GILES FLETCHER, the author of one of the finest religious poems to which the early part of the seventeenth century gave birth, has not received the attention due to his genius, either from his contemporaries, or from posterity. Yet in him and his brother Phineas we behold the two most gifted followers of Spenser; in their hands the torch of allegorical poetry, if I may employ the metaphor, was extinguished, and transmitted to no successor. William Browne was rather the imitator of Spenser in his pastoral vein, than in the arabesque imagery of the Faerie Queen. Of Giles Fletcher's life little has hitherto been told, and that little imperfectly. Mr. Chalmers has reprinted Christ's Victorie, with a prefatory notice of the writer, in his edition of the British Poets, but without adding much, if any thing, to the previous stock of knowledge. In the following memoir something has, perhaps, been accomplished towards the illustration of the poet's history, and the additional facts relating to his father will not, it is trusted, be uninteresting.
Dr. Giles Fletcher, the father of the poet, was the brother of Richard Fletcher, Bishop of London. Having been educated at Eton, in 1565, he was elected to King's College, Cambridge, where, in 1569, he took the degree of B.A.; that of M.A. in 1573; and LL.D. in 1581. Anthony Wood says that he became an excellent poet. The only specimens of his poetical talent I have seen are the verses upon the death of Walter Haddon.
Fletcher's political talents appear to have been highly appreciated by Elizabeth, who employed him as her Commissioner in Scotland, Germany, and the Low Countries. I have ascertained that he sat in Parliament in 1585, with Herbert Pelham, Esq., for the then flourishing town of Winchelsea. In 1588, the memorable year of the Armada, he was sent to Russia, where he concluded a treaty with the Czar, beneficial to English commerce. Soon after his return, he published his observations upon that country; they were, however, soon suppressed, and not reprinted until 1643. They were afterwards incorporated in Hackluyt's Voyages.
The worthy Fuller informs us that, upon Fletcher's arrival in London, he sent for his intimate friend Mr. Wayland, Prebendary of St. Paul's, and tutor to Fuller's father, "with whom he expressed his thankfulness to God for his return from so great a danger." The quaint historian, in his careless way, talks of the emperor being habited in blood, and adds that, if he had cut off the ambassador's head, he and his friends might have sought their own amends; but, says he, the question is, where he would have found it. Certainly, if Fuller alludes to the head, its recovery would have been very questionable. But this story of the Czar's cruelty is an invention. The reigning emperor was Theodore Ivanowich, and Dr. Fletcher expressly assures us that "he was verie gentle of all easie nature, quiet and mercyful." p. 110, ed. 1591.
On his return, Fletcher was made secretary (town-clerk) to the city of London, and one of the Masters of the Court of Requests. The situation of treasurer of St. Paul's he seems to have resigned in 1610. His death is thought to have taken place in the same year.
Dr. Fletcher also wrote a very curious Discourse concerning the Tartars, which Whiston reprinted in his Memoirs.
Giles Fletcher, the poet, we are told by Fuller, was born in the city of London, and according to Mr. Chalmers's conjecture, about the year 1588. Fuller received his information from Mr. Ramsay, who married the poet's widow; and it is to be regretted that his account is so brief and uncircumstantial. I think Fletcher's birth may be carried back two or three years, for we shall presently find him hailing the accession of James in 1603, in strains such as a boy of fourteen or fifteen could scarcely be expected to produce. He was sent, it appears, at an early age, to Westminster School, from which he was elected to Trinity College, Cambridge. 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. Nevil, 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 now is 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. Nevil's "only favour, most freely, without either any means from other, or any desert" in himself. This praise could not have been consistent with truth, if Fletcher had obtained his election from Westminster School. Nevil merited the laudatory epithet applied to him by Camden, whether we look upon him as the public benefactor of the college over which he presided, or in the still more endearing character of the benevolent and disinterested patron of the poor and the learned. Bishop Hacket was also a partaker of his generosity. Plume informs us, in his life of that prelate, that when Hacket's father, although personally unknown to Dr. Nevil, applied to him for his interest to procure his son's election from Westminster to Trinity College, the worthy master replied, that the boy should go to Cambridge, "or he would carry him on his own back." I shall have occasion to recur to Nevil in the life of Herbert.
The accession of James furnished a theme of praise to all the nation; "the very poets with their idle pamphlets," writes that unwearied correspondent Mr. Chamberlain, "promise themselves great part in his favour." The University of Cambridge put forth its welcome under the ingenious title of Sorrowe's Joy , and the writers evinced their skill in blending their mourning with gladness, and while they lamented that "Phoebe" was gone, they remembered that a "Phoebus" was shining in her place.
