There is scarcely a name more known among the readers of old English poetry than that of GEORGE WITHER; yet the few particulars of his life, which our various books of biography furnish regarding him, may all, I think, be found in Anthony Wood. The best chance of any new information would he opened by a careful perusal of his multifarious publications. But who has the patience or the opportunity to perform such a task? A complete collection of his works is perhaps no where to be found. If some of them are common, some are unusually scarce. The venom of party, and the spleen of Pope, who preferred pilfering from obsolete poets to reviving their memories, long threw the veil of contempt over the productions of Wither. The notice of Dr. Percy, followed up by those investigations into the literature of our ancestors, which have been the growing fashion of the age, have gradually produced such a curiosity regarding this writer, and such a strong suspicion of injustice done to him, that I trust, some further examination of his character and writings will not be unacceptable at this time to the public.
George Wither was born at Bentworth, near Alton in Hampshire, June 11, 1588. He was son of George Wither of Bentworth, the first son, by a second venter, of Wither of Manydowne near Wotton St. Lawrence in that county, at which seat Mr. Bigg Wither, the heir, (not the heir male, but the heir female who has taken the name) still resides; and of which another branch, long seated at Hall Place in the adjoining parish of Deane, is represented by Wither Bramstone, Esq. who resides there. The poet speaks of "his Bentworth's beechy shadows" in the proemium to his Abuses Stript and Whipt.
He was educated under John Greaves of Colemore, a celebrated schoolmaster of those parts. In the Epigrams annexed to the poem already mentioned, first published 1613, at his age of 25, is the following
TO HIS SCHOOL-MASTER, MASTER JOHN GREAVES.
If ever I do wish I may be rich,
(As oft perhaps such idle breath I spend,)
I do it not for any thing so much,
As for to have wherewith to pay my friend.
For trust me, there is nothing grieves me more
Than this; that I should still much kindness take,
And have a fortune to my mind so poor,
That, though I would, amends I cannot make;
Yet for to be as thankful as I may;
Sith my estate no better means afford;
What I in deeds receive, I do repay
In willingness, in thanks, and gentle words.
Then though your love doth well deserve to have
Better requitals than are in my power;
Knowing you'll nothing "ultra posse" crave,
Here I have brought you some essays of our.
You may think much perhaps, sith there's so many
Learn'd Graduates that have your pupils been,
I, who am none, and more unfit than any,
Should first presume in pulpit to be seen.
But you do know those horses in the team,
That with their work are ablest to go through,
Seldom so forward as blind Bayard seem,
Or give so many twitches to the plough.
And so, though they may better, their intent
Is not perhaps for to be fools in print.
In 1604, or thereabouts, Wither was sent to Magdalen College, Oxford, under the tuition of John Warner, afterwards Bishop of Rochester. Here he has himself given a full account of his proficiency and his pursuits in the proemium already mentioned. He says he found the art of logic, to which his studies were directed, first dull and unintelligible; but at the moment it begun all at once to unfold its mysteries to him, he was called home "to hold the plough." He laments that thus by fate's appointment he was obliged to forsake "the Paradise of England:" "there," says he,
There all my sweetest hopes I left, and went
In quest of Care, Despair, and Discontent.
After he had stayed some time in his own country, certain malicious advisers, under the cloak of friendship, pretending that nothing was to be got by learning, endeavoured to persuade his father to put him to some mechanic trade. But he, aware of their hollowness, and finding that country occupations were not fitted to his genius, determined, on some slight gleam of hope, to try his fortune at court, and therefore
The shady grove, and the sweet open plain,
and entered himself a member of Lincoln's Inn.
Now the world opened on him in characters so different from his expectations, that, having been probably educated in puritanical principles, he felt that disgust which perhaps made him a satirist for life. The first thing, which appeared to fill him with dislike and anger, was the gross flattery and servility which seemed necessary to his advancement. If however his manners did not procure him favour with the courtiers, his talents obtained him the acquaintance and friendship of many men of genius. William Browne, the pastoral poet, who was of the Inner Temple, was an early familiar of his. And some of his verses having got abroad, began, to procure the name of a poet for himself. His Philarete's Complaint, &c. formed a part of his Juvenilia, which are said to have been his earliest compositions. I know not the date of the earliest edition of these. There was an edition, as it seems, with many additions, in 1633. There was also an edition in 1622. He also wrote Elegies on the death of Prince Henry, 1612.
