1. Included in the 1656 volume Poems, viz. i. Miscellanies, ii. The Mistress, or Loves Verses, iii. Pindarique Odes, and iv.) Davideis, or, a Sacred Poem of the Troubles of David are four Books of a unfinished twelve-Book biblical epic with David its hero, written in English, followed by a Latin Davideos Liber Primus, Authore A. Cowley. The text the English version was also included in the 1668 posthumous edition of Cowley’s Works edited by the poet’s friend and literary executor Thomas Sprat, and the Latin text in a second volume published by Sprat in the same year, Abrahami Couleii Angli Poemata Latina (it appears towards the end of the book, as the first item in a section of miscellanea).
2. It is not hard to see reasons why Cowley’s project failed. In the first place, it is far from easy to write an Aeneid-like epic. William Alabaster had already tried to write an Eliseis with Queen Elizabeth its heroine, NOTE 1 getting only as far as Book I, and in reading what he wrote one can easily see that he did not only stop work because of his sudden conversion to Catholicism. The huge number of epic similes is transparently an attempt to compensate for a poverty of narrative invention, and one is hard pressed to imagine how the events of Elizabeth’s reign up to ca. 1590, the time that Alabaster was writing, could suffice to fill twelve Books. Something very similar is true of the Davideis. Looking no further than Book I, it would seem that the many excursions (no matter how successful some of them undoubtedly are, considered in their own right) NOTE 2 are included for essentially the same reason. One can also complain that by the end the Book, although we have been introduced to David, he is still a virtual stranger. Vergil had a keen awareness that, above all else, epic requires absorbing story-telling and and vivid characterizations, so that Book I of the Aeneid is jam-packed with narrative incident and its central character is depicted with effective strokes. The contrast with the attempts of his English imitators is dramatic, and makes it readily comprehensible why both Alabaster and Cowley abandoned their projects. NOTE 3
3. There are two problems (insoluble on the basis of evidence presently available) concerning the composition of the Davideis, the first having to do with its date and the second with the relation of the Latin version to the English one. In a biographical memorandum prefixed to the 1668 edition of the Works, Sprat addresses Martin Clifford, a friend of Cowley from his university days:
I have often heard you declare that he had finish’d the greatest part [of the Davideis]…while he was yet a young student at Cambridge. This perhaps may be the reason that in some few places there is more youthfulness and redundance of fancy than his riper judgment would have allow’d.
Later in the same document he wrote that the Davideis
…was wholly written in so young an Age, that if we shall reflect on the vastness of the Argument, and his manner of handling it, he may seem like one of the miracles that he there adorns, like a boy attempting Goliah.
Whether an honest mistake or an attempt to protect his late friend’s reputation from artistic or possibly political criticism, NOTE 4 Sprat’s claim is demonstrably wrong. In the 1970’s the full text of Cowley’s lengthy 1643 poem on the Civil War was discovered among the Cowper (Panshanger) manuscripts of the Hertfordshire Record Office, and for the first time it became clear that passages from this poem, unpublished during the poet’s life time, were cannibalized for both the Davideis and Book VI of De plantis. NOTE 5 This shows that the Davideis is a distinctly later work. Other chronological clues are citations of Athanasius Kircher’s 1650 Musurgia Universalis in two of Cowley’s notes to Davideis Book I and a reference to some “new verses” by Cowley in a 1654 letter of Dorothy Osborne that appear to refer to a passage from Davideis Book II. These pertain to the English version. In addition, a printer’s sale catalogue bound into a 1645 edition of Waller’s Poems announces a forthcoming Latin version.
4. It is far from clear what this all amounts to, and speculation seems intolerably dangerous. NOTE 6 Gayle Shadduck, the editor of the English Davideis, NOTE 7 wrote “the Latin text is in many respects similar to — and perhaps an early draft of — its English counterpart.” There are two considerations that might appear to support this “early draft” theory. First, the Latin text contains a good deal of extra material and is considerably longer than the English version, 1084 lines in comparison with the 938 lines of the vernacular, a difference that is all the more striking inasmuch as a faithful English translation of any Latin text is bound to be longer than its original because of the more compressed nature of the Latin language. Second, on p. 67 Shadduck observes “This Latin fragment, unlike its English counterpart, allows certain vestiges of pagan mythology to mingle with the Christian and extra-biblical machines and characters. This may suggest that it was written prior to the Davideis in English.” But neither of these considerations is conclusive. The Latin version, one might care to think, deserves to be regarded as a parallel but separate literary composition, so that the Latin text needs not be considered a translation of the English one, or vice versa, and the fact that it is longer and more detail-filled scarcely obliges us to assume that there ever existed an equivalent English version, subsequently simplified and shortened. Then too, in Neo-Latin texts the admixture of elements of paganism in explicitly Christian literature is so commonplace as to be entirely unremarkable: at least when he was writing in Latin, the fact that Cowley followed this convention would have raised few if any eyebrows. Therefore we have no compelling grounds for assuming that Latin version necessarily comes from some early phase of the Davideis’ gestation, and all that is safe to say is that, at some point in the compositional process, Cowley seems to have entertained the idea of writing his biblical epic in Latin either instead of, or in addition to, his English version.
