While George Wither's poetry had been neglected and rediscovered several times, Charles Lamb's appreciation ensured it lasting recognition. Wither's Spenserian Juvenilia delighted romantic readers, with their taste for things "quaintly" Elizabethan. Not seen.
Literary Panorama: "The first volume consists partly of poetry, and partly of prose. The former comprises sonnets and other poems, together with a few pieces in blank verse, many of which are truly beautiful; a few of them are composed by the author's sister. To these succeed the tragedy of John Woodvile, a mixture of irregular blank verse, and puerile prose, and The Witch, a dramatic sketch of the seventeenth century. The want of interest in these two pieces is relieved by the Curious Fragments, purporting to be extracted from the common-place book of Robert Burton, author of the Anatomy of Melancholy, and which are tolerable imitations of the style of that eccentric Writer. Rosamond Gray, the next article, is a most pathetic and interesting story, the perusal of which will gratify every reader who has a mind capable of enjoying rational and moral sentiment, and the finer feelings of the heart, which are touched with no common skill" NS 8 (January 1819) 1646.
Literary Gazette: "Upon this 'familiar matter of today,' Mr. Lamb has exhausted much sweetness and sentiment, and often awakens the mind to a perception of rare and recondite beauties, which otherwise, as mere matters of ingenuity, would be passed over, perhaps, or forgotten. There is so much earnestness in Mr. Lamb's writings, that every one must, at the outset, feel a disposition to be of the same creed which 'champions him to the utterance' of so many striking thoughts. There is something occasionally old-fashioned in the tone or dress of the sentiment; but for our own parts, we do not like fashions the less for savouring a little of antiquity: it is no common pleasure to be carried back even in idea, to our younger and more careless days, when in a paradox, as it were of high spirits, every thing unsubstantial was real; and the smiles that shone from those kind eyes that formed the 'starlight of our boyhood,' seemed as they could never grow dim or die. This ignorant bliss, to be sure, has now passed away, and memory comes upon us in the place of hope; yet withal so softly that we are almost doubtful whether these gentle reminiscences do not supply the place of a more buoyant and brighter spirit" (16 August 1819) 516.
Monthly Magazine: "This gentleman's productions, prose and poetry, have too long been loosely scattered in periodical publications, and have consequently been little known to the general reader. His criticism, particularly those on Shakespeare and Hogarth, are original and excellent, and entitle him to hold no mean rank among the best commentators on our immortal dramatist" 46 (September 1818) 158.
Oliver Elton: "The labours of recent scholars like Collier, Hooper, Bullen, and Fleay ... are partly the fruit of that enthusiasm of sixty or seventy years ago which took an Elizabethan like Lamb back to the new treasures of old poetry. But the work of excavation, in which Lamb took a noble part, had been begun, at least for Chaucer, Spenser, and the folk ballad, during the latter half of the eighteenth century, by scholars whose services to succeeding men of letters have often been scarcely acknowledged" Introduction to Michael Drayton (1895) 51.
E. V. Lucas: "This is the one prose article that, to the best of our knowledge, made its first and only appearance in the Works (1818). It was inspired by John Mathew Gutch (1776-1861), Lamb's schoolfellow at Christ's Hospital, with whom he shared rooms in Southampton Buildings in 1800. Later, when Gutch had become proprietor, at Bristol, of Felix Farley's Bristol Journal (in which many of Chatterton's poems had appeared), he took advantage of his presses to set up a private edition of selections from Wither, a poet then little known and not easily accessible, an interleaved copy of which, in two volumes, was sent to Lamb in 1809 or 1810" Works, ed. E. V. Lucas (1935) 1:453n.
Lucas also reprints some of Lamb's manuscript notes on Wither, including a comment on Philarete: "The whole poem, for the delicacy of the thoughts, and height of the passion, is equal to the best of Spenser's, Daniels's or Drayton's love verses; with the advantage of comprising in a whole all the fine things which lie scatter'd in their works, in sonnets, and smaller addresses — The happy chearful spirit of the author goes with it all the way; the sanguine temperament, which gives to all Wither's lines (in his most loved metre especially, where chiefly he is a Poet) an elasticity, like a dancing measure; it [is] as full of joy, and confidence, and high and happy thoughts, as if it were his own Epithalamium, which, like Spenser, he were singing, and not a piece of preambulary, probationary flattery" (1935) 1:454n.
