Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. II. The Seventeenth Century: Ben Jonson to Dryden
Critical Introduction by William Thomas Arnold
George Wither (15881667)
[George Wither was born at Brentworth in Hampshire, June 11, 1588, and died in the year 1667; his literary achievement, both in verse and prose, being proportioned to his length of years. The dates of his chief works are as follows: 1612, the Elegy on Prince Henry; 1613, Epithalamia; 1613, Abuses Stript and Whipt; 1615, Fidelia and Shepherds Hunting. To the same year must also be ascribed his share in Brownes Shepherds Pipe; 1618, the Motto; 1622, the Mistress of Philarete; 1623, the Hymns and Songs of the Church; 1628, Britains Remembrancer; 1634, Emblems; 1641, Hallelujah.
The above list is very far indeed from exhausting the complete catalogue of Withers voluminous works. He was an ardent politician, and in the stirring times of the Civil War was perpetually pouring forth songs and broadsheets in justification of the cause he had taken up. Probably no library in England possesses an absolutely complete collection of Withers works. Certainly the British Museum and the Bodleian do not. The Rev. T. Corser, of Stand, near Manchester, is said to have had the fullest collection in existence, but that has been since dispersed. The poems have been collected by the Spenser Society, but it is a matter for regret that they are not to be had in a more generally accessible form. It is one of the most striking blemishes of Chalmers collection that Wither is absolutely ignored in it. Of modern editors of portions of his works the chief is Sir Egerton Brydges, who republished the Shepherds Hunting and the Fidelia at the beginning of this century, and also gave long extracts from Withers other poems in his Censura Literaria. The Hymns and Songs of the Church, and the Hallelujah were republished for Russell Smith in 1856 and 1857.]
WITHER resembles Wordsworth in having written almost all his good work within a period of a few years. That period is from 1613 to 1623. The great exception is the Hallelujaha collection of sacred poems, in which are some beautiful things written as late as 1641. On the whole, however, the collection of Withers poems entitled Juvenilia contains nearly all his best writing. The enthusiasm with which he threw himself into politics damaged his genius. His nature was not large enough to pour itself with equal power into the two channels of art and practical life. He became an eager partisan and sectary, retaining that moral elevation and dignity which ever honourably distinguishes him, but losing all sense of form and measure, perhaps indeed deliberately neglecting them as things indifferent. It is then to the early part of his life that we have to attend; and here we must remember his two years at Oxford, where he was a member of Magdalen College: two happy years, he himself has told us, which were unfortunately cut short by his sudden withdrawal from the University. In 1605, he went up to Lincolns Inn, and there became acquainted with Browne, who was at that time a member of the Inner Temple. The friendship was a very important one for Wither. The two wrote in friendly rivalry, and often in intimate co-partnership, and we shall hardly err in laying great stress upon Brownes influence during the first period of Withers poetry. Browne was a born artist, if ever there was one, and his example wooed the naturally ascetic and polemical genius of Wither into pleasanter paths for a while. Wither in later life expresses most unnecessary repentance for his early poems. He had no such reason for feelings of the kind as perhaps Chaucer had. Not a single line of his poetry is really corrupt or dishonourable to the writer. But he was young then, and could write of love and the beauty of nature and the beauty of woman, with a facile pen and an ardent delight in the fulness of his life and the power of his art, which seemed no doubt profane and dangerous trifling to the Puritan captain of the Civil War. But even in his youth life did not altogether smile upon him. His very harmless satires, published under the title Abuses Stript and Whipt in 1613, were rewarded by imprisonment in the Marshalsea. As Lamb says, it is wonderful that such perfectly general denunciations of the ordinary vices of Gluttony, Avarice, Vanity, and the rest of it in the abstract should have seemed offensive to any human being. But the cap fitted some one in high place, and Wither had to expiate his plain spokenness by a rigorous confinement. After his liberation he renewed more intimately than ever his friendship with Browne, and in 1615 wrote in conjunction