Title: The Epic Reticence of Abraham Cowley.
Subject(s): COWLEY, Abraham
Author(s): Dykstal, T.
Source: Studies in English Literature (Rice), Winter91, Vol. 31 Issue 1, p95, 21p
Abstract: Presents an analysis by examining two problems basic to Abraham Cowley's epic `Davideis, A Sacred Poem of the Troubles of David' that Milton would successfully avoid. Discusses Cowley's other works including, `Poetical Blossoms' and `The Mistress'; More.
AN: 9103252515
ISSN: 0039-3657
Database: TOPICsearch
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The Epic Reticence of Abraham Cowley

The first neoclassical epic in English was not Paradise Lost, but Abraham Cowley's Davideis, A Sacred Poem of the Troubles of David, published eleven years before Milton's epic, in 1656. Although the two bear many similarities, they obviously differ in terms of artistic success: Cowley completed only four out of twelve proposed books of his epic, admitting that he had not the "Appetite . . . to finish the work, or so much as to revise that part which is done with that care which I resolved to bestow upon it, and which the Dignity of the Matter well deserves."[1] Samuel Johnson, whose "Life of Cowley" is best known for his general strictures on the "metaphysical" style, agreed with Cowley's self-assessment: "That we have not the whole Davideis is, however, not much to be regretted; for in this undertaking Cowley is, tacitly at least, confessed to have miscarried. There are not many examples of so great a work, produced by an author generally read and generally praised, that has crept through a century with so little regard. "[2] Why did Johnson--and Cowley himself--judge the Davideis so harshly? Why could Cowley not see himself through to the end of this, his most ambitious poetic project? Most critics who have read the Davideis since Johnson refer to the disparity of talent between Cowley and Milton to explain (or explain away) Cowley's relative failure.[3] In this essay I want to take a more analytic approach, examining two problems basic to Cowley's epic that Milton, perhaps learning from his predecessor, would successfully avoid.

If Cowley is remembered today, it is for Johnson's "Life," a few lyrics, and--his last and perhaps most likeable work--his essays, written in the style and with much of the content of Montaigne's. But in his time Cowley was regarded as a great English poet, with a very public career that began, much like Milton's, with "the fact of precocity. "[4] Cowley's first book, Poetical Blossoms, was published in 1633, when he was fifteen. He went on to pay "some duties . . . to Love" in the metaphysical mode of The Mistress ( p. 10), a collection of lyrics which concluded with his proclamation of himself--in "The Motto"--as "the Muse's Hannibal." That poem also makes clear that Cowley's ambition was "Virgilian,"[5] and the Davideis was to be his crowning epic achievement, "designed," as he writes in a self-critical preface, "after the Pattern of our Master Virgil" ( p. 11).

But, at the time and in the settings that Cowley composed his epic, "the noblest path to his desire lay in the direction of religious poetry."[6] Cowley began the Davideis as a student at Cambridge, where he made friends with Richard Crashaw, a later convert to Catholicism and author of some passionate religious verse of his own. He probably finished it as a Royalist exile in France,[7] working from several continental models of a Christian epic: Sannazaro's De Partu Virginis (1526), the earliest example of a biblical epic with Virgilian leanings; Du Bartas's Judit (1574), like the Davideis based on an Old Testament story, albeit to a Protestant an apocryphal one; Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata (1581), non-biblical but highly influential; and Marino's La Strage de gli Innocenti (1610).[8] (English translations of the last three of these epics were also available by Cowley's time--Crashaw himself had partially translated Marino.) In addition, Cowley must have participated in the critical debate conducted by his fellow exiles William Davenant and Thomas Hobbes, in their formal prefaces to Davenant's Gondibert (1650); which, although the poem they preceded was more of a Christian romance than an epic, represented the most significant writing about epic in English before Cowley.[9]

For Cowley, the desire to write a thoroughly Virgilian yet Christian epic produces in the Davideis what I call his "epic reticence": a hesitancy to assert classical (and pagan) ideals against the values of his often-conflicting Christian rationalism. This hesitancy could be explored from any number of directions, but I will consider only 1) Cowley's biblical subject as his poetic "matter," and 2) his typologically Christian hero David. I will begin each section by sketching the critical assumptions that Cowley was working with, some of which he provided himself in the preface, and others which were part of the general neoclassical climate of the late English Renaissance. Then I will illustrate Cowley's epic reticence with examples from the Davideis.

1. The "Matter."

Tasso's Discorsi del Poema Eroico (Discourses on the Heroic Poem) was the single most important theory of the epic in the Renaissance.[10] It was Tasso, for instance, who (following Aristotle) established the central dialectic between the "verisimilar" and the "marvelous" that appears, in one form or another, throughout the criticism. Tasso sets up this dialectic in his first discourse, where he defines the epic poem as "an imitation of a noble action, great and perfect, narrated in the loftiest verse, with the purpose of moving the mind to wonder and thus being useful"[11] :the poem must be an "imitation" or verisimilar to be believed, yet it must provoke that "wonder," awe, or meraviglia "so that the delight may get us to read more willingly and thus not lose the profit" (p. 14). In his second discourse, Tasso considers what sort of subject matter is best suited to produce both effects, and declares that not only must the epic draw on "the authority of history" (p. 27), but that "history involves a religion either false or true":

Now I do not think the actions of the pagans offer the fittest subject for the epic poem, since in such poems either we do or we do not wish to have recourse to the gods worshipped by the pagans. If we do not, we lose the marvellous; and if we do resort to the gods invoked by the ancients, in that part we lose the verisimilar and credible.

