Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wither, George
WITHER or WITHERS, GEORGE (1588–1667), poet and pamphleteer, the eldest of three sons of George Wither, by his wife, Anne Serle, was born at Bentworth, near Alton, Hampshire, on 11 June 1588. He refers to ‘Bentworth's beechy shadows’ in his ‘Abuses stript and whipt.’ The Wither family is said to have been originally settled in Lancashire, but five generations had been settled before the poet's birth in Hampshire. The eldest branch of the family was long settled at Manydown, near Wotton St. Lawrence. Richard Wither, the poet's grandfather, who was a younger son, married a daughter of William Poynter of Whitchurch, Hampshire, and her niece (daughter of her brother, Richard Poynter) married Ralph Starkey [q. v.], the archivist. From Starkey, whose wife was thus the poet's cousin, he is said to have received some early instruction. He derived his chief education from John Greaves, rector of Colemore, whose son, John Greaves [q. v.], was the great mathematician. To his ‘schoolmaster Greaves’ Wither addressed an affectionate epigram in 1613. Subsequently he proceeded to Magdalen College, Oxford, where he spent two years, 1604–6. His tutor, according to Aubrey, was John Warner (1581–1666) [q. v.], afterwards bishop of Rochester. He took no degree, and about 1610 settled in London in order to study law. In London the greater part of his long life was spent. After joining a minor inn of court he was entered at Lincoln's Inn in 1615.
Almost as soon as Wither settled in London he devoted his best energies to literature, and proved himself the master not only of a lyric vein of very rare quality, but also of a satiric temper which could often express itself in finely pointed verse. His friends soon included the most notable writers of the day. William Browne (1591–1643?) [q. v.] seems to have been his earliest literary associate, and through Browne he appears to have made the acquaintance of Michael Drayton. The earliest volume in the title-page of which his name figured was ‘Prince Henries Obsequies or Mournefull Elegies upon his Death: with a supposed Interlocution betweene the Ghost of prince Henrie and Great Brittaine. By George Wyther’ (London, printed by Ed. Allde, for Arthur Johnson, 1612, 4to; reprinted in 1617, and with the ‘Juvenilia’ of 1622 and 1633). This was dedicated in a metrical epistle to Sir Robert Sidney (afterwards Earl of Leicester) [q. v.] The elegies are in forty-five stanzas, each forming a sonnet, and the literary promise is high throughout. Next year Wither celebrated the marriage of the Princess Elizabeth with the elector palatine in a volume of ‘Epithalamia: or Nuptiall Poems’ (London, for Edward Marchant, 1612–13, 4to, 1620, 1622; London, 1633, 8vo). The poem pleased the Princess Elizabeth, whom Wither thenceforth reckoned his most powerful patron.
Less agreeable consequences attended another literary effort of the period. In 1611 he first, according to his own account, took notice of ‘public crimes’ (Warning Piece to London, 1662), and gave proof of his quality as a satirist. No publication by Wither dated in 1611 is known, but in 1613 appeared his ‘Abuses stript and whipt. Or Satiricall Essayes by George Wyther. Divided into two Bookes’ (London, printed by G. Eld for Francis Burton, 1613, 8vo). The dedication ran: ‘To Him-selfe G. W. wisheth all happiness.’ The satires are succeeded by a poem called ‘The Scourge,’ and a series of epigrams to patrons and friends, including his father, mother, cousin William Wither, and friend Thomas Cranley. A portrait by William Hole or Holle [q. v.] is dated 1611, and erroneously gives Wither's age as twenty-one. The book was popular (there were at least five editions in 1613, and others in 1614, 1615, and 1617, the last ‘reviewed and enlarged’), but it gave on its first appearance serious offence to the authorities for reasons that are not apparent. Each of the twenty satires discloses the evils lurking in abstractions like Revenge, Ambition, Lust, Weakness, and the like, and, although some of the anecdotal digressions may have had personal application, the clue is lost. Wither declared that he had, ‘as opportunity was offered, glanced in general tearmes at the reproofe of a few thinges of such nature as I feared might disparage or prejudice the Commonwealth … [but] I unhappily fell into the displeasure of the state: and all my apparent good intentions were so mistaken by the aggrauations of some yll affected towards my indeauours, that I was shutt up from the society of mankind’ (The Schollers Purgatory, Spenser Soc. pp. 2–3). Wither was committed to the Marshalsea prison, but the Princess Elizabeth is reported to have intervened on his behalf, and her intervention, supported by a poetic appeal to the king from Wither himself, procured his release after a few months. The poet's appeal was entitled ‘A Satyre: Dedicated to His Most Excellent Maiestie’ (London, printed by Thomas Snodham for George Norton, 1615, sm. 8vo; in some copies ‘written’ is found for ‘dedicated’).
Wither shed an unaccustomed lustre on the Marshalsea by penning some of his best poetry while a prisoner there. He had some hand in William Browne's pastoral poems. In the first eclogue of Browne's ‘Shepherd's Pipe’ (1614) he was introduced as an interlocutor under the name of ‘Roget,’ and to the same volume Wither contributed the second and fourth eclogues which were appended to Browne's work. In one of these Wither introduced his friends Christopher Brooke and Browne under the names of ‘Cuttie’ and ‘Willy;’ the other he dedicated ‘to his truly loving and worthy friend Mr. W. Browne.’ Fired by Browne's example, Wither straightway continued the ‘Shepherd's Pipe’ in a similar poem wholly of his own composition, which he entitled ‘The Shepherd's Hunting.’ This was published in 1615, and was described on the title-page as consisting of ‘certaine eglogues, written during the time of the author's imprisonment in the Marshalsey’ (London, printed by W. White for George Norton, 1615, 8vo; reprinted in the ‘Workes,’ 1620, and in ‘Juvenilia,’ 1622 and 1633). It was dedicated to the ‘visitants’ to his prison cell. The interlocutors were Browne, under the name of Willie, and the poet himself, under the name of Roget, a designation which he altered in editions subsequent to 1620 to Philarete. In the fourth eclogue appears, in his favourite seven-syllabled rhyming couplets (the metre of Milton's ‘L'Allegro’), his classical eulogy of the gift of poetry for the wealth and strength it confers on its possessor. In 1616 Browne lauded Wither, in company with John Davies of Hereford, in the second song of the second book of ‘Britannia's Pastorals’ (ll. 323–6); to this volume Wither contributed commendatory verses.
