Truth Is Truest Poetry: The Influence of the New Philosophy on Abraham Cowley

Critic: Robert B. Hinman
Source: ELH, Vol. 23, No. 1, March, 1956, pp. 194-203. 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

[In the essay reprinted here, Hinman challenges the notion that Cowley turned his back on poetry when he embraced the "New Philosophy" of Roger Bacon and the empirical rationalism of Thomas Hobbes. While some religionists sought to suppress the spread of knowledge, Hinman remarks, Cowley believed that the poet could unite scientific understanding of natural phenomena and imaginative apprehension of the world to create a vision of universal order and harmony.]

Because of his well-known enthusiasm for Bacon, Hobbes, and the Royal Society, Abraham Cowley has been accused of betraying his art to science, in complicity with men who refused to take poetry seriously or who were contemptuous of the imagination. He has been maligned as a passionless player with words, duped by the new science and rationalism, who sold his poetic birthright for a mess of Hobbesian pottage.1

The charge is a libel. It would have seemed incredible to Cowley that concern with physical phenomena or suspicion of empty words might ever be equated with renunciation of the poet's mission to transcend space and time. There was no insidious attack on the imagination in his assertions that poets deal in apparent fictions and natural philosophers in demonstrable facts. He believed he had learned from Hobbes that the imagination could bridge the two. For him the world of physical phenomena was one of the two worlds with which the imagination of the poet had to work. The other was that of myth, what the mind adds of its own. Behind both was reality, the harmonious universe conceived in the mind of God and occasionally to be glimpsed by men. Hence, for him the philosopher-scientist was a kind of poet, and the poet had at least to be aware of the world being examined by the scientists. The poet's function was to create, or at least to suggest, the unity of that world, to remind men of its wonder and their own position in it. Thus, the thinkers and scientists of Cowley's day could never have led him to consider the poet a frothy trifler. They led him to believe that poetry could have more importance than it had ever had before.

Modern critics, however, have pointed to a passage in "To the Royal Society" as evidence of Cowley's desertion of poetry in favor of science.2 Philosophy, Cowley said, the only truth remaining to man since the Fall, had been enfeebled and imprisoned by jealous guardians.

That his own business he might quite forget,

They 'amus'd him with the sports of wanton


With the Desserts of Poetry they fed him,

In stead of vigorous exercise they led him

Into the pleasant Labyrinths of ever-fresh


In stead of carrying him to see

The Riches which doe hoorded for him lie

In Natures endless Treasurie,

They chose his Eye to entertain

(His curious but not covetous Eye)

With painted Scenes and Pageants of the


Most modern readers have heard in these lines an echo of the disdain which they hear in The Advancement of Learning when Bacon turns from poetry to philosophy. "But it is not good to stay too long in the theater."4 Cowley heard no disdain because there was none to hear. Bacon's long discussion of poetry in the De Augmentis, concluded by a departure from the theater in almost identical words, reveals deep respect for the imagination and poetry, which partakes "somewhat of a divine nature, because it raises the mind and carries it aloft, accommodating the shows of things to the desires of the mind, not (like reason and history) buckling and bowing down the mind to the nature of things."5

Bacon here described Cowley's "divine science" with Cowley's own enthusiasm. The poet takes the phenomena of the physical world for his materials, but he transmutes them into creations which the physical world does not offer. He catches a flash from what Cowley called "that strange mirrour of the Deity," and has for a moment an image of what cast the reflection upon the mirror. What he depicts is not, of course, "true" in the sense that any image he delineates has an existence in the sensible world. God has no such existence, yet God is none the less "true." Goodness, beauty, perfection have no such existence, yet they are, as attributes of God. If men had to depend upon the senses and the reason alone, they would find it impossible to discover a moral or an aesthetic order in their universe, yet they have the certainty within themselves that such an order exists and that before the Fall man possessed a direct and immediate awareness of it. The poet carries men from this phenomenal world, by means of the imagination, outside space and time into eternity.

