Giles, the brother of Phineas, and cousin of John Fletcher, is one of the chief poets of what may be called the Spenserian School, which "flourished" in the first quarter of the seventeenth century. Spenser and Chaucer were the supreme names in non-dramatic poetry till Milton arose; and in the Jacobean period the Plantagenet poet was eclipsed by the Elizabethan; and thus it was to Spenser that the lesser poetic spirits of the age looked up to as their master, and upon their writings his influence is deeply impressed. Amongst these retainers of "Colin" must be counted Milton when young, before he had developed his own style and become himself an original power, himself a master; and not the least of the interests that distinguish Giles Fletcher and his fellow Spenserians is that Milton extended to them the study and attention which he gave with no ordinary sympathy to "our sage and serious Spenser, whom I dare be known to think a better teacher than Scotus and Aquinas."
These words of Milton's suggest some leading characteristics of the Spenserian school. It too proposed to be "sage and serious." It inclined indeed to be didactic. In that notorious production, The Purple Island, we have in fact a lecture on Anatomy. More commonly its purpose was directly ethical; and it must be allowed that the artist is at times lost in the moralist.
Giles Fletcher is eminently a religious poet — in the technical sense of the word, as happily also in the more general sense. He deals with Christian themes: "Christ's Victory in Heaven," "Christ's Victory on Earth," "Christ's Triumph over Death," "Christ's Triumph after Death"; and it is his special distinction, that in handling such themes he does not sink into a mere rhyming dogmatist, but writes with a genuine enthusiasm and joy. For certainly what has commonly been written for "religious" poetry has been "religious" rather than poetical. Its orthodoxy may have been unimpeachable but no less so its prosiness. How few hymns are worthy of the name of poems! The cause of this frequent failure is probably to be looked for in the writer's relation to his subject. It is not, and cannot be, one of sufficient freedom. His mind is in a sense subdued and fettered by the very conditions of the case. He is dealing with a certain definite interpretation of profound mysteries; and the mysteries themselves are such as to overpower and paralyse the free movement of his intelligence. How can he sing at ease? He is like one with a lesson set him, which he must reproduce as best he may. It is rather his faith and his memory that are called into action than his imagination. At all events his imagination has an inferior part assigned her; she is not to create but rather to decorate and glorify what is created. To worship and adore and love — these are real movements and impulses of the poet's mind, and may have and have had their expression in lyrics that may be fully styled divine; but, when the details of a creed are celebrated, then for the most part the sweet enthusiasm dies away out of the poets eyes, the rapture chills and freezes, and we are reminded of the Thirty-nine Articles rather than of the Beatific Vision.
Giles Fletcher's success as a "religious" poet, so far as he succeeds, is due first to the selection of themes which he makes, and secondly to the genuine religious ardour that inspired him. He delighted to contemplate the career of the central Hero of his Christian faith and love — His ineffable self-sacrifice, His leading captivity captive, His complete and irreversible triumph. That career he conceived and beheld vividly and intensely with a pure unalloyed acceptance; it thrilled and inspired him with a real passion of worship and delight. So blissfully enthralled and enraptured, what else could he sing of? His heart was hot within him; while he was musing, the fire burned; then spake he with his tongue.
It was the tongue of one highly cultured and accomplished, of a rich and clear imagination, with a natural gift of eloquence, with a fine sense of melody, and metrical skill to express it.