PHINEAS, and not GILES FLETCHER as usually supposed — was the first-born of his Family; and hence such new facts and details as I have had the good fortune to discover (and recover) concerning the FLETCHERS, find most fitting place in the Memoir of him prefixed to our collection of his Poems.
The father of our Poets was GILES FLETCHER, LL.D., brother of RICHARD FLETCHER, who died Bishop of London. He was a man who did valorous and varied service to his Country: his visit to THEODORE IVANOWICH, czar of Russia, and his book about it, being the most notable. Dr. GILES FLETCHER was son of good RICHARD FLETCHER, the first REFORMATION pastor of CRANBROOK in Kent, and in his somewhat stormy and wandering life, he is found flitting to and fro between the paternal Vicarage and London. PHINEAS was born — as elsewhere we prove — in CRANBROOK; but Giles was born in London by the testimony of THOMAS FULLER in his Worthies. His informant was the Rev. JOHN RAMSEY of Rougham in Norfolk who married the widow of our Poet. It is to be regretted that his birth-date was not given by FULLER. CHALMERS' conjecture of 1588 seems improbable, as in the present volume will be found his Canto upon the death of Elizabeth, originally published in 1603, that is, in such case, when he was in his 14th or 15th year. I do not forget that at the same age, if not younger, Milton put forth "the shooting of the infant oak which in later times was to overshadow the forest" — as Dr. SYMM0NS with unwonted vivacity describes his translations from the Psalms. But while these Psalms owe perhaps their choicest epithets and most vivid touches to Sylvester ('du-Bartas') the Canto is strictly original and altogether too prodigious a production for a mere youth. The reader can turn to the Canto and judge for himself.
Our first new fact — and a valuable one — we are able to add here viz: that his mother's name was JOAN SHEAFE of CRANBROOK, Kent, daughter of one of the wealthy clothiers of the place. The Register shews that the marriage of this "fair lady" with GILES FLETCHER Senr., took place on 16th January, 1580 (o.s.) that is 1581.
It is to be noted that Anthony a-Wood gives a place of honour to the son of Thomas Sheafe of Cranbrook, viz: Dr. Thomas Sheafe, who lies in the Chapel of St. George's, Windsor. In all probability this dignitary was brother of Joan, mother of our two poets.
FULLER further states that at an early age he was sent to Westminster School, and that he was elected from it to Trinity College, Cambridge. On this WILLM0TT — than whom few have been more painstaking, as none had keener insight, or finer poetic sympathies, or a more unerring taste — remarks:—
"This is the relation of Fuller; but I am unable to reconcile it with the declaration of GILES FLETCHER himself. In the dedication of Christ's Victorie to Dr. NEVILLE, he speaks, with all the ardour of a young and noble heart, of the kindness he had experienced from that excellent man. He mentions his having reached down 'as it were out of heaven, a benefit of that nature and price, than which he could wish none (only heaven itself excepted) either more fruitful and contenting for the time that is now present, or more comfortable and encouraging for the time that is already past, or more hopeful and promising for the time that is yet to come.' And further on, he expressly states that he was placed in Trinity College by Dr. Neville's 'only favour, most freely, without either any means from others, or any desert in himself.' This praise could not have been consistent with truth, if Fletcher had obtained his election from Westminster School; and a careful examination of the Register-Book enables me to add that he was not upon the Foundation."
This is decisive; and yet no one will bear hard on dear FULLER, with such a mass of material to assort. I can testify, after following him in many recondite and special lines of inquiry, that his general accuracy is not less amazing than his immense industry.
The patronage of Dr. NEVILLE must have been well-timed; for through the paternal responsibilities incurred as executor of his Bishop-brother, the Family were enduring at the period, painful hardships as an extant Letter — elsewhere to be used — gives pathetic evidence. It is probable that the Fletchers of Liversedge, Yorkshire, held places of trust in the service of the lordly house of the Nevilles there.
