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.

Trotter contends that the ‘intellectual revolution’ left its mark on Cowley more than on any contemporary, penetrating not the ‘content’ but the ‘form’ of his work. By ‘intellectual revolution’ Trotter means something which occurred ‘more or less simultaneously across various disciplines’, and he believes, predictably enough, that the terms for the discussion of this revolution are to be found in Hobbes. In his Introduction, where the chief challenges of a challenging book appear in fast succession, he records his dissatisfaction with various current approaches to mid-17th-century poetry, and seeks to delineate by contrast his own method. He is rightly exasperated by the traditional literary-historical approach to Cowley as either a late Metaphysical or a pre-Augustan, since the real centre of interest is thus always placed elsewhere than in Cowley’s writings. He is ill-satisfied with ‘historicist’ readings for the same reason, though it does not follow that the historical contextualisation of a work of literature deprives that work of the final focus of attention. He makes clear that he is not pursuing ‘the history of ideas, but the history of conditions of thought: what makes it possible to think in a certain way at one time, and in an entirely different way at another’. It is hard to see why the history of ideas is not also the history of the conditions of thought, though here as elsewhere it is even harder to see what the conditions of thought are, and what changes them. It does seem clear that the ‘intellectual revolution’ for Trotter is a change in the conditions of thought, rather than a prevalence of certain arguments over others within a sharable structure of knowledge. A consequence of this view is that the ‘intellectual revolution’ of the 17th century can never be explained in 17th-century terms.

Not unreasonably in a short book, Trotter does not attempt to demonstrate the intellectual revolution ‘across various disciplines’. Hobbes provides the terms for and is the exemplar of the revolution. In particular, it is constituted by his distinction between the acceptability of a statement as derivative from the proposition itself, or as derivative from the person propounding: ‘propositional’ and ‘locutionary’ statements respectively in Trotter’s nomenclature. ‘Evidence is to truth, as the sap to the tree.’ The revolution is Hobbes’s trenchant espousal of a reasoned empiricism (as against statements claiming by their author or manner or both an assent of faith).

I harp on the concept of ‘revolution’ partly because it is ambiguous when applied to the 17th century, and partly because it is entangled with Trotter’s association of literary history with the history of the ‘conditions of thought’. That there was a revolution in the 17th century in the 17th-century sense – a fundamental reversal in government – is obvious; indeed there were three – 1642-9, 1659-60 and 1688-9. None of these revolutions established a fundamentally new social order, though in the last years of the First Civil War this appeared possible to contemporaries as it does to us. When Trotter writes of an ‘intellectual revolution’, however, he seems to be drawing an analogy with political revolution in the more modern sense: an upheaval establishing a new and possibly better social order. Was there such an intellectual revolution? The impact of Hobbes’s incisive mind hardly created a revolution ‘across the disciplines’, nor is it matched by other writers save in so far as the political crisis caused a series of political thinkers to produce treatises or tracts which sought to establish political recommendations on first principles. In this sense, Hobbes, Harrington, Filmer and some of the Leveller and Digger pamphleteers might all be termed revolutionary, Filmer no less than Hobbes. If, on the other hand, it is Hobbes’s epistemology that is revolutionary, it seems true to say that the revolution was a long one, that it began with Bacon and was completed by Hume.

Trotter wishes to establish a sharper sense of intellectual crisis than these remarks altogether concede. In a welcome discussion of the newly discovered Civil War he is at pains to argue that the epic structure failed Cowley before history began to supply the then Royalist poet with ‘the wrong plot’. Cowley came up against the limitations of epic when he sought to use it for both satire and Royalist elegy. Trotter wants to show that epic had ossified, that Cowley could only crack the bone, or (in more modish idiom) ‘the relation of an individual to the paradigms provided by his society ... has become problematic.’ It is part of the wider revolution across the disciplines. The case is not entirely convincing. Epic has surely had room for satire and elegy in both ancient and modern times.

A similar case is propounded in regard to The Mistress. The changing of conventions in love poetry in the era of Sidney and Donne is designated ‘the redundancy of a traditional code’, and The Mistress holds a fascination for the author because ‘it registers from the inside the exhaustion of a discourse.’ Once again, revolution is supposed to be taking place in the poetry itself. Yet is The Mistress not in some measure a reactionary collection, reaching back across the Metaphysicals to Petrarchan modes, and problematic in that it seeks to combine recent with antecedent conventions, rather than a fracturing from inside of a dominant but dying mode? On the other hand, an epic on the model of Lucan was rather an innovation than an attempted espousal of an old form. The Pharsalia – and Tom May’s recent translation and continuation of it – are totally different from the allegorical epic of Ariosto, Spenser and Tasso. The Civil War might have better supported Trotter’s overall argument if his case in that chapter had been turned round.

