The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

IX. The Successors of Spenser

§ 2. George Wither

Just as the solemn mystery of death fashioned Drummond into a poet, so the joy of life inspired George Wither his contemporary. There is no hesitation and little deep thought in his poetry. But for him all the common things of life were decked with the grace of poetry. “Before Wither,” writes Charles Lamb, “no one ever celebrated its power at home, the wealth and the strength which this divine gift confers upon its possessor … it seems to have been left to Wither to discover that poetry was a present possession as well as a rich reversion.” Nor was his life passed, as was Drummond’s, in seclusion: it was caught up in the fury of his times. He was born in 1588 at Bentworth, near Alton, Hampshire. John Greaves, the neighbouring vicar, taught him his rudiments, and, from the vicar’s care, he went in 1604 to Magdalen college, Oxford, where he spent two years only before he was recalled by his father to the farm. A country life, however, did not satisfy his nature. He went to London in 1610, to try his fortune as a writer. Little is known of his early doings—except that he made the acquaintance of William Browne—until, in 1612, his elegy on the death of prince Henry, dedicated to Sir Robert Sidney, was published. The book contained elegies on the prince and a dialogue between the prince’s ghost and Great Britain. Among the mass of verse which prince Henry’s death occasioned, Wither’s effort attracted small notice. The subject was not so congenial to him as it was to William Drummond, though the dialogue gave some scope to his vein of unpedantic moralising. But, in the following year, the marriage of princess Elizabeth with the elector palatine offered him a more suitable subject, and the princess was so pleased by his book of Nuptial Poems that she became his best patron. Though flattery meant favour, he, in that age of flatterers, was too honest to be servile, and his next book Abuses stript and whipt or Satiricall Poems had an original and a characteristic dedication which ran “to Himselfe G. W. wisheth all happiness.” The satire was popular, but displeasing to the authorities, and all the immediate happiness the book obtained for Wither was imprisonment in the Marshalsea. The reason why the book should have brought such summary injustice upon its author is difficult to understand, for, unlike later satirists, he made no personal attacks, but titled in a genial and not a very original manner against the general vices of human nature. However, in the Marshalsea he was confined for some months and, during his confinement, wrote pastorals, which were published in 1615 under the title The Shepherd’s Hunting. In the fourth eclogue, in praising the poetry of “my Willie,” by whom he meant his friend William Browne, he extolled the power of poetry in general and wrote his most beautiful, if not his best known, lines. They are written in the measure to which

  • the wits of Queen Anne’s days contemptuously gave the name of Namby-Pamby, in ridicule of Ambrose Philips … 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.
  • Of the same pastoral description were the poems that he next published: Fidelia, privately printed in 1617, and Faire Virtue, the Mistresse of Phil’Arete, the revision, probably, of earlier work, in 1622. The pastoral in Wither’s hands was not a town convention; however conventional the shepherds may be, the freshness of the fields breathes in his poems, and an intimate knowledge of country lore is manifested on every page. The hounds of Philarete the Hunter are named after human virtues and human vices, but they have the character and bearing of real dogs; and they show, pleasantly enough, that George Wither, whatever may be the value of his judgment of men and their ways, knew and loved the ways of his pack with discriminating insight. But, between 1617 and 1622, he also wrote two works of a singularly diverse nature: Hymnes and Songs of the Church—of which king James approved, but of which his clergy disapproved—and Wither’s Motto. The motto was Nec habeo, nec careo, nec curo; it is partly a satire and chiefly an extolling of the possibilities of his own personality:
  • My intent was to draw the picture of mine own heart.… But my principal intention was, by recording those thoughts, to confirm my own resolution and to prevent such alterations, as time and infirmities may work upon me.
  • Though the verses are as genial and harmless as is the intention, they gave offence to those in authority, and, again, Wither was shut up in the Marshalsea.

    And here his first poetic period ends. He wrote countless topical pamphlets in prose and verse, which have been collected and printed by the Spenser Society, but nothing of literary note except The Scholars Purgatory (c. 1625), in which, with his customary frankness, he defends himself against those stationers who “unchristianly vilify and scandalize alsoe” his hymns and songs, and passes from personal defence and his usual attractive self-revelation to an interesting dissertation on the subject of “divine” poems in general.

    When the Civil war broke out, Wither joined the parliamentarians. In 1639, he was a captain of horse in the expedition against the Scots, was soon raised to the rank of major and, in 1642, commanded the garrison of Farnham castle in Surrey. The royalists took him prisoner soon afterwards, and he only escaped hanging by a jest of the gallant Denham, who declared that, as long as Wither lived, he, Denham, could not be accounted the worst poet in England. Wither survived the jest to become major-general of all Cromwell’s horse and foot in the county of Surrey. At the restoration, he lost the considerable fortune which he had made from royalist sequestrations and, in 1660, was imprisoned in Newgate for three years. Four years after his release, he died (2 May, 1667), and was buried in the Savoy Church in the Strand.

    Such were the events of his second period. The poetry of that period was not pastoral, and is not so well known as his pastoral verse. It is, however, intensely characteristic, and deserves to survive not only for its continual quaintness but for its occasional beauty: Haleluiah or Britain’s Second Remembrancer is the umpromising title, and stern puritan faith is the unpromising subject. But the poems, composed in a threefold volume, are instinct with his personality and vigorous charm. Hymns Occasional, Hymns Temporary, Hymns Personall are the names of the three parts; they are written “that all Persons, according to their Degrees and qualities, may at all times … be remembred to praise GOD; and to be mindful of their duties.” There is no occasion too homely to be improved; and each hymn is prefaced by a short note of explanation as to the exact circumstances under which it should be sung. Such poems as A Rocking Hymn (exquisite in the simplicity of its beauty) show Wither at his best. They have a clear sincerity; and they express a joy in the possibilities of life which is remarkable and very different from what is usually understood by the puritan spirit. They are written in various metres, with the spontaneous ease which was part of Wither’s very being, and in which he resembles his friend William Browne.