In 1613 first appeared his celebrated Satires, entitled Abuses Stript and Whipt.
The reign of King James was not propitious to the higher orders of poetry. All those bold features, which nourished the romantic energies of the age of his predecessor, had been suppressed by the selfish pusilanimity and pedantic policy of this inglorious monarch. Loving flattery and a base kind of luxurious ease, he was insensible to the ambitions of a gallant spirit, and preferred the cold and barren subtleties of scholastic learning to the breathing eloquence of those who were really inspired by the Muse. Poetical composition therefore soon assumed a new character. Its exertions were how overlaid by learning; and the strange conceits of metaphysical wit took place of the creations of a pure and unsophisticated fancy. It was thus that Donne wasted in the production of unprofitable and short-lived fruit the powers of a most acute and brilliant mind. It was thus that Phineas Fletcher threw away upon an unmanageable subject the warblings of a copious and pathetic imagination. The understanding was more exercised in the ingenious distortion of artificial stores, than the faculties which mark the poet in pouring forth the visions of natural fiction.
Such scenes as youthful poets dream,
On summer eve, by haunted stream,
were now deemed insipid. The Fairy Fables of Gorgeous Chivalry were thought too rude and boisterous, and too unphilosophical for the erudite ear of the book-learned king!
As writers of verse now brought their compositions nearer to the nature of prose, the epoch was favourable to the satirical class, for which so much food was furnished by the motley and vicious manners of the nation. Wither therefore, bursting with indignation at the view of society which presented itself to his young mind, took this opportunity to indulge in a sort of publication, to which the prosaic taste of the times was well adapted; but he disdained, and perhaps felt himself unqualified, to use that glitter of false ornament, which was now substituted for the true decorations of the Muse. "I have strived," says he, "to be as plain as a packsaddle." — "Though you understand them not, yet because you see this wants some fine phrases and flourishes, as you find other mens writings stuffed withal, perhaps you will judge me unlearned." — "Yet I could with ease have amended it; for it cost me, I protest, more labour to observe this plainness, than if I had more poetically trimmed it."
In the Abuses Stript and Whipt Wither is indeed excessively plain, and excessively severe. These Satires gave such offence that he was committed to the Marshalsea, where he continued several mouths. To these there is a copy of commendatory verses, signed Th. C. (probably his friend Th. Cranley,) which deserves insertion.
TO THE IMPARTIAL AUTHOR.
GEORGE, I did ever think thy faithful breast
Contain'd a mind beyond the common sort;
Thy very look an honest heart express'd,
And seem'd an aweful mildness to import.
Poets may vaunt of smooth, and lofty strains;
Thine with thy subject fitly doth agree:
But then thy Muse a better praise obtains,
For whilst the greatest but Time pleasers be,
Thou unappall'd and freely, speak'st the truth
Not any one for fear or lucre sparing
A virtue rare in age, more rare in youth;
Another Cato, but I think more daring.
Well mayst thou speed in these tempestuous times!
Thou soon beginst to make the world thy foe:
Yet I so well do like thy honest rhymes,
That I could wish all poets would write so.
For thou the way of truth so rightly tend'st,
I hold them double prais'd, whom thou commendst.
Thy dear friend, Th. C.
The poet, at the commencement of the Second Book of these Satires, has the following prayer.
Thou, that createdst all things in a week,
Great God! whose favour I do only seek,
E'en thou, by whose sweet Inspiration
I undertook this Observation,
O grant, I pray, sith thou hast deign'd to show
Thy servant that which thousands do not know,
That this my noting of man's humorous passion
May work within me such an alteration,
I may be for my past offences sorry,
And lead a life to thy eternal glory.
Let not Ambition, nor a foul Desire,
Nor Hate, nor Envy set my heart on fire;
Revenge, nor Choler, no, nor Jealousy;
And keep me from Despair and Cruelty:
Fond hope expel, and I beseech thee, bless
My soul from fear, and too much heaviness.
But give me special grace to shun the vice
That is so common; beastly Avarice:
Yea, grant me power I not only know,
But fly those evils, that from Passion flow.