Better, says Tasso, to draw the argument "from true history and a religion that is not false" (p. 39). For Tasso, writing the Discourses after and therefore indirectly justifying what he had already done in Gerusalemme Liberata, the best history for an epic was naturally the "Christian victories over the infidel" (p. 39), because the matter was both near enough to be familiar and remote enough to allow the poet "the freedom to invent and imitate" (p. 40).

Although it is unknown whether Cowley actually read Tasso in preparation for his epic, the earlier poet's influence is evident throughout the Davideis. Moreover, Cowley's friend Davenant, in his "Preface to Gondibert," echoed many of Tasso's ideas. He agrees that the argument "should consist of Christian persons," not for any inherent superiority of Christian over pagan virtue, but for the sake of verisimilitude. Similarly, the history chosen should be neither too distant nor too recent, and specifically should not be biblical, not necessarily because actual sacred writings forbid the poet's invention (which was Tasso's position), but because Hebrew history consists "in a sullen separation of themselves from the rest of humane flesh." Davenant departs from Tasso in only one significant area, criticizing him for those "errors, which are deriv'd from the Ancients.... Such as are his Councell assembled in Heaven, his Witches Expeditions through the Air, and enchanted Woods inhabited with Ghosts."[12] Obviously, according to Davenant's more rational, seventeenth-century standard of verisimilitude, the epic has now to exclude the supernatural as a source of the marvelous.

But Cowley, although travelling in the same rationalist circles as Davenant, decided to risk the bible as a subject, adopting a counter-argument advanced most importantly for the Renaissance in Du Bartas's short poem Uranie ( 1574). There (in Joshua Sylvester's 1605 translation), the ancient Muse of Astronomy, newly baptized by Du Bartas, denounces the profane poetry of the pagans, maintaining that such biblical figures as David invented "The chaine of Verse . . . To handle onely sacred Misteries."[13] Cowley, in his preface to the Davideis, clearly concurs:

Amongst all holy and consecrated things which the Devil ever stole [and] alienated from the service of the Deity; as Altars, Temples, Sacrifices, Prayers, and the like; there is none that he so universally, and so long usurps, as Poetry. It is time to recover it out of the Tyrants hands, and to restore it to the Kingdom of God, who is the Father of it. It is time to Baptize it in Jordan, for it will never become clean by bathing in the Water of Damascus.


Unlike a fervently spiritual poet like Herbert (or even Crashaw), however, and despite his rhetoric about making poetry come "clean," Cowley attributes the former profanation of poetry to its choice of subject rather than to pagan sinfulness. Reformation, then, is a matter of finding the proper matter, something different than "those mad stories of the Gods and Heroes" that "seem in themselves so ridiculous" (p. 13). Where such matter may be found is obvious:

What can we imagine more proper for the ornaments of Wit or Learning in the story of Deucalion, than in that of Noah? why will not the actions of Sampson afford as plentiful matter as the Labors of Hercules? . . . Are the obsolete thread-bare tales of Thebes and Troy, half so stored with great, heroical and supernatural actions (since Verse will needs find or make such) as the wars of Joshua, of the Judges, of David, and divers others?


In short, "All the Books of the Bible are either already most admirable, and exalted pieces of Poesie, or are the best Materials in the world for it" (p. 14).

At the same time, however, Cowley is quick to point out that biblical narrative furnishes only the material for poetry: aside from obvious examples like the Psalms and the Song of Solomon, the books of the Bible are not poetry in and of themselves. He compares previous attempts to turn them into poetry--like the paraphrases of Quarles and Heywood[14]--to treating "Diamonds with so little pains and skill as we do Marble" (p. 14), and then elaborates:

For if any man design to compose a Sacred Poem, by only turning a story of the Scripture, . . . into Rhyme; He is so far from elevating of Poesie, that he only abases Divinity. In brief, he who can write a prophane Poem well, may write a Divine one better; but he who can do that but ill, will do this much worse. The same fertility of Invention, the same wisdom of Disposition; the same Judgment in observance of Decencies; the same lustre and vigor of Elocution; the same modesty and majestic of Number; briefly the same kind of Habit, is required to both; only this latter allows better stuff, and therefore would look more deformedly, if ill drest in it.


In a narrow sense, Cowley is concerned here that the classical rules, for poetry in general and for epic poetry in particular, continue to be observed even when the Bible serves as the poet's source. Such observances, after all, indicate that a poet, not a mere versifier, is at work. In a broader sense, however, what Cowley is claiming is the freedom to invent, to depart from the literal meaning of the Biblical text when either reason or art demand it.[15]

Of course, this is the special problem faced by the poet who attempts to rework sacred history, and why Tasso carefully avoided the Bible as poetic matter. Cowley lays himself open to the charge expressed most perspicuously, once again, by Johnson:

Sacred history has always been read with submissive reverence, and an imagination overawed and controlled. We have been accustomed to acquiesce in the nakedness and simplicity of the authentic narrative, and to repose on its veracity with such humble confidence as suppresses curiosity. We go with the historian as he goes, and stop with him when he stops. All amplification is frivolous and vain; all addition to that which is already sufficient for the purposes of religion seems not only useless, but in some degree profane.[16]

Conveniently enough, Johnson returns to a familiar dialectic for his criticism. He implies that Cowley, in imitating and sometimes inventing sacred history, has destroyed that awe or sense of the marvelous essential not only to religion, but--as Tasso knew--to epic poetry. The sacred becomes the profane, that is, both because Cowley overweighs the history or the verisimilar and because (more important for Johnson, if not for this essay) the awe that the Bible inspires depends on its unique status as an untouchable text.

