George Wither

Octavius Graham Gilchrist, "George Wither" Gentleman's Magazine 70 (December 1800) 1149-52.

Stamford, Dec. 5.

"Oh! that the beauties of invention,
For want of judgment's disposition,
Should all be spoil'd!"
MARSTON'S Scourge of Villany, 1599.

It is observerd by Mr. Addison, that "there are many passions and tempers of mind which naturally dispose us to depress and vilify the merit of one rising in the esteem of mankind." This is not, indeed, looking much on the favourable side of human nature; yet the remarks is but too well founded in justice. When a man has by his abilities raised himself above the level of his fellows, he generally has to combat the restless workings of jealousy, and the envious endeavours of those to whom his fame has made him obnoxious. From the malignant attacks of contemporary and succeeding writers no one has suffered more, and with less reason, that the forgotten poet to whose works I am endeavouring to attract attention.

George Wither was born 1598; he was educated at Magdalen college, Oxford; and, as we learn from himself, was intended for the law; but

Song was his favourite and first pursuit.

and he neglected that profession for the more pleasing service of the Muses. The only volume of his works which I have seen is intituled, "Juvenilia," printed 1633. It is a thick 12mo, and contains, "Abuses stript and wipt;" "Prince Henry's Obsequies;" "A Satyre to King James;" "An Epithalamion;" "The Shepherd's Hunting;" "Fidelia;" "Withers's Motto;" and "The Mistress of Philarete, with other Fragments." I will give some extracts from this volume, which, I think, will shew that he is not undeserving a share of that praise which is freely granted to many contemporary writers.

The first in point of chronology, though last in the book, is "Fair Virtue, or the Mistress of Philarete." "Wether," says the stationer, "this shadowed under the name of Virtue, of Virtue only, whose loveliness is represented by the beauty of an excellent woman, or wether it meane both together, I cannot tell you." It is interspersed with songs and sonnets; and from this poem Dr. Percy has printed the elegant song, beginning,

Shall I, waiting in despair, &c.

So beautiful a specimen would, in all probability, have directed attention to the original, had he not termed it coldly "a long pastoral piece." (Reliques, vol. III. p. 190, ed. 1767).

The poem itself begins thus:

You, that a blush can tell
Where the best perfections dwell,
And the substance can conjecture
By a shadow or a picture;
Come and try, if you by this
Know my mistress who she is.

He adds,

Then, whilst of her praise I sing,
Hearken, valley, grove, and spring;
Listen to me, sacred fountains,
Solitary rocks, and mountains;
Satyres, and you wanton elves
That do mighty sport yourselves;
Shepherds, you that on the reed
Whistle while your lambs do feed;
Aged woods and floods, that know
What hath been long time ago;
Your more serious notes among,
Heare how I can in my song
Set a nymph's perfection forth,
You enchanting spells, that lie
Lurking in sweet poesie
(And to none else will appear
But to those that worthy are),
Make her know there is a power,
Ruling in these charms of your,
That transcends a thousand heights
Ordinary men's delights,
And can leave within her breast
Pleasures not to be exprest,
Let her linger on each strain—

He takes an opportunity of praising Drayton, Brown, and others, as poets who had gained flights far higher than himself. It is astonishing how many images he has collected in adorning his mistress, which are often very happily applied. The following short but elegant concludes with an epigrammatic turn:

Amarillis I doe wooe,
And I courted Phillis too;
Daphnis for her love I chose;
Cloris for that damask rose
In her cheek I held as dear;
Yea, a thousand lik't well near:
And, in love with altogether,
Feared the enjoying either,
'Cause to be of one possest
Barr'd the hope of all the rest.

In this poem, of which Dr. Percy appears to have decided rather from the length than the merits, the beauties are by no means thinly scattered; they do not shine like a lamp in a sepulchre; in it there is a vein of such poetry as is seldom surpassed by the writers of that period. By indulging too great freedom in his "Abuses stript and wipt," he subjected himself to the displeasure of the Court, and he was imprisoned in the Marshalsea. After describing the effects of envy on the actions of men, he exclaims,

Heaven shield me from such monsters! for their breath
Is worse than blasting, and their praise is death.
And let them find no matter here but what
May tend unto their glories whom they hate,
To make them either this ill passion flie,
Or, swoln with their own venom, burst and die.
Foul hag of Envy, let thy snaky elves
Keep hell with thee, and there torment themselves.
Your poison'd conversation fitteth men
For no society, but some grim den
Where nothing can be heard nor seen appeae
But groans and sighs of misery and fear.
Who have you yet possest that pleased stood
With any private or with publick good.
Lib. I. Sat. IV. p. 28, ed. 1633.

Imprisonment did not subdue the independence of his mind, nor was his pen idle. During his confinement he wrote a "Satyre to King James," which probably procured his release; and "The Shepheard's Hunting." Many parts of the latter are highly poetical. It is in dialogue; and one of the conductors, under the name of Alexis, is William Browne, the author of "Britannia's Pastorals," with whom, it appears, Wither was in habits of intimacy. His fondness for poetry was early and lasting; it was his favourite amusement when in prosperity, and while in solitary imprisonment served as

dulce lenimen.

