Rogers, Katharine M., ed. Selected Poems of Anne Finch. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1979.
"SPRING, THE" Abraham Cowley (1647)
Abraham Cowley published a collection of about 100 love poems in 1647 titled The Mistress. "The Spring" exemplifies the negative assessment the collection received in later generations. Samuel Johnson, who admired Cowley, remarked of his unromantic love lyrics, "The compositions are such as might have been written for penance by a hermit, or for hire by a philosophical rhymer who had only heard of another sex." Most critics of centuries after Cowley's would agree that he attempts to intellectualize emotion and so dooms himself to fail. He adopts traditional comparisons, particularly those from nature, but then uses them in a cold fashion, his style lacking the appropriate tone for expression of passion.
As the speaker addresses his love in the first of six eight-line stanzas with rhyming couplets, he notes that even though she is absent, the trees and flowers remain as "beautous" as always, and the bird's "rural music" remains as "melodious and free" as if she were present. He concludes with a statement regarding the rosebud, traditional symbol of a young virginal woman, made unpleasant by clumsy repetition of terms referencing the morning: "I saw a rose-bud ope this morn; I'll swear / The blushing morning open'd not more fair." When the speaker seeks to compare her to a beautiful dawn he fails, because his comparison moves from that of a rose, or his love, to a sunrise, to that of a morn to a morning, rendering the figurative language moot.
The second verse asks the question hinted at in the first, "How could it be so fair, and you away?" rather than allowing the subtle suggestion to stand on its own. Such blatant statement remains more appropriate to essay than poetry. The speaker wonders whether the trees and flowers remember the previous year, when "How you did them, they you delight," which becomes a pleasant inversion. However, it is followed with harsh sounds, including that of "sprouting leaves," personified to have seen her there during a previous season. When they are not rewarded with her sight, they simply withdraw, suggesting a lack of motivation for spring. Again Cowley mitigates against a pleasing image through diction, as the leaves "Creep back into their silent barks again," suggesting a lowly insect, hiding within tree bark, that sometimes speaks. Cowley's error is in focusing on trees and leaves, rather than on flowers.
The conceit continues in the third verse, which begins, "Were'er you walk'd trees were as reverend made," suggesting that her presence deified the vegetation. Without that deification they should not "smile and flourish now, / And still their former pride retain." He then references mythology: "she, / Who fled the god of wit, [and] was made a tree." That reference clashes with the previous imagery of trees who admire women, as he suggests trees are themselves of female sensibility. As Cowley extends the tree imagery, he continually fails to introduce any graceful diction or imagery into his lyric. The trees should be "wiser" and more "learned," actually following the poem's subject: "You would have drawn them, and their poet too." However, the trees are not to be blamed, for "since you're gone," they must "shine alone. / You did their natural rights invade." At this point his love is vilified as one who works against nature, rather than inspiring it. Even "fairest flowers could please no more, near you, / Than painted flowers, set next to them, could do." As Cowley concludes, "'Tis you the best of seasons with you bring; / This is for beasts, and that for men the spring," he sparks confusion with his nonspecific pronoun This. It seems to refer to the season that his love brings, saying it serves beasts well. In actuality he is probably referring to the present condition of spring in her absence as good only for animals, while "that,"
the "best of seasons with you bring," would benefit "men." The conclusion not only remains confusing, it also lacks personalization.
Cowley's lyric seems to pit sense against sensibility throughout, therefore never achieving a lyric tone. The lyric dwindles to a laborious exercise, perhaps not surprising when one considers Cowley's pronounced scientific intellect.
Was this article helpful?