At first glance, the story of David, as related primarily in the First and Second Books of Samuel, appears to be ideal material for a sacred epic. David, the shepherd who became king, is arguably the most important figure in the Old Testament, not only for his local impact but also as a type or prefigurement of Christ. He is "a new kind of man, the hero whom Yahweh had decided not only to love, but to make immortal through his descendants, who would never lose Yahweh's favor," as Harold Bloom writes in an essay comparing David as an epic hero to corresponding figures like Achilles and Aeneas.[17] Although possibly short on the miraculous events that Tasso thought necessary to hold his reader's interest, David's assurance of God's favor does guarantee that his personal history will contain that measure of the marvelous required in the epic. But his religious significance is only half of David's story, and only part of its epic potential. To clarify this point, Thomas Greene's attempt to establish "the norms of epic," in the first chapter of The Descent from Heaven, is helpful. For Greene, the actual subject of an epic poem is "politics": the relation of the hero to other men, to his community, or to "the City." The hero's actions are extraordinary and evoke awe, but they also "make a difference," effect real change in the world.[18] (In a sense, Greene is just reformulating Tasso's dialectic, emphasizing anew that the poet [and critic] cannot disregard history even though the marvelous tends to be more "delightful"; I introduce his terminology simply because it is easier to talk about the "political" side of David's story than the "verisimilar.") And certainly David is a political as well as a religious figure--the king who leads Israel's wars of liberation against the Philistine invaders and first unites the nation with Jerusalem as capital. Although he is as much remembered for his troubles as for his triumphs, his reign is formative to Hebrew history, and for Christians his House is that from which the Messiah springs.

Although not essential to epic, David's stature as the original poet of the Christian tradition was also attractive to Cowley. To be both "Poet and Saint!," as he said Crashaw had been in an ode on his death, was to effect "The hard and rarest Union which can be / Next that of Godhead with Humanitie" (p. 48). David apparently went Crashaw one better (if he landed yet short of "Godhead"): in the invocation to the Davide is, he is called both the "best Poet" and the "best of Kings" (p. 242), and his sainthood is apparent.

Thus, the biblical story of David had both the marvelous and verisimilar elements essential to epic poetry. Although Cowley admittedly failed to turn these elements into a good epic poem, the main reason is not that, as Tasso warned and Johnson partially implied, he was too free with his powers of invention. In fact, Cowley's departures from the biblical account are few, and always reverently documented in the copious notes that he provides with each book. Rather, Cowley's epic suffers because he tempers its sense of the marvelous with his Christian rationalism.

The opening lines of Cowley's ode to Davenant, which praise the humanism of that poet's pseudo-epic Gondibert, also exhibit what is for the Davideis the most critical aspect of Cowley's rationalism--his distrust of the supernatural:

Methinks Heroick Poesie till now
Like some fantastick Fairy Land did show,
Gods, Devils, Nymphs, Witches, and Gyants race,
And all but Man in Mans chief work had place.

The new science that Cowley heralded in his odes to Harvey, Hobbes, and the Royal Society (Cowley was one of its founders) was beginning to make those "Gods, Devils, Nymphs," etc. that Davenant had similarly found so objectionable in Tasso seem downright "silly."[19] By the time Cowley published his own epic poem, the verisimilar had become the merely empirical, and the marvelous had degenerated into what we refer to today as the "miracles" of science.

But because his ambition was Virgilian, Cowley knew that he could not simply ignore the supernatural, or any other aspect of the "false" religion of the pagans: it was woven into the classical conventions that he was so intent to observe. What he did try, however, was to Christianize those conventions. For the most part, this only created the "confusions" that Greene thinks "almost endemic to the Christian epic,"[20] but Cowley did occasionally manage to make the difficult marriage of classical and Christian seem felicitous. In addition to being a statement of purpose, the invocation is itself the fullest realization of all that Cowley meant the Davideis to be. It contains an opening echo of Virgil, a summary of his hero David's virtues, and a prayer to Christ, his new Muse:

Guid my bold steps with shine old trav'elling Flame,
In these untrodden paths to Sacred Fame.
Lo, this great work, a Temple to thy praise,
On polisht Pillars of strong Verse I raise!
A Temple, where if Thou vouchsafe to dwell,
It Solomons, and Herods shall excel.
Too long the Muses-Land have Heathen bin
Their Gods too long were Dev'ils, and Vertues Sin;
But Thou, Eternal Word, hast call'd forth Me
Th' Apostle, to convert that World to Thee
T' unbind the charms that in slight Fables lie,
And teach that Truth is truest Poesie.

While it bows to Herbert's Temple, an earlier example of sacred poetry, Cowley's invocation also looks forward to Milton's in Paradise Lost. His attempt to "convert" the world is not quite as grand as that poet's effort to "justify the ways of God to men," but it is the equal of any predecessor's, and Cowley is bold enough to dismiss the entire history of secular poetry as so many "slight Fables." But his bid for "Sacred Fame," which he hopes "will not seem immodest" (p. 266), already reveals his epic reticence, his religion tempering his classical aspirations.

When he plunges in medias res from this relatively successful invocation, Cowley continues to show his epic reticence not only through the conventions that he observes, but also in one that he neglects--the epic simile. Cowley tries only one fully realized simile, which compares David's grievances against Saul, the first king of Israel, to a pent-up stream, and places it immediately after the invocation. The rest of his figurative language, while abundant, is in his usual metaphysical mode: couplets rather than extended periods, depicting its object through the accumulation of many images rather than the concentration on one. By itself, Cowley's neglect of the simile would actually seem to accord with Erich Auerbach's analysis, in the first chapter of Mimesis, of the Old Testament style, which eschews Homeric digression for the "multiplicity of meanings and the need for interpretation."[21] It might be more fitting, then, to see the absence of this convention not as a sign of Cowley's epic reticence, but as an attempted epic revision. Indeed, the simile would not be missed had not Milton returned to it to elevate the language of Paradise Lost.

