1829 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Habington

Anna Brownell Jameson, "Habington's Castara" Loves of the Poets (1829; 1857) 338-52.



One of the most elegant monuments ever raised by genius to conjugal affection, was Habington's Castara.

William Habington, who ranks among the most graceful of our old minor poets, was a gentleman of an ancient Roman Catholic family in Worcestershire, and born in 1605. On his return from his travels, he saw and loved Lucy Herbert, the daughter of Lord Powis, and granddaughter of the Earl of Northumberland. She was far his superior in birth, being descended, on both sides, from the noblest blood in England; and her haughty relations at first opposed their union. It was, however, merely that degree of opposition, without which the "course of true love would have run too smooth." It was just sufficient to pique the ardor of the lover, and prove the worth and constancy of her he loved. The history of their attachment has none of the painful interest which hangs round that of Donne and his wife: it is a picture of pure and peaceful happiness, and of mutual, tenderness, on which the imagination dwells with a soft complacency and unalloyed pleasure; with nothing of romance but what was borrowed from the elegant mind and playful fancy, which heightened and embellished the delightful reality.

If Habington had not been born a poet, a tombstone in an obscure country church would have been the only memorial of himself and his Castara. "She it was who animated his imagination with tenderness and elegance, and filled it with images of beauty, purified by her feminine delicacy from all grosser alloy." In return, he may be allowed to exult in the immortality he has given her.

Thy vows are heard! and thy Castara's name
Is writ as fair i' the register of fame,
As the ancient beauties which translated are
By poets up to heaven — each there a star....

Fix'd in Love's firmament no star shall shine
So nobly fair, so purely chaste as thine!

The collection of poems which Habington dedicated to his Castara, is divided into two parts: those written before his marriage he has entitled "The Mistress," those written subsequently, "The Wife."

He has prefixed to the whole an introduction in prose, written with some quaintness, but more feeling and elegance, in which he claims for himself the honor of being the first conjugal poet in our language. To use his own words: "Though I appear to strive against the stream of the best wits in erecting the same altar to chastity and love, I will, for one, adventure to do well without a precedent."

Habington had, however, been anticipated, as we have seen, by some of the Italian poets whom he has imitated: he has a little of the recherche and affectation of their school, and is not untinctured by the false taste of his day. He has not great power, nor much pathos; but these defects are redeemed by a delicacy of expression uncommon at that time; by the interest he has thrown round a love as pure as its object, and by the most exquisite touches of fancy, sentiment, and tenderness.

Without expressly naming his wife in his prefatory remarks, he alludes to her very beautifully, and exults, with a modest triumph, in the value of his rich possession.

"How unhappy soever I may be in the elocution, I am sure the theme is worthy enough. * * * Nor was my invention ever sinister from the straight way of chastity; and when love builds upon that rock, it may safely contemn the battery of the waves, and the threatenings of the wind. Since time, that makes a mockery of the finest structures, shall itself be ruined before that be demolished. Thus was the foundation laid; and though my eye, in its survey, was satisfied even to curiosity, yet did not my search rest there. The alabaster, ivory, porphyry, jet, that lent an admirable beauty to the outward building, entertained me with but half pleasure, since they stood there only to make sport for ruin. But when my soul grew acquainted with the owner of that mansion, I found that oratory was dumb when it began to speak her."

He then describes her wisdom; her wit; her innocence, — "so unvitiated by conversation with the world, that the subtle-witted of her sex would have termed it ignorance;" her modesty "so timorous, it represented a besieged city standing watchfully on her guard: in a word, all those virtues which should restore woman to her primitive state of virtue, fully adorned her." He then prettily apologizes for this indiscreet rhetoric on such a subject. "Such," he says, "I fancied her; for to say she is, or was such, were to play the merchant, and boast too much of the value of the jewel I possess, but have no mind to part with."

He concludes with this just, yet modest appreciation of himself; — " If not too indulgent to what is mine own, I think even these verses will have that proportion in the world's opinion, that heaven bath allotted me in fortune, — not so high as to be wondered at, nor so low as to be contemned."

