1843 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

George Wither

John Holland, in Psalmists of Britain. Records of upwards of One Hundred and Fifty Authors, who have rendered the Whole or Parts of The Book of Psalms, into English Verse (1843) 2:3-12.



It is no reproach to Religion — none to the Holy Scriptures, whatever it may be to the Professors of Christianity — that the offices of the one and the phraseology of the other, have too often been perverted to serve party purposes. The evil, at any rate, is not less ancient than it is deplorable: perhaps it must always be to a certain extent, inevitable, so long as human nature remains what it is. Psalm singing itself, has frequently been abused in this respect. This was, indeed, a sort of double-edged weapon, the expression of many hearts in a single feeling giving sharpness to it on one side, as the openness of the demonstration made its effects the more keenly felt on the other. This method of exciting or testing the sentiments of the populace, which had been adopted at the Reformation, became frequent at the period of the Commonwealth — it was not only used in Parliament, but even the soldiers themselves resorted to it on critical occasions. These circumstances may in some degree account for the fact that, in an age the least congenial to the muses, and amidst the raging of civil and religious strife, even to the spilling of the blood of the Sovereign, we should find so many persons engaged in turning into metre the whole, or portions of the Psalms, to say nothing of other works in verse, in which a Scriptural phraseology, and the language of ordinary invective, are made the warp and woof of the composition. In both these respects, the individual whose name stands at the head of this article, and whose life was extended through a singular series of religious and political changes, was remarkable in his day.

It is generally the fate of party writers to be neglected after the transactions in which they have been involved, have passed away. This had nearly been the case with George Wither, who was an active partizan during the political and religious disputes in the time of James I. and Charles I. During this troublesome and eventful period, "he employed his poetical vein in severe pasquils on the court and clergy, and was occasionally a sufferer for the freedom of his pen. In the civil war that ensued, he exerted himself in the service of the Parliament, and became a considerable sharer in the spoils. He was even one of those provincial tyrants, whom Oliver distributed over the kingdom, under the name of Major Generals; and had the fleecing of the county of Surrey: but surviving the Restoration, he outlived both his power and his influence; and giving vent to his chagrin in libels on the court, was long a prisoner in Newgate and the Tower. He died at length on the 2nd of May, 1667," aged 58. These are the words of Dr. Percy, who adds that the name of our Author would have been "utterly forgotten," if it had not been preserved by Swift as a term of contempt — "Dryden and Wither," being coupled by him like the Bavius and Maevius of Virgil. Pomfret, too, one of the poorest of the least interesting class of Poets, ventures to anticipate a favourable audience with the public, because, as he says: — "Even Quarles and Wither have had their admirers," — as if the verses of either of these writers were not twenty times as good as his own. The works of Wither are as voluminous as they are miscellaneous, being above one hundred in number: no collected edition of them ever having been published: they comprise satires, pastorals, and religious or sentimental effusions: their degrees of merit being almost as various as the subjects bandied. Eight poetical pieces, printed separately in 1638, and afterwards, collectively, under the title of "Juvenilia," are the productions on which our Author's reputation as a Poet, may most safely be allowed to rest. They are, however, by no means the only specimens of his verse, in which passages of considerable interest occur.

So early as the year 1619, Wither published what he called "A Preparation to the Psalter," a Work full of curious learning and quaint observation, and which has become scarce. The general contents of the volume are distributed into fourteen chapters; and the whole, although written in the verbose style of the age is well worth a perusal. The Author, in the following passage disposes of "the frivolous opinions of those, who deny that the PSALMES, or any part of Holy Scripture, may be safely translated into verse." — "First, whereas they say that verse cannot retaine that gravity, which becometh the authority of Holy Scriptures, it is false: for how can that speech be denied to have in it gravity, wherein every word and syllable must be considered in quantity and number? or who can be so ignorant, to think so, but such as are altogether strangers unto the Muses? For in every language, Verse hath more elegance than prose can have. And I am of opinion (not without warrant of good authority) that it was partly by reason of the extraordinary Majesty and pleasingness which is in numbers, that the Holy Ghost chose in them (rather than otherwise) to set down these mysteries, as the most fitting language to express sacred things. Again, they have supposed it impossible for the translator so to keep himself to the original, (in a matter where every letter and syllable is of such moment,) but that either for the measure or the Ryme, he shall be sometime forced to let go much of the true meaning of the words: but this is also a mistake. For I am certain that if there be any one, who can in prose deliver intirely the truest and most proper sense of these Poems, it may be as well expressed in Verse. Yea, I believe, and dare maintain, that they be much better and more naturally done into numbers than into prose." After some other observations in a similar strain, our Author concludes his defence of metre with the quotation of a royal reason which in his day had great weight, and not the less so that it was too delivered in rhyme: — "The Divell is not ignorant of the power that is in these divine Charmes; that there lurks in Poesy an enchanting sweetness, that steals into the hearts of men before they be aware; and that (the subject being divine) it can infuse by a kind of heavenly enthusiasm, such delight into the soule, and beget so ardent an affection unto the purity of God's word, as it will be impossible for the most powerful exorcisms to conjure out of them the love of such delicacies, but they will be unto them (as David saith) sweeter than hony or the hony combe. And this secret working which verse hath, is excellently expressed by our drad Soveraigne that now is, [James I.] in a Poem of his, long since penned:—

For Verses' power is sike, it softly glides
Through secret pores, and in the senses hides,
And makes men have that gude in them imprinted,
Which by the learned worke is represented.

"By reason of this power," Wither continues, "our adversaries feare the operation of the divine word expressed in numbers; and that hath made them so bitter against our versified Psalmes: yea, (as I have heard say,) they term the singing of them in our vulgar tongues, the Witch of Heresy."

