chapter  8
27 Pages

Sacred and Secular in Cowley’s Essays

Johnson’s ‘Life’ has informed a generally positive reception of the Essays, such that their popularity, as noted above, continued long after his poetry had effectively been forgotten. Nevertheless, there has been comparatively little modern critical attention paid to Cowley the essayist. Much of this scholarship has focused on the many classical literary influences at work in the Essays, but this has downplayed the importance of biblical allusion. My chapter examines the Essays through a classical and religious lens, assessing how its key themes of liberty, moderation and obscurity are influenced not only by Horatian literary tradition but by interlinking Christian precepts. The Essays were[Q5] composed between 1660 and Cowley’s death in 1667, during which time he withdrew from public life to rural Surrey, his hopes of reward for years of service to the Crown extinguished. Retirement presented the ideal opportunity for Cowley to pursue his passion for the beatus ille literary tradition. But the dubiousness which it elicited in 1660s’ royalist circles provided its own incentive to marry secular with sacred. However, aesthetic and political considerations do not, I argue, negate the pertinence to his essay writing of Cowley’s personal faith, evident in other writings as well as in future, unrealised literary plans.