1. There is something about the genius of Neo-Latin poetry that discourages the composition of large-scale works. Although one can think of any number of epyllia written both in England and on the Continent, it is impossible to think of any successful Neo-Latin epic. Many subsequent readers have, each in his own way, repeated Jacob Burkhart’s remark that Petrarch’s Africa is unreadable, NOTE 1 and few later Neo-Latin poets have made the attempt. Certainly this is true of Englishmen: the only two ventures of which I am aware were William Alabaster’s projected Great National Epic the Elisaeis (which did not just fail because Alabaster converted to Catholicism after completing Book I: the alarming number of extended similes with which that Book is padded show its author unsuccessfully struggling to find enough narrative material to flesh out his project) NOTE 2 and Abraham Cowley’s own unsuccessful Davideis, which also collapsed under its own weight: the poet only finished four Books of the English version and one of the Latin. NOTE 3
2. This evidently leaves Cowley’s De Plantis as the longest Neo-Latin poem written by an Englishman: it consists of 7,104 lines distributed over six Books. How did Cowley succeed where everybody else failed? In essence, by imitating Ovid rather than Vergil. That is to say, he did not write one single large work, but rather a concatenation of smaller ones. Cowley has constructed a large-scale edifice that at first sight looks intimidating, but upon closer inspection it is an edifice made up of bits and pieces that are comfortably familiar. In the manner of Ovid in the Metamorphoses and the Fasti, he presents us with a kaleidoscopic variety of episodic sketches, which must have made the task much more manageable for the writer and at the same time go far towards staving off tedium on the part of the reader.
3. One approaches the work with the sinking feeling that one is about to read what Alexander Lindsay describes in his Oxford Dictionary of National Biography article on Cowley as a “Latin didactic poem”, a kind of forerunner of Erasmus Darwin’s 1795 The Botanic Garden. The foreboding that one has picked up a kind of versified botany-cum-pharmacology textbook (in the seventeenth century these two branches of learning were all but inseparable, since the vast majority of medicines then in use had vegetable origins) is not diminished by the fact that the first two Books, in particular, are accompanied by a veritable forest of annotative material crammed with citations of and quotes from such ancient writers as Aristotle and Pliny, as well as more modern botanists and physicians. And it is true that Books I and II, which were written first and published independently, have a certain seriousness of scientific purpose such as befits a poet who had recently studied medicine at Oxford (where Cowley received the M. D. in 1657). But even in these early Books, Cowley displays a clear awareness that the reader needs to be entertained and diverted as well as instructed. In a series of speeches, each herb comes forth, describes itself and its healing virtues, and often tells something of its history. These speeches allow the poet to invest his different herbs with wide range of personalities and individual “voices,” and even offer a fair amount of scope for inventive literary embroidery: thus, perhaps most memorably, the autobiographical speech of the water-lily (I.517ff.) permits the inclusion of a romantic Ovidian transformation-tale.
4. So Books I and II are considerably more ingratiating than one might have expected, and a reader feels on comfortably Ovidian grounds. Books III and IV are startling different. Here, at an assembly of flowers in a botanical garden at Oxford, as each flower makes her case to the goddess Flora, stating why she deserves to be selected as Queen of the Flowers, she too delivers a speech, but does so in a lyric meter. Therefore, we are presented with the novelty of a lyric cycle NOTE 4 embedded within a traditional context of Roman expository verse. Even more remarkable, in the first part of Book IV this polymetric lyric cycle likewise has embedded within itself a series of more or less short epigrams. The effect of this very un-Classical genre-bending is remarkable: Books II and IV are a set of nested Chinese boxes, and they create an effect that possibly deserves to be compared to a garden pointilistically made up of separate flowerbeds, each making its individual contribution to the combined effect of the whole.
5. Books V and VI also come with their own surprises, but these have to do with content rather than poetic form, as they transport us to unanticipated subjects, very far removed from the exposition of botanical fact. In Book V, Pomona summons her fruit trees, much as Flora has convened an assembly of her flowers Books III and IV, but she does so on a mid-Atlantic island, and soon the familiar Olympian gods of antiquity are joined by the uncouth gods of the Incas and Aztecs in a kind of weird theological jamboree. The merits of European and American fruit trees are debated, NOTE 5 and the Book concludes with Apollo’s prophecy that American civilization will eventually surpass that of the New World. Likewise in Book VI Dryas calls a convention of nut trees, but this descendant of the prophetic oaks of Dodona does so in order to deliver a lengthy forecast of the English Civil War, the Restoration, and concludes with a set-piece description of the British naval victory over the Dutch at the naval Battle of Lowestoft in 1665. NOTE 6 In Books V and VI, at least to a certain extent botanizing is no longer pursued for its own sake — Cowley’s diminished interest in botany is shown by the fact that his accompanying barrage of learned annotations ceases — but becomes a pretext for the insertion of these lengthy digressions. By the end of Book VI the reader can look back and realize that he has had some very unanticipated experiences. He has, among other things, met such uncouth Aztec gods as Tlaloc and Huitzilopochtli, learned of (although not actually seen) the dread Spinturnix, climbed a tree with King Charles, and witnessed the explosion of Admiral Opdam’s flagship.
