It has been the fashion among critics and readers of poetry to regard Wither only as a fanatical rhymer and an intemperate puritan; yet, during the longest and brightest period of his life, he was neither. A puritan, indeed, in its true signification, he never was. It has been well observed, that no man was ever written down except by himself. Wither's political follies had, during his later years, been gradually erasing from the public remembrance the sweetness of his early poetry; and the wit and festivity accompanying the Restoration, tended still more to depress his fame. The accomplished Rochester and his companions held the popular mind in a more silken bondage. From the criticism and taste of this season Wither could not hope either for favour or justice. The virulence of party feelings obscured the judgment even of the antiquary Wood; he saw in Locke a prating fellow, and in Milton a villanous incendiary. That Wood, in another place, rendered homage to the singer of Paradise Lost, only proves that the partisan was lost for a while in the admirer of that immortal composition. In days when Milton was only a blind old man, Wither had no right to complain that his poems "were accounted mere scribbles, and the fancies of a conceited and confident mind." Heylin had long before called him an old puritan satirist; and Butler, in his Hudibras, made him the drunken companion of the voluminous Prynne, and the despicable Vicars. Philips, in the Theatrum Poetarum, added his mite of contumely; and Dryden, Swift, and Pope, did not forget to follow his example. Swift, indeed, while sneering at Wither, manifested his taste and discernment by including Dryden in the censure.
In more recent times, critics have not been wanting, equally unkind, and equally uninformed, with respect to the object of their ridicule. Even the amiable and learned Bishop Percy had nothing better to say of the author of the Shepherd's Resolution, and other pastorals, indisputably among the finest of the kind in our language, than that he had "distinguished himself in youth by some pastoral pieces that were not inelegant." Ritson, while confessing that Wither's more juvenile productions would not discredit the first writer of the age, could not refrain from adding, that by "his long, dull, puritanical rhymes, he obtained the title of the English Bavius." This appellation has never been traced beyond Ritson, and may be considered the dull invention of his own pen. The prejudice of Swift and of Ritson has found inheritors in our own day. Mr. D'Israeli, whose ingenuity and talent have met with the praise they deserve, was only able to discover that "this prosing satirist has, in some pastoral poetry, strange to say, opened the right vein." Yet, this "prosing satirist" had written, in the morning of his days, poems, with which the juvenile efforts of Dryden, of Pope, or of Cowley, can bear no comparison; and affording examples of versification singularly correct and musical, and breathing the manly fervour of pure and idiomatic English. Other names of equal influence might be added to the list; but it is pleasing to reflect, that amid all the clamour of petulant ignorance, some hands have been held up in the poet's favour. Dr. Southey, in one of his latest works, has not been ashamed to find in the neglected leaves of Wither, "a felicity of expression, a tenderness of feeling, and an elevation of mind." A word of kindness from one who has "built up the tombs" of so many of our elder poets in a beautiful criticism, ought to be adequately esteemed. Sir Egerton Brydges and Mr. Park have also exerted themselves in the poet's cause, and to their many and careful labours the writer of the following memoir has already acknowledged his obligations.
George Wither was born at Bentworth, near Alton, in Hampshire, and, according to Anthony Wood and Aubrey, on the 11th of June, 1588; but Dalrymple and Park, upon the authority of a copy of Abuses Stript and Whipt, in the possession of Mr. Herbert, have fixed the poet's birth in 1590. The register of baptisms at Bentworth affords no assistance, the earliest entry beginning in 1603. But a conclusive evidence in support of Wood and Aubrey is furnished by Wither himself; in a pamphlet entitled Suit upon Suit, where he says, in August, 1658,—
When I began to know the world and men,
I made records of what I found it then,
Continuing ever since to take good heed
How they stood still, went back, or did proceed;
Till of my scale of time ascending heaven,
The round I stand in maketh ten times seven.
The "ten times seven" will carry his birth back to 1588. George Wither, the poet's father, was descended from the Withers of Manydowne, near Wotton St. Lawrence, in the county of Hants, where one of the family was recently residing.
He had three sons, George, James, and Anthony. The poet's mother was Ann Serle.
George received his early education in the neighbouring village of Colemore, under John Greaves, a celebrated schoolmaster "of those parts," whose merits the young poet honoured in an epigram annexed to Abuses Stript and Whipt, and regretted his inability to do more than repay, "In willingness, in thanks, and gentle words," the affectionate interest and care of the tutor.
Wither's father appears to have been in opulent circumstances, for many years after the poet spoke of the easy luxury of his youthful days:—
When daily I on change of dainties fed,
Lodged, night by night, upon an easy bed,
In lordly chambers, and had wherewithall,
Attendants forwarder than I to call,
Who brought me all things needful; when at hand,
Hounds, hawks, and horses were at my command.
Then choose I did my walks on bills or vallies,
In groves near springs, or in sweet garden allies:
Reposing either in a natural shade,
Or in neat harbours, which by art were made,
Where I might have required, without denial,
The lute, the organ, or deep sounding vial,
To cheer my spirits; with what else beside
Was pleasant, when my friends did thus provide,
Without my cost or labour.
Britain's Remembrancer, canto 3.
In the spring of 1603, Wither was sent to Magdalen College, Oxford, and entered under John Warner, afterwards Bishop of Rochester, a sound logician, and a good and ripe scholar. Wither confessed in later times, that if he had not reaped all the advantages of a collegiate education, it was not because he had been "ill entered:" he left the school of Greaves, no stranger to "Lilly's Latin, or Camden's Greek." His poetical talents were speedily developed. While at Magdalen College he is thought to have composed the graceful Love-Sonnet, printed in Ritson's Ancient English Songs. Mr. Park has questioned the genuineness of this poem; but Ritson attributed it to Wither, upon the authority of Hearne, of whom Dr. Bliss has remarked, with great truth, that he rarely affirms any thing without sufficient reason. That the song was written at College, is proved by the allusions to the academical costume, and the summer excursions to Medley, "a large house between Godstow and Oxford, very pleasantly situated just by the river," and rendered still more attractive to the poetic mind by the visits of the fair and unfortunate Rosamond. This house has long been removed.
Anthony Wood insinuates that our poet acquired a little learning at the University, "with much ado."
Wither, who rarely concealed either his errors or his virtues, afterwards confessed, that upon his arrival at "the English Athens," he "fell to wondering at each thing he saw," and passed a month in noting the palaces, temples, cloisters, walks, and groves. The "Bell of Osney," and "old Sir Harry Bath," and the forest of Shotover were not forgotten. In the midst of those agreeable occupations, he never "drank at Aristotle's well." But at length he says, the kind affection of his tutor,
From childish humours gently called me in,
And with his grave instructions did begin
To teach; and by his good persuasion sought
To bring me to a love of what he taught.
Warner neither encouraged idleness in himself, nor permitted it in others.
The young poet found it easier to "practise at the tennis-ball" than to comprehend the mysteries of logic; his understanding was confused by the rules of "old Scotus, Seton, and new Keckerman." This state of stupor continued a considerable time, and it was not until Cynthia "had six times lost her borrowed light," that being ashamed to find himself outstripped by every little ignorant "dandiprat," he devoted his mind in earnest to master the difficulty. A little determination will accomplish great things. Wither soon felt his "dull intelligence" begin to open, and was astonished to discover that he
In half an hour, than half a year before.
These pleasing occupations were soon to be interrupted.
He had been at Oxford about two years, and was beginning to love a College-life, when he was suddenly removed by his friends, and taken home "to hold the plough." He alludes to this unwelcome change in Abuses Whipt and Stript, where he speaks of returning in discontent to "the beechy shadows of Bentworth." But Wither held the plough with no willing hand, and much of his time seems to have been occupied in wandering about the pleasant country around Alton, whose neighbourhood has been invested with a peculiar interest by the reputed partiality of Spenser, who, in this "delicate sweet air" is said to have "enjoyed his Muse and writ good part of his verses" [Author's note: According to Aubrey, who received the information from his friend, Mr. Samuel Woodford, who lived near Alton]. In the sequestered grassy lanes of Bentworth, the young poet might dream away the summer-hours in the serenest meditations. But Wither's sojourn at home was imbittered by the officious interference of friends, who continually urged his relations to apprentice him to "some mechanick trade." To escape from these new-found crocodiles, as he calls them, he came to London, resolved to try his fortune at Court. Wither was now only eighteen years old, a fact I have ascertained from the 22nd emblem of the 1st book, in which he says—
My hopeful friends, at thrice five years and three,
Without a guide (into the world alone)
To seek my fortune did adventure me.
And many hazards I alighted on—
The emblem, of which these verses form a partial illustration, represents the choice of Hercules, and tells the story with considerable force. In the middle of the picture stands the bold ardent youth; on the right hand is seated Wisdom, with flowing beard and open book; and on the left is Vice, with one hand lifting the "painted vizard" from her face, so as to give a glimpse of the deformity of her features, and by her side lie a skull and cross-bones, the insignia of Death.
Soon after his arrival in the metropolis, Wither entered himself of Lincoln's Inn, and appears to have formed an early intimacy with William Browne, the pastoral poet, who belonged to the Inner Temple. But his geny, says Anthony Wood, hanging after things more smooth and delightful, he did at length make himself known to the world (after he had taken several rambles therein) by certain specimens of poetry, which being dispersed in several hands, he became shortly after a public author. Of these several rambles we have no account, but it is probable that the young poet visited Ireland and Scotland; for in the list of his works we find, Iter Hibernicum, or, an Irish Voyage, and Iter Boreale, or, a Northern Journey. The MSS. of these poems were lost, we are told by Wither, when his house was plundered, or by some other accident, and Wood was in error, therefore, in saying that they had been recovered, and "printed more than once."
Among Wither's lost works is a prose tract, entitled, "Pursuit of Happiness, being a character of the author's extravagances and passions in his youth." This would be a treasure to the poet's biographer.
The untimely death of Prince Henry, in 1612, was the theme of universal grief and lamentation. "The world here," wrote Chamberlain to Sir Dudley Carleton, "is much dismayed at the loss of so hopeful and likely a prince all of a sudden." Poetic garlands, without number, were showered upon his hearse. Bishop Hall lamented the "unseasonable death of his sweet master, Prince Henrie;" and Drayton, W. Browne, Chapman, Donne, Sylvester, Heywood, Webster, Drummond of Hawthornden, Wither, and many more, added their tribute to the general elegy. The offering of Wither was one of the most interesting, both in tone and expression, and breathes an affectionate sincerity, rarely found in poems of this description. When Prince Henry, during the King's visit to Oxford, in 1605, "sat in the midst of the upper table," in the Hall of Magdalen College, Wither, then an undergraduate, formed one of the throng ranged along the sides.
The 32nd elegy offers a favourable specimen. The body of the Prince, it should be remembered, was embalmed, and carried in the funeral procession;—
Then as he past along you might espy
How the grieved vulgar, that shed many a tear,
Cast after an unwilling parting eye,
As loth to lose the sight they held so dear.
When they had lost the figure of his face,
Then they beheld his robes, his chariot then,
Which being hid, their look aim'd at the place,
Still longing to behold him once again;
But when he was quite past, and they could find
No object to employ their sight upon,
Sorrow became more busy with the mind,
And drew an army of sad passions on,
Which made them so particularly moan,
Each among thousands seemed as if alone.
The grandeur of the last line has been often imitated. All the elegies, however, are not equally excellent. The 34th begins, "Black was Whitehall," — a noble specimen of the bathos.
In the following year, Wither's Muse awoke a livelier measure, to celebrate the union of the Princess Elizabeth with the Count Palatine of the Rhine. Mr. Dalrymple says, that no edition of the Epithalamia is mentioned earlier than 1622; but he might have found them in The Works of Master George Wither, published by Thomas Walkley, in 1620. According to Dr. Bliss, they were first printed in 4to., in 1613. At the commencement of the poems, Wither describes himself to have been "lately grieved more than can be expressed," and determining to "shut up his Muse in dark obscurity," he
—In content, the better to repose,
A lonely grove upon a mountain chose,
East from Caer-winn, midway 'twixt Arle and Dis,
True springs where Britain's true Arcadia is.