When he does want to rework classical conventions along Christian lines, Cowley must at times engage in what Greene calls "comparative mythology,"[22] as when he pictures the Hebrew patriarch Benjamin appearing to Saul "Just like his statue which bestrid Sauls gate" (p. 248), an image that suggests the Colossus of Rhodes even though the Hebrews forbade idols. The comparison is more often from classical to Christian, however. At the conclusion of Book II David receives in a dream a prophetic vision of Hebrew history, culminating with the advent of Christ. Homer and Virgil provide precedents for the vision itself, which extends over 300 lines, and Cowley pads it with further classical allusions. "Phansie," that "wild Dame," first stirs the dream in David's mind, but the images are nonsensical until an angel comes to take "Of all the numerous forms fit choice" and make them into "this Vision" (p. 295). A reference within the vision to the "fates" (p. 298) prompts another angelic appeal in a note: "The Fates; that is, according to the Christian Poetical manner of speaking, the Angels, to whom the Government of this world is committed" (p. 316). And the vision concludes with an angelic "descent from heaven" (which Greene uses to place Cowley within his "study in epic continuity"). Cowley names the angel who arrives to sort things out for David "Gabriel" (p. 304), but the context for the descent is wholly pagan, even concluding with a virtual translation of a line from Virgil that Virgil, in turn, lifted from Homer. In all these instances, Cowley clearly means to differentiate between classical myth and Christian truth, but he actually blurs the line between the two.

Cowley's desire to be faithful to the classics again conflicts with his faith when he visits hell and heaven in his epic. His council in hell, which occurs in the first book, must have been one of Milton's models for the underworld debate in Books I and II of Paradise Lost: in the Davideis, various devils advise their chief, named Lucifer, as to how best to create faction between Saul, the reigning, tyrannical king, and David, the young hero of the war against the Philistines who threatens, through popular and divine favor, to supplant him. But, perhaps because Cowley wants to imitate the division of power among the classical gods, his Lucifer is too much of a kind, even losing the last word in the debate to Envy, a rival spirit; he thus lacks the interest of Milton's true "Prince" of Darkness. Still, Cowley's hell is freely imagined compared to his heaven, where a Christian poet always risks blasphemy by putting words into God's mouth. In Book IV, where God reveals to the prophet Samuel and an assembled throng that Samuel will choose by lot a king for Israel, Cowley avoids this problem by roughly paraphrasing 1 Samuel 8:7-9 (although in Cowley's version God speaks in alexandrines). In Book I, however, Cowley has only a dramatic justification for having God voice from heaven his displeasure with Saul, and He sounds more like one of Homer's feuding deities than the omnipotent God of the Hebrews: "Are we forgotten then so soon? can He / Look on his Crown, and not remember Me / That gave it?" (p. 252). Cowley only reinforces the wrong comparison when he has an angel fly down and repeat God's words to David: the repetition of divine messages is a frequent rhetorical device in Homer.

Despite these examples, the overtly religious elements of Cowley's poetic matter contribute little to the relative failure of the Davideis. The few supernatural touches that do persist, such as angelic messengers, are more than offset by the evidence of Cowley's interest in the new science and, more broadly, in providing natural explanations of phenomena that had previously been susceptible only to fanciful speculation. Thus, when the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is mentioned during one of the poem's many digressions on Hebrew history, Cowley speculates that the Biblical fire and brimstone were nothing but extraordinary "Thunder" and "Lightning" (p. 330). For the cosmology of his epic, Cowley, like Milton, usually relies on his Renaissance reader's familiarity with the Ptolemaic system, but carefully corrects the "common opinion" in his notes or phrases his descriptions of the heavens to accord as well with the Copernican theory, as when he observes how the "Earths low Globe robs the High Moon of Light" during a lunar eclipse (pp. 272, 249). Cowley is not above scientifically explaining, or at least classifying, even love. To represent the developing friendship between David and Saul's son Jonathan, Cowley takes the present-day cliche of magnetic attraction to a ridiculous extreme:

What are thou, Love, thou great mysterious thing?
From what hid stock does thy strange Nature spring?
'Tis thou that mov'est the world through every part
And holdst the vast frame close, that nothing start
From the due Place and Office first ordain'd.
How is the Loadstone, Natures subtle pride,
By the rude Iron woo'd, and made a Bride?
How does the absent Pole the Needle move?
How does his Cold and Ice beget hot Love?

Love remains a mystery, but when Cowley conflates it with William Gilbert's contemporary experiments in magnetism,[23] he does reduce it to a natural law.