‘The Shepherd's Hunting’ was succeeded by another little volume of charming verse entitled ‘Fidelia,’ a poetical lament in epistolary form from a desolate maiden forsaken by her lover. It seems to have been first printed in small octavo in 1615 for private circulation. A copy of the private edition is in the Bodleian Library. The edition was published for sale under the title ‘Fidelia, written by G. W. of Lincolnes Inne, Gentleman’ (London, printed by Nicholas Okes, 1617, 12mo). In an edition ‘newly corrected and augmented,’ dated in 1619, there were added for the first time two songs, one of them the matchless lyric ‘Shall I wasting in despair’ (a new edition of 1620 was printed by John Beale for Walkley, and it reappeared in the ‘Juvenilia’).
Of literary interest, although of far smaller literary value than ‘Fidelia,’ was the poem called ‘Wither's Motto. Nec habeo, nec careo, nec curo’ (London, printed for John Marriott, 1621, 8vo), which at once reached a second edition and achieved an extraordinary popularity. There is an engraved frontispiece with a whole-length figure of the author looking towards heaven. Wither, who confusingly dates its first appearance in 1618, says that about thirty thousand copies were printed and published within a few months (Fragmenta Prophetica, p. 47). It is a fluent series of egotistical reflections on the conduct of life, intermingled with some spirited sarcasm at the expense of the mean and vicious. Its sound morality recommended it to the serious-minded, and on the strength of it John Winthrop [q. v.] took a hopeful view of ‘our modern spirit of poetry’ (Winthrop, Life and Letters, 1864, p. 396). Some persons in high station deemed the poem a reflection on current politics and politicians, and Wither was for a second time ordered to the Marshalsea (Court and Times of James I, ii. 266). In the course of his examination he denied the charge of libel, and declared that Drayton had approved the poem in manuscript (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1619–23, pp. 268, 274–5). It was admitted that the Stationers' Company had refused a license for the first edition, but that the second was licensed after some passages had been struck out. Wither was liberated without undergoing formal trial. The ‘Motto’ had been defiantly dedicated ‘To anybody,’ and, falling under the notice of John Taylor (1580–1653) [q. v.] the water-poet, was good-humouredly satirised by that rhymester in ‘Et habeo, et careo, et curo’ (‘I have, I want, I care’); it was also unimpressively criticised in ‘An Answer to “Wither's Motto,” by T.G.’ [perhaps Thomas Gainsford [q. v.] Oxford, 1625.
Of equally admirable literary quality with ‘Fidelia’ was another love poem which was probably written at the same period. This was called ‘Faire-Virtve, the Mistresse of Phil'Arete. Written by himself, Geo. Wither’ (London, printed for John Grismond, 1622, 8vo; reprinted in 1633 with the ‘Juvenilia’ of that year). According to the prefatory epistle of John Marriott the stationer, this was one of Wither's earliest performances; imperfect copies had already gone abroad, and Wither had permitted the publication on condition that no author's name appeared. The poem is a rapturous panegyric (mainly in heptasyllabic rhyme) of a half-imaginary beauty.
‘Faire Virtue’ was Wither's final contribution to pure literature, and few of his later works fulfil his earlier poetic promise. Thenceforth his writings consist of pious exercises and political diatribes. Like his greater contemporary Milton, he became a convinced puritan, and he made it a point of conscience to devote his ready pen solely to the advancement of the political and religious causes with which he had identified himself. In the volume of pious poems called ‘Halelujah’ (1641) his old power seemed to revive, but nowhere else in the wide range of his religious verse did his thought or diction reach a genuinely poetic level. The long series of his religious works opened with a learned prose treatise in folio, entitled ‘A Preparation to the Psalter’ (London, printed by Nicholas Okes, 1619, folio, with the title-page engraved by Delaram, and a portrait of Wither from the same hand, which is now rarely found with the book; dedicated to Charles, prince of Wales). There quickly followed ‘Exercises Vpon the first Psalme. Both in Prose and Verse’ (London, printed by Edward Griffin for John Harrison, 1620, 8vo; dedicated to Sir John Smith, knt., son of Sir Thomas Smith, governor of the East India Company). A more ambitious venture of the same character bore the title ‘The Songs of the Old Testament. Translated into English Measures: preserving the Naturall Phrase and genuine sense of the Holy Text: and with as little circumlocution as in most prose Translations. To every song is added a new and easie Tune, and a short Prologue also’ (London, printed by T. S. 1621, 8vo; dedicated to the archbishop of Canterbury, Abbot).
Wither's reputation was now assured. Secular and religious critics were equally enthusiastic in his praises, and in 1620 his popularity was paid a very equivocal compliment. A collection of his compositions was surreptitiously issued under the title: ‘The Workes of Master George Wither, of Lincolns-Inne, Gentleman, Containing Satyrs, Epigrammes, Eclogues, Sonnets and Poems. Whereunto is annexed a Paraphrase on the Creed, and the Lords Prayer’ (London, printed by John Beale for Thomas Walkley, 1620, 8vo). Wither retorted by issuing an authentic collection of his finest works, called ‘Jvvenilia. A collection of those Poemes which were heretofore imprinted, and written by George Wither’ (London, printed for John Budge, 1622, 8vo, with an engraved title). There was a reissue of 1626 (‘for Robert Allot’). A new edition of 1633 included ‘Faire Virtue.’ It is mainly on the contents of this volume that Wither's position as a poet depends.
