Educated at Westminster school and the University of Cambridge, where he became a fellow, he was ejected in 1643 by the Parliament during the Civil War and joined the royal court at Oxford. He went abroad with the queen’s court in 1645 as her cipher secretary and performed various Royalist missions until his return to England in 1656. Seemingly reconciled to the Commonwealth, he did not receive much reward after Charles II was restored in 1660 and retired to Chertsey, where he engaged in horticulture and wrote on the virtues of the contemplative life.
Cowley tended to use grossly elaborate, self-consciously poetic language that decorated, rather than expressed, his feelings. In his adolescence he wrote verse (Poeticall Blossomes, 1633, 1636, 1637) imitating the intricate rhyme schemes of Edmund Spenser. In The Mistress (1647, 1656) he exaggerated John Donne’s “metaphysical wit”—jarring the reader’s sensibilities by unexpectedly comparing quite different things—into what later tastes felt was fanciful poetic nonsense. His Pindarique Odes (1656) try to reproduce the Latin poet’s enthusiastic manner through lines of uneven length and even more extravagant poetic conceits.
Cowley also wrote an unfinished epic, Davideis (1656). His stage comedy The Guardian (1641, revised 1661) introduced the fop Puny, who became a staple of Restoration comedy. As an amateur man of science he promoted the Royal Society, publishing A Proposition for the Advancement of Experimental Philosophy (1661). In his retirement he wrote sober, reflective essays reminiscent of Montaigne.
Cowley is often considered a transitional figure from the metaphysical poets to the Augustan poets of the 18th century. He was universally admired in his own day, but by 1737 Alexander Pope could write, justly: “Who now reads Cowley?” Perhaps his most effective poem is the elegy on the death of his friend and fellow poet Richard Crashaw.