One long transcript may serve to shew the comfort he received from it while shut from the world:

In my former daies of bliss,
Her divine skill taught me this,
That from everything I saw
I could some invention draw,
And raise pleasure to her height,
Through the meanest objects sight.
By the murmurs of a spring,
Or the least bough's rusteling.
By a daizie whose leaves spread,
Shut when Titan goes to bed;
Or a shady bush or tree,
Shee could more infuse in me,
Than all Nature's beauties can
In some other wiser man.
By her helpe I also now,
Make this churlish place allow
Some things that may sweeten gladness
In the very gall of sadness.
The dull loneness, the black shade,
That these hanging vaults have made;
The strange musick of the waves
Beating on these hollow caves,
This blacke den which rocks embosse,
Overgrown with eldest mosse!
The rude portals that give light,
More to terrour than delight.
This my chamber of neglect,
Wall'd about with disrespect,
From all these, and this dull aire,
A fit object for dispaire;
She hath taught me by her might,
To draw comfort and delight.
Therefore thou best earthly bliss,
I will cherish thee for this.
Poesie; thou sweetest content
That ere Heaven to mortals lent.
Though they as a trifle leave thee,
Whose dull thoughts cannot conceive thee
Though thou be to them a scorne,
That to nought but earth are borne,
Let my life no longer be
Then I am in love with thee:
Though our wise ones call thee madness,
Let me never taste of sadness
If I love not thy maddest fits
Above all their greatest wits.
And though some, too seeming holy,
Do account thy raptures folly,
Thou dost teach me to contemn
What makes knaves and fools of them.
P. 428.

It will not, I think, be easy to point out in the writings of his contemporaries an equal number of lines more natural in thought, more easy in the versification, or less tinctured with pedantry and conceit.

As my quotations are intended rather to excite than gratify curiosity, it will not be expected that I shall produce extracts from every poem in this multifarious volume: from the specimens already adduced a pretty correct opinion may be formed of Withers's powers as a poet. Among the "brothers of the craft," who have, by their satire and abuse, contributed to sinking this writer in the estimation of the world, those of most fame are Cartwright, Butler, and Swift, not to mentions others now themselves forgotten. He had, however, a niche in the first editions of the "Dunciad;" but another was afterwards substituted. His voluminous party-writings were a mill-stone about his neck, and contributed to sink him. The same cause had, for a time, the same effect upon Milton. Wither lived to see his works neglected, and died in indigent circumstances when upwards of 80 years old. In the perusal of Wither, I have been occasionally struck with trifling resemblances of Milton: a few passages, which I noted as I passed on, I will cite for comparison.

In L'Allegro we have

Fill'd her with thee, a daughter "fair,"
So buxom, blythe, and "debonair."
Ver. 23.

—not only "faire,"
But modest wise, and "debonairre."
Wither, lib. I. Sat. VII. p. 49, ed. 1633.

First and chiefest with thee bring
Him that soars on golden wing,
Guiding the fiery-wheeled throne,
The cherub Contemplation.
Il Penseroso, ver. 51.

Mounted aloft on Contemplation's wing.
Wither, on Man.

Here we have nearly the same thought re-moulded by the sublime imagination of Milton.

Mother of a hundred gods,
Juno dares not give her odds.
Arcades, ver. 22.

And, without respect of odds,
Vye renown with demy-gods.
Wither, Mist. of Phil.

Thyrsis? whose artful strains have oft delay'd
The huddling brook to hear his madrigal,
How cam'st thou here, good swain? Hath any ram
Slipt from the fold, or young kid lost his dam?
Comus, ver. 494.

The same sort of compliment occurs in "The Shepheard's Hunting:"

Thou wert wont to charm thy flocks;
And among the massy rocks
Hast so cheer'd me with thy song
That I have forgot my wrong.
Hath some churls done thee a spight,
Dost thou miss a lamb to-night?
p. 417, edit. sup.

Ring out, ye crystal "spheres,"
Once bless "our human cares,"
If ye have pow'r to touch our senses so;
And let your silver "chime"
"Move in melodious tie."
Hymn on the Nativity, st. 13.

And "At a solemn Music:"

That we on earth, with undiscording voice
May rightly answer "that melodious noise"
As once we did, till disproportion'd sin
Jarr'd against Nature's "chime," and with harsh din
Broke the "fair music" that all creatures "made
To their great Lord," whose love their "motion sway'd."
In perfect "diapason."
Ver. 17, ed. Warton, 1786.

In Withers's "Fidelia" we have the following lines:

My heart could hardly think of that content
To apprehend it without ravishment;
Each word of thine, methought, was to my "eares,
More pleasing than the musicke which the spheares"
(They say) "doe make the gods, when in their chime
Their motions diapason with the time."
P. 479. ed. 1633.

Other coincidences, chiefly verbal, occur, which I neglected to note.

Had the fame of Wither been extensive, from the variety and harmony of his numbers, he would have been considered as assisting in the refinement of his vernacular tongue. From the volume before me, I am willing to suppose his other productions of proportionate merit; and, although I do not consider him a classical poet altogether, I am of opinion that a judicious selection from his works would form a volume well worthy preservation.