Discordia Concors, Decorum, and Cowley

Critic: Harvey D. Goldstein
Source: English Studies, Netherlands, Vol. XLIX, No. 6, December, 1968, pp. 481–89. Reprinted in Literature Criticism From 1400 To 1800, Vol. 43
Criticism about: Abraham Cowley (1618-1667)

Genre(s): Comedies (Plays); Odes; Love poetry; Epics; Satiric poetry; Essays

[Below, Goldstein analyzes the ode "Of Wit," reading it as an expression of Cowley's ideas regarding the nature of his art. The poem embodies the classical notion of discordia concors (or, unity in diversity). the critic asserts, for Cowley gathers its diverse elements into a harmonious design, imitating the divine act of creating order out of chaos.]

When Eliot calls Cowley `an early Augustan as well as a late metaphysical', he locates Cowley's position in `the history of thought and sensibility'.1 This dual position is most strikingly demonstrated in Cowley's `metaphysical' ode `Of Wit', an attack on the metaphysical conceit as pointed and complete as any to be found among the `Augustan' critics. In terms that strongly resemble those of the later writers, Cowley condemns excessive ornamentation, puns and plays on words, bombast, and strained metaphors. Furthermore, his condemnation of these qualities is based on an aesthetic which emphasizes the supremacy of design and structure, and which results in a `classicist' definition of true wit as the harmony and proportion of all parts of a composition. Nevertheless, this poem, as all readers have recognized, is alive with conceits, many of them the same conceits which it condemns as false wit.

Wit is a troublesome concept, many-meaninged and elusive; and never does even `proper wit' become mere propriety. `Just and lively' Dryden hardly intended such a limitation by his famous definition, and Pope's artful playing with the term's ambiguities clearly signals a quality beyond decorum. Decorum, through the last half of the seventeenth century, had become the essential prediction of wit. But `a verse as smooth, as soft as creame',2 was rarely saluted as witty.

What appears as a mixture of `metaphysical and Augustan' in Cowley's poem is its characteristic mid-seventeenth century attempt to confront and reconcile two differing sets of poetic values--the witty particulars of the `strong-lined' writers,3 and a stress on organization and belongingness associated with Johnson and his tribe. `The true artificers', Johnson had declared, `use ever election and a meane ... looke back to what they intended at first and make all an even and proportioned body'.4 And by the 1650's, Hobbes and Davenant were carefully investigating the qualities of mind and work requisite for such a body, were developing a vocabulary of value that clustered around `direction', `discretion', `steddiness', and `judgement'. Their method was, to a considerable extent, `negative definition'--wit emerging in contrast to what it was not. If the metaphysical view located wit primarily in linguistic complications, Hobbes and Davenant rejected the priority of elocution and made their `figure of figures' decorum. And Cowley is, in these respects, one of the `Gondibert group'. The qualities which he denies wit are similar to the qualities which his associates deny that faculty.

When Cowley asserts that wit is `not when two like words make up one noise',5 he directs his disapproval to the paranomasia of the metaphysicals, just as did Davenant when he rejected `a kinde of alike tinkling of words'.6 When Cowley excludes excessive ornamentation,

Jewels at Nose and Lips but ill appeare;

Rather than all things Wit let none be there,7

he asserts a principle of discretion that is thoroughly Hobbesian. Hobbesian too are his attack on `a tall Meta'phor in the Bombast way', and his rejection of Senecan curtness.

Cowley's attack on far-fetched comparison, however, although standard, is qualified. The ode condemns similitude only when it is inappropriate to the design of the whole, and in this way it expresses an aesthetic of decorum. `All things', in verse fifty-three, must refer to the proper relationship of all the various ingredients in a poem--a relationship which stanza eight tells us produces agreement or unity. The suggestion is that a recondite comparison--even a series or such comparisons--may well conform to the total design. Design or unity is the poetic value which the poem argues, and poetically renders. Violation of unity is the poetic fault it condemns.

