Of GILES FLETCHER very few memorials are to be found. His contemporaries left his life unwritten, and nothing can now be known of his personal history, beyond what casual mention supplies.
He was of a poetical family: the son of Dr. Giles Fletcher, author of The Russe Commonwealth; an excellent poet; and brother to Phineas Fletcher, the subject of the preceding article. Benlowes well observes, in his verses to Fletcher, "Thy very name's a poet."
"This Dr. Giles Fletcher," says Wood, "died in the parish of St. Catherine's in Coleman-street, London, in the month of February 1610, and was buried, I presume, in the church of St., Catherine's there; leaving behind him a son of both his names, bachelor of divinity of Trinity College, Cambridge, equally beloved of the muses and the graces, who died at Alderton in Suffolk, in 1623."
To Wood's account, brief though it be, little can be added; and perhaps the emphatic expression, "equally beloved of the muses and the graces," characterises Giles Fletcher more happily than the most ample and elaborate eulogy.
Winstanley's account of these two elegant brothers blemishes even the unsatisfactory narratives of that biographer. "Phineas," says he, "was also brother to two worthy poets, viz. George Fletcher, the author of a poem, intitled Christ's Victory and Triumph over and after Death, and Giles Fletcher, who wrote a worthy poem, intitled Christ's Victory, made by him, being but bachelor of arts, discovering the piety of a saint, and the divinity of a doctor."
Though poetry seems to have been hereditary in the Fletcher family, it does not appear that Phineas and Giles had a poetical brother called George; and it is certain, that Giles, who is here confounded with George, wrote Christ's Victory and Triumph, &c. without any coadjutor.
This gross blunder is copied by Jacob, though he might easily have obtained a more correct account of this poetical family, from the Oxford Antiquary.
G. Fletcher wrote his Christ's Victory and Triumph when he was very young, was afterwards beneficed at Alderton, and died many years before Phineas, who was his elder brother, as appears from this beautiful eulogy on the Purple Island, at the conclusion of his poem.
But let the Kentish lad, that lately taught
His oaten reed the trumpet's silver sound,
Young Thyrsilis; and for his music brought
The willing spheres from heaven, to lead around
The dancing nymphs, and swains that sung and crown'd
Eclecta's Hymen with ten thousand flowers
Of choicest praise; and hung her heavenly bowers
With saffron garlands dress'd for nuptial paramours.
Let his shrill trumpet, with her silver blast,
Of fair Eclecta, and her spousal bed
Be the sweet pipe, and smooth encomiast;
But my green muse, hiding "her younger head"
Under old Camus' shaggy banks that spread
Their willow locks abroad, and all the day,
With their own wat'ry shadows wanton play,
Dares not those high amours and love-sick songs essay.
His Christ's Victory and Triumph was published in 1610, with recommendatory verses, as was usual in those days, by his brother and F. Nethersole, and a dedication to Dr. Neville, dean of Canterbury, and master of Trinity College; from which it appears that he was under great obligations to him.
Speaking of the College, he says, "In which, being placed by your favour only, most freely, without either any means from other, or any desert in myself; being not able to do more, I could do no less than acknowledge that debt."
A second edition of Christ's Victory and Triumph was printed at Cambridge, by Roger Daniel, for Abraham Atsend, bookseller in Norwich, 1640.
It was reprinted, together with the Purple Island, in 8vo, 1783, and modernized according to a ridiculous plan, recommended by Hervey (Lett. II. vol. 2.) who seems to have forgot that it is the indispensable duty of every editor of an ancient poet, to exhibit the text of the author in the exact state in which he found it; with the exception only of such words as are evidently mistakes of the press. In this edition, besides innumerable alterations, which display more evangelical piety than poetical taste, eight stanzas are omitted in the first part of Christ's Victory, four in the second part, two in the first part of Christ's Triumph, and seven in the second part. Such unjustifiable liberties, for which no apology is offered, warrant the utmost severity of critical reprehension.