The poems of G. Wither are distinguished by a hearty homeliness of manner, and a plain moral speaking. He seems to have passed his life in one continued act of an innocent self-pleasing. That which he calls his Motto is a continued self-eulogy of two thousand lines, yet we read it to the end without any feeling of distaste, almost without a consciousness that we have been listening all the while to a man praising himself. There are none of the cold particles in it, the hardness and self-ends which render vanity and egotism hateful. He seems to be praising another person, under the mask of self; or rather we feel that it was indifferent to him where he found the virtue which he celebrates; whether another's bosom, or his own, were its chosen receptacle. His poems are full, and this in particular is one downright confession, of a generous self-seeking. But by self he sometimes means a great deal, — his friends, his principles, his country, the human race.
Whoever expects to find in the satirical pieces of this writer any of those peculiarities which pleased him in the satires of Dryden or Pope, will be grievously disappointed. Here are no high-finished characters, no nice traits of individual nature, few or no personalities. The game run down is coarse general vice, or folly as it appears in classes. A liar, a drunkard, a coxcomb, is stript and whipt; no Shaftesbury, no Villiers, or Wharton, is curiously anatomized, and read upon. But to a well-natured mind there is a charm of moral sensibility running through them which amply compensates the want of those luxuries. Wither seems every where bursting with a love of goodness and a hatred of all low and base actions. — At this day it is hard to discover what parts in the poem here particularly alluded to, Abuses Stript and Whipt, could have occasioned the imprisonment of the author. Was Vice in High Places more suspicious than now? had she more power; or more leisure to listen after ill reports? That a man should be convicted of a libel when he named no names but Hate, and Envy, and Lust, and Avarice, is like one of the indictments in the Pilgrim's Progress, where Faithful is arraigned for having "railed on our noble Prince Beelzebub, and spoken contemptibly of his honourable friends, the Lord Old Man, the Lord Carnal Delight, and the Lord Luxurious." What unlucky jealousy could have tempted the great men of those days to appropriate such innocent abstractions to themselves!
Wither seems to have contemplated to a degree of idolatry his own possible virtue. He is for ever anticipating persecution and martyrdom; fingering, as it were, the flames, to try how he can bear them. Perhaps his premature defiance sometimes made him obnoxious to censures, which he would other wise have slipped by.
The homely versification of these Satires is not likely to attract in the present day. It is certainly not such as we should expect from a poet "soaring in the high region of his fancies with his garland and his singing robes about him;" nor is it such as he has shown in his Philarate and in some parts in his Shepherds Hunting. He seems to have adopted this dress with voluntary humility, as fittest for a moral teacher, as our divines chuse sober grey or black; but in their humility consists their sweetness. The deepest tone of moral feeling in them, (though all throughout is weighty, earnest and passionate) is in those pathetic injunctions against shedding of blood in quarrels, in the chapter entitled Revenge. The story of his own forbearance, which follows, is highly interesting. While the Christian sings his own victory over Anger, the Man of Courage cannot help peeping out to let you know, that it was some higher principle than fear which counselled his forbearance.
Whether encaged, or roaming at liberty, Wither never seems to have abated a jot of that free spirit, which sets its mark upon his writings, as much as a predominant feature of independence impresses every page of our late glorious Burns; but the elder poet wraps his proof-armour closer about him, the other wears his too much outwards; he is thinking too much of annoying the foe, to be quite easy within; the spiritual defences of Wither are a perpetual source of inward sunshine, the magnanimity of the modern is not without its alloy of soreness, and a sense of injustice, which seems perpetually to gall and irritate. Wither was better skilled in the "sweet uses of adversity," he knew how to extract the "precious jewel" from the head of the "toad," without drawing any of the "ugly venom" along with it. — The prison notes of Wither are finer than the wood notes of most of his poetical brethren. The description in the Fourth Eglogue of his Shepherds Hunting (which was composed during his imprisonment in the Marshalsea) of the power of the Muse to extract pleasure from common objects, has been oftener quoted, and is more known, than any part of his writings. Indeed the whole Eglogue is in a strain so much above not only what himself, but almost what any other poet has written, that he himself could not help noticing it; he remarks, that his spirits had been raised higher than they were wont "through the love of poesy." — The praises of Poetry, have been often sung in ancient and in modern times; strange powers have been ascribed to it of influence over animate and inanimate auditors; its force over fascinated crowds has been acknowledged; but, before Wither, no one ever celebrated its power at home, the wealth and the strength which this divine gift confers upon its possessor. Fame, and that too after death, was all which hitherto the poets had promised themselves from their art. It seems to have been left to Wither to discover, that poetry was a present possession, as well as a rich reversion; and that the Muse had promise of both lives, of this, and of that which was to come.