with him the Shepherds Pipe. His own Shepherds Hunting, which he wrote in prison (see the extract here given) and which contains perhaps his very best work, appeared in the same year. To this date also must be assigned the first edition of his Fidelia, a poetical epistle from a forsaken fair one to her inconstant lover. At the end of this first edition of Fidelia is printed that famous songShall I, wasting in despaire?which will always keep Withers memory green, even if all else of his poetry is forgotten. The Motto followed in 1618, and met at once with great success. The poem is an amusingly egotistical performance, but the egotism is, as Charles Lamb said, of a sort which no one can resent. The motto is Nec habeo, nec careo, nec curo, and the poem is divided into three parts, one treating of nec habeo, another of nec careo, and the third of nec curo. In a preface addressed to Anybody, he makes a statement which perhaps no one would wish to gainsay. The language is but indifferent, for I affected matter rather than words; the method is none at all: for I was loath to make a business of a recreation. It is worth noticing that in the preface he alludes to the episode which, in spite of its uncouthness and exaggeration, is perhaps the most amusing part of his satires, in very uncomplimentary terms. The foolish Canterbury Tale in my Scourge of Vanity (which I am now almost ashamed to read over) even that hath been by some praised for a witty passage. Whenever Wither gives himself liberty and has his fling, he is sure not long afterwards to repent. In 1623 appeared his first serious attempt at sacred poetry in the shape of his Hymns and Songs of the Church. Great part of this collection consists of metrical paraphrases of the Psalms and Song of Solomon, but there are also some hymns the inspiration of which is due to no one but Wither himself. Such are the Hymn for All Saints Day and the Hymn for the Author, which are not only interesting in themselves but because a close comparison with the form in which these same poems appeared in the collection entitled Hallelujah nearly twenty years afterwards reveals the notable fact that Wither was one of the very few poets who improved his work by retouching it, and that his second thoughts were always his best. I give nothing from his Britains Remembrancer (1628) or from his Emblems (1634). The former seems to me a rather tedious political poem, and the latter is merely a collection written to order as text for a certain number of Dutch engravings. It is true that there are one or two of these latter poems which show qualities of thought and diction not to be disregarded, but on the whole I do not think he reaches his best anywhere in the collection. Hallelujah (1641) shows that great part of his old power still survives. The versification is flexible and musical in a very high degree, clothing the thought sometimes, as in the poem on All Saints Day, in a form of subtle beauty and strangeness; in other poems, as in the verses For those at Sea, moving with a grand lilt and rapidity which fitly symbolize the theme. The verses on A Dear Friend Deceased are of exquisite tenderness and beauty. They are written from the heart and to the heart, and affect us as they must have affected the writer himself. Wither has the same rare power of pathos that was possessed also by his friend Browne.
The limits of our space prevent us quoting even all of the few poems that we have specially named; but it is hoped that our selection will still be fairly representative of a poet who is certainly much less known than he deserves to be. Braithwaite wrote in 1615
And long may Englands Thespian springs be known
By lovely Wither and by bonny Browne.
But the wish has hardly been fulfilled, and there are few readers who would not be a little surprised by the epithet here applied to the Puritan poet. No real lover of poetry will however grudge it him. He is one of the few masters of octosyllabic verse in our language. Lamb has dwelt lovingly on its curious felicities, and for compass and variety it would not be easy to name its superior. It is the one form of verse pre-eminently suited to Wither, who has achieved no such triumphs with the heroic couplet. But it is not only for beauty of poetic form that Wither deserved Braithwaites enthusiastic epithet. Like the Charmides of Platos dialogue, he has what is much more important, a beautiful soul. Never was there a purer or more honourable spirit, or one which kept closer to the best it knew, and as Wither has revealed himself in his works in a way in which few poets have done, it is natural to read him not only with admiration but with sympathy.