There is little in all this to distinguish Cowley's poetic from that of Hobbes or Davenant. All three writers acknowledge the force of variety, imagery', and fancy, and all three place their supreme value on design. It is not to be wondered, therefore, that a later spokesman for decorum, Dr. Johnson, commends the `Ode' as `almost without a rival', and applauds particularly its condemnation of `exuberance of wit'.8 But Johnson, unlike more recent critics, ignores the `metaphysical' qualities of the poem. He recognizes the ode's identification of wit with propriety, but fails to note that the ode is also--and at the same time--a statement of wit as disagreeing concord.

Eliot has been typical of later writers in his awareness that the ode expresses something beyond Augustan decorum. `Cowley's conception of wit', says Eliot, is `larger' than Dryden's or Johnson's.9 Eliot does not define this quality, but `largeness' is central to the poem's view of wit, to the doctrine of discordia concors which the ode renders. `In a true piece of Wit all things must be', writes Cowley, `Yet all things there agree'. `All things ... agree', presents the poles and the reconciled unity, suggests both decorum and discordia concors, and shows the relation of the two.10

`All things' is, in fact, the key term and perhaps the key metaphor in this poem. In seventy lines the phrase appears four times, in addition to such analogous phrases as `all ev'ry where' (v. 27), and `of all' (v. 61). These phrases stress the importance of variety (and discordia) to wit, but the use of these phrases in the poem, almost as a single quality or concept, also stresses the concord. These phrases thus become witty figures themselves, figures of agreeing discord that reflect the organization and wit of the poem as a whole.

The poem's principle of order is its definition of wit, and it is this which controls the elements and movement of the ode. Therefore, although the opening stanza, for example, may seem oddly recondite and disconnected in its imagery, it fulfills in this way the poem's doctrinal criterion of concord from discord. The poem begins properly enough, with images which, in their very vehicles, express this discord. Moreover, the arrangement of these images, an arrangement characterized by remote connections and an apparent lack of transitions, figures this same discord. Cowley thus, while rejecting `metaphysical excesses', uses these very excesses for the sake of his design.

The poem says (vv. 21-22) that wit is `not a Tale, 'tis not a Jest/ Admir'd with Laughter at a feast',11 whereas lines 19-20 had contained the strained and irrelevant jest, `And Wits by our Creation they become, / Just so, as Tit'lar Bishops made at Rome'. In the same way, the poem condemns `florid Talk' (v. 23) in the presence of it, and condemns `adorn[ing] and gild[ing] each part' in a figure that is itself just such a `jewel' as it rejects (vv. 33 ff.). The point is that these figures all operate here within terms of the poem's dual principles of structural decorum and discordia concors, and they receive their function not from themselves but from their end in the unity of the entire piece. They work to convey a sense of discord which is brought into concord by the poet's creativity. They are themselves the `variety' of the poem's `first matter' (v. 3), which in that `strange Mirror of the [Creator]' are made to lie `without Discord or Confusion' (vv. 63-64). Out of these varieties, Cowley builds a unity; out of the discordia, the concors emerges; out of Cowley's definition by negatives, he arrives at a positive statement concerning wit. And the mode of the poem figures its doctrine.

Cowley, in this poem, is heir to both major seventeenth century traditions concerning wit. His emphasis on design makes him a spokesman for a structurally oriented aesthetic. And he is also a significant spokesman for the tradition of wit as discordia concors--an important tradition with a metaphysical as well as a rhetorical basis.12 Both the metaphysics and the rhetoric were understood by Cowley.

The rhetorical aspect of this doctrine is encountered frequently throughout the seventeenth century. Writing in approval of `sharp and witty flourishes', John Newton says:

I will shew you what is meant by Sharpness or Ingenuity, as Material Sharpness ... is the meeting of two lines or sides in one point: so Metaphorical Sharpness is the concourse, or disagreeing concord, of the subject and predicate.... Or this, Sharpness is an agreeing discord, or a disagreeing concord, that is, we are then said to speake smartly or wittily, when the predicate and subject ... do agree with one another in one point, and disagree in another.... This [sharpness] is three-fold, unnatural, praeternatural, natural. Unnatural Sharpness is when two things agree that are in themselves unlike, opposite and contrary, ... "the fire doth scorch and burn, and oftimes flame, / Yet see, cold blasts do now come from the same." ... Praeternatural Sharpness ... is very unusual.... Natural Sharpness is that which doth agree with the nature of things. The best of these three is that which is called unnatural, because it begetteth great admiration.13