But before he departed, the winter which, in a marginal note we are informed, was exceedingly tempestuous, had set in. His Muse ingeniously accounts to him for the recent floods, by the gathering together of the tributary streams of the Thames to honour the approaching "match betwixt great Thame and Rhine." For this hyperbole Wither might have pleaded the example of Bishop Hall, who had traced the unseasonable winter to the death of Prince Henry. Our poet returned to London in the beginning of spring:—
My lonely life I suddenly forsook,
And to the Court again my journey took....
The winter 'gan to change in every thing,
And seemed to borrow mildness of the spring,
The violet and primrose fresh did grow,
And, as in April, trimm'd both copse and row.
Wither composed the Epithalamia with a twofold object: to honour the Princess, and to convince the public that he "had as well an affable look to encourage honesty, as a stern frown to cast on villany. If the times would suffer me," he adds, "I could be as pleasing others, and, perhaps, ere long I will make you amends for my former rigour." The song of congratulation was worthy of himself and of the occasion; and the manner in which he recommends his rustic melody is very graceful and tender:—
But if amongst Apollo's lays you can
Be pleased to lend a gentle ear to Pan,
Or think your country shepherd loves as dear
As if he were a courtier or a peer;
Then I, that else must to my cell of pain,
Will joyful turn unto my flock again.
The sound of Pan's shepherd-reed was in some danger of being drowned in the general rejoicing and pomp of these sumptuous nuptials; upon the celebration of which, according to Rapin, the enormous sum of £93,278 was expended. Neither should the Water-poet's song be forgotten; In the description of the "sea-fights" and fire-works upon the Thames, Taylor was quite at home.
It has been supposed, upon the authority of a passage in the Warning Piece to London, that the first edition of Abuses Whipt and Stript appeared in 1611; but I am inclined to think that the expression of Wither—
In sixteen hundred ten and one,
I notice took of public crimes,
refers to an earlier publication, from the ill-consequences of which he was extricated by the kind intervention of the young Princess Elizabeth. And this opinion seems to be strengthened by the dedication of his version of the Psalms, in 1632, to that unfortunate lady. "Among those who are in affection of your Majesty's loyal servants I am one; and in my own country great multitudes have took notice of a special obligation which I had, above many others, to honour and serve you. For I do hereby most humbly and thankfully acknowledge, that when my over-forward Muse first fluttered out of her nest, she obtained the preservation of her endangered liberty by your gracious favour; and, perhaps, escaped also thereby that "pinioninge" which would have marred her flying forth for ever after."
The Princess had early evinced her poetical skill in a poem addressed to her guardian, Lord Harington, and may, therefore, be supposed to have interested herself with peculiar pleasure in the cause of an endangered poet. When Wither boasted, in the Shepherds Hunting, that "The noblest Nymph of Thame" had graced his verse unto his "greater fame," he alluded to the same accomplished individual.
Satire, specifically so called, observes Warton in his History of English Poetry, did not commence in England till the latter end of the reign of Elizabeth. Eclogues and Allegories had hitherto been made the vehicles of satire, but the first professed English satirist was Bishop Hall, whose Toothless Satires were printed in 1597. Warton, in this instance, is not implicitly to be followed. Chaucer and Skelton, in particular, had long before furnished specimens of unconcealed and bitter satire; and Gascoigne's Steels Glas, expressly entitled a satire, was published in 1587, ten years before the first appearance of Hall's poems. The eloquent Bishop, indeed, considered himself the first adventurer in this path of poetry, but Mr. Beloe, in the Anecdotes of Literature, and Mr. Collier, in the Poetical Decameron, have both ingeniously attempted, and with apparent success, to establish the prior claims of Thomas Lodge and Dr. Donne. But if Hall was second in point of time, he was first in merit. So much elegance of thought, enforced by such vigour of delineation, and felicity of style, had not been often seen in our poetry.
Hall was followed by Marston, with his "rough-hew'd rhymes," his bitter personalities, his lifelike sketches, and the choice pictorial epithets that won the youthful ear of Milton. Both attacked the vices and follies of the times — Hall, with the scholastic severity of one acquainted with vice only by contemplating its effects in others; and Marston, with a vigour and warmth of colouring betokening a familiarity with the scenes he described. His invectives against crime are frequently only incentives to its commission, unintentionally, we are told, on the author's part, and yet not less dangerous on that account. Warton has excellently remarked, that when Vice is led forth to be sacrificed at the shrine of Virtue, the victim should not be too richly drest. Marston, unfortunately, often bound the garland upon her head. Compared with Bishop Hall, his rhythm is more copious and disengaged, and, although not so carefully modulated, flows with a more sustained energy and power.
The popularity of Hall and Marston gave rise to an "innumerable crop" of Satirists. The dedication of Abuses Whipt and Stript to himself, was probably suggested to Wither by Marston, who had inscribed the Scourge of Villainie to "his most esteemed and beloved self;" and the idea of the title might have been borrowed from the same writer.
Wither wrote his Satire under the excitement of disappointed expectations. In the dedication, he alludes to the imagination of some preferment, and confesses, that being unable to procure any employment, he had applied himself to watching the vices of the times.
He refers, mysteriously, to the destruction of his prospects in the Shepherd's Hunting, where, after detailing, in an allegory, the ravages made by the wild beasts of the Metropolis among the flocks of innocent shepherds, he says,
Yea, I among the rest did fare as bad,
Or rather worse, for the best ewes I had,
Whose breed should be my means of hope and gain,
Were in one evening by these monsters slain,
Which mischief I resolved to repay,
Or else grow desperate, and hunt all away.
For in a fury (such as you shall see
Huntsmen in missing of their sport will be)
I vow'd a monster should not lurk about,
In all this province but I'd find him out.
And thereupon, without respect or care,
How, lame, how full, or how unfit they were,
In haste unkennell'd all my roaring crew,
Who were as road as if my mind they knew.
This roaring crew consisted of his Satyrs, which Wither followed in full cry through
Hamlets, tithings, parishes, and boroughs,
Through kitchen, parlour, hall and chamber too—
And as they pass'd the City, and the Court,
My Prince look'd out and deign'd to view the sport.
Far, however, from lamenting his ill-success, Wither rejoiced that God, "by dashing his hopes," had called him to himself again. Considered as the work of a young man, who came to the task with no preparation of books or study, Abuses Whipt and Stript merits our approbation. In the Address to the Reader, we are cautioned not to look "for Spenser's or Daniel's well-composed numbers, or the deep conceits of now flourishing Jonson." He purposely avoided speaking in "dark parables," and rejected as useless, all "poetical additions and feigned allegories."
Warton says that Wither's poem is characterized by a vein of severity unseasoned by wit; but I have yet to learn that wit, in the common acceptation of the word, is necessary to the formation of a satirist. We find little of it in Juvenal, and still less in Dr. Johnson's noble imitation of his manner. The vices and crimes of men are not to be cured or restrained by laughing at them. The light arrows of mirthful irony and humour make no impression on their coat of steel; it is only by the "mailed and resolved hand" of virtuous indignation that their coverings call be rent away, and their natural deformity and loathsomeness exposed. If Wither had not the hand to do this, he had at least the desire, and he came up to Milton's idea of the duties of a satirist, by striking high, and adventuring dangerously "at the most eminent vices among the greatest persons;" and he afforded an example, in his own person, that if a satire was not always "born out of a Tragedy," it frequently terminated in one.
Appended to the Satire are several epigrams addressed to various individuals, and among others to Lord Ridgeway, whom Wither commemorates as the first that "graced and gratified his Muse." Henry, Earl of Southampton, the patron of Shakspeare, and one of the founders of Virginia; William, Earl of Pembroke, of whose almost universal generosity to poets I shall have another opportunity of speaking; and Lady Mary Wroth, the niece of Sir Philip Sydney, and the authoress of a long and tedious romance, in imitation of the Arcadia, entitled Urania.
At the end of Abuses, &c., is a poem called the Scourge, in which Wither appears to have gratified his malignity at the expense of his honesty. Wood, who had never seen the Scourge, speaks of it as a separate publication, but it forms a postscript to the edition of Abuses Whipt and Stript, in 1615, and from the terms in which the Author refers to it, may he supposed to have occupied the same place in the earlier edition. The following attack upon an upright and honourable man cannot be justified.
And prithee tell the B. Chancellor,
That thou art sent to be his counsellor,
And tell him if he mean not to be stript,
And like a school-boy once again be whipt,
His worship would not so bad minded be,
As to pervert judgment for a scurvy fee.
The individual here alluded to must have been Lord Ellesmere, a man whose excellence of heart and purity of mind obtained the suffrages of his contemporaries. He died in 1616, and James received the seals with his own hand from the expiring Chancellor. Hacket says of him, in the Life of Archbishop Williams, that he never did, spoke, or thought any thing undeserving of praise. It is a singular fact, that Lord Bacon and Bishop Williams, who both partook of his generous patronage, should have succeeded him in his high office. The poet Donne, who, on his return from Spain, had become Secretary to Lord Ellesmere, was deprived of the benefit of the connexion by his secret marriage with the daughter of Sir George More.
The Satire produced, it is to be feared, no salutary effects upon the public morals, but it sent the imprudent author to the Marshalsea prison. Of the sufferings he endured there, Wither has left an affecting account in the Scholler's Purgatory. "All my apparent good intentions," he says, "were so mistaken by the aggravation of some ill affected towards my endeavours, that I was shut up from the society of mankind, and, as one unworthy the compassion vouchsafed to thieves and murderers, was neither permitted the use of my pen, the access or sight of acquaintance, the allowances usually afforded other close prisoners, nor means to send for necessaries befitting my present condition: by which means I was for many days compelled to feed on nothing but the coarsest bread, and sometimes locked up four-and-twenty hours together, without so much as a drop of water to cool my tongue: and being at the same time in one of the greatest extremities of sickness that was ever inflicted upon my body, the help both of physician and apothecary was uncivilly denied me. So that if God had not, by resolutions of the mind which he infused into me, extraordinarily enabled me to wrestle with those and such other afflictions as I was then exercised with all, I had been dangerously and lastingly overcome. But of these usages," he adds, "I complain not; He that made me, made me strong enough to despise them."
Wither's account of his sufferings may have been somewhat exaggerated; for Taylor, the Water-poet, who knew him well, informs us that multitudes of people came to him "in pilgrimage during his imprisonment," and provided him with every necessary. But though multitudes might have made a pilgrimage to the Marshalsea, it does not follow that either they or the provisions were admitted to the prisoner. Indeed the banishment of his friends, and the "exclusion from the Sacred Rites," were the constant subjects of the poet's lamentation.
It was not in the heart of Wither to be idle, or to yield to the depressing influence of his fortune; he seemed to experience, in its truest meaning, the sentiment afterwards expressed by the accomplished Lovelace, when confined in the Gatehouse at Westminster;
Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage;
Minds innocent and quiet, take
That for a hermitage.
During his imprisonment he composed the Shepherd's Hunting, a pastoral poem of great beauty, and containing one passage in particular, the celebrated address to poesy, which will not be forgotten while the love of poetry shall endure amongst us. It is dedicated to those "virtuous friends" who visited him in the Marshalsea, and professes to be a small return for their many acts of kindness. The poem, he informs us, was no part of his study, but merely a recreation during his solitary hours, neither in his "conceit fitting, nor by him intended to be made common." Some of his friends, however, copied the MS. in his absence, and prepared it for the press before his return. Wither, who seems to have entertained a very unaccountable objection to the publication of the poem, was no longer able to resist the importunity of his friends. The inappropriate title of The Shepherd's Hunting, was given to the work by the stationer.
