This very voluminous writer is introduced here, in consequence of his Juvenilia, which constitute the best of his works, having been all printed or circulated before the death of Shakspeare. He was born at Bentworth, near Alton in Hampshire, in 1590, and, after a long life of tumult, vicissitude, and disappointment, died in his seventy-eighth year, in 1667. He continued to wield his pen to the last month of his existence, and more than one hundred of his pieces, in prose and verse, have been enumerated by Mr. Park, in a very curious and elaborate catalogue of his works. We shall confine ourselves, however, for the reason already assigned, to that portion of his poetry which was in circulation previous to 1616.
It appears from Wither's own catalogue of his works, that four of his earliest poems, entitled Iter Hibernicum, Iter Boreale, Patrick's Purgatory, and Philaret's Complaint, were lost in manuscript. The first of his published productions was printed in 1611, under the title of Abuses Stript and Whipt: or Satyricall Essays. Divided into two Bookes; 8vo, to which were annexed The Scourge, a satire, and Certaine Epigrams, This book, he tells us, was written in 1611, and its unsparing severity involved him in persecution, and condemned him for several months to a prison. It was nevertheless highly popular, and underwent an eighth impression in 1633
An elegant writer in the British Bibliographer has subjoined the following very just and interesting remarks to his notice of these poignant satires. "The reign of King James," he observes, "was not propitious to the higher orders of poetry. All those bold features, which nourished the romantic energies of the age of his predecessor, had been suppressed by the selfish pusillanimity and pedantic policy of this inglorious monarch. Loving flattery, and a base kind of luxurious ease, he was insensible to the ambitions of a gallant spirit, and preferred the cold and barren subtleties of scholastic learning to the breathing eloquence of those who were really inspired by the muse. Poetical composition therefore soon assumed a new character. Its exertions were now overlaid by learning, and the strange conceits of metaphysical wit took place of the creations of a pure and unsophisticated fancy. It was thus that Donne wasted in the production of unprofitable and short-lived fruit the powers of a most acute and brilliant mind. It was thus that Phineas Fletcher threw away upon an unmanageable subject the warblings of a copious and pathetic imagination. The understanding was more exercised in the ingenious distortion of artificial stores, than the faculties which mark the poet in pouring forth the visions of natural fiction.
Such scenes as youthful poets dream,
On summer eve, by haunted stream,
were now deemed insipid. The Fairy Fables of Gorgeous Chivalry were thought too rude and boisterous, and too unphilosophical for the erudite ear of the book-learned king!
"As writers of verse now brought their compositions nearer to the nature of prose, the epoch was favourable to the satirical class, for which so much food was furnished by the motley and vicious manners of the nation. Wither, therefore, bursting with indignation at the view of society which presented itself to his young mind, took this opportunity to indulge in a sort of publication, to which the prosaic taste of the times was well adapted; but he disdained, and, perhaps, felt himself unqualified, to use that glitter of false ornament, which was now substituted for the true decorations of the muse. 'I have arrived,' says he, 'to be as plain as a pack-saddle.' — 'Though you understand them not, yet because you see this wants some fine phrases and flourished, as you find other men's writings stuffed withal, perhaps you will judge me unlearned.' — 'Yet I could with ease have amended it; for it cost me, I protest, more labour to observe this plainness, than if I had more poetically trimmed it.'"
The plainness of which Wither here professes himself to have been studious, forms one of the noblest characteristics of his best writings. Dismissing with contempt the puerilities and conceits which deformed the pages of so many of his contemporaries, he cultivated, with almost uniform assiduity, a simplicity of style, and an expression of natural sentiment and feeling, which have occasioned the revival of his choicest compositions in the nineteenth century, and will for ever stamp them with a permanent value.