That the Canto of young Master GILES found so prominent a place in so prominent a volume as Sorrowe's Joy: wherein the "wisest Fool" (King JAMES) was welcomed by nearly all the University singers, including PHINEAS FLETCHER — would seem to argue premature recognition. And yet very slender are the records of him even in his own College-renowned Trinity. Cooper's ATHENAE CANTABRIGIENSES strangely fails us altogether, though already covering the years of GILES' attendance. Wood's ATHENAE designates him "batchelour of divinity of Trinity College," and adds with rare feeling for him "equally beloved of the muses and graces." Does the mention of the Graces point to his personal beauty? If so — it recalls the "comeliness" and noble presence of his uncle (Bishop FLETCHER) that so "took" Elizabeth.
We are enabled to add to his TRINITY dates. In the Scholars' Admission Book is the following entry in his own handwriting, under April 12th, 1606. "Aegidius Fletcherus, Discipulus juratus." His name also occurs among the B.A. scholars in the Senior Bursar's Book for 1606. He is there shewn to have received two quarterly payments of 3s. 4d. The book for 1605 is missing, as is that for 1607; but in 1608 his name appears as a B.A. scholar, and he receives four quarterly payments of 3s. 4d. In 1614-5, in the Senior Bursar's Book, are these two entries: Item, Paid to Mr. Fletcher for a quarter's allowance, at 3s. 4d. the weeke from St. Ladie day to Midsomer for Mr. Gardiner-xliijs. iiijd.: 1615. Item, Spent in earring [sic] of letters gratulatory to the King and Prince to Grenwiche by my selfe and Mr. Fletcher, man and horse, days, vl. xviijs.: 1617. Finally, in the Conclusion Book is this: January 24th.: Mr. Fletcher and Mr. Kinaston added to Catechise to those already appointed. Such is all of Register-memorial left; slight but all new facts.
There can be no doubt that from 1603 of the Canto, to 1617, he was laying up those stores of various learning and of scholastic Divinity, for which he was afterwards so remarkable.
In 1610, he published the poem — Christ's Victorie — on which his Fame will rest immovably "while there is any praise" [author's note: Southey's British Poets: Chaucer to Jonson, p. 807]. A second edition was not issued until 1632. It is sufficiently clear that no more than the immortal Folio of 1623, Paradise Lost, or Silex Scintillans, was this consummate poem popular; while from his brother's Lines it is evident that "malicious tongues" depreciated it; and that otherwise he was not sufficiently estimated. We must here read the loving fraternal Lines. Upon my brother Mr. G. F. his book entituled Christ's Victorie and Triumph.
Fond lads, that spend so fast your posting time,
(Too posting time, that spends your time as fast)
To chant light toyes, or frame some wantom rhyme,
Where idle boyes may glut their lustfull taste;
Or else with praise to clothe some fleshly slime
With virgin roses and fair lilies chaste;
While itching blouds and youthfull cares adore it;
But wiser men, and once yourselves, will most ahhorre it.
But thou (most neare, most deare) in this of thine
Hast prov'd the Muses not to Venus bound;
Such as thy matter, such thy Muse, divine;
Or thou such grace with Mercie's self hast found,
That she herself deignes in thy leaves to shine;
Or stoll'n from heav'n, thou brought'st this verse to ground,
Which frights the nummed soul with fearfull thunder,
And soon with honeyed dews thawes it 'twixt joy and wonder.
Then do not thou malicious tongues esteem;
(The glasse, through which an envious eye doth gaze,
Can eas'ly make a mole-hill mountain seem)
His praise dispraises, his dispraises praise;
Enough, if best men best thy labours deem,
And to the highest pitch thy merit raise;
While all the Muses to thy song decree
Victorious Triumph, triumphant Victorie.
