This poet might have been expected to have belonged to the "Spasmodic school," judging by his parental antecedents. His father was accused of having a share in Babington's conspiracy, but was released because he was godson to Queen Elizabeth. Soon after, however, he was imprisoned a second time, and condemned to death on the charge of having concealed some of the Gunpowder-plot conspirators; but was pardoned through the interest of Lord Morley. His uncle, however, was less fortunate, suffering death for his complicity with Babington. The poet's mother, the daughter of Lord Morley, was more loyal than her husband or his brother, and is said to have written the celebrated letter to Lord Monteagle, in consequence of which the execution of the Gunpowder-plot was arrested.
Our poet was born at Hindlip, Worcestershire, on the very day of the discovery of the plot, 5th November 1605. The family were Papists, and William was sent to St. Omers to he educated. He was pressed to become a Jesuit, but declined. On his return to England, his father became preceptor to the poet. As he grew up, instead of displaying any taste for "treasons, stratagems, and spoils," he chose the better part, and lived a private and happy life. He fell in love with Lucia, daughter of William Herbert, the first Lord Powis, and celebrated her in his long and curious poem entitled Castara. This lady he afterwards married, and from her society appears to have derived much happiness. In 1634, he published Castara. He also, at different times, produced The Queen of Arragon, a tragedy; a History of Edward IV.; and Observations upon History. He died in 1654, (not as Southey, by a strange oversight, says, "when he had just completed his fortieth year,") forty-nine years of age, and was buried in the family vault at Hindlip.
Castara is not a consecutive poem, but consists of a great variety of small pieces, in all sorts of style and rhythm, and of all varieties of merit; many of them addressed to his mistress under the name of Castara, and many to his friends; with reflective poems, elegies, and panegyrics, intermingled with verses sacred to love. Habington is distinguished by purity of tone if not of taste. He has many conceits, but no obscenities. His love is as holy as it is ardent. He has, besides, a vein of sentiment which sometimes approaches the moral sublime. To prove this, in addition to the Selections below, we copy some verses entitled
NOX NOCTI INDICAT SCIENTIAM. — David.
When I survey the bright
So rich with jewels hung, that Night
Doth like an Ethiop bride appear,
My soul her wings doth spread,
And heavenward flies,
The Almighty's mysteries to read
In the large volume of the skies;
For the bright firmament
Shoots forth no flame
So silent, but is eloquent
In speaking the Creator's name.
No unregarded star
Contracts its light
Into so small a character,
Removed far from our human sight,
But if we steadfast look,
We shall discern
In it, as in some holy book,
How man may heavenly knowledge learn.
It tells the conqueror
That far-stretch'd power,
Which his proud dangers traffic for,
Is but the triumph of an hour;
That, from the furthest North,
Some nation may,
Yet undiscover'd, issue forth,
And o'er his new-got conquest sway,
Some nation, yet shut in
With hills of ice,
May be let out to scourge his sin
Till they shall equal him in vice;
And then they likewise shall
Their ruin brave;
For, as yourselves, your empires fall,
And every kingdom hath a grave.
Thus those celestial fires,
Though seeming mute,
The fallacy of our desires,
And all the pride of life, confute;
For they have watch'd since first
The world had birth,
And found sin in itself accurst,
And nothing permanent on earth.
There is something to us particularly interesting in the history of this poet. Even as it is pleasant to see the sides of a volcano covered with verdure, and its mouth filled with flowers, so we like to find the fierce elements, which were inherited by Habington from his fathers, softened and subdued in him, — the blood of the conspirator mellowed into that of the gentle bard, who derived all his inspiration from a pure love and a mild and thoughtful religion.