All that is known of the personal history of Giles Fletcher, maybe included in one short sentence. He was the younger brother of Phineas, — of Trinity College Cambridge, where he took the degree of B.D. patronised early in life by Dean Neville, — in holy orders and beneficed at Alderton in Suffolk, where he died prematurely in the thirty-fifth year of his age.
He published one poem only; this was printed at Cambridge in 1610, in 4to. with the title of "Christ's Victory and Triumph, in Heaven and Earth, over and after Death." Another edition appeared in 1622, and again in 1640 with engravings, it was reprinted, together with the "Purple Island" of Phineas, with many alterations in the text, according to the absurd recommendation of Hervey in 1783, London 8vo. Finally it was inserted in a collection of English poetry by Dr. Anderson who made use of the last genuine edition, that of 1640.
United as these tuneful brothers assuredly were in blood, in affection, in talent, and in station, — favourites of the same muse, occupied with the same pursuits, and employing their talents upon similar subjects, — it would have been perhaps consistent if we had spoken of them as Kentish poets in conjunction also, and classed them together in one article. As it is, the few general remarks we have already ventured to make upon their poetry, together with what follows, apply with equal justice to both.
Superior in all the higher attributes of poetry, the Fletchers may with confidence assert their claim to precedence, in the order of merit, over all the native bards of Kent. To originality and invention, they have however but slender pretensions. Spenser was their master, who himself copied his style, his subjects, and even his incidents from the modern bards of Italy. — The subjects of their poems, — the form and structure of their verse, — its harmony and modulation, — the sweet and tender sentiment in which they delighted to indulge, — the glowing pictures of nature scattered throughout their works, and finished with the utmost perfection of their art, — the apt and beautiful metaphors, taken for the most part from nature also, introduced at due intervals, and with the happiest effect, — their fondness for personification carried even beyond the bounds of propriety, — their prolixity, quaintness, and disposition to seek for antithesis, for the purpose of effect, — are so many proofs of the diligence with which they had studied the manner of this admirable poet.
In the harmonious flow and modulation of their stanzas, and in the mechanical part of their structure, the Fletchers are equal to their great master: in the beauty and fitness of their metaphors they are even superior to him, and will bear a comparison with any poets, how ever eminent, and of whatever time. In tender and lovely sentiment, in that exalted strain of charity, which at the same time that it identifies the possessor with his fellow men, exalts him above humanity, which flowing from the purest source has been seldom given to highly favoured mortals, and to none more amply than to the bard of "Faery," they fall short of the object of their imitation, for few indeed can equal him.
The Fletchers composed their poems when very young men. The "Christ's Victory" of Giles was printed when he was only twenty-two years of age, — and at that time, from the evidence of the concluding stanzas addressed to his brother, Phineas had composed his largest work, "The Purple Island." The age in which they wrote, though it produced some of the very finest specimens of poetry in the English language, was that of the imagination rather than of the judgment, — taste was in great measure unknown, and criticism absolutely so, — the poets rarely corrected their works, and the greatest beauties are blended with the grossest faults. Poetry, like a healthy plant in a virgin soil, throve luxuriantly, it rooted deep and spread its branches wide, but its fruit was frequently harsh and, crude; it demanded the assiduous care of the cultivator, and the fearless application of the pruning book. The Fletchers partook largely both of the faults and of the beauties of the age they lived in. That they were capable of writing correctly and well is proved by passages where it is evident they put out their strength, and employed diligence. Phineas, in particular, wrote early, and published late in life, when he was probably occupied with more important cares, and the spirit of poetry which had inspired his youth had in great measure deserted him. That he bestowed little care in correcting or revising his labours is plain from frequent passages where he has repeated the same thought in almost the same words; this even extends to repeating whole stanzas. It may be remarked that this poet was capable of correct application when his subject required it. In the scientific part of his poem, where precision was absolutely necessary, he describes minutely and correctly, and a student of anatomy might learn the state of that science in the 16th century from the "Purple Island" alone, without the chance of being mistaken. But when he embarks in the boundless ocean of the intellectual faculties, he at once assumes all the privileges of the poet, revels in a creation of his own, and resigns himself to the guidance of his imagination. — He calls up in long array, a host of personifications, blends or misapplies the attributes he assigns to them, becomes obscure, pedantic, and at times tediously prolix. But it is in this part that we must seek for his brilliant metaphors, his glowing pictures of nature, touched with a master's hand, his sweetest sentiments, his richest harmony, and above all, his finest conceptions. Had his genius been under the guidance of taste, his poem would have been one of the grandest pictures of allegorical painting in the national gallery of British poetry....
