The fashion of reprinting scarce old English books, particularly Poetry, which had attained it height about two years ago, has for some time been on its wane. Perhaps it had been carried too far; but much is to be conceded to the generous zeal, which may sometimes have outrun prudence, and sometimes taste. As long as our notice might have been attributed to some selfish purpose; to a desire of promoting a sale, or an anxiety to secure approbation to an uncertain enterprise, we were silent. The impression of the beautiful little Poem now before us is stated to have been limited to an hundred copies, and the whole of this small edition, we understand, has been long since sold; and we are now at liberty to give a calm and unsuspected judgment upon it.
In the last thirty years the name of GE0RGE WITHER has been continually mentioned, and no where more often than in our own pages, as an instance of the unjust oblivion which frequently has overshadowed our Poets of former ages. There are those who have received this example of the position with doubt, or coldness, or contempt. The witticisms of the Versifiers of Charles the Second's Court, or the mean sarcasms of Pope, have considered this attempt to revive the memory of the old Puritanical rhymer, as they call him, as the unchastized enthusiasm of antiquarian bigotry. That there are antiquarian bigots, of crude knowledge, and utter want of fancy, feeling, and learning, no one of classical acquirements or cultivated mind will deny; but that there are no forgotten writings which deserve revival, and that the pursuit of literary antiquities is confined to the ignorant and the dull, none but the stupid and the prejudiced will assert.
Within these few months we have seen it argued in more than one work of criticism, that the reign of King James I. was a reign of genius, much misrepresented, and unjustly decried. We suspect that this opinion has sprung in some from a love of singularity, and in others from a very superficial and confused acquaintance with the aera of which they were speaking. It was an age, of which the writings partook of the character of its Monarch; pedantic, subtle, unnatural, and frivolous. We except those whose character was formed, and fame established, under the glorious sceptre of his Predecessor. Their names are too bright to demand a recital here.
Wither had a genius and cast of his own; not, perhaps, very vigorous; nor much endowed with the higher powers of invention, or fancy; but easy, copious, sensible; full of matter, as well as fluent in language; sensibly impressed with all the varying shades of moral opinion; and elevated with the dignity of poetical endowment.
—Not in Fancy's maze he wander'd long,
But stoop'd to Truth, and moralize his song.
Wither had been imprisoned for certain Satires, entitled, Abuses Stript and Whipt, 1613, &c. and a Satire to the King, 1614, &c. in which he had made free with the corrupt and abominable manners of the Court and City. The present Poem, containing Certain Eclogues, was written during his confinement in the Marshalsea, and first published in 1615. They are dialogues, and open with one between the poet Philarete and his friend Willy (William Browne, the pastoral poet), who, visiting him in his prison, finds that conscious innocence keeps him cheerful under his sufferings. In the 3d Eclogue he says,
—Though my body here in prison rot,
And my wrong'd Satires seem awhile forgot;
Yet, when both fame and life have left those men,
My verse and I'll revive and live again.
So, thus enclos'd, I bear Affliction's load,
But with more true content than some abroad;
For, whilst their thoughts do feel my scourge's sting,
In bands I'll leap and dance, and laugh and sing!
The 4th Eclogue consists of Philarete's (Wither's) Encouragement to Willy (Browne) "to sing out his Pastorals." Willy says,
—The Pastoral I sung
Is by some suppos'd to be
By a strain too high for me:
So they kindly let me gain
But my labour for my pain.
Trust me, I do wonder why
They should me my own deny.
Though I'm young, I scorn to flit
On the wings of borrow'd wit.
Philarete replies in many beautiful lines, of which the following are part:
Never did the Nine impart
The sweet secrets of their art
Unto any that did scorn
We should see their favours worn.
Therefore, unto those that say,
Where they pleas'd to sing a lay
They could do 't, and wilt not tho',
This I speak, for, this I know,
None e'er drunk the Thespian spring,
And knew how, but he did sing!
For that once infus'd in man
Makes him shew't, do what he can.
Nay, those that do only sip
Or but e'en their fingers dip
In that sacred fount, poor elves,
Of that brood will shew themselves:
Yea, in hope to gain them fame,
They will speak, though to their shame.
Let those then at thee repine
That by their wits measure thine.
Needs those songs must be thine own;
And that one day will be known.
The Poet soon afterwards breaks out into the following noble apostrophe to Poetry:
Poesy, thou sweet'st content
That e'er Heaven to mortals lent;
Though they as a trifle leave thee,
Whose dull thoughts cannot conceive thee;
Though thou be to them a scorn,
That to nought but earth are born,
Let my life no longer be
Than I am in love with thee!
Tho' our wise ones call thee madness,
Let me never taste or gladness,
If I love not thy mad'st fits
More than all their greatest wits;
And tho' some, too seeming holy,
Do account thy raptures folly,
Thou dost teach me to contemn
What makes knaves and fools of them.
The limits of our Review will permit no farther extracts. It can scarcely be expected that the whole of these Eclogues are in a spirit of similar excellence, but they are seldom either tedious or unpoetical; though' the fault of diffuseness too generally pervades them. Now and then the accentuation appears inharmonious to a mere modern ear: and there is something prosaic in the texture of the diction. The last edition was, we believe, as long ago as 1633; and although there had been three prior impressions, 1615, 1620, and 1623, yet a copy was seldom to be found, except in the libraries of the curious.
The present is a beautiful little volume as a specimen of typography; and surely the attraction of modern printing is not to be despised, even by those whose principal attention is engaged by the matter rather than the dress of a work. It is dedicated to Mr. Park by Sir Egerton Brydges, who, among other proofs of his ardent love of old English Poetry, has taken on himself the cost and trouble of this reprint.
It will surely at last become matter of general wonder, how, while many of the contemptible versifiers of the latter half of the 17th century continue to have their scribblings preserved among the body of our National Poets, a selection from the productions of men of so much genius as Wither should never have been attempted to be inserted among them. The political prejudices, which after the Restoration sunk him into neglect and disgrace, must long have ceased to operate; and the party pamphlets, in rhyme as well as in prose, by which he degraded his pen, and brought into doubt the nobler talents of his better days, might have been easily separated, and left in their merited obscurity without regret.
In Wither's private character there seems to have been a strong mixture of good and evil — a factious spirit; an ill-regulated ambition; a busy and meddling temper; and a doubtful and unchastized taste. He appears to have been an egotist, grasping, querulous, and conceited. The active concern he took in the troubled waters of those times brought him first into suspicion, then into disrepute, and lastly into proscription. He wanted at least prudence, and that self-command, and reserve, which secures respect. He was therefore continually left to poverty, scoffs, and revilings. A candid and sagacious perusal of his writings will, however, not easily refuse belief, to his continual protestations of innocence and good intention; nor be unaffected by the perpetual recurrence of pathetic and virtuous sentiments which adorn and dignify numerous passages of his best and even of his worst compositions. It was his lot to fall on dangerous times, too severe for the trial of his versatile and restless spirit.
The mind of Wither was one of those to whose Muse the atmosphere of the city and the turmoils of business seem to have been fatal. Those poetical images which adorn his youthful effusions, seldom occur in his later rhymes, which grew more and more flat and colloquial as he became deeper engaged in pasty polities and sectarian contests. Even in them, however, there are occasional passages of sentiment dignified in themselves, and striking from the simple force with which they are expressed.