But to Bacon poetry is capable of even more than this. As allegory, it performs its most sacred function, serving as a means of communication between divinity and humanity. The value of fables and parables in conveying truth is great, "because arguments cannot be made so perspicuous nor true examples so apt."6 Thus, allegory sustains an important teaching role, but--equally important-- allegorical constructions are themselves the embodiments of natural truths, so that Greek fables contain the breath or whisper of ancient knowledge--almost, Bacon implies, the masks of that knowledge once the object of direct perception to unfallen man, who required no symbols. As symbolic and glimmering representations of what actually is, they deserve the highest respect. Bacon gave them such respect, and it was only after he had explicated some of these myths with the profoundest veneration that he turned to leave the theater which had enthralled him and in which he felt it was not wise to remain indefinitely.

For the work of God is not imagination; it is thought, what Cowley called "the Eternal Mind's poetic thought." Man can never comprehend God's thought, and he will always require symbolic and imaginative creation as a mode of partially perceiving the imperceptible. But God did not create the sensible universe as symbol. His poetry is not feigned history, but actuality, "the Creator's real poetry"; and--though heaven is for man too high to enter except on the wings of imagination, and man would be guilty of fatal pride if he strove to think God's thought--man has been given the physical universe to use by understanding it through his reason. For vision, for strengthening, for ennobling and inspiring, for giving focus and goal to his activities by offering an image of what might be, the theater is vital and the imagination which peoples it is essential; but man cannot live there. He must live in the world which proceeded from God's thought and which God has given him the power to cope with, a power which partakes of God's own mind: man's rational soul. When he enters the palace of the mind without arrogance, man is close to God, and the materials with which that mind works are real things, not symbols.

When men live only in the theater, when they insist that their imaginings have phenomenal reality; then they need to guard against vain philosophy. Then they are feeding philosophy with the desserts of poetry and soliciting their thoughts with matters hid. Then they have confounded man's ways of knowing and brought ignominy upon both poetry and philosophy. Then they need a Bacon and a Cowley to restore perspective. As such a restorer, I think, did Cowley read Bacon, and as such a restorer himself, no unwary enemy to either poetry or religion, did Cowley lament attention to mere ornaments and "sports of wanton wit" instead of to the solid things with which both poetry and philosophy in their several ways ought to deal.

The true enemies of poetry, Cowley thought, were the obscurantists, all to whom the world was an unknowable enigma. To the men whom he admired, the world was "God's poem," a poem God did not intend men to regard with stupefied awe. Permitting men to dwell in a world whose phenomena are available for investigation, God expects men to make something of that world. Of course, men cannot arrive at definitive knowledge. Men's claims to have done so have entangled them in the "cobwebs of the schools" and have led them to repeat again and again the sin of pride which caused the Fall. But the Fall did not cut them off from all knowledge. Man got no science from eating of the tree, but he can illuminate the darkness into which he willfully plunged himself if he makes proper use of the "reason which (God be prais'd!) still walks, for all/ Its old Original Fall."7 Reason is not adequate for all man's needs, but it can turn to "nature's endless treasury." Those who refused to draw upon that treasury, men like Cornelius Agrippa, condemned poetry as they condemned every other humane activity, urging men to study only the Bible.8

This procedure promotes precisely the human vanity which Cowley opposed. Those who urged it saw man's relationship to God through glasses of superstition and were therefore quick to castigate anyone who sought to direct poetry to serious ends. Even less anti-intellectual men like Meric Casaubon, today often acclaimed as defenders of poetry and religion against science, proved themselves indifferent to poetry. From his attack on Sprat's plea for a poetry of science and religion, Casaubon turned to scholastic thought, "a more considerable subject than poetry is."9 For poets to seek the truth available to man and to link together the Bible and nature as sources of that truth horrified Casaubon. Such horror implied that poets cannot reveal anything significant about man's life or the world. It implied that men cannot make their faith operative for any good and spoke for passive tenancy of a world which has little meaning and in which men can serve the Will of God only by blindly and patiently awaiting His Grace, denied opportunity to see in Nature as well as in the Scriptures the reasons why God deserves man's worship, his gratitude, and his efforts to establish God's kingdom.