Moreover, now inspire my soul with Art,
And grant me thy assistance to impart
The rest of man's ill customs yet remaining,
And their vain humours; that, by my explaining,
They may perceive bow odious I can make them,
Blush at the reading, and at last forsake them.
So let my Muse in this, and things to come,
Sing to thy glory, Lord, or else be dumb.
In the third Satire of the Second Book, entitled Weakness, the following lines occur.
Though it be disgrac'd thro' ignorance,
The generous will Poetry advance,
As the most antique science that is found,
And that which hath been the first root and ground
Of every art; yea, that which only brings
Content; and hath been the delight of Kings.
Great JAMES our King both loves and lives a poet,
(His books now extant do directly show it)
And that shall add unto his worthy name
A better glory, and a greater fame,
Than Britain's Monarchy; for few but he,
I think, will both a King and poet be;
And for the last, although some fools debase it,
I'm in the mind that angels do embrace it:
And though God give't here but in part to some,
All shall have't perfect in the world to come.
This in defence of Poesy to say
I am compell'd, because that at this day
Weakness and Ignorance hath wrong'd it sore:
But what need any man therein speak more
Than divine Sidney hath already done?
For whom, though he deceas'd ere I begun,
I have oft sighed, and bewail'd my fate,
That brought me forth so many years too late
To view that Worthy! And now think not you
O Daniell, Drayton, Jonson, Chapman, how
I long to see you with your fellow Peers;
Sylvester matchless, glory of these years;
I hitherto have only heard your fames;
And know you yet but by your works and names:
The little time I yet on earth have spent,
Would not allow me any more content.
I long to know you better; that's the truth;
I am in hope you'll not disdain my youth.
For know, you Muses darlings, I'll not crave
A fellowship amongst you for to have:
O no! for though my ever willing heart
Have vow'd to love and praise you and your art,
And though that I your style do now assume,
I do not, nor I will not so presume;
I claim not that too worthy name of poet;
It is not yet deserv'd by me, I know it:
Grant me I may but on your Muses tend,
And be enroll'd their servant, and their friend;
And if desert hereafter worthy make me,
Then for a Fellow, if it please you, take me.
In 1615, he published The Shepheards Hunting: Being Certain Eglogues written during the time of the author's imprisonment in the Marshalsea. Which book, Wood observes, is said to contain more of poetical fancy, than any other of his writings. Long extracts from it have already been given in the first volume of the CENSURA LITERARIA. The fourth Eclogue is a dialogue between Willy (Browne) and Roget (Wither) on the subject of his confinement. In this Roget says,
Never did the Nine impart
The sweet secrets of their art
Unto any that did scorn
We should see their favours worn.
Therefore unto those that say
Where they pleas'd to sing a lay,
They could do't, and will not, tho';
This I speak; for this I know;
None e'er drunk the Thespian spring,
And knew how, but he did sing.
For that once infus'd in man,
Makes him shew't, do what he can:
Nay those that do only sip,
Or but e'en their lingers dip
In that sacred fount, poor elves,
Of that brood will shew themselves;
Yea, in hope to get them fame
They will speak, tho' to their shame.
Let those then at thee repine,
That by their wits measure thine.
In the Third Eclogue is this
I that erst while the world's sweet air did draw,
Grac'd by the fairest ever mortal saw,
Now, closely pent with walls of ruthless stone,
Consume my days and nights and all alone.
When I was wont to sing of Shepherds loves,
My walks were fields and downs, and hills and groves;
But now, alas, so strict is my hard doom,
Fields, downs, hills, groves, and all's but one poor room.
Each morn, as soon as daylight did appear,
With Nature's music birds would charm mine ear;
Which now, instead of their melodious strains,
Hears rattling shackles, gyves, and bolts, and chains.
But tho' that all the world's delight forsake me,
I have a Muse, and she shall music make me;
Whose airy notes, in spite of closest cages,
Shall give content to me, and after-ages.
Nor do I pass for all this outward ill;
My heart's the same, and undejected still;
And which is more than some in freedom win,
I have true rest, and peace, and joy within.
And then my mind, that spite of prison's free,
Whene'er she pleases, any where can be;
She's in an hour in France, Rome, Turkey, Spain;
In earth, in hell, in heaven, and here again.
