In 1641 appeared the Haleluiah, or Britain's Second Remembrancer, a collection of Sacred Poems composed, we are told by the author, "in a three-fold volume." The first containing "hymns occasional; the second, hymns temporary; the third, hymns personal." This book, now as scarce as the first Remembrancer is common, I have not seen; but copious extracts have been given from it, by Wither himself, in the Fragmenta Prophetica; by Sir Egerton Brydges, in the Censura Literaria; and by Mr. Dalrymple, in his selections from the Juvenilia. The enthusiastic terms in which the latter gentleman eulogizes the Haleluiah, are scarcely supported by the specimens adduced. The Hymns were originally written and collected with the praiseworthy object of making those "vain songs less delighted in," which were then becoming so numerous that pious meditations were "nigh quite out of fashion." But the "carnal profaneness" of some, and the religious sullenness of others, rendered the poet's endeavours of little effect. He relates, however, one anecdote respecting them, too interesting to be omitted. One of his friends, highly approving of the attempt, distributed many copies of the collection at his own expense, and among others to a "person of quality" associated with the pleasures and fashion of the age. Though received at first with contempt, the work, as Wither subsequently understood, produced a most beneficial change in the feelings and life of the individual.
The poet's devoted attachment to his own wife may have suggested the sentiment of the poem for Anniversary Marriage Days:—
Lord, living here are we
As fast united yet,
As when our hands and hearts by Thee
Together first were knit.
And in a thankful song
Now sing we will Thy praise,
For that Thou dost as well prolong
Our loving, as our days.
The frowardness that springs
From our corrupted kind,
Or from those troublous outward things,
Which may distract the mind;
Permit not Thou, O Lord,
Our constant love to shake;
Or to disturb our true accord,
Or make our hearts to ache.
The 37th Hymn, part 3. — "For a Widower, or a Widow, deprived of a loving yoke-fellow," deserves tube quoted entire. The simple pathos of this stanza will be felt by every heart:—
The voice which I did more esteem
Than music in her sweetest key:
Those eyes which unto me did seem
More comfortable than the day:
Those now by me, as they have been,
Shall never more be heard or seen:
But what I once enjoyed in them,
Shall seem hereafter as a dream.
"For an Anniversary Funeral Day," and "An Occasional Hymn when we first awake in the Morning," are also very graceful and pleasing compositions. Pope, it is not improbable, had the following verses from the Sunday Hymn in his recollection when he composed his Universal Prayer:—
Discretion grant me so to know
What Sabbath-rites Thou dost require,
And grace my duty so to do,
That I may keep Thy law entire.
Not doing what should not be done,
Nor ought omitting fit to do.
With the Haleluiah, the poetical life of Wither may be considered to have terminated. He ceased to gaze "on such sights as youthful poets dream," and his remaining years were worn out in petulant complaints, in penury, and in sorrow. He continued, indeed, to pour out his rhymes upon every occasion with a fertility age could not exhaust, and a perseverance no peril could restrain; but the sweetness of his Shepherd's Pipe was lost for ever. Poetry fled from the discordant din of polities and fanaticism to "pitch her tent" in some more peaceful spot; and if she ever revisited the scenes she had left, it was under a cloud, pervious only to the eyes of her few remaining followers. Gladly would I pass over this dreary period of our poet's history; a period of surpassing grief and agony to many, of turbulence and disquiet to all. But it was Wither's evil fortune to be actively engaged in the earlier part of the civil war, and the biographer is obliged to follow him through the sad narrative of that stormy epoch.
Dr. Heylin, in his history of the Presbyterians, tells a story of Wither's conduct at this time, so indicative of profane and sacrilegious impiety, that I confess myself unable to give it credit. Heylin says, "that Martin, then member for Berks, having commanded the Sub-dean of Westminster to bring him to the place where the Regalia were kept, made himself master of the spoil; and, having forced open a great iron chest, took out the crown, the robes, the swords, and sceptre, belonging anciently to King Edward the Confessor, and used by all our kings at their inaugurations, with a scorn greater than his lusts and the rest of his vices, he openly declares that there would be no further use of these toys and trifles, and in the folly of that humour invests George Withers (an old Puritan Satyrist) in the royal habiliments, who, being thus crowned and royally arrayed (as right well became him), first marched about the room with a stately garb, and afterwards, with a thousand apish and ridiculous actions, exposed these sacred ornaments to contempt and laughter. Had the Abuse been Stript and Whipt, as it should have been, the foolish fellow might have passed for a prophet, though he could not be reckoned for a poet."
Heylin, though an upright and bold-spirited man, was a most intemperate and prejudiced writer. Educated under a zealous Puritan, Mr. Neubury, he was, nevertheless, a most intolerant enemy of the sect. The History of the Presbyterians, it should also be remembered, was written under circumstances tending to deepen every feeling of animosity. The destruction of his incomparable library, the loss of his preferment, and the untimely death of his friend and patron, Archbishop Laud, were sufficient to arouse all the bitterness of his nature. It is not impossible that during Heylin's residence at his living at Arlesford, which was almost immediately adjoining the birth-place of Wither, some cause of dissension might have arisen between the poet and himself.
The acquaintance of the profligate Harry Martin, as he was usually called, could confer no honour upon any man; yet even in his case, the injustice of party-spirit may have blinded the observer's eyes to the good qualities he really possessed. His character, as drawn by Aubrey, who says that he was "not at all covetous, humble, and always ready in the house to take the part of the oppressed," cannot be reconciled with the monster-form under which he is generally portrayed.
Upon the first breaking out of the war, Wither is said, by Anthony Wood, to have sold his estate, and raised a regiment for the service of the Parliament. This account, which has been adopted by all subsequent writers, even including Brydges and Park, is at variance with the truth. Wither was rarely withheld from an expression of his own deserts and sacrifices, and he says, in the Field Musings, when speaking of the cause of the Parliament,
According to my fortune and my place,
I therefore further'd it.
And again in the same page,
Where I then lived, I was the first of those
Who did contribute to my country's aid. — P. 5.
If he had sold his estate, he would have taken care to inform the public of the circumstance.
Having been appointed commander of the troop raised in his neighbourhood, Wither's first employment was to march into Kent, in "order to secure the malignants there from attempting any thing against the State." These are the words of a very violent and scurrilous pamphlet, in which the poet's military and private character is attacked with a bitterness of hostility sufficient to invalidate the writer's claim to truth or correctness. Wither's quarters were at Maidstone, and that he discharged his new duties with no small activity is proved by the following resolution from the Journal of the House of Commons, January 5, 1642. "Whereas the county of Kent hath advanced several sums of money upon the propositions, which they have sent to the Treasurers in Guildhall, London, and have this day also delivered in plate amounting to good value to the Treasurers aforesaid. It is this day ordered by the Commons House of Parliament, that three hundred and twenty-eight pounds six shillings be forthwith imprest by the said treasurers to the Committees of Kent, or any two of them, towards the payment of the arrears due to Captain Withers his troop, now residing in that county."
During his sojourn in Kent, according to the libellous pamphleteer already noticed, Wither did not forget his farm in Surrey, and selected for his own use some "brave horses" from the property of the Royalists. This accusation is in some measure corroborated by the testimony of another writer, professing to entertain an exalted opinion of the poet's "spiritual irradiations," but at the same time charging him with having executed some things in the county of Kent "beyond the sense" of the sentiments expressed in Britain's Remembrancer. In those days of mental fever, the best men must have frequently erred; and the stubborn, though honest poet, was not likely to be more immaculate than his companions.
Wither did not continue many months in Kent. In October, 1642, he was appointed Governor of Farnham Castle, in Surrey, which had been recently occupied for the King by Sir John Denham. The military skill of the rival poets seems to have been equal, but Wither attempted to cast the odium resulting from his desertion of the place upon his employers, who neglected to supply him with the means of defence. Finding the popular feeling still against him, in the early spring of 1643 he put forth A Shield and Shaft against Detraction, and pronounced every person who accused him of acting in a manner derogatory to the character of a gentleman, "a fool, a coward, a villain, or all." During the civil war, hard words were dealt as freely as hard blows, and the poet was not singular in the energy of his style. We shall find a greater far, even Milton, indulging his anger in a similar strain.