After having been neglected for near a century and a half, and then mangled, in order to be read, it is now reprinted, from the edition of 1640, and received, for the first time, into a collection of classical English poetry.
The character of G. Fletcher seems to have been amiable and pious. Of his fraternal affection, which appears to have been reciprocal, he has left behind him undubitable proofs. In a learned and poetical age, he cultivated literature and poetry with distinguished success. His poetry gained him the praise of his contemporaries; but failed to gain him friends and readers among their successors. The applause of both is rarely the lot of any one. Few indeed are they who, allied, as it were, to immortality, can boast of a reputation sufficiently bulky and well-founded, to catch and to detain the eye of each succeeding generation as it rises. The revolutions of language, of taste, and of opinion, will shake, if not demolish the fairest fabrics of the human intellect. Fame is seldom stationary; it if ceases to advance, it inevitably goes backward; and speedy are the steps of its receding, when compared with those of its advance.
Non possunt primi esse omnes omne in tempore:
Summum ad gradum cum claritatis veneris,
Consistis aegre, et quum descendas decides;
Cecidi ego: cadet qui sequitur, Laus est publica.
Spenser and Shakespeare, Milton and Dryden, are sure heirs of immortality: But poets who do not belong to the first class, yet are of distinguished merit, must rest contented with the scanty praise of the few for the present, and trust with confidence to posterity. He who writes well, leaves an unperishing memorial behind him; the partial and veering gales of favour, though silent, perhaps for one century, are sure to rise in gusts in the next. Truth, however tardy, is infallibly progressive; and those honours which through envy or accident, are with-held in one age, are repaid with interest, by taste and gratitude in another.
Merit is its own preservative against the depredations of time; and thus we see the poetry of G. Fletcher, though shrouded by depression, yet insensible, as it were, to the lapse of years, surmounting, at last, every impediment, and reclaiming those honours which it gained him during his life.
His Christ's Victory and Triumph, a poem rich and picturesque in the high degree, deserves to be better known. It is on a much happier subject than that of his brother, and merits the attention of the readers of poetry, for energy of style, sublimity of sentiment, opulence of description, and harmony of numbers. Such fertility of fancy, such exuberance of imagery, such felicity of diction, and such facility of expression, rival every thing of the kind in the poetry of his age. The Birth, Temptation, Passion, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension of our Saviour, furnish in succession, subjects of illustration and description equally forcible and fascinating. To compare the Christ's Victory and Triumph of G. Fletcher with the Paradise Regained of Milton, and the Calvary of Cumberland, would perhaps be too severe a trial; but they have many points of resemblance; and it is no small honour to G. Fletcher to have furnished hints to Milton.
In enumerating the signs that portended Christ's nativity, he has a similar idea to that of Milton on the same occasion.
The angels caro'd loud their songs of praise;
The cursed oracles were stricken dumb.
In Milton's Hymn on the Nativity, among other portents which are sublimely enumerated, this of the oracles having been all struck dumb, is not the most inconsiderable. Milton is likewise indebted to Christ's Victory for some particulars in his description of our Saviour in the wilderness, in Paradise Regained.
Our Saviour is thus described in the wilderness by G. Fletcher.
Seemed that the man had them devoured all,
Whom to devour the beasts did make pretence,
But him their salvage thirst did naught appall,
Though weapons none he had for his defence.
What arms for innocence, but innocence?
For when they saw their Lord's bright cognisance
Shine in his face, soon did they disadvance,
And some unto him kneel, and dome about him dance.
Down fell the lordly lion's angry mood,
And he himself fell down in congies low,
Bidding him welcome to his wasteful wood,
Sometimes he kist the grass where he did go,
And as to wash his feet he well did know,
With fawning tongue he lickt away the dust,
And every one would nearest to him thrust,
And every one, with new, forgot his former lust.