Cowley was convinced that God desires man to know Him as well as is humanly possible and that He provides two books from which man may collect his divinity: the Scriptures and His servant Nature. By attention to these man will learn to live well. If a poet wishes to give expression to his faith in God and in life, to his hopes for man's future under God, he will study both books. He will not feel that his perusal of them is blasphemous, and he will expect his synthesis of them in poetry to put a lofty art to the use which it had always been intended to have.

Cowley took very seriously the responsibility of a man who would be a good poet to be a good natural philosopher as well. He admired men like Digby and Harvey, who searched in all available sources, humbly and piously, for the kind of truth which makes men free. Their endeavors created a new tree of knowledge, a new symbol of a covenant between God and men who had directed their energies toward God-appointed goals.10 They would never learn all there is to know about nature. Its infinite complexity would finally baffle human intelligence. Still, he agreed with Browne and Bacon that "Beware of Philosophy is a precept not to be received in too large a sense." Man has been given reason to deal with the things of this world for his use, and in searching second causes he discovers--though never ultimate principles nor ultimate matter--the infiniteness of God's creative activity and the evidence of concord.11 Therefore, Cowley could join Virgil in wishing to discover and reveal the innumerable causes of things which God desires men to know, going beyond Virgil, as a Christian should do, in revealing that the variety of those causes depends upon an infinite and omnipotent Being Who holds all in harmony.12 In the sympathy between microcosm and macrocosm he found evidence of the permanent concern of God with the universe, of the existence of a Platonic reality behind the fabric of this mutable world.

The search for such causes would provide the poet with necessary materials. For the first time the world seemed sufficiently knowable to be employed as the basis of the art which a Christian poet owes to God. Cowley found in the thought and activities of the new philosophers support for his belief that poetry is the "divine science," the body of human knowledge which bridges the gap between the mutable, knowable universe in which second causes operate and the timeless, mysterious universe habitable only by the soul. To build his bridge, the poet-philosopher must not only be aware of contemporary natural philosophy, but he must himself make contributions, at least to the advancement of the cause. His primary obligation is to write great poetry, but he can scarcely do that if he shuns any portion of the world with which poetry must deal. In such a spirit Cowley wrote A Proposition for the Advancement of Experimental Philosophy and "To the Royal Society."

But he never lost sight of the importance of poetry and humane learning. In fact, "To the Royal Society" emphasizes that the new philosophy and truly Christian achievement, including great poetry, quite naturally belong together. Bacon, Cowley said, reminded men that words are symbols, not the things symbolized. He urged men to turn to things, "the mind's right object," to extract from precise knowledge of phenomena a sense of participation in a harmonious universe. This, Cowley said, is the way of the genuinely creative artist who would present truth. He cannot follow authorities. He cannot merely draw out of himself an abstract image. He must put his imagination to work upon real objects, must universalize from the concrete particular to the general. Then he will be a creator in control of his materials. He will not be playing a pleasant game. His work will truly symbolize and will connect the eternal and the ephemeral, because the objects from which the images are drawn are true, proceed from God, who never creates illusion, as men do when they pretend to distinguish between truth and error absolutely, without aid from the senses and with a reason which has become twisted by being turned inward to contemplate only itself.