Wither, who, according to his own account, was the first in Surrey who had taken arms for the Parliament, was also the first who suffered in its behalf. His farm at Wanborough, a village about four miles from Guildford, was plundered by the royalists. Edward Browne, in his Pathetical Apology for Book-making, dated from London, in December, 1642, says, "Captain George Wither hath my certificate, but I fear he is so perplexed because his house near Guildford, in Sorry, was plundered by the king's cavaliers, that he can find no spare time to sign it." This event took place, it is probable, towards the beginning of January, 1642, for we discover from the Journals of the House of Commons that an order from the Committee of Safety for immediate payment to Wither of £328 6s. out of the coinage of plate, was issued, January 6, 1642.
He estimated his loss at £2000, and several attestations upon oath were laid before the Parliament verifying this statement. Few poets have possessed a dwelling so richly stored with provisions of every description. He enumerates, among other articles, a thousand weight of cheese, nearly eight hundred-weight of butter, six or seven hogsheads of beer and cider, of the whole of which the house was entirely pillaged. Having obtained the order of Parliament to indemnify himself upon the property of his plunderers, one of whom was the poet Denham, then high-sheriff of the county, he lost no time in seizing upon the goods of "Master Denham and Master Tichborne."
Both of these estates, however, were at the time untenanted, and the "goods which were Master Denham's," were, by an order of some sequestrators, taken out of Wither's hands, and put into the possession of Denham's wife, who, "as do many other delinquents," the poet indignantly complained, found much more favour than he "did who had been ever faithful to the State." "For when my wife and children," he continues, "had been cruelly driven out of their habitation, and robbed of all they had, by her husband and his confederates, and when, by virtue of the forementioned order, I justly entered upon the house of the said Denham, purposing to harbour my said wife and children therein, Mistress Denham, having long before deserted the house, and left there only some tables, with such-like household-stuff, was, upon false suggestions, put again, by order, into possession of the house, because, as her charitable patron alleged, she was a gentlewoman, big with child, and had a fancy to the place."
Aubrey has given a rambling account of this occurrence. "In the time of the civil war, Geo. Withers, the poet, begged Sir John Denham's estate of the Parliament, in whose cause he was a captain of horse. It happened that G. W. was taken prisoner, and was in danger of his life, having written severely against the king. Sir John Denham went to the king, and desired his Majesty not to hang him, for that while G. W. lived, he should not be the worst poet in England." It seems likely that our poet's captivity took place after the battle of Edge-hill, on the 23rd of October, 1642, for we learn from Clarendon, that a very considerable number of the Parliament's cavalry officers were taken after that engagement.
A similar act of malicious kindness was performed by Henry Martin, when he saved the life of Sir William Davenant; but in Denham's request there was a bitterness which spoke of the lost fields at Egham. The name of Denham frequently recurs in the life of Wither. At this time his talents were not in much repute, although the Sophy, which gave rise to Waller's witty saying, that he broke out, like the Irish rebellion, threescore thousand strong, when nobody suspected it, was published in 1642, and, according to Aubrey, "did take extremely." Soon after the battle of Edgehill, his well-known poem of Cooper's Hill is said to have been printed at Oxford, "on a sort of brown paper, for there they could get no better." But this story, which has been always unhesitatingly credited, is not reconcileable with the fact of an edition of the poem having been published in London, by Thomas Walkley, in August, 1642.
The poetical fortune of Denham forms a singular contrast to that of his rival. While Wither has been long forgotten, except by a few students of our old poetry, the works of Denham have been carefully collected, and his life written by one who touched nothing he did not adorn. Yet Johnson, it must be confessed, was too favourable in his estimate of the poet's genius; his claim to the invention of a species of poetry, to which the great critic has applied the name of local, seems to be purely imaginary. Cooper's Hill has nothing about it local, but the name. Wither and Browne furnished specimens far more individually descriptive than any thing in Denham. Pope formed a truer estimate of his merits, when he styled him "Majestic Denham," an appellation to which the occasional dignity of his manner, particularly in the Lines upon the Earl of Strafford, fully entitled him. In more peaceful times his Muse might have given utterance to a grander strain. The happier efforts of his pen are still remembered with pleasure, and the portrait left of him by his friend Aubrey, places the poet before us in an interesting light. "He was of the tallest, but a little incurveting at his shoulders, not very robust. His hair was but thin and flaxen, with a moist curl.... His eye a kind of light goose grey, not big, but it had a strange piercingness, not as to shining and glory (but like a Momus) when he conversed with you, he looked into your very thoughts."
On the 25th of July, 1643, the House of Commons directed the knights and burgesses of Middlesex and Surrey to summon Wither before them, and inquire what money or goods he had received upon the Orders of the 9th of February, and from whom, and what lands he possessed.
The loss of his property, and the interruption of his agricultural occupations involved him in great distress; he was fined and imprisoned, and on him was "laid the censure" merited by others. Nothing remained for his support but "the poor household furniture within his door," His friends forsook him as "a faulty man," and his enemies grew bold and insolent in proportion. His afflictions cannot be told more touchingly than in his own narrative:—
To add yet farther to my great afflictions,
God with a sickness (spreading forth infections)
Visits my house, and drove all those from thence
Who were some comfort to my indigence.
My children were all sick of that disease,
Their single keeper, to her little ease,
Was their poor mother; whilst, as sad as she.
I thought whereby they might supported be,
And we who served were awhile before,
With sixteen household servants, sometimes more,
Had then but one boy, who sick also lay,
And one poor woman hired by the day.
Westrow Revived, 1653.
To support his family, he had already disposed of his plate, and his wife had "ript away" the silver and the "lace of gold' from her garments, and exchanged her ornaments for daily bread. Even the dishes that held their meat were also sold; and last of all they parted with the "precious stones, the jewels, and the rings," which had been given to them as "tokens of respect" from various distinguished persons. In this melancholy condition, yet still relying upon the Divine Providence, Wither says that he walked out and met his friend Mr. Westrow, who, touched by his calamities, presented him with twenty pounds. Westrow's charity did not relax; the twenty pounds gradually grew to "twenty hundred crowns and more," which he advanced without desiring a bond, or bill, or note "To testify the lending of one groat:" And when Wither sent a full acknowledgement of all he had received, Westrow returned it to him, with an injunction that he should tell no man of the transactions between them. By this seasonable help he was enabled to recover some money detained from him "in a private hand," and he carried something to his friend every year in liquidation of the debt.
Westrow died in 1653, and Wither honoured his memory with a poem, apparently inspired by unfeigned gratitude and esteem. Walker, in his History of Independency, has not left so favourable a picture of this individual; he numbers him with those persons who had enriched themselves from poverty and a low degree, and says he was worth nothing until he became "a captain and a parliament man, when he got the Bishop of Worcester's manor of Hartlerow, which proved he had two good and beneficial offices." Wither indignantly repelled this accusation against his friend, and represents him as one who,
Living, walk'd upright in crooked ways,
And chose the best part in the worst of days.
Lord Essex also endeavoured to alleviate the poet's distresses. On the 12th of September, 1643, he issued a warrant for immediate payment of £287 12s., and on the 13th of the same month another warrant for the further sum of £294; and on the 3rd of March in the following year, for the like payment of £190.
Wither lent the cause he had adopted the aid of his pen as well as his sword. About the first year after the commencement of the war, he wrote the Mercurius Rusticus, a country messenger, in imitation of the Weekly Intelligencers. The newspapers published during the civil war have long since passed into the collections of antiquarians, and are become almost inaccessible even to the scholar. The witty Cleveland called the diurnals of that day, a history in sippets. So much brutality of insolence and cruelty of invective could only have been endured in a season of universal anarchy and confusion. The severity of the Royalists was, however, in some measure, redeemed by a vein of learning and wit. Wither touches pleasantly upon some of the most popular papers of the time. "Though I am not so witty as my friend Britannicus, nor bring you narratives that so well deserve the whetstone as Monsieur Aulicus, nor come so furnished with novelties as Master Civicus, nor so supplied with passages as the Weekly Intelligencer, nor am at leisure to sum up occurrences as the Accomptant, &c. &c.;" he was afterwards ashamed of his periodical scribbling, and never renewed his visit, although he at first intimated his intention of doing so.
