If POETRY be the POWER of COMMANDING the IMAGINATION conveyed in measure and expressive epithets, WITHER was truly a POET. Perhaps there is no where to be found a greater variety of English Measure than in his Writings, (Shakspear excepted) more Energy of Thought, or more frequent development of the delicate filaments of the Human Heart.
One modern Versifier complained that Wither's verse was rough; on the other hand, a Lady, who is Mistress of all the modulation of sweet sounds, admired how the lines run into each other, with the beauty of blank verse, without losing the spirit of the lyrick measure: Attention to the Old English Poets will clearly shew, that there was a greater variety admitted, in pronunciation and accent, than is allowed in modern versification; the Ear which cannot conform itself to the antient practice, but is bound in the Silken Traces of modern verse, may be offended, sometimes, with the early Poets; and, in every reader it will require a habit and use before the Ear attains the compleat practice, without which many lines will appear prosaic. Words also become obsolete; or what is worse, appropriated to vulgar uses only: such will ever be a stumbling block to a reader without Genius.
Mere Versifiers frequently call themselves Poets; but the recital of common ideas, in however flowing language, can never, with propriety, be styled Poetry; nor does the most exact description of Nature, of Man or Manners, deserve the name, unless that description raises, in the imagination, some idea not expressed; and if it does, nothing can be so trivial as not to give pleasure to a mind of quick conception: An apt example occurs in The Shepherd's Hunting.
I with wonder heard thee sing
At our last year's revelling:
Yea, I saw the lasses cling
Round about thee in a ring;
As, if each one jealous were,
Any but herself should hear.
The art of assigning a fanciful reason for an ordinary action is the Soul of Poetry; we can here imagine the countenances of the encircling auditory: The Imagination must ever be the Poet's Commentator: and its scope is universal; embracing the World of Ideas as well as Forms: It may happen that a man shall be so destitute of Imagination, as to have no relish for true Poetry, and prefer mellifluous verses; but the want of sight does not prove that there are no Colours in the Rainbow. They who are satisfied, for pleased none can be, with the flowing lines of those modern versifiers, who have fewer ideas, of their own, than the learned Pig, are not the People for whom the repast of Wither's Poems is adapted: Lovers of natural thought and sentiment will be pleased at being brought to acquaintance with Wither: but to enable them to judge for themselves was the intention of the Specimens which follow: They are taken from different Poems, to convey, to those who are ignorant of the Poet, an idea of what they may expect: but scarce any of these quotations are compleat; the intention of them being to raise, and not to satisfy, Curiosity.
In some of his latter pieces, Wither has given up the reins to Enthusiasm, and is rather to be considered as displaying himself in the character of a Prophet, than a Poet: neither these, nor his Political Poems come within the intention of this publication; altho' many fine things are interspersed in his Haleluiah, Campo-Musae, and in his other pieces not here recited: in the Haleluiah there are some things, perhaps, no where to be surpassed.
Wither's Prophetical and Political poems seem to have been the true cause of that depreciation of his merit which we find broached by his Cotemporaries, and retailed in subsequent writers.
Swift has stigmatized Wither in his Battle of the Books; but as Dryden is joined with him, the opprobrium falls on the Critick and not on the Poets: for it is too absurd to be allowed, in the candour of criticism, that condemnation should be past on Alexander's Feast, The Origin of Harmony, or Absalom and Achltophel, because their Author, in his Plays published much trash, that has been so justly ridiculed by The Rehearsal. The value of Poets must be tried by the same standard as the Metallick Ores; by the proportion of the finer metal to the dross: and in the aggregate Mass, a Grain of pure Gold is of more value than a pound of lead.
Wither having been actively concerned in the Civil Wars, his character as a Poet, as well as a Man, is stigmatized in the true spirit of Party Rage: a stronger testimony cannot be given of this blindness of Prejudice, than the vile GRUB-STREET, Taylor, the water poet, being set in competition to Wither: we have now little concern with Wither's personal character, but candour will hesitate to join in condemnation of the Man, when the Poet is so unjustly arraigned; more especially as He was repeatedly thrown in prison for His Satires, and the last time confined in New-Gate, at above 70 years of age, for a MS general Satire, seized in his own possession, and construed into a libel against the House of Commons, without bearing his defence, but garbling his MS to find exceptionable parts: This and all his other Satires were general: Thank God, the Revolution has banished, from this Country, the oppression of such Tyrannical Power! and, it is to be hoped, we shall never be so wanting to ourselves as to bring it forth again from its lurking Place, by giving the trial, by juries out of our own hands by juries, into those of any Judges whatever: if a Jury gives an improper verdict it is confined to the single case only, but the determination of Judges, whether in the House of Parliament or on the bench, is made a precedent of Injustice.
According to Pope, there is more offence in general than in personal Satire—
The fewer still you name, you wound the more,
Bond is but one, but Harpax is a score.
it is not wonderful that profligate individuals should resent general satire, but that there should be such prostitution and perversion of Public Justice to punish It as an offence, is beyond credibility; if the evidence was not uncontrovertible.
General Satires are Moral Essays, which come home, as Lord Bacon expresses it, to every Man's heart and bosom; and altho' they admit fewer Poetical Ideas, than almost any other species of writing, still Wither has introduced much Poetical Imagery into his Satires. They are written in rhime, in heroic verse of ten syllables; and Wither's verse will gain more by being compared with Donne, his immediate predecessor, than it will lose by a comparison with Dryden or Pope; although Wither's Juvenilia were published several years before Dryden was born.
Pope has said,
—Dryden taught to join
The varying verse, the full resounding line,
The long majestic march, and energy divine:
but the claim of having first deserved this Character, must be granted to Wither; altho' it be allowed he, more even than Dryden, — "wanted, or forgot," what Pope calls, "The last and greatest art, the art to blot."