He was born at Beresford in Staffordshire. His father, Charles Cotton, was a friend of Ben Jonson, John Selden, Sir Henry Wotton and Izaak Walton. The son was apparently not sent to university, but was tutored by Ralph Rawson, one of the fellows ejected from Brasenose College, Oxford, in 1648. Cotton travelled in France and perhaps in Italy, and at the age of twenty-eight he succeeded to an estate greatly encumbered by lawsuits during his father's lifetime. The rest of his life was spent chiefly in country pursuits, but from his Voyage to Ireland in Burlesque (1670) we know that he held a captain's commission and was ordered to that country.
His friendship with Izaak Walton began about 1655, and the fact of this intimacy seems a sufficient answer to the charges sometimes brought against Cotton's character, based chiefly on his coarse burlesques of Virgil and Lucian. Walton's initials made into a cipher with Cotton's own were placed over the door of his fishing cottage on the Dove; and to The Compleat Angler he added "Instructions how to angle for a trout or grayling in a clear stream."
In 1656 he married his cousin Isabella, who was a sister of Colonel Hutchinson. It was for his wife's sister, Miss Stanhope Hutchinson, that he undertook the translation of Pierre Corneille's Horace in 1671. His wife died in 1670 and five years later he married the dowager Countess of Ardglass; she had a jointure of £1500 a year, but it was secured from his extravagance, and at his death in 1687 he was insolvent. He was buried in St James's church, Piccadilly, on February 16 1687.
Cotton's reputation as a burlesque writer may account for the neglect with which the rest of his poems have been treated. Their excellence was not, however, overlooked by good critics. Coleridge praises the purity and unaffectedness of his style in Biographia Literaria, and Wordsworth (Preface, 1815) gave a copious quotation from the "Ode to Winter." The "Retirement" is printed by Walton in the second part of the Compleat Angler.
His masterpiece in translation, the Essays of M. de Montaigne (1685-1686, 1693, 1700, etc.), has often been reprinted, and still maintains its reputation; his other works include The Scarronides, or Virgil Travestie (1664-1670), a gross burlesque of the first and fourth books of the Aeneid, which ran through fifteen editions; Burlesque upon Burlesque, ... being some of Lucian's Dialogues newly put into English fustian (1675); The Moral Philosophy of the Stoicks (1667), from the French of Guillaume du Vair; The History of the Life of the Duke d'Espernon (1670), from the French of G Girard; the Commentaries (1674) of Blaise de Montluc; the Planter's Manual (1675), a practical book on arboriculture, in which he was an expert; The Wonders of the Peake (1681); the Compleat Gamester and The Fair one of Tunis, both dated 1674, are also assigned to Cotton.
William Oldys contributed a life of Cotton to Hawkins's edition (1760) of the Compleat Angler. His Lyrical Poems were edited by JR Tutin in 1903, from an unsatisfactory edition of 1689. His translation of Montaigne was edited in 1892, and in a more elaborate form in 1902, by WC Hazlitt, who omitted or relegated to the notes the passages in which Cotton interpolates his own matter, and supplied his omissions.