The following extract from A Prisoner's Lay, is a very beautiful and ingenious adaptation of Scripture to his own peculiar case. It was, indeed, good for him to suffer, if he could thus gather consolation in the midst of sorrow, and, untroubled by the noises of the world without, surrender up his mind to holy meditations:—
First think, my soul, if I have foes
That take a pleasure in my care,
And to procure these outward woes
Have thus enwrapt me unaware;
Thou should'st by much more careful be,
Since greater foes lay wait for thee.
By my late hopes that now are crost,
Consider those that firmer be,
And make the freedom I have lost
A means that may remember thee.
Had Christ not thy Redeemer been,
What horrid state had'st thou been in!
Or when through me thou seest a man
Condemn'd unto a mortal death,
How sad he looks, how pale, how wan,
Drawing, with fear, his panting breath:
Think if in that such grief thou see,
How sad will "Go ye cursed" be!
These iron chains, these bolts of steel,
Which often poor offenders grind;
The wants and cares which they do feel
May bring some greater things to mind.
For by their grief thou shalt do well
To think upon the pains of Hell.
Again, when he that feared to die
(Past hope) doth see his pardon brought,
Read but the joy that's in his eye,
And then convey it to thy thought:
Then think between thy heart and thee,
How glad will "Come ye blessed" be!
The Shepherd's Hunting is divided into five eclogues; the fourth is dedicated to "his truly beloved, loving friend, Mr. William Browne," and forms the most poetical part of the composition. It is written in that playful lyric measure, in which no writer, not even Milton in his L'Allegro, has surpassed Wither. He said truly, in "Fair Virtue," that the measure "liketh" him. The heptasyllabic metre had been already rendered popular by Fletcher in his Faithful Shepherdess. The precise period when this exquisite pastoral tragi-comedy, as it is styled by the author, was composed, is not precisely known; but that it was produced and acted before 1611 is evident, from the circumstance of its being praised by Davies in his Scourge of Folly, published in that year. It was most likely printed soon after its first representation, which was very unfavourably received. Ben Jonson called it "a murdered poem," and insinuates that its ill success was attributable to its purity and support of virtue. Italian pastoral poetry had been for some time cultivated in this country. The Amyntas of Tasso, and the Pastor Fido of Guarini, appeared in 1592 and 1602; the first translated by Fraunce, and the second by Dymock. To return to Wither: not often has one poet addressed another in a sweeter strain than the following:—
Go, my Willy, get thee gone,
Leave me in exile alone,
Hie thee to that merry throng
And amaze them with thy song.
Thou art young, yet such a lay
Never graced the month of May,
As (if they provoke thy skill)
Thou canst fit unto the quill.
I, with wonder, heard thee sing
At our last year's revelling:
Then I with the rest was free,
When unknown I noted thee,
And perceived the ruder swains
Envy thy far sweeter strains.
Yea, I saw the lasses cling
Round about thee in a ring;
As if each one jealous were
Any but herself should hear.
Browne did not forsake his friend in the hour of adversity, and Wither gratefully acknowledged that in listening to his cheerful music, he "forgot his wrong."
Of Browne's history little is known. He was educated at Exeter College, Oxford, and subsequently belonged to the Inner Temple. We are told by Wood, that he had a little body and a great mind. The first part of Britannia's Pastorals was published in 1613, when the author was only twenty-three years old, and the second part in 1616. He was the beloved of Drayton and Ben Jonson, and the "severer muse" of Selden commended his "tuned essays." In 1624 he returned to Exeter College in the capacity of tutor to Robert Dormer, afterwards Earl of Caernarvon, who perished in the battle of Newbury. Of the later years of his life no account has been preserved. He appears to have resided in the family of Lord Pembroke, and to have obtained more wealth than usually falls to the lot of poets. But the Earl's Palace was a "Castle of Indolence" to Browne, and his agricultural employments also contributed to withdraw him from the service of the Muse. At any rate, his manhood never realized the promise of his youth. Browne is not popular, and never will be; yet we may say of him, in his own words, that he was
A gentle shepherd, born in Arcady,
That well could tune his pipe, and deftly play
The nymphs asleep with rural minstrelsy.
The song of the bird among the dewy grass, or the faint shadow of a flower upon the water, were inspirations to him. His genius was not of the highest order, but it was pure and gentle; and some of his smaller lyric poems are marked by a Grecian delicacy and finish. One specimen from his Original Poems, first published by Sir Egerton Brydges will not be unacceptable
Yet one day's rest for all my cries,
One hour among so many;
Springs have their Sabbaths, my poor eyes
Yet never met with any.
He that doth but one woe miss,
O Death! to make him thine—
I would to God that I had his,
Or else that he had mine.
To poems like this, we may apply Dryden's remark, in the dedication of the Aeneid, that the sweetest essences are always confined in the smallest glasses. The Happy Life, in the same collection, is not less beautiful.
The following are the exquisite lines upon poetry already referred to; they have been frequently reprinted, but it would be unjust to Wither to omit them in this place:—
And though for her sake I am crost,
Though my best hopes I have lost,
And knew she would make my trouble
Ten times more than ten times double;
I would love and keep her too,
Spite of all the world could do—
For though banisht from my flocks,
And confin'd within these rocks,
Here I waste away the light,
And consume the sullen night,
She doth for my comfort stay,
And keeps many cares away.
Though I miss the flow'ry fields,
With those sweets the spring-tide yields,
Though I may not see those groves,
Where the shepherds chaunt their loves,
And the lasses more excell
Than the sweet-voiced Philomel.
Though of all these pleasures past,
Nothing now remains at last
But Remembrance (poor relief),
That makes more than mends my grief;
She's my mind's companion still,
Maugre Envy's evil will;
She deal tell me where to borrow
Comfort in the midst of sorrow;
Makes the desolatest place
To her presence be a grace,
And the blackest discontents
Be her fairest ornaments.
In my former days of bliss,
Her divine skill taught me this,
That from every thing I saw
I could some invention draw,
And raise pleasure to her height
By the meanest objects sight.
By the murmur of a spring,
Or the least bough's rustleling (rusteling),
Or a daisy whose leaves spread,
Shut when Titan goes to bed,
Or a shady bush or tree,
She could more infuse in me,
Than all nature's beauties can,
In some other wiser man;
By her help I also now,
Make this churlish place allow
Some things that may sweeten gladness
In the very gall of sadness.
The dull lowness, the black shade,
That these hanging vaults have made,
The strange music of the waves
Beating on these hollow caves;
This black den which rocks emboss,
Overgrown with eldest moss—
The rude portals that give light
More to Terror than Delight.
This my chamber of Neglect,
Walled about with Disrespect,—
From all these, and this dull air,
A fit object for Dispair,
She half taught me by her might,
To draw comfort and delight;
Therefore, thou best earthly bliss,
I will cherish thee for this.
Poesie, thou sweet'st content,
That e're Heaven to mortals lent,
Though they as a trifle leave thee,
Whose dull thoughts cannot conceive thee;
Thou then be to them a scorn,
That to nought but earth are born—
Let my life no longer be,
Than I am in love with thee.
The precise period of Wither's imprisonment has not been ascertained; but he was evidently in the Marshalsea during the earlier spring and summer months; for Alexis, in the third eclogue, condoles with him for the loss of his liberty during the pleasant season:—
When every bushy vale
And grove and hill rings with the nightingale.
His confinement is said by Wood to have increased his poetical reputation, especially among the puritanical party, who cried him up the more "for his profuse pouring forth of English rhime." Upon this "long-eared crew," the exquisite melody of the Shepherd's Hunting must have been entirely lost.
The fifth eclogue is dedicated to Master W. F., of the Middle Temple, a friend whom Wither seems to have met at the rooms of Browne. W. F., who, in the Shepherd's Hunting, is represented under the name of Alexis, was unremitting in his attentions to the poet during his abode in the Marshalsea; and in the third eclogue his visits are gratefully remembered:—
Alexis, you are welcome, for you know
You cannot be but welcome where I am;
You ever were a friend of mine in shew,
And I have found you are, indeed, the same.
Upon my first restraint you hither came,
And proffered me more tokens of your love
Than it were fit my small deserts should prove.
Wither did not quietly endure his incarceration. In 1614, he addressed a satire to the King, written with great vigour and freedom. The following indignant lines have all the boldness and strength of Dryden's happiest efforts:—
Do I not know a great man's power and might,
In spite of innocence can smother right,
Colour his villainies to get esteem,
And make the honest man the villain seem.
I know it, and the world doth know 'tis true,
Yet I protest if such a man I knew,
That might my country prejudice, or thee,
Were he the greatest or the proudest he,
That breathes this day; if so it might be found
That any good to either might redound,
I, unappalled, dare in such a case
Rip up his foulest crimes before his face,
Though for my labour I were sure to drop
Into the mouth of ruin without hope.
He grieves only that he had been hitherto "so sparing" of his censure—
I'de have my pen so paint it where it traces,
Each accent should draw blood into their faces,
And make them, when their villainies are blazed,
Shudder and startle as men half-amazed,
For fear my verse should make so loud a din,
Heaven hearing might rain vengeance on our sin.
The last line is an example of a Scriptural truth, most felicitously and appropriately applied. This satire bears a close resemblance in several expressions, and in its general tone, to passages in Ben Jonson's Every Man in his Humour, of which a surreptitious edition appeared in 1603.
The most accomplished courtier of the Augustan age could not have exceeded the graceful elegance of the following lines to James:—
While here my Muse in discontent doth sing
To thee, her great Apollo, and my king;
Imploring thee by that high, sacred name,
By justice, and those powers that I could name:
By whatsoe'er may move, entreat I thee,
To be what thou art unto all, to me.
Wither's liberation from prison has been generally attributed to the influence of this satire; but Mr. Collier very properly observes, that he could never learn on what authority the assertion rested. Certainly not on the authority of Wither himself; and it is scarcely reasonable to suppose that a poem of so much severity should have obtained a remission of the punishment awarded to a milder and even less obnoxious composition. I am induced, by a passage in the fourth book of the Emblems, to ascribe his release to the friendly interposition of the Earl of Pembroke, who he tells the successor to the title (Philip), when the King, "by others misinformed," took offence at "his free lines,"
—found such means and place,
To bring and reconcile me to his grace,
That therewith-all his majesty bestow'd
A gift upon me which his bounty show'd,
And had enrich'd me, if what was intended,
Had not by othersome been ill befriended,—
And in the Scholler's Purgatory he stated, many years earlier, that as soon as he had an opportunity to justify his honest intentions, and to give reasons for his questionable expressions, he was restored to the common liberty, as he persuaded himself, with the good favour of the King and of all those that restrained him.
The gift bestowed upon him by the king, was the patent for his Hymns and Songs of the Church. The origin of this privilege Wither has explained. "For before I had license to come abroad again into the world, I was forced to pay expenses so far beyond my ability, that ere I could be clearly discharged, I was left many pounds worse than nothing, and, to enjoy the name of liberty, was cast into a greater bondage than before. Wherefore, coming abroad again into the world, accompanied thither with those affections which are natural to most men, I was loth (if it might conveniently be prevented) either to sink below my rank, or to live at the mercy of a creditor. And, therefore, having none of those helps, or trades, or shifts, which many others have to relieve themselves withal, I humbly petitioned the king's most excellent Majesty, (not to be supplied at his, or by any projectment to the oppression of his people,) but that, according to the laws of nature, I might enjoy the benefit of my own labours, by virtue of his royal privilege. His Majesty vouchsafed my reasonable request with addition of voluntary favour, beyond my own desire."
The publication of the Hymns and Songs of the Church did not take place until some years after.
