English Essays: Sidney to Macaulay.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

Introductory Note

Abraham Cowley

ABRAHAM COWLEY (1618–1667) was educated at Westminster School and later at Trinity College, Cambridge, from which he was ejected with most of the Masters and Fellows for refusing to sign the Solemn League and Covenant in 1644. In the same year he crossed to France in the suite of Lord Jermyn, Queen Henrietta Maria’s chief officer, and remained with the royal family in exile for twelve years. After the Restoration he became a doctor of medicine, and was one of the first members of the Royal Society. He is buried in Westminster Abbey.

Cowley’s most popular work in his own day was the collection of love poems called “The Mistress,” and his so-called “Pindaric Odes” were also highly esteemed. With the decline of the taste which produced the poetry of the “Metaphysical School” to which he belonged, Cowley ceased to be read; nor is it likely that the frigid ingenuity which marks his poetic style will ever again come into favor. His “Essays,” on the other hand, are written with great simplicity and naturalness, and exhibit his temperament in a most pleasing light. He is one of the earliest masters of a clear and easy English prose style, and few writers of the familiar essay surpass Cowley in grace and charm. His essay “Of Agriculture” is a delightful example of his quality. “We may talk what we please,” he cries in his enthusiasm for the oldest of the arts, “of lilies, and lions rampant, and spread eagles, in fields d’or or d’argent; but, if heraldry were guided by reason, a plough in a field arable would be the most noble and ancient arms.”