Cooke was born in Martinsburg on October 26, 1816. The eldest surviving child of Maria W. Pendleton Cooke and John Rogers Cooke (1788–1854), an attorney and member of the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1829–1830, he was also the elder brother of the writer John Esten Cooke and a cousin of the novelist and Maryland congressman John Pendleton Kennedy. The family moved to Winchester in 1824. Cooke attended an academy there before enrolling at the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University) in 1831. After being suspended for fighting with another student and then reinstated, he graduated in 1834 and returned to Winchester, where he studied law with his father. Cooke was admitted to the bar in 1837 and that year married Williann Corbin Tayloe Burwell, niece of a wealthy Clarke County landowner who disapproved of the union. They had four daughters and one son.
Cooke’s legal practice suffered from competition with his two passions, hunting and poetry. As a teenager, Cooke had contributed verse to the Winchester Virginia Republican, and while in college he published three pseudonymous poems in the Knickerbocker; or New York Monthly Magazine. After Cooke returned to Virginia, he began a long association with the Southern Literary Messenger under the pseudonym Larry Lyle. In 1835 and 1836 he contributed several poems and a critical essay on “English Poetry.” Cooke’s poetry, with its emphasis on lost love, the natural world, and exoticism, placed him firmly within the romantic movement; his criticism marked him as extraordinarily well-read for someone living in a relatively rustic environment.
Financial difficulties dogged Cooke. Caught between his unsteady and unsuccessful attempts to establish himself as a lawyer and his preference for gentlemanly hunts, he wrote little during the later 1830s. Only the intervention of Edgar Allan Poe, who initiated a correspondence with Cooke in 1839, jolted him from his literary seclusion. Cooke contributed two poems to Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, which Poe helped edit. “Florence Vane” (1840), a lament of lost love that particularly pleased Poe, became Cooke’s most famous poem. Newspapers throughout the country reprinted the poem, composers set it to music, and anthologizers, most notably Rufus Wilmot Griswold, included it in their collections. Cooke settled in Martinsburg and intensified his efforts at the law. In 1843 he published two poems, “Life in the Autumn Woods” and “The Power of the Bards,” in the Southern Literary Messenger, but these alone constituted his output for the first half of the decade.
Cooke’s personal and professional situation improved in 1845. He moved his family to the Vineyard, a Clarke County estate of about 340 acres owned by his wife’s uncle. Poe revived interest in Cooke’s work by singling out “Florence Vane” for praise during a lecture on American poetry. At Poe’s urging, Cooke published an appreciation of Poe, intended as a sequel to James Russell Lowell’s memoir of the poet, in the January 1848 issue of the Southern Literary Messenger.
Cooke resumed contributing poems to several magazines and in 1847 published Froissart Ballads, and Other Poems, his only book. The collection elicited positive reviews but sold poorly. Determined to achieve financial success through writing, Cooke redirected his energies to prose. The Messenger published several of his critical essays on contemporary literature and four novelettes, including “John Carper, The Hunter of Lost River” (1848), a frontier tale similar to the work of James Fenimore Cooper, and “The Crime of Andrew Blair” (1849), a romantic saga of an aristocrat with a dark past. At the time of his death Cook was serializing The Chevalier Merlin, a historical romance based on the adventures of the Swedish king Charles XII.
Cooke’s literary reputation rests largely on the widely anthologized “Florence Vane” and on Froissart Ballads, which was reprinted in 1972 as part of a series on the American romantic tradition. His talent for portraying nature, best represented in “Life in the Autumn Woods” (1843) and “The Mountains” (1845), and his unconventional departures from standard meter may have augured an original poetic vision. Latter-day critics have also taken interest in the potential for rich characterization and sharp plotting demonstrated in Cooke’s fiction as well as its illumination of western Virginia society. “The Turkey-Hunter in His Closet” (1851), Cooke’s last prose work, shared some affinities with the writing of southwestern humorists and demonstrated a willingness to tweak the heroic conventions of romantic literature.
Having contracted pneumonia after fording an icy stream in search of game, Cooke died at his home on January 20, 1850, and was buried in the Old Chapel Cemetery, in Clarke County.
- Froissart Ballads, and Other Poems (1847)