The Abraham Cowley Text and Image Archive: University of Virginia

The Abraham Cowley
Text and Image Archive

About the archive

      Partly in the tradition of John Ogilby's
iconographic memorial for Charles II's coronation festivities and of the earliest illustrated editions of Cowley's own Works, or as aptly, perhaps, in the spirit of the great engraved herbals to which Cowley so often refers us and of the "grangerized" English Civil War histories on which Arthur Hind's standard Engraving in England so often depends, this archive has been gathered to illuminate Cowley's engagements with various registers of visual imagery and with the complex material culture it did, and still does, much to shape.

     Now a word on why this archive so often foregrounds a text that few moderns have read. The Plantarum libri sex (Six books of plants), first published in two books in 1662 and in six books in 1668, is Cowley's last and most finished verse effort, a production of his barely half-voluntary self-exile, literary practice in "living hidden" (latenter, whence, partly, his turn to the light-and-dark medium of Latin), and overtly a musing and antic rehearsal for death. It is also, for us, a distinctly bizarre and anomalous work, a six-book polymetric and multigeneric mixed bag with a long, somewhat cranky prose commentary, all written in Latin, apart from odd fragments in English, Greek, French, Dutch, Italian, Welsh, Hebrew, Carib, Tupi, and Aztec-Nahuatl (!), with a primary bearing on plants, of all things, or more generally on plants and plantations diversely construed as the grounding of all sorts of natures including our own. With a quirky obliquity not uncommon in seventeenth-century writers (see for instance the catch-all Anatomy of Melancholy) Cowley offers in this text not just versified botany but a full-blown Ovidian and Orphic recombinant-epic complete with its own transformation-epyllia, its own new exploration and questioning of the links between microcosm and macrocosm, and its own broad synopsis of Western cultural progress including New World explorations (Book V) and the Royal Oak's mythically arduous fostering of "Brute's" offspring the Britons in general (Book VI), and especially the Stuart royal line. More than most texts, however, of Cowley's own code-obsessed age, this text works in an underground cipher of sorts that may be all too good at giving casual readers the slip; nonetheless, if few moderns until now have read it even once, it has long proved a lively and potent subterranean presence for a small group of more careful readers and writers from Denham, Marvell, and (probably) Milton, to Pope, Johnson, and Keats' friend Leigh Hunt. (I discuss these connections at length in my own introduction, forthcoming.) Here is eminent Neo-Latinist Walther Ludwig's half-bemused but attractive concluding appraisal, lacking only an adequate eye for the visual-emblematic components of Cowley's invention, along with the more fragile vernacular genres, from the mountebank's pitch to the masque, which compete everywhere with the classical:
. . . [the Plantarum] relies on no single ancient work as a formal and structural model; rather it uses various ancient works in producing a new combination in which elegiac, lyric and epic are joined in an unclassical way, in a singular mixture of serious instruction, humorous play, and the partisan representation of current events. . . . It was apparently reprinted only once on the continent (Basel, 1793), "ob raritatem et praestantiam" ["on account of its rarity and its excellence" (my translation); from "Neulateinische Lehrgedichte," in Litterae Neolatinae: Schriften zur neulateinischen Literatur, ed. Ludwig Braun et al. (Munich, 1989), 120].
Introduction and notes to our forthcoming critical edition with new facing translation discuss the text's genres at length and in detail; for the visual-emblematic components of Cowley's invention, images with a marked if equivocal cultural valence which are often quite clearly our author's main points of departure, we have furnished this digital archive, with linked online editions of two English paraphrases of Plantarum first published in 1680 and 1689 and of one central excerpt first Englished by Cowley himself. As a crowning and uncrowning poetic feat, the summation of Cowley's own cultural vision, and as an encyclopedic assay of poetic traditions which is further embroiled or embedded in most of the other defining concerns of its era, the Plantarum deserves the attentive new richly contextualized readings that the present editions and archive are here to support.

White Hall, Virginia, April 2006     

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