Newton's source, Michael Radau, indicates that the identification of wit with discordia concors is a commonplace, and that it results from the taste of age:

Nauseat simplicitatem seculum nostrum, & quendum [sic] in stylo luxum requirit, ... Loquamur itaque de Acuto, ut seculo nos accommodemus.... Sicut materiale Acumen est duarum linearum seu duorum laterum in unum punctum concursus & unio ex uno fundamento provenientum. Ita Acumen metaphoricum est concursus seu discors concordia Subjecti & Praedicati in oratione. Alii sic brevius definiunt: Acumen est concors discordia seu discors concordia.14

The mid-century rhetorician, Obadiah Walker', approves devices of discordia concors because of their effect on an audience `much taken to see opposites agree and contradictions true'.15

Further indication of the prevalence of this view is gathered from its appearance in the popular Academy of Eloquence by the eclectic Thomas Blount who argues, `you shall profit most of all, by inventing matter of agreement in things most unlike:... comparisons of contraries is the ... most flourishing way of Comparison.' Blount therefore singles out for approval ... `a gentile way to move admiration in the hearers, and make them think it a strange harmony, which must be expressed in such discord.'16 John Smith, equally popular and almost as eclectic, also comments on the wittiness of the various figures of discordia concors, and applauds both oxymoron and synaceiosis, `where contraries are acutely and discreetly reconciled'.17

The force of the doctrine rested on more than a recognition of the striking quality of certain rhetorical figures, and was ultimately involved in the popularity of the doctrine of correspondence. The rhetorical figures were applauded because discordia concors was a way of rendering reality in language. For the concettisti, wit was a mode of perceiving the real world--`an act whereby the understanding discovers the correspondence between things'.18 Newton justified a wit of `disagreeing concords' by affirming that `there is scarce anything which may not in some particular be compared with another'.19 The ironic eulogy prefixed to John Hall's Paradoxes `defends' the literary paradox as an instrument of vision into a real world which is also paradoxical.20 And John Donne's Whitsunday sermon of 1627 bases a stylistic theory of discordia concors on an analogous view of metaphysical reality. Donne, expatiating on `Mission ... Permission ... Commission ... Dismission ... Remission', finds an `harmonious consort' suggested by the like endings. In this way, Donne brings these discordant concepts together into a vision of the Holy Ghost. The finding of verbal agreement in things unlike is a way of penetrating into the universe.21

Within the framework of this tradition, Cowley, in the ode `Of Wit', also connects the poetic with the metaphysical principle of discordia concors. And he accomplishes this by means of another important aspect of the doctrine of correspondence--the identifying of the harmonizing activities of God in creation with the harmonizing of the poet's creative act. Wit is therefore, the poem shows, by more than its difficulty of definition, `like the Power Divine' (v. 55).

With this background before us, the significant form of the `ode' becomes quite clear. The poem always moves from the mechanical, the lifeless, the dispersed, the discordant, to the vital, the meaningful, the unified and the harmonized--from the `false Ware' of `colour'or `Shape' that led `Zeuxes Birds ... to the painted Grape' (stanza two) to the harmonized and harmonizing `Numbers' that by `Miracles' called the `Stones into the Theban wall' and that raise `Towns or Houses' (stanza four). The movement is from the never constant, always discordant, superficial variety of `Women love[s], either in Love or Dress' (stanza one), to the `Love that moulds One Man up out of Two' (stanza nine). The movement is from the lifeless discord of the `First matter' (v. 3) to the same first matter, become harmonized and unified

 as the Primitive Forms of all...

Which without Discord or Confusion lie,

In that Strange Mirror of the Deitie

                               (vv. 61, 63-64).

It is figured also in this same stanza, in another image of concord from discord, as `all Creatures ... all Creatures that had Life', joined in the Ark `without force of strife'.22

Wit emerges in this poem as a creativity that is identified with the Divine act in its harmonizing of the chaos, its turning of discord into concord. `All things' are indeed all things, all matter that the poet works with. Myths, theology, science, reason and imagination, various feelings, various tones, various meters, emotional qualities and intellectual attitudes, statement, argument, images drawn from various sources, `tales', `jests', `tall metaphors', and `odd similitudes' are brought into unity and harmony by the poet's creative act.

