chapter  2
25 Pages

Laurels for the Conquered

Cowley, Epic, and History
WithWarren Chernaik

In this chapter, Warren Chernaik assesses how the circumstances of composition impact on Cowley’s treatment of two key generic concerns, epic and history. Cowley’s abandonment of an ambitious attempt at epic poetry, The Civil War, after Book 3, was provoked by its being overtaken by history. As Chernaik shows, Cowley’s was a partisan contribution to the war of the pen, depicting royalists as noble and heroic, parliamentarians as base, while the poem’s epic apparatus has male and female deities observing and influencing events. Two particular Pindarics in the 1656 Poems, ‘Destinie’ and ‘Brutus’, have political piquancy, though not straightforwardly royalist. Indeed, ‘Brutus’ is problematical in its praise of the regicide Brutus as ‘the best’ of men, a paragon of virtue, a position characteristic of seventeenth-century republicanism and incompatible with that in The Civil War. The Davideis, meanwhile, compares with Paradise Lost and Samson Agonistes in its treatment of moral issues inspired by its seventeenth-century historical and religious milieu. As Chernaik demonstrates, Cowley’s examination of ‘the Troubles of David’ draws revealingly on Hobbesian contract theory to pose pressing questions about political allegiance to a nation’s ruler.