The next production of his soldier-pen was the Campo-Musae, or Field Musings, written while he was "in arms for the King and Parliament." The king and the parliament was a phrase constantly in the mouth of the republicans, even while they were using every means to overthrow the monarchy. Through the Field Musings are scattered several interesting anecdotes of the writer's military life. His colonel, he tells us, was Middleton, a valiant Scot, on whose left flank he led his own troop to the charge. His fare and lodging were of the true martial kind; he had the open fields for his quarters, and was very happy to make a comfortable bed in a "well-made barley-cock," with the starry sky for his canopy and curtains. Yet even here, amid the din and tumult of arms, he prophesied the fall of nations, and prepared for publication his own views of the Bible, and the mysteries of the Apocalypse.
But Wither's tergiversation did not pass unnoticed: an opponent rose up in the person of the Water-poet. Honest John Taylor was now at Oxford, whither he had fled from the persecutions of his enemies in London; and he tells us, in that strange but amusing medley, Mad verse, Sad verse, Glad verse, and Bad verse, that upon his arrival at Oxford, he found the king and a large party of nobility in "Christ Church garden," and that the monarch, on perceiving him, immediately came towards him, and "put forth his royal hand strait," which, says Taylor, with no small exultation, "On my knees I humbly kneel'd and kist." This mark of the king's favour lent a fresh rigour to his feelings, and he applied the lash with an unsparing hand to the political dereliction of his former friend.
He entitled his reply to the Campo-Musae, Aqua Musae, Or Cacofago, Cacodaemon, Captain George Wither wrung in the Withers. The contents of the poem are not more euphonious than the title. In the preface he declares, that he had loved and respected Wither thirty-five years, because he thought him "simply honest," and takes leave of him in a strain of no common malevolence and scorn. The Skuller, as Ben Jonson called him, possessed a vocabulary rich in epithets of abuse.
If Wither's narrative be true, and of his veracity no doubt can be fairly entertained, he was at this period esteemed a person of considerable political influence. In the Cordial Confection he tells the following singular anecdote: — That during the King's residence at Oxford, he received two letters from Lord Butler, which, at the time of writing the Confection, in 1659, were still preserved among his papers, offering to settle half of his estate upon the poet, only as a small earnest of greater rewards from Charles himself, if he would embrace the royal cause. This offer was rejected. Of Lord Butler I know nothing. Butler was the family name of the Marquis of Ormond, whose devotion to his royal master has been commemorated by Clarendon and Burnet. But he could not have been at Oxford, and his son Thomas, Earl of Ossory, was only a boy.
Before the publication of the Field-Musings, Wither had disbanded his troop; his reasons are briefly given in the Nil Ultra:—
But so divisions them enraged
Who were in that contest engaged,
And such ill consequents presaged,
That I my troop did soon disband;
And hopeless I should ought essay
Successful in a martial way,
My sword and arms quite flung away,
And took my pen again in hand.
He declared in "the speech without door," delivered July 9, 1644, that he had served the republic in a military capacity while he had any thing to serve it with, and had kept his horses until they had "twice eaten out their heads." A MS. note, in a contemporary hand-writing in the copy of the speech among the King's pamphlets, says that the author was at the time Poet Laureat, a title never claimed or even mentioned by Wither himself.
Our poet did not again take up his sword. He had told Lord Essex in the dedication of the Field-Musings, that his pen would probably strengthen the Parliament army more than a regiment of horse; and he showed himself quite as active in one employment as he had been in the other. Polemical pens are rarely idle or exhausted. In the same year he addressed "Letters of Advice" to all the counties and corporations of England, particularly Southampton and Surrey, "touching the choice of Knights and Burgesses;" and in the following year he lifted up a "Voice of Peace," tending, as he hoped, to the pacification of God's wrath, and the healing of the wounded commonwealth. But they whose assistance had contributed to raise the storm, possessed no power either to mitigate or allay it; and observers, like Wither, who expected the cloud would have dissolved in a little harmless lightning, turned away in doubt and fear from its threatening aspect. He waited for peace, but he waited in vain.
He was himself soon to fall under the vindictive malice of the party with whom he had sided. At the close of 1645, or the beginning of 1646, he was ejected from the magistracy of Surrey, to which he had been appointed by the Long Parliament, principally, as he suspected, through the interest of Sir Richard Onslow and his friends, "who found it pertinent to the establishing their designs on the Government, that he should be put out of the commission." Wither did not often conceal his sentiments, whether of love or hatred, and he immediately retaliated on his enemy in a very bitter pamphlet, Justiciarius Justificatus; or, The Justice Justified, in which he vindicated his conduct in the execution of his duty, having, he declared, neither delayed nor perverted justice, "nor put any man to so much cost for it as the expense of one clerk's fee."
This attack enraged Onslow, and on the 10th of April, 1646, he complained of the pamphlet to the House of Commons; and Wither, who happened to be at the door, where his petitions caused him to be a frequent attendant, being called in, avowed himself the author. Upon this it was resolved, "That Mr. G. Wither be forthwith sent for as a delinquent by the Serjeant at Arms;" and having been brought in a second time, after he had "kneeled awhile," the Speaker informed him of the intention of the House to refer the consideration of the pamphlet to the Committee of Examinations. On the 4th of May, Mr. Whittacre and some other members of that committee were directed to send for Wither, and to inquire into the truth of his allegations. The following extract from the Journal of the House of Commons for the 7th of August, 1646, will not be uninteresting:—
"Mr. Whittacre reports the state of the examinations concerning a pamphlet written and published by Mr. George Withers, intituled Justiciarius Justificatus; and concerning a practice informed of in Mr. Withers, and one Mr. Andrewes Burrell, of accusing Sir Richard Onslow that he sent monies to the King at Oxon; and the several examinations, and the instances and inferences out of them, were all read by the Reporter.
"The humble petition of George Wither was read, desiring further time to prove what he suggested in his book.
"Another humble petition of George Wither was read, expressing his sorrow for his error in transgressing against the privileges of this House."
"It having been resolved that the reflections upon Onslow in the Justiciarius Justificatus were unfounded, 'false and scandalous,' the question was 'propounded, that Mr. George Wither should pay unto Sir Richard Onslow the sum of five hundred pounds for his damages.'
"The question being put, the House divided, and there appeared for the question 65; against it 54; leaving a majority of 11 in favour of the fine.
It was then resolved, "That the book called Justiciarius Justificatus shall be burned at Kingston upon Thames, and at Guildford, upon the market days there, by the Marshal attending the Committee at Kingston aforesaid."
According to Wood, our poet was, at the time of this debate, in prison for the libel; and he afterwards asserted that he knew nothing of the impeachment until he was startled by the news of the conviction. The accusation, he says, in the Fragmenta Prophetica, was brought on early in the morning, but so many members "abominated what they perceived to be intended, that the whole day was spent, before the author's enemies could prevail against him." That he had many friends in the House is proved by the small majority; and it maybe remarked that Lieutenant General Cromwell was "Teller for the Noe." After a confinement of nearly twelve months, he was released without "petitioning or mediation for it," and, we may conclude, without paying the fine.
His imprisonment neither taught him discretion, nor improved his fortunes.
Much of the disquiet which imbittered so many years of his life, was occasioned by the difficulty he experienced in obtaining compensation for the plunder of his estate by the Royalists, and the liquidation of the debt due to him from the Parliament. A great portion of his time was wasted in fruitless attendance upon various Committees. On one petition, he tells us, he bestowed two months; on another, ten; and on a third, a year and nine months. Milton, in a passage supposed to refer to his own sufferings, bitterly complained that the truest friends of the republic, after having afforded the aid of their labours and fortunes, were tossed from one Committee to another with petitions in their hands.
The various methods employed by Wither to attract the notice of Parliament were very ingenious. On the 12th of November, 1646, he placed an humble memorandum in the bands of several members as they entered the House. It was in these words:—
Mind your faithful servant; for my need
Requires compassion, and deserveth heed.
Though I have many rivals at your door,
Vouchsafe me justice, and I'll ask no more.
His efforts were not altogether ineffectual. On the 15th of March, 1647, an order was agreed to by the Lords and Commons, for payment of £1800 out of Discoveries at Haberdashers' Hall; and on the 22nd of the same month, a further order was made for the payment of £1681 15s. 8d. out of the Excise. Nothing, however, was gained by these orders, which do not seem to have been ever enforced, and the House was at length induced to appoint some "selected members" to provide him with a temporary employment until his claims could be adjusted. When he published his Si Quis, in 1648, he stood recommended to a situation of considerable value, which he does not appear to have obtained.