Nor is `Of Wit' isolated in Cowley's works as a statement of this view of poetry. The Pindaric, `The Muse', renders a markedly similar doctrine. Its opening stanza offers a restatement of the conventional antitheses of fancy-judgment, wit-eloquence, memory-invention. But the poem brings all these elements together into a unified, concordant, productive relationship as `all the winged race'. It insists upon the poetic need for all of these elements, as well as for `Figures, Conceits, Raptures, and Sentences' as the `airy Footmen' that must of necessity accompany `the winged race'.

Here, as in `Of Wit', we have a case of the poem's doctrine expressing itself by means of the management of images. The `long row of goodly pride' is declared (v. 12) to be `Figures, Conceits, Raptures, and Sentences'. And indeed the stanza can be seen to be made up of such a row: the figure of the `rich Chariot' (v. 1) in which the Muse, as Queen, `will take the air' (v. 2); the conceit of the `winged race' and `airy Footmen' (vv. 7-9); the rapture of `Mount, glorious Queen, thy travelling Throne' (v. 16); the Sentence of the concluding couplet,

For long, though cheerful, is the way,

And Life, alas, allows but one ill winters Day.

The stanza, thus, renders the same view of creativity as does `Of Wit'--a creativity that insists on discordant elements such as fancy and judgment, figures and sentences, truth and lies (v. 14), and brings them together in the poetic act and the poetic object. From the unifying of the standard rhetorical opposites of stanza one, the poem proceeds in its second stanza to a bolder figure of agreeing discord:

 Where never Fish did fly,

And with short silver wings cut the low liquid Sky

 Where Bird with painted Oars did nere

Row through the trackless Ocean of the Air.23

Here is that `dazzling contrast in which the [metaphysicals] recognized the essence of wit'.24 And the image, despite its appearance of fancifulness, is a good deal more than fanciful decoration. It operates at this point in this poem to embody the doctrine of discordia concors and to identify this doctrine with both the area and the quality of the Muse's activity. Moreover in the `logic' of the poem, this identification of creativity with agreeing discord leads to the identification of poetic with Divine creativity. The poet is declared to make worlds of his own, just as God has; and in the same way as God, by means of the creative word:

 Thou speakst, great Queen, [in] the same

 stile as He,

And a New World leaps forth when Thou

 say'st, Let it Be.

All of the significant elements of the tradition of discordia concors appear here, the view of the universe as a harmony of diverse elements, the defining of poetic wit as an agreeing discord, and the identification of the poet's creativity with God's.

`The Resurrection' is yet another of Cowley's odes that present such a poetic doctrine. But in this poem it is the Pindaric form itself which is explained and justified as a discordia concors. `This Ode', Cowley tells us, `is truly Pindarical, falling from one thing into another, after [Pindar's] Enthusiastical manner'.25 Enthusiasm, rapid transitions, apparent lack of connections, extreme irregularity, a bold play of images and subjects characterize the ordinance of this poem. The poem begins with the celebration of the moral value of poetry, ends with an address to Cowley's own Pindaric muse, and passes, on the way, through an extended development of a vision of Judgment Day. Moreover the relationship of the final stanza to what has gone before seems to baffle any attempt to analyze the architecture of this ode.

The way of the poem is indeed discord--but a discord that resolves itself into the disharmonious harmony of the Pindarique Pegasus , `Now praunc[ing] stately, and anon fly[ing] o're the place' (v. 60). And the poem, though its `steep Hill would gallop up with violent course' (v. 56), does have a course and a principle of unification; though it `Disdains the servile Law of any settled pace' (v. 61), it has the Pindaric law appropriate to its Pindaric pace.