Anxious to secure the full profits of his growing literary work, Wither sought an exceptional mode of guaranteeing his rights in his next volume. The book was called ‘The Hymnes and Songs of the Church,’ and Orlando Gibbons supplied ‘the musick.’ The volume was divided into two parts—the first consisting of ‘Canonicall Hymnes,’ adapted from scripture and other sources, and the second consisting of original ‘Spirituall Songs’ for various seasons and festivals. Wither asserts that he was engaged on the work for three years, and he obtained by letters patent on 17 Feb. 1623 for a period of fifty-one years, not only a grant of monopoly or full copyright in the work, but also a compulsory order directing its ‘insertion’ and ‘addition’ to every copy of the authorised ‘Psalm-book in meeter’ which the Stationers' Company enjoyed the privilege under earlier patents of publishing (Arber, iv. 12, seq.; cf. Rymer, Acta Publica, xvii. 454). The volume first appeared in 1623, in at least four forms. There was a 16mo impression ‘printed for George Wither;’ another in quarto, ‘printed by the assignes of George Wither … cum Privilegio Regis Regali;’ a third in 8vo, ‘printed by the assignes of George Wither, 1623, cum Privilegio Regis Regali;’ and a fourth in folio ‘printed by the assignes of George Wither.’ The Stationers' Company regarded Wither's patent and independent method of business as a serious infringement of their privileges. Booksellers refused to bind up copies with the authorised psalter or to sell it in any shape, and warned their customers that it was an incompetent performance. Wither protested warmly, but with little avail. Unfortunately he did not carry with him the sympathy of all his fellow-craftsmen. He was still the friend of William Browne, of Richard Brathwaite, who applied to him the epithet ‘lovely’ in 1615, and of Drayton, to whose ‘Polyolbion’ (pt. ii.) he contributed in 1622 an enthusiastic commendation. But his successes were viewed with jealousy by Ben Jonson and his band of disciples. Alexander Gill the elder [q. v.] had quoted Wither's work with approval in his ‘Logonomia Anglica’ (1619), and Jonson had quarrelled in consequence with Gill, whose son retorted with violence. Jonson revenged himself by caricaturing Wither under the title ‘Chronomastix’ (that is, satirist of time) in the masque called ‘Time Vindicated,’ which was presented at court on Twelfth night 1623–4. Much sarcasm was here expended on Wither's quarrel with his printers, and finally Fame was represented as disowning him, despite the outcry of friends who deify him.
Wither vigorously stated his grievances against the booksellers in a highly interesting prose tract which he entitled ‘The Schollers Purgatory, discouered In the Stationers Commonwealth. … Imprinted for the Honest Stationers,’ 12mo. There is no mention of date or place of publication. It was probably printed abroad about 1624. In the form of an address to the archbishop of Canterbury and the bishops assembled in convocation, Wither narrated with spirit the long series of wrongs which he and other authors of his day suffered at the hands of their publishers. The stationers sought to stop the publication. They moved the court of high commission to institute an inquiry. Wither was called upon to explain why he issued the volume without a license. He admitted that parts had been printed under his direction by George Wood, and boasted that the edition consisted of three thousand copies (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1623–5, p. 143).
Wither was in London during the plague of 1625, and, despite the distractions of personal controversy, penned two accounts of it. One he called ‘The Historie of the Pestilence or the proceedings of Justice and Mercy manifested an [sic] the Great Assizes holden about London in the yeare 1625.’ This remains in a folio manuscript in the author's autograph in the Pepysian Collection at Magdalene College, Cambridge. At the same time he published a second treatise on the subject, as ‘Britains Remembrancer: Containing a Narrative of the Plague lately past; a Declaration of the Mischiefs present; and a Prediction of Judgments to come (if Repentance prevent not),’ 1628, 12mo. He was still under the stationers' ban. No license was obtainable for this book, and he caused it to be printed ‘for Great Britaine’ at his own risk, and, it is said, with his own hand (Court and Times of Charles I, i. 367). John Grismond undertook to sell copies. The impression consisted of four thousand copies. There is a long preliminary address to the king in verse and a ‘premonition’ in prose. The voluminous poem is itself in eight cantos of heroic rhymes. Vivid descriptions of the plague are interspersed with much wild denunciation of the impiety of the nation and anticipation of future trouble. Mindful of Jonson's onslaught, he referred to the ‘drunken conclave’ at which Jonson had denied him the title of poet. He claimed with much self-satisfaction in later years to have clearly foretold in this volume all the future misfortunes that the country witnessed in his lifetime.
A visit to the continent seems to have followed, and Wither appears to have been received in audience by his early patroness, the Princess Elizabeth, now the exiled queen of Bohemia. To her he gratefully dedicated his next publication, ‘The Psalms of David, translated into Lyrick verse according to the Scope of the Original, and illustrated with a short Argument and a briefe Prayer or Meditation before and after every Psalme.’ This was printed in the Netherlands by Cornelius Gerrits van Breughel in 1632, and formed a thick square octavo. As early as April 1625 he had visited Cambridge in order to find a printer for the work, but had met with none to undertake it (cf. ib. i. 12). Subsequently, in January 1633–4, Wither, in continuance of the warfare with the London stationers, summoned all or most of them before the council to answer for a ‘contempt of the great seal’ in their continued defiance of his patent of 1623. The judgment of the court disallowed that part of Wither's patent which directed that his ‘Hymnes’ should be bound up with the authorised ‘Psalter’ (ib. ii. 236). Immediately afterwards he made his peace with the publishers and his relations with them were thenceforth amicable.