Yet there's another comfort in my woe;
My cause is spread; and all the world doth know,
My fault's no more, but speaking truth and reason,
Nor debt, nor theft, nor murder, rape, or treason.
Nor shall my foes with all their might and power
Wipe out their shame, nor yet this fame of our:
Which when they find, they shall my suit envy,
Till they grow lean and sick and mad, and die.
Then though my body here in prison rot,
And my poor Satires seem awhile forgot;
Yet when both tame and life have left those men,
My verse, and I'll revive and live again.
So thus enclos'd, I bear affliction's load
But with more true content than some abroad;
For whilst their thoughts do feel my Scourge's sting,
In bands I'll leap, and dance, and laugh, and sing.
When in prison he not only also wrote but published his Satire to the King, 1614, which Mr. Gilchrist thinks might have procured his release; but which seems rather a justification than an excuse.
Mr. Ellis has given several extracts from the Philarete, which are very elegant, and possess a true poetical vein; and Mr. Gilchrist has given others in the Gent. Mag. Vol. LXX. p. 1150, &c.
An account of his Translation from Nemesius — of Britain's Remembrancer — of Haleluiah, or Britain's Second Remembrancer — of What Peace to the Wicked — of Opobalsamum Anglicanum — of Amygdala Britannica — and of Carmen Expostulatorim — has already been given in the CENSURA LITERARIA. In the Haleluiah, which consists of penitential hymns, spiritual songs, &c. there is great merit; and several poetical passages have been pointed out in Britain's Remembrancer.
Indeed this copious author continued from this time to write and publish both poetry and prose without intermission till the day of his death, which yet was at a great distance. Wood remarks, with more correctness of judgment and expression, than he usually attains, that our poet was now cried up, "especially by the Puritan party, for his profuse pouring forth of English rhyme," which abundant facility has tempted him into an excess that has totally buried the select effusions of his happier moments. Such a superfluity of easy but flat and insipid narrative, and trite prosaic remarks, scarce any writer has been guilty of. On, his pen appears, in general, to have ran without the smallest effort at excellence; and therefore subjected him too justly to Wood's stigma of being a scribbler. But let it be observed, that this was the fault of his will, and not of his genius. When the examples of real poetry, which he has given, are selected from his multitudinous rhymes, they are in point both of quality and quantity sufficient to stamp his fame. A man of genus may often or even generally write bad poetry; but he, who has not a genius, can on no occasion write good poetry. Wither's Eclogues strike me to be far superior in ease, spirit, elegance, and pure fancy, to his friend W. Browne's Pastorals, which yet have had the good fortune to have their merit generally allowed.
Another active cause of the depression of Wither's reputation was the violent party spirit, by which a large portion of his works was dictated and degraded. To be a writer for a party, nay for a furious faction, was unbecoming the dignity of the Muse. The false fire of political enthusiasm is very different from the genuine flame of the poet. The vile dissensions of sects struggling for power; their misrepresentations, and falsehoods; their malignity, intrigues and tricks, are subjects so little fitted to employ the sacred machinery of verse, that they almost always debase the mind that is occupied in them; and make such an incongruous mixture as to render both ridiculous.
Had poor Wither's party been finally triumphant, his political rhymes would, after the occasion was past, have sunk his fame. But unfortunately for him, he lived to see that, which for a time had prevailed as victorious patriotism, sunk under the censure and penalties of treason. Then it was that the party zeal, which had hitherto gilded with a false lustre the poetical defects of his rhymes, accelerated the disgrace of perverted genius by the infamy attached to political crime.
Wither had many years before incurred the mortification of a pretended rivalry from that well-meaning, but dull and almost illiterate versifier, John Taylor, the Water-Poet. He "began very early," says Wood, "being precisely educated from his childhood, to express and publish those conceptions which the affections and inclinations to youth had awakened in him, endeavouring to season them with morality and piety, as subjects of that nature are capable of, suiting them to the capacities of young men, who delight to see their own natural passions represented as 'twere in a glass; wherein they not only meet with some better things than they looked for, but with such notions also therewith mixed, as insinuated into their hearts that seasoning, which made them much delighted with his poems, and rendered him so generally known, that thousands, especially such youths, that were puritanically educated, were desirous to peruse his future writings, and to take better heed of that, whereof else perhaps they had taken little or no notice, while others of generous education and more solid parts, looked upon them as the effects of a crazed brain, and esteemed Taylor the Water-Poet a fit match for him, with his wild and wandering rhymes."
