(NOTE: The quotes in the text below are from the Harvard University Child Memorial Library Version of Abraham Cowley's collected poetry. A rights-free copy of this book is available for free download on Google Books.
However, I've also done a little text-changing in the quotes. I haven't changed any words or word order. However, I have taken out most of the archaic elision -- removed apostrophes that don't make sense anymore -- and modernized some of the spelling.
I did this mainly to make the job of translation easier. But if you guys would rather see the text unadulterated in the future, just drop me a line and let me know. Thank you for reading.)
Since I'm a part-time adult baby, and since I love adult baby stuff, I'm always trying to keep an eye out for stuff having to do with adult babies or babies, just to add to my imagination, my stock of fantasies.
And I'd forgotten, until I read Abraham Cowley's Pindaric Odes, that Hercules' infancy was incredible! Zeus, the greatest of Greek gods, fell in love with a mortal woman, Alcides, and made her pregnant with Hercules. Zeus' wife Hera was so jealous of Alcides that she tried to stop Hercules from even being born. She closed Alcides' womb! Thankfully one of Alcides servants, Galanthis, tricked Hera so that Hercules could be born.
For that assistance, Hera turned Galanthis into a ferret, I believe.
So now Hercules was born. Cowley, in the second poem of the Pindar cycle, already portrays Hercules as a powerful person. He's a baby, alright. But he's so strong, you'd think he was an adult, too! He's the perfect adult baby -- except that he's not wearing a pink, frilly dress:
"The big-limbed Babe in his huge Cradle lay,
Too weighty to be rock'd by Nurses' Hands,
Wrap't in Purple Swaddling-Bands."
But Hera still wanted to destroy Hercules, because he was a symbol of Zeus having had sex with another woman. So when Hercules was an infant, Hera sent two huge serpents into Hercules room to kill him.
In Cowley's version of the story, Hercules' nurses are frightened, some to death, others just into screaming like crazy. Because of the commotion, Hercules' mother awakens.
"All naked from her Bed the passionate Mother leapt
To save or perish with her Child,
She trembled, and she cry'd, the mighty infant smil'd.
This mighty Infant seem'd well pleas'd
At his gay gilded Foes."
And Hercules, even as an infant, is strong enough to strangle the two serpents, instead of the serpents strangling him!
In Cowley's story, after Hercules has strangled the infants, Hercules' father, Amphitryon, along with a company of his men, run into Hercules' nursery. The men see the snakes dead. Amphitryon is glad to see Hercules alive. But he also feels a little uneasy, having a boy of such great strength.
"With their drawn Swords
In ran Amphitryon and the Theban Lords.
With doubting Wonder, and with troubled Joy
They saw the Conquering Boy
Laugh and point downwards to his Prey,
Where in Death's Pangs, and their own Gore they folding lay."
Tiresias, however, sees the sight, and, as he would later foretell Oedipus' fall, foretells Hercules' greatness.
"He told with ease the things t'ensue,
From what Monsters he should free
The Earth, the Air, and the Sea.
What mighty Tyrants he should slay,
Greater Monsters far than they.
How much at Phlaegra's Field the distressed Gods should owe,
In their great Offspring here below,
And how his Club would there outdo
Apollo's Silver Bow, and his own Father's Thunder, too."
So Hercules, from the very beginning of his life, did things adults did, and better than many adults could have done them. He was a baby, but he was an adult. So he was like an adult baby.
But the story of Hercules is the story, really, of a boy who didn't really have a childhood. Hercules had to fight to be born. And once he was born he had to fight -- for himself -- to stay alive.
But Hercules was a half-god, so his fight was mystical. The Hercules passage takes place at the end of the second poem of the Pindar cycle. The story of the human who experienced pains from the moment of his birth, Oedipus, is lightly alluded to in the first poem of the cycle. All that's mentioned, however, is that:
"Vicissitudes which thy great Race pursue
E'er since the fatal Son his Father slew,
And did old Oracles fulfill
Of Gods that cannot lie, for they foretell but their own Will."
The story is picked back up with Iocaste, I believe, under the name of Erynnis, knowing that she'd had two sons, Polyneices and Eteocles, by her own son, Oedipus.
"Erynnis saw it, and made in her own Seed
The innocent Parricide to bleed,
She slew his wrathful Sons with mutual Blows;"
Which I suppose means that she drew them into the conflict against each other that led to the first Theban War, in which both Polyneices and Eteocles killed each other. (In this version of the story, obviously, Iocaste didn't kill herself after discovering that she'd slept with her own son. Iocaste lives in a few versions of the Oedipus story, only killing herself after her sons have killed themselves.)
However, Cowley points out, the lineage of Oedipus improved from here. For Thersander, one of Polyneices' sons, was one of the fifty men who hid inside of the giant wooden horse that invaded the town of Troy.
So Hercules' childhood is mentioned as the troubled beginning to a toilsome life. And Oedipus is mentioned as a father-slayer whose sons murdered each other.
What's odd about this -- and Cowley even mentions it -- is that both of these stories are set into poems praising young men.
Cowley's cycle of Pindaric Odes is written in the style of the Ancient Greek poet Pindar, who flourished in the beginning of the 5th Century, B.C. Pindar's poems, even in his days, were known as free, loose, poems, with a power and whimsy of imagination almost akin to madness.
In the preface to the Pindar cycle, Cowley says that:
"If a Man should undertake to translate Pindar Word for Word, it would be thought that one Mad-Man had translated another."
Cowley's Pindar cycle is full of notes he wrote on the odes. And in one of his notes, following the poem "In Praise of Pindar":
"I term [Pindar's] Song Unnavigable, for it is able to drown any Head that is not strong built and well-ballasted. Horace in another Place calls it a "Fountain;" from the unexhausted Abundance of his Invention."
