1838 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Phineas Fletcher

J. F. O., in "More Old Poetry: The Purple Island" Southern Literary Messenger [Richmond] 4 (April 1838) 246-47.



How many bards gild the lapses of time!
A few of them have ever been the food
Of my delighted fancy. I will brood
Over their beauties, earthly or sublime!
John Keats.

"Something about Sonnets" led me into a pleasant search among the old poets, and the paper I now offer you is the result of that search. In sending you these articles, I claim the humble merit, only, of a diligent though I would hope for the award, also, of a tasteful, compiler, — offering little or nothing of my own, but the simple thread that tics together the rare flowers, plucked elsewhere.

In these days, when magazine poetry is a drug, and a drug, too, of the cheapest and most purchasable kind, it operates as a relief to the reader to turn over the pages of those many bards, gilding the lapses of time," and to cull from them forgotten extracts, — the germ, quite often, of many a full-famed modern poet: and I cannot but recommend it as a plan to be adopted in conducting a literary work, to devote a certain portion of every number to this special purpose.

Among the English poets of "the olden time," PHINEHAS FLETCHER has ever been a favorite with me, and his "Purple Island," of all his works, prized most highly. This poet was born in 1584, graduated at King's College, Cambridge, in 1604, entered the church, and held a living therein for twenty-nine years. He is often confounded, when spoken of at this day, with JOHN FLETCHER, the collaborator of FRANCIS BEAUMONT, in the composition of dramatic works, and the contemporary of our bard. To my judgment the genius of Phinehas seems immeasurably superior to that of John Fletcher. His brother, GILES FLETCHER, was also a poet of equal celebrity, though few of his works are preserved. Phinehas died about the year 1650, not far from the age of 66.

"THE PURPLE ISLAND" is an allegorical description of Man, who is therein personified. The first five Cantos contain an account of the structure of the human frame, with all its functions. Therein are described all the physical faculties of man, their several and collective uses, their fitness, order, and exquisite workmanship. This portion of the poem has been objected to by some critics, as entering with too much minuteness into a subject, which it is the more appropriate task of the anatomist, than of the poet, to describe. I do not admit this objection, however, as being of sufficient force to deter any lover of fine poetry from a perusal of these five Cantos.

The poet next proceeds to a fine personification of the Passions, and the Mental, or Intellectual qualities of Man. This is both the work and the worker of inspiration. The soul kindles and flames as the eye and mind peruse it. It is a test, this poem, of a capacity, in the reader, for the enjoyment of true poetry. The two last Cantos are superlatively grand. Eclecta, or the Intellect, as the leader of the Virtues, or better Passions, defends "The Island" against the attacks of the Vices. The latter are conquered by the interference of an angel, who comes to the aid of Eclecta, at his earnest prayer. This prayer is, perhaps, the most beautiful portion of the poem.

The Purple Island was written while Fletcher was yet very young: but it gives its author an indisputable right to the very highest rank on the scale of British Poets. Milton was evidently indebted to him for many of his beauties, — as, in his turn, was he, perhaps, indebted to Spenser, in no inconsiderable degree. Be these things as they may, that all the praise I have awarded him is but a feeble tribute to his merits, the extracts I shall transcribe from The Purple Island will abundantly prove to the reader.