The principal poems of Phineas Fletcher were republished in Dr. Anderson's "complete edition of the works of the Poets of Great Britain, 1793;" and from the biographical and critical preface, the following few particulars of his personal history are chiefly derived; including also a general notice of his family, as explanatory of the compliment paid to him by his partial friend in the first of the foregoing extracts.
He is said to have been born at Brenchley, near Penshurst; and it appears from some passages in his writings, that he resided there during a part of his earlier life.
His father Giles Fletcher, was also born in this county, bred at Eton, and elected scholar of Benet College, Cambridge, in 1565, where he took the degree of Doctor of Laws, in 1581. Wood says, "he was a learned man, and an excellent poet." The abilities of Dr. Fletcher recommending him to Queen Elizabeth, he was employed by her as a commissioner in Scotland, Germany, and the Low Countries. In 1588, he was sent ambassador to Muscovy, in the Dukedom of Theodore Inanovich, to reconcile the Russians to the English commerce, and published a curious account of "The Russ Commonwealth, &c." in 1591, which was suppressed, lest it should give offence; but afterwards reprinted in 1643; Camden styles it "Libellum in quo plurima observanda." He was afterwards made Master of the Requests, and Secretary to the City of London.
His uncle was Dr. Richard Fletcher, successively Bishop of Bristol, Worcester, and London, (1593.) At the time of the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, in 1586, he was Dean of Peterborough, and attended her to the scaffold, where he displayed more, zeal than good sense in pressing that unfortunate Queen to turn Protestant.
His cousin, the son of the Bishop, was John Fletcher, the celebrated dramatic poet, and associate of Francis Beaumont.
His brother was Giles Fletcher, "equally beloved of the Muses and the Graces."
Phineas was educated at Eton, and in 1600, was elected to King's College, Cambridge, where he took the degree of Batchelor of Arts in 1604, and of Master in 1608, He afterwards entered into Holy Orders, and was beneficed at Hilgay, in Norfolk, on the presentation of Sir Henry Willoughby, bart. in 1621. — He held this living nearly thirty years, and it seems probable that he died there.
This is all that we know of Phineas Fletcher; "a man," adds Dr. Anderson, "whose fame is not equal, to his merit, and whose works deserve to be better known than they are at present."
To extend that fame, and in some degree to render his merit more conspicuous, by exhibiting specimens of talent that might have decorated a much superior station, and to make our Kentish Spenser better known to the lovers of genuine poetry, is the humble aim of this article. If it be found more extended than any other in the volume, we venture to anticipate from our readers a greater portion of praise than of blame, since, in addition to the foregoing motives, which refer to the credit of our author, we profess ourselves to be actuated by the "honest desire of giving useful pleasure:" we trust too, that we shall not be severely criticised on the comparative merits of our selections, — sheltering ourselves under the allowed axiom, that to choose the best among the good is one of the most difficult duties of editorship, where selection only can be admitted.
The following is the most correct list that can be procured of the works of Phineas Fletcher, of the different editions, and the dates of publication:
The Locusts, or Apollyonists, Cambridge, 4to. 1627.
Sicelides; a Dramatic Piece: 4to. 1631.
Commentary on the First Psalm: London, 4to. 1632.
Joy in Tribulation, or Consolation for Afflicted Spirits: London, 8vo. 1632.
The Purple Island, or Isle of Man; with Piscatory Eclogues and other poetical miscellanies: Cambridge, 4to. 1633. Reprinted with Giles Fletcher's " Christs Victory and Triumph:" London, 8vo. 1783.
The Piscatory Eclogues and Poetical Miscellanies; re-printed with notes, critical and explanatory; Edinburgh, 8vo. 1772.
De Literatis Antiquae Britanniae Regibus, proesertim qui doctrina claruerunt, quique Collegia Cantabrigi fundarunt: Camb. 12mo. 1633.