About this time, he says, when he was living upon the charity of friends, "God providentially, beyond his hope, enabled him to purchase a considerable estate, by means of their acting against him who thereby intended their own benefit and his ruin;" and the Parliament also sold him a Manor, worth £300 per annum, in consideration of "his debt of £1600 and more by him paid." I suppose the property alluded to belonged to the See of Winchester. Wither's purchases of church-lands are detailed in Gale's History of Winchester Cathedral:—
The Manor of North Walton, in Hampshire, sold to George Wither and Thomas Allen, July 5, 1648, for £964 12s. 6d.
The Manor of Bentley and Alverstock, and Borough of Gosport, sold to George Wither and Elizabeth his wife, for £1185. 4s. 5 1/2d., September 25, 1648.
The Manor of Itchinswell and Northampton Farm, sold to Nicholas Love and George Wither, for £1756 9s. 1d., September 28, 1648.
The Manor of Hantden, sold to George Wither for £3796 18s. net, March 23, 1650.
Misfortunes still followed him: the "estate was lost again," and the Manor, after he had "enjoyed it awhile," was resold by the Parliament to a member of their own, who pretended to have a mortgage upon it, and the poet was ejected "by a Suit in Law," without any satisfaction for the loss of his purchase-money, and was even compelled to pay the expenses of the suit, with other charges, amounting to several hundred pounds.
His calls for relief, however, were not entirely disregarded. In 1649, a few members of Parliament, "without his seeking," endeavoured to provide him with some occupation in order to satisfy his "just demands," and he acknowledged their kindness in A Thankful Retribution. The office which they sought, unsuccessfully, to procure, seems to have been that of Register in the Court of Chancery. Instead of this, Park thinks he was appointed one of the Commissioners for levying assessments in Surrey, as appears from the Usurpation Acts of 1649-50. A gentleman of the name of Lloyd possessed a certificate, attested by Wither on the 10th of December, 1651, while acting under this Commission, and entitled, "The report of Colonel John Humphreys, and Major George Wither, touching the demands and accounts of M. Rene Angier, made upon a reference to them by the Committee for the sale of the King's goods." M. Angier had been agent in France both for the King and the Parliament.
In 1649, the poet hailed the victory of General Jones in Dublin over the troops of the Marquis of Ormond, with a Thank-Oblation, which occupies six quarto pages. This ode of granulation is alluded to in one of the periodicals of the day. "At Westminster they are very lazy, and have done very little more of public concernment; but as it appears, George Withers has been very much busied in composing a Hymn of Praises for their great achievement and victory against Ormond, which he presented most of the members with on Thursday last, in hopes they would have sung it the day after, being the thanksgiving day appointed."
We have already seen that the orders made for Wither's relief were productive of no benefit to him, and on the 2nd of January, 1650, a Report upon his case was delivered to the House by Colonel Dove, from which it appeared that £3958 15s. 8d., with interest, were then due. The Report recommended that for the £1681 charged upon the Excise, eight per cent, should be paid every six months; and that for the remainder of the sum of £3958 the Manor of Little Horksley, in Essex, should be settled on Wither and his heirs. This estate, which was valued by the sequestrators at a yearly rent of £240, formed a part of the inheritance of Sir John Denham, whom the Report calls the poet's "chief plunderer." Colonel Dove's suggestions were only partially adopted. The £1681 were secured, according to the recommendation of the Report, upon the Excise; but instead of the entire estate of Little Horksley, only £150 was settled upon the poet in "full satisfaction and discharge of all demands," and Mr. Garland was ordered "to bring in an Act for that purpose."
Neither Wither's private troubles, nor his labours as a Commissioner, prevented him from occasionally observing the political world. Upon the rumour of an intention suddenly to dissolve the Parliament in September 1652, he immediately issued a Timely Caution, comprehended in seven double trimeters. The only classical portion of the pamphlet is the title.
He also employed some of the November nights of the same year in visionary schemes for remodelling the external and internal construction of the House of Commons. In the Perpetual Parliament, published April 24, 1653, he proposed to build a new House of Assembly at Whitehall, of a fair and imposing aspect, and beautified with walks and pleasant gardens. The members were to be arrayed in a senatorial robe or toga, wearing wreaths of gold around their necks, from which was to be suspended a tablet with the British Isles enamelled upon it. Annual Parliaments were to be introduced with a monthly election of Speaker; all undue influence in the return of members was to be punished with exile, and all eases of bribery in public offices, with death. A twelfth part of the representatives of England and Wales was to be chosen monthly, and for those in residence, a "Constant table of a meal a-day" was to be provided at a moderate charge. Every thing connected with the institution was to be pure, noble, and disinterested.
Wither's political dreams must be numbered with the equally beautiful and fantastic visions of Milton and Cowley. Structures like these, raised in the tranquillity of an enthusiastic mind, can only retain their purity and lustre in the serene and unclouded atmosphere of truth and virtue.
With the Perpetual Parliament was printed the Dark Lantern. Finding the season to be one of considerable danger, he availed himself of his Lantern, which enabled him to walk out without being seen, and to afford light wherever he found it desired. About the same time he put into the hands of Cromwell a Declaration tending to the settlement of the Government. Of our poet's political intimacy with the Protector, a curious and interesting account is contained in the Cordial Confection. After alluding to the Declaration, he thus goes on with the narrative:—
"This overture being made at a time when his fears and hazards were very great, though that Discourse was very large, he, with much seeming contentment, heard me read it over to the last word; and then protested, according to his usual manner, that it answered to his heart as the shadow of his face in the glass (then hanging before him in the room) answered to his face; and pretended that he would publish that Declaration, and act accordingly, as soon as he, with one in whose discretion he much confided, had considered what alteration it might need (or words to that effect), and then received it of me, promising to return it, with his final resolution, within a week.
"At the week's end, or thereabout, he or Mr. Thurloe, then Secretary (who seemed also to approve thereof), delivered back unto me my papers, and the Protector's answer, which then was, — 'That he himself, together with the said Secretary and myself, would within a few days examine it over to see what verbally might require alteration, or what addition would be necessary; and that being done, he would then, without fail, make order for the publication thereof.' But afterwards he apostatized from that resolution, to his own disadvantage, and the occasion of what hath since befallen to the public detriment; yet pretended many months together a firm adherence to what he had seemingly resolved on, keeping me all that time in attendance; gave me the key of his closet at the end of the Shield Gallery in Whitehall (wherein his books and his papers lay) to retire unto when I came thither; carried me often to his own table; frequently discoursed with me concerning my proposal, and appointed many set days wherein to review the said papers, but failed always in performance; wherewith I, being a little discontented, told him I thought his mind was changed, and giving him back the key of his closet, purposed never to wait again upon him, in relation to that business. He then, with very respective words to me, excusing his delays, assured me that at six of the clock next morning, he would send for his Secretary and despatch that which he intended, before he would admit any other person into his presence. I came before the appointed hour, but was then also put off until a little past three in the afternoon; at which time I attended till past four, and then hearing that he and his Secretary were gone forth in a coach to take the air, I purposed to depart and lose no more time on that occasion; and as I was leaving the room, one informed me that about the same hour in which I was appointed to attend him and his Secretary, their necks were both in hazard to be broken by the Protector's usurping the office of his coachman, and that they were both brought in so hurt that their lives were in danger. Of that imprudent, if not disgraceful, attempt, misbeseeming his person, I endeavoured to prevent as much dishonour as I might by a little poem, as I thought it my duty, in regard he executed the supreme office at that time."
This little poem was the "Vaticinium Casuale, or a Rapture for the late Miraculous Deliverance of his Highness the Lord Protector from a desperate danger." The poet, who felt the ludicrous situation of his hero, attempted to elevate the dignity of the modern coachman by a comparison with the charioteer of the Olympic games. But his Rapture contained something more valuable than flattery. He did not hesitate to remind Cromwell of the nature of his office, and of the penalty which would hereafter he exacted for every act of injustice.
"After this," continues Wither, "he (Cromwell) called on me again, as if his mind had not been wholly changed, and referred the said Papers to his Privy Council, who referred them to a Sub-Committee, of which Sir Gilbert Picketing being one, gave it a high approbation, and was pleased to say he did not flatter me; but from that time forward I heard no more of it. Another service I did, which much tended to his and the public safety, whereto Sir Gilbert Pickering is privy likewise; and in consideration of the fore-mentioned services, the said Protector, having without my asking that, or any thing else. (but to be relieved according to justice from my oppressions which I could not obtain) gave me the Statute Office, and afterwards made it of little worth unto me, because, as I conceive, I exprest my thankfulness for it by declaring unto him those truths which he was not willing to hear of."