He had also a share in the Shepherds Pipe, which forms a meet companion to the Shepherd's Hunting. This beautiful poem, printed in 1614, has always been assigned to Browne; but it is attributed to Wither in the edition of his works published in 1620, and we have his own testimony in the Fides Anglicana, that it was "composed jointly by him and Mr. William Browne." Roget is clearly intended to represent Wither, and Willie, Browne. Warton alludes to the Shepherd's Pipe, and ascribes to Browne the publication of Occleve's version of the Story of King Darius's Legacy to his Three Sons, in the Gesta Romanorum. The poem is contributed by Roget, already pointed out as the pastoral name of Wither, and in a note at the end of the first eclogue it is said, "as this shall please, I may be drawn to publish the rest of his works, being all perfect in my hands." Occleve has been called the disciple of Chaucer, and it will presently be seen, from the assistance furnished to the Rev. William Bedwell, in his antiquarian pursuits, by Wither, that he was considered "a man of exquisite judgment in that kind of learning." We may be justified, therefore, in awarding to him the merit of the publication of this old poem.
The Shepherd's Pipe opens with Willie's consolation of his friend Roger.
Roget, droop not, see the spring
Is the earth enameling,
And the birds on every tree
Greet this morn with melody:
Hark how yonder thrustle chaunts it,
And her mate as proudly vaunts it.
See how every stream is drest
By her margin, with the best
Of Flora's gifts, she seems glad
For such brooks such flowers she had.
An the trees are quaintly tired
With green buds of all desired;
And the hawthorn every day
Spreads some little show of May.
See the primrose sweetly set
By the much-loved violet,
All the banks so sweetly cover....
Yet in all this merry tide,
When all cares are laid aside,
Roget sits as if his blood
Had not felt the quickning good
Of the sun, nor cares to play
Or with songs to pass the day
As he wont. Fye, Roget, fye,
Raise thy head, and merrily
Tune us somewhat to thy reed.
See our flocks do freely feed.
Here we may together sit,
And for music very fit
Is this place; from yonder wood
Comes an echo shrill and good.
Twice full perfectly it will,
Answer to thine oaten quill.
Ah, Willie, Willie, why should I
Sound my notes of jollity?
Since no sooner can I play
Any pleasing roundelay,
But some one or other still
'Gins to descant on my quill,
And will say, by this he me
Meaneth in his minstrelsy.
Can any one doubt, after reading these lines, that the poem was partly written by Wither?
The verses in which Roget commends the story of Occleve are exceedingly fanciful and elegant; but Warton was correct in saying that the eulogy was undeserved.
'Tis a song not many swains
Singen can, and though it be
Not so deckt with nicety
Of sweet words full sweetly chused,
As are now by shepherds used;
Yet if well you sound the sense,
And the moral's excellence,
You shall find it quit the while,
And excuse the homely style.
Well I wot the man that first
Sang this lay, did quench his thirst,
Deeply as did ever one
In the Muses Helicon.
Many times he hath been seen
With the fairies on the green,
And to them his pipe did sound,
Whil'st they danced in a round.
Mickle solace would they make him,
And at midnight often wake him,
And convey him from his room,
To a field of yellow broom;
Or into the meadows where
Mints perfume the gentle air,
And where Flora spends her treasure,
There they would begin their measure.
The Shepherd's Pipe is dedicated by Browne to Lord Zouch, the friend of Sir Henry Wotton, and the poet dwells with evident pleasure upon the shades of the "delightful Bramshill." Lord Zouch is supposed to have been the occasional patron of Ben Jonson, who called him "good Lord Zouch." It was in the park of this magnificent seat that Archbishop Parker, while hunting, in the summer of 1612, accidentally struck with an arrow Peter Hawkins, one of the keepers.
After his liberation, with a view of recreating his mind during severer studies, Wither wrote his Motto.
Of this book he tells us, in the Fragmenta Prophetica, thirty thousand copies were disposed of within a few months. The author numbers it among the books composed when he was of maturer years. His object was to draw the "true picture" of his own heart, that his friends who "knew him outwardly might have some representation of his inside also." But he was at the same time actuated by a higher and better feeling, that of confirming himself in his own good resolutions, and of preventing "such alterations as time and infirmities" might tend to produce. The poem is, therefore, rather moral and didactic than satiric-the poet's "furies were tied in chains." At this period Wither was in comfortable circumstances. In the Inventory of his Wealth, he enumerates a friend, books and papers, which he calls his jewels, a servant, and a horse. The merits of the Motto will be sufficiently exemplified by one or two specimens. The following passage contains all the materials of poetry; it only requires the taste and finish of a patient architect.
Yet I confess, in this my pilgrimage,
I, like some infant, am of tender age.
For as the child who from his father hath
Stray'd in some grove thro' many a crooked path;
Is sometimes hopeful that he finds the way,
And sometimes doubtful he runs more astray.
Sometime with fair and easy paths doth meet,
Sometime with rougher tracts that stay his feet;
Here goes, there runs, and yon amazed stays;
Then cries, and straight forgets his care, and plays.
Then hearing where his loving father calls,
Makes haste, but through a zeal ill-guided falls;
Or runs some other way, until that he
(Whose love is more than his endeavours be)
To seek the wanderer, forth himself doth come,
And take him in his arms, and bear him home.
So in this life, this grove of ignorance,
As to my homeward, I myself advance,
Sometimes aright, and sometimes wrong I go,
Sometimes my pace is speedy, sometimes slow:
One while my ways are pleasant unto me,
Another while as full of cares they be.
I doubt and hope, and doubt and hope again,
And many a change of passion I sustain
In this my journey, so that now and then
I lost, perhaps, may seem to other men.
Ye to myself awhile, when sins impure
Do my Redeemer's love from me obscure.
But whatsoe'er betide, I know full well,
My Father, who above the clouds doth dwell,
An eye upon his wandering child doth cast,
And he will fetch me to my home at last.
Passages like this, full of beautiful reliance upon the mercy and long suffering of our heavenly Father, abound in almost every page of the poet's compositions, casting a hallowing light over much that is unworthy both of the writer and the Christian.
The indignant attack upon the hired flatterers and elegists of the day deserves to be extracted. Wither preserved himself, in a great measure, unspotted from this "burning sin" of the age he lived in.
I have no Muses that will serve the turn,
At every triumph, and rejoice or mourn,
After a minutes warning, for their hire,
If with old sherry they themselves inspire.
I am not of a temper like to those
That can provide an hours sad talk in prose
For any funeral, and then go dine,
And choke my grief with sugar-plums and wine.
I cannot at the claret sit and laugh,
And then, half tipsy, write an epitaph.
I cannot for reward adorn the hearse
Of some old rotten miser with my verse;
Nor like the poetasters of the time,
Go howl a doleful elegy in rhyme
For every lord or ladyship that dies,
And then perplex their heirs to patronize
That muddy poesy. Oh, how I scorn
Those raptures which are free and nobly born,
Should, fidler-like, for entertainment scrape
At strangers' windows, and go play the ape
In counterfeiting passion.
An occasional resemblance has been pointed out between the style of Wither and Churchill; but Wither was as inferior to that ill-judging writer in the general fertility and poignancy of his invective as he was superior in what alone can render satire effective, or even justifiable, the wish to benefit our fellow-men. Churchill's genius was only surpassed by his profligacy; and while we acknowledge the justice of Cowper's eulogy upon his talents, we almost regret that it was ever bestowed. Tears are a more seemly offering than flowers upon the grave of impurity and vice!
Wood said of the notorious John Lilburne, that if he had been left alone in the world, "John would be against Lilburne, and Lilburne against John." Wither partook of this quarrelsome disposition. In a postscript to the Motto, he exclaims,
Quite thro' this Island hath my Motto rung,
And twenty days are past since I uphung
My bold Impreza, which defiance throws
At all the malice of Fair Virtue's foes.
But, although no person had answered his challenge, his enemies, hoping to "move his choler and his patience shake," had hired some rhymers
Their rancour into balladry.
The only known work to which his allusion can apply was Taylor's Motto, published in 1621, and playfully dedicated to Every Body, as Wither's had been to Any Body. Of Taylor, or to speak of him in more familiar terms, the Water-poet, a most interesting account has been given by Dr. Southey, in his notice of uneducated poets. Taylor was an honest right-hearted man, a sincere and devoted loyalist, and a very good poet for a waterman. He was also no mean scholar, having read Homer, Virgil, Ovid, and Tasso, of course in translations, besides many worthies of his own country. He wrote also with great facility. His Motto, we learn from his own narrative, was written in "three days at most;" but so far was its author from entertaining any feeling of enmity, or even rivalry against Wither, that he distinctly says,
This Motto in my head at first I took
In imitation of a better book.
It is scarcely necessary to say that this "better book" was Wither's Motto.
The earliest extant copy of Fidelia bears the date of 1619; but we are told by the publisher, George Norton, that it had long since "been imprinted for the use of the author, to bestow it on such as had voluntarily requested it in way of adventure." Mr. Park thinks that it was privately circulated, perhaps with a hope of a pecuniary return, in order to assist the writer during his imprisonment in the Marshalsea. The title of Fidelia may have been suggested by Spenser, who had bestowed the appellation upon Faith in the Faerie Queen. Fidelia is described as the "fragment of some greater poem, and discovers the modest affections of a discreet and constant woman shadowed under the name of Fidelia." The charm of the epistle consists in its domestic tenderness, and in the natural air of melancholy fondness breathing through it in every line. The influence of the absence of a beloved object upon the fairest scenes of nature has rarely been portrayed with more truth or pathos. The hawthorn her friend had trimmed, the bank on which he lay near a shady mulberry, and the twilight harbours where the shadows seemed to woo "The weary lovesick passenger to sit," are all affectionately remembered.
Annexed to Fidelia are two sonnets, "Hence away, thou Sires, leave me," and "Shall I wasting in Despair," both of which have been reprinted in Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. The second song Park thinks had its prototype in Browne's Britannia's Pastorals, but he assigns no reason for giving the priority of invention to Browne. The beauty of these sonnets has been universally acknowledged. "Shall I wasting in Despair," which it has been kindly observed, Ben Jonson did Wither the honour to parody, was a general favourite during the Author's life-time. Numerous imitations of it have been pointed out. These poems were subsequently incorporated into Fair-Virtue, with some alterations, as Park has observed, not always for the better.
In the same year appeared the Preparation for the Psalter, a specimen of a voluminous commentary upon the Psalms, which the author never completed. Yet even here the polemical spirit of the Satirist occasionally manifests itself. Wither, unfortunately, did not sufficiently remember when he stood upon Holy Ground. To the Preparation he prefixed what he calls a Sonnet, forming a very spirited paraphrase upon the 148th Psalm. Merrick's version will read coldly after the following
Come, O come, with sacred lays,
Let us sound th' Almighty's praise.
Hither bring in true convent,
Heart, and voice, and instrument.
Let the orpharion sweet
With the harp and viol meet:
To your voices tune the lute;
Let not tongue, nor string be mute;
Nor a creature dumb be found,
That hath either voice or sound.
Let such things as do not live,
In still music praises give:
Lowly pipe, ye worms that creep,
On the earth, or in the deep,
Loud aloft your voices strain,
Beasts and monsters of the main.
Birds, your warbling treble sing;
Clouds, your peals of thunder ring;
Sun and moon, exalted higher,
And you, stars, augment the quire.
Come, ye sons of human race,
In this chorus take your place,
And amid this mortal throng,
Be you masters of the song.
Angels and celestial powers,
Be the noblest tenor yours.
Let, in praise of God, the sound
Run a never-ending round;
That our holy hymn may be
Everlasting, as is HE.
From the earth's vast hollow womb,
Music's deepest base shall come.
Sea and floods, from shore to shore,
Shall the counter-tenor roar.
To this concert, when we sing,
Whistling winds, your descant bring
Which may bear the sound above,
Where the orb of fire doth move
And so climb from sphere to sphere,
Till our song th' Almighty hear.
So shall HE from Heaven's high tower,
On the earth his blessings shower;
All this huge wide orb we see,
Shall one quire, one temple be.
There our voices we will rear,
Till we fill it every where:
And enforce the fiends that dwell
In the air, to sink to hell.
Then, O come, with sacred lays,
Let us sound th' Almighty's praise.
