1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Habington

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 1:133.



WILLIAM HABINGTON (1605-1654) had all the vices of the metaphysical school, excepting its occasional and frequently studied licentiousness. He tells us himself (in his preface) that, "if the innocency of a chaste muse shall be more acceptable, and weigh heavier in the balance of esteem, than a fame begot in adultery of study, I doubt I shall leave no hope of competition." And of a pure attachment, he says finely, that "when love builds upon the rock of chastity, it may safely contemn the battery of the waves and threatenings of the wind; since time, that makes a mockery of the firmest structures, shall itself be ruinated before that be demolished." Habington's life presents few incidents, though he came of a plotting family. His father was implicated in Habington's conspiracy; his uncle suffered death for his share in the same transaction. The poet's mother atoned, in some measure, for these disloyal intrigues; for she is said to have been the writer of the famous letter to Lord Monteagle, which averted the execution of the Gunpowder Plot. The poet was educated at St Omer's, but declined to become a Jesuit. He married Lucia, daughter of the first Lord Powis, whom he had celebrated under the name of Castara. Twenty years before his death, he published his poems, consisting of The Mistress, The Wife, and The Holy Man. These titles include each several copies of verses, and the same design was afterwards adopted by Cowley. The life of the poet seems to have glided quietly away, cheered by the society and affection of his Castara. He had no stormy passions to agitate him, and no unruly imagination to control or subdue. His poetry is of the same unruffled description — placid, tender, and often elegant — but studded with conceits to show his wit and fancy. When he talks of meadows wearing a "green plush," of the fire of mutual love being able to purify the air of an infected city, and of a luxurious feast being so rich that heaven must have rained showers of sweetmeats, as if

Heaven were
Blackfriars, and each star a confectioner—

we are astonished to find one who could ridicule the "madness of quaint oaths," and the "fine rhetoric of clothes," in the gallants of his day, and whose sentiments on love were so pure and noble, fall into such absurd and tasteless puerilities.