The strengths and limitations of Cowley as a poet

Question: Discuss the strengths and limitations of Cowley as a poet.


Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) is the most powerful critic of English literature. In his appraisal of Cowley, Johnson distributes both praise and blame.

Strengths of Cowley as a poet

Johnson vehemently criticizes Abraham Cowley(1618-667) in his essay “Life of Cowley” but he did not overlook the strengths of Cowley to evaluate him properly.

A mixture of different excellence

Johnson praises that Cowley does have a strength of a mixture of different excellence. ‘Miscellanies’ is a collection of various or miscellaneous pieces of writing by Cowley in one volume. These short compositions have been written in a variety of styles and sentiments such as from funny or ludicrous amusing remarks to serious grandness. According to Johnson, no other poet has so far shown such a mixture of different excellence.

Deep knowledge and intellectual excellence

According to Johnson, Cowley is the last puissant or influential metaphysical poet. Dr. Johnson undoubtedly accepts that the metaphysical poets are highly learned and intellectual. All the writings of Cowley are the specimen of his deep knowledge and intellectual excellence, but his elegies are special for his intellectual excellence.

Striking thoughts

As a poet, the most influential strength of Cowley is his striking thoughts. His dedicated poems to lord Falkland carry his striking thoughts. The series of thoughts of these verses are easy and natural.

Joyful imagination and fancy

From the declaration of Johnson, we can learn that Cowley was an acclaimed poet of the 17th century. Besides, Milton asserts that the three greatest poets of English literature are Shakespeare, Spenser, and Cowley. So, a great poet must have some strengths and Cowley’s strength mostly depends on his joyful imagination and fancy. The “Chronicle” which is a collection of poetical compositions of Cowley contains joyful of imagination mixed with fancy and skill of expressions. Here Cowley exceeds the most influential Cavalier poet Sir John Suckling and the father of English criticism John Dryden.

Evergreen love poet

The next class of Cowley’s poems is called “The Mistress” which is a collection of love poems written between 1636 and 1646 and published in 1647. The poems of this collection have lively wit and abundant knowledge. According to Dr. Sprat, these poems truly bear the joyful flow of knowledge.

Powerful translator

Cowley was not a mighty poet of the 17th century but he is a powerful translator in the galaxy of English literature too. His translation of Pindaric odes is the testimony of his translating power.

Master of meter

Cowley as a poet is very strong for using meters though he has been underestimated for this. He uses the blank verse in his poems and comedies. He is unique as a master of meter because he has written two long metrical essays such as:

  • “The Tree of Knowledge”

Limitations of Cowley

Johnson has composed the “Life of Cowley” to evaluate the metaphysical poets very negatively. As Cowley has been given the designation of the last best metaphysical poet, he has been censured for his limitations which are as follows:

Allusion, paradox, hyperbole, and conceits: Jonson refers to Addison for rebuking conceits. Addison in his essay “Of Wit: True, False or Mixed” has discussed in detail that “The Mistress” is filled with conceits that cannot create permanent entertainment and confuse images. It is in Johnson’s evaluation:

 “The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together;

nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions.”

Thus, Johnson evaluates the metaphysical poets who are responsible for the dissociation of sensibility. Further, Johnson says that nothing can be more disgusting than a narrative is decorated with conceits and the unfinished epic of Cowley “Davideis” abounds in conceits.

Feeble diction: Johnson condemns Cowley for not having knowledge or care of diction since he has expressed morality through feeble diction.

Loss of grandeur of generality: Metaphysical poets including Cowley lose the grandeur of generality because of their last ramification.

Careless or lawless verification: The great pleasure of verse arises from the known poetic meter of the lines and uniform structure of the stanzas. Cowley does not take care of versification of law. He has extended his syllables from two to twelve. He mostly uses mixed Alexandrinefeet or stanza.


  1. Lack of description
  2. Lack of simplicity and flexible mind
  3. Irrelevant fragmentations


From the light of the above discussion, we can assert that Johnson is impartial in his literary merit and Cowley is really great one despite having some drawbacks in his writings.

Ruhul Huda
Ruhul Huda

You can call me Mr. Huda. I am a researcher and doing this work for years. I like to learn everywhere. So, feel free to share your experience with me.

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