The contribution of Giles Fletcher — A Canto upon the Death of Eliza — is the most poetical in the collection. It is a pastoral allegory, conceived in a spirit of grace and elegance. The monosyllabic terminations of the following lines produce an inharmonious effect, but the imagery is very rural.
Tell me, sad Philomel, that yonder sit'st
Piping thy songs unto the dancing twig,
And to the water-fall thy music fit'st,
So let the friendly prickle never dig
Thy watchful breast, with woound or small or big,
Whereon thou leanest; so let the hissing snake
Sliding with shrinking silence, never take
Th' unwary foot, while thou perchance hang'st half awake.
The picture of the snake "sliding with shrinking silence," is one of the happiest touches of description I have ever seen. It would be impossible more vividly to represent the sudden rustling of the leaves, and the "shrinking" stillness that follows. The idea is partly borrowed from Virgil.
The following verses upon the "velvet-headed violets," are equally meritorious in a different manner:
So let the silver dew but lightly lie,
Like little watery worlds, within your azure sky.
This image might have dropped from the pencil of Rubens. Every wanderer in our green lanes on a spring morning must have seen these "little watery worlds."
Phineas Fletcher has a poem in the same volume, dated from King's College, but very inferior to his brother's.
Christ's Victorie was apparently composed before Fletcher took his Bachelor's degree. Fuller says, that it discovered the piety of a saint and the divinity of a doctor; the piety is more evident than the theological skill. The first edition appeared at Cambridge in 1610, and a second was not required until 1632. It is sufficiently clear, therefore, that the poem could not have been popular; and Phineas Fletcher, in some verses addressed to his brother upon its publication, entreats him not to esteem the censure of "malicious tongues!" That Fletcher was dissatisfied with the reception of his work, may be inferred from the circumstance of his relinquishing the cultivation of the Muse, and applying himself to the study of school divinity. It is not, however, improbable that he occasionally indulged his taste in classical composition. In the library of King's College is a small MS., presented to it on the 2nd of February, 1654-5, by S. Th., supposed by Mr. Cole to mean Samuel Thoms, with this title: — Aegidii Fletcheri versio Poetica Lamentationum Jeremiae. It is dedicated, in a copy of hexameter verses, to the amiable and upright Whitgift. Ornatissimo doctissimoque viro Do. Doctori Whitgifto Aegidius Fletcherus salutem. Whitgift was Master of Trinity College from 1570 to June 1577, and the translation might, therefore, have been an offering of respect from the poet's father; but as the Archbishop lived till 1603, it is possible that it may have emanated from the son. Whitgift, like his friend Nevil, was a sincere encourager of learning and merit; he supported several poor scholars in his own house, and enabled others to pursue their studies at the University. The author of Christ's Victorie may have participated in this munificence.
Though "cross to the grain of his genius," Fuller tells us that Fletcher attained to "good skill" in scholastic divinity; he had too much capacity and amplitude of mind to fail in any pursuit to which he devoted his attention. A fellowship at the same time rewarded his labours, and enabled him to gratify his love of a College-life. Fuller does not inform us in what year Fletcher received ordination, but it could not have been long after the publication of his poem; for in 1612 he published at Cambridge, in 12mo., The Young Divine's Apology for his continuance in the University, with certain Meditations, written by Nathaniel Pownoll, late student of Christ-church College, Oxon, and dedicated to the eloquent Dr. King, at that time Bishop of London. This book I have not been able to obtain, and I am indebted for the knowledge of its existence to the MS. collections of the indefatigable Cole. It would certainly tend to illustrate the poet's history.
Of Fletcher's theological acquirements we have no memorials; but we are entitled to conclude that he was an able and earnest preacher. We learn from Fuller, that when he preached at St. Mary's, his prayer before the sermon usually consisted of one entire allegory, "not driven but led on, most proper in all particulars." The few specimens we possess of his prose, afford sufficient testimony of his learning and eloquence; but of the propriety of his allegorical prayers I may be permitted to entertain a doubt.
After 1612 there is a blank in the history of Fletcher, until his settlement in the rectory of Alderton, in Suffolk. Fuller says, that he was placed there "by exchange of livings;" but 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. I think it very likely that he was presented to the living by Sir Robert Naunton, whose family were the patrons of the church, and had their residence in the parish. Naunton was Public Orator during several years of Fletcher's residence at Cambridge, and being himself a member of Trinity, it was natural that he should be desirous of forming an acquaintance with an individual so much esteemed as the author of Christ's Victorie must have been by many of his contemporaries.
Fletcher did not live long to reap the advantage of his new 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 that 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."
