Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Cowell, Edward Byles

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COWELL, EDWARD BYLES (1826–1903), scholar and man of letters, born at Ipswich on 23 Jan. 1826, was eldest son (in a family of three sons and one daughter) of Charles Cowell, who had inherited a successful business of merchant and maltster, and as a cultured liberal was active in local affairs. His mother was Marianne, elder daughter of Nathaniel Byles Byles of the Hill House, Ipswich, also a successful merchant of that town. Cowell developed early an appetite for study. From his eighth year he attended the Ipswich grammar school. In 1841 he compiled a few numbers of ‘The Ipswich Radical Magazine and Review,’ in which he showed sympathy with his father's politics, combined with a singularly wide reading in classical literature. To Oriental literature he was first drawn by finding (1841) in the public library of Ipswich a copy of Sir William Jones's works, including the ‘Persian Grammar’ and the translation of Kālidāsa's ‘Śakuntalā.’ In the same year Macaulay's essay on Warren Hastings made him aware of Wilson's ‘Sanskrit Grammar,’ a copy of which he promptly acquired. Meanwhile he took his first steps in Persian, at first by himself, but soon with the aid of a retired Bombay officer, Major Hockley, who probably also initiated him into Arabic. As early as 1842, while still at school, he contributed to the ‘Asiatic Journal’ a number of verse renderings from the Persian.

On his father's death in 1842 Cowell was taken from school to be trained for the management of the business. But during the next eight years, while engaged in commerce, he read in his spare hours with extraordinary zeal and variety. Of his scholarship and width of knowledge he soon gave proof in a series of contributions to the ‘Westminster Review,’ writing on Oriental and Spanish literature. At the same time he formed the acquaintance of many who shared his interests, among them the Arabic and Persian scholar, William Hook Morley [q. v. Suppl. I], and Duncan Forbes [q. v.], the Persian scholar, and he also called upon Carlyle in London. In 1846 he sought an introduction to ‘the great professor,’ Horace Hayman Wilson [q. v.], and four years later he read in the East India library and obtained a loan of a Prākrit MS. (Vararuci's ‘Prākrta-Prakāśa’), his edition of which was destined (1854) to establish his reputation as a Sanskrit scholar. Through John Charlesworth, rector of Flowton near Ipswich, whose daughter he married in 1845, he came to know Edward FitzGerald [q. v.], the most interesting of his many friends and correspondents. Their correspondence at first related chiefly to classical literature.

In 1850, the next brother being now of an age to carry on the Ipswich business, Cowell matriculated at Magdalen Hall, Oxford, going with his wife into lodgings. ‘I went there [to Oxford],’ he wrote later, ‘a solitary student, mainly self-taught; and I learned there the method of study.’ During the six years of his university life he greatly widened his social circle, receiving visits not only from FitzGerald, who now read Persian with him, but from Tennyson and Thackeray, to whom FitzGerald introduced him. He saw much of Jowett, Morfill, Max Müller, and Theodor Aufrecht, and was greatly aided by the lectures and tuition of the Sanskrit professor, H. H. Wilson. In 1854 he took a first class in literæ humaniores and an honorary fourth in mathematics. While missing the scholarship in Hebrew, he was awarded a special prize of books. The next two years were spent in coaching, chiefly in Aristotle's ‘Ethics.’ He also catalogued Persian and other Oriental MSS. for the Bodleian Library.

As an undergraduate he had made a reputation by his Oriental publications. A translation of Kālidāsa's ‘Vikramorvaśī,’ though finished earlier, was published in 1851. His admirable edition of Vararuci's ‘Prākrta-Prakāśa’ followed in 1854. On taking his degree he wrote on the Persian poets for ‘Fraser's Magazine,’ besides contributing to ‘Oxford Essays’ (1855) an essay on ‘Persian Literature.’