The Mistress of Philarete is in substance a panegyric protracted through several thousand lines in the mouth of a single speaker, but diversified, so as to produce an almost dramatic effect, by the artful introduction of some ladies, who are rather auditors than interlocutors in the scene; and of a boy, whose singing furnishes presence for an occasional change of metre: though the seven syllable line, in which the main part of it is written, is that in which Wither has shown himself so great a master, that I do not know that I am always thankful to him for the exchange.
Wither has chosen to bestow upon the lady whom he commends, the name of Arete, or Virtue; and, assuming to himself the character of Philarete, or Lover of Virtue, there is a sort of propriety in that heaped measure of perfections, which he attributes to this partly real, partly allegorical, personage. Drayton before him had shadowed his mistress under the name of Idea, or Perfect Pattern, and some of the old Italian love-strains are couched in such religious terms as to make it doubtful, whether it be a mistress, or Divine Grace, which the poet is addressing.
In this poem (full of beauties) there are two passages of preeminent merit. The first is where the lover, after a flight of rapturous commendation, expresses his wonder why all men that are about his mistress, even to her very servants, do not view her with the same eyes that he does.
Sometime I do admire,
All men burn not with desire;
Nay I muse her servants are not
Pleading love; but O! they dare not.
And I therefore wonder, why
They do not grow sick and die.
Sure they would do so, but that,
By the ordinance of fate,
There is some concealed thing
So each gazer limiting,
He can see no more of merit
Than beseems his worth and spirit,
For in her a grace there shines,
That o'er-daring thoughts confines;
Making worthless men despair
To be lov'd of one so fair.
Yea the destinies agree,
Some good judgments blind should be,
And not gain the power of knowing
Those rare beauties in her growing,
Reason doth as much imply:
For if every judging eye,
Which beholdeth her, should there
Find what excellencies are;
All, o'ercome by those perfections,
Would be captive to affections.
So in happiness unblest,
She for lovers should not rest.
The other is, where he has been comparing her beauties to gold, and stars, and the most excellent things in nature; and, fearing to be accused of hyperbole, the common charge against poets, vindicates himself by boldly taking upon him, that these comparisons are no hyperboles; but that the best things in nature do, in a lover's eye, fall short of those excellencies which he adores in her.
What pearls, what rubies can
Seem so lovely fair to man
As her lips whom he doth love,
When in sweet discourse they move,
Or her lovelier teeth, the while
She doth bless him with a smile?
Stars indeed fair creatures be;
Yet amongst us where is he
Joys not more the whilst he lies
Sunning in his mistress' eyes
Than in all the glimmering light
Of a starry winter's night?
Note the beauty of an eye—
And if aught you praise it by
Leave such passion in your mind,
Let my reason's eye be blind.
Mark if ever red or white
Any where gave such delight,
As when they have taken place
In a worthy woman's face. . . .
I must praise her as I may
Which I do mine own rude way;
Sometime setting forth her glories
By unheard of allegories—&c.
To the measure in which these lines are written, the wits of Queen Anne's days contemptuously gave the name of Namby Pamby, in ridicule of Ambrose Philips, who has used it in some instances, as in the lines on Cuzzoni, to my feeling at least, very deliciously; but Wither, whose darling measure it seems to have been, may shew, that in skilful hands it is capable of expressing the subtilest movements of passion. So true it is, which Drayton seems to have felt, that it is the poet who modifies the metre, not the metre the poet; in his own words, that
It's possible to climb
To kindle, or to stake;
Altho' in Skelton's rhime.
[Works, ed. Lucas (1903) 1:181-84]