The modern testimonies to the merits of P. Fletcher are few, when compared with his deserts. It is to his honour, that Milton read and imitated him, as every attentive reader of both poets must soon discover.
Thomson of Queen's College, Oxford, was one of the earliest admirers of his poetry in the present century. In the preface to his beautiful Hymn to May, printed among his poems, 1757, he declares he intended that composition as an imitation of P. Fletcher and Spenser.
He afterwards found a friend in the Edinburgh Editor; not equal, indeed, to the task of turning a tide that has been flowing for a hundred years against him; not equal to his wished for giving him his due share of reputation; but capable of laying the first stone of his Temple of Fame. The superstructure has been considerably advanced by the late amiable and ingenious Mr. Headley; whose laudable endeavours to do justice to neglected genius, the writer of these slight narratives professes more willingness to imitate than ability to surpass.
The popularity of Spenser's works may be supposed to have biassed the mind of P. Fletcher to the pursuit of poetry. From the perusal of the Faery Queen, he derived his general taste for allegory and personification; nor has he himself been backward in due acknowledgment.
Two shepherds most I love with just adoring,
That Mantuan swain, who chang'd his slender reed
To trumpets martial voice, and warre's loud roaring,
From Corydon to Turnus, derring deed;
And next our home-bred COLIN's sweetest firing,
Their steps not following close, but farre admiring;
To lackey one of these is all my pride's aspiring.
The Purple Island is the noblest production of his genius. The first five cantos are almost entirely taken up with an explanation of the title; in the course of which the reader forgets the poet, and is sickened with the anatomist. Such minute attention to this part of his subject, was a material error in judgment; for which, however, ample amends is made in what follows. Nor is he wholly undeserving of praise, for the intelligibility with which he has struggled through his difficulties, for his uncommon command of words, and facility of versification. After describing the body, he proceeds to personify the passions and intellectual faculties. Here fatigued attention is not merely relieved, but fascinated and enraptured; and notwithstanding his figures, in many instances, are too arbitrary and fantastic in their habiliments, often disproportioned and overdone, sometimes lost in a superfluity of glaring colours, and the several characters by no means sufficiently kept apart; yet, amidst such a profusion of images, many are distinguished by a boldness of outline, a majesty of manner, a brilliancy of colouring, a distinctness and propriety of attribute, and an air of life, that rarely mark our modern productions, and that rival, if not surpass, every thing of the kind, even in Spenser, from whom he caught his inspiration.
After exerting his creative powers on this department of his subject, the virtues, and better qualities of the heart, under their leader ECLECTA, or Intellect, are attacked by the vices; a battle ensues, and the latter are vanquished, after a vigorous opposition, through the interposition of an angel, who appears at the prayers of ECLECTA. He here abruptly takes an opportunity of paying a fulsome and unpardonable compliment to James the First (Cant. 12. St. 55), on that account perhaps, the most unpalatable passage in the poem.
The whole description is animated, discriminative, and forcible; yet it must be acknowledged, that some of the circumstances are heightened too much; for it is his fault to indulge himself in every aggravation that poetry allows, and to stretch his prerogative of quidlibet audendi to the utmost.
Though it may somewhat detract from his invention, it must also be owned, that in some instances he has adopted imagery, and particular figures, from Spenser. The eulogium to Spenser's memory, Canto I. Stanza 19. does equal credit to his heart and abilities. He again touches on the misfortunes of Spenser, Canto VI. Stanza 52. But to come more immediately to the parallel passages, let the reader compare Fletcher's Gluttony, Canto VII. Stanza 80. with Spenser's Book I. Canto IV. Stanza 21. and 22, Faery Queen; compare Fletcher's Atimus, Canto VIII. Stanza 42. with Spenser's Idleness, Book I. Canto IV. Stanza 18; compare Fletcher's Thumos, Canto VII. Stanza 55. with Spenser's Wrath, Book I. Canto IV. Stanza 33; compare Fletcher's Aselges, Canto VII. Stanza 23. with Spenser's Lechery, Book I. Canto IV. Stanza 24; compare Fletcher's Pleconectes, Canto VIII. Stanza 24. with Spenser's Avarice, Book I. Canto IV. Stanza 30; likewise with another description, Book V. Canto XII. Stanza 31. Some of Fletcher's lines will express what Pope, with great felicity, styles "damning with faint praise."
When needs he must, yet faintly, then he praises
Somewhat the deed, much more the means he raises;
So marreth what he makes, and, praising most, dispraises.
