The Collected Works of Abraham Cowley, vol. 2, Poems, Part 1: The Mistress.
Cowley's works are in very good hands, and the volumes published so far are models of patient collation, thorough documentation, and restrained, helpful critical annotation. Perhaps at first glance the Scriblerian aspects of the volumes may seem a bit too prominent. When Humphrey Moseley first printed The Mistress in 1647, he promised the reader that "I shall use no more preface, nor add one word (besides these few lines) to the Booke; but faithfully and nakedly transmit it to thy view, just as it came to mine." By contrast, in volume 2 of the Collected Works, The Mistress is far from unadorned: the text takes up only slightly more than 100 pages, followed by more than 500 pages of textual notes, collations, and commentary. Some of this is editorial overkill, born in part from the new technological capacity to fulfill an old editorial directive, that of tracking and reporting all the minutiae of textual transmission. This generates a great deal of information that has at best limited usefulness.
Much of the secondary material in the volume, though, is extremely valuable. The textual introduction sorts out the key manuscripts and editions and nicely describes the way Cowley's poems came to be printed, authorially revised, then reprinted. The explanatory notes on The Mistress first summarize the biographical background and early reception of the volume, and then add poem-by-poem comments, focusing on recurrent themes and images, and especially on Cowley's poetic debts. Ovid, Donne, and Jonson figure most prominently here, followed by references to poets, mostly Royalists, who form one of Cowley's most immediate contexts of poetic exchange, including Carew, Waller, Lovelace, Crashaw, Marvell, Shirley, Brome, and Randolph. For a volume of this size, this section of just over 80 pages seems all-too-brief. It is the only section one would have wished to be longer.
The editors' treatment of musical settings of poems from The Mistress takes up over half the volume, and rightly so. Cowley's tremendous popularity is measured not only by the number of editions of his poems eighteen between 1647 and 1721 - and the many manuscript transcriptions of his works, but also by the variety of musical settings of his poems that appear in manuscript and printed collections. The editors include sixty settings of forty poems, and besides highlighting Cowley's musical qualities as a poet, this allows a close examination of various performance modifications of his texts and, as the editors point out, confirms that Cowley had not one but many audiences: courtly and urban, musical and literary, public and private, and coterie.
Along with many other adjustments being made to the contours of the seventeenth century, there is currently a revival of interest in and new awareness of the complexity of Cavalier poetry. What used to be dismissed as propagandistic complaint and encomium, poetry of retreat, and superficial wit applied to third-generation Petrarchism is now being reexamined by a generation of critics attuned to the philosophical and political components of a Cavalier poetics and erotics of inconstancy, withdrawal, willful subjection, and prolonged desire. The Collected Works, especially when they are completed as planned in six volumes, should help make Cowley figure prominently in this critical re-examination.
SIDNEY GOTTLIEB Sacred Heart University
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1996|
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