Six Books on Plants, People, Poetry, and Politics


The Huntington’s catalog entry is not enticing: Abrahami Couleij Angli, poemata Latina. In quibus continentur, sex libri plantarum, viz. duo herbarum. Florum. Sylvarum. Et unus miscellaneorum. But on the other side of the description is a most remarkable bit of work, a neoclassical homage to plants and politics. Published originally in 1662, the six books of Abraham Cowley’s Latin poetry on plants were something of a sensation in their time. Thomas Sprat oversaw production of the slightly newer edition in The Huntington rare books collections in 1668, shortly after Cowley died.

Cowley’s sentiments inspired Nahum Tate (see the report Botany’s Poets Laureate) and others to devise an English translation by 1689. In his comments to the reader, Tate quotes Sprat’s An Account of the Life and Writings of Mr. Abraham Cowley, in which we gain a glimpse of the fact that Cowley (a literary genius from childhood) had remained loyal to the monarchy when faced with the Cromwellian revolution, and went to exile with the court. When Cowley returned to England (before the Restoration), he needed to assume the semblance of an occupation, thus he elected to train as a medical doctor: “The occasion of his choosing the subject of his Six Books of Plants was this; When he returned into England, he was advised to dissemble the main intention of his coming over, under the disguise of applying himself to some settled profession, and that of physick (medicine) was thought most proper. To this purpose, after many anatomical dissections, he proceeded to the consideration of simples, and having furnished himself with books of that nature, he retired into a fruitful part of Kent, where every field and wood might show him the real figures of those Plants of which he had read. Thus he speedily mastered that part of the art of medicine: but then, as one of the Ancients did before him in the study of the law, instead of employing his skill for practice and profit, he presently digested it into that form which we behold.

Sprat continues: The two first Books treat of Herbs, in a style resembling the Elegies of Ovid and Tibullus, in the sweetness and freedom of the verse, but excelling them in the strength of the fancy, and vigor of the sense. The third and fourth discourse of Flowers in all the variety of Catullus and Horace’s numbers, for the last of which author he had a peculiar reverence, and imitated him not only in the steely and numerous pace of his Odes and Epodes, but in the familiar easiness of his Epistles and Speeches. The two last speak of Trees in the way of Virgil’s Georgicks – of these the sixth Book is wholly dedicated to the honor of his country for making the British Oak to preside in the Assembly of the Forrest Trees, upon that occasion he enlarges on the history of the late rebellion, the King’s affliction and return, and the beginning of the Dutch wars; and manages all in a style that (to say all in a word) is equal to the valor and greatness of the English nation.”

There is a lot to consider in Sprat’s comments, showcasing Cowley’s affection for classical poetry and explaining his political motivations in composing such extensive poetry on such an arcane topic. We are reminded of his genius, in that not many people could compose extensive poetry in a panoply of styles, from Ovid and Horace, to that of Virgil. It also helps us understand Tate’s interest in pushing out the translation, as recompense to the Royalists which might have viewed him as leftovers from Oliver Cromwell’s epoch. (from book VI: “Nor had the impious Cromwell than a name, For England’s ruin, and for England’s shame”)

Marble bust of Oliver Cromwell in the Huntington Gallery. Cowley was a loyalist, returning to England at the end of Cromwell’s reign. The last of his Six Books uses Oak to make his points about England’s rule.

But that is beyond my pay grade; back to the plants and Cowley’s poetic symbolism (through translation). Prefacing his first two books, Cowley complains that poets have not given attention to the beauties and virtues (uses) of plants: “Considering the incredible veneration which the best poets always had for gardens, field and woods, insomuch that in all other subjects they seemed to be banished from the Muses’ territories, I wondered what evil planet was so malicious to the breed of Plants, as to permit none of the inspired tribe to celebrate their beauty and admirable virtues… I am induced to believe, that those great men did not so much think them (plants) improper subjects of poetry, as discouraged by the greatness and almost inexplicable variety of the matter, and that they were unwilling to begin a work which they despaired of finishing”

By today’s standards, Cowley’s poetry as well as the translations are hyperbolic. You have to get past the bravado to enjoy the trip. But all is planned and much is revealed. The beginning verse of Book 1, Of Herbs, introduces the subject and sets the stage for Betony (Stachys officianalis) for the first poetic treatment, i.e.:

The omen's good; so we may hope the best;
The god's mild looks our grand design have bless'd'
For thou, kind Betony! at first we see,
And opportunely com'st, dear Plant! for me.
Betony, Stachys officinalis

In the succeeding poems, Cowper rehearses his copious learning about plants and their medicinal uses. Betony is up first, and as in several of the poems, the plant itself speaks in first person, and seems to address almost any malady. As to my favorite pair of couplets:

"I loss of appetite repair, and heat
The stomach, to concoct the food men eat.
Torturing gripes I in the gut allay,
And send out murmuring blasts the backward way."

My summary: “I improve the appetite and warm the stomach, soothing the system by passing gas.”

The parasitic flowering plant Dodder, infesting Zygophyllum in Nevada

Cowley praises the parasitic vine, Dodder, in that practitioners assumed any plant able to sustain itself through living off others must be powerful.

The dodder verse casts shades of Harry Potter…

"Those wonders, if compar'd to you, are none,
Since you yourself are a far greater one.
To make the strength of other Herbs thy prey,
The huntress thou thyself for nets dost lay...
Hence 'tis that you so intricately twine
About the flax which yields so long a line.
Oh' spouse most constant to a Plant most dear,
Than whom no couple e'er more loving were...
Where has so small a Plant such strength and store
Of virtues, when her husband's weak and poor?
Who'd think the liver should assistance need,
A mobile part, from such a wretched weed?
Use, therefore, little things, nor take it ill
That men small things preserve, for less may kill."

Cowley bounces around, at one point comparing the mode of Dodder to that of a huntress and at other times to that of a bride (note he casts Dodder as female). She leaves her husband, be it Flax or Ivy or another plant, frail and depauperate. The last couplet still leaves me guessing; it seems to be a precaution regarding proportion – take care for the smallest details, for even small things can matter.

This, of course, is just a taste of Cowley and his translators. There are many lines about other plants as entertaining, which we will sample in future reports.

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