The "Christ's Victory and Triumph" of Giles FIetcher, as it is certainly the first poem on a sacred subject in the English language worthy of notice, so is it even now one of the best, — which is not perhaps very exalted praise, for with one or two exceptions every subsequent attempt of the same kind has been little better than a complete failure. Fletcher's poem is conceived in a spirit of genuine piety, and composed in a corresponding strain of elevated poetry; the personifications are equal to the best of Sackville's or Spenser's; the metaphors, most of which have been given, are beautiful and appropriate; there are passages of great sublimity, and the general tone of the whole is worthy of the sacred muse. Notwithstanding this the poem fails to create interest, or excite sympathy, and most readers who take it up to be gratified with the perusal, will probably lay it down with feelings of disappointment. It will be read only with pleasure by the poetic student, and by those who having been long familiar with the peculiarities of the age in which it was composed, are prepared to make due allowance for defective taste, and can distinguish merit amidst every kind of blemish and defect.
The faults of Fletcher's poem are partly of the subject, and partly of the writer. If Phineas was unfortunate in selecting anatomy as the ground-work of his poem, his brother was not happy in making choice of the mysterious facts connected with the establishment of the Christian faith. Much talent has been wasted in all ages in the attempt to decorate the mysteries of religion with the flowers of verse; it is one of those errors in judgment which modern poets have borrowed from their masters of old, and they have applied it to the doctrines of Christianity without duly considering how much less capable they are of poetic embellishment than the absurdities of the ancient polytheism. — The gods of Greece interest us only when used as poetic agents, by the close resemblance they bear to men in all the incidents which poets have chosen to adopt; for assuredly the only legitimate fountain of poetry is man, in his present state of enjoyment and suffering. Even the beauties and sublimities of external nature require to be connected with the destinies of mankind to fit them for the poet's use. The perfume of the violet, the song of the nightingale, the beauty of the landscape, are poetical only in association with human enjoyment: with the sublimity of the storm, we connect the horrors of the shipwreck; with inclement seasons, the sufferings of the exposed and indigent; with the grandeur of Alpine scenery, the dangers of the traveller, and the emotions it excites in the mind of the spectator. This connection, to be poetical, must be immediate and certain, — not remote, or contingent. The mysteries of religion, as they apply to man, are connected only with a future state of his existence; they are designed by the great author of our being, as exercises of our faith, not as subjects of our comprehension; they are definite, not liable to change, or capable of embellishment; and consequently, they fail to produce poetic interest, — by being placed out of the pale of human suffering or enjoyment, — by being incomprehensible to human reasoning, — and by being already familiar to the mind, and known as far as a knowledge of them can be attained.
Nothing but the undue influence of authority, and the example of great names, could have produced or tolerated the poetic licenses which have been taken with the sacred records. All that we are permitted to know of the divine agents in the Christian system of religion, is confined to the letter of revelation, and it is nothing short of profanation to invest them with poetic ornaments, or apply them to the irreverend creations of poetic fiction. The time will come, nay perhaps now is, when this will be no more permitted. — They are unfit for poetry by their essence, and should have been secured from it by the sanctity of their character.
The great fault of Giles Fletcher's poem is its obscurity; it is even difficult without a reference to the argument prefixed, to comprehend at all times the poet's meaning. The minor faults are those peculiar to his time; he seeks eagerly for antithesis; overloads his subject with ornaments and comparisons, — is not sufficiently select in his choice of words and phrases, — is pedantic and prolix, — and occasionally, but not generally, harsh and inharmonious.