True Poetry and False Religion in Abraham Cowley's Davideis

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Abstract

Abraham Cowley’s four-book biblical epic is about David’s triumphs over various idolatrous pagan opponents. Cowley presents this story as an example of the ‘truth’ that stands distinct from the fables of pagan poets. In this article, I argue that the poem’s explicit claim to chronicle such religious and artistic distinctions provides the key to its significance. Cowley’s meta-argument about his own poetry mirrors the subject matter of the poem. David struggles to exalt his people over the surrounding pagans and infidels, just as Cowley struggles to convert poetry from paganism. Paganism is a source of conflict for the poet because for Cowley and his contemporaries paganism signified a religious mistake with linguistic and ontological implications. Cowley’s notes to his poem, which extensively cite contemporary biblical scholarship and are often considered overly pedantic, are in fact evidence of the poet’s desire to alert his readers to the linguistic and intellectual compromises necessary to write a sacred Christian epic poem. The poem and its notes create a dialogue that is meant to protect against false religion by urging its readers outside of the poem and into the larger world of ideas.

Details

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)895
Number of pages914
JournalThe Review of English Studies
Volume66
Issue number277
Early online date30 Jul 2015
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2015