Poetry Explorer

Classic and Contemporary Poets

Analysis:             Poet's Biography

Abraham Cowley (1618–1667) was an English poet born in the early 17th century, whose work transitioned from the metaphysical style of John Donne to the more polished heroic couplets of the Restoration period. He was one of the leading English poets of his age and was considered by many of his contemporaries as the rightful heir to the poetic legacy of Ben Jonson and John Donne.

Literary Background

Cowley's career spans a fascinating period in English literary history, from the tail end of the Renaissance into the early Restoration period. He lived through the English Civil War and the Interregnum, and his writing reflects the political turmoil and intellectual vibrancy of those times. His works, including poetry, essays, and plays, exhibit a wide range of styles and subjects, mirroring the shifting tastes of the era.

Early Influences

Cowley was influenced by the metaphysical poets, particularly John Donne, whose blend of wit, intellectualism, and elaborate conceits can be seen in Cowley's early work. He was also familiar with the classical poets and was deeply influenced by the Latin poet Horace, from whom he adopted and adapted many forms and themes.

Poetic Schools or Movements

Cowley is often associated with the metaphysical poets due to the characteristics of his early work, such as the use of complex metaphors and a focus on philosophical issues. However, his later work anticipated the neoclassical movement of the Restoration, which favored a more polished and structured approach.

Poetic Oeuvre

Cowley's poetry is marked by a diversity of forms and themes. His early collection "Poetical Blossoms" (1633) was published when he was just 15 years old and displayed a precocious command of metaphysical and pastoral forms. His later works, such as "The Mistress" (1647), are more in line with the metaphysical tradition, whereas "Pindarique Odes" (1656) and "Davideis" (a biblical epic) show his stylistic evolution towards a grander and more public mode of poetry.

Themes in Cowley’s poetry include:

*Love and Desire: In "The Mistress," he explored the paradoxes and complexities of love, using metaphysical conceits.

*Politics and History: His works often touched on the political upheavals of his time, and he wrote royalist propaganda during the Civil War.

*Philosophy and Religion: "Davideis" reflects his deep engagement with religious and philosophical questions.

*Nature and Science: Cowley had a lifelong interest in science and natural philosophy, which is evident in his work; he was friends with pioneering scientists like Thomas Hobbes and Robert Hooke.


Cowley's reputation as a poet was immense in his lifetime, and he was one of the most celebrated poets of the mid-17th century. However, his standing suffered a significant decline in the centuries that followed, as tastes shifted towards the Augustan poets and then the Romantics, who found little to admire in Cowley’s heavily intellectualized poetry.


Cowley was honored in his time with prestigious posts, including being a doctor of medicine at Oxford and holding various other positions. He was one of the first English poets to receive a posthumous collected edition of his works, a sign of the high esteem in which he was held.


Abraham Cowley was a figure who bridged two important eras in English literature. His work encapsulates the transition from the metaphysical to the neoclassical, and his life reflects the broader shifts in English society and politics. While his reputation has fluctuated over time, his work remains an important part of the English literary canon for its rich tapestry of forms, its intellectual vigor, and its historical significance. His influence may be less direct than some of his peers, but the scope of his work provides a valuable insight into the evolving English literary tastes of the 17th century.

Copyright (c) 2024 PoetryExplorer

Discover our Poem Explanations and Poet Analyses!

Other Poems of Interest...

Home: PoetryExplorer.net