George Wither

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William Marshall's frontispiece to Wither's Emblemes.
William Marshall's frontispiece to Wither's Emblemes.

George Wither (June 11, 1588 – May 2, 1667) was an English poet and satirist.

Son of George Wither, of Hampshire, he was born at Bentworth, near Alton. He was sent to Magdalen College, Oxford, at the age of fifteen, and remained at the university for two years. His neighbors appear to have had no great opinion of him, for they advised his father to put him to some mechanic trade. He was, however, sent to one of the Inns of Chancery, eventually obtaining an introduction at Court. He wrote an elegy (1612) on the death of Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales, and a volume of gratulatory poems (1613) on the marriage of the princess Elizabeth, but his uncompromising character soon created trouble for him. In 1611 he published Abuses Stript and Whipt, twenty satires of general application directed against Revenge, Ambition, Lust and other abstractions. The volume included a poem called "The Scourge", in which the Lord Chancellor was attacked, and a series of epigrams. No copy of this edition is known, and it was perhaps suppressed, but in 1613 five editions appeared, and the author was lodged in the Marshalsea prison.

The influence of the Princess Elizabeth, supported by a loyal satire to the king, in which he hints that an enemy at court had fitted personal meanings to his general invective, secured his release at the end of a few months. He had figured as one of the interlocutors, Roget, in his friend William Browne's Shepherds Pipe, with which were bound up eclogues by other poets, among them one by Wither, and during his imprisonment he wrote what may be regarded as a continuation of Browne's work, The Shepherd's Hunting (printed 1615)—eclogues in which the two poets appear as Willie and Roget (in later editions Philarete). The fourth of these eclogues contains a famous passage in praise of poetry. After his release he was admitted (1615) to Lincoln's Inn, and in the same year he printed privately Fidelia, a love elegy, of which there is a unique copy in the Bodleian Library. Other editions of this book, which contained the lyric "Shall I, wasting in despair", appeared in 1617 and 1619. In 1621 he returned to the satiric vein with Wither's Motto: Nec habeo, nec careo, nec curo (Latin for "I have not, I want not, I care not"). Over 30,000 copies of this poem were sold, according to his own account, within a few months. Like his earlier invective, it was said to be libellous, and Wither was again imprisoned, but shortly afterwards released without formal trial on the plea that the book had been duly licensed. In 1622 appeared his Faire-Virtue, The Mistresse of Phil Arete, a long panegyric of a mistress, partly real, partly allegorical, written chiefly in the seven-syllabled verse of which he was a master.

Wither had begun as a moderate in politics and religion, but from this time forward his Puritan leanings became more pronounced, and his later work consists of religious poetry, and of controversial and political tracts. His Hymnes and Songs of the Church (1622-1623) were issued under a patent of King James I ordaining that they should be bound up with every copy of the authorized metrical psalms offered for sale. This patent was opposed, as inconsistent with their privilege to print the singing-psalms, by the Stationers Company, to Wither's great mortification and loss, and a second similar patent was finally disallowed by the House of Lords.

Wither was in London during the plague of 1625, and in 1628 published Britain's Remembrancer, a voluminous poem on the subject, interspersed with denunciations of the wickedness of the times, and prophecies of the disasters about to fall upon England. He also incidentally avenged Ben Jonson's satire on him as the Chronomastix of Time Vindicated, by a reference to Ben's drunken conclave. He was obliged to print this book with his own hand, in consequence of his quarrel with the Stationers Company. In 1635 he was employed by Henry Taunton, a London publisher, to write English verses illustrative of the allegorical plates of Crispin van Passe, originally designed for Gabriel Rollenhagens Nucleus emblematum selectissimorum (1610-1613). The book was published as a Collection of Emblemes, Ancient and Moderne, of which the only perfect copy known is in the British Museum.

The best of Wither's religious poetry is contained in Heleluiah: or Britain's Second Remembrancer, which was printed in Holland in 1641. Many of the poems rise to a high point of excellence. Besides those properly entitled to the designation of hymns, the book contains songs of singular beauty, especially the Cradle Song, Part 1 No. 50 ("Sleep, baby, sleep, what ails my dear"), the Anniversary Marriage Song, Part 2 No. 17 ("Lord, living here are we"), the Perambulation Song, Part 2 No. 24 ("Lord, it hath pleased Thee to say"), the Song for Lovers, Part 3 No. 20 ("Come, sweet heart, come, let us prove"), the Song for the Happily Married, Part 3 No. 21 ("Since they in singing take delight") and the Song for a Shepherd, Part 3 No. 41 ("Renowned men their herds to keep").

There is also in the second part a fine song (No. 59), full of historical as well as poetical interest, upon the evil times in which the poet lived, beginning:

Now are the times, these are the days
Which will those men approve
Who take delight in honest ways
And pious courses love;
Now to the world it will appear
That innocence of heart
Will keep us far more free from fear
Than helmet, shield or dart.

Wither wrote, generally, in a pure English idiom, and preferred the reputation of rusticity (an epithet applied to him even by Baxter) to the tricks and artifices of poetical style which were then in favor. It may be partly on that account that he was better appreciated by posterity than by his contemporaries.

Wither had served as captain of horse in 1639 in the expedition of Charles I against the Scottish Covenanters, and his religious rather than his political convictions must be accepted as the explanation of the fact that, three years after the Scottish expedition, at the outbreak of the English Civil War, he is found definitely siding with the Parliament. He sold his estate to raise a troop of horse, and was placed by a parliamentary committee in command of Farnham Castle. After a few days occupation he left the place undefended, and marched to London. His own house near Farnham was plundered, and he himself was captured by a troop of Royalist horse, owing his life to the intervention of Sir John Denham, on the ground that so long as Wither lived he himself could not be accounted the worst poet in England.

After this episode he was promoted to the rank of major. He was present at the siege of Gloucester (1643) and at Naseby (1645). He had been deprived in 1643 of his nominal command, and of his commission as justice of the peace, in consequence of an attack upon Sir Richard Onslow, who was, he maintained, responsible for the Farnham disaster. In the same year parliament made him a grant of £2000 for the loss of his property, but he apparently never received the full amount, and complained from time to time of his embarrassments and of the slight rewards he received for his services. An order was made to settle a yearly income of £150 on Wither, chargeable on Sir John Denham's sequestrated estate, but there is no evidence that he ever received it. A small place given him by the Protector was forfeited after Wither expressed criticism of Cromwell. At the Restoration he was arrested, and remained in prison for three years. He died in London.

His extant writings, catalogued in Parks British Bibliographer, number over a hundred. Sir S. E. Brydges published The Shepherds Hunting (1814), Fidelia (1815) and Fair Virtue (I8f8), and a selection I appeared in Stanford's Works of the British Poets, vol. v. (i 819). Most of Withers works were edited in twenty volumes for the Spenser Society (1871-1882); a selection was included by Henry Morley in his Companion Poets (1891); Fidelia and Fair Virtue are included in Edward Arber's English Garner (vol. iv., 1882; vol. vi. 1883), and an excellent edition of The Poetry of George Wither was edited by F. Sidgwick in 1902.

  • This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.
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