1860 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

George Wither

George Gilfillan, in Specimens with Memoirs of the less-known British Poets (1860) 2:111-12.



This remarkable man was born in Hampshire; at Bentworth, near Alton, in 1588. He was sent to Magdalene College, Oxford, but had hardly been there till his father remanded him home to hold the plough — a reversal of the case of Cincinnatus which did not please the aspiring spirit of our poet. He took an early opportunity of breaking loose from this occupation, and of going to London with the romantic intention of making his fortune at Court. Finding that to rise at Court, flattery was indispensable, and determined not to flatter, he, in 1613, published his Abuses Whipt and Stript, for which he was committed for some months to the Marshalsea. Here he wrote his beautiful poem, The Shepherd's Hunting; and is said to have gained his manumission by a satire to the King, in which he defends his former writings. Soon after his liberation, he published his Hymns and Songs of the Church, a book which embroiled him with the clergy, but procured him the favour of King James, who encouraged him to finish a translation of the Psalms. He travelled to the court of the Queen of Bohemia, (James's daughter,) in fulfilment of a vow, and presented her with a copy of his completed translation.

In 1639, he was a captain of horse in the expedition against the Scotch. When the Civil War broke out, he sold his estate to raise a troop of horse on the Parliamentary side, and soon after was made a major. In 1642, he was appointed captain and commander of Farnham Castle, in Surrey; but owing to some neglect or cowardice on his part, it was ceded the same year to Sir William Waller. He was made prisoner by the Royalists some time after this, and would have been put to death had not Denham interfered, alleging that as long as Wither survived, he (Denham) could not be accounted the worst poet in England. He was afterwards appointed Cromwell's major-general of all the horse and foot in the county of Surrey. He made money at this time by Royalist sequestrations, but lost it all at the Restoration. He had, on the death of Cromwell, hailed Richard with enthusiasm, and predicted him a happy reign; which makes Campbell remark, "He never but once in his life foreboded good, and in that prophecy he was mistaken." Wither was by no means pleased with the loss of his fortune, and remonstrated bitterly, but for so doing he was thrown into prison again. Here his mind continued as active as ever, and he poured out treatise poems, and satires — sometimes, when pen and ink were denied him, inscribing his thoughts with red ochre upon a trencher. After three years, he was, in 1663, released from Newgate, under bond for good behaviour; and four years afterwards he died in London. This was on the 2d of May 1667. He was buried between the east door and the south end of the Savoy church, in the Strand.

Wither was a man of real genius, but seems to have been partially insane. His political zeal was a frenzy; and his religion was deeply tinged with puritanic gloom. His Collection of Emblems never became so popular as those of Quarles, and are now nearly as much forgotten as his satires, his psalms, and his controversial treatises. But his early poems are delightful — full of elegant and playful fancy, ease of language, and delicacy of sentiment. Some passages in The Shepherd's Hunting, and in the Address to Poetry, resemble the style of Milton in his L'Allegro and Penseroso. His Christmas catches the full spirit of that joyous carnival of Christian England. Altogether, it is refreshing to turn from the gnarled oak of Wither's struggling and unhappy life, to the beautiful flowers, nodding over it, of his poesy.