Home  »  Volume IV: English PROSE AND POETRY SIR THOMAS NORTH TO MICHAEL DRAYTON  »  § 7. Giles and Phineas Fletcher

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

§ 7. Giles and Phineas Fletcher

Giles Fletcher, the younger brother, was born in London about 1588, and went from Westminster school to Trinity college, Cambridge, in the spring of the year 1603. In 1618, he became reader in Greek, and, having taken holy orders, was appointed vicar of Alderton in Suffolk, where he died in 1623. Although he was some six years younger than his brother, his poem Christs Victorie, and Triumph in Heaven, and Earth, over and after death was published many years before his brother’s poem The Purple Island, namely, in 1610, by C. Legge at Cambridge. Christs Victorie and Triumph is his principal work, but he also wrote a Canto upon the Death of Eliza, an Elegy upon Prince Henry’s Death and a short poem in riming couplets, to which Boas has given the name A Description of Encolpius. Christs Victorie, written in 265 eight-lined stanzas (riming ababbccc) is divided into four parts. In the first part, he describes Christ’s victory in Heaven through the intercession of Mercy against the indictment of man by Justice; in the second, His victory on earth where He overcomes Satan, who, in the guise of a reverend palmer, tempts Him to Desperation, to Presumption and to Vainglory; in the third, he describes Christ’s triumph over death, “in generall by his joy to undergo it … by his passion itself,” and the particular effects of the triumph throughout the universe; and, in the last part, Christ’s triumph after death is narrated, as manifested in the resurrection and the effects of the resurrection on all living things. There is no doubt that, as a whole, the poem is hampered by the very quality which gave it birth—the author’s devoutness. He is unable to weave his own fancy and the accepted traditions into a composite pattern; and the effort to make his verse worthy of its subject often produces the effect of constraint or of exaggeration. There are, however, many passages of individual beauty, such as the description of Mercy, and some of great dramatic power, notably the passage in which the effect of Christ’s triumph upon Judas is told. The vigour of his phrase and the loftiness of his aim combine to make him a worthy link in the chain which connects his great master and his great successor—Spenser and Milton.

His elder brother, Phineas Fletcher, was born in 1582, and went from Eton to King’s college, Cambridge, in the Commons book of which college his name first appears in 1600. A contribution of his appeared in Sorrowes Joy, a poetical miscellany, compiled at the university in 1603, in which his younger brother’s Canto upon Eliza gained a place and which mourned Elizabeth’s death at the same time as it welcomed the arrival of king James. The resemblance in the lives of the brothers is as marked as the resemblance in their work. The chief legacy which their father left them was a good education. Both lived at Cambridge for some years until Giles Fletcher became vicar of Alderton in Suffolk, and Phineas Fletcher, after being for five years chaplain to Sir Henry Willoughby, became rector of Hilgay in Norfolk, in 1621, two years before his brother’s death in 1623. Phineas Fletcher wrote far more than Giles, and was possessed of a light manner as well as of the more deeply serious manner which characterises the extant work of his brother. Brittain’s Ida, first published in 1628, Sicelides and Piscatorie Eclogues are the most notable examples of this lighter manner. Brittain’s Ida is a pretty, amatory poem in six cantos on the subject of Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis. The stanzas are of eight lines and rime ababbccc. The long success of the publisher’s ruse which attributed the poem to Spenser and which remained undiscovered until Grosart proved the authorship shows how nicely Fletcher hit the manner of Spenser. Sicelides, a piscatory, is a fisher-play of spirited wit and fancy, which was acted at King’s college, Cambridge on 13 March, 1614/15, and printed, also without the author’s consent in 1631. No grave divine, such as Fletcher had then become, would have been pleased to own offspring so flippant and indecorous as these works of his youth. His immense poem The Purple Island, as well-known as it is little read, he did not, however, thus view askance. Its scope is colossal, for the purple island is the little isle of man, a country which, be it observed, Davies, Wither and Drummond had each in his own way explored. For the secret realm of a man’s own nature had, for these poets, as great an attraction as unknown lands had for the previous generation of pioneers in exploration. Though the intention is interesting, the setting—the daily conversations of shepherds—is laboured, and the allegory troublesome to follow. He does not aid his minute description of the body and its functions by his continual geographical analogies; indeed, many passages would be completely meaningless without his own explanatory notes. But his enthusiasm for the delicate mechanism of the body is none the less remarkable that his expression of it is often amusing. After a detailed description of man’s anatomy, he turns his attention to qualities of man’s mind, and passes in review all the virtues and vices. Here, in small allegorical pictures, he is more successful; many of them are happy in idea and beautiful in execution, especially his pictures of ignorance, of Andreos or fortitude, of Androphilus or gentleness.

His two best poems are The Apollyonists and Elisa, an Elegie. The Locusts or Apollyonists was published in 1627 with a poem Locustae on the same subject, in Latin hexameters, and is written in five cantos of forty stanzas each. The stanza is of nine lines, riming abababccc, and affords another variant of the Spenserian stanza from the seven-lined stanza, riming ababbcc in the Elegy and ababccc in The Purple Island. In this poem, he uses the fall of Lucifer as a device to explain the strength of the church of Rome, whose machinations are made to culminate in the Gunpowder plot. He writes with the bitterness that might be expected from an English clergyman of the time; but this bitterness narrows the scope of the poem to an expression of party-hatred—a function ill-suited to poetry. Many lines, however, especially at the outset, where he deals with evil in general, are vigorous, and, at times, so forcible and spacious as to justify the epithet Miltonic. Elisa is an elegy, published in the 1633 quarto, upon the death of Sir Antony Irby, composed, as its separate title-page announces, at the request, and for a monument, of his surviving lady. The poem is in two parts of fifty stanzas each, and maintains a high level of sustained feeling. It shows Phineas Fletcher at his simplest and at his best. He creates with striking power the illusion of reality in a dialogue between the dying husband and his wife, which is singularly original and reaches its climax of pathetic beauty in the last eighteen stanzas of the first part, in which he begs her gladly to continue with the burden of life for the sake of their children—“this little nation to thy care commend them.”

Both the Fletchers were steeped in Spenser’s poetry, and carried on the Spenserian tradition. In their work is to be found Spenser’s diffuseness, his use of allegory, many variants of his stanza and the echo, often a beautiful echo, of his music. Moreover, Milton knew the work of the Fletchers as intimately as he, or the Fletchers, knew the work of Spenser. And so one of the prettiest and most intricate problems that is to be found in literature arises on the question of what is known as influence. The best example of the affinity between the work of Milton and the work of Phineas Fletcher is to be found in a comparison between the way in which Milton treats that stock episode of the miracle play, the fall of Lucifer, and the way in which Fletcher treats it. In The Apollyonists, the fall of Lucifer is a prelude to an onslaught upon the Jesuits: the great opening is narrowed to the confines of religious hatred. But the sympathy which Milton could not but feel for the rebel transformed the figure of Satan from a fine conception to one of immortal grandeur. Milton humanised the devil, Fletcher diabolised the priest. Their meeting-point is found in Fletcher’s lines

  • To be in heaven the second he disdaines:
  • So now the first in hell and flames he raignes,
  • Crown’d once with joy and light: crown’d now with fire and paines,
  • and in the Miltonic
  • Better to reign in hell then serve in Heav’n.