Fletcher's death is supposed to have taken place about the year 1623. But Fuller, the only authority upon whom we could, in this instance, safely rely, has left a blank for the last figure. The disquiet of his later years, together with his absence from books, and the derangement of his papers, caused him to be sometimes unsatisfactory with regard to accuracy in dates; his omission cannot now be remedied. I am enabled to state, through the kindness of the Rev. Addington Norton, the present Rector of Alderton, that no record of Giles Fletcher is preserved, either in the church or the parish, and the register-books only go back to the year 1674.
Giles Fletcher left a widow, who was subsequently married to Mr. Ramsay, the minister of Rougham, a small village in Norfolk. From this individual, both Fuller's and Lloyd's information respecting the poet was derived, and it could have been wished, in this instance, that they had allowed their curiosity greater scope. Of Mr. Ramsay I know nothing. Cole mentions a person of that name who was junior Proctor in 1616.
Such is the brief amount of the imperfect intelligence I have been able to gather respecting Giles Fletcher. Of his manners and conversation, of all that imparts a peculiar interest to biography, no anecdotes have been preserved. The earlier years of his life were spent in the cloistered quiet of a College, and his later days, we have reason to fear, were worn out in sorrow and sickness. His most lasting memorial exists in his poem, and in it we may discover the spirit of the author looking mildly and beautifully forth. Into the merits of this composition, I propose to enter somewhat at length.
The life of Phineas was equally unobtrusive with his brother's, and more happy in its termination. He was admitted from Eton, a scholar of King's College, Cambridge, in 1600, where he took his degree of B.A. in 1604, and that of M.A. in 1608: he subsequently became a Fellow of the College. In 1621 he was presented to the living of Hilgay, in Norfolk, by Sir Henry Willoughby, and probably retained it until his death, which is supposed to have happened about 1650, in which year he was succeeded by Arthur Tower, admitted by the Committee of plundered ministers. P. Fletcher passed many of his youthful days among his father's friends, in Kent. His poems contain frequent allusions to the beauty of its scenery, and a desire is expressed to pipe his simple song in "some humble Kentish dale," in "woody Cranebrook," or on "high Brenchley Hill," or by the "rolling Medway." The poetry, and the learning of Wyat and Sidney, have endeared Kent to the lovers of literature. The ancestors of Waller, of Cowper, and of Hammond, had also their seats in this county.
P. Fletcher's poems, although not published until the author was "entering upon his winter," we learn from the dedication to Mr. Edward Benlowes, were the "raw essays" of his "very unripe years." Of his principal composition, The Purple Island, it does not come within my plan to give an elaborate account. It was praised by Cowley, and Quarles addressed the author as the Spenser of the age. Much of the picturesque fancy of the Faery Queen certainly plays over the ingenious eccentricities of The Purple Island. Fletcher possessed, in no small degree, the same rich imagination, the same love of allegorical extravagances, and the same sweetness and occasional majesty of numbers. But of all the qualities required to form a poet, Fletcher was especially deficient in taste, in that sense of the soul, which, by a kind of Ithuriel instinct, examines every image and epithet, and rejects them when not accordant with the dignity of the art. No man of genius, with the exception of Fletcher, and Quarles, who meditated a poem on a similar subject, would have thought of versifying the structure of the human body. Many parts of the Purple Island read like one of Sir Astley Cooper's lectures turned into metre. Fletcher's medical acquirements must have been considerable. But in the midst of all the wearying minutiae of physiological details, the reader is sometimes refreshed by touches of pure and natural description, worthy of Thomson or Burns. How exquisite is this picture of the lark:—
The cheerful lark, mounting from early bed,
With sweet salutes awakes the drowsy light;
The earth she left, and up to heaven is tied-
There chants her Maker's praises out of sight.
Purple Island, c. 9, st. 2.
I return to the consideration of Christ's Victorie.
In his address To the Reader, Fletcher endeavours to conciliate the prejudices entertained by many against religious poetry. "What should I speak, he says, of Juvencus, Prosper, and the wise Prudentius; the last of which living in Hierom's time, twelve hundred years ago, brought forth in his declining age so many and so religious poems, straitly charging his soul not to let pass so much as one either night or day without some divine song: and as sedulous Prudentius, so prudent Sedulius was famous in this poetical divinity, the coetan of Bernard, who sang the history of Christ with as much devotion in himself as admiration to others, all of which were followed by the choicest wits of Christendome — Nonnus translating all St. John's Gospel into Greek verse; Sannazar, the late living image and happy imitator of Virgil, bestowing ten years upon a song, only to celebrate that one day when Christ was borne unto us on earth, and we (a happy change) unto God in heaven; Thrice honoured Bartas, and our (I know no other name more glorious than his own) Mr. Edmund Spenser (two blessed souls) not thinking ten years enough, laying out their whole lives upon this one study."
