1812 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

George Wither

Thomas Park, in "Chronological List of the Works of George Wither" British Bibliographer 2 (1812) 380-91.



Occasional verses by Wither were printed with Browne's Britannia's Pastorals, 1613, and 1616; Drayton's Polyolbion, Part II. 1622; Smith's Virginia, 1626; Hayman's Quodlibets, 1629; Wastell's Micro-Biblion, 1629; Butler's Feminine Monarchy, 1632; Blaxton's Usurer, 1634; Carter's relation of an expedition into Kent and Sussex, 1650. A Latin poem, signed G. W. and affixed to P. Fisher's Marston-Moor, may also belong to him. In Mr. Pinkerton's preface to Ancient Scotish poems, 1786, he speaks of pieces in the Bannatyne MS. by Heywood and Wither: from his Appendix it appears that the latter can only claim his celebrated song, put into the Scotish idiom "Sail a woman's goodness move," &c. Under Faithorne's head of Noah Bridges, 1661, are four English verses, signed G. W. which Granger interprets Geo. Wither. Mr. Bindley has a MS. poem by Chr. Brooke on the death of Sir Arthur Chichester, with verses, prefixed by Wither. (See Brit. Bibl. p. 237.)

Many were the encomiums bestowed on Wither by his contemporaries, and many have been the sarcasms vented since. His poetry and his politics rendered him eminently obnoxious to both. But a pretty fair estimate of his pretensions to literary distinction, and of the slights his works experienced, is given in the following extract from "Bibliotheca, or the Modern Library."

Melodious WITHER, by himself,
In learned tatters bends a shelf,
Though none so base as to dispute
His title to a better suit.—
He sadly moans, expos'd to air,
His cover thin and livery bare:
Grinning with envy to behold
His meaner rivals shine in gold.
Thy dying Muse, when urg'd by fate,
Might sure have claim'd to lie in state:
Though living scorn'd and never read,
Like other things admir'd — when dead!

Aubrey, in his Auctarium Vitarum, in the Ashmolean Museum, has recorded few particulars of our author that were not transmitted by Wood, from whose Athenae the principal data were derived, in the able memoir presented to the public in No. I. of the Bibliographer. In what society he studied while at Oxford, Aubrey, by leaving a blank, does not appear to have ascertained. Of James Wither (the son of John Wither of Manidown in the County of Southampton, who died of a decline in 1627, at the age of 28, being a Master of Arts and Fellow of New College) a memorial is placed within the cloisters near New-College Chapel. This probably was a near relation of the poet. But whether the latter was on the same foundation, Mr. John Gutch, who is preparing a Selection from the Juvenilia, &c. will be best enabled to state, from his own early residence and present family connexions in the same university. At college Wither probably continued not long, being called away from it when he should have sought "a calling" there: and in some of his early pieces he designates himself of the Society of Lincolns Inn " But the law he followed not as a profession: for indeed at the time he ranked himself of that learned society, his school of study seems to have been the Marshalsea-prison: on his release from which, psalmodic divinity appears principally to have exercised his pen. The period of his marriage I do not trace, but the valuable object of his choice was made known by Aubrey. In "Topographical Miscellanies," 1792, Vol. I. it is queried whether he did not marry Katherine Chester of Woolvesley, near Winchester, in 1657. This was not likely, because he describes his wife's corporeal beauties as "worn out with age," in 1661, only fourteen years after their supposed union: in the next place we learn from himself, that the name of his wife was Elizabeth; and we lastly gather from Aubrey, that he married Elizabeth Emerson of South Lambeth, Surrey, for whom he evidently cherished a sincere conjugal attachment; and who, in return, religiously performed her matrimonial vow, and shared his wayward fate "in sickness and in health." Throughout several pages in his "Crums and Scraps," he speaks of her with becoming fondness and passionate concern; bemoans her alarming indisposition, and attests her long-tried worth; details repeated instances of their mutual confidence, and with a pardonable and sometimes pleasing minuteness, indulges in a grateful retrospect of her piety, fidelity and true affection, of her prudential management in domestic concerns, and of strict propriety in all the relative duties of life. His prayer for her recovery is breathed with devotional fervour, though with the most entire resignation to the Divine will; and our author, in this part of his character at least, deserves to be remembered with respect, with benevolence, and with praise. Wither had six children, two of whom were living in 1661, and both married: but one daughter alone survived him, who became the publisher of his meditations on the Decalogue.