In June 1856 Cowell was appointed professor of English history in the re-formed Presidency College, Calcutta. His post involved him in arduous work. He soon instituted an M.A. course in the Calcutta University, and extended the themes of his lectures to political economy and philosophy. In 1857 Cowell became secretary of a Vernacular Literature Society, founded with the object of providing the natives with translations of good English literature. At the same time he was more and more attracted to missionary work. He held Bible readings in his house on Sundays, and latterly a number of conversions resulted, not without some risk of offence to his Hindu connections. One of his chief Calcutta friends was William Kay [q. v.], principal of Bishop's College. Meanwhile he pursued Oriental studies untiringly. Persian continued to fascinate him. Of two copies which he procured of the MS. of Omar Khayyam belonging to the Asiatic Society at Calcutta, he sent one to FitzGerald. His own important article on Omar Khayyam appeared in the 'Calcutta Review' in March 1858. Having passed the government examinations in Hindustani and Bengali, he undertook in 1858 an additional office at Calcutta, that of principal of the Sanskrit College, a foundation of Warren Hastings. Cowell's predecessor was a native. His relations with the pundits of the college were soon intimate and affectionate. By their aid he acquired a profound familiarity with the scholastic Sanskrit literature in rhetoric and philosophy, while he stimulated the pundits' scholarly activity, and often gratified them with a prepared speech in Bengali and a Sanskrit 'Sloka.' Many native editions of works on rhetoric and poetry which were published in the 'Bibliotheca Indica,' a series issued by the Asiatic Society of Bengal, of which he became early in 1858 a joint philological secretary, express their indebtedness to Cowell. Cowell's own Sanskrit publications during this period also appeared chiefly in the 'Bibliotheca Indica.' With Dr. Roer he continued the edition of the 'Black Yajur Veda' (1858-64, vols. i. and ii.), which he afterwards carried on alone it was ultimately finished by its fifth editor in 1899 ; and singly he edited two Upanisads, the 'Kausitaki' (1861) and the 'Maitri' (1863 ; translation added 1870). The most important of his works at this time was his edition and translation of the 'Kusumanjali' with the commentary of Haridasa (Calcutta, 1864). The book, which in respect of difficulty might be compared with the 'Metaphysics' of Aristotle, supplies the Hindu proof of the existence of God. Cowell read it with Mahesa Candra, whose name he associated with his own on the title-page, and the edition was dedicated to Max Miiller. He made a close study of the 'Siddhanta-Muktavall,' a philosophical work, which he used as a college manual and examination text-book, and of the 'Sarvadar-sanasamgraha,' of which he translated one chapter, relating to the Carvaka system (Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1862). He contemplated full translations of both books.

One of his last official duties in India was to visit the Tols (native quasi-colleges) at Nuddea, which were homes of pundit research and had last been inspected by Wilson in 1829. His report, published in the 'Proceedings of the Asiatic Society of Bengal' for 1867, supplies interesting details concerning the methods of this pundit university.

By the spring of 1864 the state of Cowell's health demanded a furlough. With his Oriental scholarship immensely strengthened he revisited England. His original intention of returning to India was not carried out. In the summer of 1865 he became examiner in Oriental subjects to the Civil Service Commission ; in the same year he refused a curatorship at the Bodleian and in 1866 a similar position at the British Museum. Occupying himself in varied literary work, he recommenced his general reading and his epistolary and personal intercourse with FitzGerald.

In 1867 the University of Cambridge bestowed on Cowell the newly founded professorship of Sanskrit. Theodor Aufrecht was another candidate, but Cowell was warmly supported by Max Müller and many eminent scholars and friends. He was elected on a general vote of the university by ninety-six votes to thirty-seven. He published his inaugural lecture on the Sanskrit language and literature in 1867. The remainder of his life was spent at Cambridge in complete content. In 1874 he became fellow of Corpus Christi College. He retained the professorship and the fellowship until his death in 1903. During those thirty-six years his time was unstintingly given to his duties. He announced each term a formidable list of lectures, generally delivered at his own house. In accordance with a life-long habit, his private literary work occupied him before breakfast. At first he lectured not only on Sanskrit but also on comparative philology ; but of that subject he was soon relieved. As a philological lecturer he became one of the founders of the Cambridge Philological Society, with which he was connected as auditor until the close of his life, and he contributed to the early numbers of the Journal of Philology' ( 1868 seq.). In 1884 a lecturer was appointed to take charge of the more elementary Sanskrit teacliing. Nevertheless, the pupils who read with Cowell were of all grades of proficiency, ranging from undergraduates grappling with their first Sanskrit play to eminent scholars (both English and foreign) eager to elucidate the various Indian philosophies, the Vedic hymns, the 'Zendavesta,' or the Pali 'Jataka.' Alone or with his pupils Cowell issued an imposing series of Sanskrit texts and translations, of which the most important are 'The Sarva-Darsana-Samgraha' (translated with A. E. Gough in Trübner's 'Oriental ' series, 1882) ; 'Divyavadana' (edited with R. A. Neil, Cambridge, 1886) ; 'The Buddha Karita of Asvaghosha' ('Anecdota Oxoniensia,' Aryan ser. vii. 1893), with translation in 'Sacred Books of the East,' xlix. 1894; 'The Jataka,' translated under Cowell's editorship (6 vols., Cambridge, 1895) ; 'The Harsacarita of Bana ' (translated with F. W. Thomas, Oriental Translation Fund, n.s., ii. 1897).