In the description of "The MISTRESS," are some little touches inimitably graceful and complimentary. Though couched in general terms, it is of course a portrait of Lucy Herbert, such as she appeared to him in the days of their courtship, and fondly recalled and dwelt upon, when she had been many years a wife and a mother. He represents her "as fair as Nature intended her, helpt, perhaps, to a more pleasing grace by the sweetness of education, not by the slight of art." This discrimination is delicately drawn. — He continues, "she is young; for a woman, past the delicacy of her spring, may well move to virtue by respect, never by beauty to affection. In her carriage, sober, thinking her youth expresseth life enough, without the giddy motion fashion of late hath taken up." — (This was early in the reign of the grave and correct Charles the First. What would Habington have said of the flaunting, fluttering, voluble beauties of Charles the Second's time?)

He extols the melody of her voice, her knowledge of music, and her grace in the dance: above all, he dwells on her retiring modesty, the favorite theme of his praise in prose and verse, which seems to have been the most striking part of her character, and her greatest charm in the eyes of her lover. He concludes, with the beautiful sentiment I have chosen as a motto to this little book. — Only she, who hath as great a share in virtue as in beauty, deserves a noble love to serve her, and a true poesie to speak her!"

The poems are all short, generally in the form of "sonnets," if that name can be properly applied to all poems of fourteen lines, whatever the rhythmical arrangement. The subjects of these, and their quaint expressive titles, form a kind of chronicle of their loves, in which every little incident is commemorated. Thus we have, "To Castara, inquiring why I loved her." — "To Castara, softly singing to herself." "To Castara, leaving him on the approach of night."—

What should we fear, Castara? the cool air
That's fallen in love, and wantons in thy hair,
Will not betray our whispers: — should I steal
A nectar'd kiss, the wind dares not reveal
The treasure I possess!

"To Castara, on being debarred her presence," (probably by her father, Lord Powis.)—

Banish'd from you, I charged the nimble wind,
My unseen messenger, to speak my mind
In amorous whispers to you!

"Upon her intended journey into the country." — "Upon Seymors," (a house near Marlow, where Castara resided with her parents, and where, it appears, he was not allowed to visit her.) — "On a trembling kiss she had granted him on her departure." The commencement of this is beautiful:

The Arabian wind, whose breathing gently blows
Purple to the violet, blushes to the rose,
Did never yield an odor such as this!
Why are you then so thrifty of a kiss,
Authorized even by custom? Why doth fear
So tremble on your lip, my lip being near?

Then we have, "To Castara, on visiting her in the night." — This alludes to a meeting of the lovers, at a time they were debarred from each other's society.

The following are more exquisitely graceful than any thing in Waller, yet much in his style.

TO ROSES IN THE BOSOM OF CASTARA.
Ye blushing virgins happy are
In the chaste nunnery of her breast;
For he'd profane so chaste a fair
Who e'er should call it Cupid's nest.

Transplanted thus, how bright ye grow!
How rich a perfume do ye yield!
In some close garden, cowslips so
Are sweeter than i' the open field.

In those white cloisters live secure,
From the rude blasts of wanton breath;
Each hour more innocent and pure,
Till ye shall wither into death.

Then that which living gave ye room,
Your glorious sepulchre shall be;
There needs no marble for a tomb,—
That breast hath marble been to me!

The epistle to Castara's mother, Lady Eleanor Powis, who appears to have looked kindly on their love, contains some very beautiful lines, in which he asserts the disinterestedness of his affection for Castara, rich as she is in fortune, and derived from the blood of Charlemagne.

My love is envious! would Castara were
The daughter of some mountain cottager,
Who, with his toil worn out, could dying leave
Her no more dower than what she did receive
From bounteous Nature; her would I then lead
To the temple, rich in her own wealth; her head
Crowned with her hair's fair treasure; diamonds in
Her brighter eyes; soft ermines in her skin,
Each India in her cheek, &c.