In 1639 Wither was a Captain of Horse in the expedition against the Scots, and Quarter Master General of his Regiment, under the Earl of Arundel. But as soon as the Civil Wars broke out in 1642, he sold his estate to raise a troop of horse for the Parliament; and soon afterwards rose to the rank of Major; but being taken prisoner by the Royalists, "Sir John Denham, the poet," (says Wood) "some of whose estate at Egham in Surry Wither had got into his clutches, desired his Majesty not to hang him, because so long as Wither lived, Denham would not be accounted the worst poet in England. About that time he was constituted by the said Long Parliament a Justice of Peace in Quorum for Hampshire, Surry, and Essex, which office he kept six years, and afterwards was made by Oliver, Major General of all the Horse and Foot in the County of Surry, in which employment he licked his fingers sufficiently, gaining thereby a great odium from the generous Loyalist."
At the Restoration, 1660, the spoils which he had amassed from the adherents of the King, and from the church, were taken from him. His principles, and especially a libel which he had dispersed and which was deemed seditious, rendered him obnoxious to the new government; and he was now committed to Newgate; and afterwards by order of the House of Commons was sent close prisoner to the Tower, to be debarred of pen, ink, and paper, about the same time (24 March, 1661-2,) an impeachment was ordered to he drawn up against him. In this confinement he continued three years and more; and here he wrote several things by connivance of the keeper, of which some were afterwards published; "yet never," adds Wood, "could refrain from shewing himself a Presbyterian satirist."
"At length," concludes his biographer, "having lived to the age of 79 years, mostly spent in a rambling and unsettled condition," he died May 2, 1667; and his body was buried between the east door and south end of the Savoy church in the Strand, London.
It seems not to be very easy to reconcile the pure sentiments of pastoral content, expressed in many of the poems, especially the early poems, of Wither, with that restless ambition, which plunged him through a long life into constant contentions of the most unquiet, questionable, and dangerous kind. Perhaps his keen desire of distinction made him more than commonly sensible of neglect and disappointment; and therefore after the first acute sufferings of his passions taught him how to appreciate the blessings of that solitude, which brought with it silence and peace. Yet as soon as this blessing grew stale from enjoyment, and the pains, but not the pleasures, of bustle and activity were forgotten, his fiery temper and unextinguished love of notice again urged him into the fields of contest, to mingle with the turbulent spirits of the time. None perhaps are so touched with the charms of Nature, as they, who have an eye for rural beauty, are, when they first emerge upon them, after having been long confined to the dirt, clamour, and loaded air of a populous city. Hence the very contrast of Wither's alternate occupations might give an additional zest to his enjoyment of the delights of hills, valleys, meadows, and woods.
The following appreciation of WITHER'S poetic merits was written by the late Alexander Dalrymple, Esq. (brother to Lord Hailes of Session) and printed in 1785, with extracts from his Juvenilia: the whole of which he recommended to republication, and regretted that his own avocations as Hydrographer to the East-India Company, &c. did not admit him to undertake it.
"If poetry be the power of commanding the imagination, conveyed in measure and expressive epithets, Wither was truly a poet. Perhaps there is no where to be found a greater variety of English measure than in his writings, (Shakspeare excepted) more energy of thought, or more frequent developement of the delicate filaments of the human heart.
"Wither's pen flows as freely with becoming praise, as biting satire; and was always employed in the cause of virtue: there is in his works uncommon strength of mind, and peculiarity of thought, often most happily exprest.
"One modern versifier complained that Wither's verse was rough: on the other hand, a lady, who is mistress of all the modulation of sweet sounds, admired how the lines run into each other with the beauty of blank verse, without losing the spirit of the lyric measure. Attention to the old English poets will clearly shew, that there was a greater variety admitted, its pronunciation and accent, than is allowed in modern versification. The ear which cannot conform itself to the ancient practice, but is bound in the silken traces of modern verse, may be offended sometimes with the early poets; and in every reader it will require a habit and use, before the ear attains the complete practice, without which many lines will appear prosaic. Words also become obsolete; or what is worse, appropriated to vulgar ideas only: such will ever be a stumbling-block to a reader without genius.