The following eloquent passage may be compared with Sidney's Defence of Poesie:—
"To the second sort, therefore, that eliminate poets out of their city gates as though they were now grown so bad, as they could neither grow worse nor better, though it be somewhat hard for those to be the only men should want cities, that were the only causers of the building of them, and somewhat inhuman to thrust them into the woods, who were the first that called men out of the woods.
"I would gladly learn what kind of professions these men would be intreated to entertain that so deride and disaffect poesy. Would they admit of philosophers, that after they have burnt out the whole candle of their life in the circular study of sciences, cry out at length, 'se nihil prorsus scire?' Or should musicians be welcome to them that 'Dant sine mente sonum,' bring delight with them indeed, could they as well express with their instruments a voice, as they can a sound. Or would they most approve of soldiers) that defend the life of their countrymen, either by the death of themselves or their enemies?
"If philosophers please them, who is it that knows not that all the lights of example to clear their precepts are borrowed by philosophers from poets; that without Homer's examples, Aristotle would be as blind as Homer. If they retain musicians, who ever doubted but that poets infused the very soul into the inarticulate sounds of music-that without Pindar and Horace, the Lyrics had been silenced for ever? If they must needs entertain soldiers, who can but confess that poets restore that life again to soldiers, which they before lost for the safety of their country; that without Virgil, Aeneas had never been so much as heard of. How can they, for shame, deny common-wealths to them, who were the first authors of them; how can they deny the blind philosopher that teaches them, his light; the empty musician that delights them, his soul; the dying soldier that defends their life, immortality after his own death. Let philosophy, let ethics, let all the arts bestow on us this gift, that we be not thought dead men whilst we remain among the living; it is only poetry can make us be thought living men when we lie among the dead. And, therefore, I think it unequal to thrust them out of our cities, that call us out of our graves, to think so hardly of them that make us to be so well thought of, to deny them to live awhile among us, that make us live for ever among our posterity."
If Fletcher's sermons were composed in this style, their loss deserves to be lamented.
The poem is divided into four cantos, and opens with a stanza so antithetically constructed as, in some measure, to impair the solemnity of the subject; but Fletcher soon rises into a nobler strain when he thinks of those
Sacred writings, in whose antique leaves
The memories of heaven entreasured lie.
Milton's Invocation to the Holy Spirit in the Paradise Regained is considered by Mr. Dunster "supremely beautiful;" it does not surpass the solemn and enraptured piety of Fletcher:—
O thou that didst this holy fire infuse,
And taught this breast, but late the grave of hell,
Wherein a blind and dead heart lived, to swell
With better thoughts; send down those lights that lend
Knowledge how to begin, and how to end,
The love that never was, and never can be penn'd.
In the first canto, Christ's Victorie in Heaven, the poet traces the redemption of man to the pleadings of Mercy, who dwelt in the quiet of that Sabbath where "saintly heroes" rest from their labours. When Mercy beheld the ruin of that "Golden Building," once illuminated with every "star of excellence," she is represented lifting up "the music of her voice" against the decrees of fate.
The interposition of offended Justice is grandly conceived:—
But Justice had no sooner Mercy seen
Smoothing the wrinkles of her Father's brow,
But up she starts, and throws herself between;
As when a vapour from a moory slough
Meeting with fresh Eous, that but now
Open'd the world which all in darkness lay,
Doth heaven's bright face of his rays disarray,
And sads the smiling orient of the springing day.
She was a virgin of austere regard,
Not as the world esteems her, deaf and blind,
But as the eagle, that hath oft compar'd
Her eye with heaven's, so, and more brightly shin'd
Her lamping sight; for she the same could wind
Into the solid heart, and with her ears
The silence of the thought loud speaking hears,
And in one hand a pair of even scales she wears.
No riot of affection revel kept
Within her breast, but a still apathy
Possessed all her soul, which softly slept,
Securely, without tempest; no sad cry
Awakes her pity, but wrong'd Poverty
Sending her eyes to heaven swimming in tears
And hideous clamours ever struck her ears,
Whetting the blazing sword that in her hand she bears.
The winged lightning is her Mercury,
And round about her mighty thunders sound;
Impatient of himself lies pining by
Pale Sickness, with his kercher'd head up wound,
And thousand noisome plagues attend her round:
But if her cloudy brow but once grow foul,
The flints do melt, the rocks to water roll,
And airy mountains shake, and frighted shadows howl.
Famine and bloodless Care, and bloody War,
Want, and the want of knowledge how to use
Abundance, Age, and Fear that runs afar
Before his fellow Grief, that aye pursues
His winged steps; for who would not refuse
Grief's company, a dull and raw-boned spright,
That lanks the cheeks and pales the freshest sight,
Unbosoming the cheerful breast of all delight.
