Lo, this is he whose infant muse began
To brave the world before years styled him man!
Though praise he slight, and scorns to make his rhymes
Beg favours or opinion of the times,
Yet few by good men have been more approved,
None so unseen, so generally loved.
These verses are engraved under a portrait of the poet, bearing this circumscription: "G. W. An. aetatis suae 21. 1611. I grow and wither both together." This very rare print has been re-engraved for the British Bibliographer, in which work more information has been collected concerning George Wither and his numerous publications than has any where else been brought together. The print represents him as a youth not less ambitious in his attire than in his poetical aspirations; but the course of his perturbed life, however unfavourable it may have been in some respects to his moral and intellectual nature, soon weaned him from the pomps and vanities of the world.
George Wither was born at Bentworth, near Alton, in Hampshire, June 11. 1588. His father, George Wither, of Bentworth, was the first son by a second marriage of Wither of Manydowne, at which seat the representative of the family still resides. His first education he received under John Greaves of Colemore, a schoolmaster celebrated in his day. About 1604, he was sent to Magdalen College, Oxford; but almost as soon as he had begun to profit by the studies of the place, some low minded advisers persuaded his father to put him to a mechanic trade, because, they pretended, nothing was to be got by learning. His spirit rose against this destination; there appeared some hope that he might make his way at court; to London, therefore, he went, entered himself at Lincoln's Inn, and soon became known as a poet. In 1613, he published some satires, entitled Abuses Stript and Whipt, and though the satire was general (for there is not a personal allusion throughout), and the poems contain not a libellous line, nor an unseemly expression, nor an immoral thought, general satire was then so little tolerated, that he was committed to the Marshalsea for the publication. There he wrote The Shepheards Hunting, which is the most poetical of his writings; and from thence he was released through the interference of the Princess Elizabeth, soon afterwards (to her misfortune) queen of Bohemia. From this time he led a most perturbed and restless life. Notwithstanding the best intentions, and the most disinterested conduct, he was regarded as a troublesome and dangerous person: a most obstinate and fearless one he certainly was, Lilburne himself was not more intrepid or untractable. He was often in prison, and always in trouble. During the plague of 1627 he remained in London to observe and record its progress, exposing himself to infection, in the confident persuasion that it was his appointed duty to be at his post, and from thence warn the nation us a faithful watchman. At this time he wrote Britain's Remembrancer, the longest and most valuable of all his writings, and as he could not obtain a license to print it (though the poem is in all moral and political points unexceptionable), he printed it with his own hands.
When the civil war began he sold his estate, and with the purchase-money raised a troop of horse for the parliament, and was obnoxious enough in this cause to be in some danger of being hanged when he was taken prisoner. The rebellion did not leave him so uncorrupt as it had found him: for he was justice of peace in quorum under the long parliament for the three counties of Hampshire, Surrey and Essex, and was Oliver's major-general for Surrey, in which offices, like his fellow-patriots, he took care to remunerate himself. There exists a pamphlet of his, which was presented to the members of the house of commons at their door, wherein he calls "for the sequestration of the property of all delinquents, towards the raising of supplies for disabling our enemies, and for the ease and encouragement of our friends," — ourselves also being mentally included, and more than hinted at, in this proposal. Under the parliament be was sometimes in difficulties and in confinement, little regarding any laws but what seemed good in his own eyes, and declaring that he was neither for nor against the Presbyterians, Scots, English, kings, parliament; members, or people, more or less, than according as he in his judgment and conscience thought it might conduce to the wrong or right way, from or toward the truth of God, and the peace of the kingdom.
He appears to have been more prosperous and less of a malcontent under the protectorate than in any other part of his life: and in a poem which he addressed to Cromwell, there is honest advice enough to exculpate him from any charge of adulation. From the imputation of becoming a time-server at last, he cannot be so fairly cleared; for in one publication he advised Monck to take upon himself the government of the republic, and in another congratulated Charles upon his restoration. If he kind not dealt in church-lands, and in delinquents' estates, this readiness to acquiesce in any revolution might justly be ascribed to that desire of rest which age brings with it, and to that hopelessness of any other good from any change which revolutionists usually learn at last, and which prepares the way for usurpations or restorations. On this point his own verses explain his views:—
My chief well-being totally consists
With that wind which blows when and where it lists:
And 'twill not mar my prime contentment whether
We shall have parliaments, kings, both, or neither:
Whether or no the old lords or the new,
All the secluded members, none or few,
Shall to this parliament admitted be;
Or to the next, and all men then be free
To choose or to be chose: whether this sect
Or that, the supreme power will best respect.
So justice henceforth over us may reign,
And truth may her due freedom still retain,
I shall be pleased, and my endeavour bend
To suffer what I know not how to mend.
Notwithstanding this acquiescent mood, Wither continued to write as boldly, and in the same tone of reprehension, under an avowed persuasion that he was appointed to be the national monitor; and that though there was in all his works "somewhat savouring of a natural spirit," there was also "somewhat dictated by a better spirit than his own." He complained loudly of the injustice done him in dispossessing him of delinquents' lands, which he had purchased to the amount of £300 a year, and of prelates' lands, which were nearly twice that value. In these complaints there appears a strong sense general right, an application of it to his own particular case, and an apparent forgetfulness of it when delinquents and prelates were to be benefited by it. One of these papers was voted a libel by the house of commons; and how, as committed first to Newgate, afterwards to the Tower, where, more suo, he continued to write, and to defy the world. This praise is due to him, that no man ever bore more bravely or more philosophically the misfortunes which he brought upon himself.
It does not appear when he was released; but 1665 he was residing in his house in the Savoy, about 1677 he died in peace, leaving, of six children, only one daughter to survive him. The year of marriage is not known, but the lady whom he married was Elizabeth Emerson, of South Lambeth, an accomplished and excellent person, to whose worth he bears frequent and affectionate testimony.
Wither's works will never be collected, because they are exceedingly numerous, and contain a very large proportion of what is comparatively worthless. But the better parts are numerous, and well deserve to be brought together in a much more copious selection than has yet been made, for they abound in curious, as well as interesting matter, and strains of sounder or manlier morality are not to be found in any of the English poets.