Cowley, as one can tell by his Mistress cycle, which I wrote a some posts about a couple months ago, himself has an abundance of invention. So it would only be natural that he'd admire another poet with such an abundance of invention as he had. Pindar would seem to be a natural model for Cowley.
Cowley, excited by Pindar's poetry, and assuming, correctly, that "his Way and Manner of Speaking has not been yet (that I know of) introduced into English," decided that he would take the chance to bring a volume of Pindaric Odes in English. Cowley says, "This Essay is just to try how it will look in an English Habit."
However, just to give his audience a taste of what Pindar's own poetry was like, Cowley decided to beging his Pindar cycle with translations of two of Pindar's Odes: his second "Olympique Ode," and his fifth "Nemean Ode."
Both of these Odes are to athletes, young noblemen engaged in two of the most prestigious sporting events of Ancient Greek times: the Olympic Games and the Nemean Games. These are poems to youth, nobility, and achievement. They are dedicated to strong, young men.
I got the feeling while reading the beginning of this cycle, that Cowley was seeking for an ideal of male strength and achievement. This didn't surprise me. Cowley's Mistress cycle was some kind of transsexual communion of souls, engaged in a process of integrating Cowley's feminine side into himself. But it ended with Cowley encountering his masculine side, in the forms of a Bright Shadow and a Dark Shadow.
The Mistress cycle seemed to have ended with Cowley having come to a castle to encounter his Dark Shadow -- what one might think of as his evil side. I had a feeling, as I finished the Mistress cycle, that Cowley's next work -- the Pindaric Odes cycle, would focus on Cowley's encounters with his Shadow figure, in particular his Dark Shadow.
To see Cowley having begun the cycle with two poems that Pindar dedicated to two young, strong, beautiful men, didn't surprise me -- although I'd assume that all the Olympic and Nemean Odes would be dedicated to young, strong, beautiful men.
It seems to me, though, that part of Cowley's attraction to Pindar, anyway, is due to the fact that Pindar wrote to men, and that Cowley was looking for poetry that would give him a sense of manliness, put him in touch with whatever he was looking for -- the Dark Shadow or Bright Shadow, or what have you.
Cowley, after all, was born after his father had died. He was taken care of by his mother, who cared very much for him, and saw to it that he had a good education. Even though Cowley's mother was, apparently, not well off, she made that Cowley got into Trinity College, Cambridge. From Trinity College, Cowley displayed his intellectual talents so well that he became a friend and indispensable help to many of the highest people at Court in England.
Cowley started serving, during the troubled times of England, as a letter-carrier and a spy, along with another English poet, Charles Denham. When the Civil Wars began, Charles I's wife, Queen Henrietta-Marie, was exiled to France. Cowley, as assistant to Henry, Lord Jermyn, went to France with Queen Henrietta-Marie, and acted as her official letter writer. During this time, Cowley wrote the Mistress and Pindar cycles, both within a couple years of each other.
The Mistress cycle seems almost like a communion between Cowley and the Queen. The Pindar cycle, however, seems like a quest that Cowley is taking on his own. Again, like in the Mistress cycle, Cowley seems unsure of what he's actually looking for. And I believe that in the two poems he starts from a very similar argument.
In the Mistress cycle, Cowley begins almost by taunting the God of Love, Cupid, to make Cowley fall in love. This taunting, it turns out, brings down a spiritual force on Cowley that Cowley had never been looking for.
However, Cowley, by working through that spiritual crisis, found himself having integrated the feminine side of himself -- which had been overwhelming him from his youth, since he'd had, possibly, an overly goal-oriented mother -- and which was especially overwhelming him, now that he was directly serving as the Queen's personal letter-writer.
But the real crux of that issue, it seemed to me, was that Cowley had been taunting Cupid, as a male figure, in order, hopefully, to get a male figure into his life. But what Cowley really wanted in his life was his father. I believe that, during the poem cycle, Cowley actually found his father. But that his father, being in the land of the dead, couldn't help Cowley. Cowley had to face the fact that he'd have to find his masculine side by looking within himself.
So Cowley dedicated an entire cycle of his poetry to Pindar, a male poet, as he had previously dedicated the previous cycle to a Mistress.
The first poems of the cycle, being rough translations of Pindar's poetry, are in praise of two young men who won athletic events. So now the search begins -- Cowley is in search of his masculine side.
But the two poems of Pindar, which, one might say, serve as a preface to the actual cycle, end with the story of Hercules having to defeat two snakes while he is still only a little baby! Hercules' mother can't defend Hercules, even though she runs to Hercules' crib while naked. And Amphitryon, Hercules' earthly father (Hercules' actual father was Zeus), doesn't even arrive until Hercules has defeated the snakes. And even then, Amphitryon seems a little jealous of Hercules' strength!
Cowley, in other words, sets out to find the youthful, strong male that Pindar's poems seem to praise. But as soon as Cowley is ready to start his own poems, he begins with the double-image of a father: one heavenly and invisible; and one earthly and ineffectual (even though Amphitryon was, otherwise, a man of great achievements himself).
But even before Cowley mentions Hercules and Oedipus, he mentions three other mythical figures: Ino, Semele, and Achilles. Ino fled from her husband after her husband has murdered his brother, having been deluded into thinking his brother was a beast. Ino drowned both herself and her son in a river.
But the goddess Thetis, taking pity on Ino, asked her father, Neptune, to give Ino and her son life again. Neptune did this, turning Ino into the water-goddess Lucothea, and her son into the god Palamon. Ino and Palamon lived with the water-Nymphs, the Nereides. Cowley says of them:
"So in the Crystal Palaces
Of the blue-eyed Nereides,
Ino her endless Youth does please,
And thanks her Fall into the Seas."
