1868 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Giles Fletcher

George Macdonald, "The Brothers Fletcher" in England's Antiphon (1868; 1890) 150-58.



I now come to make mention of two gifted brothers, Giles and Phineas Fletcher, both clergymen, the sons of a clergyman and nephews to the Bishop of Bristol, therefore the cousins of Fletcher the dramatist, a poem by whom I have already given. Giles, the eldest, is supposed to have been born in 1588. From his poem Christ's Victory and Triumph, I select three passages.

To understand the first, it is necessary to explain that while Christ is on earth a dispute between justice and Mercy, such as is often represented by the theologians, takes place in heaven. We must allow the unsuitable fiction attributing distraction to the divine Unity, for the sake of the words in which Mercy overthrows the arguments of justice. For the poet unintentionally nullifies the symbolism of the theologian, representing justice as defeated. He forgets that the grandest exercise of justice is mercy. The confusion comes from the fancy that justice means vengeance upon sin, and not the doing of what is right. Justice can be at no strife with mercy, for not to do what is just would be most unmerciful.

Mercy first sums up the arguments justice has been employing against her, in the following stanza:

He was but dust; why feared he not to fall?
And being fallen how can he hope to live?
Cannot the hand destroy him that made all?
Could he not take away as well as give?
Should man deprave, and should not God deprive?
Was it not all the world's deceiving spirit
(That, bladdered up with pride of his own merit,
Fell in his rise) that him of heaven did disinherit?

To these she then proceeds to make reply:

He was but dust: how could he stand before him?
And being fallen, why should he fear to die?
Cannot the hand that made him first, restore him?
Depraved of sin, should he deprived lie
Of grace? Can he not find infirmity
That gave him strength? — Unworthy the forsaking
He is, whoever weighs (without mistaking)
Or maker of the man or manner of his making.

Who shall thy temple incense any more,
Or to thy altar crown the sacrifice,
Or strew with idle flowers the hallowed floor?
Or what should prayer deck with herbs and spice,
Her vials breathing orisons of price,
If all must pay that which all cannot pay?
O first begin with me, and Mercy slay,
And thy thrice honoured Son, that now beneath doth stray.

But if or he or I may live and speak,
And heaven can joy to see a sinner weep,
Oh let not justice' iron sceptre break
A heart already broke, that low doth creep,
And with prone humbless her feet's dust doth sweep.
Must all go by desert? Is nothing free?
Ah if but those that only worthy be,
None should thee ever see! none should thee ever see!

What hath man done that man shall not undo
Since God to him is grown so near akin?
Did his foe slay him? He shall slay his foe.
Hath he lost all? He all again shall win.
Is sin his master? He shall master sin.
Too hardy soul, with sin the field to try!
The only way to conquer was to fly;
But thus long death hath lived, and now death's self shall die.

He is a path, if any be misled;
He is a robe, if any naked be;
If any chance to hunger, he is bread;
If any be a bondman, he is free;
If any be but weak, how strong is he!
To dead men life he is, to sick men health,
To blind men sight, and to the needy wealth;
A pleasure without loss, a treasure without stealth.

Who can forget — never to be forgot—
The time that all the world in slumber lies,
When like the stars the singing angels shot
To earth, and heaven awaked all his eyes
To see another sun at midnight rise?
On earth was never sight of peril fame;
For God before man like himself did frame,
But God himself now like a mortal man became.

———*———*———*———*———*———*———

The angels carolled loud their song of peace;
The cursed oracles were stricken dumb;
To see their Shepherd the poor shepherds press;
To see their King, the kingly Sophies come;
And them to guide unto his master's home,
A star comes dancing up the orient,
That springs for joy over the strawy tent,
Where gold, to make their prince a crown, they all present.

No doubt there are here touches of execrable taste, such as the punning trick with man and manners, suggesting a false antithesis; or the opposition of the words deprave and deprive; but we have in them only an instance of how the meretricious may co-exist with the lovely. The passage is fine and powerful, notwithstanding its faults and obscurities. Here is another yet more beautiful:

So down the silver streams of Eridan,
On either side banked with a lily wall,
Whiter than both, rides the triumphant swan,
And sings his dirge, and prophesies his fall,
Diving into his watery funeral
But Eridan to Cedron must submit
His flowery shore; nor can he envy it,
If, when Apollo sings, his swans do silent sit.

That heavenly voice I more delight to hear
Than gentle airs to breathe; or swelling waves
Against the sounding rocks their bosoms tear;
Or whistling reeds that rutty Jordan laves,
And with their verdure his white head embraves;
To chide the winds; or hiving bees that fly
About the laughing blossoms' of sallowy,
Rocking asleep the idle grooms that lazy lie.

And yet how can I hear thee singing go,
When men, incensed with hate, thy death foreset?
Or else, why do I hear thee sighing so,
When thou, inflamed with love, their life dust get,
That love and hate, and sighs and songs are met?
But thus, and only thus, thy love did crave
To send thee singing for us to thy grave,
While we sought thee to kill, and thou sought'st us to save.

