1787 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Phineas Fletcher

Henry Headley, in Select Beauties of Ancient English Poetry (1787) 1:liii-iv.



Were the celebrated Mr. Pott compelled to read a lecture upon the anatomy of the human frame at large, in a regular set of stanzas, it is much to be questioned whether he could make himself understood, by the most apprehensive auditor, without the advantage of professional knowledge. Fletcher seems to have undertaken a nearly similar task, as the five first cantos of The Purple Island are almost entirely taken up with an explanation of the title; in the course of which, the reader forgets the poet, and is sickened with the anatomist. Such minute attention to this part of the subject was a material error in judgement; for which, however, ample amends is made in what follows. Nor is Fletcher wholly underserving of praise for the intelligibility with which he has struggled through his difficulties, for his uncommon command of words, and facility of metre. After describing the body, he proceeds to personify the passions and intellectual faculties. Here fatigued attention is not merely relieved, but fascinated and enraptured; and, notwithstanding his figures, in many instances, are too arbitrary and fantastic in their habiliments, often disproportioned and overdone, sometimes lost in a superfluity of flaring colours, and the several characters, in general, by no means sufficiently kept apart; yet, amid such a profusion of images, many are distinguished by a boldness of outline, a majesty of manner, a brilliancy of colouring, a distinctness and propriety of attribute, and an air of life, that we look for in vain in modern productions, and that rival, if not surpass, what we meet with of the kind even in Spenser, from whom our author caught his inspiration. After exerting his creative powers on this department of his subject, the Virtues and better qualities of the heart, under their leader Eclecta, or intellect, are attacked by the Vices: a battle ensues, and the latter are vanquished, after a vigorous opposition, through the interference of an angel, who appears at the prayers of Eclecta. The poet here abruptly takes an opportunity of paying a fulsome and unpardonable compliment to James the First (stanza 55, canto 12), on that account perhaps the most unpalatable passage in the book. From Fletcher's dedication of this his poem, with his Piscatory Eclogues and Miscellanies, to his friend Edmund Benlowes, it seems, that they were written very early, as he calls them "raw essays of my very unripe years, and almost childhood." It is to his honour that Milton read and imitated, him, as every attentive reader of both poets must soon discover. He is eminently intitled to a very high rank among our old English classics. — Our author's father was Dr. Giles Fletcher, who was born in Kent, bred at Eton, elected scholar of King's College, Cambridge in 1565, where he became a man of learning, and an excellent poet. He was ambassador to Russia, and published the History of that commonwealth in 1591, which was suppressed, lest it should give offence, but afterwards reprinted in 1643. He died about 1610, leaving two sons, Giles and Phineas, the latter, our author, who was of King's College, Cambridge, and beneficed at Hilgay in Norfolk, on the presentation of Sir Henry Willouby, Bart. in 1621. He seems to have held this 29 years. See Blomfield's Norfolk. — Quarles, in his Verses prefixed to The Purple Island, hints, that he had a poem on a similar subject in agitation, but was prevented from pursuing it by finding it had got into other hands. In a map to one of his Emblems are these names of places, London, Finchfield, Roxwell, and Hilgay, edit. 1660.