By fixing his attention upon things as they are, Bacon was able to envisage what might be, just as the true artist is able to do. Hence Cowley hailed Bacon's program as the vision of a poet or prophet, a vision seized by the members of the Royal Society, champions who would expel the idol worshipers and establish an earthly Paradise. Their search for truth could not fail to magnify God's glory, and the light which it would shed would increase man's awareness of a cosmic plan. Cowley employed his favorite image of the star whose beauty is greatest when it is understood. This significant star represented for him the creation which has permanence. In his ode "Of Wit" he had connected it with the successful work of art, which resembles the enduring work of God in its beauty, meaning and order. He had distinguished it from an overawing, meaningless flash of light. In "Of Wit" he had spoken of the artist; in "To the Royal Society" he spoke of the natural philosopher. But there was really no difference between them. Each was dedicated to the presentation of a universe which is true and which therefore has beauty and unmistakably reflects God.

Cowley had earlier found confirmation for this connection between empirical philosophy and great poetry in the work of Hobbes, who spoke like Bacon of new worlds of thought and activity waiting to be explored. Far from the least of these worlds was literature, in which much less had been done than remained to be done. Perhaps more than any other critic Hobbes turned man's attention to the role of the mind in poetic creation. Bacon had directed man back to things. Hobbes's application of Bacon's principles to the activities of the mind which deals with those things made the necessary extension to literature. True originality can be expected only from those who use what they know to make their own independent creations. In The Answer to Davenant Hobbes conceded that both science and poetry have a basis in the same experience and that their goals are similar and equally valuable. Like Bacon, however, he avoided a confusion between their methods. Science plods patiently, step by step; poetry leaps to new creations. Both arrive at what is new and undeniably valid. The impact of such views upon Cowley is evident in the poems "Of Wit," "The Muse," and "To Mr. Hobbes." "To Mr. Hobbes" is directly concerned with Hobbes's spirit and with what Cowley took to be the implications of Hobbes's method to the future of human thought. To Cowley Hobbes's great contribution was his picture of an orderly and knowable universe whose system of correspondences could be discovered by observation of phenomena and whose reflection of a divine order could be arrived at rationally.

Cowley thus perceived no tendencies toward atheism or narrow materialism in Hobbes. Instead, he perceived a determination to concentrate upon what can be established as true--the logical, natural, and uniform operations of physical processes. Past thinkers, separated from phenomena, had ceased to deal with the real world, and had therefore been incapable of liberating man from the bondage in which his pride of intellect had placed him. Scholastic thinkers, trying to live in a vacuum, had no means of recognizing connections between microcosm, geocosm, and macrocosm, even though they had insisted upon such connections. They had argued order and degree, but their premises had been false or distorted. Therefore, man had never been in harmony with nature in his moral or political life. All statements of such harmony had been fanciful word-hypnosis. Progress toward a kingdom of God had been slow, because men would not fit themselves into the world where their development had to occur. They had not recognized that in true and vital human creation both thought and matter must come together, as they do in the creation of God.

Hobbes had recognized this, Cowley believed. His Leviathan had been more than an analogy. It had been a description of the necessary similarity between the operation of the universe with God presiding over it, of the state with the sovereign presiding over it, and of man's body with the soul presiding over it. Man, of course, could not know the nature of God, except as it is revealed in the operation of the universe. He could not really know his own soul, except as it is revealed in the operation of his body. But by extending logically his knowledge of the harmony and correspondence between the great world and the little world, he could devise an intermediate world which would fit man into his appropriate place and permit him to develop as God intended him to. The philosopher's business was therefore to draw conclusions from nature and to apply them to human life. Cowley was convinced that Hobbes had discovered the proper method by combining empiricism and rationalism. He was further convinced that in the continuation of such a method lay all human hope for growth and improvement, all experiencing of the harmonious life which as a poet he wished to reveal. So long as philosophers had sought God and the soul directly, or played in words with the "why" of the universe, rather than investigate through phenomena the "how," they had cut themselves off from God and truth. Now they could expect to find God and some truth again by humbly acknowledging that the immediate object of their search was His law in nature.