Unmindful of himself to mind his Lord;
The lamb stood gazing by the tiger's side,
As though between them they had made accord;
And on the lion's back the goat did ride,
Forgetful of the roughness of the hide;
If he stood still, their eyes upon him baited,
If walkt, they all in order on him waited,
And when he slept, they as his watch themselves conceited.
After circumstantially describing the person of Christ, Satan is thus introduced disguised.
At length an aged sire far off he saw
Come slowly footing, every step he guest;
One of his feet he from the grave did draw,
Three legs he had, the wooden was the best,
And all the way he went, he ever blest
With benedicities and prayers store,
But the bad ground was blessed ne'er the more.
And all his head with snow of age was waxen hoar;
A good old hermit he might seem to be,
That for devotion had the world forsaken
And now was travelling some saint to see,
Since to his beads he had himself betaken,
When all his former sins he might awaken,
And them might wash away with dropping brine,
And alms and fasts, and churches discipline,
And dead, might rest his bones under the holy shrine.
But when he nearer came, he lowted low,
With prone obeysance, and with curtsie kind,
That at his feet his head he seemed to throw,
What needs him now another saint to find, &c. &c.
Thus he exclaims with the most artful simplicity.
Ah! mote my humble cell so blessed be,
As heaven to welcome in his lowly roof,
And be the temple of thy deity!
Lo here my cottage worships thee aloof,
That under ground hath hid his head in proof.
It doth adore thee with the ceiling low,
Here honey, milk, and chesnuts wild do grow,
The boughs a bed of leaves upon thee shall bestow.
Ch. Vict. p. 2, &c.
Compare Parad. Reg. 295, &c. Where our Saviour passed forty days in the wilderness.
Nor tasted human food, nor hunger felt,
Till those days ended, hunger'd then at last
Among wild beasts; they at his sight grew mild,
Nor sleeping him nor waking harm'd; his walk
The fiery serpent shunn'd, and noxious worms;
The lion and fierce tiger glar'd aloof.
But now an aged man in rural weeds
Following, as seem'd in quest of some stray ewe,
Or wither'd sticks to gather, which might serve
Against a winter's day, when winds blow keen,
To warn him wet return'd from field at eve,
He saw approach, who first with curious eye
Perus'd him; then with words thus utter'd, spake:
How far the following stanzas, which are but a continuation of what is before quoted, might have influenced Milton in his Comus, is left to the reader to determine. He is describing the Bower of Vain Delight to which our Saviour is introduced by Satan.
And all about embayed in soft sleep,
A herd of charm'd beasts a-ground were spread,
Which the fair witch in golden chains did keep,
And them in willing bondage fettered;
Once men they liv'd, but now the men were dead,
And turn'd to beasts; so fabled Homer old
That Circe with her potion charm'd in gold,
Us'd many souls in beastly bodies to immould.
Through this false Eden to his Leman's bower
(Whom thousands souls devoutly idolize)
Our first destroyer led our Saviour,
There in the lower room, in solemn wise
They danc'd around, and pour'd their sacrifice
To plump Lyaeus, and among the rest,
The jolly priest in ivy garlands drest,
Chaunted wild orgials, in honour of the feast.
Others within their arbours swilling sat
(For all the room about was aboured),
With laughing Bacchus, that was grown so fat
That stand he could not, but was carried,
And every evening freshly watered;
To quench his fiery cheeks, and all about
Small cocks broke through the wall, and sallied out
Flaggons of wine, to set on fire that spuing rout.
This their inhuman souls esteemed their wealths
To crown the bouzing can from day to night,
And sick to drink themselves with drinking healths,
Some vomiting, all drunken with delight.
Hence to a loft, carv'd all in ivory white
They came, where whiter ladies naked went
Melted in pleasure and soft languishment,
And sunk on beds of roses amorous glances sent.
