On Aetna’s Top

Howard Erskine-Hill

  • The Poetry of Abraham Cowley by David Trotter
    Macmillan, 162 pp, £10.00, September 1979, ISBN 0 333 24167 3

So Pope wrote in 1737, since which time Cowley has passed almost entirely into the hands of academic literary historians, whose chief service to him has been the rediscovery of his unfinished epic The Civil War, edited by Allan Pritchard in 1973. What pleases David Trotter is the conception of Cowley as a poet of cultural crisis, of the ‘intellectual revolution’ of the 17th century. Three leading ideas help him to take this view. The first is Eliot’s hypothesis of a 17th-century dissociation of sensibility, here given a more specific formulation in Hobbes’s distinction between locutionary and propositional truth. The second is a Romantic concept of revolution as creative upheaval. The third is a more recent notion of the exhaustion of discourses, which connects perhaps indirectly with some contemporary French criticism, and with Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). These ideas may seem to yield the pedigree of the book, and are arguably the source of some falsification of the cultural history, as well as much that is of positive interest.

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