The Sacred Poem

  • David Trotter


Cowley’s resolve, formulated in the elegy on Crashaw, to write about ‘things Daine’ found expression in his epic poem about the life of David, the Davideis. In his Life of Cowley, Thomas Sprat made out that the poem had been ‘wholly written’ early in Cowley’s career, before the outbreak of civil war, but I think we should place it in the period between 1650 and 1654, as Kermode has argued.1 I shall show that the Davideis expresses anti-monarchist sentiments quite explicit enough to trouble Sprat, who was only too aware of the harm further revelations about Cowley’s wavering political loyalties might do. Sprat could not, perhaps, suppress parts of the poem, in the way he had suppressed a part of the 1656 Preface, but he could reduce the chances of people scouring it for political allusions by claiming that it was ‘wholly written’ before the Great Rebellion—by dissociating it from the early 1650s, the period of Cowley’s return to England and acquiescence in Republican rule. The Davideis was not, like The Mistress, an apprenticeship, the occupation of an already privileged form; rather, it attempted to revive and to alter a traditional code (epic convention) in such a way as to produce a new message (the Word of God):

Too long the Muses-Land have Heathen bin;

Their Gods too long were Dea’ils, and Vertues Sin;

But Thou, Eternal Word, hast call’d forth Me

Th’ Apostle, to convert that World to Thee;

T’unbind the charms that in slight Fables lie,

And teach that Truth is truest Poesie. (P,243)


Seventeenth Century Sovereign Power Biblical Text Popular Sovereignty Epic Convention 
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© David Trotter 1979

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  • David Trotter

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