So Ino is now thankful that she has drowned herself and her son. Another birth from death is the story of Semele. Semele is another mortal whom Zeus has made pregnant. While Semele is pregnant, the jealous Hera convinces Semele to tell Zeus she wants to see him as he really is, as a god. Zeus reluctantly agrees. But when he shows himself in a flash of lightning, he burns Semele to death.
Semele was pregnant with the god Dionysos. And when Zeus saw Semele burnt and dead, he split open Semele's womb, pulled the unborn Dionysos out, placed the fetus into his own thigh, and carried Dionysos there until he was ready to be born.
In the notes following Cowley's own ode in praise of Pindar, Cowley mentions Semele and Dionysos again, this time in conjunction with the origin of dithyrambic poetry, another kind of poetry Pindar practised.
"There are none of Pindar's Dithyrambiques extant. Dithyrambiques [coming from the phrase "two doors"] were hymns made in Honor of Bacchus, who did come into the world through two Doors, his Mother Semele's Womb, and his Father Jupiter's Thigh. ... [The dithyramb] was a bold, free, enthusiastical kind of Poetry, as of Men inspired by Bacchus, that is half-Drunk, from whence came the Greek Proverb, 'You are as mad as a Dithyrambique Poet.'"
Which would lead one to believe -- if Cowley keeps emphasizing the madness of Pindar -- why he would be trying to use this poetry to search for some conventional image of balanced masculinity. But he is doing just that.
However, Cowley, while mentioning the topic of male-born Dionysos (which may have been something of a sexual fantasy for Cowley), focuses rather on the happiness that Semele experiences now that she is dead:
"Beauteous Semele does no less
Her cruel Midwife Thunder bless,
While sporting with the Gods on high,
She enjoys secure their Company,
Plays with the Lightnings as they fly,
Nor trembles at the bright Embraces of the Deity."
Looking back on these two stories, Cowley even reflects that: "Death did them future Dangers free."
Both of these stories, it's obvious, deal with a violent father, a mother who is so overwhelmed by this violence that she dies. The mother's son dies with the mother. And both the mother and the son are changed into gods.
This dynamic is altered a bit, as Cowley speaks again of Thetis. But this time, Cowley talks of Thetis in relation to her own son, the great warrior Achilles. Thetis, in order to make Achilles invulnerable to death, dipped the body of the infant Achilles into the waters of the Styx, the River of Death, three times. His whole body was made hard, except for his heel, by which Thetis was holding him.
Achilles was known for his quick anger as much as he was for his great fighting ability. And Cowley wonders how Achilles could have gotten into Heaven, with such a violent spirit. But, he reasons, if the Styx had hardened his body against physical faults, it must also be able to harden his soul against spiritual infirmities:
"Here great Achilles wrathful now no more
Since his blessed Mother (who before
Had tried it on his Body in vain)
Dipped now his Soul in the Stygian Lake,
Which did from thence a divine Hardness take,
That does from Passion and from Vice Invulnerable make."
So now we see that the dynamic has moved from a mother and son dying, then being revived and made into gods, to a mother, already immortal herself, making her dead son into an immortal being.
Interestingly, not long after this passage, Cowley mentions one of the most erotic stories in all of Greek mythology, Zeus' rape of Ganymede. But Cowley mentions this, not in the context of death, but in the context of Art versus Nature. All throughout the Pindar cycle, it seems to me, Art is masculine, a building on Nature, while Nature is feminine. But Art is always fighting a losing battle against Nature. In this sense, Art is compared to a grubbing Crow,
"Whilst Nature, like the sacred Bird of Jove,
Now bears loud Thunder, and anon with silent Joy
The beauteous Phrygian boy."
The beauteous Phrygian boy would, of course, be Ganymede. And Cowley, in his copious notes, gives a further explanation, which I love:
"The Poets feigned that the Eagle carried Jove's Thunder. ... They likewise feigned, that Jupiter falling in love with Ganymedes, the Son of Tros, a most beautiful Boy, carried him up to Heaven upon the Back of an Eagle, there to fill Nectar to him when he Feasted, and for a more ungodly use."
That "ungodly use" should, I really feel, be made into the subject of a hot poem.
However, the dynamic again changes. And this time, we see a Hercules, a young boy, like Dionysos and Achilles, born of a god (Dionysos of Zeus and Achilles of Thetis). But this time, the boy, in his cradle, being able to defend himself.
But what's come of this ability to defend himself? Nothing but a life of struggle -- a life of struggle that will end in death, at the end: Hercules, defending his wife from being raped by a Centaur, will be given a poisoned shirt, which, when he puts it on, will kill him. He will only then become a god.
What does it benefit Hercules to have had a father, not to have died with his mother, in other words? Dionysos and Palamon were directly made gods. And Achilles was really just a big diva who didn't get killed until an even bigger diva shot him in the foot. But Hercules had to fight his way all the way through his life.
And this, it turns out, ends up being the real question of Cowley's poem cycle: what, really, is the point of finding this male image to identify with? What's the point of struggling through life like all of these apparently great men have done?
Through Cowley's poem cycle, there are poems to Pindar, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, the doctor Scarborough (a good friend of Cowley's), and the Roman warrior and statesman Brutus. As Cowley praises all of these men, one really gets the feeling that Cowley is attempting to connect with something in them.
But Cowley finds that he doesn't really sympathize with any of these men. His soul has been different from the very beginning of his life. For much of the poem cycle Cowley is searching in for some man to identify himself with, a man who matches the conventional ideal of masculinity, but with whom Cowley can also sympathize. But while he's going from man to man, he keeps on falling down into worlds of apocalyptic imagery.