Sir Gilbert Pickering was one of the Protector's council, but he is remembered with more interest as the kinsman and early patron of Dryden. During Wither's frequent visits to the closet at Whitehall, and the table of Cromwell, it is not improbable that he may have met the illustrious Milton, who had been made Latin Secretary in the spring of 1649, and his connexion with Sir Gilbert Pickering was likely to introduce him into the society of Dryden. No mention of either, however, occurs in any of his works.
The poem called the Protector, published in 1655, in which Wither illustrated the dignity of the office, and, as he thought, "rationally" proved it the most honourable of all titles, contributed to awaken the gratitude of Cromwell. Of this poem, we discover from a MS. note, a second impression enlarged appeared in 1656, probably containing a tribute of thanks to Oliver for the appointment to the Statute Office. Of the nature of this situation I am not able to give any account; it was, I conclude, synonymous with the Record Office bestowed upon Prynne after the Restoration.
The titular distinction of the New Governor is known to have been the subject of frequent discussion; and Wither, on the 7th of October, 1657, attempted to clear up the difficulty by a Suddain Flash, showing why the style of Protector should be continued. Our poet was not the only offerer of this grateful incense. Waller had already hailed the elevation of the "Lord Protector" with what has been pronounced by Johnson, with little justice, his famous panegyric. Of the author of the Rambler, it is the writer's wish to speak with the respect due to his lofty intellect, his Christian philosophy, and his dignified morality; but from some of his poetical decisions he may be pardoned for appealing. Waller has long enjoyed a prominent place among the British poets, to the exclusion of more deserving candidates. Prior had said, that Denham and Waller improved our versification, and Dryden perfected it; and subsequent critics have admitted the assertion without hesitation. Yet Wither showed a mastery over the language long before Denham or Waller had printed a line; and even from his most negligent works might be extracted lines equal, if not superior, to anything in Waller's panegyric.
If we may credit Wood, the favour of Cromwell was not limited to the gift of the Statute Office. The ill-natured antiquary says, that he made the poet Major-General of all the horse and foot in the county of Surrey, in which employment "he licked his fingers sufficiently, gaining thereby a great odium from the generous loyalists." The institution of Major-Generals, and the division of England and Wales into districts immediately under their military jurisdiction, was a scheme worthy of the usurper. From the decrees of these martial judges there was no appeal. They sent whom they pleased to prison, says one of their founder's warmest admirers, and confined them where they pleased. Among the victims of this oppressive regulation, was the celebrated Jeremy Taylor, who suffered a confinement of some months in Chepstow Castle. But Wood's statement respecting Wither is unfounded. If the poet "licked his fingers," it was not in the capacity of a Major-General. Colonel Kelsey was appointed Major-General of Kent and Surrey, and Colonel Goffe filled the same situation in Hampshire.
On the 3rd of September, 1658, Cromwell died, and Wither composed a Private Meditation upon the occasion. Of this political Proteus many pictures have been drawn. He was the fortunate madman of Mazarine, the brave wicked man of Clarendon, the exhausted villain of Bishop Burnet; yet we ought to remember that Baxter, a shrewd and careful observer, thought he "meant honestly in the main, and was pious and conscionable" till prosperity and success corrupted him. No man has been the subject of more flattery or abuse; with one party the throned king of the apostacy, with the other, the creature of infamy and pollution. He is said by his admirers to have esteemed men of learning, and to have expressed an inclination to hire the pen of Meric Casaubon to write his history, and to patronize Hobbes for the Leviathan. But the invitation to Casaubon could only prove that he was desirous of perpetuating his exploits in the most graceful manner. He wished to sit for his picture and direct the artist. His intellect was bold and vigorous, full of nerve and power, and peculiarly adapted to wrestle with the stormy influences of the age he lived in. Fickle and uncertain in his friendships and promises, he fostered hopes one hour, only to crush them in the next. Of his variableness an example has been already afforded in the case of our poet.
"On the demise of Cromwell," says Mr. T. Campbell, "Wither hailed the accession of Richard with joyful gratulation. He never but once in his life foreboded good, and in that prophecy he was mistaken." It is easier for a critic to be witty than correct. If Mr. Campbell had ever taken the trouble to look into Wither's political works, he would have seen the fallacy of the observation.
On the expulsion of the Parliament by General Lambert, in the October of 1659, he lost no time in preparing A Cordial Confection against the Fainting of the Heart in those distracted times, which he printed on the 23rd of December, addressed to Mr. Robert Hamon, merchant. In the copy of this pamphlet in the British Museum, is the following observation written on a blank leaf, and dated January 6, 1660: — "This Libell was scattered about the streets that night those bloody villains intended their massacre in London, which was upon Sunday night, the 6th of January, 1660, being Twelfth Night." In this pamphlet Wither asserts, that during nine years' solicitation he had been unsuccessful in procuring the reading of one petition in Parliament; but I find, from the Journals of the House of Commons, that the "petitions of Colonel Cooke and George Withers" were ordered to be read on Monday morning, February the 21st, 1656. Whether they were actually read on that day does not appear.
During the unsettled events of 1659-60, he was enjoying a little repose in the retirement of Hambledon, from which place he dates his Furor Poeticus, on the 19th of February in that year. There are two villages of this name, one in the county of Southampton, and the other near Godalming, in Surrey; the former must have been the poet's residence, for we learn from the Epistle at Random, that his family had been settled in Hampshire two years. The intentions of General Monk were then the subject of general anxiety. Pepys says in his Diary, "All the world is at a loss to think what Monk will do; the City saying he will be for them, and the Parliament saying he will be for them." Wither urged him to continue the stedfast champion of the Republic; how far he followed that advice is well known.
The Furor Poeticus obtained no relief for the petitioner. For nearly seventeen years had he been pouring out his complaints in public and in private, writing "many hundreds of poems, papers, and petitions," beside MS. addresses delivered into the hands of the two Protectors, and all with no more success than if he had supplicated "the Statues in Westminster Abbey, or Whitehall Garden." During this long and anxious season of hope deferred, the quiet beauty of his native hamlet frequently came back upon his heart, and he longed to dwell again "by the wood-side in a country village." He was, however, still engaged in agricultural pursuits, although prevented, by his occupation in London from visiting his farm more than two or three times in the year, and he expressed a fear, that owing to his increasing poverty, the land would soon be left unstocked.
His enemies appear to have been more active than his friends, having not only obtained the omission of his name in the Commission of the Peace for Hampshire, but in the Militia also; these were severe trials to the poet, now past his seventieth year, and, in his own words, worn out by oppression. After pathetically alluding to his depressed condition, and the want of sufficient funds to meet, with punctuality, the demands of his creditors, he continues:—
"To preserve myself as much as I could from this vexation and scandal, and to supply my personal wants (occasioned by other men deceiving my hopes), I have been enforced to sell away above £2000 worth of my then remaining livelihood, real and personal, and am still engaged, by my continuing oppressions, in almost as much more, though I have, since the sales last mentioned, sold by parcels, to the dismembering of my inheritance, all that was disengaged, and at my free disposal. Yea, the consumption goes on, insomuch that the remainder of the portion left in possession (unless part of that which is due to me may be paid to free it from incumbrance) is likely to be forfeited within a few months. And though forfeiture should be saved, my revenue will not be sufficient to discharge taxes and parochial payments with the interest of my remaining debts, and unavoidable expenses by them unusually occasioned, and afford a maintenance for myself, my wife, children, and servants (though a far less number than heretofore), after the rate of five shillings the week one person with another, throughout the year, to provide meat, drink, raiment, servants' wages, children's portions, and all other necessaries in sickness and in health.... And what is worse than all, I, whose credit was so good that when occasion heretofore required it, have borrowed £100, £200, £300, yea, £600, in one place for several years upon my single bond (as will yet appear by the bonds cancelled), am now doubtful whether my security will pass alone for £10."
