Abraham Cowley, an English poet, born in London in 1618, died at Chertsey, Surrey, July 28, 1667. His father died before his birth, and by the solicitation of his mother he was admitted into Westminster school. Spenser's "Faerie Queen" first turned his attention to poetry. A volume of his poems was published when he was 15 years old, including some of his compositions written at the age of 10. While he was yet at school he produced a comedy entitled "Love's Riddle," written in the pastoral strain. In 1636 he entered Cambridge university, and two years afterward published his "Love's Riddle," with Naufragium Joculare, a comedy in Latin prose, now totally forgotten, He was ejected from Cambridge in 1643 after he had taken his degree of A. M., on account of his political opinions and independence, and went to Oxford. He was a devoted partisan of Charles I., and when Oxford was taken possession of by the parliament followed the queen to Paris (1646), and there became secretary to Lord Jermyn, afterward the earl of St. Albans, and frequently wrote and deciphered the secret letters that passed between the king and queen. He was absent from England in all more than ten years, and during that time he undertook some very perilous journeys to Jersey, Scotland, Flanders, Holland, and other countries.
In 1656 he repaired secretly to England, but was arrested and only set at liberty on his giving bail in £1,000 for his future behavior. In that year he published his poems, and in his preface inserted a passage suppressed in subsequent editions, which was thought to intimate a change in his loyalist feelings; and he also speaks of his desire to "retire to the American plantations and forsake this world for ever." He was made a doctor of medicine at Oxford in 1657, but there is no reason to suppose that he ever practised. He considered a knowledge of botany indispensable to the medical profession, and retiring to Kent busied himself with gathering plants. He also wrote a Latin poem on plants in six books. On the death of Cromwell he returned to France, where he remained in his former station until the restoration of the Stuarts. He then looked for some substantial reward for his services in the royal cause, but received nothing. He had been promised by Charles L, as well as by his son, the mastership of the Savoy, "but lost it by certain persons enemies to the muses." It is said that in revenge he altered a comedy, "The Guardian," and brought it out anew under the title of "Cutter of Coleman Street." It was harshly treated on the stage, and regarded as a satire on the royal party.
He took the failure of his play considerably to heart, but denied that it was intended as a reflection on the royalists. He now left London, and secluded himself first at Barn Elms, a suburban village, and afterward at Chertsey in Surrey (1665). In his retreat he was at first but slenderly provided for, but by the influence of the earl of St. Albans he obtained such a lease of the queen's lands as secured him a tolerable income until his death two years after. Although very highly esteemed as an author by Johnson, and by Milton even ranked with Shakespeare and Spenser, there is probably no English poet of equal pretensions less read at the present day. His "Essays" have great merit as agreeable specimens of prose composition. He was buried near Chaucer and Spenser in Westminster abbey, where in 1675 the duke of Buckingham erected a monument to his memory. - An edition of his "Works," with his "Life" by Bishop Sprat, was published in 1688(folio), and his "Select Works," edited by Bishop Hurd, in 1772-'7 (3 vols. 8vo).