Even while Cowley is praising the men, he's often likely to fall into these fits of apocalyptic or death-like imagery. Even as he praises the men, he often wonders what the good is of doing what these men have done, when we all die anyway, and when death is, often, preferable to life.
Thus Cowley, in praising Pindar (probably the most unsteady of all the men Cowley praises), speaks of the poems Pindar has written for men who have died young:
"In Words worth dying for he celebrates,
Such mournful, and such pleasing Words,
As Joy and his Mother's and his Mistress' Grief affords:
He bids him Live and Grow in Fame,
Among the Stars he sticks his Name:
The Grave can but the Dross of his devour,
So small is Death's, so great the Poet's Power."
A few poems later, Cowley, attempting again, in the vein of Pindar, to praise a man of his times, praises Thomas Hobbes, the philosopher who wrote the treatise Leviathan. Cowley praises Hobbes for the proportion, balance, and stability of his writing -- as if to counteract the imbalance of Pindar's poetry.
But even in this poem Cowley resorts to imagery of death, though he has to do it by mentioning the decay of another philosopher of well-proportioned, stable mind: Aristotle. Aristotle's philosophy has been decayed by the school-men, Cowley says. And now, without a new philosophy, we are like scavengers in a land of death:
"We break up Tombs with sacreligious Hands,
Old Rubbish we remove;
To walk in ruins, like vain Ghosts, we love,
And with fond Divining Wands,
We search among the Dead,
For Treasures buried,
Whilst still the Liberal Earth does hold
So many Virgin Mines of undiscovered Gold."
The next man that Cowley praises is Brutus. Brutus, Cowley feels, is a man at the zenith of what Cowley seems to have seen as the age of Reason. Brutus, one of the Assassins of Julius Caesar, died only a few years before Jesus Christ was born. The age that Christ ushered in, in Cowley's opinion, was the age of Grace. So in Cowley's philosophy, Brutus fits in thus:
"Excellent Brutus, of all human Race
The best, 'till Nature was improved by Grace,
'Till Men above themselves Faith raised more
Than Reason above Beasts before."
This verse, interestingly, is a movement away, in my opinion, from what had previously been a poem cycle steeped very heavily in Greek and Roman mythology. From this point forward, the images of the poems become more and more Hebraic, Biblical. And, at their even better points, the images become purely Paganistic -- purely Cowley!
But Brutus, though he is a man at the height of Reason, the full development, it would seem, of his successor, Thomas Hobbes, is also a man whose life is steeped in the blood of Assassination and War. True, the war and assassination are just, in Cowley's opinion. But Brutus is almost drowning in blood.
Brutus, it turns out, is so brave that Fate even has to launch a surprise attack on him in order to kill him. Fate is too afraid to face Brutus face-to-face!
But Fate did kill Brutus, and Cowley asks what the use was of life, of joy, even of Virtue:
"What Joy can human things to us afford,
When we see perish thus by odd Events,
Ill Men, and wretched Accidents,
The best Cause and best Man that ever drew a Sword?"
"What can we say but thine own Tragick Word,
That Virtue, which had worshipt been by thee,
As the most solid Good, and greatest Deity,
By this fatal Proof became
An Idol only, and a Name?"
But the poem ends with a full transition from the age of Reason to the age of Grace:
"The Time's set forth already which shall quell
Stiff REason, when it offers to rebel;
Which these great Secrets shall unseal,
And new Philosophies reveal.
A few years more, so soon hadst thou not dy'd,
Would have confounded Human Virtue's Pride,
And show'd thee a God crucified."
The final man Cowley praises in his Pindar is a contemporary of Cowley's, and a man who, when Cowley was falsely imprisoned during the Civil Wars, got Cowley out of prison. His name was Scarborough, and he was a medical doctor.
Cowley's poem praises Scarborough's skill in curing people of various diseases. These diseases develop from liquid diseases (gout and dropsy), to fevers, to, of all things, kidney stones, to venereal diseases. But the overall mood of the poem is far from the stability and reason of the praise of Hobbes, and even more obviously bloody than the poem to Brutus.
Scarborough lives in Britain during the Civil Wars. Britain is wracked by war, and Scarborough, Cowley says, is doing his best to keep the bloodiness of war from breeding epidemics and plaguing diseases. In the meantime, war is an epidemic of its own, and Britain is so soaked in blood that its spirit, Albion, or "the white," is stained red!
Scarborough is so good at his work. His fever patients are returned to health with bodies like purified gold. His kidney-stone patients feel like Moses has tapped their "rock" and allowed the water to flow again. And his venereal disease patients are nearly returned to virginity! But it is still obvious that Scarborough can only delay death, not stop it:
"Ah, learned Friend, it grieves me when I think
That thou with all thy Art must die
As well as I.
And all thy noble Reparations sink
Into the sure-wrought Mines of treacherous Mortality."
"Let Nature, and let Art do what they please,
When all's done, Life is an incurable Disease."
But although it seems as if Cowley "grieves" to "think" of this death, it really isn't something that he's grieving for, but something he's actually looking forward to. The poems of the Pindar cycle imply this pretty well. But Cowley himself says it right out, in the collected edition of his works from 1656, which he, incidentally, was writing from his prison cell.
"The Reader shall know in what respects he may look at me as a Dead, or at least a dying Person, and upon my Muse in this Action, as appearing, like the Emperor Charles the Fifth, and assisting at her own Funeral."
"For to make myself absolutely dead in a Poetical Capacity, my Resolution at present is never to exercise any more that Faculty."
And, in a hilariously bold passage:
"And this therefore is a kind of Death to the Muses, and a real literal quieting of this World: So, methinks, I may make a just Claim to the undoubted Privilege of Deceased Poets, which is to be read with more Favor, than the Living."