So poor was he, indeed, that when he heard the intention of the Parliament to rate him at two horses for the service of the militia, he professed himself scarcely able to find them even bridles. His losses amounted to nearly ten thousand pounds. He had been ejected from his share of Denham's estate in 1654, having never, during the period he possessed it, "made one penny of clear profit by reason of interruption;" and a small parcel of land he had purchased at Ash, in Surrey, in 1651, had been taken from him, and was detained, in spite of his remonstrances, by a member of the Parliament. His creditors also contributed to increase his sufferings by legal expenses, and he at length found himself reduced from an income of £700 per annum, to comparative destitution. Some affecting passages are scattered through the Speculum Speculativum. If, as his conscience told him, he had neglected the Almighty in the hour of his prosperity, he remembered Him in loneliness, in poverty, and in tears. At "seventy years and two" he looked forward with feelings of joyful anticipation to the end of his pilgrimage, consoling himself with the certainty of singing " care and life away" in a few brief years or months. His former friends had forsaken him, or were ranged on the side of his enemies, and he bitterly complained that his greatest persecutions were caused by those who
Walked with him friendlike in the self-same ways.
In his Hymn of Confession and Praise, he poured out the earnest prayers of a religious heart.
Therefore take thou no care,
For God thy help will be,
And put on them a greater fear
Than they can put on thee.
Man liveth not by bread alone,
And that (should it be told)
Which now my life depends upon,
Your eyes cannot behold.
You robbed me of external things,
But what the worse am I,
If I have in me living springs
That never will be dry!
Many verses might be quoted from the same composition, equally touching, and marked by the same pure and Christian resignation.
Deserted by those whom he had assisted with his labours and fortune, having borrowed money for their use, for which he was obliged to pay interest out of his own pocket, he looked forward to the restoration of the exiled Prince with mingled anticipations of hope and danger. He was weary of the hypocrisy and selfishness of the political charlatans who sacrificed the' public good to their personal aggrandizement, and his early respect and attachment to the monarchy began to revive. Immediately after the Restoration, he joined in the universal welcome to the King, and "wanting better gifts," brought
A little cluster of those grapes that grew
Upon his wither'd vine;
an offering he had intended to present with his own hand, had not the difficulty of gaining access to the royal presence prevented him. It is only just to remark that the congratulation was unblemished by the gross flattery which characterised similar productions, and he honestly declared, that knowing nothing of the virtues of Charles, he was unable to write a panegyric in their praise.
But a new storm was already gathering over the poet's head. The church-lands he had purchased of the Parliament were forcibly seized, before the King's commissioners had time to decide upon the merits of the question, and the remainder of his stock and goods was taken away in the night. In the Fides Anglicana, or a Plea for the Public Faith of these Nations, he dwelt upon his wrongs with considerable ingenuity. The right of the prelates to the lands of which they had been despoiled was of course unquestionable, but the summary mode employed to dispossess him was contrary to the Royal Declaration.
Wither's situation, at this time, offers a singular contrast to that of his old enemy, Sir John Denham. While our poet was sitting in his solitary chamber on the morning of the Coronation-day, Denham, we are told by Pepys, was leading a party of friends into the Abbey.
The loss of his lands formed only a small portion of Wither's calamity. While engaged in writing a political address to the Members of Parliament, his room was suddenly entered, and the MS. taken from him, together with a large bag full of books and letters, which was carried away by a porter. He says that the seizure was made without any legal authority, but it appears to have been effected under a warrant from Secretary Nicholas. This must have taken place at the beginning of August 1661, for on the 12th of that month he addressed a poem to his friends, from "Mr. Northrops, one of the King's Messengers, in Westminster," where, he adds, he was "civilly used." On the 22nd hp was removed to Newgate, and soon after petitioned the "Lord Mayor and the rest of the Commissioners of the Peace, and Gaol Delivery, for the city of London," to admit him to bail. His request was refused, and he returned to his cell and consoled himself with the prospect of soon seeing his wife, who seems to have been living in Hampshire, but on the day before that appointed for her arrival, he received the intelligence of her severe and dangerous illness. Never, he exclaimed, in the anguish of his grief, had he known imprisonment until that hour, when he learnt the sickness of his wife, and called to mind his own inability to assist her or relieve her wants.
—Despoiled of all she had
Excepting what might make her heart more sad,
With foes surrounded, not one to befriend her,
Nor servants in that weakness to attend her;
No good physician living there about,
Scarce any thing within doors, or without
For food or physic. — Crums and Scraps, p. 80.
The date of his marriage has not been discovered. That it did not take place very early in life, is evident from a passage in Britain's Remembrancer, in which he says, after ridiculing the preposterous foreign fashions of the times,
—I hope that she
Who shall be mine (if any such there be)
Whatever accident or change befalls,
Will still retain her English naturals.
Canto 6, p. 178.
In the Topographical Miscellanies, quoted by Park, he is conjectured to have been united to Catherine Chester, of Woolvesly, near Winchester, in 1657. But this lady has no claim upon our poet. We learn from Aubrey, that he married Elizabeth Emerson, of South Lambeth, who was a "great wit, and could write in verse too." Her talents and virtues were her only dowry, for he says, in Salt upon Salt,
—Nor by wiving,
Which is to some a sudden way of thriving,
Was my estate repair'd.
Of her domestic tenderness and excellence, Wither has left many interesting memorials. As "woman, mistress, mother, wife," she discharged her duty with piety; unwearied in doing good, her hand was ever ready to assist the neighbouring poor; the morning found her "first to wake," at "night her candle went not out." This excellent woman recovered from her illness, and her grateful husband composed a Thanksgiving to God upon the occasion.
The absence of the poet's wife was not his only affliction; — he was supported in Newgate by some of his relations, who, as he pathetically acknowledged, were scarcely able to maintain themselves; and not unfrequently, in the solitude of his cell, he reflected upon the injury his imprudent conduct had inflicted upon them. The destitute condition of his wife and surviving children was also a frequent subject of meditation and prayer. In the Improvement of Imprisonment are many affecting compositions of this kind: the following very touching verses may be taken as a specimen:—
Thereof be therefore heedful,
Them favour not the less,
Supply with all things needful
In this our great distress.
And when Thou me shalt gather,
Out of this Laud of Life,
Be Thou my children's Father,
A Husband to my wife.
When I to them must never
Speak more with tongue or pen,
And they be barr'd for ever
To see my face again.
Preserve them from each folly,
Which, ripening into sin,
Makes root and branch unholy,
And brings destruction in.
Let not this world bewitch them
With her besetting wine,
But let Thy grace enrich them
With faith and love divine.
And whilst we live together,
Let us upon Thee call,
Help to prepare each other,
For what may yet befall:
So just, so faithful-hearted,
So constant let us be,
That when we here are parted,
We may all meet in Thee.
How constantly the spiritual well-doing of his children was his anxious theme, will be seen from an epistle addressed to them from Newgate, 15th of February, 1662.
"To my Dearly Beloved Children,
About twenty years now past, though I had then temporal possessions, which I might probably have given and bequeathed; I composed and intended for our legacy, A Soliloquy and Prayer, which I had spread in writing before God on your behalfes; and I believe it shall continue for ever in his view. But there being but one copy thereof, both you and I were deprived of that composure, when the book for which I here suffer was taken out of my closet. Therefore being now likely to he so separated from you, how much server it may concern our temporal or spiritual well-beings, that I may, perhaps, thenceforth never see you more, I send you this sacrifice of praise and prayer, next following, to be instead of that which is lost; for it contains in effect somewhat (as to the petitionary part) of that which was spread before God (as aforesaid) in a larger scroll. Take it into your serious considerations, and lay it up among your evidences; for it will speak to your advantage, when I can speak no more for you; when other men, who can speak for you, will not when many, perhaps, will speak against you, and when you shall not be able to speak for yourselves.
"God sanctify unto you this brief memorandum, and you to his glory, that we may all meet together in Him to our over lasting joy. Be obedient to your mother, the enjoyment of whose company will more than recompense the loss of mine; for God hath endowed her with so much natural prudence and love, that by her counsel (if you despise it not) your posterity may be continued on the earth, until Christ comes to gather together his elect. Remember the counsel of your earthly father, that the promise made by your heavenly Father to the Rechabites may be enlarged to you and your posterity, fir your and their personal obedience to God's covenant made with all mankind in Christ Jesus (according to that assisting grace which He vouchsafed), toward the accomplishing of what I have prayed for concerning you. The blessing of God he with you, and farewell. Your affectionate Father,
Newgate, Feb. 15, 1662."