In Cowley's rational universe, poetry itself is a "Divine Science" (p. 12), and poets, and particularly poet/kings like David, ought to be natural philosophers. When, in Book III, David must flee from Saul's persecution to the kingdom of Moab, he hears how a poet named Melchor, although a "Heathen," is able to lead "with wondrous skill / . . . His noble verse through Natures secrets" (p. 331): Cowley's note explains, a bit bitterly, that "Anciently Poets held the place of Philosophers" (p. 358). Melchor's song inspires David's right-hand man Joab to disclose to Moab that David himself was a natural philosopher: "Scarce past a Child, all wonders would he sing / Of Natures Law, and Pow'er of Natures King" (p. 332). Most telling is David's initial escape, at the end of Book I, to Samuel's "College" at Ramah (p. 258). In the Biblical text (1 Samuel 19:18-24), Samuel is the leader of a "company of prophets" who live in "huts"; in Cowley's version, the huts have been transformed into a utopia on the order of Bacon's New Atlantis (or simply the Royal Society). The company includes two natural philosophers--one who thinks on "The course and power of Stars" and another who traces the "turns" of "Great Natures well-set Clock" (p. 260)--a mathematician, a historian, and the prophet himself, who "did Gods rich Law display; / Taught doubting men with Judgment to obay" (p. 261). These individual "Arts," however, are less significant than the revelation that "The sacred Muse does here each brest inspire" (p. 261). In Cowley's modern yet curiously nostalgic utopia, everyone is a poet, poetry and philosophy are identical, and to inquire into Nature's secrets--as Cowley does throughout the Davideis--is enough to write poetry.

As one of Cowley's few critical defenders, Robert B. Hinman makes the case in Abraham Cowley's World of Order that poetry can survive in such a communal, uniform, and strictly rational environment as Cowley's utopia,[24] but it is unlikely that epic poetry can. The possibility exists, however, that Cowley deliberately downplays the marvelous elements in his poetic matter in order to display the real virtues of his hero David. Moab ventures such a theory of epic when he tells David at the outset of Book IV that Joab's account of his (David's) exploits "'Twas drawn in little, but did acts express / So great, that largest Histories are less" (p. 366). Can Cowley's "new kind of man" David save his Christian epic?

2. The Hero.

The theory of the epic hero is less complicated than that of the proper matter for an epic poem, at least in Tasso's Discourses. Although he agrees with Aristotle that "the moral habit of the persons introduced in the fable" is one of the qualitative parts of epic (p. 17), he is not very informative about what that moral habit, or character, should consist of. The Discourses, however, were Tasso's revision of his earlier, shorter, and more coherent theoretical tract, the Discorsi dell' Arte Poetica (On the Art of Poetry), where he states that "The nobility of the heroic . . . depends upon supreme enterprises of a warlike nature, on matters of courtesy, of generosity, of piety, of religion."[25] Such "supreme enterprises" require heroes, of course, and in the later Discourses Tasso elaborates on who they might be:

I do not know why anyone who wishes to form the idea of a perfect knight should deny him the commendation of piety and religion. This is why I would put Charlemagne or Arthur as epic persons far ahead of Theseus or Jason. Finally, since the poet's great concern should be with improving men, he will kindle the souls of our knights much more with the example of the faithful than with that of infidels.


From these few statements, it can at least be said that Tasso leans heavily on his hero (or heroes) to supply the necessary "profit" of an epic poem. The poetic matter should convince us of the poem's truth (because of its verisimilitude) and keep us reading (because of its marvelous aspects), but the real business of the poem is to give us a virtuous person to emulate.

The problem that Tasso's standard neoclassical view of the epic hero holds for a Christian rationalist like Cowley is the same one that Milton would have to come to terms with: how to reconcile the ideals of pagan heroism, especially that of "exalted military virtue," with Christian values? For the duelist Tasso, this was apparently no problem at all: his crusading knights are true Christian soldiers, who see nothing inconsistent in supplicating themselves in prayer at one moment and rising to slay the "infidels" the next. The reticent Cowley, however, who recanted his loyalty to the Royalist cause under the Commonwealth in an infamous insert to the preface of his collected Works,[26] was both uncomfortable with the military line and interested in having his reader emulate different virtues.

But before he can portray David as a new, Christian hero, Cowley must prove that he measures up to, and even surpasses, any standard of classical heroism. Thus, in the preface, he terms David "the greatest Monarch that ever sat on the most famous Throne of the whole Earth" and "the man who had that sacred pre-eminence above all other Princes, to be the best and mightiest of that Royal Race" (p. 12). Within the epic itself, there are several indications that David indeed is the "mightiest" of the Hebrews. Before he goes to fight Goliath, he delivers a biblically authorized (I Samuel 17:34-37) boast about how, as a young boy, he single-handedly killed a bear and lion threatening his father's flock of sheep; and, afterwards, when Saul--looking for a way to get rid of the contender to his throne--demands a dowry of 100 Philistine foreskins in order for David to marry his daughter Michol, Cowley both accepts the biblical account (1 Samuel 18:27) that David paid the price twice over and conjectures from an ambiguous text "that he was to kill them all with his own hands" (p. 362). And, of course, there is the famous encounter with Goliath, of which more later.

Where Cowley really stakes the success of his epic, however, is in showing what had made David a Christian hero, indeed a (if not the) type of Christ himself, for centuries. In an ingenious solution to at least one of his difficulties, he has David define himself indirectly, by describing what it was about Saul that led God to choose him as the first king of Israel:

His Wit was strong; not Fine; and on his tongue
An Artless grace above all Eloq'uence hung.
These Virtues too the rich unusual dress
Of Modesty adorn'd and Humbleness.
(p. 374)

Because "Humbleness" is one of the new virtues that Cowley wants his reader aw emulate, that is, he cannot very well have David praise it in himself. Even when he concedes that "Power and violent Fortune . . . / Did, Deluge-like, the nat'ural forms deface" in Saul, David defers: "Forbid it God, my Masters spots should be, / Were they not seen by all, disclos'd by me!" (p. 374). Besides humility (and Cowley's predilection, again revealed above, for his hero's poetic "Wit"), David's other principal virtue is his ability to listen--like a good Christian rationalist--to "Reason and Gods counsel" (p. 289). Finally, Cowley traces the lineage of his hero immediately in the invocation, where he addresses Christ as "Thou, who didst Davids royal stem adorn, / And gav'st him birth from whom thy self was't born" (p. 242).