The plates which were originally engraved by Crispin Pass for the ‘Emblems’ of Rollenhagius, and had appeared with mottoes in Greek, Latin, or Italian (Cologne, 1613; and Arnheim, 1616), were purchased in 1634 by Henry Taunton, a London publisher, with a view to a reissue. Wither was employed by him to write illustrative verses in English. The volume appeared as ‘A Collection of Emblemes, Ancient and Moderne; quickened with Metrical Illustrations, both Morall and Divine,’ London, printed by A. M. for Henry Taunton, 1635, fol. (the only perfect copy known is in the British Museum).
About 1636 Wither retired to what he calls ‘his rustic habitation,’ a cottage under the Beacon Hill at Farnham (Nature of Man, 1636), and there devoted himself to the congenial study of theology. In 1636 he issued ‘The Nature of Man. A learned and useful tract, written in Greek by Nemesius, surnamed the Philosopher … one of the most ancient Fathers of the Church.’ The translation was not made from the Greek of Nemesius, but from two Latin versions. It was inscribed by Wither to his ‘most learned and much honoured friend John Selden, esq.’
The political crisis of the following years drew Wither into public life. In 1639 he served as captain of horse in the expedition of Charles I against the Scottish covenanters. In 1641 he was sufficiently at leisure to produce his best work as a religious poet—the interesting collection of 273 ‘hymns,’ entitled ‘Halelujah: or Britans Second Remembrancer, bringing to remembrance (in praisefull and pœnitentiall Hymns, Spirituall Songs, and Morall Odes) Meditations advancing the Glory of God, in the practise of pietie and virtue’ (London, 1641, 12mo). ‘Halelujah’ is one of the scarcest of all Wither's publications; only four copies are known, of which one is in the British Museum, and a second belongs to Mr. Huth. At the same date Wither repeated his old warning of the nation's impending peril in ‘A Prophesie written long since for this year 1641,’ London, n.d., 8vo (a reprint of the eighth canto of ‘Britain's Remembrancer’ of 1628).
In 1642 he sold such estate as he possessed and raised a troop of horse for the parliament. He placed on his colours the motto ‘Pro rege, lege, grege’ (cf. Campo-Musæ, frontispiece). On 14 Oct. 1642 he was appointed, by a parliamentary committee, captain and commander of Farnham Castle, and of such foot as should be put into his hands by Sir Richard Onslow [q. v.] and Richard Stoughton, for the defence of the king, parliament, and kingdom. But his government was of short duration. Wither knew little of military procedure, and under the advice, he declared, of his superiors he soon quitted the castle and drew away his men. He was subsequently captured by a troop of royalists, and owed his life to the intercession of Sir John Denham, who pleaded that ‘so long as Wither lived he [Denham] would not be accounted the worst poet in England.’ Wither thenceforth regarded Denham with very bitter feelings. Farnham Castle was soon reoccupied (on 1 Dec.) by the parliamentary general, Sir William Waller. Wither retained his position in the parliamentary army, became a justice of the peace for Surrey, and was promoted to the rank of major, but it is doubtful if he saw further active service. His chief energies were thenceforth devoted to procuring a livelihood. On 9 Feb. 1642–3, 2,000l. was granted him on his petition towards the repair of his plundered estate. Other payments were subsequently ordered by the parliament, but were not made.
Meanwhile he was busier than ever with his pen. In 1643 he published three tracts, all of which attracted attention. The earliest was ‘Mercurius Rusticus: or a Countrey Messenger. Informing divers things worthy to be taken notice of, for the furtherance of those proceedings which concerne the publique peace and safety;’ this was in opposition to a royalist periodical, similarly named, by Bruno Ryves [q. v.] Wither's second literary labour of 1643 was the poetic ‘Campo-Musæ, or the Field-musings of Captain George Wither; touching his Military Ingagement for the King and Parliament, the Justnesse of the same, and the present distractions of these Islands’ (London, 1643, 8vo; 1644, two editions; 1661); this was dedicated to the parliamentary commander, the Earl of Essex; in it Wither claimed to reconcile the king and parliament, while he narrated his personal difficulties. In ‘Aqua Musæ’ Wither's old opponent, John Taylor the water-poet, denounced the ambiguity of his attitude, describing him as a ‘juggling rebell.’ Taylor affirmed that he had loved and respected Wither for thirty-five years, ‘because I thought him simply honest; but now his hypocrisy is by himself discovered, I am bold to take my leave of him.’ Further aspersions on his conduct drew from Wither (also in 1643) his prose tract ‘Se Defendendo: a Shield and a Shaft against Detraction. Opposed and drawn by Capt. Geo. Wither: by occasion of scandalous rumours, touching his desertion of Farnham-Castle; and some other malicious aspersions.’
Next year Wither experienced new embarrassments. He charged Sir Richard Onslow, whom he held responsible for his misfortunes at Farnham, with sending money privately to the king. Onslow retorted by depriving Wither of the nominal command which he still held of the militia in the east and middle division of the county, and contrived his removal from the commission of the peace (August 1644). Wither denounced Onslow with virulence in his ‘Justiciarius Justificatus,’ and complaint was made to the House of Commons. The book was referred for examination to a committee on 10 April 1646, and on 7 Aug. it was voted to be ‘false and scandalous.’ Wither was directed to pay a fine of 500l., and the book was burned at Guildford by the hangman (Whitelocke, p. 218). Subsequently, Wither states, the house discharged him ‘both from the said fine and imprisonment without his petitioning or mediation for it’ (Hist. MSS. Comm. 14th Rep. pt. ix., Onslow Papers, pp. 476–7).
Wither pursued his literary labours undismayed. In a flood of further tracts and poems he warned the House of Commons or the nation of coming danger in the Cassandra-like spirit of his ‘Britain's Remembrancer’ (cf. Letters of Advice to the Electors, 1644, prose; Some Advertisements for the New Election of Burgesses; Speech without Doors, 9 July 1644; Vox Pacifica, a long poem in four cantos, 1645, with a woodcut map of England, Scotland, and Ireland as frontispiece; Speech without Doors Defended, 1646; Opobalsamum Anglicanum, 1646; Major Wither's Disclaimer: being a Disavowment of a late Paper, entituled ‘The Doubtfull Almanack’ [prose], lately published in the name of the said Major Wither, 1646, 4to, prose; What Peace to the Wicked? 1646, 4to, a poem in short rhyming couplets, printed in double column, denouncing the clergy for the dissensions of 1645).