Returning to his Juvenilia, we find that in 1612 he published in a thin quarto, Prince Henrie's Obsequies; or mournfull Elegies upon his Death. With a supposed Interlocution between the Ghost of Prince Henry and Great Britaine; which was followed the succeeding year by his Epithalamia: or Nuptiall Poemes, 4to, on the marriage of Frederick the Fifth, with Elizabeth, only daughter of James the First. These pieces have been re-printed by Sir Egerton Brydges, in his Restituta: the Obsequies contain forty-five elegiac sonnets, succeeded by an Epitaph, the Interlocution, and a Sonnet of Death, in Latin rhymes, with a paraphrastic translation. Among the numerous sonnet-writers of the age of Shakspeare, Wither claims a most respectable place, and many of these little elegies deserve a rescue from oblivion. We would particularly point out Nos. 11 and 17, from which an admirable sonnet might be formed by subjoining six lines of the former to the first two quartuorzains of the latter, and this without the alteration of a syllable; the octave will then consist of a soliloquy by the poet himself, and the sestain be addressed to Elizabeth the sister of Prince Henry; a transition which is productive of a striking and happy effect:—
Thrice happy had I been, if I had kept
Within the circuit of some little Village,
In ignorance of Courts and Princes slept,
Manuring of an honest halfe-plough tillage:
Or else, I would I were as young agen
As when Eliza, our last Phoenix died;
My childish yeares had not conceived then
What 'twas to lose a Prince so dignified:—
Thy brother's well: and would not change estates
With any prince that reigns beneath the skie:
No, not with all the world's great potentates:
His plumes have born him to eternitie!
He shall escape (for so th' Almighty wills)
The stormy Winter of ensuing ills.
In 1614, our author published A Satyre written to the King's most excellent Majestie, 8vo; and The Shepherds Pipe, 8vo; the latter, a production of high poetical merit, having been composed in conjunction with Browne, the author of Britannia's Pastorals.
In 1615, appeared The Shepheard's Hunting: Being certaine Eclogues, written during the time of the Author's imprisonment in the Marshalsey, 8vo. This was intended as a continuation of the Shepheard's Pipe, and is fully equal, if not superior, to the prior portion: Phillips, indeed, speaking of Wither, says, "the most of poetical fancy, which I remember to have found in any of his writings, is in a little piece of pastoral poetry, called The Shepheard's Hunting."
The next work with which Wither favoured us, though not published for general circulation before 1619, yet, as the stationer, George Norton, tells us, had been "long since imprinted for the use of the author, to bestow on such as had voluntarily requested it in way of adventure; words which seem to intimate, that it had been dispersed for the purpose of pecuniary return, and probably with the intent of supporting the bard during his imprisonment in the Marshalsea. It has accordingly a title-page which implies a second impression, and is termed Fidelia. Newly corrected and augmented. This is a work which ought to have protected the memory of Wither from the sarcasms of Butler, Swift, and Pope; for it displays a vein of poetry at once highly elegant, impassioned, and descriptive. To Fidelia was first annexed the two exquisite songs, reprinted by Dr. Percy, commencing "Shall I, wasting in dispaire," and "Hence away, thou Syren, leave me."
We shall close the list of those works of Wither that fall within the era to which we are limited, by noticing his Faire Virtue: the Mistresse of Phil'arete, 8vo. This beautiful production, glowing with all the ardours of a poetic fancy, was one of his earliest compositions, and is alluded to in his Satire to the King, in 1614, before which period there is reason to suppose it was widely circulated in manuscript; for in a prefatory epistle to the copy of 1622, published by John Grismand, but which was originally prefixed to an anonymous edition printed by John Marriot, and not now supposed to be in existence, Wither tells us, that "the poem was composed many years agone, and, unknown to the author, got out of his custody by an acquaintance;" and he adds, "when I first composed it, I well liked thereof, and it well enough became my years." To high praise of this work in its poetical capacity, Mr. Dalrymple has annexed the important remarks, that it unfolds a more perfect system of female tuition than is any where else to be discovered.
The great misfortune of Wither was, that the multitude of his subsequent publications, many of which were written during the effervescence of party zeal, and are frequently debased by coarse and vulgar language, overwhelmed the merits of his earlier productions. Yet it must be conceded, that his prose, during the whole period of his authorship, generally exhibits great strength, perspicuity, and freedom from affectation; and on the best of his poetical effusions we may cheerfully assent to the following encomium of an able and impartial judge: — "If poetry be the power of commanding the imagination, conveyed in measure and expressive epithets, Wither was truly a poet. Perhaps there is no where to be found a greater variety of English measure than in his writings (Shakspeare excepted), more energy of thought, or more frequent development of the delicate filaments of the human heart."