Compare Fletcher's Deilos, Canto VIII. stanza 10. with Spenser's Fear, Book. III. Canto XII. Stanza 12. There seems to be more nature, and real poetry, in Fletcher's describing him as but "starting" at the sight of his arms, than in Spenser, who represents him as "flying fast away;" but perhaps Spenser has heightened the image, by making him equally terrified with the sound of them as the sight. This is omitted in Fletcher. No one of Fletcher's figures is more consistently habited than his Death:
A dead man's skull supplied his helmet's place,
A bone his club, his armour sheets of lead;
Some more, some less fear his all-frighting face;
But most, who sleep in downie pleasure's bed.
Canto XII. Stanza 38.
Yet the first of these terrific attributes is suggested by Spenser, who has given it to Meleager:
Upon his head he wore an helmet light,
Made of a dead man's skull, that seem'd a ghastly sight.
B. II. Can. XI. St. 22.
In the preceding part of this canto of Spenser, in which the foes of Temperance besiege her dwelling-place, we find Sight, Hearing, Smell, and Taste personified, which remind us of Fletcher, but disgrace Spenser. A painter of taste might extract from the Purple Island a series of allegorical figures, which, if well executed, might do honour to his pencil; though in some instances he would find Fletcher nimis poeta, in others he would have little to do but to supply the colours. The mottoes and impresses, which, in general, are very happily adapted, give his figures an air of life, which, in that particular, renders them superior to those of Sackville and Spenser. The following rich figure of Hope (which is represented as masculine) is among Fletcher's best pieces; the attitude of his leaning upon his attendant Pollicita, to whom every female grace might be given, seems worthy of the notice of a painter.
Next went Epinus, clad in sky-like blue,
And through his arms few stars did seem to peep,
Which there the workman's hand so finely drew,
That, rock'd in clouds, they softly seem'd to sleep.
This rugged shield was like a rocky mold,
On which an anchor bit with surest hold;
"I hold with being held" was written round in gold.
Nothing so cheerful was his thoughtful face
As was his brother Fido's: far seem'd dwell
Close by his heart; his colour chang'd apace
And went and came, that sure all was not well;
Therefore a comely maid did oft sustain
His fainting steps, and fleeting life maintain;
Pollicita she hight, which ne'er could lie or feign.
Can. IX. Stan. 36.
The same figure is thus delineated by Spenser, with greater chastity than usual.
With him went Hope in rank, a handsome maid,
Of cheerful look, and lovely to behold;
In silken samite she was light array'd,
And her fair locks were woven up on gold.
She always smil'd, and in her hand did hold
An holy-water sprinkle, dipt in dew;
With which she sprinckl'd favours manifold
On whom she list, and did great liking shew;
Great liking unto many, but true loving unto few.
Though many of his allegorical personifications are inconsistent, complicated and overdone, this figure is simple, and the attributes new. Hope is here divested of her usual emblem, the anchor, (which Fletcher has preserved), and the water-sprinkle substituted in its room, which gives a religious air to the image.
The Piscatory Eclogues, his next great work, do equal credit to his abilities, and equally deserve being brought forward to notice. However unfavourably the name of Piscatory Eclogue may be regarded, after the censure of Addison, it cannot be denied that he has imitated the eclogues of Sannazarius, who first attempted this species of composition, with admirable success.
"Were it necessary," says the Edinburgh Editor, "to say any thing in commendation of piscatory eclogue, we might assert, perhaps, its advantages over pastoral. The life of a fisherman admits often of scenes as delightful as those which the shepherd enjoys; and those scenes are much more varied. The nature of the occupation of the former gives rise to greater variety of accidents, and those likewise more interesting than that of the latter can furnish. A subject often handled must become trite; and piscatory eclogue has the advantage over pastoral, in displaying a field less beaten and frequented. But Fletcher's eclogues will speak for themselves, and sufficiently vindicate both the nature of the composition, and their own peculiar merit."
A modern poet, Moses Browne, author of Sunday Thoughts, &c. has recommended this species of composition by his Piscatory Eclogues, which have considerable merit.
His Miscellanies consist chiefly of familiar Epistles and pastoral Elegies, all of which have their brighter passages, but little that can employ or require particular criticism.
It is but doing justice to the effusions of a real poetical mind, to acknowledge, that, however thwarted by untowardness of subject, or corrupted by false taste, the compositions of P. Fletcher entitle him to a high rank among our old English classics.