All his old prophecies of calamity were repeated in his tedious poem, ‘Prosopopœia Britanica: Britain's Genius, or Good-Angel, Personated; reasoning and avissing, touching the Games now playing, and the Adventures now at hazard in these Islands; and presaging also some future things not unlikely to come to passe,’ London, 1648, 8vo. This work and ‘Britain's Remembrancer’ were the publications which Wither regarded as of greatest value among all his publications (cf. Fides Anglicana, p. 53; Furor Poeticus, p. 30).
In 1647 he issued two poems in the interests of peace. One was ‘Carmen Expostulatorium: or a timely Expostulation with those, both of the City of London and the present Armie, who have either endeavoured to engage these Kingdomes in a Second Warre, or neglected the prevention thereof.’ The other was ‘Amygdala Britannica: Almonds for Parrets; a dish of stone fruit: partly shel'd and partly unshel'd.’
Wither's private anxieties grew year by year more acute, and he often varied his comments on public events by long petitions to the House of Commons describing his personal embarrassments. ‘A Single Siquis, And a quadruple Quere,’ in verse , which was presented to members of parliament in their private capacities, opens with a reference to Cromwell's victory over the Scots at Preston on 17 Aug. 1648, but it dealt mainly with its author's pecuniary distress. A like appeal, called ‘The Tired Petitioner,’ appeared about the same time, on a single sheet, as well as ‘Verses presented to several Members of the House of Commons, repairing thither the 23rd of December 1648 … with an imprinted petitioner therto annexed.’ His contemporary tracts, ‘The true state of the case betwixt the King and Parliament;’ ‘The Prophetical Trumpeter Sounding an Allarum to Britaine’ (London, n.d., 8vo); ‘Carmen Eucharisticon,’ on Michael Jones's victory in Ireland (1649, 4to), touched less personal topics. Of somewhat ambiguous import was ‘Vaticinium Votivum, Or Palæmons Prophetick Prayer. Lately Presented Privately to His now Majestie in a Latin Poem; and here Published in English; Trajecti. Anno Caroli Martyris primo’ , 8vo, with portrait of Charles II.
After the king's death Wither constituted himself the panegyrist of the new form of government. Some doubt exists as to his responsibility for the sympathetic prose tract on recent political history, called ‘Respublica Anglicana,’ 1650, 4to, although assigned on the title-page to ‘G. W.’ But he described himself ‘A faithful servant to this Republik,’ in ‘A Timelie Cavtion, comprehended in thirty-seven Double Trimeters, occasioned by a late rumour of an intention suddenly to adjourn this Parliament, and superscribed to those whome it most concernes. September 10, 1652.’ In a postscript he not unjustly calls the publication ‘Wither'd leaves’—a play upon words which he frequently repeated. To a mystical tract in verse called ‘The dark Lantern’ he added ‘A Poem concerning a Perpetuall Parliament,’ 1653, 8vo. Other lucubrations of the time were of a more exclusively religious temper (cf. ‘Three Grains of Spiritual Frankincense,’ 1651, 12mo, dedicated to President Bradshaw; ‘A Letter to the Honourable Sir John Danvers, knight,’ at end of a ‘Copy of a Petition from the Governor and Company of the Sommer Islands,’ 1651, 4to; ‘The British Appeals, with Gods Mercifull Replies,’ printed for the author, 1651, 8vo, two editions). ‘Westrow Reviv'd’ (1653) was an elegy on Thomas Westrow, a well-to-do neighbour to whom Wither had been under pecuniary obligations. Praises of Cromwell are the main theme of ‘The Modern States-man’ (1653 and 1654); ‘The Protector. A poem’ (1655 and 1656, 8vo); ‘Vaticinium Causuale [sic]: a rapture occasioned by the late miraculous Deliverance of his Highnesse the Lord Protector from a desperate danger,’ a poem (1656, 14 Oct. 4to); ‘Boni Ominis Votum,’ a congratulatory poem on the parliament of 1656 (28 July 1656); ‘A Cause allegorically stated,’ 1657; ‘A Sudden Flash … by Britains Remembrancer,’ 1657, a long poem dedicated to the Protector; and ‘A private Address to the said Oliver,’ 1657–8.
Wither's support of Cromwell's government did not go wholly without reward, although no substantial aid was afforded him. He had gained little hitherto by his political partisanship. From 1645 onwards he had occupied himself in ‘discovering’ the estates of royalist delinquents, and was granted on paper much confiscated property in Surrey, but, owing to various accidents, he failed to secure permanent possession of any portion of it. Sir John Denham's lands at East Horsley were for a short time under his control, as well as the estate of Stanislaus Browne at Pirbright, but he gained little by the temporary seizure (cf. Cal. Committee for Advance of Money, i. 515, ii. 872–3; Cal. Committee for Compounding, pp. 972–3, 1792; cf. Hist. MSS. Comm., Duke of Portland's MSS. i. 195). In ‘A Thankful Retribution’ (1649, in verse) he expressed gratitude to a few members of parliament who had vainly urged the bestowal on him of an office in the court of chancery. He seems to have been appointed later a commissioner for levying assessments in support of the army in the county of Surrey. In 1650, too, the commons, in reply to his numerous petitions, acknowledged that a sum approaching 4,000l. was due to him, and it was arranged that an annual income amounting to 8 per cent. on a portion of it should be secured to him (Commons' Journals, vi. 519). At the same time an order was made for settling 150l. a year upon him from Sir John Denham's lands ‘in full satisfaction of all other demands.’ But his financial position was not permanently improved, and he sought further official work. In 1653 he was employed as a commissioner for the sale of the king's goods (Cal. Clarendon Papers, ii. 171). In 1655 a clerkship in the statute office of the court of chancery was bestowed on him. But his needs were still unsatisfied, and he repeated his old grievances in a new series of printed petitions which only ceased with his life.
