GEORGE WITHER, a name well known among the readers of old English poetry, and revived, of late, by the taste and judgment of some eminent poetical antiquaries, was born at Bentworth, near Alton in Hampshire, June 11, 1588. He was the only son of George Wither of Bentworth (by Anne Serle), who was the second son of John Wither of Manydowne near Wotton St. Lawrence in that county, at which seat Mr. Bigg Wither, the heir (not the heir male, but the heir female, who has taken the name), still resides. The poet was educated under John Greaves of Colemore, a celebrated schoolmaster, whom he afterwards commemorated with gratitude in a poem published in 1613. About 1604 he was sent to Magdalen college, Oxford, under the tuition of John Warner, afterwards bishop of Rochester. Here he informs us, in the proemium to his "Abuses stript and whipt," that he found the art of logic, to which his studies were directed, first dull and unintelligible; but at the moment it began all at once to unfold its mysteries to him, he was called home "to hold the plough." He laments that he was thus obliged to forsake "the Paradise of England" to go "in quest of care, despair, and discontent."
After he had remained some time in his own country, certain malicious advisers, under the mask of friendship, pretending that nothing was to be got by learning, endeavoured to persuade his father to put him to some mechanic trade; but our poet, finding that country occupations were not fitted to his genius, determined, on some slight gleam of hope, to try his fortune at court, and therefore entered himself as a member of Lincoln's-inn. The world now opened upon him in characters so different from his expectations, that, having been probably educated in puritanical principles, he felt that disgust which perhaps made him a satirist for life. The first thing which appeared to fill him with dislike and anger, was the gross flattery and servility which seemed necessary to his advancement. If, however, his manners did not procure him favour with the courtiers, his talents obtained him the acquaintance and friendship of many men of genius. William Browne, the pastoral poet, who was of the Inner Temple, was an early familiar of his. And some of his verses having got abroad, began to procure the name of a poet for himself. His "Philarete's Complaint, &c." formed a part of his "Juvenilia," which are said to have been his earliest compositions. He also wrote elegies in 1612 on that general subject of lamentation, the death of prince Henry.
In 1613 first appeared his celebrated satires, entitled "Abuses stript and whipt," for which so much food was furnished by the motley and vicious manners of the nation. Wither, therefore, bursting with indignation at the view of society which presented itself to his young mind, took this opportunity to indulge in a sort of publication to which the prosaic taste of the times was well adapted; but he disdained, and perhaps felt himself unqualified, to use that glitter of false ornament, which was now substituted for the true decorations of the muse. "I have strived," says he, "to be as plain as a pack-saddle," and in these satires he is indeed excessively plain, and excessively severe, and they gave so much offence that he was committed to the Marshalsea, where he continued several months. In 1615 he published "The Shepherd's Hunting: being certain eglogues written during the time of the author's imprisonment in the Marshalsea;" which book, Wood observes, is said to contain more of poetical fancy than any other of his writings. Of this interesting poem, sir Egerton Brydges has lately published a beautiful edition in 12mo, and in the preface observes, with a decision which every man of taste will respect, that "The Shepherd's Hunting has so much merit, and is so abundant in a natural vein of simple, affecting, and just sentiment, as well as imagery, that he who can read it, and doubt the author's genius, is insensible to all the features which bespeak the gifts of the muse." When in prison, Wither not only also wrote but published his "Satire to the King," 1614. He terms this an apology for former errors, proceeding from the heat of youth, but part of it is a vindictive appeal to the king from the restraint put upon his person, and part of it is a monologue conducted by the author between the impulses of supplication and disdain. It is thought, however, to have procured his release.
After this time he continued to write and publish both poetry and prose without intermission to the day of his death, which yet was at a great distance. Wood remarks, with more correctness of judgment and expression than he usually attains, that our poet was now cried up, "especially by the puritan party, for his profuse pouring forth of English rhyme," which abundant facility has certainly tempted him into an excess that has totally buried the effusions of his happier moments. Such a superfluity of easy but flat and insipid narrative, and trite prosaic remarks, scarce any writer has been guilty of. On, his pen appears in general, to have run, without the smallest effort at excellence; and therefore subjected him too justly to Wood's stigma of being a scribbler. But let it be observed, this was the fault of his will, and not of his genius. When the examples of real poetry, which he has given, are selected from his multitudinous rhymes, they are in point both of quality and quantity sufficient to stamp his fame.
Another cause of the depression of Wither's reputation was the violent party spirit, by which a large portion of his works was dictated and degraded, as well as the active part which he took on the side of the parliament. In 1639, he had been a captain of horse in the expedition against the Scots, and quarter-waster-general of his regiment, under the earl of Arundel. But as soon as the civil wars broke out in 1642, he sold his estate to raise a troop of horse for the parliament; and soon afterwards rose to the rank of major; but being taken prisoner by the royalists, "Sir John Denham the poet," says Wood, "some of whose estate at Egham, in Surrey, Wither had got into his clutches, desired his majesty not to hang him, because so long as Wither lived, Denham would not be accounted the worst poet in England. About that time," continues Wood, "he was constituted by the Long Parliament a justice of peace in quorum for Hampshire, Surrey, and Essex, which office he kept six years, and afterwards was made by Oliver, major-general of all the horse and foot in the county of Surrey, in which employment he licked his fingers sufficiently, gaining thereby a great odium from the generous loyalists"
At the restoration in 1660, the spoils which he had amassed from the adherents of the king, and from the church, were taken from him. His principles, and especially a libel entitled "Vox vulgi," which he had dispersed, and which was deemed seditious, rendered him obnoxious to the new government, and he was now committed to Newgate; and afterwards, by order of the House of Commons, was sent close prisoner to the Tower, to be debarred of pen, ink, and paper; and about the same time (March 1661-2), an impeachment was ordered to be drawn up against him. In this confinement he continued more than three years, and here he wrote several things by connivance of the keeper, of which some were afterwards published, "yet never," adds Wood, "could refrain from shewing himself a Presbyterian satirist." When he was released is not mentioned, but he reached the age of seventy-nine, and died May 2, 1667, and was interred in the Savoy church in the Strand.
That Wither was a poet, and a poet deserving to be better known, has been sufficiently proved by the selection from his "Juvenilia," printed by the late Alexander Dalrymple, esq. in 1785, and particularly by the more recent republications of his "Shepherd's Hunting," 1814, his "Fidelia," 1815, and his "Hymns and Songs of the Church," 1815, by sir Egerton Brydges, whose prefaces and remarks add no small value to these beautiful volumes, and whose judgment and taste in the revival of works of neglected merit cannot be too highly appreciated. It is to this learned baronet also that the reader is indebted for all that is valuable in the present sketch of Wither, taken from a more copious life of the poet in the "Bibliographer." In the same work, the reader may be referred to a very accurate list, and history, by Mr. Park, of all Wither's writings, amounting to 112 articles in prose and verse, from which very pleasing selections may yet be made. They are almost all of rare occurrence, and expensive in proportion, since the attention of the public has been drawn to them by the various critics mentioned in our references.