After a description of Avarice and Ambition, we are presented with the throne of Panglory, who is thus describ'd:
A silver wand the Sorceress did sway,
And for a crown of gold his hair she wore,
Only a garland of rose-buds did play
About her locks, and in her hand she bore
A hollow globe of glass, that long before
She full of emptiness had bladdered,
And all the world therein depictured.
Whose colours, like the rainbow, ever vanished.
Thus the spirit in Milton, in giving directions to the brother, speaking of the Haemony which he gives him as an antidote to the charms of Comus, says,
—if you have this about you,
(As I will give you when we go) you may
Boldly assault the necromancer's hall,
Where if he be, with dauntless hardihood
And brandish'd blade, rush on him, break his glass,
And shed the luscious liquor on the ground,
But seize his wand.
Panglory sings a song of allurement, the subject of which is love, "obtruding false rules, prankt in reason's garb," and endeavours to captivate our Saviour in the same manner as Comus does the lady. The song is remarkable for its elegance. The effect of it on our Saviour is as follows:
Thus sought the dire enchantress in his mind,
Her guileful bait to have embosomed;
But he her charms dispersed into wind,
And her of insolence admonished,
And all her optic glasses shattered.
Milton uses the very expression "shattered," 799, Comus.
The word "imparadised," used by Milton, P. Lost, B. 4. p. 506, and supposed to have been coined by him, occurs in Christ's Triumph, p. 2. St. 43.
As in his burning throne he sits imparadis'd.
The word seems to have been not uncommon with other of our older poets; for it occurs twice in Drayton, once in Daniel, and once in P. Fletcher.
Thou sitt'st imparadis'd, and chaunt'st eternal lays.
P. 1st. C. I. St. 14.
His taste for allegory, he probably derived from Spenser, together with the mellifluous yet artless flow of his numbers. His description of the bower of Vain Delight, the garden of Panglory, the cave of Despair, and the Idea Beatifical, are eminently sublime and beautiful. The two first may be supposed to have been suggested by Spenser's Bower of Bliss, F. Queen B. II. Can. 12. On such ideal Paradises, the best poets in almost all ages and nations have lavished their descriptive powers. Homer has his garden of Alcinuous; Virgil, his Elysium; Ariosto, his Island of Alcina; Tasso, his garden of Armida. The list might be extended by the Paradise of Taste [by Alexander Thomson (1796)], a beautiful allegorical poem, which the writer of these biographical prefaces has the satisfaction to announce, as the production of a friend, whose poetry is among the least of his many attainments.
His poetry abounds in nervous and picturesque expressions, as well as descriptions, though the diction is sometimes deficient in dignity and simplicity. His allegorical figures are well invented, though not always well marked out. Amidst the profusion of ornaments with which they are embellished, we are sometimes at a loss to discover for whom they are designed. There are an opulence of allusion, and a mixture of mythologies in the imagery, which display more range of fancy, than clearness of selection. His figures of Mercy, Justice, Repentance, Faith, Presumption, Avarice, and Ambition, are, however, delineated with suitable attributes, and display an individual and exclusive character. In his description of Justice, he has, with great sublimity, attributed to her the power of interpreting the silence of thought.
—for she each wish could find
Within the solid heart; and with her ears
The silence of the thought, loud speaking hears.
Ch. Vict. p. 1. St. 10.
To accumulate yet more instances of similar propriety of selection would be neither difficult nor unpleasing;
Sed fugit interea, fugit irreparabile tempus,
Singula dum capti circumvectamur amore.
Virg. Geor. 3. v. 284.
The poetry of G. Fletcher is characterized by sublimity of sublimity, animation, and splendor, with an unfortunate intermixture of affectation, incongruity, and extravagance: it has many beauties and many conceits; but, after making every deduction which criticism requires, his Christ's Victory and Triumph is a performance of which both poetry and religion may justly boast; and the bringing it forward to the attention of the public, may be the means of doing justice to an elegant writer, who has never yet received the honours he deserves.