1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

George Wither

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 1:125.



GEORGE WITHER (1588-1667) was a voluminous author, in the midst of disasters and sufferings that would have damped the spirit of any but the most adventurous and untiring enthusiast. Some of his happiest strains were composed in prison: his limbs were incarcerated within stone walls and iron bars, but his fancy was among the hills and plains, with shepherds hunting, or loitering with Poesy, by rustling boughs and murmuring springs. There is a freshness and natural vivacity in the poetry of Wither, that render his early works a "perpetual feast." We cannot say that it is a feast "where no crude surfeit reigns," for he is often harsh, obscure, and affected; but he has an endless diversity of style and subjects, and true poetical feeling and expression. Wither was a native of Hampshire, and received his education at Magdalen College, Oxford. He first appeared as an author in the year 1613, when he published a satire, entitled Abuses Stript and Whipt. For this he was thrown into the Marshalsea, where he composed his fine poem, The Shepherds' Hunting. When the abuses satirised by the poet had accumulated and brought on the civil war, Wither took the popular side, and sold his paternal estate to raise a troop of horse for the parliament. He rose to the rank of a major, and in 1642 was made governor of Farnham Castle, afterwards held by Denham. Wither was accused of deserting his appointment, and the castle was ceded the same year to Sir William Waller. During the struggles of that period, the poet was made prisoner by the royalists, and stood in danger of capital punishment, when Denham interfered for his brother bard, alleging, that as long as Wither lived, he (Denham) would not be considered the worst poet in England. The joke was a good one, if it saved Wither's life; but George was not frightened from the perilous contentious of the times. He was afterwards one of Cromwell's majors general, and kept watch and ward over the royalists of Surrey. From the sequestrated estates of these gentlemen, Wither obtained a considerable fortune; but the Restoration came, and he was stript of all his possessions. He remonstrated loudly and angrily; his remonstrances were voted libels, and the unlucky poet was again thrown into prison. He published various treatises, satires, and poems, during this period, though he was treated with great rigour. He was released, under bond for good behaviour, in 1663, and survived nearly four years afterwards, dying in London on the 2d of May 1667.

Wither's fame as a poet is derived chiefly from his early productions, written before he had imbibed the sectarian gloom of the Puritans, or become embroiled in the struggles of the civil war. A collection of his poems was published by himself in 1622, with the title, Mistress of Philerete; his Shepherds' Hunting, being certain Eclogues written during the time of the author's imprisonment in the Marshalsea, appeared in 1633. His Collection of Emblems, ancient and modern, Quickened with Metrical Illustrations, made their appearance in 1635. His satirical and controversial works were numerous, but are now forgotten. Some authors of our own day (Mr. Southey in particular) have helped to popularise Wither, by frequent quotation and eulogy; but Mr. Ellis, in his Specimens of Early English Poets, was the first to point out "that playful fancy, pure taste, and artless delicacy of sentiment, which distinguish the poetry of his early youth." His poem on Christmas affords a lively picture of the manners of the times. His Address to Poetry, the sole yet cheering companion of his prison solitude, is worthy of the theme, and superior to most of the effusions of that period. The pleasure with which be recounts the various charms and the "divine skill" of his Muse, that had derived nourishment and delight from the "meanest objects" of external nature — a daisy, a bush, or a tree; and which, when these picturesque and beloved scenes of the country were denied him, could gladden even the vaults and shades of a prison, is one of the richest offerings that has yet been made to the pure and hallowed shrine of poesy. The superiority of intellectual pursuits over the gratifications of sense, and all the malice of fortune, has never been more touchingly or finely illustrated.