This essay describes Abraham Cowley’s tendency, apparent throughout his work but particularly in his collected editions of 1656 and 1668, to embrace the imitation of literary models to an extent that, as he admits, can be disconcerting for readers and interfere with the literary representation of history and his own experience. Cowley’s poetic rethinking of the legacies of Homer, Pindar, the Anacreontea, Vergil, and Claudian parallels his resistance to mimetic treatment of his life and passions. This orientation toward literary history at the expense of representation, the essay argues, is rooted in a distinctive and compelling theory of interpretation, whose significance beyond Cowley’s work is revealed by the struggles of critics from the eighteenth century to the present to make sense of the relationship between life and art in his verse. These critics unwittingly demonstrate the prescience of Cowley’s depiction of reading and interpretation as potentially alienating ruptures of the connections between poems and their subject matter.

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