In 1623, he put forth a volume of "Hymns and Songs of the Church," which was authorised by James I. This was an age of monopolies; and the royal mandate obtained by the ambitious Poet, not only conferred "full and free licence to imprint the said book," but it also enacted that no other English Psalm Book in metre should be uttered, or sold, unless these Hymns were coupled with it! Moreover, Wither was empowered by the same patent to seize any metrical collection of Psalmody which was found to be unaccompanied by his verses! The extraordinary powers conceded in favour of this Hymn Book, by the licence alluded to, were the occasion of a long contention between the Poet and the Stationers' Company, who, having a special interest in the Psalms of Sternhold and Hopkins, discouraged the sale of Wither's work, and resisted the arbitrary authority of the royal licence. In 1632, there appeared a small volume, "Imprinted in the Neatherlands, by Cornelius Gerrits van Breughel," entitled "The Psalms of David, translated into Lyric Verse, according to the scope of the Original; and Illustrated with a short Argument and a brief Prayer, or Meditation, before and after every Psalm. By George Wither." This Version was dedicated "To the Majestie of the most virtuous and high-born Princesse, Elizabeth, Princesse of Great Britain, Queen of Bohemia, Countesse of the Palatinate of the Ryhne, &c." whose afflictions and trials the Poet somewhat elaborately compares, according to the taste of the age, with those of David and Christ. The intention of Wither to give a metrical rendering of the Psalms, was, it seems, known to and commended by James I., the father of his patroness, and who, says the Poet, "a little before his death was pleased to honour me with his gratious respect," and by whom, he adds, "I was commanded to perfect a translation of the Psalms, which he understood I had begun; and by his encouragement, I finished the same about the tyme of his translation to a better kingdom." Why this Work was printed abroad does not appear; and I believe there was no English Edition: at least, I have not been able to ascertain the existence of one, notwithstanding the assertion of Wood, that the "Psalms" were reprinted in London in the same year with the Continental impression. It is remarkable, that notwithstanding his previous conflict with the booksellers, Wither again solicited, and King Charles the First granted, a licence for the sole publication of the Psalmody, very similar to that which had rendered the Hymns and their Author so obnoxious in the preceding reign. The old grievances were renewed, and it appears that at length the Company of Stationers so openly defied the injunction, that, as we learn from a letter addressed to Sir Thomas Puckering, Jan. 23, 1633, the matter was brought before the Privy Council: — "Upon Friday last, Wither, the English Poet, convented before the Board all or most of the Stationers of London. The matter is this, — Mr. Wither hath, to please himself, translated our singing Psalms into another verse, which he counts better than those the Church hath so long used, and therefore he hath been at the charge to procure a patent from his Majesty under the Broad Seal, that his translation shall be printed and bound to all Bibles that are sold. The Stationers refusing to bind them and sell them with the Bible, (the truth is, nobody would buy the Bible with such a clog at the end of it),and because some of them stood upon their guard, and would not suffer Mr. Wither and his officers to come into their shops and seize upon such Bibles as wanted his additions, therefore he complained of them for a contempt of the Great Seal. After their lordships had heard the business pro and con at length, their lordships thought good to damn his patent in part; that is, that the translation should not longer be sold with the Bible, but only by itself; and for my part, I think their lordships have done very well in ordering it in this manner."

As a fair — or rather a favourable specimen of the Version of Wither, with its head note and appended prayer, may be given.

PSALM LVII.

To the cheef musitian Altaschith. A Psalm of David, when he fledd from Saul in the Cave. It mystically expressed the Jewes persecutinge Christ, even unto his Grave. We that are his members, and partake in his suffrings, may sing it to declare our injuries, and to pray, and praise God, for deliverances, &c.

Lord, grant (oh grant) me thy compassion;
For I in thee my trust have placed;
Display thy wings for my salvation,
Until my greefs are over-passed.
To thee I sue (oh God most high)
To thee that canst all want supplie.

From their despights who seek to rend mee,
Let help, oh Lord, from heaven be daigned,
And let thy Truth and Love defend me;
For, I with Lions am detained:
With men inflam'd, whose biting words,
Are shafts, and spears, and naked swords.

Let over heav'n God's praise be reared,
And through the world his glorie showed;
For they who netts for mee prepared,
(They who my soul to ground had bowed)
Ev'n they, within those trapps are caught,
Which for my fall their hands had wrought. Selah.

Oh God! my hart now ready maketh,
My hart is for thy praise preparing;
My Tongue, my Harpe, my Lute awaketh,
And, I my selfe, betimes uprearing,
Will speake and sing, in praise of thee,
Where greatest throngs of people be.

For, Lord, thy mercies forth are stretched,
As farr as are the sphears extended;
Thy truth unto the clouds hath reached,
And, thou thyself art high ascended;
Let, still, thy Fame and Praise, oh God
Through heav'n and earth be spread abrode.

Oh Lord to whome Mercy belongeth, have mercy upon us; & let the Wings of thy protection be gratiously spread over us, untill the Stormes of this life be overpast: For, so great & manyfold are those dangers, & those miseries wherewith wee are alwaies enclosed, by spirituall and temporal foes, that they have brought our bodies to the Grave, & our souls near unto Hell. Oh! let thy Truth & Love defend us from our Sion-like persecutors; that our harts (being timely cheared), our Thoughts, Words & Actions, may harmoniously agree in manifesting thy praises. And, seeing thy holy Spirit hath plainly declared the Universality of thy proffered Grace, let not us presume to sett Limits thereunto; but publish thy glorie as universally as thou hast extended thy Mercies, through Jesus Christ, our Lord, Amen.