Before this cursed throng goes Ignorance,
That needs will lead the way it cannot see;
And, after all, Death doth his flag advance,
And in the midst Strife still would roguing be,
Whose ragged flesh and clothes did well agree.
And round about amazed Horror flies,
And over all, Shame veils his guilty eyes,
And underneath Hell's hungry throat still yawning lies.
Justice is portrayed leaning her bosom upon "two stone tables spread before her;" and the poet, in order to impress more deeply the fearful horror of that "scroll" on the mind, makes the terror and darkness of the Appearance upon Mount Sinai to rush upon our memory, when the affrighted children of Israel, like "A wood of shaking leaves became." — The grandeur and dignity of Justice are expressed by the hush and stillness of the entire universe, waiting in awe for the opening of her lips. In this silence of heaven and earth, Justice proceeds to accuse and convict man of wickedness and ingratitude. But in this part of the poem Fletcher forgot the sublimity of the occasion; he amuses himself with a sort of metaphysical ingenuity, as when speaking of Adam's covering of leaves he asks,
—for who ever saw
A man of leaves a reasonable tree?
And in some of the verses he seems to have studied that epigrammatic brevity and rapidity of interrogation, which so delighted his brother's eccentric friend, Quarles; but though the author of the Enchiridion might hang a garland at "the door of those fantastic chambers," every true lover of Fletcher's poetry will regret to see him lingering within their threshold.
I must not, however, omit the 28th stanza:—
What, should I tell how barren Earth is grown
All for to starve her children? Did'st not thou
Water with heavenly showers her womb unsown,
And drop down clouds of flowers? Did'st not thou bow
Thine easy ear unto the plowman's vow;
Long might he look, and look, and long in vain,
Might load his harvest in an empty wain,
And heat the woods to find the poor oak's hungry grain.
The effect of the address of Justice is given with great sublimity:—
She ended, and the heavenly Hierarchies
Burning in zeal, thickly imbranded were:
Like to an army that alarum cries,
And every one shakes his ydreaded spear,
And the Almighty's self, as he would tear
The earth, and her firm basis quite in sunder,
Flam'd all in just revenge, and mighty thunder,
Heaven stole itself from earth by clouds that moisten'd under.
The awful grandeur of celestial indignation seems to lift itself up in the majesty of these lines. The sudden preparation of the heavenly warriors, the clangor of arms and the uprising of the Deity himself, are splendid images, which are known to the reader of Paradise Lost not to have escaped the notice of Milton. The pause at the beginning of the stanza is a note of solemn preparation.
The reappearance of Mercy in the midst of darkness and tumult is very picturesque; her face soon glimmers through, and paints the clouds with beauty—
As when the cheerful sun, elamping wide,
Glads all the world with his uprising ray,
And woo's the widow'd earth afresh to pride,
And paints her bosom with the flow'ry May,
His silent sister steals him quite away:
Wrapt in a sable cloud from mortal eyes
The hasty stars at noon begin to rise,
And headlong to his early roost the sparrow flies.
But soon as he again deshadow'd is,
Restoring the blind world his blemish'd sight,
As though another day were newly his,
The cozen'd birds busily take their flight,
And wonder at the shortness of the night.
So Mercy once again herself displays,
Out from her sisters cloud, and open lays
Those sunshine looks whose beams would dim a thousand days.
The poet then describes the charms of Mercy in verses sparkling as the "discoloured plumes" of the graces that attend upon her. His "golden phrases flie" in a stream of "choicest rhetoric."
The gentleness of Mercy is contrasted with the haggard wretchedness of Repentance:—
Deeply, alas, impassioned she stood,
To see a flaming brand toss'd up from hell,
Boiling her heart in her own lustful blood,
That oft for torment she would loudly yell;
Now she would sighing sit, and now she fell
Crouching upon the ground in sackloth trust,
Early and late she pray'd, and fast she must,
And all her hair hung full of ashes end of dust.
The reader may remember the picture of Remorse in the introduction to the Mirrour for Magistrates:—
And first within the porch and jaws of hell,
Sat deep remorse of conscience, all besprent
With tears; and to herself oft would she tell
Fletcher wanted the energy of Sackville's iron pen. The impersonations of Dread, Revenge, Misery, and Death, placed by that writer in the Porch of Hell, have never been surpassed. They stand out in the ghastly reality of life, and fill the mind with a solemn visionary terror.
When Mercy beheld the wretched form of Repentance sitting in "a dark valley" she sent to comfort her one of her loveliest attendants, "smiling Eirene,"
—That a garland wears
Of gilded olive on her fairer hairs.
