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OF THE LIFE AND WRITINGS OF
MR. ABRAHAM COWLEY.
WRITTEN TO MR, CLIFFORD, AND PREFIXED TO THE EDITION OF 1719.
MR. Cowley, in his will, recommended to my care the revising of all his works that were formerly printed, and the collecting of those papers which he had designed for the press. And he did it with this particular obligation, That I should be sure to let nothing pass, that might seem the least offence to religion or good manners. A caution, which you will judge to have been altogether needless. For certainly, in all ancient or modern times, there can scarce any author be found, that has handled so many different matters in such various sorts of style, who less wants
the correction of his friends, or has less reason to fear the severity of strangers.
According to his desire and his own intention, I have now set forth his Latin and English writings, each in a volume apart; and to that which was before extant in both languages, I have added all that I could find in his closet, which he had brought to any manner of perfection. I have thus, Sir, performed the will of the dead. But I doubt I shall not satisfy the expectation of the living, unless some account be here premised concerning this excellent
I know very well, that he has given the world the best image of his own mind in these immortal monuments of his wit. Yet there is still room enough left, for one of his familiar acquaintance to say many things of his poems, and chiefly of his life, that may serve for the information of his readers, if not for the increase of his name; which, without any such helps, is already sufficiently established.
This, Sir, were an argument most proper for you to manage,
in respect of your great abilities, and the long friendship you maintained with him. But you have an obstinate aversion from publishing any of your writings. I guess what pretence you have for it, and that you are confirmed in this resolution by the prodigious multitude and imperfections of us writers of this age. I will not now dispute, whether you are in the right; though I am confident you would contribute more to our reformation by your example,
than reproofs. But, however, seeing you persist in your purpose, and have refused to adorn even this very subject, which you love so well, I beg your assistance while I myself undertake it. This I do with the greater willingness, because I believe there is no man, who speaks of Mr. Cowley, that can want either matter or words. I only therefore intreat you to give me leave to make you a party in this relation, by using your name and your testimony. For by this means, though the memory of our friend shall not be delivered to posterity with the advantage of your wit, which were most to be desired; yet his praise will be strengthened by the consent of your judgment, and the authority of your approbation.
Mr. A. Cowley was born in the city of London, in the year one thousand six hundred and eighteen. His parents were citizens of a virtuous life and sufficient estate ; and so the condition of his fortune was equal to the temper of his mind, which was always content with moderate things.
The first years of his youth were spent in Westminster-school, where he soon obtained and increased the noble genius peculiar to that place. The occasion of his first inclination to poetry, was his casual lighting on Spenser's Faëry Queene, when he was but just able to read. That, indeed, is a poem fitter for the examination of men, than the consideration of a child. But in him it met with a fancy, whose strength was not to be judged by the number of his years.
In the thirteenth year of his age there came forth a little book under his name, in which there were many things that might well become the vigour and force of a manly wit. The first beginning of his studies was a familiarity with the most solid and unaffected authors of antiquity, which he fully digested, not only in his memory, but his judgment. By this advantage he learnt nothing while a boy, that he needed to forget or forsake when he came to be a man. His mind was rightly seasoned at first; and he had nothing to do, but still to proceed on the same foundation on which he began.
He was wont to relate, that he had this defect in his memory at that time, that his teachers could never bring it to retain the ordinary rules of grammar. However, he supplied that want, by conversing with the books themselves, from whence those rules had been drawn. That, no doubt, was a better way, though much more difficult ; and he afterwards found this benefit by it, that, having got the Greek and Roman languages, as he had done his own, not by precept but use, he practised them, not as a scholar but a native.
With these extraordinary hopes he was removed to Trinity College in Cambridge ; where, by the progress and continuance of his wit, it appeared that two things were joined in it, which seldom meet together, that it was both early-ripe and lasting. This brought him into the love and esteem of the most eminent
members of that famous society; and principally of
When the Civil war broke out, his affection to the King's cause drew him to Oxford, as soon as it began to be the chief seat of the Royal party. In that university, he prosecuted the same studies with a like