That Christ's Victorie had one supreme student in JOHN MILTON every one discerns; and the "one" is compensating renown. Surely and permanently, if slowly, the majority came round to the "one;" and now whoever knows aught of English Literature, knows by heart the "thoughts that breathe and words that burn" of this truly divine and imperishable Poem. If GILES had lived to see his brother's Sicelides (1631); and perchance he did see it in the Manuscript — he would doubtless have found cheer in these lines of the Epiloguein answer to the question "What ever feast could every guest content?" viz:
In this thought, this thought the Author eas'd
Who once made all, all rules-all neuer pleas'd;
FAINE WOULD WE PLEASE THE BEST, IF NOT THE MANY
AND SOONER WILL THE BEST BE PLEASED THEN ANY;
OUR REST WE SET IN PLEASING OF THE BEST,
So wish we you what you may give us: Rest.
Fuller has neglected to inform us in what year our "sweet Singer" received ordination; but while in residence at Cambridge he was much sought after as a preacher. His pulpit was sacred St. Mary's from which have come perhaps the grandest Sermons ever spoken by mortal tongues, and to the most large-brained auditories found anywhere, not excepting "Paule's Crosse." A peculiarity of his "prayers," was that they usually consisted of one entire allegory "not driven, but led on, most proper in all particulars." It is scarcely a loss that prayers of this type have not been preserved, and yet one would have liked to see a specimen, as one rejoices that in sequestered places one may still see Gardens of the antique sort, wherein the God-made sylvage is transformed by art into all manner of Dutch fantastiques of beds and knots, "without a leaf astray," as Our Village describes.
In 1612 Fletcher edited and published at Cambridge the Remains of a remarkable Oxford man — NATHANIEL POWNOLL. The Epistle Dedicatory is addressed to John King, Bishop of London.; and is a bit of terse, thoughtful English. Willmot laments that he had not been able to obtain the book as "it would certainly tend to illustrate the poet's history." Between the first edition of his Lives (1834) and the second (1839) he seems to have despaired of ever seeing it, and drops out all mention of it. I am very pleased to be able to produce it from SELDEN'S Copy of POWNOLL, preserved in the Bodleian. Here it is:—
"To the Reverend Father in God John L[ord] Bishop of London.
Right woorthie and reverend Father in God:
Blame not your ancient Observer, if nowe, after he hath recovered in a manner, at Cambridge, that life which he lost at his departure from Oxford, he rises aniew, as it wear out of his ashes, to do his humble service to his Lordship; and, indeede, to whome can any fruit that comes from him, bee with more right presented then to him, in whose garden, and onder whose shadow it griew? Into whose hand should this small book, though wanting his owne Epistle, be delivered, but onto that, to which it hath before given so many Epistles? whear can it looke for protection with more hope than whear it hath formerly, with all favour founde it?
If your Lordship thearfore will be pleased to be the defender of this Apologie, and to breath as I may truly say, the breath of life againe into his sequent Meditations, that so beeing annimated aniew with those onspeakable sighs, and alike fervent zeale of spirit, wherwith they wear first, as in fierie chariots, carried up into heav'n; I doubt not but they will seeme, beeing so quickned, to any that shall reade them (especially if, as Job wished in a case not much onlike, his soule wear in his soules stead) no cold, or dull, or dead letters; and in so doing, you shall not onely follow him into his grave, but call him out of it with this so speciall a benefit, binding with the dead in one knot of thankfulnesse all his friends that yet live, and cannot but joy to see your Lordship's favour out-live the person on whom it is bestowed: of whome my selfe, being the leaste, shal ever thinke I am most bound to be.
Your L. to command in all good service
To this falls to be added an equally good Epistle to the Reader which follows:—
"The Authour of this small discourse, or rather (give mee leave so to call him) the Swan that, before his death, sung this divine song, is now thear, whear he neither needs the praise, nor fears the envy of any: whose life, as it deserved so it was covetous of no mans commendation; himselfe being as farre from pride as his desert was neere it, yet because it was his griefe, that hee should die before he was fit to doe God the service bee desired; and his friends desire, that beeing so fit as hee was for his service, hee might (if it had been possible) never have died at all; thearfore his booke was bould to thrust itselfe into that world which the Author of it had lately left, thereby to satisfye both his Makers desire, in doing the church of God some service; and his friends griefe, in not suffering him altogether to lie dead.