There is one exquisite line in the 82nd stanza, in allusion to the shepherds at the nativity:—
And them to guide unto their Master's home,
A star comes dancing up the orient.
The first canto concludes thus:—
Bring, bring, ye Graces, all your silver flaskets,
Painted with every choicest flower that grows,
That I may soon unflower your fragrant baskets,
To strew the field with odours where he goes,
Let whatsoe'er he treads on be a rose.
So down she let her eyelids fall, to shine
Upon the rivers of bright Palestine.
So beautifully does the poet strew with flowers the path of the infant Jesus.
The second canto, Christ's Victorie on Earth, opens with the temptation of our Saviour in the wilderness. The fanciful prettiness of Fletcher contrasts upleasingly with the calm and dignified narrative of Milton, who, without departing from the text of Scripture, where it is said, "Jesus was led up of the Spirit into the wilderness," has invested it with a poetical character. Fletcher's picture of our Saviour upon "a grassy hillock laid," with "woody primroses befreckled," does not impress us like Milton's description of Him, who the "better to converse with solitude," entered the
bordering desert wild,
And with dark shades and rocks environ'd round,
pursued "his holy meditations." The silence of the desert dwells around us!
In the representation of our Lord's personal appearance Fletcher has manifested a still greater absence of judgment; it is principally formed from the Canticles, and in a style of fantastical colouring, peculiarly displeasing in a sacred poem. The author might, however, have pleaded the prevalent taste of the age in extenuation. Two nights the Saviour has passed in "the silent wilderness," making "the ground his bed, and his moist pillow grass," when he discovers afar off an old palmer, "come footing slowly," who entreats him to bless his lowly roof with his presence. Milton concurred with Fletcher in concealing the Prince of Darkness under the form of an aged man. This similitude appears to have been generally adopted. In La Vita et Passione di Christo, published at Venice in 1518, a wooden cut is prefixed to the Temptation, in which Satan is represented as an old man with a long beard, offering bread to our Lord. In Vischer's cuts to the Bible, as noticed by Thyer, the tempter is an aged man, and Mr. Dunster has pointed out the same circumstance in the painting of the Temptation by Salvator Rosa.
They wander along together until they arrive at a dismal abode, the Cave of Despair:—
E'er long they came near to a baleful bower,
Much like the mouth of that infernal cave,
That gaping stood, all comers to devour,
Dark, doleful, dreary, like a greedy grave
That still for carrion eareases doth crave.
The ground no herbs but venomous did bear,
Nor ragged trees did leave; but every where
Dead bones and skulls were cast, and bodies hanged were.
Upon the roof the bird of sorrow sat,
Elonging joyful day with her sad note,
And thro' the shady air the fluttering bat
Did wave her leather sails, and blindly float,
While with her wings the fatal screech-owl smote
Th' unblessed house; there, on a craggy stone,
Celeno hung, and made his direful moan,
And all about the murdered ghosts did shriek and groan.
Like cloudy moonshine in some shadowy grove,
Such was the light in which Despair did dwell;
But he himself with night for darkness strove.
His black uncombed locks dishevell'd fell
About his face; thro' which, as brands of hell
Sunk in his skull, his starry eyes did glow,
That made him deadly look, their glimpse did show
Like cockatrices' eyes that sparks of poison throw.
His clothes were ragged clouts, with thorns pinn'd fast;
And as he musing lay, to stony fright
A thousand wild Chimeras would him cast:
As when a fearful dream in midst of night
Skips to the brain and phansies to the sight
Some winged fury, straight the hasty foot,
Eager to fly, cannot pluck up its root:
The voice dies in the tongue, and mouth gapes without boot.
Now he would dream that he from Heaven fell,
And then would snatch the air afraid to fall
And now he thought he sinking was to Hell,
And then would grasp the earth, and now his stall
Him seemed Hell, and then he out would craul:
And ever as he crept would squint aside,
Lest him, perhaps, some fury had espied,
And then, alas! he should in chains for ever bide!
The most material features of this description, remarks Mr. Headley , are taken from Spenser's Fairy Queen, lib. i., canto 9, st. 33, 36. This, he adds, is a curious instance of plagiarism, and serves to show us how little ceremony the poets of that day laboured under in pilfering from each other. If Giles Fletcher had been living, he would probably have thought the critics of this day laboured under very little ceremony in accusing the "poets of that day" of thefts, without sufficiently examining their extent. From the following portion of the 33rd stanza of the Faerie Queen, Fletcher borrowed, it will be seen, two lines:
Ere long they came where that same wicked wight,
His dwelling has in a low hollow cave....
Dark, doleful, dreary, like a greedy grave,
That still for carrion carcases doth crave.