This first part closes with "The description of Castara," which is extended to several stanzas, of unequal merit. The following compose in themselves a sweet picture:

Like the violet, which alone
Prospers in some happy shade,
My Castara lives unknown,
To no looser eye betray'd.
For she's to herself untrue
Who delights i' the public view....

Such her beauty, as no arts
Have enrich'd with borrow'd grace,
Her high birth no pride imparts,
For she blushes in her place.
Folly boasts a glorious blood—
She is noblest, being good!...

She her throne makes reason climb,
While wild passion captive lie;
And each article of time
Her pure thoughts to heaven fly.
All her vows religious be—
And her love she vows to me!

The second part of these poems, dedicated to Castara as "the WIFE," have not less variety and beauty, though there were, of course, fewer incidents to record. The first Sonnet, "to Castara, now possest of her marriage," beginning "This day is ours," &c., has more fancy and poetry than tenderness. The lines to Lord Powis, the father of Castara, on the same occasion, are more beautiful and earnest, yet rich in fanciful imagery. Lord Powis, it must be remembered, had opposed their union, and had been, with difficulty, induced to give his consent. The following lines refer to this; and Habington asserts the purity and unselfishness of his attachment.

Nor grieve, my Lord, 'tis perfected. Before
Afflicted seas sought refuge on the shore,
From the angry north wind; ere the astonish'd spring
Heard in the air the feathered people sing;
Ere time had motion, or the sun obtained
His province o'er the day — this was ordained.

Nor think in her I courted wealth or blood,
Or more uncertain hopes; for had I stood
On the highest ground of fortune, — the world known
No greatness but what waited on my throne—
And she had only had that face and mind,
I with myself, had th' earth to her resigned.
In virtue there's an empire!

Here I rest,
As all things to my power subdued; to me
There's naught beyond this, the whole world is SHE!

On the anniversary of their wedding-day, he thus addresses her:—

LOVE'S ANNIVERSARY.
Thou art return'd (great light) to that blest hour
In which I first by marriage, (sacred power!)
Joined with Castara hearts; and as the same
Thy lustre is, as then, — so is our flame;
Which had increased, but that by Love's decree,
'Twas such at first, it ne'er could greater be.
But tell me, (glorious lamp,) in thy survey
Of things below thee, what did not decay
By age or weakness? I since that have seen
The rose bud forth and fade, the tree grow green,
And wither wrinkled. Even thyself dost yield
Something to time, and to thy grave fall nigher;
But virtuous love is one sweet endless fire.

"To Castara, on the knowledge of love," is peculiarly elegant; it was, probably, suggested by some speculative topics of conversation, discussed in the literary circle he had drawn around him at Hindlip.

Where sleeps the north wind when the south inspires
Life in the Spring, and gathers into quires
The scatter'd nightingales; whose subtle ears
Heard first the harmonious language of the spheres;
Whence hath the stone magnetic force t' allure,
Th' enamor'd iron; from a seed impure,
Or natural, did first the mandrake grow;
What power in the ocean makes it flow;
What strange materials is the azure sky
Compacted of; of what its brightest eye
The ever flaming sun; what people are
In th' unknown worlds; what worlds in every star:—
Let curious fancies at these secrets rove;
Castara, what we know we'll practise — love.

The "Lines on her fainting;" those on "The fear of Death,"—

Why should we fear to melt away in death?
May we but die together! &c.

On her sigh,—

Were but that sigh a penitential breath
That thou art mine, it would blow with it death,
T' inclose me in my marble, where I'd be
Slave to the tyrant worms to set thee free!

His self-congratulation on his own happiness, in his epistle to his uncle, Lord Morley, are all in the same strain of gentle and elegant feeling. The following are among the last addressed to his wife.

Give me a heart, where no impure
Disorder'd passion rage;
Which jealousie doth not obscure,
Nor vanity t' expense engage;
Nor wooed to madness by quaint oathes,
Or the fine rhetorick of cloathes;
Which not the softness of the age
To vice or folly doth decline;
Give me that heart, Castara, for 'tis thine.