And truely what better service can it doe, then to persuade with reason, since Authoritie forces not, our young Neophytes to abide awhile in the schooles of the Prophets, at Bethel, before they presume to enter the Temple at Hierusalem; and if reason can doe little with them, because happily they want it, yet let his example (an argument that prevails much with the common people, of whome such prophets are the tayle) make them at least see, and confesse, though they know not how to amend, their fault. Ten yeares had hee lived in the Universitie, eight languages had hee learnt, and taught his tongue so many several waies by which to expresse a good heart; watching often, daily exercising, alway studying, in a word, making an end of himselfe in an over-fervent desire to benefit others; and yet, after lice had, as it wear out of himself, sweat out all this oyle for his lampe, after hee had with the sunne ran so many heavenly races, and when the sunne was laied abed by his labours, after lice had burnt out so many candles to give his minde light (having alwaies S. Paul's querie in his minde [Greek characters] hee never durst adventure to doe that, after all these studies done, and ended, which our young novices, doeing nothing, coumpt nothing to doe: but still thought himselfe as unfit, as bee kniew all men weare unworthy of so high an honour, as to be the Angells of God.
I could wish that he had left behinde him, if not all his learning, yet some of his modesty to be divided among these empty sounding vessels, that want both but since in him so great examples of piety, knowledge, industrie, and unaffected modesty are all fallen so deeply asleep, as I am afraid we shall hardly find in any of his age the like, (which I speak not to deny just praise to the living; but who will not afford a fiew flowers to strowe the cophine of the dead?) thear was no way to awaken them, and in them him, but by layeing them up, not with him in his grave, but in these immortal monuments of the presse, the living Tombes proper to dead learning, wherein these flowers may live, though their roote be withered, and though the trunk be dead, the branches flowrish.
"Let rich men therefore in the guilded sepulchres and proud monuments of their death, beg for the memory of their lives: the righteous shall be had in everlasting remembrance, without any such proud beggary; nor shall he ever be beholding to a dead stone for the matter; and good reason, Righteousness being a shadow of that divine substance, which hath in it no shadow of change much less of corruption: only I could wish their lives wear as long as their memories; that so this crooked age might have as great store, as it hath need of them.
Prefixed to the Bodleian copy of POWNOLL is this Latin M.S. Epitaphum.
Flos juvenum, decus Oxonii, spes summa parentum
Te tegit ante diem (matre parante) lapis.—
Hoc satis est cineri: reliqua immortalia coelo
Condit amorque hominum, condit amorque Dei.'
When our FLETCHER left CAMBRIDGE is not known; but as we have seen he was appointed to catechise in 1617, and thus must have remained at the University until then at least.
That he was a Divinely-called not merely Bishop-ordained 'minister of the Gospel' is certain. For in the invocation of his great Poem he adoringly acknowledges the one mighty change within, the gentle yet awful dower that alone warrants a man to accept the august office. As PHINEAS has like definite and deep words concerning the same central thing — as fully appears in his Memoir — it would almost seem as though the two brothers were moved, inclined, and enabled to give themselves to their Lord at the same time. With hush of awe, not without white tears, one reads the goldenly precious self-revelation, modest but frank, frank because confiding. They must find place here:
The obsequies of Him that could not die
And death of life, ende of eternitie,
How worthily He died, that died unworthily; .................
Is the first flame wherewith my whiter Muse
Doth burne in heavenly love, such love to tell.
O Thou that didst this holy fire infuse,
And taught'st this brest, but late the grave of hell,
Wherein a blind; and dead heart liv'd, to swell
With better thoughts, send downe those lights that lend
Knowledge, how to begin, and how to end
The love, that never was, nor ever can be pend.
Thus baptized with Fire "from the Altar" he became a servant-Shepherd under the Owner-shepherd.