In the Preparation to the Psalter, Wither announced his intention of dividing his Treatise upon the Psalms into fifteen Decades. The Exercises upon the First Psalm were published in 1620, and inscribed to Sir John Smith, Knt., only son of Sir Thomas Smith, Governor of the East India Company, from whom the poet had received many tokens of regard. The Exercises upon the nine following Psalms, we are told in the Fides Anglicana, were lost.
In 1621 Wither published the Songs of the Old Testament, translated into English measures; afterwards, reprinted in the Hymns and Songs of the Church.
One of the most beautiful and least known of Wither's early productions, is Fair Virtue, the Mistress of Philarete, which, although not published until 1622, is described as one of his "first poems, and composed many years agone." The MS. having been secretly "gotten out of the author's custody by a friend of his," came into the hands of Marriot, the bookseller, who having obtained a license for it, intended to print it without any further inquiry but hearing accidentally the name of Wither mentioned as the real author, Marriot applied to him for permission to affix his name to the title-page, a request he found the poet unwilling to comply with, "fearing that the seeming lightness of such a subject might somewhat disparage the more serious studies" he had since undertaken. These particulars are gathered from the address to the reader, professedly written by Marriot, but in reality furnished to him, at his own desire, by Wither himself. Wither at length consented that Fair Virtue should be published, but without his name; and in compliance with his wish, the title-page bears this quaint inscription: — Fair Virtue, the Mistress of Philarete, written by Himself He accompanied the poem with these singular words, "When I first composed it I well liked thereof, and it well enough became my years; but now I neither like nor dislike it. That, therefore, it should be divulged I desire not; and whether it be, or whether (if it happen so) it be approved or no, I care not. For this I am sure of, that however it be valued, it is worth as much as I prize it at; likely it is, also, to be beneficial to the world, as the world hath been to me, and will be more than those who like it not ever deserved at my hands."
The mystery hanging over certain parts of the poem, Wither refused to clear up, being unwilling, he said, to take away the occupation of his interpreter, and he purposely left somewhat remaining doubtful, to see "what Sir Politick Would-be and his companions could pick out of it." Whether, therefore, to employ the words of the address, the Mistress of Philarete be really a woman shadowed under the name of Virtue, or Virtue only whose loveliness is represented by the beauty of an excellent woman, or whether it mean both together I cannot tell you. Wither was anxious to bury the subject in obscurity, but the opinion that he intended to portray the charms and piety of some lady in the neighbourhood of Bentworth seems to be corroborated by certain "verses written to his loving friend upon his departure," inserted at the end of Fair Virtue, and signed "Phil'arete;" in which he describes her to have given "her vows' to another, and urges the propriety of their separation.
The Mistress of Philarete was evidently the production of Wither's youthful Muse, and bears internal evidence of having been composed in the sequestered retirements of Bentworth and its neighbourhood. The poem opens with an introduction in heroic metre, unlike his later style, and resembling rather the soft and limpid versification of Browne:—
Two pretty rills do meet, and, meeting, make
Within one valley a large silver lake,
About whose banks the fertile mountains stood,
In ages passed bravely crown'd with wood;
Which lending cold sweet shadows gave it grace
To be accounted Cynthia's bathing-place.
And from her father Neptune's brackish court,
Fair Thetis hither often would resort,
Attended by the fishes of the sea,
Which in those sweeter waters came to play.
There would the daughter of the sea-god dive;
And thither came the land-nymphs every eve,
To wait upon her; bringing for her brows
Rich garlands of sweet flowers, and beechy boughs;
For pleasant was that pool; and near it then
Was neither rotten marsh, nor boggy fen.
It was not overgrown with boisterous sedge,
Nor grew there rudely then along the edge
A bending willow, nor a prickly bush,
Nor broad-leaf'd flag, nor reed, nor knotty rush.
But here, well order'd was a grove with bowers,
There grassy plots set round about with flowers.
Here, you might thro' the waters see the land
Appear, strow'd o'er with white, or yellow sand.
Yea, deeper was it: and the wind by whiffs
Would make it rise, and wash the little cliffs
On which oft pluming sat unfrighted then,
The gaggling wild-goose, and the snow-white swan;
With all the flocks of fowls, which to this day,
Upon those quiet waters breed and play.
All the features of this animated landscape are not yet obliterated. The Ford of Arle, or Arlesford Pond, lying S. W. of the town of that name, is a fine piece of water, covering nearly two hundred acres, and forming a head to the river Itchin. A few years ago boats were kept upon this lake by the proprietors of the neighbouring estates, and "the goggling wild-goose" might be seen "oft pluming," without any fear, upon the quiet waters:
North-east, not far from this great pool, there lies
A tract of beechy mountains that arise,
With leisurely ascending, to such height,
As from their tops the warlike Isle of Wight
You in the ocean's bosom may espie,
Tho' near two hundred furlongs hence it lie.
The pleasant way, as up those hills you climb,
Is strewed o'er with marjoram and thyme
Which grows unset. The hedge-rows do not want
The cowslip, violet, primrose, nor a plant
That freshly scents: as birch, both green and tail,
Low sallows on whose bloomings bees do fall,
Fair woodbines, which about the hedges twine,
Smooth privet, and the sharp sweet eglantine,
With many more, whose loaves and blossoms fair,
The earth adorn, and oft perfume the air.
E'en there, and in the least frequented place
Of all these mountains, is a little space
Of pleasant ground, hemm'd in with dropping trees,
And those so thick, that Phoebus scarcely sees
The earth they grow on once in all the year,
Nor what is done among the shadows there.
Along these sequestered paths the poet represents "a troop of beauties,"
Known well nigh
Through all the plains of happy Britainy.
meeting, in their wanderings, the "Little flock of Pastor Philaret," a shepherd's lad, the first who had ever sung his loves to those beechy groves.
They saw him not, nor them perceived he,
For in the branches of a maple-tree
He shrouded sat, and taught the hollow hill
To echo forth the music of his quill,
Whose tattling voice redoubled to the sound,
That where he was conceal'd they quickly found.
Philarete leads the ladies to a harbour, and they entreat him to sing. At first he refuses, but at length complies, and commences the poem. That a composition like Fair Virtue, abounding in beauties of a high order, should have remained in almost total oblivion from the edition of 1633, until Sir Egerton Brydges' reprint in 1818, certainly reflects no credit upon the editors of our elder poets. Bishop Percy had, indeed, with an impropriety of taste singular in that accomplished scholar, pronounced the Mistress of Philarete "a long pastoral piece;" but even the extract given in the Reliques might have tempted the reader to seek the work itself. Into the merits of the poem, however, I cannot enter, for I am anxious to confine myself to the more strictly religious productions of its author. Viewed as the composition of a very young man, Fair Virtue may safely challenge comparison with any poetical work in the language, produced at a similar age. Its perusal may be recommended to every lover of pure and unaffected poetry. He will find in it passages of the most passionate beauty, of the sweetest and clearest simplicity, of the most delicate fancy, and the most picturesque description, and all "set forth" in a harmony of versification not often found in the poetry of the reign of James.
When Philarete had ended his song and departed, a lady from among the Nymphs, having taken up her lute, commemorated his talents in a little carol, entitled The Nymph's Song. I cannot refrain from quoting a few stanzas from this song, which it would be difficult to excel either in melody or purity of expression:—
Gentle swain good speed befall thee,
And in love still prosper thou:
Future times shall happy call thee,
Though thou lie neglected now.
Virtue's lovers shall commend thee,
And perpetual fame attend thee.
Happy are these woody mountains
In whose shadows thou dost hide;
And as happy are those fountains
By whose murmurs thou deal bide;
For contents are here excelling
More than in a prince's dwelling.
There thy flocks do clothing bring thee;
And thy food out of the fields:
Pretty songs the birds do sing thee
Sweet perfumes the meadow yields.
And what more is worth the seeing,
Heaven and earth thy prospect being?
Thy affection reason measures
And distempers none it feeds;
Still so harmless are thy pleasures
That no other's grief it breeds.
And if night begets thee sorrow,
Seldom stays it till the morrow.
Who does not regret that the wish breathed in the concluding stanzas of this song was not realized, that the poet did not continue to dwell in peace among those "lonely groves," by no false visions of ambition or of hope allured into the tumult of active life, where he could gain nothing to compensate for the serenity and happiness he left behind!
Wither's favourite poets, at this time, seem to have been "Sweet Drayton," as he calls him, Thomas Lodge, and Sir Philip Sidney.
Mr. D'Israeli, in his amusing Quarrels of Authors, has not made any mention of the enmity which appears to have subsisted between Wither and Ben Jonson. The latter poet, in his Masque of Time Vindicated, which was represented with great splendour on the 19th of January, 1623, gave utterance to his dislike. Mr. Gifford thinks this poem a "kind of retort courteous" to the scurrilous satires of the day, and Chronomastix a generic name for the herd of libellists; but Wither, in the 7th canto of Britain's Remembrancer, considers the epithet applied particularly to himself. Speaking of the poetasters who delighted to disparage his talents, he says,
The valiant poet they [me] in scorn do call,
When Wither published his Abuses, &c., he spoke in honourable terms of "the deep conceits of now flourishing Jonson," and it is not improbable that, while a gay and idle member of Lincoln's Inn, he may have quaffed a cup of claret with Ben at his favourite "House of Call," in Friday Street. At any rate their intimacy was soon divided, and frequent expressions of disgust may be found in Wither's poems, at the wine-parties and revellings of Jonson. There was, indeed, no bond of union between them, either in disposition or genius. Jonson, with his recondite learning, his antique imagery, and his "fil'd" language, looked with unconcealed contempt upon the simplicity and homeliness of the Shepherd-poet. Wither often complained that the want of antiquity and reading was frequently charged against him by rival poets.
Jonson, who sought for his treasures among the "drowned lands" of ancient days, could not be expected to feel much sympathy with one who found music "in the least bough's rustling," and a spirit of sweet poetry in "the yellow broom" at his feet."
I have already alluded to the Songs and Hymns of the Church. None of Wither's numerous works possess greater interest. Their history is detailed at length in the Scholler's Purgatory, a pamphlet addressed, about the year 1624, to Archbishop Abbot and the other Bishops of the Convocation, in vindication of the Patent. The Hymns and Songs arose out of a translation of Psalms of which notice will be subsequently taken. Wither observed that the "excellent expressions of the Holy Ghost" were put forth in rude and barbarous numbers, while "the wanton fancies were painted and trimmed out in the most moving language;" and that the people, like those against whom the prophet Haggai complained, seemed "to dwell in cieled houses," while the temple of God was laid waste. Seeing, therefore, no other person prepared to make the attempt, he spent about three years in fitting himself for the task of translating the Psalms, but before he "had half ended them," the report "that one of much better proficiency had made a long and happy progress into the work," induced him for a time to relinquish his labours. But that his original intention might not be altogether disappointed, at the request of some of the clergy, he translated and rendered into lyric verse the hymns dispersed throughout the Canonical Scriptures, to which he subsequently added spiritual songs appropriated to the several times and occasions observable in the Church of England. It was for this collection that the royal patent had been obtained. Wither found a body of most active and malignant enemies in the Company of Stationers, who considered their own privileges invaded by Wither's patent. Among other things, they asserted that the hymns were written for his pecuniary benefit alone, a charge to which he in part pleaded guilty. "My weak fortunes," he says, "my troubles, and the chargeableness of a study that brings with it no outward supply, put me into a kind of necessity, as it were, to east my thoughts aside unto worldly prospects. But I have since been sorry for it upon better consideration."
Wither's anxiety respecting his Hymns may be pardoned. He had been induced by the kind and flattering favour of the King "to engage his credit almost £300 further, to divulge the book," and by the animosity of the stationers, he felt himself deprived not only of all superfluities, but even of the means of subsistence. "For when those friends," he adds, "who are engaged for me, are satisfied, to which purpose there is yet, I praise God, sufficient set apart, I vow, in the faith of an honest man, that there will not be left me in all the world, to defend me against my adversaries and supply the common necessities of nature, so much as will feed me for one week, unless I labour for it."