If any figure in the Old Testament can bear the symbolic weight of being both a classical and Christian hero, it is David. Bloom clarifies what makes David first among equals as an epic hero:

What, after all, is it to be the "best of the Achaeans"--Achilles, as contrasted to the comparable figure, David (who in Yahweh's eyes is clearly the best among the children of Abraham)? It is certainly not to be the most complete man among them.... The best of the Achaeans is the one who can kill Hector, which is to say that Achilles, in an American heroic context, would have been the fastest gun in the West. Perhaps David would have been that also, and certainly David mourns Jonathan as Achilles mourns Patroklos, which reminds us that David and Achilles both are poets. But Achilles, sulking in his tent, is palpably a child with a wavering vision of himself.... David, even as a child, has a mature and autonomous ego, with his sense of life, his vision of other selves, and his emotional nature all integrated.... Jesus, contra Simone Weil, can only be the descendant of David and not of Achilles. Or to put it most simply, Achilles is the son of a goddess, but David is a son of God.[27]

In the Books of Samuel, after David has killed Goliath and proven himself to be the mightiest of the Hebrews, he can clearly have Saul's throne if he wants it: Saul's envy is initially provoked not by an evil spirit, but by a crowd of women chanting, "Saul has killed his thousands, and David his tens of thousands" (1 Samuel 18:7-9). Instead, David does what Achilles would never do: he continues to honor Saul as Yahweh's anointed king, and--even though Saul consistently tries to kill him--twice (at 1 Samuel 24 and 26) refuses to take the king's life. Although they occur beyond the scope of his epic, Cowley reflects these later refusals when he has David tell Moab why the people of Israel desired a king in the first place: "They saw the state and glittering pomp which blest / In vulgar sense the Scepters of the East. / They saw not Powers true Source" (p. 369). David never forgets the "true Source" that has made him powerful; in this sense, his kingdom--like Christ's--is within as well as without.

But it is David's first and greatest public act that expresses his unique brand of heroism the best. Although only a boy, and in service as Saul's harp player rather than as a soldier in his army, he is the only one among the Hebrews who dares to answer the challenge of the giant Philistine Goliath for a fight to the death. He rejects Saul's own armor and sword and advances to battle armed with only "five smooth stones" and his sling. And, of course, he triumphs by slinging one of those stones at Goliath's forehead; only after the giant falls does David seize his sword and cut off his head (1 Samuel 17). Finally and intrinsically--not because Cowley could have intended it as such--David's feat serves as a kind of ironic and particularly Hebraic comment on the traditional notion of epic heroism. His youth excuses him from the contempt usually heaped on the missile--thrower,[28] and with God on his side he beats the classical heroes at their own game: his victory over an enemy "six cubits and one span tall" is certainly greater than Achilles' victory over Hector.

In short, the story of David and Goliath is one of those singular events of "sacred history" that Johnson said we read with "an imagination overawed and controlled." Almost inevitably, then, Cowley's treatment of it in Book III seems not merely incompetent but irreligious. Although the Biblical text unhesitatingly records David's moral development from a selfish interest in the reward for killing Goliath to his final triumph in the name of Yahweh and country, Cowley feels the need to assure us that David's motives are correct from the beginning:

Much the rewards propos'd his spirit enflame,
Sauls Daughter much, and much the voice of Fame.
These to their just intentions strongly move,
But chiefly God, and his dear Countrys Love.
(p. 335)

He also seems unsure, as a rationalist, just how the boy did manage to kill the giant. The "authentic narrative" lets the deed speak for itself; Cowley offers us the "frivolous and vain" amplification that "Fate, and Chance, / And Earth, and Heav'en conspir'ed to his advance" (p. 339). But, in his narrator Joab's picture of how "we (methoughts) looks up to'him [Goliath] from our Hill" (p. 333), Cowley is at his reticent worst. No doubt he means the qualifier "methoughts" to soothe his reader's supposed rational sensibilities, but his implication that Goliath maybe wasn't so tall after all completely deflates the awe that the biblical account of David's heroism inspires.

If Cowley botches both the classical and religious aspects of David's heroism in his treatment of the David and Goliath story, one senses how much more difficult it would have been to represent David as a perfectly Christian knight in the more protracted military campaigns recounted later in the Books of Samuel. If Cowley really intended to carry David's history on to his "most Poetical and excellent Elegie . . . on the death of Saul and Jonathan" at 2 Samuel 1, that is, as he said he did in the preface (p. 11), he would have had to face the problem of David at war eventually, so it is significant how he deals with it in Book IV of his epic. Here, David narrates to Moab events that actually happened before David is even introduced in the biblical text: Saul's battles against the Ammonites (1 Samuel 11) and the Philistines (1 Samuel 13-14). As David tells them, however, the hero of these scenes is not Saul but Jonathan, even though the biblical text supports his presence only at the second battle. Indeed, Cowley even admits to "a Stroke of Poetry" (p. 399) when he invents a fight to the death between Jonathan and Nahash, the leader of the Ammonites, which ends with a particularly vivid description of Jonathan's sword piercing Nahash's side.[29] The quality of heroic energy that Cowley manages to convey in these battle scenes, which certainly exceeds that in his presentation of David's "fight" with Goliath, suggests that he has learned from Tasso and others how to free his primary hero from too much taint of war while yet incorporating its epic potential. Greene explains how Tasso's knights similarly complement each other: although the focus in Gerusalemme Liberata is "upon violence rather than administration," Goffredo "is there to ensure, among other things, that the violence not be betrayed by its consequences," leaving Rinaldo, Tancredi, and others to reign on the battlefield and, consequently, to obtain most of its glory.[30] In Book IV of the Davideis, Jonathan acts "Th'insatiate Conqu'erer" (p. 390), and David escapes with his Christian magnanimity intact.