On Cromwell's death Wither appealed to his son Richard to carry on the traditions of his father's rule, as well as to relieve his own sufferings (cf. Petition and Narrative of George Wither, Esq., 1658?; Epistolicum-Vagum-Prosa-Metricum, 1659). In ‘A Cordial of Confection’ (1659) he admitted the possibility of the restoration of Charles II under certain conditions. But when the Restoration was assured, he expressed his apprehensions with a frankness that gave him a new notoriety (cf. Salt upon Salt, a poem on Cromwell's death, 1659; Fides Anglicana, 1660; Furor Poeticus, 1660; Speculum Speculativum, 1660, three editions, a long poem in verse dedicated to the king). In the last days of the Commonwealth he resided at Hambledon, Hampshire, but he returned to London, to a house in the Savoy, in 1660. His attitude attracted the attention of the authorities; his papers were searched, and an unpublished manuscript reflecting on the reactionary temper of the House of Commons led to his prosecution by order of parliament. The paper, which was in verse, was entitled ‘Vox Vulgi. Being a welcome home from the Counties, Citties, and Burroughs, to their prevaricating Members: saving the honour of the House of Commons, and of every faithfull and discreet individual Member thereof.’ ‘This was intended (he said) to have been offered to the private consideration of the Lord Chancellor [Earl of Clarendon]: but had been seized upon when unfinished, and its author taken into custody.’ On his arrest in August 1660 Wither was committed to Newgate. He was brought before the House of Commons on 24 March 1661–2, and was then committed to the Tower to await impeachment (Duke of Somerset MSS., Hist. MSS. Comm. 15th Rep. vii. 93). On 3 April 1662 the king was thanked for his arrest. Six days later a petition was read on his behalf, and his wife was allowed access to him in order that he might be induced to recant (Commons' Journals, 1662–3). No further proceedings against him were taken. He remained a prisoner till 27 July 1663, when he was released on giving a bond for good behaviour. The offending poem, ‘Vox Vulgi,’ was not printed at the time, and remained in manuscript among the Earl of Clarendon's papers in the Bodleian Library till 1880, when the Rev. W. D. Macray published it in ‘Anecdota Bodleiana’ (pt. ii.)
During his imprisonment Wither's pen was never idle for a moment. He explained the meaning of his ‘Vox Vulgi’ in a miscellaneous collection of verse entitled ‘An Improvement … evidenced in Crums and Scraps,’ 1661 (cf. The Triple Paradox, printed for the author, 1661, moralisings in verse; The Prisoner's Plea, 1662, prose). While still a prisoner he also resumed his prophetic mantle in his medley of prose and verse called ‘A Proclamation, in the name of the King of Kings, to all the Inhabitants of the Isles of Great Britain. … Whereto are added some Fragments of the same Author's omitted in the first impression of the booke intitled “Scraps and Crums”’ (1662, 8vo). From Newgate on 8 March he dated, too, his prose ‘Paralellogrammaton: an Epistle to the three Nations of England, Scotland, and Ireland. Whereby their sins being parallel'd with those of Judah and Israel, they are forewarned and exhorted to a timely repentance’ (3 May 1662, 8vo). ‘Verses intended to the King's Majesty. By Major George Wither, whist [sic] he was prisoner in Newgate,’ bore the date 22 March 1662[–3], (two octavo editions).
After his release in July 1663 Wither issued ‘Tuba Pacifica: Seasonable Præcautions, whereby is sounded forth a Retreat from the War intended between England and the United Provinces of Lower Germany. … Imprinted for the Author, and are to be disposed of rather for Love than Money,’ 1664 (8vo, in verse). He remained in London during the great plague of 1665, and drew from it many pious morals in his verse ‘Memorandum to London occasioned by the Pestilence,’ 1665, with a ‘Warning piece to London,’ 8vo. In 1665 there also appeared ‘Meditations upon the Lord's Prayer, with a Preparatory Preamble to the Right Understanding and True Use of this Pattern,’ London, 8vo; and next year ‘Three Private Meditations, for the most part of Publick Concernment,’ London, 1666, 8vo (in verse). Once again he ventured into the political arena with a poem called ‘Sighs for the Pitchers: Breathed out in a Personal Contribution to the National Humiliation, the last day of May 1666, in the Cities of London and Westminster, upon the near approaching engagement then expected between the English and Dutch Navies;’ there is a warning prefixed of many faults escaped in the printing owing to ‘the author's absence;’ a woodcut on the title presents two pitchers (England and Holland); there were two editions in 1666. The government viewed the pamphlet with suspicion, and warrants were issued for the arrest of those who sold it (Cal. State Papers, 1665–6, p. 569).
The last work that Wither published was ‘the first part’ of a series of extracts from his old prophetic books, which bore the general title ‘Fragmenta Poetica.’ ‘The first part’ had the subsidiary title ‘Ecchoes from the Sixth Trumpet. Reverberated by a Review of Neglected Remembrances’ (1666); a portrait of the author at the age of seventy-nine was prefixed. The volume, which supplies an account of Wither's chief works, was twice reissued posthumously in 1669—first with the new title ‘Nil Vltra, or the Last Works of Captain George Wither;’ and again with the title ‘Fragmenta Prophetica, or the Remains of George Wither, esq.’
Wither died in his house in the precincts of the Savoy on 2 May 1667, after living in London ‘almost sixty years together;’ he was buried ‘within the east door’ at the church of the Savoy Hospital in the Strand. An ‘epitaph composed by himself upon a common fame of his being dead and buried’ was published in his ‘Memorandum to London,’ 1665.
