Ordinarily one might feel called on to apologize for coming between the Reader and his book with critical remarks; but while to the necessarily select circle into which the Poetry of the Fletchers and their associates is likely to come, the works themselves should suffice — each being left to search out what of rare and vivid, beautiful and memorable, is to be found therein, — it nevertheless is my hope that some little service and help may be rendered to them — as to others — if from many-yeared loving and reverent familiarity with these fine old Singers, I illustrate successively their characteristics, estimate, or give materials for estimate, of their distinctive worth, and trace their influence, contemporary and later; and so guide, perchance, to a higher recognition than is common of their place in the lustrous roll of the Poets of England. With reference to all the Fletchers extant criticism has been based on the merest "shreds and patches" — "purple patches" I allow — of extracts, and second-and-third-hand traditionary common-places of quotation; e.g. we have — and they are typical — on the one hand Henry Headly (in his Select Specimens) telling us that Christ's Victorie is a "rich and picturesque poem unenlivened by IMPERSONATION" — the antithesis of the fact in so far as "impersonation" is concerned, as will appear; and more recently even such-an-one as S. C. Hall (in his Book of Gems) lavishing (apparently) well-weighed epithets in laudation of Elegies that have no existence, and confirming his own verdict on Phineas Fletcher's Piscatory Eclogues with learning from Coleridge on another altogether in a way that self-convicts him of never having read them, inasmuch as though their title be "Piscatory" they have nothing whatever to do with angling, save in their slight framework. His condemnation of classical names and allusions brought together at random from scattered stanzas manifests amazing if also amusing ignorance, alike of them and the Poem. It may be as well to find a place for this egregious criticism, as thus: — "Of Christ's Victory we may speak in terms of the highest praise. The Poet has exhibited a fertility of invention and a rich store of fancy, worthy of the sublime subject. The style is lofty and energetic, the descriptions natural and graphic, and the construction of the verse graceful and harmonious. But unhappily he has introduced among his sacred themes — the birth, temptation, passion, resurrection and ascension of the Saviour — so many characters from and allusions to profane history, as often to jar upon the sense and to render the poet justly liable to the charges of bad taste and inconsistency. Giles Fletcher indeed had no power in selecting his thoughts, or his reputation might have equalled his genius. He refers to the Graces, Mount Olympus, the Trojan boy, the Titans, 'wild Pentheus,' 'staring Orestes,' Orpheus, Deucalion, Bacchus, Pan, Adonis, Arcady, Mount Ida, and the honey of Hybla — references that bear us away from the solemn grandeur of his great theme." On this empty twaddle three things may be said (a) Surely it is about time that objections to illustrations drawn from Greek Mythology being used by Christian writers, were decently buried and forgotten? For it is clear that our Fletchers and Milton did not regard these myths as merely heathen fables but as adumbrations of great truths to be revealed at the advent of Christianity. Of this there is striking exemplification in Giles Fletcher's Christ's Triumph over Death (St.. 7, 8.)
Who doth not see drown'd in Deucalion's name
(When earth his men, and sea had lost his shore)
Old Noah? and in Nisus' lock, the fame
Of Sampson yet alive; and long before
In Phaethon's, mine own fall I deplore:
But he that conquer'd hell, to fetch againe
His virgin widowe, by a serpent slaine,
Another Orpheus was then dreaming poets feigne: &c. &c.
(b) That any man who could place between quotation-marks "wild Pentheus" and "staring Orestes" and "Ida" and pronounce against the supremely grand text which contains them, proclaims his own utter incapacity and provides an admirable addition to the "Curiosities of Criticism" if a second D'Israeli ever arise to prepare such a volume: (c) That Lycidas and Comus might be similarly travestied by shovelling together their classical names and allusions.
Our Memoirs show that Phineas, and not Giles as usually supposed — was the elder of the two brothers but as the quaint Puritan Preachers were wont quaintly to play on the ancient story of Esau and Jacob, the younger gat the blessing from the first-born; or in plainer prose, published his chief poem long before his brother's appeared — albeit without one touch of supplanting; for never was there more winsome friendship than theirs. (It is evident indeed by Christ's Triumph after Death (St. 49, 50) that Giles must have read the Purple Island in manuscript. Probably Christ's Victorie and the Purple Island were written at the same time and mutually communicated:
But let the Kentish lad, that lately taught
The oaten reed the trumpet's silver sound.
(Cf. P. I. II. St. 2)
Who now shall teach to change my oaten quill
For trumpet 'larms.
Turning then to Christ's Victorie and Triumph in Heaven and Earth, over and after Death, it is due to the Poet to keep in mind its date, viz. 1610. Preceding thus, even in publication and much longer in composition, by upwards of half-a-century Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, it has the distinction of having been the first sacred poem of any considerable length, that has left its mark on English Literature. I am very well aware that prior to 1610, Antiquarianism has dug up so-called religious verse; but comparison therewith were an outrage. You may cull from some of them a radiant metaphor, a melodious couplet, a finely-touched epithet, a pregnant thought; but you have no other single poem before Christ's Victorie whose whole warp and woof, substance and adornment, are "sacred:" so that in the outset, as the pioneer of England's religious poetry in epic or semi-epic form, Giles Fletcher demands grateful praise. We can only surmise wistfully the deduction that might have been called for from this, had we the lost treasure of Spenser's Ecclesiastes, Canticum Canticorum, Hours of our Lord, and the Sacrifice of a Sinner. WITHER and QUARLES, HERBERT and CRASHAW and VAUGHAN, followed not preceded him. SOUTHWELL'S St Peter's Complaint is much too short to be named with Christ's Victorie even if it were not in his lesser pieces that the saintly Jesuit wrought most cunningly. NICHOLAS BRETON indeed was earlier and contemporary, and he verily has sung sweetly and divinely. Cognate with this honour of firstness — if the word be allowable — among the sacred Singers of our Country, is the simple, idiomatic, capital English, of Christ's Victorie. Hitherto your perfunctory editors and compilers have with stupid and uncritical supererogation modernized the orthography of the great Poem. Never was the irreverent process less called for; never so like to rough-handed brushing off the exquisite powder from a moth's wing or the fine meal from an auricula. Our text — as in every case — is from the Poet's own, and the most hasty perusal will satisfy, that the great body of the wording is pure un-archaic English, easily intelligible, terse, compact, musical. With all one's allegiance to SPENSER, it is trying to feel, much more to think, one's way through the tropically thorny luxuriance of his language. And yet Master GILES FLETCHER was a growing lad when "dear Colin" was laid softly in Westminster. Comparing Christ's Victorie with earlier and later Poems, I think it deserves no common praise for the naturalness, spontaneousness; inevitableness, of its English. The stanza is a modification of what is called the Spenserian, and it is astonishing how little of the contortion of the Sybil there is with the flood-tide of her inspiration, how much of the naked strength and disdainful greenness of the old English oak, without its nodosities. The perfection of the thought is equalled by the perfection of its utterance. There is the grand simplicity about it of our English Bible of 1611. And hence a familiar, sweetly "common" sound in its every line almost.