If the paradigm of ‘revolution’ in the Romantic sense is too widely assumed in Trotter’s discussion, leading him to exaggerate Cowley as a poet of crisis, this does not mean that the chapters on The Civil War and The Mistress do not contain much that is of great interest. Nor does it vitiate what might be taken to be Trotter’s residual contention, that Cowley is a Hobbist poet, penetrated by Hobbist epistemology. The distinction between ‘propositional’ and ‘locutionary’ truth is most satisfyingly applied in the best chapter of the book, that on ‘Cowley and Crashaw’. We are not told of exhausted discourses or conditions of thought which suddenly change, but are given a richly circumstantial account of how the two poets, faced with different possibilities in thought and writing, took their different courses. ‘Locutionary’ truth did not cease to be available, but is arguably the basis of Crashaw’s poetry as ‘propositional’ truth is crucial in the later poetry of Cowley.

The last two chapters are devoted to the Davideis and the Pindaric Odes respectively. Much, as we might expect, is made of Cowley’s conflict in the Davideis between ‘fabling’ and an awareness of literal truth, the first in the poem itself, the second in the notes. But Trotter’s discussion is perhaps of more interest in taking up A. H. Nethercot’s view that Book Four is a political – and indeed pro-Royalist – allegory. Trotter accepts that the Book has political content, but sees it rather as a political statement on the question of ‘how far monarchy ... represented a “true source” of power’. An elaborate contextual study of the treatment in Davideis IV of I Samuel 8 enables him to conclude that Cowley was recommending, if pessimistically, a form of limited and not necessarily hereditary monarchy. It certainly is not a plea for a Stuart restoration. Trotter establishes Davideis as a poem of political crisis, belonging to the period of Hobbes, Filmer and Milton. History of ideas reveals the nature of Cowley’s design, not by evoking the exhaustion of a discourse, or the non-availability of a concept, but by observing the course steered by him in comparison with the courses steered by others.

The chapter on the Pindaric Odes is perhaps in the author’s view the climactic chapter. Like The Civil War, Davideis remains unfinished. But ‘the very scepticism which sabotaged the Davideis became the principle on which the innovatory form of the Pindaric Odes was based.’ In the ‘equivalence between Cowley’s version of the Pindaric ode and the radical psychology developed by Thomas Hobbes’ lies the basis for a new poetic. Briefly, the ‘hardiness’ of the Pindaric odes as Cowley understood it is presented as a response to Hobbes’s demonstration of the incoherence of our thoughts, the possible arbitrariness of discourse: ‘discourse of the mind’, frequently not coherent, is termed by Hobbes ‘discussion’. There is thus, Trotter argues, a psychological basis, newly demonstrated by Hobbes, for the irregularity of the Pindaric Odes. Here is a poetry which does not resolve ‘any internal tension’ but ‘develops open-endedly from idea to idea’. ‘A society which found it increasingly difficult to operate traditional codes had become vulnerable to violent fluctations between new confidence in the power of the human mind and a renewed sense of human fallibility.’ The Pindaric Odes, and especially ‘The Muse’, ‘To Mr Hobs’ and ‘Destinie’, are the poetry of this moment.

And in the Ode ‘To Mr Hobs’ there occurs an image which serves, if anything in this book does, as a contemporary example of what the author seems to assume in the idea of ‘revolution’. At the end of the ode Cowley compares the outward age of Hobbes and inner vigour of his genius with the frosts and fire of Etna:

So Contraries on Aetna’s top conspire,
Here hoary Frosts, and by them breaks out Fire.

While ‘A secure peace the faithful Neighbors keep,’ the Vulcan’s forge of Hobbes’s genius works in fire below the snow. For Trotter, Hobbes is the revolutionary intellect, and here is the image for that violent creative outbreak which he sees as the intellectual revolution of the 17th century. The poem in some measure validates Trotter’s paradigm: it illustrates his contention that the intellectual revolution penetrates the form of Cowley’s work, and proves also (which Trotter strangely denies – page 5) that it also penetrates the content. Yet even at this moment Cowley seems more eager to prove the close co-existence of snow and fire than to hint at a volcanic eruption; the one might betoken crisis, the other destructive revolution.

To think in terms of ‘conditions of thought’ is perhaps to be tempted to apply without verification categories in principle capable of verification. So it may be with the idea of revolution in this book. But Trotter does show that a world of political crisis was a culture of many arguments, many interpretations, many and unstable forms, and he is at his best when he characterises Cowley in relation to the available choices which others made but the poet did not. Above all, he proposes as close a relation between poetic form and contemporary philosophy as has perhaps ever been suggested in English studies. In this regard, his hypothesis may come to be considered classical.