The centre alike of Habington's life and of his poetry is the lady whom he has sung under the fanciful name of Castara. She was Lucy, daughter of William, Lord Powis, rather above her lover in rank and wealth, as his own verses plainly show, but, as is not less obvious, at no time indifferent to his courtship. What obstacles were interposed by her parents and relatives yielded to their mutual constancy, and Habington was allowed to carry off his bride to his country-house at Hindlip, in Worcestershire, a house which, as he tells her,
doth not want extent
Of roome, (though not magnificent)
To give free welcome so content.
There they seem to have lived a happy equable life together. Habington devotes as many of his poems to his wife, as to his mistress, and in them reaches a higher level of poetic accomplishment than he elsewhere attains. It is pleasant to contemplate the happy course of this pure and honourable affection, and it is impossible not to feel a kind of liking for so constant a wooer, so good a friend, and so upright a man. We must not complain if, like Evelyn, Habington seems to have gone through the Civil War without taking a decided part one way or the other. The man was no hero, nor born to shine in public life. What political sympathies his writings reveal were strongly Royalist; he himself came of an old Catholic stock, and was educated at St. Omer; and we may be sure that as far as he took any side at all, he took part against those whom he would regard as rebels and schismatics. Habington — as revealed to us by his own verses — was something of a dreamer, something of an ascetic, something even of a bigot. His was just the sort of life and character which could live through, as not of them, the din and turmoil and passion of those stirring years. He was not of those who are great among the sons of men; nevertheless the interest that his work arouses is likely rather to increase than diminish, for though narrow in scope it is intense in feeling, and though in parts feeble and one-sided, it is as a whole made vital by the impress of a distinct and original personality.
It is not altogether easy to gather from Habington's poems in what relation he stood to previous or contemporary singers. The one indubitable face is his devotion to Sidney, a sentiment he shares in common with all the poets of that time, on whom the Astrophel and Stella sonnets made the most marked impression. Of his few references to other poets the first occurs in a poetical account of his own youthful years, which he gives in The Holy Man:—
Grown elder I admired
Our poets, as from Heaven inspired;
What obelisks decreed I fit
For Spenser's art and Sydney's wit!
But waxing sober, soon I found
Fame but an idle sound.
Another mention of Sidney occurs in a sonnet commemorating Ovid's Corinna and Petrarch's Laura—
'while our famous Thames
Doth whisper Sidney's Stella to her streams.
There are also two passing mentions of Drayton and Spenser, and an interesting allusion to "Chapman's reverend ashes" lying "rudely mingled in the vulgar dust." There are no allusions to such poets as Herbert, whose genius was in some respects akin to his own, but this is easily explained by the difference between the two men's religious opinions.
Castara is divided into three, by some editors into four parts. There are at any rate four distinct themes — the Mistress, the Wife, the Friend, and the Holy Man. It is by his love verses that Habington is best known, though some of his most powerful and deeply felt work is to be found in the other sections. A feature which strikes the reader of these verses is their almost exaggerated purity of tone. Habington is never tired of assuring us of the chastity of his affection, and the reader wearies of the monotony of assertions which might very well be taken for granted. In one passage he says scornfully of other poets—
You who are earth and cannot rise
Above your sense,
Boasting the envied wealth which lies
Bright in your mistress' lips or eyes,
Betray a pitied eloquence.
It is only fair however to say that, all deductions made, Habington's love poems are often sweet and tunable enough, and show real warmth of feeling and delicacy of sentiment. The verses on his friend and kinsman Talbot, a nephew of the Earl of Shrewsbury, who died young, also contain some fine passages; but more characteristic and less agreeable features of the writer's mind come out in The Holy Man. There are some exceedingly powerful and sombre verses in this collection, but the tone of them is more than Catholic; in parts is revealed an almost Calvinistic relentlessness of bigotry. Habington speaks, as in duty bound, as a good Catholic, and assumes that the Holy Man is necessarily of his own creed. "Catholique faith is the foundation on which he erects religion; knowing it a ruinous madnesse to build in the ayre of a private spirit or on the sands of any new schisme." This is as it should be; one admires him for his sturdy maintenance of unpopular opinions; but it is not easy equally to sympathise with his description of his God, who "without passion didst provide to punish treason racks and death in hell," and who
when he as your judge appears
In vain you'll tremble and lament,
And hope to soften him with teares,
To no advantage penitent.
But gloomy as his theology may be, it is yet the natural outcome of that intense and narrow spirit, and some of the lines in this section have a searching penetrating power such as is not often found in Herbert or other religious poets more widely famous. Habington is terribly in earnest; he has forgotten his love for his mistress and his friend; as he draws on in life the ascetic element which betrayed itself in him from the first, gains in strength, he throws this life scornfully behind him, and his thoughts fasten themselves more and more exclusively upon death and immortality.
From a purely literary point of view, Habington only rarely reaches high water mark in poetry. There are no glaring faults in his verse, and few conceits. The mass of his work is fluent, ingenious, tolerable poetry. It does not often attain to the inner music which can only proceed from a born singer, or to the flawless expression of a noble thought. Perfect literary tact Habington does not possess; he will follow up a fine stanza with a lame and halting one, apparently without tense of the incongruity. It takes a strong "furor poeticus" to uplift him wholly, and keep him at a high level throughout an entire poem, however short. He excels greatly sometimes in single lines or couplets. He now and then surprises us with expressions like "the weeping magic of my verse"; or so sonorous a lint as
Strayed honour in the true magnificke way;
or a delicious commencement of a poem which falls off as it proceeds, such as
Where sleeps the north wind when the south inspires
Life in the spring, and gathers into quires
The scattered nightingales;
or a strange and impressive thought like that comparison of virtue, which, lost to the world by his friend Talbot's death, only lives still in some solitary hermit's cell—
So 'mid the ice of the far northern sea
A star about the arctic circle may
Than ours yield clearer light, yet that but shall
Serve at the frozen pilot's funeral.
It is quite consistent with this that the couplets which terminate a poem are with him sometimes extraordinarily vigorous and happy. In more than one case this final line or couplet constitutes the entire value of the poem. Take this, for instance:—
And thus there will be left no bird to sing
Farewell to the waters, welcome to the spring;
All her vows religious be
And her love she vows to me;
or this: — "But virtuous love is one sweet endless fire;" or this—
The bad man's death is horror; but the just
Keeps something of his glory in his dust.
But his inadequate sense of poetic form does not allow him often to attain to a perfect whole. He is too fond of awkward elisions, and endeavours to force more into a line than it will fairly hold. His sonnets, one or two of which rank among the best efforts, are formally speaking, not sonnets at all, but strings of seven rhyming couplets. He does not sufficiently know, he has not sufficiently laboured at, the technical business of his art. "Quoi qu'on en puisse dire, la poesie est un art qui s'apprend, qui a ses methodes, ses formules, ses arcanes, son contre point et son travail harmonique. L'inspiration doit trouver tout ses mains un clavier parfaitement juste, auquel ne manque aucune corde." Habington is one of the many English poets whose imperfect realisation of this aspect of the truth has left their achievement inferior to their talent.