So death has become a fantasy for Cowley. And the real actions of the Pindar cycle aren't the discussions of the great men that Cowley tries so hard to praise. Really, the poem's interest is in Cowley's description of death, and of the glimpes that death gives Cowley into the spiritual world.
Yet this world of death is permeated with images of birth as well. Thus, in Cowley's first non-person themed poem, "The Resurrection," Cowley opens with a stanza to Virtue. The stanza speaks of
"Heaven's vital Seed cast on the Womb of Earth
To give the fruitful Year a Birth."
But also speaks of the ability of poetry to serve:
"The Midwife's Office, and the Nurse's, too."
But the next themed poem, to Cowley's "Muse," oddly enough, begins:
"Go, the rich Chariot instantly prepare;
The Queen, my Muse, will take the Air."
So that it certainly sounds like Cowley is saying the Queen (i.e. Queen Henrietta-Marie) is his Muse.
But it then gives a very interesting view into the womb of the "fruitful Year":
"There into the close Nests of Time dost peep,
And there with piercing Eye,
Through the firm Shell, and the thick White dost spy,
Years to come a-forming lie,
Close in their sacred Secondine [or placenta] asleep,
'Till hatched by the Sun's vital Heat,
Which o'er them yet does brooding set,
The Life and Motion get,
And ripe at last, with vigorous Might,
Break through the Shell, and take their everlasting Flight."
So, the womb of Time is visceral enough even to include a placenta! It's a strange mix, too, between egg and mammal's womb. And, then, the years burst right out of it! It sounds kind of gross.
But in the poem to "Destiny," Cowley again mentions midwives and birth. This time he mentions his own birth. And this time he speaks about how his umbilical cord is cut!
"Me from the Womb the Midwife Muse did take:
She cut my Navel, washed me, and mine Head
With her own Hands she fashioned."
In the ode to "Life," Cowley's final poem before the two magnificent apocalyptic poems which conclude his Pindar cycle, Cowley connects the womb and the tomb.
"From the Maternal Tomb
To the Grave's fruitful Womb,
We call here Life; but Life's a Name
That nothing here can truly claim."
So the tomb is maternal and the grave is fruitful. Cowley continues on this idea:
"When we by a foolish figure say,
Behold an old Man dead, then they [the Angels]
Speak properly, and cry, Behold a Man-child born."
By the way, "man-child" is basically the same thing as "adult baby."
Again, death is looked at as a birth, a kind of hatching from an egg, the shell of which has been a prison for the soul:
"The ripen'd Soul longs from his Prison to come,
But we would seal, and sew up, if we could, the Womb.
We seek to close and plaster up by Art
The Cracks and Breaches of the extended Shell,
And in that narrow Cell
Would rudely force to dwell,
The noble vigorous Bird already winged to part."
With this outlook on life and death, Cowley attempts, on a number of occasions through his poem, to part from his body and see the world from the viewpoint of the dead. His first attempt at this is in the ode to "Resurrection."
Cowley begins this poem with a praise of virtue. But this is incredibly orderly for a Pindaric ode, and Cowley feels that he must get at the truly wild spirit of Pindaric odes by setting the rhythmic music of virtue on its head. But he ends up finding himself right in the midst of Judgment Day!
"'Till all gentle Notes be drown'd
In the last Trumpet's dreadful Sound.
That to the Spheres themselves, shall Silence bring,
Untune the Universal String."
So, in the final trumpet call of Judgment, the music of the universe is "untuned."
Suddenly, Cowley sees the dead arise before him.
"This mightier Sound shall make
When Dead to arise,
And open Tombs, and open Eyes."
But the dead who arise before Cowley are already doomed to be judged for their sins by God:
"Unhappy most, like tortured Men,
Their Joints new set, to be new racked again.
To Mountains they for Shelter pray,
The Mountains shake, and run about no less confused than they."
It's Cowley's first attempt to move into the spirit world. But already he's plunged into a cataclysm! The world is so frightened that even the mountains are running away.
Cowley attributes this to his Muse, whom he believes he's given too much power, by giving her the freedom of Pindaric verse. The Muse is, interestingly, riding a horse, or, rather, a Pegasus, a winged horse.
So in the next poem, aptly titled, "The Muse," Cowley sets the Muse into a chariot. The chariot has a number of horses, all of which have different qualities of poetry and intellect, which should balance the Muse' power much better than one wild, winged horse. In this chariot, the Muse flies through a number of different spiritual scenes, including the scene described above, of the womb of Time.
With her power, Cowley's Muse can go to the bottom of the Sea, or the unconscious, a place where the sun, or conscious mind, cannot go:
"Where never yet did pry
The busy Morning's curious Eye,
The Wheels of thy bold Coach pass quick and free."
But Cowley's Muse can also bring treasures up from the Sea:
"Thou fathomest the deep Gulf of Ages past,
And canst pluck up with Ease
The Years which thou dost please,
Like shipwrecked Treasures by rude Tempests cast
Long since into the Sea,
Brought up again to Light and publick Use by thee."
In fact, Cowley, in one of his moments of bombastic brashness, even calls his Muse greater than God, since she has the power to create all kinds of previously unknown worlds:
"Whatever God did say,
Is all thy plain and smooth, uninterrupted Way.
Nay, even beyond his Works thy Voyages are known,
Thou hast thousand Worlds too of thine own.
Thou speakest, great Queen, in the same Style as he,
And a new world leapest forth, when thou sayest, Let it be."
Cowley seems in real balance with his Muse in ths poem. However, as is usual with Cowley, he doesn't seem to want to accept a relationship with his Muse.
And so he flies from the Muse and tries to form some kind of relationship with a stable, conventionally masculine man. He, therefore, moves through his poems in praises of Hobbes, Brutus, and Scarborough, before falling back on his non-human-themed odes.