He complains in his "Speculum Speculativum," and elsewhere, of the thankless office he had assumed as "Britain's Remembrancer," and some of his partizans or "eminent persons," as he denominates them, endeavoured to supply the unprofitableness of his volunteer vocation by procuring for him the office of City-Remembrancer; but their endeavours failed. Had they succeeded, it is not impossible that he might have become a sober citizen for life, instead of successively vacillating from a parliamentarian commander to a commonwealth commissioner, from a satirist to a soothsayer, and from a libellous fanatic to a political poetaster. Aubrey tells us, in his brief biography of Wither, that "he would make verses as fast as he could write them: he was an early observator of 'quicquid agunt homines:' he had a strange sagacity and foresight into mundane affairs: and though he was an easy rymer and no good poet, he was a good vates." The pertinacious assumption of this latter character rendered him utterly indifferent to the preservation of the former; and as poetical celebrity can neither be acquired nor sustained without much earnestness and effort, Wither, by neglecting to cultivate that purer vein of poesy with which by nature he was imbued, has failed to procure for himself an appropriate niche in the temple of "aye-enduring fame." By some prejudiced persons indeed he has been regarded as a mere seditious pamphleteer, with whom to write and to rail were nearly synonymous. Hence Echard records in his History, "This month (May 1667) died Mr. Geo. Withers, poet: under the name of verse and prediction he undertook to revile all governments and governors, and published no less than an hundred several pieces admired by young people especially those puritanically educated: he was a dangerous incendiary, and able to do a great deal of mischief." Many of his productions, it must be allowed, were darkly tinged by the violence of party zeal, or debased by the language of controversial invective: but it maybe doubted whether his writings ever obtained sufficient popularity to do much mischief, even admitting them to be pregnant with such an intention. Butler, from having enlisted a poetical champion to the loyalists. slurred Wither's rhymings as a thing of course; the monarchical intolerance of Anthony Wood, stamped a deeper brand upon that name, which had been ignorantly or insolently traduced by Winstanley the barber and was slighted in the dry biographical register of Jacob the attorney: the first of whom contented himself with enumerating ten, and the other seven of Wither's poetical performances. Pope, by reading Winstanley perhaps instead of Wither, or because it suited his immediate purpose to adopt a popular prejudice, or it might he to gratify the humour of Swift, who spoke of Wither as a private trooper, that pretended to a chief command in the "Battle of Bookes;" even Pope was content to tread in the beaten track of common-place sarcasm, first, ironically calling him "worthy," afterwards changing his epithet to "wretched Withers:" with whom, in his second edition of the Dunciad, Quarles was coupled, and a note superadded, to degrade the merits of both, by asserting that " Quarks was as dull a writer, but an honester man than Wither." Having very lately met with an article in the Annual Review, for 1807, (much too plausive for me to point out) which contains a most ingenious parallel between Quarles and Wither, it may not inappositely be cited here, as the liberal arbitrement of "a living poet and a man of rare genius." His name is not specified. "Quarles is a wittier writer, but Wither lays more hold of the heart. Quarles thinks of his audience when he lectures, Wither soliloquizes in company from a full heart. What wretched stuff are the 'Divine Fancies' of Quarles! Religion appears to him no longer valuable than while it furnishes matter for quibbles and riddles. Wither is like an old friend, whose warm-heartedness and estimable qualities make us wish he possessed more genius [qu. taste?] but at he same time make us willing to dispense with that want. I always love Wither, and sometimes admire Quarles. Still that portrait-poem prefixed to Wither's Emblems is a fine one; and the extract from the Shepherd's Hunting, in Ellis's Specimens, places him in a starry height, far above Quarles." It seems to have been inferred by Granger, from some partial inspection of his works, that Wither readily sacrificed sense to sound, and that to string together a set of unmeaning verses was all he laboured after. But this was not the fact, as I have testified elsewhere. His rhymes are many of them neither rhymes to the eye nor ear, but his sentences are commonly fraught with strong sense and shrewd observation. The fertility of his mind led to a turgidity of diction, and the impetuosity of his feelings hurried him into what he foretold the cynics would call "ribble-rabblement." Puttenham, indeed, had he lived at a later period, might have termed it "mingle-mangle:" yet with all his verbosity and defect of style, there are few of Wither's writings, if any, that will not repay the labour of perusal. Such at least is the opinion of your present correspondent, though he may have rendered his long extended survey of them very tiresome to general readers.

T. P.