FULLER says "He was at last (by exchange of his living) settled in Suffolk." On this WILMOTT observes "It seems improbable that he would have relinquished any other preferment for a situation which is supposed to have hastened the period of his death;" and he continues "[He] did not live long to reap the advantage of his preferment; the unhealthiness of the situation combined with the ignorance of his parishioners, to depress his spirits and exhaust his constitution; a lonely village in the maritime part of Suffolk, more than two hundred years ago, had few consolations to offer to one accustomed to the refined manners and elegant occupations of an University. We are told by Fuller in the quaint manner for which he is remarkable, that Fletcher's 'clownish and low-parted parishioners (having nothing but their shoes high about them) valued not their pastor according to his worth, which disposed him to melancholy and hastened his dissolution."
We are reminded of HERRICK'S like experience among his "clownish" Devonshire parishioners. Unfortunately the Registers of ALDERT0N — the living of Fletcher — only go back to 1674; so that there are no accessible records to get at Facts and dates.
While Rector I do not doubt he discharged faithfully the functions of his office; and his prose in the form of Epistles and Prefaces already given, and those which precede his Poem, should alone warrant us in concluding that he had preaching-power. But besides it is our rare happiness to have before us a copy — one of three known to exist, and only three — of a prose treatise by our Worthy, that gives us in all likelihood the substance of a series of sermons. As this book has escaped the knowledge of all our Fletcher's previous Biographers, I shall give first of all the title-page, next the Epistle Dedicatory, and thereafter extracts illustrative of its thought and style [omitted].
I know not that I leave anything worth-while in this VOLUME: but surely we have in these words from it, APPLES of GOLD in a BASKET of SILVER. Biographically, our longer extracts numbered 15. and 27. are most interesting: and there are other personal touches that make the recovery of the Reward of the Faithfull no common treasure-trove toward our all too scant knowledge of this Worthy.
That he was human is clear enough: infirm of temper and perchance over-vehement and over-Churchly, and in relation to the lowly men who outside of the Church of England sought to speak for the One Saviour and of the One Salvation mournfully without the large charity of the illustrious JEREMY TAYLOR in his Liberty of Prophesying — which may be called the Magna Charta of Ecclesiastical History, so potent is it still.
FULLER leaves the death-date of our Poet imperfect thus 162. . but ANTHONY A-WOOD supplies it, viz., 1623. "I beheld," says the former, " the life of this learned poet, like those half-verses in Virgil's Aeneid, broken off in the middle, seeing he might have doubled his days according to the ordinary course of nature."
That 1623 was our Worthy's death-year is confirmed inferentially by PHINEAS'S over-looked verses headed Upon my brother's book called, The grounds, labour and reward of faith, than which nothing can more meetly close the memorial part of our Introduction:
This lamp fill'd up, and flr'd by that blest Spirit
Spent his last oyl in this pure, heav'nly flame;
Laying the grounds, walls, roof of faith: this frame
With life he ends; and now doth there inherit
What here he built, crown'd with his laurel merit:
Whose palms and triumphs once he loudly rang,
There now enjoyes what here he sweetly sang.
This is his monument, on which he drew
His spirit's image, that can never die;
But breathes in these live words, and speaks to th' eye:
In these his winding-sheets he dead doth shew
To buried souls the way to live anew,
And in his grave more powerfully now preacheth:
Who will not learn, when that a dead man teacheth?
No stone, — and so no "golden lie" of epitaph — or any other outward memorial whatever, marks GILES FLETCHER'S last resting-place. He left a Widow — as we have already seen — who transferred herself to another and neighbouring Rectory. Who she was, and whether she bore a family to her first husband, has not been written, only it is recorded that Letters of Administration were issued 12th November 1623, in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury "on the estate of Giles Fletcher of Alderton, county Suffolk, S. T. B." to his relict Anne; so that here we have the double-fact of his death in 2623, and her Christian name "Anne."
And so the little life-story is told of one, concerning whom loveable old LIVESEY'S eulogium of CHETHAM, holds, "They who excell[ed] him in grace, came short of him in learning: and they who excell'd him in learning came short of him in grace." Remembering then his noble Poem
Now his faith, his works, his ways,
Nights of watching, toilsome days;
Borne for Christ, 'tis meet we praise.