with a sudden gleam of the truest beauty of thought and expression breaking out from the midst of the usual rattling fire of smartnesses and conundrums, — as when in one place he exclaims of a thin cloud drawn over the moon —

Mysterious veil; of brightness made,

At once her lustre and her shade! He must also be allowed to tell his story and to draw his characters well, independently of his criticisms.


The most celebrated among the minor poets of the period between the Restoration and the Revolution was Waller. Edmund Waller, born in 1605, had, as already noticed, announced himself as a writer of verse before the close of the reign of James I., by his lines on the escape of Prince Charles at the port of San Andero, in the Bay of Biscay, on his return from Spain, in September, 1623 ; and he continued to write till after the accession of James II., in whose reign he died, in the year 1687. His last production was the little poem concluding with one of his happiest, one of his most characteristic, and one of his best-known passages

The soul's dark cottage, battered and decayed,
Lets in new light through chinks that time has made:
Stronger by weakness, wiser men become
As they draw near to their eternal home:
Leaving the old, both worlds at once they view,

That stand upon the threshold of the new.
Fenton, his editor, tells us that a number of poems on religious

subjects, to which these verses refer, were mostly written when he was about [above] eighty years old ; and he has himself intimated that his bodily faculties were now almost gone :

When we for age could neither read nor write,

The subject made us able to indite. Waller, therefore, as well as Milton, Cowley, and Butler, may be considered to have formed his manner in the last age; but his poetry does not belong to the old English school even so much as that of either Butler or Cowley. The contemporaries of the earlier portion of his long career were Carew and Lovelace; and with them he is properly to be classed in respect of poetical style and manner. Both Lovelace and Carew, however, as has been already intimated, have more passion than Waller, who, with all his taste and elegance, was incapable of either expressing or feeling anything very lofty or generous, — being, in truth, poet as he was, a very mean-souled description of person, as his despicable political course sufficiently evinced. His poetry accordingly is beyond the reach of critical animadversion on the score of such extravagance as is sometimes prompted by strong emotion. Waller is always perfectly master of himself, and idolizes his mistress with quite as much coolness and self-possession as he flatters his prince. But, although cold and unaffecting at all times, he occasionally rises to much dignity of thought and manner. His panegyric on Cromwell, the offering of his gratitude to the Protector for the permission granted to him of returning to England after ten years' exile, is one of the most graceful pieces of adulation ever offered by poetry to power; and the poet is here probably more sincere than in most of his effusions, for the occasion was one on which he was likely to be moved to more than usual earnestness of feeling.

1 The story of what was called Waller's plot, which exploded in May, 1643, is well known. Some of those concerned were executed, and others were punished by long imprisonments; but Waller, who appears to have been the most guilty, is understood to have made his peace by the reckless frankness of his confessions, and was let off with a fine and a license "to go travel abroad.” He left the country accordingly, “and, travelling into France,” says Kennet, “improved himself in good letters ; and for the rest of his life, which was very long, he chose rather to be admired for a poet than to be envied for a politician.They print among his works some of his speeches in parliament, - among the rest his address on Tuesday, July 4th, 1643, when he was brought to the bar, and had leave given him by the Speaker to say what he could for himself before they proceeded to expel him (from the House,” which is throughout one of the most abject prostrations ever made by inything in the shape of a man.

A few years after he welcomed Charles II. on his restoration to the throne of his ancestors in another poem, which has been generally considered a much less spirited composition : Fenton accounts for the falling off by the author's advance in the mean while from his forty-ninth to his fifty-fifth year, -“ from which time,” he observes, “his genius began to decline apace from its meridian”; but the poet himself assigned another reason : - when Charles frankly told him that he thought his own panegyric much inferior to Cromwell's, “Sir,” replied Waller, “ we poets never succeed so well in writing truth as in fiction.” Perhaps the true reason, after all, might be that his majesty's return to England was not quite so exciting a subject to Mr. Waller's muse as his own return had been. One thing must be admitted in regard to Waller's poetry : it is free from all mere verbiage and empty sound ; if he rarely or never strikes a very powerful note, there is at least always something for the fancy or the understanding, as well as for the ear, in what he writes. He abounds also in ingenious thoughts, which he dresses to the best advantage, and exhibits with great transparency of style. Eminent, however, as he is in his class, he must be reckoned among that subordinate class of poets who think and express themselves chiefly in similitudes, not among those who conceive and write passionately and metaphorically. He had a decorative and illuminating, but not a transforming imagination.


The chief writer of verse on the popular side after the Restoration was Andrew Marvel, the noble-minded member for Hull, the friend of Milton, and, in that age of brilliant profligacy, renowned alike as the first of patriots and of wits. Marvel, the son of the Rev. Andrew Marvel, master of the grammar-school of Hull, was born there in 1620, and died in 1678. His poetical genius has scarcely had justice done to it. He is the author.of a number of satires in verse, in which a rich vein of vigorous, though often coarse, humor runs through a careless, extemporaneous style, and which did prodigious execution in the party warfare of the day; but some of his other poetry, mostly perhaps written in the earlier

« PreviousContinue »