1819 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

George Wither

Thomas Campbell, in Specimens of the British Poets (1819; 1845) 247-48.



GEORGE WITHER, the descendant of a family who had for several generations possessed the property of Manydowne, in Hampshire, was born in that county, at Bentworth, near Aston. About the age of sixteen, he was sent to Oxford, where he had just begun to fall in love with the mysteries of logic, when he was called home by his father much to his mortification, to hold the plough. He even afraid of being put to some mechanical trade, when he contrived to get to London, and with great simplicity had proposed to try his fortune at court. To his astonishment, however, he found that it was necessary to flatter in order to be a courtier. To show his independence, he therefore wrote his Abuses whipt and stript, and instead of rising at court, was committed for some months to the Marshalsea. But if his puritanism excited enemies, his talents and frankness gained him friends. He appears to have been intimate with the poet Browne, and to have been noticed by Selden. To the latter he inscribed his translation of the poem on the Nature of Man, from the Greek of Bishop Nemesius, an ancient father of the church. While in prison, he wrote his Shepherd's Hunting, which contains perhaps the very finest touches that ever came from his hasty and irregular pen, and, besides those prison eclogues composed his Satire to the King, a justification of his former satires, which, if it gained him his liberation, certainly effected it without retracting his principles.

It is not probable that the works of Wither will ever be published collectively, curious as they are, and occasionally marked by originality of thought; but a detailed list of them is given in the is British Bibliographer. From youth to age George continued to pour forth his lucubrations, in prophesy, remonstrance, complaint, and triumph, through good and evil report, through all vicissitudes of fortune: at one time in command among the saints, and at another scrawling his thoughts in jail, when pen and ink were denied him, with red ochre upon a trencher. It is generally allowed that his taste and genius for poetry did not improve in the political contest. Some of his earliest pieces display the native amenity of a poet's imagination; but as he mixed with the turbulent times, his fancy grew mudily with the stream. While Milton in the same cause brought his learning and zeal as a partisan, he left the Muse behind him, as a mistress too sacred to be introduced into party brawlings; Wither, on the contrary took his Muse along with him to the camp and the congregation, and it is little to be wondered at that her cap should have been torn and her voice made hoarse in the confusion.

Soon after his liberation from prison, he published the Hymns and songs of the Church, one edition of which is dedicated to King James, in which he declares that the hymns were printed under his majesty's gracious protection. One of the highest dignitaries of the church also sanctioned his performance; but as it was Wither's fate to be for ever embroiled, he had soon after occasion to complain that the booksellers, "those cruel bee-masters," as he calls them, "who burn the poor Athenian bees for their honey," endeavoured to subvert his copyright; while some of the more zealous clergymen complained that he had interfered with their calling, and slanderous persons termed his hymns, needless songs and popish rhyme. From any suspicion of popery his future labours were more than sufficient to clear him. James, it appears, encouraged him to finish a translation of the Psalms, and was kindly disposed toward him. Soon after the decease of his sovereign, on remembering that he had vowed a pilgrimage to the Queen of Bohemia, he travelled to her court to accomplish his vow, and presented her highness with a copy of his Psalms.

In 1639 he was a captain of horse in the expedition against the Scots, and quartermaster-general of his regiment, under the Earl of Arundel. But as soon as the civil wars broke out he sold his estate to raise a troop of horse for the parliament, and soon afterward rose to the rank of major. In the month of October of the same year, 1642, he was appointed by parliament, captain and commander of Farnham Castle, in Surrey; but his government was of short duration, for the castle was ceded on the first of December to Sir William Waller. Wither says, in his own justification, that he was advised by his superiors to quit the place; while his enemies alleged that he deserted it. The defence of his conduct which he published, seems to have been more resolute than his defence of the fortress. In the course of the civil war, he was made prisoner by the royalists, and when some of them were desirous of making an example of him, Denham, the poet, is said to have pleaded with his majesty that he would not hang him, for as long as Wither lived he (Denham) could not he accounted the worst poet in England. Wood informs us that he was afterward constituted by Cromwell major-general of the horse and foot in the county of Surrey. In his addresses to Cromwell there is mixed with his usual garrulity of advice and solemnity or warning, a considerable degree of adulation. His admonitions probably exposed him to little hazard; they were the croakings of the raven on the right hand. It should be mentioned however, to the honour of his declared principals, that in the National Remembrancer, he sketched the plan of an annual and freely elected parliament, which differed altogether from the shadow of representation afforded by the government of the usurper. On the demise of Cromwell, he hailed the accession of Richard with joyful gratulation. He never but once in his life foreboded good, and in that prophecy he was mistaken.

At the Restoration, the estates which he had either acquired or purchased during the interregnum, were taken from him. But the event which crushed his fortunes could not silence his pen and he was committed first to Newgate and afterward to the Tower, for remonstrances, which were deemed a libel on the new government. From the multitude of his writings, during a three years' imprisonment, it may be clearly gathered that he was treated not only with rigour, but injustice; for the confiscation of his property was made by forcible entry, and besides being illegal in form, was directly contrary to the declaration that had been issued by Charles the Second before his accession. That he died in prison may be inferred from the account though not clear from the dates, of his biographers; but his last days must have been spent in wretchedness and obscurity. He was buried between the east door and the south end of the Savoy church, in the Strand.