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Abraham Cowley’s 1656 Poems is one of the landmark volumes of the seventeenth century. Less studied than Milton’s 1645 Poems, it was markedly more influential: both the Pindarique Odes and the Davideis inaugurated or revived major literary trends. Anyone reading widely in fashionable verse, especially religious and devotional lyric of the later seventeenth and early eighteenth century is struck by the vogue for increasingly loose Pindarics, a trend attributed directly to Cowley; and the Davideis is often cited as a precursor for Paradise Lost. This chapter argues that while the influence of the 1656 volume is undeniable, its formal originality has been overstated by critics who have taken Cowley’s self-conscious remarks on this topic at face-value, and have not considered the extent to which the volume successfully imported into English verse a range of formal features already well established in contemporary Latin poetry. By placing Cowley’s volume back into the bilingual literary context from which it emerged, we can reassess both Cowley’s claims to formal innovation, and how those formal features were understood by his contemporaries.
The tradition of unclassical scriptural paraphrase, such as that found in Du Bartas’ Sepmaines and Lucy Hutchinson’s Order and Disorder, has attracted some thoughtful critical attention in recent years. But Du Bartas’ work was modelled – albeit with elements of contention – on didactic epic of the type exemplified by Palingenius’ Zodiacus Vitae, an ubiquitous schooltext which was the very opposite of 'sub-canonical' in the seventeenth century. For the modern reader, approaching Milton's Paradise Lost via Virgil and Homer, the digressive mode of Du Bartas and the unclassical elements of Paradise Lost seem anomalous. Early modern poets and readers, however, were taught to approach the classics via approved Protestant or quasi-Protestant works composed by near contemporaries. Of these, the Zodiacus Vitae, though now largely forgotten and when remembered, almost universally misrepresented, was in England among one of the most influential. This chapter takes the achievement and allure of Palingenius’ poem seriously as a model in examining some of the very large number of examples of ‘unclassical epic’ read and composed by English authors in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Chiefly focusing on Swift’s Cowleyan odes and epistles of the 1690s, this chapter demonstrates the author’s early rejection of conventional imitation in favour of a spontaneous form of appropriative writing. Railing against the accumulated habits of his seventeenth-century forebears, Swift repeatedly reveals in the early poems his own thwarted attempts to reinvent poetry for an unheroic age. Temporarily discarding the panegyric mode at the end of the decade, Swift found a new metafictional style that challenged the very medium of poetry. How can we adequately describe whispering or smells? If a table-book could talk would it have anything valuable to say? What would the petition of a barely literate waiting woman sound like? What happens if an overconfident member of your circle finishes one of your unfinishable ballads?
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