1819 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Phineas Fletcher

Thomas Campbell, in Specimens of the British Poets (1819; 1845) 80-81.



The affinity and genius of these two poets [Phineas and Giles Fletcher] naturally associate their names. They were the cousins of Fletcher the dramatist, and the sons of a Doctor Giles Fletcher, who, among several important missions in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, negotiated a commercial treaty with Russia, greatly to the advantage of England, in spite of many obstacles that were presented by a capricious czar and a barbarous court. His remarks on Russia were suppressed on their first appearance, but were afterwards republished in 1643, and incorporated with Haklulyt's Voyages.

Mr. A. Chalmers, in his British Poets, mentions Giles as the elder son of this Dr. Fletcher, evidently by mistake as Giles, in his poetry, speaks of his own "Green muse hiding her younger head," with reference to his senior brother. Giles was bred at Cambridge, and died at his living of Alderston, in Suffolk, in 1623. Phineas was educated at the same university, and wrote an account of its founders and learned men. He was also a clergyman, and held the living of Hilgay in Norfolk, for twenty-nine years. They were both the disciples of Spenser, and, with his diction gently modernized, retained much of his melody and luxuriant expression. Giles, inferior as he is to Spenser and Milton, might be figured, in his happiest moments, as a link of connection in our poetry between those congenial spirits, for he reminds us of both, and evidently gave hints to the latter in a poem on the same subject with Paradise Regained.

Giles's Temptation and Victory of Christ has a tone of enthusiasm peculiarly solemn. Phineas, with a livelier fancy, had a worse taste. He lavished on a bad subject the graces and ingenuity that would have made a fine poem on a good design. Through five cantos of his Purple Island, he tries to sweeten the language of anatomy by the flowers of poetry, and to support the wings of allegory by bodily instead of spiritual phenomena. Unfortunately in the remaining cantos he only quits the dissecting-table to launch into the subtlety of the schools, and describes Intellect, the Prince of the Isle of Man, with his eight counsellors, Fancy, Memory, the Common Sense, and the five external senses, as holding out in the Human Fortress against the Evil Powers that besiege it. Here he strongly resembles the old Scottish poet Gawain Douglas, in his poem of King Heart. But he outstrips all allegorists in conceit, when he exhibits Voletta, or the Will, the wife of Intellect, propped in her fainting-fits by Repentance, who administers restorative waters to the Queen, made with lip's confession and with "pickled sighs," stilled in the alembic of a broken spirit. At the approach of the combat between the good and evil powers, the interest of the narration is somewhat quickened, and the parting of the sovereign and the queen, with their champions, is not unfeelingly portrayed.

Long at the gate the thoughtful Intellect
Stay'd with his fearful queen and daughter fair;
But when the knights were past their dim aspect,
They follow them with vows and many a prayer.
At last they climb up to the castle's height,
From which they view'd the deeds of every knight,
And marked the doubtful end of this intestine fight.

As when a youth bound for the Belgic war
Takes leave of friends upon the Kentish shore,
Now they are they parted; and he sail'd so far,
They see not now, and now are seen no more;
Yet, far off, viewing the white trembling sails,
The tender mother soon plucks off her vails,
And, shaking them aloft, unto her son she hails.

But the conclusion of the Purple Island sinks into such absurdity and adulation, that we could gladly wish the poet back again to allegorizing the bladder and kidneys. In a contest about the eternal salvation of the human soul, the event is decided by King James the First (at that time a sinner upon earth) descending from heaven with his treatise on the Revelation under his arm, in the form of an angel, and preceding the Omnipotent, who puts the forces of the dragon to the rout.

These incongruous conceptions are clothed in harmony, and interspersed with beautiful thoughts: but natural sentiments and agreeable imagery will not incorporate with the shapeless features of such a design; they stand apart from it like things of a different element, and, when they occur, only expose its deformity. On the contrary, in the brother's poem of Christ's Triumph, its main effect, though somewhat sombrous, is not marred by such repulsive contrasts; its beauties, therefore, all tell in relieving tedium, and reconciling us to defects.