"Mere versifiers frequently call themselves poets; but the recital of common ideas, in however flowing language, can never, with propriety, be styled poetry: nor does the most exact description of nature, of man, or manners, deserve the name, unless that description raises in the imagination some idea not expressed; and if it does, nothing can be so trivial as not to give pleasure to a mind of quick conception. An apt example occurs in The Shepherd's Hunting.
I with wonder heard thee sing
At our last year's revelling:
Yea, I saw the lasses cling
Round about thee in a ring;
As, if each one jealous were,
Any but herself should hear.
"The art of assigning a fanciful reason for an ordinary action, is the soul of poetry; we can here imagine the countenances of the encircling auditory. The imagination must ever be the poet's commentator, and its scope is universal; embracing the world of ideas as well as forms. It may happen that a man shall be so destitute of imagination, as to have no relish for true poetry, and prefer mellifluous verses; but the want of sight does not prove that there are no colours in the rainbow. They who are satisfied, for pleased none can be, with the flowing lines of those modern versifiers, who have fewer ideas, of their own, than the learned pig, are not the people for whom the repast of Wither's poems is adapted. Lovers of natural thought and sentiment will be pleased at being brought to acquaintance with Wither: but to enable them to judge for themselves was the intention of the specimens which follow. They are taken from different poems, to convey to those who are ignorant of the poet, an idea of what they may expect: but scarce any of these quotations are complete; the intention of them being to raise, and not to satisfy curiosity.
"In some of his latter pieces, Wither has given up the veins to enthusiasm, and is rather to be considered as displaying himself in the character of a prophet, than a poet: neither these, nor his political poems come within the intention of this publication; although many fine things are interspersed in his Haleluiah, Campo-Musae, and in his other pieces not here recited: in the Haleluiah there are some things, perhaps, no where to be surpassed.
"Wither's prophetical and political poems seem to have been the true cause of that depreciation of his merit which we find broached by his contemporaries, and retailed in subsequent writers.
"Swift has stigmatized Wither in his Battle of the Books; but as Dryden is joined with him, the opprobrium falls on the critic and not on the poet: for it is too absurd to be allowed, in the candour of criticism, that condemnation should be past on Alexander's feast, the Origin of Harmony, or Absalom and Achitophel, because their author, in his plays published much trash, that has been so justly ridiculed by the Rehearsal. The value of poets must be tried by the same standard as the metallic ores; by the proportion of the finer metal to the dross: and in the aggregate mass, a grain of pure gold is of more value than a pound of lead.
"Wither having been actively concerned in the Civil Wars, his character as a poet, as well as a man, is stigmatized in the true spirit of party-rage: a stronger testimony cannot be given of this blindness of prejudice, than the vile Grub-street, Taylor, the Water-poet, being set in competition to Wither: we have now little concern with Wither's personal character, but candour will hesitate to join in condemnation of the man, when the poet is so unjustly arraigned; more especially as he was repeatedly thrown in prison for his Satires, and the last time confined in Newgate, at about seventy years of age, for a MS. general satire, seized in his own possession, and construed into a libel against the House of Commons, without hearing his defence, but garbling his MS. to find exceptionable parts. This and all his other Satires were general. Thank God, the Revolution has banished, from this country, the oppression of such tyrannical power! and, it is to be hoped, we shall never be so wanting to ourselves as to bring it forth again from its lurking-place, by giving the trial by juries out of our own hands into those of any judges whatever: if a jury gives an improper verdict it is confined to the single case only, but the determination of judges, whether in the House of parliament or on the bench, is made a precedent of injustice.
"According to Pope, there is more offence in general than in personal satire—
The fewer still you name, you wound the more,
Bond is but one, but Harpax is a score.
"It is not wonderful that profligate individuals should resent general satire, but that there should be such prostitution and perversion of public justice to punish it as an offence, is beyond credibility; if the evidence was not uncontrovertible.