On the afternoon of the 24th of March, he was brought from Newgate to the bar of the House of Commons, and the libel having been shown him, he acknowledged "that the same might be in his hand, but that it was but parcel of what he intended; and the other writing being shown to him, he confessed the same to be of his own hand-writing." Henry Northrop and Robert Heyborne were then called in, and they deposed that they "took the said papers from under Mr. Withers his hand, and that he was writing part of them just when they were taken from him." At the conclusion of the examination, it was resolved that Wither should be delivered "to the Lieutenant of the Tower, there to be kept in close custody, and be denied pen, ink, and paper, and debarred from having any company to come unto him;" and it was referred to the Solicitor-General to draw up an impeachment, and report it to the House at their next meeting. These severe commands seem to have been implicitly followed; even his "black-lead" was taken away, and he had no resource but to scrawl his verses with an "oker-pencil" upon three trenchers, which were carried by the keeper to the Lieutenant of the Tower. He was at this time an object of so much notoriety, that the "diurnal-women" cried the news of his impeachment for treason about the streets.
The House reassembled on the 3d of April, when it was ordered, that the "thanks of this House be returned to his Majesty for his grace and favour, in causing George Withers to be apprehended and detained in custody for the seditious libel by him contrived against the members of this House;" and Lord Falkland was directed to carry the address to his Majesty. Nothing more, however, seems to have been said of the impeachment; and on the 9th of April, upon consideration of a petition presented on behalf "of George Wither, now a prisoner in the Tower," it was ordered that his wife should be admitted to visit him, with a view of eliciting from him a "recantation and submission for the misdemeanour for which he was committed." But her efforts were slow in producing the required confession, and it was not until the 27th of July, 1663, that he was directed to be discharged, giving bond to the Lieutenant of the Tower for his good behaviour. Mr. Campbell does not appear to have been aware of this release, for he improperly concludes that the poet died in prison.
The MS. pamphlet, for which he underwent this long and severe imprisonment, was addressed to the Lord Chancellor Clarendon; and it is impossible to account for the vindictive tyranny with which an offence of such slight comparative turpitude was visited. As the work was never printed, it could not be said to have done any injury.
Neither age nor sufferings had any effects upon the fluency of his pen. Soon after his discharge, perceiving the growing differences between this country and Holland, he sounded his Tuba Pacifica, or Trumpet of Peace; and when the public mind was agitated by the expectation of an engagement between the English and Dutch fleets, he "breathed out" some dull Sighs for the Pitchers; two pitchers being the emblems by which the rival nations were represented on the title-page.
Wither, whose narrative of the Plague in 1625 has been already noticed, was doomed to be a second time the spectator of its dreadful ravages. The pestilence broke out in April, and in June he seems to have escaped its fury; for he observes in the Memorandum to London, p. 28, "God be praised, not so much as one hath been sick of any disease in my house since the plague began, nor is it, to my knowledge, near my habitation," But he afterwards suffered from the visitation. In the preamble to the Meditation upon the Lord's Prayer, be says, "During the great mortality yet continuing, and wherein God evidently visited his own household, my little family, consisting of three persons only, was visited, and, with my dear consort, long engaged in daily expectation of God's divine purpose concerning our persons yet, with confidence, whether we were smitten or spared, lived, or died, it would be in mercy; for having nothing to make us in love with the world, we had placed our best hopes upon the world to come." His solitary seclusion was, in some measure, alleviated by the composition of the Meditations on the Lord's Prayer. "Providence," he tells us, "inclined my heart to contemplate the aforesaid prayer, when I seemed but ill-accommodated to prosecute such an undertaking; for it was in the eleventh climacterical year of my life, and when, beside other bodily infirmities, I was frequently assaulted with such as were, perhaps, pestilential symptoms; and the keeping of two fires requiring more than my income seemed likely to maintain, I prosecuted my Meditations all the day, even in that room wherein my family and all visitants talked and despatched their affairs, yet was neither diverted nor discomposed thereby; but, by God's assistance, finished my undertaking within a short time after the recovery of my servant, whose life God spared."
The plague and the fire, which carried sorrow and death into so many families, did their work upon our poet's friends. In the Fragmenta Prophetica, collected by his own hand a little before his death, he says that many of his friends being dead, "some impoverished, and the remainder, for the most part, so scattered since the late pestilence and fire, that nor he nor they then knew where to find each other, without much difficulty; he being wearied, and almost worn out, is constrained to prepare a resting-place for himself and his consort, which he hath prepared at a lonely habitation in his native country (where he neither had nor looked for much respect), and is resolved to retire there with as much speed as he can, to wait upon God's future dispensations during the remainder of his life." But, in the postscript to the same volume, we are told, what, indeed, few are ignorant of, that the uncertainty and changeableness of all temporal things make us accordingly mutable in our purposes, and that the author had been dissuaded from his retirement "to a solitary habitation in the place of his nativity" by the advice of his friends in London.
These were some of the last words traced by the poet's pen; the path had gradually been growing rougher and more painful, as he wound deeper into the vale of years; but we gather from the Paraphrase on the Ten Commandments, published by his daughter in 1688, that his aged hand continued almost to the last hour of his existence to labour in that cause, to which he gloried that he had devoted the morning of his days. He expired on the 2d of May, 1667, and was buried between the east door and south end of the church belonging to the Savoy Hospital in the Strand.
Wither had six children, only two of whom were living in 1662, both advantageously married; his daughter, when, through her father's misfortunes, she was left entirely portionless, having been "espoused into a loving family." This child alone survived him, and from her publication of his Divine Poems, we may conclude that his affectionate partner had preceded him to the tomb.
Of Wither's personal appearance, the portrait copied for this volume from a fine engraving by J. Payne, prefixed to the Emblems, affords an interesting representation. We recognise in his manly features the "honest George Withers," of the celebrated Baxter. In the poem accompanying the portrait, he says of himself:
For though my gracious Maker made me such,
That where I love, beloved I am as much
As I desire; yet form nor feature are
Those ornaments in which I would appear
To future times, — though they were found in me
Far better than I can believe they be
Much less affect I that which each man knows
To be no more but counterfeits of those,
Wherein the painter's, or the graver's tool,
Befriends alike the wise man, and the fool;
And if they please, can give him by their art,
The fairest face, that had the falsest heart.
If, therefore, of my labours, or of me,
Ought shall remain, when I removed shall be,
Let it be that wherein it may be view'd
My Maker's image was in me renewed;
And to declare a dutiful intent
To do the work I came for, ere I went,
That I to others may some pattern be,
Of doing well, as other men to me
Have been whilst I had life, and let my days
Be summed up to my Redeemer's praise—
So this be gained, I regard it not,
Though all that I am else be quite forgot.
His manners were, like his poetry, simple and unostentatious; the lines in which he ridiculed the fawning adulation of the age are quoted by Baxter:
When any bow'd to me with congees trim,
All I could do was stand and laugh at him:—
Bless me! I thought, what will this coxcomb do?
When I perceived one reaching at my shoe.
He was temperate in his habits; for life, he said, was preserved with a little matter, and that content might dwell with coarse cloth and bread and water. Like Milton, he indulged in the luxury of smoking; and many of his evenings in Newgate, when weary of numbering his steps, or telling the panes of glass, were solaced with "meditations over a pipe," not without a grateful acknowledgement of God's mercy in thus wrapping up "a blessing in a weed."
In his performance of the duties of private life he was irreproachable: while the sun rarely went down upon his wrath, his friendship lasted for years. The kindness of Westrow was always remembered with undiminished gratitude. His love to his wife and children was constant and unchanging; at a period when every man's hand was against his neighbour, it is delightful to recollect that one family was united in the bond of Christian amity, and that while the night without was dark and tempestuous, the humble charities of the poet's fire-side were preserved inviolate.