Outside Sanskrit, Cowell still prosecuted other interests. Persian he resumed as opportunity offered. Spanish he always kept up, reading 'Don Quixote,' at first with FitzGerald, and after his death with other friends in Cambridge. His Hebrew notes were utilised by Dr. Kay in 1869 for the second edition of a translation of the Psalter, and later he studied the 'Talmud.' About 1877 he took up archaeology and architecture, a new study which led him to render into English Michael Angelo's sonnets, two of which were published in the 'Life.' Welsh poetry and the science of botany had been passing fancies of Cowell's youth. During 1870-80 they were cultivated simultaneously in vacations spent in Wales, sometimes in company with the Cambridge professor of botany, C. C. Babington. The Welsh studies, which were inspired by Borrow's 'Wild Wales,' culminated in a masterly paper on the poet Dafydd ap Gwilym, read before the Cymmrodorion Society in 1878, and published in 'Y Cymmrodor' (July 1878). Cowell's MS. translation of this poet's work is in the University Library at Cambridge. Botany remained one of the chief delights of his later life, and his scientific interests extended to geology. He collected a complete flora of Cambridgeshire, and gave expression to his botanical enthusiasm in some charming sonnets.

In 1892 Cowell was prevailed upon to accept the presidency of the Arian section of the International Congress of Orientalists held in London. His inaugural address (comparing Rabbinical and Brahmanical learning) and his charming Sanskrit 'Sloka' made a very favourable impression. In 1895 he was made an honorary member of the German Oriental Society. In 1898 he was awarded the gold medal of the Royal Asiatic Society, then bestowed for the first time. Among Cowell's other distinctions were the hon. LL.D. of Edinburgh University in 1875 and the hon. D.C.L. of Oxford in 1896. In 1902 he was chosen as one of the original members of the British Academy.

Cowell's last publication was a verse translation, revised after thirty years, of some episodes from an old Bengali poem 'Candi,' which he had read at Calcutta and subsequently with Bengali students at Cambridge (Journal As. Soc. Bengal, 1903). Although he continued to lecture, he had long been conscious of failing powers when he died at his residence, 10 Scroope Terrace, Cambridge, on 9 Feb. 1903. He was buried at Bramford beside his wife, who was fourteen years his senior and predeceased him on 29 Sept. 1899, after fifty-five years of married life. There was no issue of the marriage. His wife's sister, Maria Louisa Charlesworth, is already noticed in this Dictionary.

During his lifetime Cowell founded a scholarship in Sanskrit at the Sanskrit College in Calcutta (1878), and endowed a prize for classics at his old school in Ipswich ; by his will he devised to Corpus Christi College the sum of 1500Z. for a scholarship in classics or mathematics, besides leaving his library for distribution between that college, the University Library, the Fitzwilliam Museum, and Girton College.

Cowell's portrait by C. E. Brock, presented to him by his friends and pupils in 1896, is in the hall of Corpus Christi College. Another painting made by a native artist from a photograph is in the library of the Sanskrit College at Calcutta.

Cowell was remarkable for the versatility of his knowledge of language and literature and for the breadth of his scholarly interests. Primarily a modest, patient, and serious savant, he was at the same time an accomplished man of letters, who excelled as an essayist, a familiar correspondent, and could write charming and thoughtful verse. An unusual tenacity and subtlety of intellect appears in his mastery of Sanskrit logic and metaphysics (Nyaya and Vedanta). In addition to the works cited and many other contributions to periodicals and separate lectures, Co well published : 'The Charvaka System of Philosophy' ('Journ. Asiat. Soc. Bengal,' 1862); 'The Rig-Veda Sanhita' ('Quarterly Rev.' July 1870); Introduction to Boyd's translation of the 'Nagananda ' (1872); 'A Short Introduction to the Ordinary Prakrit of The Sanskrit Dramas' (1875); 'A Catalogue of Buddhist Sanskrit MSS. in the possession of the Royal Asiatic Society' (with Prof. J. Eggeling, 'Journ. Roy., Asiat. Soc.' 1876); ' The Aphorisms of Sandilya, with the commentary of Swapneswara' ('Bibliotheca Indica' 1878); 'The Tattva-muktavali . . . edited and translated' ('Journ. Roy. Asiat. Soc.' 1882); 'The Cataka: Two Short Bengali Poems translated . . .' (ib. 1891).

[Life and Letters of Edward Byles Cowell, by George Cowell, 1904 (with engraved portraits and bibliography), in spite of numerous mis-spellings, a valuable biography; Edward FitzGerald's Life and Letters; The Pilot, art. by Sir Frederick Pollock, 21 Feb. 1903; memoirs in Athenæum, 14 Feb. 1903, by Cecil Bendall, reprinted in Journal Roy. Asiat. Soc. 1903, pp. 419-24; and in Proc. Brit. Acad. 1903-4, by T. W. Rhys Davids.]

F. W. T.