But now he's back in a state of depression, and in his ode to "Life and Fame," he calls Life the younger brother of Nothingness, and the sense of Life nothing more than the reflected second rainbow made by a rainbow -- in other words, the illusion of illusion.
It is interesting to see, however, that Cowley has managed to move away from his Muse, or his Anima, as I would think of it. Rather, I think, than moving away from the Muse, Cowley has probably been able to integrate his Muse correctly. Now that she is integrated, she no longer needs to be the main character of these poems. Cowley can conduct the journey for himself. And, thus, that may be why he has gone searching for the men.
But, after the poem to "Life and Fame," in which, by the way, Cowley speaks disparagingly of the posterity of historical greats such as Pompey and Caesar, that is of conventional men like Brutus was.
This poem moves, however, into an ode to "Ecstasy." In this poem, it would seem, Cowley finally understands what kind of man he should be taking for his model: the prophet -- not the conventional man. Cowley is not conventional. But he can find men to identify with, unconventional men: the prophets.
Where, previously, Cowley had conducted these out-of-body, or spiritual, journeys through the power of the Muse, Cowley now flies of his own power (keeping in mind that the anima, or Muse, is integrated with Cowley). And this is how "Ecstasy" begins.
"I leave Mortality, and things below;
I have no time in Compliments to waste,
Farewell to ye all in haste,
For I am called to go.
A whirlwind bears up my dull Feet,
The officious Clouds beneath them meet,
And Lo! I mount, and Lo!
How small the biggest Parts of Earth's proud Little Show!"
This sounds very much like the Edgar Allan Poe story of the man who travelled to outer space.
Cowley sees Britain as no more as a speck of sand, and wonders whetheer the Civil Wars are worth such a small speck.
Cowley then passes through the clouds:
"I pass by the arched Magazines which hold
The eternal Stores of Frost, and Rain, and Snow;
Dry and secure I go,
Nor shake with Fear, or Cold."
I like the use of "dry and secure," which sounds like a diaper -- again, turning on the adult baby inside of me.
Cowley then passes upward through a sea of flame, which sound very much like something Charles Fort would assume in his theories:
"Now into a gentle Sea of rolling Flame
I'm plunged, and still mount higher there.
As Flames mount up through Air,
So perfect, yet so tame,
So great, so pure, so bright a Fire
Was that Unfortunate Desire,
My faithful Breast did cover,
Then, when I was of late a wretched Mortal Lover."
Cowley flies upward through orbs of planets, which seem to him like spheres of glass. He then finds himself in a land of delight, where he makes another very Fortean statement, mentioning Columbus as a physical explorer and St. Paul as a spiritual explorer:
"Where am I now? Angels and God is here;
An unexhausted Ocean of Delight
Swallows my senses quite,
And drowns all What, or How, or Where.
Not Paul, who first did thither pass,
And this great World's Columbus was,
The tyrannous Pleasure could express.
Oh, 'tis too much for Man! but let it ne'er be less."
Cowley now identifies himself with the prophet Elijah. And this is a positive identification. It works for Cowley. He finds energy and action in it. Cowley alludes to Cowley's rise up into Heaven on a chariot. He then describes what Elijah saw when he reached Heaven: a gleaming land of gold and jewels:
"'Twas gaudy all, and rich in every Part,
Of essences of Gems and Spirit of Gold,
Was its substantial Mould;
Drawn forth by Chymique Angels' Art.
Here with Moon-beams 'twas silvered bright,
There double-gilt with the Sun's Light,
And mystique Shapes cut round in it,
Figures that did Transcend a Vulgar Angel's Wit."
Interesting, Elijah, on his chariot, is very much like the Muse on hers. This seems to imply that Cowley has found a masculine figure that he can identify with. Now, with this figure, Cowley is able to continue along a spiritual journey. But, because Cowley has not yet integrated this figure, he is still external to Cowley. And so he has taken over from Cowley as the main character of this poem.
Cowley tries, however, to get away from Elijah, the prophet, and to try to find a masculine identification with another holy, though, perhaps, more conventional figure: Janus, the god of the New Year.
However, this poem is all pleading by Cowley for Janus to take him away to the land of the dead. It doesn't even seem to occur to Cowley that he just came from the land of the dead -- with Elijah. He doesn't need Janus to take him back there. He can go with Elijah. But he doesn't want to go with Elijah. I think that there's still something that he doesn't like about being connected to an unconventional prophet, rather than to a conventional man, or, at least, a conventional god. Cowley asks of Janus:
"Oh let my Life, if thou so many Deaths a-coming find,
With thine old Year its Voyage take
Borne down that Stream of Time, which no return can make."
Cowley says if he must live for a full year more, he would at least like to do so without sin or sickness. But, most of all, he'd like to live the year without love, which only causes him pain. But he doubts that he could actually survive in the absence of love.
But Cowley then, almost as if rejecting the role of a prophet again, pleads against knowing the future.
"Into the Future Times why do we pry,
And seek to Antedate our Misery?"
"In whatsoever Character
The Book of Fate is writ,
'Tis well we understand not it."
But this poem is based, as is common with some of the poems of the Mistress cycle, on Cowley's refusal to accept the character he should be integrating -- in this case, the prophet. As long as he is rejecting his identification with the prophet, he will face nothing but anxiety.
This poem works into the ode to "Life," which, as I mentioned above, refers to the body as a prison. Cowley wishes to escape the prison of his body.
From here, Cowley embarks upon the final two poems of this cycle. And in these two poems, Cowley does seem, at last, to identify himself with the prophet character. These poems are both free in their meter and vivid in their imagery. But the imagery is extremely bloody.