His vindication of his own fitness for the work he had undertaken is manly and eloquent—
"I wonder what divine calling Sternhold and Hopkins had more than I have, that their metrical Psalms may be allowed of rather than my Hymns. Surely if to have been groom of the Privy Chamber were sufficient to qualify them, that profession which I am of may as well fit me for what I have undertaken, who having first laid the foundation of my studies in one of our famous Universities, have ever since builded thereon towards the erecting of such fabrics as I have now in hand.
"But I would gladly know by what rule those men discern of spirits who condemn my work as the endeavour of a private spirit. The time was, men did judge the tree by its fruit; but now, they will judge the fruit by the tree. If I have expressed any thing repugnant to the analogy of the Christian Faith, or irreverently opposed the orderly and allowed discipline, or dissented in any point from that spirit of verity which breathes through the Holy Catholic Church, then let that which I have done be taxed for the work of a private spirit. Or if it may appear that I have indecently intruded to meddle with those mysteries of our Christian Sanctuary, which the God of order hath, by his Divine law, reserved for those who have, according to his Ordinance, a special calling thereunto, then, indeed, let me be taxed as deserving both punishment and reproof.
"But if, making conscience of my actions, I observed that seemly distance which may make it appear I intruded not upon ought appropriated to the outward ministry; if, like an honest-hearted Gibeonite, I have but a little extraordinarily laboured to hew wood and to draw water for the spiritual sacrifices; if, according to the art of the apothecary, I have composed a sweet perfume to offer unto God, in such manner as is proper to my own faculty only, and then brought it to those to whom the consecration thereof belongs; if, keeping my own place, I have laboured for the building up of God's house, as I am bound to do, in offering up of that which God hath given me, and making use, with modesty, of those gifts which were bestowed on me to that purpose; if, I say, the case be so, what blame-worthy have I done? Why should those disciples who follow Christ in a nearer place, forbid us from doing good in his name, who follow him further off? Why should they, with Joshua, forbid Eldad and Medad from prophesying, seeing that every good Christian wisheth, with Moses, that God's people were all prophets, and that he would give his spirit to them all."
This passage is interesting on many accounts, especially as showing the sentiments of Wither towards the established Church. In another part of the same pamphlet he declares, in a strain of vigour and richness almost worthy of Jeremy Taylor himself, that neither the swelling impostumations of vain-glory, nor the itchings of singularity, nor the ticklings of self-love, nor the convulsions of envy, nor the inflammations of revenge, nor the hunger and thirst of gold, were able to move him to the prosecution of any thing repugnant to religion or the authority of the Church. So highly were Wither's talents and honesty at this time esteemed, that he was even urged to take Holy Orders; and his "possibilities of outward preferments in that way, he tells us, were not the least." But "while no man living more honoured the calling," he considered himself disabled by his own unworthiness, independent of the belief he constantly indulged, that God had appointed him "to serve him in some other course."
Very tempting overtures had also been made to Wither by some of the numerous sectaries of the day, and he declared that he had been offered a larger yearly stipend, and more "respective entertainments to employ himself in setting forth heretical fancies than he had any probability of obtaining by the profession of the truth. Yea, sometimes," he continues, "I have been wooed to the profession of their wild and ill-grounded opinions by the sectaries of so many several separations, that had I liked, or rather had not God been the more merciful to me, I might have been Lieutenant, if not Captain, of some new band of such volunteers long e'er this time."
These were the sentiments of the writer in 1623-4.
Nothing was left undone on the part of the stationers to annoy or injure the unfortunate poet. They refused to provide copies of the Hymns in their shops, alleging as their excuse "that none would fetch them out of their hands," although Wither assures us in his Scholler's Purgatory, that the work was so much inquired after, that twenty thousand might have been speedily dispersed. Some compared the Hymns to "Dod the Silkman's" version of the Psalms, which had been recently condemned to the fire; and others styled them in derision, "Wither's Sonnets," and said that they would procure "the roving ballad-singer, with one leg," to sell them about the city. Wither's miseries were not confined to the malignant opposition of the stationers. "Wherever I come," he complained, "one giddy brain or another offers to fall into disputation with me about my Hymns; yea, brokers, and costermongers, nod tapsters, and pedlars, and sempsters, and fiddlers, and felt-makers, and all the brotherhood of Amsterdam, have scoffingly passed sentence upon me in their conventicles, at tap-houses and taverns."
It was natural that Wither should feel bitterly these attacks of the ignorant and malevolent, and he alludes with pardonable self-satisfaction to the Christian intentions with which the Sacred Songs had been composed, and the many hours at midnight he had devoted to their study when his traducers were asleep. The composition of his Hymns had contributed to beguile the tedious and melancholy hours of his imprisonment in the Marshalsea. Wither is not the only poet whose harp has given utterance to the sweetest and holiest music while it hung upon the willow-tree. It was in a lonely dungeon at Coimbra, in Portugal, that the accomplished Buchanan prepared his elegant translation of the Psalms. A list of books produced during confinement would be both interesting and instructive. The names of Boethius, of Cretins, and of Raleigh, arise immediately to the memory.
The Hymns and Songs of the Church are known to many of my readers, and can hardly fail of being admired for their unaffected piety, and plaintive harmony of expression. They breathe a domestic tenderness and simplicity not more rare than precious. Take for example two stanzas from the Thanksgiving for Victory:—
We love thee, Lord, we praise thy name,
Who by Thy great almighty arm,
Host kept us from the spoil and shame
Of those that sought our causeless harm
Thou art our life, our triumph-song,
The joy and comfort of our heart,
To Thee all praises do belong,
And Thou the Lord of armies art.
This song we therefore sing to Thee,
And pray that Thou for ever more
Wouldst our Protector deign to be,
As at this time and heretofore.
That Thy continual favour shown
May cause us more to Thee incline,
And make throughout the world he known
That such as are our foes, are Thine.
The prayer for Seasonable Weather is not less simple and earnest.
Lord, should the sun, the clouds, the wind,
The air and seasons be
To us so froward and unkind,
As we are false to Thee;
All fruits would quite away be burn'd,
Or lie in water drown'd,
Or blasted be, or overturn'd,
Or chilled on the ground.
But from our duty though we swerve,
Thou still dost mercy show,
And deign Thy creatures to preserve
That men might thankful grow;
Yet, though from day to day we sin,
And Thy displeasure gain,
No sooner we to cry begin,
But pity we obtain.
The weather now Thou changed least,
That put us late to fear,
And when our hopes were almost past,
Then comfort did appear.
The heaven the earths complaint hath heard,
They reconciled be,
And Thou such weather hast prepar'd,
As we desir'd of Thee.
The touching pathos of these verses will be felt by all. Wither seems to have been convinced, with Johnson, that Omnipotence could not be exalted, and that perfection could not be improved. His language is unadorned and homely, and the thoughts such as would naturally arise to a calm and benevolent mind. Yet his humblest strains frequently awake a cheerfulness and serenity in the heart of the reader. The spirit of his supplication is so pure and beautiful, that we do not doubt for an instant that the golden sceptre of mercy will be extended to it.
The Hymns and Songs were set to music by Orlando Gibbons, one of the most distinguished musicians of his time, and many of whose compositions, particularly the Hosanna, are still extant in the Cathedral books. The tunes to which he adapted Wither's Hymns are described by Sir John Hawkins as melodies in two parts, and excellent in their kind. Gibbons died about two years after the publication of the Hymns, in his 45th year, and was buried in the Cathedral of Canterbury.
Wither was a spectator of the plague which desolated the metropolis in 1625, and thirty-six years afterwards he declared, that he did "in affection thereunto make here his voluntary residence, when hundreds of thousands forsook their habitations, that if God spared his life during that mortality, he might be a remembrancer both to this city and the whole nation." The results of his melancholy experience he afterwards embodied in Britain's Remembrancer. The history of this singular poem furnishes another proof of the indomitable perseverance of his character. "It is above two years," he tells us, "since I laboured to get this book printed, and it hath cost me more labour, more money, more pains, and much more time to publish, than to compose it; for I was fain to imprint every sheet thereof with my own hand, because I could not get allowance to do it publicly." The printers were naturally unwilling to become "remembrancers in this kind;" almost every page contained enough objectionable matter to send them to Newgate.
The plague first broke out in the house of a Frenchman, "without the Bishop-gate," and Wither describes with considerable animation the general consternation that ensued upon the dreadful discovery, and the multitude of remedies and preventives proposed. The streets were carefully cleansed, and all kinds of herbs and perfumes, "pure frankincense or myrrh," or in the absence of these, pitch, rosin, tar, &c., were burnt to purify the air. Then arose the race of empirics: one had "a perfume of special note;" another, an antidote which had been applied with the greatest success at Constantinople, when a thousand persons died daily. Instructions, equally ineffectual, were also published by authority. The contagion or non-contagion of the plague, was also a favourite subject of discussion. Wither is a decided advocate of non-contagion, and his arguments are supported by the fact that very few sextons or surgeons died; that among the market-people who brought provisions into the city, he did not hear of any deaths, and that in the parish where he resided, and in which the mortality amounted to nearly "half a thousand" weekly, not one of the common bearers of the dead fell a victim to the pestilence. Wither was at this time living by "Thames' fair bank," probably in the Savoy, which appears to have been a favourite situation with him.
The plague, which at first spread slowly, soon rushed out with terrible fury, in spite of the "halberds and watches." But the steps of the destroyer were wrapt in mystery, no man could tell his going out or coming in; people looked with terror and dismay upon each other.
—Men were fearful grown
To tarry or converse among their own.
Friends fled each other; kinsmen stood aloof;
The son to come within his fathers roof
Presumed not; the mother was constrain'd
To let her child depart unentertain'd.
Britain's Remembrancer, canto 2.
In the midst of the general confusion and flight of the inhabitants, we learn that the Lord Mayor, uninfluenced by the desertion of his brother magistrates, remained at his post, and devoted himself to the heavy duties that devolved upon him. On the 21st of June, a general fast was agreed to by the House of Commons; and, on the 11th of July, Parliament adjourned from Westminster, and met at Oxford on the 1st of August. Wither, meanwhile, having "thrown his own affairs aside," employed himself in walking about the city.
But far I needed not to pace about,
Nor long inquire to find such objects out;
For every place with sorrows then abounded,
And every way the cries of mourning sounded.
Yea, day by day, successively till night,
And from the evening till the morning light
Were scenes of grief with strange variety,
Knit up in one continuing tragedy.
No sooner waked I, but twice twenty knells,
And many sadly-sounding passing hells
Did greet mine ear, and by their heavy tolls,
To me gave notice — that some early souls
Departed whilst I slept; that others — some
Were drawing onward to their longest home.
So long the solitary nights did last,
That I had leisure my accounts to cast.
And think upon, and over-think those things,
Which darkness, loneliness, and sorrow brings.
My chamber entertained me all alone,
And in the rooms adjoining lodged none.
Yet through the darksome silent night did fly
Sometime an uncouth noise, sometime a cry,
And sometimes mournful callings pierced my room,
Which came I neither knew from whence, nor whom.
And oft betwixt awaking and asleep,
Their voices, who did talk, or pray, or weep,
Unto my listening ears a passage found,
And troubled me by their uncertain sound.
Glad was I when I saw the sun appear,
(And with his rays to bless our hemisphere)
That from the tumbled bed I might arise,
And with some lightsomeness refresh mine eyes;
Or with some good companions read or pray,
To pass the better my sad thoughts away.
The poet then describes the deserted appearance of London, as he beheld it in his walks: "much-peopled Westminster" was almost entirely forsaken, and Whitehall, which, not three mouths before, had been the scene of festivity and courtly merriment, now lay solitary.
As doth a quite forsaken monastery,
In some lone forest, and we could not pass
To many places, but thro' weeds and grass.