This, Cowley believed, Hobbes had done. The earth had beckoned him, and, like Columbus, he dared sail where none had sailed before. He did more than Columbus, for he settled the new lands he discovered by finding a style for his thought which gives his work permanence.13 The style interested Cowley as much as the thought. Significant thought in significant art. Here was an original look at a new world in a new style, each complementing the other. The thought opened up realms worthy of great art, and the art was noble enough to mirror the beauty of the whole in which those realms made a part. Cowley had made a momentous discovery for a poet. If one aimed at truth by the surest human method, one might arrive also at a great work of art. If one were a new philosopher one might achieve one's wish to be a new poet. The new philosophy gave the poet the method and materials he needed to speak newly and truly as a witness to an ancient faith. Though men must take their solitary way through a vast new world, there was no reason to flee in terrified obscurantism. Confronting the evidence with confidence gained from the new philosophy, Cowley believed, in poems like his own Pindariques, Davideis and Plantarum, a poet might assert that Providence is guide and might undertake to reveal beauty and purpose in that world.


1. Douglas Bush has said that Cowley's "cool, critical temper was still further cooled by Hobbesian rationalism." English Literature in the Earlier Seventeenth Century (Oxford, 1945), p. 158. The most significant thing about Cowley, according to Grierson and Smith, was his interest in science, which "fascinated his bright dry intellect. He did not perceive that its spirit was alien to a poetry rooted in the fantasies of the old philosophy." H. J. C. Grierson and J. C. Smith, A Critical History of English Poetry (New York, 1944), p. 170.

2. After praise of Hobbes and Davenant, says L. C. Martin, "the next step might be to disparage poetry itself; and Cowley took this step in his `Ode to the Royal Society' ... without appearing to realize how much he was slighting his own profession or how he was helping to create an atmosphere in which poetry might seem to be no more than an elegant way of saying things. But it is part of Cowley's charm that he generally does not ask us to take his poetry, not even a Pindaric Ode, too seriously." Abraham Cowley, Poetry & Prose: With Thomas Sprat's Life and Observations by Dryden, Addison, Johnson and others. With an Introduction and Notes by L. C. Martin (Oxford, 1949), p. ix.

3. The Poems of Abraham Cowley, ed. by A. R. Waller (Cambridge, 1905), p. 448.

4. Bacon, Works, ed. James Spedding, Robert L. Ellis and Douglas D. Health (Boston, 1863), VI, 206.

5. Ibid., VIII, 441.

6. Ibid., p. 442.

7. "Reason. The use of it in Divine Matters," Poems, pp. 46-47.

8. Henry Cornelius Agrippa, The Vanity of Arts and Sciences (London, 1676). pp. 21-26, 365-68.

9. A Letter of Meric Casaubon, D. D., etc. To Peter du Moulin, D. D. and Prebendarie of the same Church: Concerning Natural experimental Philosophic, and some books lately set out about it (Cambridge, 1669), pp. 13-16. R. F. Jones, in Ancients and Moderns, p. 253, refers to Casaubon's remarks as evidence of his humanistic spirit. His letter as a whole doubtless does reflect such a spirit, but he certainly displays considerably less respect for poetry than either Cowley or Sprat.

10. This is the theme of Cowley's poem "Mr. Cowley's Book presenting it self to the University Library of Oxford," Poems, pp. 409-11.

11. See Plantarum, II, Poemata Latina (London, 1668), pp. 134-35. These lines express ideas similar to those of Browne in Religio Medici, Works, ed. Geoffrey Keynes (London, 1928-31), I, 17-19.

12. "A translation out of Virgil" (the portion of the Georgics beginning "O fortunatus nimium"), "Of Agriculture," in Abraham Cowley, Essays, Plays and Sundry Verses, ed. A. R. Waller (Cambridge, 1906), pp. 409-10. The line "Varieties too regular for chance" is not in the original.

13. "To Mr. Hobs," Poems, pp. 188-92.

Source: Robert B. Hinman, "Truth Is Truest Poetry: The Influence of the New Philosophy on Abraham Cowley," in ELH, Vol. 23, No. 1, March, 1956, pp. 194-203. Reprinted in Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800, Vol. 43.