And perhaps this was what Cowley was fearing, after all, with facing an identification with the prophets. The prophets, like Elijah, spoke the words of god. But these words were often warnings full of blood, disease, and death. They were also connected to a part of the unconscious which, perhaps, Cowley thought he could escape by identifying with conventionally masculine men.
But Cowley had become too familiar with the lives of conventional men during the Civil Wars of England. And it was plain to see that life was bloody, regardless of how you looked at it. To avoid the visions of blood, Cowley thought, he would avoid his calling as a prophetic poet -- a poet like William Blake -- actually, the true predecessor to William Blake.
But now Cowley is able to face this aspect of his personality. And he does so in these final two poems: "The Thirty-Fourth Chapter of the Prophet Isaiah," and "The Plagues of Egypt."
"Isaiah 34" is a Pindaric ode based on the Biblical chapter of the Bible, in which God, through Isaiah, warns Judea of the punishments it faces if it does not repent.
Almost immediately the poetry is filled with blood. God threatens to pull out his sword, throw away the scabbard, and not stop until his sword reeks with blood:
"I see the Sword of God brandished above,
And from it streams a dismal Ray;
I see the Scabbbard cast away.
How red anon with Slaughter will it prove!
How will it sweat and reek in Blood!"
Isaiah seems to prophesy even to switch the roles of men with beasts in the sacrifice. Beasts have been innocent sacrifices too long, Cowley has Isaiah say. And now sinful man must be the sacrifice.
"The Altar all the Land, and all the Men in it the Victims are.
Since wicked Men's more guilty Blood to spare,
The Beasts so long have Sacrificed been,
Since Men their Birth-right forfeit still by Sin,
'Tis fit at last Beasts their Revenge should have,
And sacrificed Man their better Brethren save."
Isaiah says that the heaven itself will decay, crackling and crumpling up like a piece of paper in a fire.
Isaiah says that the world will be a flood of blood:
"Thy Rivers and Lakes with Blood shall so
With human Blood overflow,
That they shall fetch the slaughtered Corps away,
Which in the Fields around unburied lay,
And rob the Beasts and Birds to give the Fish their Prey."
This is the first of three floods of blood that Cowley has take place in these poems. The other two take place in the "Plagues." But, unlike the Muse, who takes objects up from the Sea and puts them to "publick Use," these floods of blood take dead men off the earth, to feed the fish.
The dead themselves, decaying on the earth, cause diseases:
"The rotting Corps shall so infect the Air,
Beget such Plagues, and putrid Venoms there,
That by thine own Dead shall be slain
All thy few Living that remain."
Cowley has Isaiah say that the Destroying Angel has measured out his line of death. He then says that the beasts will take over all the locations of civilization: the market, the pleading-place, the streets, lower-rooms, and chambers -- all filled with wild animals.
Something similar happens in the "Plagues" -- the frogs get so brave that they actually end up filling up people's houses, where they would never go.
Cowley says that the lion will convince the leopard to go with him into the town to prey on the people there. Eventually there will be so much desolation, Cowley says, that the vultures themselves will have no more food to feed on.
Eventually, Cowley says, other than some few men still living in caves, the only things left in the world will be ghosts, which will make a practice of scaring the moon and stars:
"The unburied Ghosts shall sadly moan,
The Satyrs laugh to hear them groan.
The Evil Spirits that delight
To dance and revel in the Mask of Night,
The Moon and Stars, their sole Spectators, shall affright."
Cowley, who had at least partially identified himself with Isaiah in the previous poem, now, in "The Plagues of Egypt," seems to identify himself as a poet-prophet in his own right, while still looking to the hero of this poem -- Moses -- as a figure he can integrate into his conscious personality.
Actually, I believe that this poem is a resolution of Cowley's unique father complex. As I showed at the beginning of this post, there were a number of mother-son myths, eventually ending in a couple of father-son myths. Cowley, still yearning for his father, not quite willing to identify with a different animus figure, must die as a son, so that he can let his father die as well.
In "The Plagues of Egypt," Cowley does this. The poem ends with Pharaoh's first-born son dying, and then Pharaoh himself being drowned under the final flood of blood in the poem -- the crashing back down of the Red Sea. This dynamic of father and son resolves the conflicted dynamics that were presented at the beginning of the Pindar cycle. But Cowley is still left with a male figure to identify with: Moses, the great Prophet, and the leader of his race.
The "Plagues" begins with Cowley chastising his fellow men for being rebels to God. This has made them, Cowley claims, slaves to all else -- including animals. Again, animals have power over humans, as they did in the previous poem, when humans became the sacrifice, and when the animals took over the towns.
Cowley says that we have rejected even the food of God: milk, honey, and manna. Instead we choose to eat the decaying flesh and rotting vegetation that this earth produces.
Cowley compares the rebellious nature of man to the hard-hearted nature of the Pharaoh, who would not believe that Moses' miracles proved that Moses' God was stronger than the gods of the Egyptians. Pharaoh would not free the Egyptians, and so God sent down his plagues. And this is how the proper story opens.
Moses' miracle to the Pharaoh was to throw down his staff to the ground, and have it change into a serpent. The serpent was so real and vicious, it frightened even Pharaoh (and, some say, even Moses!) away. Pharaoh had his own magicians produce snakes with their rods. But Moses' snake ate the two magicians' snakes. Pharoah, however, was not convinced by Moses' miracle.
Moses's first plague was to touch his rod to the Nile, and have it become blood. This, then would be the second flood of blood in the last two poems of the Pindar cycle.
"Flood now no more, but a long Vein of putrid Blood.
The helpless Fish were found
In that strange current drowned,
The Herbs and Trees washed by the mortal Tide
About it blushed and died.
The amazed Crocodiles made haste to Ground;
From their vast Trunks the dripping Gore they spied,
Thought it their own, and dreadfully they cried."