Of course, the consequence of this strategy for Cowley's epic is the same as for Tasso's: Goffredo is less interesting than Rinaldo, and David--ironically enough, because he is telling this part of the story--fades out of his own epic. Even worse, Cowley appears to be confused about which of his heroes deserves priority: as the battles end and Book IV limps to its conclusion, David delivers a curious line about how the people of Israel defended Jonathan against an unjust charge by Saul "And sav'ed their wondrous Saviors sacred blood" (p. 392). We are left wondering, at the end of his unfinished epic, just who Cowley meant to be his type of Christ after all.

The comparison with Tasso raises another confusion endemic to the Christian epic, at least to one with an historical source like the Books of Samuel: what to do when the hero, a supposedly perfect knight, sins? Tasso avoided this problem by dividing the perfection among his semifictional knights, making Goffredo perfectly reasonable and Rinaldo perfectly wrathful, for example; Rinaldo, then, can succumb to Armida's temptations without it seriously affecting his special virtue. Cowley, who is in a sense stuck with a real human being as his hero, and one with a reputation firmly established in a overly familiar text, can neither sacrifice any virtuous aspect of David's character nor pretend that he is above any temptation. He cannot, for instance, change the fact that David sleeps with another man's wife--Bathsheba--has her husband killed, and then marries the woman himself (2 Samuel 11). He can, however, have intended to carry on David's story only as far as "his Anointing at Hebron" (2 Samuel 5) for the ostensible reason that "it is the custom of Heroick Poets . . . never to come to the full end of their Story" ( p. 11). Considering that Cowley is here dismissing the whole of David's official reign as king of Israel as little more than the "full end" of his story, one may infer that the real reason he planned to end the Davideis where he did is that he could not find a way to deal with his hero's all-too-human failings.

To examine the problems that Cowley's Christian rationalism creates for his epic is to appreciate even more Milton's achievement in Paradise Lost. Milton, after all, was just as much a Christian rationalist as Cowley, and had the same "need," as Richard Helgerson says, "to remain within the epic tradition yet to supersede it."[31] How, then, does Paradise Lost succeed where the Davideis fails? For one, Milton would take care that his poetic matter, unlike Cowley's, was not so obviously tied to an indelible historical record. In Johnson's apt phrase, Milton's epic so neatly balances the marvelous and the verisimilar because "It contains the history of a miracle"[32]: a Christian could not help but regard the story of humankind's creation and fall as "true," but its truth was more a matter of its spiritual resonance than its historical accuracy. For another, Milton would reject as so many "tinsel Trappings" the conventional heroic virtues that Cowley wanted to define, yet not confine, his new kind of man. Indeed, as has been noted by critics from Dryden on, Milton chose to make Satan the closest thing to an epic hero in Paradise Lost: a decision which, whatever it implied to succeeding generations (namely to the romantics, who regarded Satan's rebelliousness as truly heroic), allows him both to represent the energy and attractiveness of the pagan ideal while eventually supplanting it with the newly heroic figure of Christ. Although Milton may not have been any more religiously committed than Cowley, having solved these problems he could more boldly assert his Christian convictions, more freely "soar / Above th' Aonian Mount."[33] Yet, if it is true that Cowley was one of Milton's three favorite poets (the others being Spenser and Shakespeare),[34] then it seems obvious that Milton learned from Cowley at least what not to do in his epic. Read in light of Paradise Lost, the concluding lines of Cowley's preface to the Davideis are uncannily prescient:

I am far from assuming to my self to have fulfilled the duty of this weighty undertaking: But sure I am, that there is nothing yet in our Language (nor perhaps in any) that is in any degree answerable to the Idea that I conceive of it. And I shall be ambitious of no other fruit from this weak and imperfect attempt of mine, but the opening of a way to the courage and industry of some other persons, who may be better able to perform it thoroughly and successfully.

(p. 14)

For once, Cowley's epic reticence seems to be opening the way to some more perfect attempt, not conceding that the matter is closed.


I wish to thank Michael Murrin for his comments on this essay.

[1] Abraham Cowley, preface, Poems, ed. A.R. Waller (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1905), p. 12. All quotations from the preface, the Davideis, and Cowley's other poems are taken from this edition, and are cited in the text by page number (the edition has no line numbers).

[2] Samuel Johnson, "Abraham Cowley," in Selected Poetry and Prose, ed. Frank Brady and W.K. Wimsatt (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1977), p. 372.

[3] As two examples, both E.M.W. Tillyard and Douglas Bush discredit Cowley's talent in their surveys of the English epic. In The English Epic and Its Background (London: Chatto and Windus, 1954), Tillyard writes that "Cowley's variety is that of quick and clever accumulation not the epic amplitude betokening wealth of mind. There can be no question of his having it in him to be an epic poet" (p. 426). Bush's opinion, in English Literature in the Earlier Seventeenth Century: 1600-1660, 2nd edn., rev. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962), is that "despite Cowley's broad horizons, . . . he had neither the intellectual nor the poetic power for such a synthesis of science and imagination as the divided age was in need of" (p. 376). Thomas M. Greene, in The Descent from Heaven: A Study in Epic Continuity (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1963), is more analytic-his comments about the "confusions . . . almost endemic to the Christian epic" that the Davideis betrays pointed the way to this essay-but he also criticizes Cowley for his "personal failings," such as his "lack of structural intelligence" (pp. 368-69). Two more recent studies place the poem historically rather than evaluate it aesthetically. Richard Helgerson approaches Cowley in Self-Crowned Laureates: Spenser, Jonson, Milton, and the Literary System (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1983) as one of Milton's Cavalier contemporaries "opening the way to Paradise Lost" (p. 231). Unlike Greene, however, Helgerson does not try to explain why Milton's poem works and the Davideis doesn't. David Trotter, in The Poetry of Abraham Cowley (London: Macmillan, 1979), provides the most interesting critique of the poem that I have read, analyzing its "failure . . . to contain and synthesise" the "disparate rhetorics" of "locutionary" and "propositional" truth (pp. 84, 4). Trotter's distinction is similar to the one between classical ideals and Christian rationalism that I make in this essay.