Take thou a heart, where no new look
Provokes new appetite;
With no fresh charm of beauty took,
Or wanton stratagem of wit;
Not idly wandering here and there,
Led by an am'rous eye or ear;
Aiming each beauteous mark to hit;
Which virtue doth to one confine;
Take thou that heart, Castara, for 'tis mine.

It was owing to his affection for his wife, as well as his own retired and studious habits, that Habington lived through the civil wars without taking any active part on either side. It should seem, that, at such a period, no man of a lofty and generous spirit could have avoided joining the party or principles, either of Falkland and Grandison, or of Hampden and Hutchinson. But Habington's family had already suffered, in fortune and in fame by their interference with state matters; and without, in any degree, implicating himself with either party, he passed through those stormy and eventful times,

As one who dreams
Of idleness, in groves Elysian;

and died in the first year of the Protectorate, 1654.

I cannot discover the date of Castara's death; but she died some years before her husband, leaving only one son.

There is one among the poems of the second part of Castara, which I cannot pass without remark; it is the Elegy which Habington addressed to his wife, on the death of her friend, Venetia Digby, the consort of the famous Sir Kenelm Digby. She was the most beautiful woman of her time: even Lord Clarendon steps aside from the gravity of history, to mention "her extraordinary beauty, and as extraordinary fame." Her picture at Windsor is, indeed, more like a vision of ideal loveliness, than any form that ever trod the earth. She was descended from the Percies and the Stanleys, and was first cousin to Habington's Castara, their mothers being sisters. The magnificent spirit of her enamored husband, surrounded her with the most gorgeous adornments that ever were invented by vanity or luxury: and thus she was, one day, found dead on her couch, her hand supporting her head, in the attitude of one asleep. Habington's description exactly agrees with the picture at Althorpe, painted after her death by Vandyke.

What's honor but a hatchment? what is hero
Of Percy left, or Stanley, names most dear
To virtue?
Or what avails her that she once was led
A glorious bride to valiant Digby's bed?
She, when whatever rare
The either Indies boast, lay richly spread
For her to wear, lay on her pillow dead!

There is no piercing the mystery which hangs round the story of this beautiful creature: that a stigma rested on her character, and that she was exculpated from it, whatever it might be, seems proved, by the doves and serpents introduced into several portraits of her; the first, emblematical of her innocence, and the latter, of her triumph over slander: and not less by these lines of Habington. If Venetia Digby had been, as Aubrey and others insinuate, abandoned to profligacy, and a victim to her husband's jealousy, Habington would scarce have considered her noble descent and relationship to his Castara as a matter of pride; or her death as a subject of tender condolence or the awful manner of it a peculiar blessing of Heaven, and the reward of her virtues.

Come likewise, my Castara, and behold
What blessings ancient prophecy foretold,
Bestow'd on her in death; she past away
So sweetly from the world as if her clay
Lay only down to slumber. Then forbear
To let on her blest ashes fall a tear:
Or if thou'rt too much woman, softly weep,
Lest grief disturb the silence of her sleep!

The author of the introduction to the curious Memoirs of Sir Kenelm Digby, has proved the absolute falsehood of some of Aubrey's assertions, and infers the improbability of others. But these beautiful lines by Habington, seem to have escaped his notice; and they are not slight evidence in Venetia's favor. On the whole, the mystery remains unexplained; a cloud has settled forever on the true story of this extraordinary creature. Neither the pen nor the sword of her husband could entirely clear her fame in her own age: he could only terrify slander into silence, and it died away into an indistinct murmur, of which the echo alone has reached our time. — But this is enough: — the echo of an echo could whisper into naught a woman's fair name. The idea of a creature so formed in the prodigality of nature; so completely and faultlessly beautiful; so nobly born and allied; so capable (as she showed herself on various occasions) of high generous feeling, of delicacy, of fortitude, of tenderness; depraved by her own vices, or "done to death by slanderous tongues," is equally painful and heart-sickening. The image of the aspic trailing its slime and its venom over the bosom of Cleopatra, is not more abhorrent.