The next plague came from this bloody river. It was the plague of frogs, which were so numerous that they invaded towns, houses, temples, and palaces. Frogs, says Cowley, are normally too afraid of humans to do something like this. But these frogs had no fear. And they overran all the places of civilization.
In the next plague, Moses struck the ground with his rod. A whirlwind of dust flew up into the air. In the whirlwind were, Cowley says, an unknown type of bug, which caused great annoyance and pain to the men and beasts in its path.
The next plague was a plague of flies, of all different kinds, which Cowley compares to great armies. The flies would attack plants and beasts.
The next plague was a plague of sickness upon beasts, which Cowley says came from poisonous stars:
"From the poisonous Stars a mortal Influence came,
(The mingled Malice of their Flame)
A skillful Angel did the ingredients take,
And with just Hands the sad Composure make,
And over all the Land did the full Viol shake.
Thirst, Giddiness, Faintness, and Putrid Heats,
And pining Pains, and shivering Sweats,
On all the Cattle, all the Beasts did fall;
With deformed Death the Country's covered all."
The next plague was a plague of sores and boils on humans. But, interestingly, Cowley makes the infectious agents of this plague have a voice. And the voice speaks to the boils and sores as if they are plants. It calls them buds -- not just buds, but "passionate" buds. It's almost as if these sores and boils are supposed to imply venereal disease, as well as vegetation!
"To the unborn Buds with vital Whispers say,
Ye living Buds, why do ye stay?
The passionate Buds break through the Bark their way;
So wheresoever this tainted Wind but blew,
Swelling Pains and Ulcers grew;
It from the Body called all Sleeping Poisons out,
And to them added new;
A noisome Spring of Sores, as thick as Leaves did sprout."
The next plague was a plague of hail. But the hail is accompanied, in Cowley's story, by lightning. The aspects of the lightning is more interesting than the hail. The lightning acts in all kinds of unnatural ways, producing a lot of startling imagery.
"The dismal Lightnings all around,
Some flying through the Air, some running on the Ground,
Some swimming over ther Water's Face,
Fill'd with bright Horror every Place;
One would have thought, their dreadful Day to have seen,
The very Hail, and Rain itself had kindled been."
The next plague was a plague of locusts, which Cowley has acting very much more army-like than the flies had previously acted. The flies came in troops. But the locusts come in well-ordered troops. However, after the locusts sufficently harrass the Egyptians, Cowley's Moses prays and sends them away, where they feed the fish:
"Moses breathed a Prayer
Breathed forth a violent Western Wind,
Which all these living Clouds did headlong bear
(No stragglers left behind)
Into the purple Sea, and there bestow
On the luxurious Fish a Feast they never did know.
With untaught Joy Pharaoh the News does hear,
And little thinks their Fate attends on him, and his so near."
The next plague was the plague of a solar eclipse, which Cowley augments with total darkness, as if all the light had simply been sucked out of the world. Along with the darkness come night-terrors, not unlike the ghosts in the "Isaiah 34" poem.
The next plague was the plague of the murder of all Egypt's firstborn sons. This section has some moments of poetry which, I'm sure, must have inspired Milton's Paradise Lost. The poetry is very grand.
Cowley says that God has sent the Archangel Michael to kill all the firstborn sons. But before the Archangel Michael completes his task, he stands atop a pyramid at midnight and calls out to the Egyptians to repent. (The only thing that doesn't make sense to me is that Michael does this at midnight, when everybody, Cowley has already said, is fast asleep.) Michael's flight to Earth is particularly beautiful.
"Michael, the warlike Prince, does downward fly,
Swift as the Journeys of the Sight,
Swift as the Race of Light,
And with his winged Will cuts through the yielding Sky;
He passed through many a Star, and as he passed,
Shone (like a Star in them) more brightly there,
Than they did in their Sphere."
After Michael gives his warning, he clothes himself in a fleece of night, which is also beautifully described:
"He spoke, and downwards flew,
And over his shining Form a well-cut Cloud he threw
Made of the blackest Fleece of Night,
And close-wrought to keep in the powerful Light,
Yet wrought so fine it hindered not his Flight."
Michael pours poison on his sword, then flies into the houses of the Egyptians (a spirit invading civilized places, rather than animals invading!). He strikes the firstborn in every house. The next day, families wake to find the firstborn sons dead.
Pharaoh momentarily, in his sorrow, for he'd also lost his firstborn son, allowed the Hebrews to leave Egypt. But as soon as they left, he followed after them with an Army. The Pharaoh followed the Hebrews and cornered them at the Red Sea.
But Moses touched his rod to the waters again. And the waters of the Red Sea parted so that the Hebrews could walk across.
Interestingly, Cowley at this point mentions that the Sun was astonished to see the floor of the Red Sea, as it had never seen the floor of a sea before. This is very like the "Muse" poem, where Cowley says that the Muse can go down to the bottom of the Sea, while the sun can't. In other words, the power of the unconscious has been integrated so well for Cowley, that he is able to cooperate with it, and allow it to work for his benefit.
Pharaoh crosses the Red Sea. But the Red Sea, the third flood of blood, comes crashing down on Pharaoh as soon as Moses and the Hebrews are safely across.
I have to apologize again. There were a lot of other things that I wanted to discuss. But I wasn't able to. I didn't take this poem cycle in a straight line, either, like I did with the Mistress cycle. But I just felt like the themes of this poem worked in a different way. And I wanted to explore the themes in that way.
Also, I got a bit too distracted by some of the themes, especially at the beginning. So maybe I wasted a bit of time on some stuff that wasn't as interesting as the later stuff. But I hope that, overall, I gave you an idea of how fun and vivid and engaging Cowley's poetry is.