HIS FAME.—Cowley had all his good things in his lifetime; he was the most popular poet in England, and is the best illustration of the literary taste of his age. His poetry is like water rippling in the sunlight, brilliant but dazzling and painful: it bewilders with far-fetched and witty conceits: varied but full of art, there is little of nature or real passion to be found even in his amatory verses. He suited the taste of a court which preferred an epigram to a proverb, and a repartee to an apothegm; and, as a consequence, with the growth of a better culture and a better taste, he has steadily declined in favor, so that at the present day he is scarcely read at all. Two authoritative opinions mark the history of this decline: Milton, in his own day, placed him with Spenser and Shakspeare as one of the three greatest English poets; while Pope, not much more than half a century later, asks:
Who now reads Cowley?
If he pleases yet,
His moral pleases, not his pointed wit.
Still later, Dr. Johnson gives him the credit of having been the first to master the Pindaric ode in English; while Cowper expresses, in his Task, regret that his “splendid wit” should have been
Entangled in the cobwebs of the schools.
But if he is neglected in the present day as a household poet, he stands prominently forth to the literary student as an historic personage of no mean rank, a type and representative of his age, country, and social conditions.
BUTLER’S CAREER.—The author of Hudibras, a satirical poem which may as justly be called a comic history of England as any of those written in prose in more modern times, was born in Worcestershire, on the 8th of February, 1612. The son of poor parents, he received his education at a grammar school. Some, who have desired to magnify his learning, have said that he was for a time a student at Cambridge; but the chronicler Aubrey, who knew him well, denies this. He was learned, but this was due to the ardor with which he pursued his studies, when he was clerk to Mr. Jeffreys, an eminent justice of the peace, and as an inmate of the mansion of the Countess of Kent, in whose fine library he was associated with the accomplished Selden.
We next find him domiciled with Sir Samuel Luke, a Presbyterian and a parliamentary soldier, in whose household he saw and noted those characteristics of the Puritans which he afterward ridiculed so severely in his great poem, a poem which he was quietly engaged in writing during the protectorate of Cromwell, in hope of the coming of a day when it could be issued to the world.
This hope was fulfilled by the Restoration. In the new order he was appointed secretary to the Earl of Carbery, and steward of Ludlow Castle; and he also increased his frugal fortunes by marrying a widow, Mrs. Herbert, whose means, however, were soon lost by bad investments.