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formarum, which an unrestricted passion for ideal forms and beauties is in danger of producing. In this, as in many
other things, they are analogous to the best novels of Smollett or Fielding
ON THE POETICAL WORKS OF GEORGE WITHER.
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 in different 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
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 stripped and whipped; 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 everywhere 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 Stripped and Whipped, 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
yamed no names but Hate, and Envy, and Lust, and Avarice, is like one of the endictments 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 otherwise 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 ;"* noi is it such as he has shown in his Philarete, and in some parts of his Shepherds Hunting. He seems to have adopted this dress with voluntary humility, as fittest for a moral teacher, as our divines choose sober gray 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 this 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 outward ; 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 verom” 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 pretence 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 pre-eminent 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 eye that he does.
“ Sometimes I do admire
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 excellences which he adores in her.
“What pearls, what rubies can
I must praise her as I may,
To the measure in which these lines are written, the wits of Queen Anne's days contemptuously gave the name of Nanby Pamby, in ridicule of Ambrose Phillips, 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 show, that in skilful hands it is capable of expressing the subtlest 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,
Although in Skelton's rhime."*
* A long line is a line we are long repeating. In the Shepherds Hunti 8 take the following
“If thy verse doth bravely tower
As she makes wing, she gets power ;
Then she rests with fame at last." What longer measure can go beyond the majesty of this! what Alexandrine is half so long in pronouncing, or expresses labour slowly but strongly surmounting difficulty with the life with which it is done in the second of these lines ! or what metre could go beyond these, from Philarete
“Her true beauty leaves behind