The "Locusts" and "Sicelides" for reasons not given, (but which from the editor of a "complete edition," might of course be expected,) are neither of them reprinted by Dr. Anderson. We have been fortunate enough to procure a loan of the former, and will bestow upon it the notice it deserves.
The Sicelides, which has eluded our search, is noticed in Baker's "Biographia Dramatica;" he calls it a "Piscatory Drama, or Pastoral, acted at King's College, Cambridge, and printed without the author's name. It was intended originally to be performed before King James the First, on the 15th of March, 1614; but his Majesty leaving the University sooner, it was not then represented. The serious parts of it are mostly written in rhyme, with chorusses between the acts. Some of the scenes and characters appear to be taken from Ovid and Ariosto. The scene lies in Sicily; the time six hours."
The two Theological works that follow, and the (probably) more learned and curious treatise, "De regibus literatis, &c" are also not within our reach.
Of the Purple Island, Eclogues, and Miscellanies, two editions of each are mentioned above, but that of the P. I. printed at London in 1783, is severely censured by Dr. Anderson, and not without reason. — Hervey, the ingenious and truly reverend author of the "Meditations," who could touch nothing without a desire of turning it to a religious purpose, says, in letter to a friend, dated Weston, October 19, 1758, "You some time ago sent me a Poem with which I was much delighted, notwithstanding the uncouth metre, and obsolete words; I mean Fletcher's Purple Island, to which were subjoined several other his poetical pieces; one particularly I remember, to his brother, G. Fletcher, on his Poem entitled Christ Victory in Heaven and on Earth, and his Triumph on and after Death. I have lately had this very poem lent me, which I longed to see, as the title pleased me so much. I have folded down several passages for your inspection, and if they meet your approbation, I hope you will join your interest with mine in endeavouring to preserve the work from perishing. The Purple Island, is, to be sure, a very superior poem, and abounds with picturesque passages, useful and striking sentiments. I wish any bookseller could be prevailed with to reprint these poems in one neat volume. I am now so very ill, that I scarce think I shall live to the approaching Christmas. Had I been in perfect health, and disengaged from other employments, I question whether I should not have retouched the poetry, changed several of the obsolete words, illustrated the obscure passages by occasional notes, and run the risk of publishing the whole at my own pence. To this I should have been more particularly inclined, as there are few poems of the scriptural kind wrote by men of genius; though no subject can equally sublime and instructive, or, more entertaining; witness Milton's Paradise Lost, and Pope's Messiah."
But poor Hervey died on the Christmas day following, according to his own apprehension, and his proposal was carried into effect by an anonymous editor, who in 1803 [sic] printed together the Purple Island and G. Fletcher's poem, in the same spirit that Hervey had suggested, but perhaps with less judgment than he would have brought to the work; and has excited the severe reprobation of Dr. Anderson, who says that "In almost every page injuries are done to the sense, where improvements were intended; and that whoever takes up this edition for the purpose of enjoying the poetry, or making an extract or a reference, can never be safe as to the authenticity of a single stanza."
The Eclogues and Miscellanies appear to have met with a better fate in the edition published at Edinburgh in 1772, with introduction and notes; which is esteemed a correct as well as an elegant edition.
Although it may happen that good poetry, on unexceptionable subjects, and inculcating the best principles, be sometimes written by men of unsettled opinions, or immoral habits, yet generally will the fruits of the muse, and of those genuinely inspired by the muse, faithfully denote the stock from whence they sprung. Attention to the poetical biography of all ages, will illustrate this position; but especially will the British reader who may make the enquiry, be gratified by the result with which it will furnish him, as far as his native bards are concerned.
The subjects which Fletcher chose for the most part; the way in which he treated those subjects; the sacredness of his station, and the commendations of his contemporaries, are the only guides left to us in forming an opinion of him as a man, a clergyman and a member of society, and from these we may safely derive our satisfaction and belief that he was amiable, exemplary, and respectable — as well as pious and learned.