He married Elizabeth, daughter of John Emerson or Emerton of South Lambeth. She survived him; her will, dated 15 May 1677, was proved 19 Jan. 1682–3. ‘She was a great wit,’ according to Aubrey, ‘and would write in verse too.’ Wither frequently refers to ‘his dear Betty’ in his poems in terms of deep devotion. By her he had six children, only two of whom—a son and a daughter—seem to have survived the poet. The daughter Elizabeth married Adrian Barry, citizen of London, and of Thame, Oxfordshire, and died about 1708. She prepared for publication in 1688 her father's ‘Divine Poems by way of a paraphrase on the Ten Commandments;’ she wrote under the initials ‘E. B.,’ and dedicated the work to her father's friends. The poet's surviving son, Robert, was buried at Bentworth in 1677, and by his wife Elizabeth, daughter of John Hunt of Fidding (Theddon), left, with other issue, two sons—Hunt Wither and Robert Wither (d. 1695)—and two daughters (cf. Shepherds Hunting, ed. Brydges, 1814, pp. x–xiii).
Besides the engraved portraits prefixed to ‘Juvenilia,’ ‘The Emblems,’ ‘Fragmenta Poetica,’ and other of his books, an original portrait of Wither, painted in oil by Cornelius Janssen, was sold at Gutch's sale in 1858. This is probably the picture from which the likeness by John Payne was engraved for Wither's ‘Emblemes’ (1635). The head prefixed to the thirty-first emblem in Thomas Jenner's ‘Soules Solace’ (1631, 4to) is supposed to be intended for Wither.
In his ‘Fides Anglicana’ (1660) Wither enumerated eighty-six of his works. His ‘Ecchoes from the Sixth Trumpet’ (1666) gives a far briefer list. The full total of his publications reached a hundred, and others remained in manuscript. Various reissues of books by him, as well as many new publications that were doubtfully assigned to him, besides the ‘Divine Poems’ edited by his daughter in 1688, appeared before the end of the seventeenth century. Among these are: ‘Vox et Lacrimæ Anglorum’ (London, 1668, 8vo); ‘Mr. George Wither Revived, or his Prophesie of our present Calamity, and (except we repent) future Misery, written in the year 1628’ (1683, fol. extracts from the eighth canto of ‘Britain's Remembrancer’); ‘Gemitus de Carcere Natus, or Prison Sighs and Supports, being a few broken Scraps and Crums of Comfort’ (1684, 4to); ‘The Grateful Acknowledgment of a late trimming Regulator, with a most Strange and wonderful Prophecy taken out of Britain's Genius, written by Captain George Wither’ (1688, 4to, a selection from ‘Prosopopœia Britannica’); ‘Wither's prophecy of the downfal of Antichrist,’ ‘a collection of many wonderful prophecies,’ (1691, 4to); ‘A Strange and wonderful prophecy concerning the Kingdom of England … taken out of an old manuscript by G. W.,’ 1689, fol. In ‘Wonderful Prophecies relating of the English Nation’ (1691, 4to) one of the prophecies is by Wither.
‘Wither Redivivus: in a small new years gift pro rege et grege. To his Royal Highness the Prince of Orange,’ 1689, 4to, is a medley in the manner of Wither, but is probably not by Wither himself. Of other works doubtfully assigned the most interesting is ‘The Great Assizes holden in Parnassus by Apollo’ (1645), where Wither is introduced in the jury.
Among the lost works which Wither claimed to have written are: ‘Iter Hibernicum of his Irish Voyage;’ ‘Iter Boreale;’ ‘Patrick's Purgatory;’ ‘Philaretes Complaint.’ In Ashmolean MS. 38 are some unprinted verses by him, including ‘Mr. George Withers to the king when he was Prince of Wales;’ ‘Uppon a gentlewoman that had foretold the time of her death;’ and ‘An Epitaph on the Ladie Scott.’
Wither has verses, besides those already specified, before Smith's ‘Description of New England’ (1616); Hayman's ‘Quodlibets’ (1629); Wastel's ‘Microbiblion’ (1626); Butler's ‘Female Monarchy’ (1634); Blaxton's ‘English Usurer’ (1638); beneath the portrait of Lancelot Andrews prefixed to his ‘Moral Law Expounded’ (1642); Carter's ‘Relation of the Expedition of Kent, Essex, and Colchester’ (1650); and Payne Fisher's ‘Panegyric on the Protector’ (1656). In Mercer's ‘Angliæ Speculum’ (1646, &c.) there are an anagram and epigram to the ‘famous Poet Captain George Withers.’ Cockain's ‘Divine Blossoms’ (1656) is dedicated to him.
The largest collection of Wither's works was in the library of Thomas Corser. Two earlier collectors were Alexander Dalrymple and John Matthew Gutch, and many copies that belonged to them are now in the British Museum.
The history of Wither's reputation is curious. His early reputation as a lyric poet died out in his lifetime; he himself admitted that it ‘withered.’ For some years after his death his name was usually regarded as a synonym for a hack rhymester. Royalists ranked him with Robert Wild [q. v.], the presbyterian poet. Butler, in ‘Hudibras,’ classed him with Prynne and Vicars. Phillips, in his ‘Theatrum Poetarum’ (1675), more justly wrote: ‘George Wither, a most profuse pourer forth of English rhime, not without great pretence to a poetical zeal against the vices of his times, in his “Motto,” his “Remembrancer,” and other such like satirical works. … But the most of poetical fancy which I remember to have found in any of his writings is a little piece of pastoral poetry called “The Shepherd's Hunting.”’ Richard Baxter, in the prefatory address to his ‘Poetica Fragmenta’ (1681), declared: ‘Honest George Withers, though a rustic poet, hath been very acceptable; as to some for his prophecies, so to others, for his plain country honesty.’ Dryden declared:
He fagotted his notions as they fell,
And if they rhymed and rattled, all was well.
