Abraham Cowley (1618-1667) was born in London, and was the seventh son of Thomas and Thomasine Cowley. Because his father died soon before Cowley’s birth, his mother, Thomasine, largely influenced Cowley’s education and career. In fact, her copy of Spenser’s Faerie Queene stimulated Cowley’s youthful interest in poetry, later resulting in such narrative poetic works as “Pyramus and Thisbe,” composed as early as the age of ten.
However, Cowley wrote more than poetry. After becoming a Trinity College, Cambridge scholar in June 1637, Cowley would soon after write a Latin comedy, Naufragum joculare, performed by his fellow college students. His comedy, The Guardian, entertained Prince Charles on his march through Cambridge in 1642. Still, Cowley never abandoned poetry. From 1642 to 1643, Cowley launched two political satires: A satyre against separatists, later known as “The Puritans Lecture,” as well as The puritan and the papist, which criticized religious extremes in couplet form. Cowley also started another political, epic poem: The civil war, which championed the royalist success in Newbury as well as recognized Lucius Cary, Viscount Falkland, a man Cowley befriended while at Oxford. Yet, Cowley would later identify this poetic work as abandoned in the preface of Poems (1656).
Starting somewhere between 1644 and 1646, Cowley left England to follow Queen Henrietta Maria to France. In this time, Cowley produced ciphered messages between royalist party members like the queen and Charles I; he also developed two editions of love poems, including The mistress published in 1647. The mistress would also be reprinted in the later Poems (1656) collection, but not before Cowley’s return to England, where he found himself arrested on April 12, 1655, after royalist uprisings in Yorkshire. Included in this particular collection are multiple elegies, one even written for Cowley’s friend, William Harvey.
Cowley later studied botany and medicine at Oxford, launching his Latin didactic poem Planatarum libri sex. Following the Restoration, Cowley condensed his growing scientific interest into a prose pamphlet, A proposition for the advancement of learning, published in 1661, and then reissued it as A proposition for the advancement of experimental philosophy later that year. This pamphlet proposed the development of a school centered on the pursuit of scientific education for young boys, echoing his 1667 ode, “To the Royal Society,” which prefaced Thomas Sprat’s History of the Royal Society.
In 1663, a miscellany released in Dublin called Poems by several persons featured poems by Cowley and fellow poets Roger Boyle, Katherine Philips, Clement Paman, and Lord Orrery (Cowley’s occasional patron). Because some of the poem Dublin printed was previously unpublished, Cowley and his publisher, Henry Herringman, secured an English copyright and printed more accurate version of the poems in Verses, lately written upon several occasions. This new volume included another unpublished ode to Dr. William Harvey.
On July 28, 1667, Cowley died from illness. After a lavish funeral, Cowley was later buried in Westminster Abbey beside Chaucer and Spenser. As according to his will, dated September 28, 1665, Thomas Sprat was appointed Cowley’s literary executioner and, as a result, a folio of the Works appeared in 1668. Works went on to be printed fourteen times between 1668 and 1721.
Lindsay, Alexander. “Cowley, Abraham (1618–1667).” Alexander LindsayOxford Dictionary of
National Biography. Online ed. Ed. Lawrence Goldman. Oxford: OUP, . 22 Sept. 2014 <http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/6499>.