6. So, although De Plantis is quite lengthy, it is rescued from the problems of Neo-Latin epic by its episodic nature. Its constant changes of subject, style and voice keep it from growing tedious, and one is not obliged to read it straight through: it can be picked up and put down, it can be dipped into. Although it contains plenty of factual material of interest to readers with a serious, or even professional, concern for botany and pharmacology (and thus participates in the great efflorescence of seventeenth century English science) its author never loses sight of his obligation to entertain, so that it can also be read with pleasure by readers with no deep enthusiasm for these subjects. All in all, it is an interesting, albeit often neglected, item of Restoration literature. NOTE 7
7. Books I and II were originally published independently as A. Couleii plantarum libri duo (London, 1662). A footnote to the initial address Ad Lectorem indicates that at least some of the writing had been done before Charles’ restoration in 1660. Then the entire work was published posthumously in 1668, in a volume edited by the poet’s friend Thomas Sprat entitled Abrahami Couleii Angli Poemata Latina (which was reprinted in 1678). The the Latin text employed here is that of the 1668 edition. In 1689 appeared a another volume edited by Sprat, entitled The second and third parts of the works of Mr Abraham Cowley. This contains translations of Books I and II by “J. O.,” Book III by C. Cleve, Books IV and V by Nahum Tate, and Book VI by Aphra Behn. NOTE 8 One feature of these English translations is that Cowley’s copious annotations have been judiciously pruned, so that all that remains are translations or shortened paraphrases of those notes which provide information necessary for comprehension of the poem. The present edition (entirely based on the 1668 edition) is accompanied by these contemporary translations and, since I imagine most modern readers will come to De Plantis as a work of literature rather than for botanical instruction (and also since, with the conceivable exception of the discussion of the gynaecological utility of plant-derived pharmaceuticals in Book II, this work does not appear to have sufficient botanical or pharmacological originality to commend itself to the attention of historians of science), I have, by and large, omitted Cowley’s own annotative material and limited myself to that provided by his translators. Cowley's original notes are posted elsewhere on the Web, thanks to the industry of Prof. James D. Kinney, and I shall limit myself to indicating relevant lines of the text with the icon . In addition, Prof. Kinney has posted a page of relevant illustrative images here, to which I have inserted appropriate links, indicated by the icon .
8. I should like to thank Professor Kinney for his incredible generosity in suggesting many ways in which this edition can be improved.
NOTE 1 Burckhart gave this opinion in his 1860 Die Cultur der Renaissance in Italien.
NOTE 2 Edited by Michael O’Connor, “The ‘Elisaeis’ of William Alabaster,” Studies in Philology monograph 76 (1979).
NOTE 3 Gayle Shadduck, A critical edition of Abraham Cowley’s Davideis (New York, 1987).
NOTE 4 It is just possible that this section of the work is supposed to remind the reader more specifically of polymetric lyric cycles that were originally performed as masques: examples in The Philological Museum include some of George Buchanan’s Five Masques, John Leland’s Pompa Nympharum, the poetry for the coronation of Anne Boleyn written by John Leland and Nicholas Udall, and quite likely also, in my opinion, the first portion of John Sanford’s Apollonis et Musarum Εὐκτικὰ Εἰδύλλια.
NOTE 5 It is, perhaps, odd that the Peruvian cinchona is not mentioned. Although the fruit of this tree is not edible, its great merit is that its bark is the source of quinine. One would have thought that this medical virtue would have commended it to Cowley’s attention.
NOTE 6 At first sight, Cowley’s description of this battle might seem very much off-subject, but it is not. At the end of the Book we are shown an England that is, so to speak, back on track after the disruptions of the Civil War and Protectorate: now Englishmen fight foreigners, not each other.
NOTE 7 Understandably, De Plantis has found its admirers. See, perhaps most memorably, Robert B. Hinman. Abraham Cowley’s World of Order (Cambridge U. S. A., 1960), and also Ruth Monreal’s Flora Neolatina (Berlin - New York, 2010), pp. 189 - 321.
NOTE 8 In 1680 there appeared an anonymous A Translation of the Sixth Book of Mr. Cowley’s Plantarum, Being A Poem upon the Late Rebellion, the Happy Restoration of His Sacred Majesty, and the Dutch War Ensuing, which merely renders the Dryad’s long prophetic speech from Book VI.