The other plagiarism is found in the dress of despair; but the value of the "ragged clouts," and the thorns that fastened them, is very small, and forms no material feature of the picture. Spenser partly borrowed his own description from Sackville. Fletcher, who was a most diligent student of the works of Spenser, had his great prototype continually before his eyes, and his sweet words floating in his ears. In reading the description of the Cave of Dispair, I have been reminded of one or two passages in the Faerie Queen; in the second book, where Mammon conducts Guyon to see his treasure, we find "sad Celeno sitting on a clifte."
Into this cave "the serpent woo'd him with his charms" to enter, but without success. Our Lord is next transported to
—The sacred pinnacles that threat
With their aspiring tops Astraea's starry seat.
Here was spread the pavilion of Presumption. This allegory is in the style of Spenser; but Milton, by keeping closer to the scriptural account, has produced a sublimer effect. The "specular mount," from whence are beheld all the cities and empires of the East, Niniveh and Babylon, and Ecbatana, and the city of the Hundred Gates, is a magnificent picture.
When Presumption has in vain endeavoured to tempt the Saviour to throw himself from the mountain, in rage and despair, "herself she tumbled head-long to the floor," while a choir of angels receives our Lord, and bears him to an "airy mountain." Suddenly an enchanted garden springs up in that cold solitude, "As if the snow had melted into flowers."
The following stanza might have flowed from the "golden mouth" of Milton.
Not lovely Ida might with this compare,
Though many streams his banks besilvered,
Though Zanthus with his golden sands he bare,
Nor Hybla, though his thyme depastured,
As fast again with honey blossomed,
Nor Rhodope's nor Tempe's flowery plain,
Adonis' garden was to this but vain,
Though Plato on his beds a flood of praise doth rain.
The aspect of the garden is described in a line breathing the glowing beauty of oriental poetry;
The garden like a ladie fair was cut,
That lay as if she slumbered in delight.
Upon a "hilly bank" was built "the bower of Vain-Delight," end through this false Eden, the "first destroyer," led our Saviour. Throughout this canto, Fletcher evidently had the pictures of Spenser before his eyes; the fount of silver, the "plump Lyaeus," and the shadows of the "drunken elms," all whisper of the great author of the Faerie Queen. But if Fletcher borrowed from Spenser, he in turn has been imitated by Milton. We are reminded of the "Table richly spread, in regal mode," — (Par. Reg. b. 2.) which Satan caused to rise up in the desert before Jesus, with the attending Naiades bearing "fruits and flowers from Amalthea's horn,' and the fair "ladies of the Hesperides." Milton does not, indeed, like Fletcher, employ them as objects of temptation, an assumption not sanctioned by the Evangelists; but (as Bishop Newton has remarked) with greater propriety makes them the subject of debate among the wicked spirits themselves. The hand of Milton, at least in a sacred theme, was always guided by a religious fear and awe.
The song put into the mouth of the Sorceress by Fletcher, is an excellent specimen, the only one extant, of his lyrical talents; and probably furnished Herrick with a hint for his beautiful little poem — Gather ye Rosebuds.
The third book is entitled Christ's Triumph over Death, and commemorates the crucifixion of our Lord. I have already alluded to Fletcher's want of art in the composition of his poem, and of order in the narrative. The third book is particularly open to this objection some parts are, however, very sublime. The traitor Judas, suffering under the horrors of an accusing conscience, is worthy the pencil of Michael Angelo.
When wild Pentheus, grown mad with fear,
Whole troops of hellish hags about him spies,
Two bloody suns stalking the dusky sphere,
And two-fold Thebes runs rolling in his eyes;
Or through the scene staring Orestes flies,
With eyes flung back upon his mother's ghost,
That with infernal serpents all imbost,
And torches quench'd with blood, doth her stern son accost....
Yet oft he snatched, and started as he hung—
So when the senses half enslumbered lie,
The headlong body ready to be flung
By the deluding fancy from some high
And craggy rock, recovers greedily,
And clasps the yielding pillow half asleep,
And as from heaven it tumbled to the deep,
Feels a cold sweat through every member creep.
Euripides might have written these stanzas in the season of his solemn inspiration. In the "staring Orestes," we seem to behold the wretched mourner burst from the enfolding arms of the weeping Electra, and fleeing in horror from the furies surrounding his couch.
The poet describes Joseph of Arimathea at the cross. The still grief of the humble and affectionate mourner is very affecting.
But long he stood in his faint arms upholding
The fairest spoil heaven ever forfeited,
With such a silent passion grief unfolding,
That had the sheet but on himself been spread,
He for the corse might have been buried.
The departure of Joseph and his companions from the sepulchre is in the same spirit.