Pope, in the ‘Dunciad’ (i. 126), expressed scorn for ‘wretched Withers.’ Swift likened him to Bavius. Dr. Johnson and the editors of the chief collections of English poetry did not mention him or his works. But towards the end of the eighteenth century his early poems were reprinted. Percy included his famous song, ‘Shall I wasting in despair,’ and an extract from ‘Philarete,’ in his ‘Reliques of Ancient Poetry.’ Ellis quoted him in his ‘Specimens.’ The result was that critics like Lamb, Coleridge, and Southey recognised his merit, and, ignoring the political and religious lucubrations of Wither's later years, by which alone he desired to be judged, gave his literary work unstinted praise. Southey declared that he had the ‘heart and soul’ of a poet. Lamb studied him with Quarles. In the ‘Annual Review’ (1807) Lamb wrote: ‘Quarles is a wittier writer, but Wither lays more hold of the heart. Quarles thinks of his audience when he lectures; Wither soliloquises in company with a full heart.’ In an essay on ‘The Poetical Works of George Wither’ (published in Lamb's ‘Works’ in 1818) he expressed unbounded faith in his poetic greatness. It is now universally recognised that Wither was a poet of exquisite grace, although only for a short season in his long career. Had his last work been his ‘Faire Virtue,’ he would have figured in literary history in the single capacity of a fascinating lyric poet. He was one of the few masters in English of the heptasyllabic couplet, and disclosed almost all its curious felicities. But his fine gifts failed him after 1622, and during the last forty-five years of his life his verse is mainly remarkable for its mass, fluidity, and flatness. It usually lacks any genuine literary quality and often sinks into imbecile doggerel. Ceasing to be a poet, Wither became in middle life a garrulous and tedious preacher, in platitudinous prose and verse, of the political and religious creeds of the commonplace middle-class puritan. At times he enjoyed considerable influence; but his political philosophy amounted only to an assertion that kings ought not to be tyrannical nor parliaments exacting, and his religious views led merely to a self-complacent conviction of the sinfulness of his neighbours and of the peril to which their failings exposed the world, owing to the working of the vengeance of God.
Extracts from ‘Juvenilia’ by Alexander Dalrymple (London, 1785, 8vo) formed the earliest attempt at a full reprint of Wither's poems. Selections from Wither figured in a very thin volume called ‘Select Lyrical Ballads, written about 1622,’ which was printed by Sir S. E. Brydges (1815, 8vo). Brydges also printed ‘Shepherd's Hunting’ (1814), ‘Fair Virtue’ (1815), and ‘Fidelia’ (1818) in separate volumes. In 1810 Gutch reprinted a few specimens of Wither's early work, and sent to Lamb an early interleaved copy for corrections and suggestions. ‘I could not forbear scribbling certain critiques in pencil on the blank leaves,’ Lamb wrote to Gutch on 9 April 1810. The book, with these pencilled notes, was afterwards sent to Dr. George Frederick Nott [q. v.], the editor of Surrey's and Wyatt's poems. Nott added emendations of his own, and the volume again found its way to Lamb, who amusingly recorded his low opinions of Nott's taste. The volume, with the triple set of annotations, was subsequently acquired by Mr. Swinburne, who humorously described it in the ‘Nineteenth Century’ in January 1885; Mr. Swinburne's essay is reprinted in his ‘Miscellanies,’ 1886. J. M. Gutch also edited the ‘Juvenilia’ and other works in ‘Poems of George Wither,’ without notes or introduction (Bristol, 1820, 3 vols.); this collection was never completed; some copies are divided into four volumes, and bear the date 1839. Sheets containing a life of Wither by Gutch, intended to accompany his edition, were accidentally destroyed; only one impression was preserved by Gutch (cf. Athenæum, 1858, i. 500). Stanford printed a few of Wither's poems in his ‘Works of British Poets’ (1819, vol. v.). Southey included the ‘Shepherd's Hunting’ in his ‘Select Works of English Poets’ (1831). Wither's ‘Halelujah’ and ‘Hymnes and Songs of the Church,’ edited by Edward Farr, were reprinted in the ‘Library of Old Authors,’ 1857–8. The greater number of Wither's works were reprinted by the Spenser Society between 1870 and 1883 in twenty parts. A selection was edited by Professor Henry Morley in his ‘Companion Poets,’ 1891. ‘Fidelia’ and ‘Faire Virtue’ are included in Mr. Arber's ‘English Garner.’
[The general facts are collected in Wood's Athenæ Oxon. ed. Bliss, iii. 761–75 (a confused bibliography); Aubrey's Lives, ed. Andrew Clark, i. 221, ii. 306–7; Hunter's Chorus Vatum (Brit. Mus. Addit. MS. 24491, p. 49); Masson's Milton; Park's British Bibliographer, an elaborate bibliography by Park; preface to Brydges's reprint of Shepherds Hunting, 1814; Brydges's Censura Literaria; Wither's publications in the reprint of the Spenser Society, especially the Schollers Purgatory, 1625, and Ecchoes from the Sixth Trumpet, 1666. Some further biographical particulars may be gleaned from the following tracts, in which incidents in Wither's political and literary career are adversely criticised: A letter to George Wither, touching his soi-disant Military Exploits in Kent, Surrey, Gloucester, and Middlesex. Sold by the Cryers of ‘New, new, and true News,’ in all the streets of London, 1646, 4to; A letter to George Wither to prevent his future Pseudography, London, 1646, 4to; Mr. Wither his Prophesie of our present Calamity and (except we repent) future Misery, written in the year 1628, n.p. or d. 4to (two editions); Withers Remembrancer: or Extracts out of Master Withers his booke called Britain's Remembrancer. Worthy of the review and consideration of himselfe, and all other men, 1643, 8vo; A letter to George Wither, Poetica Licentia Esq., published for the better information of such who by his perpetual scribbling have been screwed into an opinion of his worth, and good affection to the publick, London, 1646, 4to.]