If we pass from his private to his public character, the contemplation is not so pleasing. As a politician he was weak and inconsistent, a reed shaken by every wind. Echard called him a dangerous incendiary, and said that he was capable of doing a great deal of mischief. Yet he never became the fosterer of crime, or the apologist of tyranny. He lived, he tells us, under eleven different governments — Elizabeth, James, Charles the First, the King and Parliament together, the parliament alone, the Army, Oliver Cromwell, Richard Cromwell, a Council of State, the Parliament again, and Charles the Second. In his youth, and for many years after, we have seen him the admirer of the Monarchy, and if he forsook the cause of royalty, it should not be forgotten that he did not long remain with the Parliament; if he became the eulogist of Cromwell, he at the same time spoke to him boldly of his errors. Unlike contemporary rhymers, his flattery seldom degenerated into adulation-he always mixed wormwood with the wine. The man who could indignantly return to the Protector, when in the zenith of his power, the key of his private closet at Whitehall, given as a mark of peculiar favour, was no common individual. His numerous pamphlets, with few exceptions, cannot be numbered among the controversial fruits of the age; they are usually devoted to the expression of his own wrongs, and more frequently deserve the name of Ribble-Rabblements bestowed on them by himself, than any more honourable appellation. They have none of the menace and defiance, the "trample and spurn" of the polemical Milton. By some he was called a puritan, by others a Presbyterian, but his own words show that he was neither. "I am not," he said, "for or against the Presbyterians, Independents, King, Parliament, members, or people, more or less than in my judgment may conduct to the wrong or right way-from or toward the truth of God." Of the royal power he desired a reformation, not an extirpation, and he drew up a petition against the execution of Charles the First, but could not find any member bold enough to present it.
In his earlier days he had been noticed by the High Church party, and in later times, the leaders of the Republican administration thought him worth their regard. He says that he was known "to the greatest number of the most considerable persons in the nation," and had familiarity with many of them, not "without some appearance of good respect." In the list of his political acquaintance we have found Oliver Cromwell, Lord Essex, Sir Gilbert Pickering, &c.; and he whom the Protector honoured with frequent invitations to his own table, and did not hesitate to soothe by personal visits, must have possessed no little influence. It speaks powerfully for his honesty, that he subsequently forfeited the favour of Cromwell.
His religious feelings are hardly less difficult accurately to define than his political sentiments. He was, almost up to the breaking out of the civil war, a follower of the established church, and although solicited by the seductive offers of numerous Sectaries, he still continued to hold fast the faith of his fathers. But Republicanism and Episcopacy could not subsist together; yet he might be said to have forsaken the outward forms of our church rather than its ordinances. When questioned as to his belief, he answered that he called himself a Catholic Christian, a title not affected out of any singularity, but "by way of distinction" only. "I separate myself," he says, "from no church adhering to the foundations of Christianity; I waive the confining my belief or practice to any one national or congregational society of Christians, not out of a factious inclination or petulant disesteem of any; but having a desire to be instrumental in uniting men dissenting in judgment both unto God and each other in love, I conceive that endeavour would be suspected of partiality, and not so effectually prosecuted if I made myself party with any one fraternity more than another. True faith cannot be evidenced without good works, which being imperfect in the best of men, we have no such certain mark whereby unfeigned disciples may he known, as by their being loving to each other and charitably affected toward all men; yea, although they are our personal enemies."
We may admire the piety of this passage without confessing the justness of the reasoning; we discern in the poet's mild and Christian declaration, none of the gloom of the ascetic, or the harshness of the intolerant bigot. To be of no church, it has been excellently observed, is dangerous; all men cannot, like Milton, preserve "a religion of the heart;" and even in his case we find more to regret than to admire. Wither has left abundant testimony to prove the sincerity of his religious professions. If he did not endure his misfortunes in silence, at least he braved them with fortitude; if, amid the overwhelming perils of the country, he too often sat down on his own "little bundle of thorns," it may be urged in his behalf, that he suffered much and long. In the resolution with which he fulfilled what he considered the commission intrusted to him from above, we trace something of primitive singleness of heart. For nearly half a century he was a "watchman for the nation," unceasingly warning it of its vices and crimes. Through the dangers of the pestilence, and all the changes of Government, he pursued the same course; often, indeed, drawn aside by the importunities and weaknesses of heart, to whose charming no human ear can be utterly deaf, but always returning, after a little while, to his labours. Though the storm of adversity might beat upon his spirits, it could not subdue them; he walked with noticed feet,
—The solitary path
at one time threatened with "loss of limb and tortures," at another, glad to escape from his enemies only with "life and raiment." He was imprisoned in the Marshalsea, Newgate, and in the Tower, frequently without any means of procuring the common necessaries of life. If he murmured, he did not faint; in the midst of all his persecutions he derived peace and consolation from a sincere reliance on the mercy of Heaven, often exclaiming that he was "excellently sad," and that God infused such happiness into his heart, that grief became to him "Comfort's mother." Under one of his heaviest calamities he could exclaim—
But Lord, though in the dark
And in contempt thy servant lies,
On me there falls a spark
Of loving-kindness from thine eyes.
While lauding his virtues, I am far from being blind to his errors. Had Wither remembered the sacred command, Do not evil that good may come, many of his follies would not have been committed. He would then have been more temperate in his satire, more steadfast in his politics, and more decided in his religion. The best apology which can now be offered, is contained in his own affecting words. "Be it considered that some of these books were composed in his unripe age; some when wiser men than he erred; and that there is in all of them somewhat savouring of a natural spirit, and somewhat dictated by a better spirit than his own."
Upon the merits of his poetry it is unnecessary to dilate. His early compositions were not, perhaps, sufficiently popular to operate very powerfully on the public taste, but in the Shepherd's Hunting, the Mistress of Philarete, and the Shepherd's Pipe, the correctness and finish of Denham and Waller were united to a natural grace and melody of style to which they have not an equal claim. His touches of rural simplicity have never been surpassed; in his hand the pastoral reed seemed not to have forgotten the lip of Spenser.
As a sacred poet, Wither is entitled to a distinguished place among his contemporaries. If he does not awe the soul with the majesty of Milton, or crush it with the iron energy of Quarles, or force the tears of rapture into our eyes with the pathos of Crashaw, yet his words come home to every bosom, and no man ever poured the balm of holy truth into a wounded heart with a more affectionate hand. He had been taught sympathy, in a good school, the school of adversity. He was in his own day, we are told, a favourite with young readers; and the purity and love of virtue manifested in all he wrote, rendered him a meet companion. The elements of his art were few; his verses contain no skilful combinations of imagery, or metaphors elaborated with a painful ingenuity; he showed us that the tree of poetry never flourishes with greener beauty, than when deeply rooted in the common joys and sorrows of humanity. The Muse never appeared to him in so beautiful a form, or with so endearing a manner, as when she brightened the chamber of the Marshalsea with her presence; but though, in after-times, he devoted his pen to pursuits which he hoped would prove more beneficial to the world, the fervour and unaffectedness of his youthful strains were not entirely destroyed. While the wit and fancy of Cowley were being chilled into cold and glittering eccentricities; while Donne was torturing his erudition into fantastic images, and Jonson was encumbering his imagination with the treasures of a far-gathered leaning, Wither remained faithful to the early models of nature and truth. In the Halleluiah, published when he was fifty-three years old, the sincerity and earnestness of his heart are still fresh and vigorous.
Among his poetical friends, in addition to those already mentioned, were the well-known Michael Drayton; Thomas Cranley, whom he styled his brother, the writer of a play called Amanda; Hayman, the author of the Quodlibets; and Christopher Brooke, a companion of Browne, and a member of Lincoln's Inn, where he became the "chamber-fellow" of Donne, with whom he was imprisoned, on account of that poet's imprudent marriage. Wither also contributed verses to Carter's Most true and exact Relation of the Expedition of Kent, Essex, and Colchester, in 1648; to Butler's Feminine Monarchie, or the History of Bees, in 1623; and a Latin poem, signed G. W., before Payne Fisher's Marston Moor, may belong to him. Fisher was the unsparing magnifier of Cromwell's actions, and appears to have subsisted upon the proceeds of his flattery. Pepys, who knew him, says in his Diary, 26th July, 1660, that the "poet Fisher" wished on that day to borrow "a piece," and that he sent him "half a piece."
In Pinkerton's preface to Ancient Scottish Songs, allusion is made to some compositions by Wither among the Bannatyne MSS., but it would seem from the appendix, as Park has remarked, that he can only claim a Scottish version of one of his celebrated songs.
It may not be uninteresting to the reader of the preceding memoir, to know that the poet's name is still in existence in his native place. When the writer was at Bentworth in the summer of 1833, he was surprised, on ascending the steep path leading to the church, to find the name of Withers upon the sign-board of a little public house by the road-side. On inquiry he was informed that this individual came from the neighbourhood of Farnham, in Surrey, and from the long residence of our poet in that part of the country, it is not improbable that the host of the Five Bells is descended from the author of the Shepherds Hunting. The same name also hangs before an humble inn in the quiet town of Alton, and one of the keepers of the gate on the road to Winchester owns the same appellation.