When I remember Christ our burden bears,
I look for glory, but find misery;
I look for joy, but find a sea of tears;
I look that we should live, and find him die;
I look for angels' songs, and hear him cry:
Thus what I look, I cannot find so well;
Or rather, what I find I cannot tell,
These banks so narrow are, those streams so highly swell.

We would gladly eliminate the few common-place allusions; but we must take them with the rest of the passage. Besides far higher merits, it is to my ear most melodious.

One more passage of two stanzas from Giles Fletcher, concerning the glories of heaven: I quote them for the sake of earth, not of heaven.

Gaze but upon the house where man embowers:
With flowers and rushes paved is his way;
Where all the creatures are his servitours:
The winds do sweep his chambers every day,
And clouds do wash his rooms; the ceiling gay,
Starred aloft, the gilded knobs embrave:
If such a house God to another gave,
How shine those glittering courts he for himself will have!

And if a sullen cloud, as sad as night,
In which the sun may seem embodied,
Depured of all his dross, we see so white,
Burning in melted gold his watery head,
Or round with ivory edges silvered;
What lustre super-excellent will he
Lighten on those that shall his sunshine see
In that all-glorious court in which all glories be!

These brothers were intense admirers of Spenser. To be like him Phineas must write an allegory; and such an allegory! Of all the strange poems in existence, surely this is the strangest. The Purple Island is man, whose body is anatomically described after the allegory of a city, which is then peopled with all the human faculties personified, each set in motion by itself. They say the anatomy is correct: the metaphysics are certainly good. The action of the poem is just another form of the Holy War of John Bunyan — all the good and bad powers fighting for the possession of the Purple Island. What renders the conception yet more amazing is the fact that the whole ponderous mass of anatomy and metaphysics, nearly as long as the Paradise Lost, is put as a song, in a succession of twelve cantos, in the mouth of a shepherd, who begins a canto every morning to the shepherds and shepherdesses of the neighbourhood, and finishes it by folding-time in the evening. And yet the poem is full of poetry. He triumphs over his difficulties partly by audacity, partly by seriousness, partly by the enchantment of song. But the poem will never be read through except by students of English literature. It is a whole; its members are well-fitted; it is full of beauties-in parts they swarm like fire-flies; and yet it is not a good poem. It is like a well-shaped house, built of mud, and stuck full of precious stones. I do not care, in my limited space, to quote from it. Never was there a more incongruous dragon of allegory.

Both brothers were injured, not by their worship of Spenser, but by the form that worship took — imitation. They seem more pleased to produce a line or stanza that shall recall a line or stanza of Spenser, than to produce a fine original of their own. They even copy lines almost word for word from their great master. This is pure homage: it was their delight that such adaptations should be recognized — just as it was Spenser's hope, when he inserted translated stanzas from Tasso's Jerusalem Delivered in The Fairy Queen, to gain the honour of a true reproduction. Yet, strange fate for imitators! both, but Giles especially, were imitated by a greater than their worship — even by Milton. They make Spenser's worse: Milton makes theirs better. They imitate Spenser, faults and all Milton glorifies their beauties.

From the smaller poems of Phineas, I choose the following version of

PSALM CXXX.
From the deeps of grief and fear,
0 Lord, to thee my soul repairs:
From thy heaven bow down thine ear;
Let thy mercy meet my prayers.
Oh if thou mark'st what's done amiss,
What soul so pure can see thy bliss?

But with thee sweet Mercy stands,
Sealing pardons, working fear.
Wait, my soul, wait on his hands;
Wait, mine eye; oh! wait, mine ear:
If he his eye or tongue affords,
Watch all his looks, catch all his words.

As a watchman waits for day,
And looks for light, and looks again
When the night grows old and gray,
To be relieved he calls amain:
So look, so wait, so long, mine eyes,
To see my Lord, my sun, arise.

Wait, ye saints, wait on our Lord,
For from his tongue sweet mercy flows;
Wait on his cross, wait on his word;
Upon that tree redemption grows:
He will redeem his Israel
From sin and wrath, from death and hell.

I shall now give two stanzas of his version of the 127th Psalm.

If God build not the house, and lay
The groundwork sure-whoever build,
It cannot stand one stormy day.
If God be not the city's shield,
If he be not their ban and wall,
In vain is watch-tower, men, and all.

Though then thou wak'st when others rest,
Though rising thou prevent'st the sun,
Though with lean care thou daily feast,
Thy labour's lost, and thou undone;
But God his child will feed and keep,
And draw the curtains to his sleep.

Compare this with a version of the same portion by Dr. Henry King, Bishop of Chichester, who, no great poet, has written some good verse. He was about the same age as Phineas Fletcher.

Except the Lord the house sustain,
The builder's labour is in vain;
Except the city he defend,
And to the dwellers safety send,
In vain are sentinels prepared,
Or armed watchmen for the guard.

You vainly with the early light
Arise, or sit up late at night
To find support, and daily eat
Your bread with sorrow earned and sweat;
When God, who his beloved keeps,
This plenty gives with quiet sleeps.

What difference do we find? That the former has the more poetic touch, the latter the greater truth. The former has just lost the one precious thing in the psalm; the latter has kept it that care is as useless as painful, for God gives us while we sleep, and not while we labour.