1810 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Phineas Fletcher

Alexander Chalmers, "Life of Giles and Phineas Fletcher" in Works of the English Poets (1810) 6:51-54.



As a few dates are all that are now recoverable of the personal character of these two poets, and as there is a strong resemblance in the genius of their poetry, it seems unnecessary to make a separate article of each.

Their father, Giles Fletcher, L.L.D. was a native of Kent, educated at Eton, and in 1565 elected scholar of King's College, Cambridge, where in 1569 he took the degree of bachelor of arts, master of arts in 1573, and doctor of laws in 1581. According to Anthony Wood he became an excellent poet; but he is better known for his skill in political negociation, which induced queen Elizabeth to employ him as her commissioner into Scotland, Germany, and the Low Countries. In 1588, the memorable year of the Armada, he was sent to Muscovy on affairs respecting the English trade with Russia, and after overcoming the difficulties started by a barbarous court and a capricious Czar, he concluded a treaty of commerce highly advantageous to the interests of his countrymen.

Soon after his return, he was made secretary to the city of London, and one of the masters of the Court of Requests. In 1597 he was constituted treasurer of St. Paul's, London. Before this he had drawn up the result of his observations, when in Russia, respecting the government, laws, and manners of that country. But as this work contained facts too plain and disreputable to a power with which a friendly treaty had just been concluded, the publication was suppressed for the present. It was, however, reprinted at a considerably distant period (1643), and afterwards incorporated in Hakluyt's voyages. He wrote also a Discourse concerning the Tartars, the object of which was to prove that they are the Israelites, or Ten Tribes, which being captivated by Salmanasser, were transplanted into Media. This opinion was afterwards adopted by Whiston, who printed the discourse in the first volume of his curious Memoirs.

Dr. Fletcher died in the parish of St. Catherine Colman, Fenchurch-street, and was probably buried in that church.

He left two sons, Giles and Phineas. The eldest, Giles, born, according to Mr. Ellis's conjecture, in 1588, was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he took the degree of bachelor of divinity, and died at his living of Alderton, in Suffolk, in 1623. His widow married afterwards the rev. — Ramsay, minister of Rougham, in Norfolk. Winstanley and Jacob, who in this case have robbed one another, instead of better authorities, divide the two brothers into three, and assign Giles's poem of Christ's Victory to two authors.

Phineas was educated at Eton, and admitted a scholar of King's college, Cambridge, in 1600, where, in 1604, he took his bachelor's degree and his master's in 1608. After going into the church, he was presented, in 1621, to the living of Hilgay, in Norfolk, by Sir Henry Willoughby, bart. and according to Blomefield, the historian of Norfolk, he held this living twenty-nine years. Mr. Ellis conjectures that he was born in 1584, and died about 1650.

Besides the poems now reprinted, he was the author of a dramatic piece, entitled Sicelides, which was performed at King's College, Cambridge, and printed in 1631. A manuscript copy is in the British Museum. The editor of the Biographia Dramatica informs us that "it was intended originally to be performed before king James the First, on the thirteenth of March, 1614; but his majesty leaving the university sooner, it was not then represented. The serious parts of it are mostly written in rhyme, with choruses between the acts. Some of the incidents aye borrowed from Ovid, and some from the Orlando Furioso."

He published also, at Cambridge, in 1632, some account of the lives of the founders and other learned men of that university, under the title of De Literatis antiquae Britanniae, praesertim qui doctrina claruerunt, quique collegia Cantabrigiae fundarunt.

Such are the very scanty notices which we have been able to collect respecting these learned, ingenious, and amiable brothers; but we are now arrived at that period of national confusion which left neither leisure nor inclination to study polite literature, or reward the sons of genius.

The only production we have of Giles Fletcher is entitled Christ's Victory and Triumph in Heaven and Earth over and after Death, Cambridge 4to. 1610, in four parts, and written in stanzas of eight lines. It was reprinted in 1632, again in 1640, and in 1783, along with Phineas Fletcher's Purple Island: but many unwarrantable liberties have been taken in modernizing the language of this last edition. Mr. Headley, who has bestowed more attention than any modern critic on the works of the Fletchers, pronounces the Christ's Victory to be a rich and picturesque poem, and on a much happier subject than the Purple Island, yet unenlivened by personification. He has also very ingeniously pointed out some resemblances which prove that Milton owed considerable obligations to the Fletchers.

The works of Phineas Fletcher, including the Purple Island, or the Isle of Man, the Piscatory Eclogues and Miscellanies, were published at Cambridge in 1633, 4to. The only part that has been correctly reprinted is the Piscatory Eclogues, published at Edinburgh in 1771, by an anonymous editor, the most of whose judicious notes, preface &c. are here retained.

There are few of the old poets whom Mr. Headley seems more anxious to revive than Phineas Fletcher and he has examined his claims to lasting fame with much acuteness, yet perhaps not without somewhat of that peculiar prejudice which seems to pervade many of the critical essays of this truly ingenious and amiable young man. Having at a very early period of life commenced the perusal of the ancient English poets, his enthusiasm carried him back to their times, their habits and their language. From pardoning their quaintnesses, he proceeded to admire them, and has in some instances placed among the most striking proofs or invention, many of those antitheses and conceits which modern refinement does not easily tolerate. Still his taste and judgment are so generally predominant, that it would be presumption in the present editor, or perhaps in one of superior authority, to substitute any remarks of his own in room of the following animated and elegant character of Fletcher's poetry.

"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 author, 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 errour in judgment: for which, however, ample amends is made in what follows. Nor is Fletcher wholly undeserving 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 Ins figures, in many instances, are too arbitrary and fantastic in their habiliments, often disproportioned and overdone, sometimes lost in a superfluity of glaring 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 the 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 entitled to a very high rank among our old English classics. — 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. 1669."

That Mr. Headley is not blind to the defects of his favourite will farther appear from his remarks on Orpheus and Euridice in the Purple Island.

"These lines of Fletcher are a paraphrase, or rather translation from Boethius. The whole description is forcible: some of the circumstances perhaps are heightened too much: but it is the fault of this writer to indulge himself in every aggravation that poetry allows, and to stretch his prerogative of 'quidlibet audendi' to the utmost."

In the supplement to his second volume, Mr. Headley has demonstrated at considerable length how much Fletcher owed to Spenser, and Milton to Fletcher. For this he has offered the apology due to the high characters of those poets, and although we have been accustomed to see such researches carried too far, yet it must be owned that there is a certain degree to which they must be carried before the praise of invention can be justly bestowed. How far poets may borrow from one another without injury to their fame, is a question yet undetermined.

After, however, every deduction of this kind that can be made, the Fletchers will still remain in possession of a degree of invention, imagination, spirit and sublimity, which we seldom meet with among the poets of the seventeenth century before we arrive at Milton.