It may be correctly pointed out that the Pindaric subject of the final stanza is related to the Apocalypse of the third stanza, as stanza two had related `Song [of] smooth and equal measures' to `th'harmonious Worlds' of time. The architecture of the poem can therefore be presented in terms comprising non-Pindaric verse: created universe: Pindaric verse: Day of Judgment. The `mightier Sound' (v. 36) of the last trumpet is thus identified with the `mightier Sound' of the Pindaric ode, a `musical discord' that achieves its own harmony, deeper and more profound than worldly (or, as the poem suggests, Virgilian) harmony.

This ode, than, presents a polarity of poetic excellences which it renders in terms of Virgil and Pindar. The poetic qualities that cluster around the metaphor of Virgil (stanza two) seem to be smoothness, equal measures, gentle notes, above all, an harmonious concord. The poetic qualities that cluster around the metaphor of Pindar (stanza four) are a lack of smoothness, profound as against gentle notes, metaphoric boldness, powerful description, above all, `disagreeing concord'.

Cowley here employs the device of making the ode's form part of the ode's subject. This poem formally reflects the problem it is trying to explore, the relationship between ordered harmony and the harmonious disorder of genius-inspired fire and fury. It explores and celebrates harmony by means of irregularity, and seems to suggest in its `sweet thunder' a quality that might be identified as super-earthly, epiphenomenal harmony.26

Seen in this way, the Cowleyan Pindaric is itself a formal embodiment of discordia concors. And this, in an age `that sickens at simplicity' and `is much taken to see opposites agree and contradictions true', might go a long way toward explaining the phenomenon of this form and the popularity it enjoyed in the last half of the seventeenth century.

Discordantly, it was also an age which made the identification of wit and propriety a commonplace. And Cowley spoke for this, too. In his Pindarics he attempts to develop a decorum of matter and manner appropriate for that genre. Therefore Congreve excepts him from his attack on the Pindarists, and N.N. mourns him:

The death of the most excellent Mister Cowley is very much to be lamented which with that of his life, gave an unhappy period to the design he had conceived to give us the pattern of several Stiles fitted for several Subjects. His example might have put some bounds to that Poetick rage, ... Certainly none knew better than he, how modestly to confine the wanton.27

Generic decorum and discordia concors yield only a slightly disagreeing concord. The `Pindaric form' is itself proof of this. Nor is it very clear even in Hobbes whether fancy or judgment is the essential ingredient of wit. Might it not be offered that a concept of wit as propriety is one logical consequence of conceiving wit as discordia concors, and that it results from a recognition of the concord, the harmony, the belongingness?


1. `A Note on Two Odes of Cowley', Seventeenth Century Studies Presented to Sir Herbert Grierson (Oxford, 1938), p. 240.

2. Ben Jonson, `Timber', Critical Essays of the Seventeenth Century, ed. Joel Spingarn (Oxford, 1908), 1, 21.

3. See George Williamson, `Strong Lines', English Studies XVIII (1936), 152-159.

4. `Timber' (Critical Essays), 1, 22-3. Donne was classified as a `strong-lined' writer and was judged deficient in design. See Samuel Butler, Characters (Cambridge, 1908), p. 402, Dr. Don's writings are like Voluntary or Prelude in which a man is not ty'd to any particular Design of Air; but may change his key or moode at pleasure: So his compositions seems to have been written without any particular Scope.'

5. `Of Wit', v. 41. All quotations from Cowley's poems are from the edition by A. R. Waller, The Poems of Abraham Cowley (Cambridge, 1905).

6. `Preface to Gondibert' (Critical Essays) II, 22.

7. `Of Wit', vv. 35-6.

8. `Life of Cowley', Lives of the English Poets, ed. G. B. Hill (London, 1905), 1, 36.

9. `Cowley', p. 237.

10. `All things ... agree' seems to belong to the same tradition of discordia concors as the medieval emblem of rhetoric holding `Mercury's Caduceus whose two opposing serpents signify ... two extreme propositions which the orator's art, symbolized by the rod, reconciles so that they intertwine' (E. H. Gombrich, `lcones Symbolicae; The Visual Image in Neo-Platonic Thought', Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, XI [1948], 192). It is the same tradition that includes Plato's `the same' and `the other' from which, according to the Timaeus, God created the world soul.

11. The qualification may be crucial, for it suggests the working of a principle of propriety. `A Jest / Admir'd with Laughter at a feast', is not wit in a poem.