5. Furthermore, I am unqualified to form an evaluation of the view held by Shadduck (and others) NOTE 8 on one important point, her low opinion of Sprat as an editor (in his last will and testament Cowley had designated him as his literary executor). Writing of the numerous discrepancies between the 1656 and 1668 editions (p. 63) she asserted “Substantive differences between the texts of 1656 and 1668 may be assigned to Sprat’s editorial hand. They bear no authority.” Modern thinking appears to be that Sprat unscrupulously foisted his own aesthetic and religious “improvements” into the English text of the Davideis. This issue is not irrelevant to the question at hand, for the 1668 version of the Latin text likewise features a number of changes, detailed here: most notably, in the later version two lines (100 and 1013) are deleted, and one unmetrical line is fixed (at 115). If we are to assume that they are Cowley’s own nachdenken and not introduced by Sprat, they go to show that even after 1656 Cowley had not quite lost interest in the Latin text, and had taken the trouble to introduce improvements and otherwise tinker with what he had originally written. One wonders whether he would have done so, had the notion of a Latin version been considered and discarded during a very early phase of the project.
6. The Latin text of Book I is not included in Shadduck’s edition, and my sole intention is to make it readily available. In view of the inclusion of Cowley’s own copious annotations in the Shadduck edition, I see no reason to supply any annotation here. The text reproduced is that of the 1656 edition, but significant deviations in the 1668 one are noted in passing.
NOTE 1 Edited by Michael O’Connor, “The ‘Elisaeis’ of William Alabaster,” Studies in Philology monograph 76 (1979).
NOTE 2 Two of Cowley’s excursions are of particular interest: the discussion of music at 495ff. and that of the College of Prophets at 768ff. The former is a particularly fine specimen of Neo-Latin poetry, one that could easily be anthologized, and both manage to reflect the increasing influence of rationalism and science in seventeenth century England. The passage on music emphasizes a belief in the orderly and number-based arrangement of the universe which could have been heartily endorsed by Newton and Wren no less than by Purcell, and Samuel’s establishment bears a marked resemblance to a contemporary academic college, even to the detail of a high table for the Professors and Fellows. More specifically, it bears a distinct resemblance to a contemporary Oxford one: it features Professors of Astronomy, Mathematics, and History, all lecturing on their subjects to enthusiastic audiences, and Oxford already had obtained such professorships by the time of this writing and for some time had been at least partially re-purposing itself to address a rising interest in secular subjects and the sciences. Cambridge had not made matching strides: it only acquired a chair of Mathematics in 1663, and did not have ones for Astronomy and History until the next century. If such is needed, this too may be taken as evidence against early composition at Cambridge, since after been ejected from there in 1643 Cowley migrated to Oxford where he must have been infected by the intellectual modernism of that university.
NOTE 3 For Cowley’s abandonment of the project, see further Timothy Dkystal, “The Epic Reticence of Abraham Cowley,” Studies in English Literature 31 (1991) 95 - 115.
NOTE 4 Shadduck (op. cit. infra, p. 10) considers the possibility that the Davideis contained elements that might be regarded as disloyal to the Royalist cause, although, as she observes, “we have no record of any post-Restoration reader objecting to the political content of the Davideis.” Somebody else might imagine the problem would be, if anything, just the reverse: David was an archetypal king, and much of the narrative material of the epic is quarried from that biblical Book, which has traditionally given great comfort to devotees of absolute monarchism, I Samuel. For further consideration of the political views of the Davideis, see the reading of Book IV in Arthur H. Nethercot, Abraham Cowley: the Muse’s Hannibal (Oxford, 1932) and Michael Austin's insightful “Saul and the social contract: constructions of I Samuel 8 - 11 in Cowley’s Davideis and Defoe’s Jure Divino,” Papers on Language and Literature 32 (1996) 410 - 27, which may be read here.
NOTE 5 Cf. Allan Pritchard, The Civil War by Abraham Cowley (Toronto, 1973).
NOTE 6 See further Frank Kermode, “The Date of Cowley’s Davideis,” R. E. S. 25 (1949) 146 - 160.
NOTE 7 Gayle Shadduck, A Critical Edition of Abraham Cowley’s Davideis (The Renaissance Imagination vol. 22, New York - London, 1987). The quotation is from p. 5.
NOTE 8 Shadduck discusses the question of Sprat’s alleged unreliability as an editor, with references to previous ventilations of the subject, in her lengthy n. 123 (pp. 84f.).