George Wither

Edmund Gosse, "A Poet in Prison" in Gossip in a Library (1891) 41-52.

If ever a man needed resuscitation in our antiquarian times it was George Wither. When most of the Jacobean poets sank into comfortable oblivion, which merely meant being laid with a piece of camphor in cotton-wool to keep fresh for us, Wither had the misfortune to be recollected. He became a byword of contempt, and the Age of Anne persistently called him Withers, a name, I believe, only possessed really by one distinguished person, Cleopatra Skewton's pageboy. Swift, in The Battle of the Books, brings in this poet as the meanest common trooper that he can mention in his modern army. Pope speaks of him with the utmost freedom as "wretched Withers." It is true that he lived too long and wrote too much — a great deal too much. Mr. Hazlitt gives the titles of more than one hundred of his publications, and some of them are wonderfully unattractive. I should not like to be shut up on a rainy day with his Salt upon Salt, which seems to have lost its savour, nor do I yearn to blow upon his Tuba Pacifica, although it was "disposed of rather for love than money." The truth is that good George Wither lost his poetry early, was an upright, honest, and patriotic man who unhappily developed into a scold, and got into the bad habit of pouring out "precautions," "cautional expressions," "prophetick phrensies," "epistles at random," "personal contributions to the national humiliation," "passages," "raptures," and "allarums," until he really became the greatest bore in Christendom. It was Charles Lamb who swept away this whole tedious structure of Wither's later writings and showed us what a lovely poet he was in his youth.

When the book before us was printed, George Wither was aged twenty-seven. He had just stepped gingerly out of the Marshalsea Prison, and his poems reveal an amusing mixture of protest against having been put there at all and deprecation of being put there again. Let no one waste the tear of sensibility over that shell of the Marshalsea Prison, which still, I believe, exists. The family of the Dorrits languished in quite another place from the original Marshalsea of Wither's time, although that also lay across the water in Southwark. It is said that the prison was used to confine persons in who had spoken lewdly of dignitaries about the Court. Wither, as we shall see, makes a great parade of telling us why he was imprisoned but his language is obscure. Perhaps he was afraid to be explicit. In 1613 he had published a little volume of satires, called Abuses stript and whipt. This had been very popular, running into six or seven editions within a short time, and some one in office, no doubt, had fitted on the fool's cap. Five years later the poor poet would have had a chance of being shipped straight off to Virginia, as a "debauched person;" as it was, the Marshalsea seems to have been tolerably unpleasant. We gather, however, that he enjoyed some alleviations. He could say, like Leigh Hunt, "the visits of my friends were the bright side of my captivity; I read verses without end, and wrote almost as many." The poems we have before us were written in the Marshalsea. The book itself is very tiny and pretty, with a sort of leafy trellis-work at the top and bottom of every page, almost suggesting a little posy of wild-flowers thrown through the iron bars of the poet's cage, and pressed between the pages of his manuscript. Nor is there any book of Wither's which breathes more deeply of the perfume of the fields than this which was written in the noisome seclusion of the Marshalsea.

Although the title-page assures us that these "eglogues" were written during the author's imprisonment, we may have a suspicion that the first three were composed just after his release. They are very distinct from the rest in form and character. To understand them we must remember that in 1614, just before the imprisonment, Wither had taken a share with his bosom friend, William Browne, of the Inner Temple, in bringing out a little volume of pastorals, called The Shepherd's Pipe. Browne, a poet who deserves well of all Devonshire men, was two years younger than Wither, and had just begun to come before the public as the author of that charming, lazy, Virgilian poem of Britannia's Pastorals. There was something of Keats in Browne, an artist who let the world pass him by; something of Shelley in Wither, a prophet who longed to set his seal on human progress. In the Shepherd's Pipe Willy (William Browne) and Roget (Geo-t-r) had been the interlocutors, and Christopher Brooke, another rhyming friend, had written an eclogue under the name of Cutty. These personages reappear in The Shepherd's Hunting, and give us a glimpse of pleasant personal relations. In the first "eglogue," Willy comes to the Marshalsea one afternoon to condole with Roget, but finds him very cheerful. The prisoner poet assures his friend that

This barren place yields somewhat to relieve,
For I have found sufficient to content me,
And wore true bliss than ever freedom lent me;

and Willy goes away, when it is growing dark, rejoiced to find that the cage doth some birds good." Next morning he returns and brings Cutty, or Cuddy, with him, for Cuddy has news to tell the prisoner, that all England is taking an interest in him, and that his adversity has made him much more popular than he was before. But Willy and Cuddy are extremely anxious to know what it was that caused Roget's imprisonment, and at last he agrees to tell them. Hitherto the poem has been written in ottava rima, a form which is sufficiently uncommon in our early seventeenth-century poetry to demand special notice in this case. In a prose postscript to this book Wither tells us that the title, The Shepherd's Hunting, which he seems to feel needs explanation, is due to the stationer, or, as we should say now, to the publisher. But perhaps this was an after-thought, for in the account he gives to Willy and Cuddy he certainly suggests the title himself. He represents himself as the shepherd given up to the delights of hunting the human passions through the soul; the simile seems a little confused, because he represents these qualities not as the quarry, but as the hounds, and so the story of Actaeon is reversed; instead of the hounds pursuing their master, the master hunts his dogs. At all events, the result is that he "dips his staff in blood, and onwards leads his thunder to the wood," where he is ignominiously captured by his Majesty's gamekeeper. But the allegory hardly runs upon all-fours.

