1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Phineas Fletcher

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 1:122.



These brother poets were sons of Dr Giles Fletcher, and cousins of Fletcher the dramatist; both were clergymen, whose lives afforded but little variety of incident. Phineas was born in 1584, educated at Eton and Cambridge, and became rector of Hilgay, in Norfolk, where he died in 1650. Giles was younger than his brother, but the date of his birth has not been ascertained. He was rector of Alderton, in Suffolk, where he died, it is supposed, some years before his brother.

The works of PHINEAS FLETCHER consist of the Purple Island, or the Isle of Man, Piscatory Eclogues, and miscellaneous poems. The Purple Island was published in 1633, but written much earlier, as appears from some allusions in it to the Earl of Essex. The name of the poem conjures up images of poetical and romantic beauty, such as we may suppose a youthful admirer and follower of Spenser to have drawn. A perusal of the work, however, dispels this illusion. The Purple Island of Fletcher is no sunny spot "amid the melancholy main," but is an elaborate and anatomical description of the body and mind of man. He begins with the veins, arteries, bones, and muscles of the human frame, picturing them as hills, dales, streams, and rivers, and describing with great minuteness their different meanderings, elevations, and appearances. It is admitted that the poet was well skilled in anatomy, and the first part of his work is a sort of lecture fitted for the dissecting room. Having in five cantos exhausted his physical phenomena, Fletcher proceeds to describe the complex nature and operations of the mind. Intellect is the prince of the Isle of Man, and he is furnished with eight counsellors, Fancy, Memory, the Common Sense, and five external senses. The Human Fortress, thus garrisoned, is assailed by the Vices, and a fierce contest ensues for the possession of the human soul. At length an angel interposes, and insures victory to the Virtues, the angel being King James I., on whom the poet condescended to heap this fulsome adulation. From this sketch of Fletcher's poem, it will be apparent that its worth must rest, not upon plot, but upon isolated passages and particular descriptions. Some of his stanzas have all the easy flow and mellifluous sweetness of Spenser's Faery Queen; but others are marred by affectation and quaintness, and by the tediousness inseparable from long-protracted allegory. His fancy was luxuriant, and, if better disciplined by taste and judgment, might have rivalled the softer scenes of Spenser.