12. The identification of wit with discordia concors and the use of this theme as an approach to seventeenth-century poetry are by no means original. The reader is referred to two recent studies: George Williamson, The Proper Wit of Poetry (London, 1961), and Earl R. Wasserman, The Subtler Language (Baltimore, 1959). Wasserman has called for a comprehensive study of this theme in the 16-18th centuries. This paper does not attempt to fulfill that request, but merely to fill in some details in the tradition.

13. An Introduction to the Art of Rhetorick (London, 1671), pp. 28-30 (italics mine). Interestingly Newton's example of such `sharpness' is a beautiful maiden who is said to be a fire that scorches and chills. This is a 1671 acceptance of a figure not too unlike Cowley's `burning glasses made of ice', which Addison in 1711 will condemn as `mixt wit'.

14. Orator Extemporaneus (London, 1657), pp. 21-3.

15. Some Instructions Concerning the Art of Oratory (London, 1659), p. 65.

16. (London, 1670 [1st ed., 1654]), p. 16.

17. Mysterie of Rhetorique Unvail'd (London, 1657), p. 122.

18. Quoted in Joseph Mazzeo, `Metaphysical Poetry and the Poetic of Correspondence', JHI [Journal of the History of Ideas], XLV (1953), 223. For discussions of the continental theorists of the conceit, the reader is referred to this article, to Mazzeo's other articles on the subject, `A Critique of Some Modern Theories of Metaphysical Poetry', Modern Philology, LI (1952), 88-90; `A Seventeenth Century Theory of Metaphysical Poetry', Romanic Review, XLII (1951), 245-55; and to S.L. Bethell, `Gracian, Tesauro, and the Nature of Metaphysical Wit', The Northern Miscellany of Literary Criticism, No. 1 (Autumn, 1953), pp. 21-25. The doctrine of universal analogies has its probable source in Neo-Platonic thought. Mazzeo has argued that Giordano Bruno (De Gli Eroici Furori) was the first writer to formulate a conception of concettismo: `For Bruno, metaphysical poetry was ... concerned with perceiving and expressing the universal correspondence in His universe' (`A Critique', p. 88). Pico had however preceded Bruno in this doctrine when he referred to `the occult affinities and harmonies of the universe which enable the representation of one image by another' (quoted in Gombrich, `lcones', p. 167).

19. Art of Rhetorick, p. 17.

20. (London, 1653), Sig. (*) 11.

21. Sermons of John Donne, ed. Evelyn Simpson and George Potter (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1954), VII, 442-446.

22. This image as a way of figuring discordia concors had some currency. Cf. Robert Allott, Wits Theater of the Little World (London, 1599), p. 1: `GOD within the Arke, made quiet the Lyon with the Leopard, the Wolfe with the Lambe, the Beare with the Cowe, the Tyger with the Crocodile, the Horse with the Mare, the Dog with the Catte, the Foxe with the Hennes, the Hounds with Hares, and so of all the other beasts'.

23. These four lines could stand as a text illustrating `the wayes by which this disagreeing concord ... may be made' (Art of Rhetorick, p. 30). Newton lists, along with a disagreeing agreement between subject and predicate, `annexing ... a disagreeing Epithete, ... annexing to the subject another disagreeing, substantive; ... a catacresis either in the Adjective, in the Substantive, or in the Verb ... especially by some Metaphors' (pp. 30-31). He suggests also that the matter for such metaphors may best be had from `the Logicall Topicks of ... causes, effects, adjuncts ... and proprieties' (p. 31).

24. Mario Praz, The Flaming Heart (New York, 1958), p. 205.

25. Poems, p. 183.

26. Or John Newton's `unnatural Sharpness'.

27. N.N.'s translation of Ren´┐Ż Rapin, Reflections Upon the Eloquence of these Times (London, 1672), pp. 157-8.

Source: Harvey D. Goldstein, "Discordia Concors, Decorum, and Cowley," in English Studies, Netherlands, Vol. XLIX, No. 6, December, 1968, pp. 481-89. Reprinted in Literature Criticism From 1400 To 1800, Vol. 43.