The Strand, then the residence of the most powerful and wealthy of the nobility, where Wither had often seen "well nigh a million passing in one day," had nearly become an unfrequented road; no smoke from the "city houses" told of hospitality and mirth. The Inns of Court were deserted; the "Royal Change," the great mart for all nations, was avoided as "a place of certain danger," and the Cathedral of St. Paul's had scarce a walker in its middle aisle." The houses, too, looked uninhabited; no ladies in their "bravery and beauty,"
To their closed wickets made repair,
The empty casements gaped wide for air.
A more perfect picture of sorrow and desolation could scarcely be conveyed than in this line. Disease brought its companion, poverty; numbers wandered about the streets in miserable destitution. Wither relates an affecting instance. Wandering forth on his customary walk one evening,
When the waning light
Was that which could be called nor day nor night.
He met with one who on him "cast a ruthful eye."
Methought I heard him somewhat softly say,
As if that he for some relief did pray.
He bashfully replied, that indeed
He was ashamed to speak aloud what need
Did make him softly mutter. Somewhat more
He would have spoken, but his tongue forbore
To tell the rest, because his eyes did see
Their tears had almost drawn forth tears from me,
And that my hand was ready to bestow
That help which my poor fortunes did allow. — Canto 4.
If, oppressed with the loneliness and mourning of the town, he wandered into the fields, the scene was scarcely less painful:—
About the fields ran one, who being fled,
In spite of his attendants, from his bed,
This way a stranger by his host expell'd,
That way a servant, shut from where he dwell'd,
Came weakly staggering forth (and crush'd beneath
Diseases and unkindness) sought for death,
Which soon was found. Canto 4.
It was natural that the poet should contrast with the present melancholy, the cheerfulness of past summers, when the dash of the oar kept time with the music upon the crowded river, and "Islington and Tottenham-court" were visited by pleasure-parties for their "cakes and cream."
Among the most terrible symptoms of the plague was the insanity that sometimes accompanied it. A painful instance occurred in the house where Wither resided. "A plague-sick man," under the influence of this delirium, believing that Death had assumed a dreadful and loathsome shape, besought those around, with most piteous cries, to draw the curtains; and, having "rested awhile," he started from the bed, and running to the couch on which his wife lay, threw himself upon his knees, and
Both his hands uprearing,
As if his eye had seen pale Death appearing,
To strike his wife,
entreated him to spare her.
But it was not until after many weeks, when Wither had gone out in the morning and returned in the evening in safety, that it pleased God to send his "dreadful messenger" to the poet's dwelling. The pestilence attacked the occupants with so much violence as quickly to destroy five, and leave "another wounded." Wither now began to feel all the terrors of doubting faith and superstitious alarm. He grew weaker every day, but communicated his sufferings or apprehensions to no man. After having passed a sleepless night, he awoke one morning with the round ruddy spots, the fatal signs of infection, upon his breast and shoulders, but the mercy of the Almighty, in whom he had put his trust, brought him out of this great danger. The ominous spots, however, continued for some time upon his body.
The plague having now attained its height, began to decline; the number of deaths diminished daily, and before the winter was ended, the citizens had returned to their homes, and
Soon fill'd the houses which unpeopled stood. — Canto 5.
John Fletcher, the dramatic poet, perished in this pestilence. He had been invited to accompany a gentleman, "of Norfolk or Suffolk," into the country, and only remained in London while a suit of clothes was being made; but before it was completed, he fell sick of the plague, and died. We are indebted for this anecdote to Aubrey, who had it from Fletcher's tailor. I may add the name of Thomas Lodge, who is supposed to have been removed by the same calamity. He was a physician in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, and Philips, in the Theatrum Poetarum, calls him "one of the writers of those pretty old songs and madrigals which were very much the strain of those times." Lodge, perhaps, deserves higher praise. A sweet and serious vein of feeling runs through some of his poems, particularly Old Damon's Pastoral.
It is impossible to contemplate the conduct of Wither during this season of grief and suffering without a feeling of admiration and respect. Beneath the power of a frightful pestilence, human life was poured out like water. The strength of youth, to use the noble language of Quarles, was no privilege against it, the soundness of a constitution was no exemption from it: the sovereignty of drugs could not resist it; where it listed it wounded, and where it wounded it destroyed. The rich man's coffers could not bribe it; the skilful artist could not prevail against it; the black magician could not charm it. In the midst of all these perils the Christian poet dwelt serene and undisturbed; throughout the continuance of the plague he never removed from the centre of' infection, "the distance of a mile," Yet the arrow flew harmlessly past him by day, the terror did not strike him in the night. He knew that an arm was around him which never wearied, and an eye watching over him which never slumbered or slept. The passages quoted from Britain's Remembrancer contain some vivid sketches of the city of the plague. We behold the poet wandering forth in the uncertain twilight among the forsaken walks of the city, and almost hear, so naturally does he bring the scene before us, the heavy fall of his lingering footsteps along the grass-grown streets, and the creaking of the shutters of some deserted house) as they moved to and fro in the midnight wind. Many affecting stories might be added to those already given The picture of the anxious wife listening to every sound during the absence of her husband, and starting up in terror if any one "knocked or called in haste," is a copy from nature.
After the publication of Britain's Remembrancer, we lose sight of Wither until 1631, when we find him assisting the Rev. William Bedwell in the publication of the Tournament of Tottenham. Warton, who in his History of Poetry particularly mentions this old poem, has omitted to state that it was published from a MS. communicated by Wither; but Bedwell, in the epistle to the reader, confesses the obligation. "It is now," he says, "seven or eight years since I came to the sight of the copy, and that by the means of the worthy and my much honoured good friend, Mr. Ge. Wither; of whom also, now at length I have obtained the use of the same and because the verse was then by him, a man of exquisite judgment in this kind of learning, much commended, ... as also for the thing itself I thought it worth the while, especially at idle times, to transcribe it, and for the honour of the place to make it public."
This was written in the March of 1631. Bedwell was the Rector of Tottenham, to which he had been presented by Bishop Andrews, whom he calls his honourable good Lord and Patron. He was also one of the translators of the Bible, and an able Oriental scholar. He bequeathed some valuable Arabic MSS. to the University of Cambridge, illustrated by numerous original notes, together with a set of types to print them. of the Tournament, which seems to have been a seriocomic satire upon the chivalrous follies of the 14th century, Warton has given a sufficient specimen.
About this time, according to John Taylor, Wither was steward to Dr. Howson, Bishop of Durham, and the Water-poet, who, after Wither's secession from the King's cause, never ceased to regard him with great displeasure, accuses him of having applied to his own purposes the funds of that Prelate. I have not been able to discover the slightest allusion to this circumstance in any other writer, nor does Wither any where refer to the connexion. The story altogether is highly improbable, and unworthy of credit. Dr. Howson only enjoyed the See of Durham from September 28th, 1628, to February 6th, 1631-2, and his steward, therefore, whoever he was, did not long reap the benefit of his malpractices.
At length, remembering that be had long since vowed a pilgrimage to the Queen of Bohemia as soon as he had a present worthy of her acceptance, Wither set out for Holland with his version of the Psalms, in his "own esteem the best jewel" he possessed. This unfortunate Princess, whose talents and virtues were not more fitted to adorn prosperity, than to cheer and alleviate the sorrows of an adverse fortune, was then seeking to dispel the gloom of her situation by the amusements of her garden and her books. Holland, in the earlier part of the 17th century, abounded in learning, and the sequestered court of Elizabeth made up in brilliancy of intellect what it wanted in splendour of outward circumstances. Among its principal luminaries were Gerard Vorst, the painter; the illustrious Descartes, who, weary of his voluntary banishment at Amsterdam, had taken up his residence in the village of Egmond, from whence he made frequent visits to the Queen, to whose eldest daughter, Elizabeth, he dedicated his Principia Philosophiae; and Anna Schurman, "the gem of Utrecht," a poet, a sculptor, an engraver, and a linguist.
Wither, in his praise of the Queen, only spoke the sentiments of all who knew her; and when he said that she "had conquered a kingdom in the hearts of many millions of people," he probably remembered the appellation of "Queen of Hearts," which the affection of those among whom she lived had bestowed upon her. But his gratitude led him too far; the parallel between the misfortunes of the Queen and those of the Psalmist, might have been omitted with advantage.
His translation was printed in the Netherlands in 1632, in a very neat form. The merits of the work scarcely bear a just proportion to the toil expended on it. The diction is generally clear and simple, and the versification varied and harmonious, yet it can only be viewed as a moderate improvement upon preceding efforts. The most gifted labourer in this Sacred Vineyard can only hope for qualified success, and the highest mead in the power of the critic to award, seems to be the praise of having done best what no one can do well.
Sidney, Spenser, and Milton, have each adventured in this difficult path. The Psalms of Spenser are lost: those of Sidney contain some sweet lines; while the specimens given by Milton are only worthy of Hopkins.
Wither obtained for his Psalms a patent, conferring on him the privilege of having them bound up with all Bibles; but this his old enemies, the stationers, refused to do, and the poet complained to the Board of their contempt of the Great Seal.
The following extract from a MS. letter, supposed to be addressed by Edward Rossingham to Sir Thomas Puckering, on the 23rd of January, 1633, throws an interesting light on this subject.
"Upon Friday last, Wither, the English poet, convented before the Board all or most of the stationers of London. The matter is this Mr. Wither hath, to please himself, translated our singing psalms into another verse, which he counts better than those the Church hath so long used, and therefore he hath been at the charge to procure a patent from his Majesty under the Broad Seal, that his translation shall be printed and hound to all Bibles that are sold. The stationers refusing to bind them, and to sell them with the Bible, (the truth is, nobody would buy the Bible with such a clog at the end of it,) and because some of them stood upon their guard, and would not suffer Mr. Wither with his officers to come into their shops and seize upon such Bibles as wanted his additions, therefore he complained of them for a contempt of the great seal. After their Lordships had heard the business pro and con, at length, their Lordships thought good to damn his patent in part; that is, that the translation should no longer be sold with the Bible, but only by itself."
Wither's version was followed by Sandys's Paraphrase, in 1636, and the translation of Braithwait in 1638.
Sandys had already established a reputation by his celebrated Travels, and the translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses. In the beautiful poem Deo Opt. Max., he gratefully records his deliverance from "the bloody massacres" of the faithless Indians, and returns his thanks to that merciful Providence by whom he had been brought home in safety,
Blest with an healthful age, a quiet mind
Content with little.
"It did me good," says Richard Baxter, "when Mrs. Wyat invited me to see Bexley Abbey, in Kent, to see upon the old stone wall in the garden a summer-house with this inscription, that 'In that place Mr. George Sandys, after his travels over the world, retired himself for his poetry and contemplations.'" Dr. Burney considered Sandys's Paraphrase superior to any other translation of the Psalms, and his wanderings over the Holy Land certainly contributed to impart a religious enthusiasm to his amiable and poetic mind. He excels in the variety and melody of his metre, and the simplicity and grace of the language.
The version of Braithwait is only rendered valuable by its extreme rarity. It is not noticed either by Anthony Wood, Ellis, or Dr. Bliss. Braithwait was a warm admirer of Wither, and almost as voluminous an author. He was a person of considerable acquirement, and his translation professes to be "conferred with the Hebrew veritie set forth by Arias Montanus, together with the Latin, Greek Septuagint, and Chaldee paraphrase." Perhaps, as Bliss said of Wyat, he had too much learning for a poet; his Psalms are written, with few exceptions, in a dull monotonous uniformity of measure, and with no elegance of manner.
It is probable that Wither did not continue long in Holland, but the publication of his Emblems, in 1634, may have been promoted by his residence in that country.