The next "eglogue" represents again another visit to the prisoner, and this time Willy and Cuddy bring Alexis with them; perhaps Alexis is John Davies, of Hereford, another contributor to The Shepherd's Pipe. Roget starts his allegory again, in the same mild, satiric manner he had adopted, to his hurt, in Abuses stript and whipt. Wither becomes quite delightful again, when cheerfulness breaks through this satirical philosophy, and when he tells us:

Put though that all the world's delight forsake me,
I have a Muse, and she shall music make me;
Whose aery notes, in spite of closest cages,
Shall give content to me and after ages.

They all felt certain of immortality, these cheerful poets of Elizabeth and James, and Prince Posterity has seen proper to admit the claim in more instances than might well have been expected.

But the delightful part of The Shepherd's Hunting has yet to come. With the fourth "eglogue" the caged bird begins to sing like a lark at Heaven's gate, and it is the prisoned man — who ought to be in doleful dumps — that rallies his free friend Browne on his low spirits. It is time, he says, to be merry:

Coridon, with his bold rout,
Hath already been about,
For the elder shepherds' dole,
And fetched in the summer pole;
Whilst the rest have built a bower
To defend them from a shower,
Sealed so close, with boughs all green,
Titan cannot pry between;
Now the dairy-wenches dream
Of their strawberries and cream,
And each doth heserlf advence,
To be taken in to dance.

What summer thoughts are these to come from a pale prisoner in the hot and putrid Marshalsea! They are either symptoms of acute nostalgia, or proofs of a cheerfulness that lifts their author above a mortal pitch. But Willy declines to join the Lady of the May at her high junketings; he also has troubles, and prefers to whisper them through Roget's iron bars. There are those who "my Music do contemn," who will none of the poetry of Master William Browne of the Inner Temple. It is useless for him to wrestle with brown shepherds for the

Cups of turned maple-root,
Whereupon the skilful man
Hath engraved the Loves of Pan,

or contend for the "fine napkin wrought with blue," if those base clowns called critics are busy with his detraction. But Roget instructs him that Verse is its own high reward, that the songs of a true poet will naturally arise like the moon out of and beyond all racks of envious cloud, and that the last thing he should do is to despair. He rises to his own greatest and best work in this encouragement of a brother-poet, and no one who reads such noble verses as these dare question Wither's claim to a "fauteuil" in the Academy of Parnassus:

If thy Verse do bravely tower
As she makes wing, she gets power,
Yet the higher she doth soar,
She's affronted still the more;
Till she to the high'st hath past,
Then she rests with Fame at last.
Let nought therefore thee affright,
But make forward in thy flight;
For if I could match thy rhyme
To the very stars I'd climb,
There begin again, and fly
Till I reached Eternity.

In the fifth "eglogue" Roget and Alexis compare notes about their early happiness in phrases of an odd commixture. The pastoral character of the poetry has to be carried out, and so we read of how Roget on a great occasion played a match at football, "having scarce twenty Satyrs on his side," against some of "the best tried Ruffians in the land." Great Pan presided at that match by the banks of Thames, and though the satyrs and their laureate leader were worsted, the moral victory, as people call it, remained with the latter. All this is an allegory and indeed we walk in the very shadow of innuendo all through The Shepherd's Hunting.

The moral of the whole thing is that eternal ditty of tuneful youth: All for Verse and the World well lost. The enemy is around them on all sides, jailers of the Marshalsea and envious critics, the evil shepherds that preside over grates of steel and noisome beds of straw, but Youth has its mocking answer to all these:

Let them disdain and fret till they are weary!
We in ourselves have that shall make us merry;
Which he that wants and had the power to know it,
Would give his life that he might die a poet.

It was no small thing to be suffering for Apollo's sake in 1614. Shakespeare might hear of it at Stratford, and talk of the prisoner as he strolled with some friend on the banks of Avon. A greater than Shakespeare — as most men thought in those days — Ben Jonson himself, might talk the matter over "at those lyric feasts, Made at the Sun, The Dog, the triple Tun"; for had not he himself languished in a worse dungeon and under a heavier charge than Wither? To be seven-and-twenty, to be in trouble with the Government about one's verses, and to have other young poets, in a ferment of enthusiasm, clinging like swallows to the prison-bars — how delicious a torment! And to know that it will soon be over, and that the sweet, pure meadows lie just outside the reek of Southwark, that summer lingers still and that shepherds pipe and play, that Fame is sitting by her cheerful fountain with a garland for the weary head, and that lasses, "who more excell Than the sweet-voic'd Philomel," are ready to cluster round the interesting captive, and lead him away in daisy-chains — what could be more consolatory! And we close the little dainty volume, with its delicate perfume of friendship and poetry and hope.