[4] Helgerson, p. 215.

[5] Helgerson, p. 220.

[6] Arthur H. Nethercot, Abraham Cowley: The Muse's Hannibal (1931; rpt. New York: Russell and Russell, 1967), p. 48.

[7] The date of composition of the Davideis is controversial. Thomas Sprat Cowley's original biographer, stated that Cowley had finished "the greatest part of it, while he was yet a young student at Cambridge." More recently, Frank Kermode has argued that the entire poem was written while Cowley was in exile. M.R. Perkin cites these and other conjectures in Abraham Cowley: A Bibliography (Folkestone, Kent: Dawson, 1977), p. 36. My personal, totally undocumented opinion is that the Davideis was composed in sequence and completed relatively late, if only because the poem seems to get better as one reads along.

[8] Barbara Kiefer Lewalski enumerates these and other models in Milton's Brief Epic; The Genre, Meaning, and Art of "Paradise Regained " (Providence: Brown Univ. Press, 1966), pp. 37-101.

[9] Tillyard, p. 428.

[10] Tillyard, p. 230.

[11] Torquato Tasso, Discourses on the Heroic Poem, trans. Mariella Cavalchini and Irene Samuel (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), p. 17. All quotations from the Discourses are taken from this edition, and are cited in the text by page number.

[12] Sir William Davenant, "Preface to Gondibert, an Heroic Poem," in Critical Essays of the Seventeenth Century, ed. J.E. Spingarn, 3 vols. (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1957), 2: 9, 5.

[13] Bartas, His Devine Weekes and Works, trans. Joshua Sylvester (1605; Gainesville, FL: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 1965), p. 536. The importance of Uranie is discussed in Lewalski, pp. 69-71 and Lily B. Campbell, Divine Poetry and Drama in Sixteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1959), pp. 77-80.

[14] According to Lewalski, such poems as Francis Quarles's Job Militant (1624) and Thomas Heywood's Hierarchie of the Blessed Angells (1635) are "close paraphrases which treat an entire biblical story or book rather than a single unified action and which claim epic status solely by the use of classical diction, formulaic opening lines, and some expansion of dramatic scenes" (p. 80).

[15] Don Cameron Allen, The Legend of Noah: Renaissance Rationalism in Art, Science, and Letters (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1963), pp. 177-78.

[16] Johnson, P. 373.

[17] Harold Bloom, "Homer, Virgil, Tolstoy: The Epic Hero," Raritan 6, 1 (Summer 1986): 5.

[18] Greene, The Descent from Heaven, PF. 14-17.

[19] J.B. Broadbent uses the adjective to characterize the effect of the Christian rationalist "desire for realism" in Some Graver Subject: An Essay on "Paradise Lost" (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1960), p. 49.

[20] Greene, p. 369.

[21] Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1953), p. 23.

[22] Greene, p. 372.

[23] Robert B. Hinman discusses Cowley's interest in Gilbert in Aloraham Cowley's World of Order (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1960), p. 247.

[24] An exactly opposite view of Cowley's empirical project for poetry can be found in Hugh Kenner's The Counterfeiters: An Historical Comedy (Indiana Univ. Press, 1968; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1985). "Observe that when you are perpetually diagramming the reasonableness of what you are doing," observes Kenner, "it is open to any reader who has not fallen under the spell to wonder why you should be doing it at all" (p. 54).

[25] Torquato Tasso, "On the Art of Poetry: First Discourse," in The lcalian Philosophers: Selected Readings from Petrarch to Bruno, vol. I of Renaissance Philosophy, 2 vole., trans. and ed. Arturo B. Fallico and Herman Shapiro (New York: Modern Library, 1967), 1:292.

[26] Nethercot, pp 158-59.

[27] Bloom, pp. 4-5.

[28] J.R. Hale, "Gunpowder and the Renaissance: An Essay in the History of Ideas," in From the Renaissance to the Counter-Reformation: Essays in Honor of Garrett Mattingly, ed. Charles H. Carter (New York: Random House, 1965), p. 120.

[29] Cowley may be imitating Tasso in the fight between Jonathan and Nahash. The whole scene is strikingly reminiscent of the fight between Tancredi and Argantes in Canto VI of Gerusalemme Liberata, except that Jonathan hits his pagan in the right, not left, side.

[30] Greene, p. 19.

[31] Helgerson, p. 251.

[32] Johnson, "John Milton," in Selected Poetry and Prose, p. 433.

[33] John Milton, Paradise Lost, in Complete Poems and Major Prose, ed. Merritt Y. Hughes (Indianapolis: Odyssey Press, 1957), 9.36, 1.14-15.

[34] Johnson, p. 378



English of the University of Chicago. He is currently writing a dissertation on the function of dialogue in Restoration and early eighteenth-century philosophy and politics.