"General satires are moral essays, which come home (as Lord Bacon expresses it) to every man's heart and bosom; and although they admit fewer poetical ideas, than almost any other species of writing, still Wither has introduced much poetical imagery into his satires. They are written in rhime, in heroic verse of ten syllables; and Wither's verse will gain more by being compared with Donne, his immediate predecessor, than it will lose by a comparison with Dryden or Pope; although Wither's Juvenilia were published several years before Dryden was born.
"Pope has said,
—Dryden taught to join
The varying verse, the full resounding line,
The long majestic march, and energy divine:
but the claim of having first deserved this character, must be granted to Wither; although it be allowed he, more even than Dryden, — 'wanted, or forgot,' what Pope calls 'The last and greatest art, the art to blot.'"
The following Epitaph upon himself occurs in Wither's Memorandum to London, 1665, 8vo. and may suitably accompany his biographical Memoir.
THE AUTHOR'S EPITAPH COMPOSED BY HIMSELF UPON A COMMON FAME OF HIS BEING DEAD AND BURIED.
By way of Epitaph, thus said
George Wither, when Fame voic'd him dead.
If I did scape the dooms of those
Whose heads & limbs fed rats & crows,
And was not thrown into the fire
Or water, when breath did expire;
Then here (or somewhere else) my bones
Lie raked up with earth & stones.
My life was not too long nor short
Nor without good and ill report;
And profited as many waies
I was by scandals, as by praise:
Great foes I had, & very many;
Friends too a few, as kind as any,
And seldome felt their earthly hell,
Who love and are not lov'd as well.
A Wife I had, as fit for me
As any one alive could be;
Yea, as if GOD out of each other
Had made us to be joyn'd together:
And, whilst she lives, what ere is said
Of my death, I am but half dead.
Beside the issue of my brain,
I had six children, whereof twain
Did live when we divided were,
And I, alive, was buried here.
When portions I had none to give,
GOD gave them (a I did believe
He would) a means, whereby to live:
Which is here mentioned, to this end,
That others may on him depend.
I priz'd no honours, bought or sold,
Nor wish'd for youth when I was old;
But what each age, place and degree,
Might best become, best pleased we.
I coveted nor ease nor wealth,
No, not enjoyment of my health,
Ought further than it had relation
To GOD'S praise, and my soul's salvation.
When I seem'd rich, I wanted more
Then e're I did when deemed poor:
And when in body most confin'd,
Enjoy'd most freedom in my mind.
I was not factious or seditious,
Though thereof many were suspicious,
Because I humor'd not the times
In follies, and destructive crimes.
In things that good or evil were,
I had abundantly my share;
And never wish'd to change my lot
For what another man had got;
Or that, in any time or place,
My birth had been, save where it was.
So wise, I was not to be mad,
Though much opprest; or to be sad
When my relations did conceive
I had exceeding cause to grieve:
For GOD, in season still supplied
Those needful things the world denide,
Disposing ev'ry thing so well
To my content, what me befel,
That thankful praise to him was due,
And will be, for what shall ensue.
I sold not honesty, to buy
A formal garbe of sanctity;
Nor to hate any was inclin'd,
Because they were not of my mind;
Nor fear'd to publish truths in season,
Though termed heresie and treason:
But spake what I conceiv'd might tend
To benefit both foe and friend:
And if in love they seem'd sincere,
With their infirmities could bear.
I practis'd what I did beleive,
And pinned upon no man's sleeve
My faith or conscience; for there's none
Judg'd, by what other men have done.
My sins were great, and numerous grown;
My righteousness was not mine own,
Yet more prevail'd by grace divine,
Then if it had been wholly mine.
I loved all men, feared none
Except myself, and GOD alone:
And, when I knew him, did not make
Esteem of ought, but for his sake.
On Him in life-time I depended,
By death are all my troubles ended,
And I shall live again, ev'n here,
When my Redeemer doth appear:
Which (by what I have seen and heard)
I know, will not be long defer'd;
Nor that reign, here on earth, among
His saints, which they have look'd for long.
Nor oft, nor much desire had I,
Long time to live, or soon to die;
But did the work I had to do,
As I enabled was thereto:
Then, whether it seem'd good or ill,
Left that, and all things, to GOD'S will;
And when this mind is not in me,
That I am dead, assured be.
Do, reader, what I have well done:
What I have err'd in, learn to shun:
And, when I must no more appear,
Let this be thy Remembrancer!