ABRAHAM COWLEY AND THE DECLINE OF METAPHYSICAL POETRY
COWLEY'S EPITAPH in Westminster Abbey, hailing him as 'Anglorum Pindarus, Flaccus; Maro, Deliciae Decus, Desiderium Aevi Sui' represents the height of his contemporary reputation. Milton is said to have placed him with Spenser and Shakespeare,1 and Dryden looked upon his authority as 'almost sacred'. A century later Dr Johnson took him as a representative Metaphysical poet and went on to lay as much stress on his faults as on his virtues. Johnson's general estimate of the latter has not been exceeded by later critics though their interest in his work has been variously directed.
Cowley's versatility -- or perhaps adaptability would be a more suitable word in his case -- was indeed remarkable. There is ample evidence that he was an extremely self-conscious writer, much preoccupied by the problems raised by the business of putting words on paper. Sprat tells us that he was planning a discourse on Style at the time of his death; whether this would have come nearer to practice than a fashionable Horatian ars poetica we do not know, but the Ode. Of Wit, To the Muse and his prefaces certainly have a place among the illuminating pieces of self-criticism that poets have left behind them. He seems to have searched all his life for his appropriate mode of expression, with frequent partial but never complete success. His versatility was of a kind that springs from weakness of creative talent. It led him repeatedly to produce work which so completely suited the taste of his contemporaries that they could not help taking it for better than it really was, and his lack of precision and strength also assisted, for example, eighteenth-century____________________