1859 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Francis Quarles

David Masson, in Life of John Milton (1859-94; 1965) 1:490-91.



Among the poets of the popular Calvinism might be reckoned Wither, whose Hymns of the Church and other devotional lyrics have recently been reproduced for admiration as specimens of pure and simple English. So far as Wither is theological, he is Calvinistic. As a theological poet, however, he was not so popular, it would seem, as Francis Quarles; in whom, notwithstanding that his subsequent political connexions were with the Royalists, we also recognise a mode of thought essentially puritanical. In 1632 Quarles was forty years of age. An Essex man by birth, and educated at Cambridge and at Milton's own college there, he had studied law at Lincoln's Inn, had been in the service of the Queen of Bohemia abroad, and had also been some time in Ireland as private secretary to Archbishop Usher. In 1620 he had published his first poem, The History of Jonah, or a Feast for Worms; and this had been followed by other publications of a similar character, — e.g. The History of Queen Esther in 1621, Job Militant in 1624, Sion's Elegies wept by Jeremie the Prophet in 1624, Sion's Sonnets sung by Solomon the King in 1625, and a general collection of Divine Poems in 1630. The popularity of Quarles was to be immensely increased by subsequent publications, more especially by his well-known Emblems, Divine and Moral, the first edition of which appeared in 1635; but already he was near being what his Emblems made him through the rest of the century and beyond, "the darling of our plebian judgments." Personally, he seems to have been a man of sufficiently shrewd and comfortable habits. He was a man of business, held in succession several snug situations, and, when he died at the age of fifty-two, left eighteen children. But in his poems all is gloomy and miserable. In one of his emblems, illustrating the text, "O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" the design is that of a man literally enclosed within the ribs of a skeleton, through which he gazes woefully, as through imprisoning bars. This is a type of most of his poetry. His most frequent meditation is:—

Why, what are men but quickened lumps of earth,
A feast for worms, a bubble full of breat,
A looking-glass for grief, a flash, a minute,
A painted tomb with putrefaction in it,
A map of death, a burthen of a song,
A winter's dust, a worm of five feet long,
Begot in sin, in darkness nourished, born
In sorrow, naked, shiftless, and forlorn?

Again,

O what a crocodilian world is this,
Composed of treacheries and ensnaring smiles!

Without positively rejecting Quarles, the softer and more ceremonious minds in the Church of England must have found a spirit more congenial to their own, in the poets of the Anglo-Catholic school.