Thus spend we tears, that never can be spent
On him that sorrow now no more shall see....
Here bury we
This heavenly earth; here let it softly sleep,
The fairest Shepherd of the fairest sheep.
So all the body kist, and homewards went to weep.
In the fourth canto, Christ's Triumph after Death, Fletcher dwells upon the resurrection of our Saviour, his ascension to his throne in heaven, and the everlasting happiness prepared for the good and virtuous in the kingdom of Paradise.
The following stanza is not, so far as the knowledge of the writer of this notice extends, surpassed in the whole range of our poetry every word is full of beautiful meaning.
No sorrow now hangs clouding on their brow,
No bloodless malady empales their face,
No age drops on their hairs his silver snow,
No nakedness their bodies doth embase,
No poverty themselves and theirs disgrace;
No fear of death the joy of life devours,
No unchaste sleep their precious time deflow'rs,
No loss, no grief, no change, wait on their winged hours.
And the next is little inferior: the picture of the cloud has exceeding delicacy of fancy; it is like a sketch from the pencil of Claude.
And if a sullen cloud, as sad as night,
In which the sun may seem embodied,
Depriv'd of all his dross, we see so white,
Burning in melting gold his watry head,
Or round with ivory edges silvered;
What lustre superexcellent will He
Lighten on those that shall his sunshine see,
In that all glorious court, in which all glories be?
The impersonation of the Deity is in the true spirit of Hebrew poetry, or rather, perhaps, in the conclusion at least, of that beautiful mysticism of which Taylor, in his majestic prose, has furnished such splendid examples:—
In midst of this city celestial,
Where the eternal Temple should have rose,
Lightened the Idea Beatifical:
End and Beginning of each thing that grows,
Whose self, no end nor yet beginning knows;
That hath no eyes to see, nor ears to hear,
Yet sees and hears, and is all eye, all ear,
That nowhere is contain'd, and yet is every where.
Changer of all things, yet immutable,
Before and after all, the first, and last,
That moving all, is yet immoveable,
Great without quantity, in whose forecast
Things past are present, things to come are past;
Swift without motion, to whose open eye
The hearts of wicked men unbreasted lie,
At once absent and present to them, far and nigh.
It is no flaming lustre made of light,
No sweet concent or well-tim'd harmony,
Ambrosia, for to feast the appetite,
Or flowery odour mixt with spicery,
No soft embrace, or pleasure bodily;
And yet it is a kind of inward feast,
A harmony that sounds within the breast,
An odour, light, embrace, in which the soul doth rest.
Although several poems had appeared in Italy, founded upon the life and temptation of our Saviour, Fletcher claims the merit of having been the first in our own country who strung his lyre to so noble a theme. In the management of the subject he was naturally influenced by the genius of the Faerie Queen, a new edition of which had been published in 1596. Spenser died in 1598-9. At this time Fletcher could scarcely have been more than eleven or twelve years old; but it is evident that his study of Spenser's poem commenced at a very early period. In the foregoing remarks it has been sometimes necessary to bring Fletcher into direct comparison with Milton. The Paradise Regained terminates with the temptation of our Lord, and cannot, therefore, be said to possess that completeness expressed in the title, and demanded by the nature of the subject. I am aware that this opinion is at variance with that of far better and abler judges, but I shall endeavour to support it at a more convenient season in the life of Milton.
The peculiar excellencies of the Paradise Regained and Christ's Victorie, are not difficult to define. In Scriptural simplicity of conception, and in calm and sustained dignity of tone, the palm of superiority must be awarded to Milton; while in fertility of fancy, earnestness of devotion, and melody of expression, Fletcher may be said to stand, at least, upon an equality with him. Christ's Victorie is rather a series of pictures than a poem; it is deficient in unity, and that concentration of interest essential to the success of such a composition.
The power of the writer comes out in occasional touches of great vigour and beauty, indeed, but rendered comparatively ineffective by their uncertainty. His poem, to employ his own magnificent image, does not fling out—
Such light as from main rocks of diamond,
Shooting their sparks at Phoebus, would rebound.
It has not the lustre of one great luminous whole, unbroken in the purity of its splendour; its brilliancy is dazzling, but fragmentary.
Mr. Headley calls Christ's Victorie a rich and picturesque poem, "though unenlivened by impersonation." The author of Select Specimens has received the full meed of praise for talent and ingenuity; his accuracy is not always unimpeachable. If Presumption, Vain Glory, The Sorcerers, The Spirit of Evil, &c., are not impersonations, then there are no impersonations in the Faerie Queen.
I will not protract these remarks any longer; enough has been said, I hope, to induce the reader to examine the poem for himself; and Christ's Victorie only requires to be known, that it may be appreciated.