A history of Emblems in all languages, with specimens of the poetry and engravings, accompanied by some account of the authors, would be a very interesting contribution to our literature; but in the present day, a work of so much labour and difficulty will not soon be undertaken. My own limited course of reading has made me acquainted with only a few of the Emblem-writers preceding Wither. Of these, the first, both in time and reputation, is Alciatus, whose life was an unvaried scene of prosperity and flattery. Francis the First patronized him; Pope Paul the Third appointed him Prothonotary; and the King of Spain presented him with a gold chain of considerable value. He was a scholar, a miser, and a glutton; and to the indulgence of his festive appetites his death has been attributed. The Emblems rapidly obtained a wide popularity. They were translated into French verse, by Jean de Fevre, in 1536; by Barthelemi Aneau, a lawyer and poet, in 1549; and by Claude Mignaut, in 1584. They were also soon rendered into Italian and Spanish. Their poetical merit is small, although Scaliger considered them graceful and elegant, without being weak.
The sixteenth century abounded in Emblems. The Emblemata of Sambucus were published in 1564; they are not remarkable for any elegance or purity of Latinity, but the cause of classical literature was materially assisted by their indefatigable and eccentric author. In 1581, appeared the Emblemata of Reusner, edited by his brother Jeremiah. Reusner's voluminous labours are now forgotten even in Germany; but the book of Emblemata Sacra is valuable on account of the exquisite woodcuts by Virgil Solis, the engraver of Nuremberg, and marked by all the minute delicacy of that artist's manner. Solis also contributed, in the same year, a set of cuts for the Emblems of Alciatus.
Theodore Beza, the "Phoenix of his age," should not be forgotten; his Emblemata were printed among the Poemata Varia, in 1597. The Emblems of Lebeus Batillius had issued from Frankfort in the preceding year.
Holland would furnish many interesting specimens for our proposed collection. The celebrated Jacob Cats, who has been called the La Fontaine of his country, published his Emblems in 1618, in Dutch, French, and Latin. Dr. Bowring, in the Batavian Anthology, has afforded the uninitiated reader an opportunity of appreciating the merits of this excellent and Christian writer. Bowring's specimens, however, are not taken from the Emblems, which are most attractive, it may be observed, in their Roman dress. It would he superfluous to praise the Latinity of a country which has given birth to an Erasmus and a Grotius.
I believe there are several collections of Emblems in French. I have only met with two, Les Devises Heroiques, by Claude Paradin and others, written in prose, and some emblems by Georgetta Montenay, of which I have seen a translation, published at Frankfort in 1619.
Geoffrey Whitney occupies the first place among English Emblem-writers. Whitney resided many years on the Continent, and published, at Leyden, a second edition of his Emblems in 1586. The rarity of this edition precludes any hope of discovering the first. In his dedication to the Earl of Leicester, he dwells upon his "lack of leisure and learning," but permits no opportunity to escape of showing the latter; and if the Earl did not close the book with a very exalted idea of the dignity of poets, it was not owing to Whitney's modesty in asserting it. The Emblems are not destitute of a certain graceful and touching simplicity. His imitation of the 154th Emblem of Alciatus, is one of the most pleasing specimens of his style.
Henry Peacham's Garden of Heroical Devises, published in 1612, is equally simple. Peacham's character maybe summed up in a few words. He was a scholar, a poet, and a beggar. The most interesting account of his writings and misfortunes has been given in the Harleian Miscellany.
To return to Wither. The origin of the work is thus related in the preface: — "These Emblems, graven in copper, by Crispinus Passoeus (with a motto in Greek, Latin, or Italian, round about every figure, and with two lines or verses in one of the same languages paraphrasing those mottoes), came into my hands almost twenty years past. The verses were so mean that they were afterwards cut off from the plates; yet the workmanship being judged very good for the most part, and the rest excusable, some of my friends were so much delighted in the graver's art, and in those illustrations which, for my own pleasure, I had made upon some few of them, that they requested me to moralize the rest, which I condescended unto, and they had been brought to view many years ago, but that the copper-prints (which are now gotten) could not be procured out of Holland upon any reasonable terms."
These prints, in their original state, as published by John Janson, at Arnheim, are said to have possessed considerable merit. The illustrations alluded to by Wither were written by Gabriel Rollenhagius, in Latin verse, and are often incorrect: in one place "et" is made long before "hostes," an error in prosody not very creditable to a gentleman in his 27th year.
The Emblems are dedicated to Charles the First and his Queen, in a strain of flattery and adulation. The writer's reflections could not have been very agreeable if, in after-times, he cast his eyes over this "Epistle Dedicatory," in which he celebrates the virtues of the monarch, the wealth and tranquillity of the people, and prophesied "A chaste, a pious, and a prosperous age."
Throughout the Emblems, Wither shows himself a warm and steady supporter of the Monarchy and the Church. In the fifteenth illustration of the second book, he ridicules the puritanical sanctity of the times, and inveighs against those who fancied that they brought sincere "oblations to God," when they "roared out imprecations" against all whom they esteemed wicked, and others who sought to obtain their requests, "By praying long, and repetitions vain." And underneath the picture of the Crown and Sceptre he wrote,
Grant, Lord, these isles for ever may be blest
With what in this our emblem is exprest.
He alludes to the gathering of sectarian dissatisfaction, but it is only to pray that the goodness and patience of the Sovereign may, by the grace of God, "make up a blessed concord." Then, indeed, the poet could return thanks to heaven, that while his fathers had been obliged to worship "in private and obscured rooms," he lived in an age when the "sounds of gladness" were heard every day in "the goodly temples." And when, with something of true prophetic vision, he declared that men were already beginning to "wantonize" (a most happy expression) in matters of religion, and let "that loathing in" which made the manna tasteless; even then he could entreat the Almighty to prolong his mercy, and to watch over the fruit in the vineyard, that the Light of Grace might not be displaced from "the Golden Candlestick." He was still a frequenter of the Church, and an humble follower of her ordinances. How melancholy a change was to be wrought in a few years! In 1646 he discovered that all the misery of the country had been produced by the Church, that she was the source of all the "late troubles," that her "avarice and pride" first divided the island, and that from her
—At first the firebrands came
That set this empire in a flame.
The poet was now reduced to considerable poverty. The Hymns and Songs of the Church, far from enriching his estate, had impoverished it considerably more than three hundred pounds, and "impartial death and wasting time," he complained, had removed those friends from whom he might have asked a favour with a certainty of obtaining it. He might well turn over, with a sad and desolate heart, the leaves of the Thankful Register, in which were recorded the names of his noble patrons. Among them death had, indeed, been busy. The Duke of Richmond; the father of Henry Earl of Holland, who, as the poet gratefully remembered, bad sought him out in poverty and obscurity to protect and succour him; William, the accomplished and generous Earl of Pembroke, and many more, had gradually fallen away from his side. Sorrow, if not always the mother of virtue, is frequently its nurse; and the loss of his friends probably contributed to impart the contemplative and melancholy spirit which pervades the Emblems. Many specimens might be selected, beautifully descriptive of the calm and religious sentiments of the writer; but the following extract from the 35th illustration of the Second Book is the only one to which I can afford insertion. The Emblem represents a flame upon a mountain, driven to and fro by the tempestuous and angry winds, yet continually gathering strength and brightness, in spite of every opposition.
Thus fares the man whom Virtue, beacon-like
Hath fix'd upon the hills of eminence;
At him the tempests of mad Envy strike,
And rage against his piles of innocence.
But still the more they wrong him, and the more
They seek to keep his worth from being known
They daily make it greater than before,
And cause his fame the further to be blown.
When, therefore, no self-doting arrogance
But virtues, covered with a modest veil,
Beak through obscurity, and thee advance
To place where Envy shall thy worth assail,
Discourage not thyself, but stand the shocks
Of Wrath and Fury. Let them snarl and bite,
Pursue thee with detraction, slander, mocks,
And all the venom'd engines of despight.—
Thou art above their malice, and the blaze
Of thy celestial fire shall shine so clear,
That their besotted souls thou shalt amaze,
And make thy splendours to their shame appear.
How many hundred times has the thought in this poem been expressed by later writers, and by which of the number has it been uttered with equal majesty!
We may say of the Emblems generally, that they form a very pleasant and interesting work, at once instructive and entertaining. Wither always despised those "verbal conceits which serve to little other purpose but for witty men to show tricks one to another," but he never for a moment desired to banish out of the world all elegancies of speech, though not in themselves useful; for that he considered "as absurd as to root out all herbs unfit to make pottage, or to destroy all flowers less beautiful than the tulip, or less sweet than the rose." With a hope of blending amusement with graver thoughts, he also disposed the Emblems into Lotteries.
Appended to the volume is a "Supersedeas" to all "them whose custom it is, without any deserving, to importune authors to give unto them their books." The poet complains of having been a considerable sufferer from persons of this description, who no sooner saw a book in his possession, than they thought themselves entitled to "ask and take." In this way he had already lost "nearly five hundred crowns," and he declares his determination to give no more books for the future to any but his intimate friends, unless those individuals, who were so anxious to obtain them gratuitously, would allow him to inspect their property, and "ask and take" in a similar manner. It is not likely, after this hint, that he experienced any more annoyances.
Soon after the publication of the Emblems, Wither seems to have settled himself near Farnham in Surrey, in a "cottage under the Beacon-Hill." But though he confined himself to his "rustic habitation in that pan of the kingdom which is famous for the best of those meats wherewith the poet Martial invited his friends," he did not forget "the delicates of the Muses," and on the 23rd of May, 1636, he dedicated to the celebrated Selden a translation of Nemesius' Treatise upon the Nature of Man. Wither had long loved the person, and honoured the worth, of his "noble friend," and gratefully remembered the great scholar's early attentions. "You have not," he says, in the epistle, "been precious to me without a cause; for I, being one of those who preposterously begin to write before they learn, you might justly enough have reputed me worthy of contempt only, when I was first presented to your acquaintance. Nevertheless, (perceiving, it may be, that the affections of my heart were sound, though the fruits of my brain were defective,) you vouchsafed me a friendly and a frequent familiarity whereby I got opportunities both to rectify my judgment, and increase my understanding in many things."
Of the acquaintance of Selden, the most learned linguist and antiquarian of the age, Wither might well he proud. Selden's intimate friendship and kindly sympathy towards the poets of the day, are beautiful traits in his character. He had a heart equally open to the pastoral sweetness of William Browne, and the learned visions of Ben Jonson, as to the more dear and familiar studies of Spelman, of Camden, and of Cotton. He did not realize the observation of Livy, that by long meditation upon antiquity the mind itself becomes antique. Lord Clarendon, in this case no partial witness, said that "his humanity, courtesy, and affability, were such that he would have been thought to have been bred in the best Courts." Selden was also something of a rhymer, and Sir John Suckling introduced him in the Session of the Poets, but his metrical talents were chiefly employed in recommending the works of his friends. From so numerous a body of associates he must have experienced frequent interruption; and Aubrey informs us that he had a slight stuff, or silk kind of false carpet, to cast over the table where his papers lay when a stranger came in, so that he "needed not to displace his books or papers."
Wither's version was not made from the original, but from the Latin translations of N. Ellebodius and G. Valla, and though not strictly literal, embodies the sense of the author with considerable force and perspicuity.
The treatise [Greek characters] (Of the Nature of Man) is styled by Brucker, with some exaggeration, one of the most elegant specimens of the philosophy of the primitive Christians. Respecting Nemesius himself, considerable difficulty exists; but that he flourished in the age of Nazianzen is probable, because he dwells particularly upon the Schismatics who then agitated the Church, the Manichees, the Apollinarists, and the Eunomians, and cites only those writers who lived before the termination of the fourth century. From the style and manner of the book we are also assured that its author belonged to the period when the expiring Ethnic Philosophy put forth her still powerful, though weakened, efforts, under the guidance of Iamblichus, Plotinus, and Porphyry; efforts nobly repelled by Athanasius, Basil, and Naziaazen.
Our poet's restlessness would not permit him to become a "mere Corydon." In 1639 he was Captain of Horse in the expedition against the Scots, and Quarter-Master of his regiment under the Earl of Arundel. His patron, Robert, Earl of Essex, was Lieutenant-General of Infantry in the same army. The troops were, however, soon disbanded, and the poet returned for another season to more peaceful and congenial occupations.