The Poets' Chantry/William Habington
It is sometimes precisely because of his limitations that a poet is interesting. The great genius is cosmopolitan—of all time and every age: the lesser star is personal and national, and often very valuably provincial. He has his unique and particular message, delivered in his own individual way, and, if it be a sincere and beautiful message, the world can ill afford to be without it. Moreover, there exists no infallible authority for determining the status of an author, "infinite riches in a little room" having been more than once revealed in a search through forgotten pages. With all the greater confidence do we remember, and repeat, these truths when the minor poet happens to be such an engaging person as William Habington—and one whose life was so representative in its very isolation.
Gentle by birth, and by nature a student, he seemed at one time claimed for the priesthood. But love, in the person of "Castara," came into Habington's life—and behold, his name comes down to us as poet instead. The single volume due to this inspiration is the foundation of his literary fame, and to a large extent the explanation of his life. Were all outer details of his biography lost, we should still know the heart of this austere but lovable young Englishman from the revelations of his Castara.
Happily, however, there are other channels of information. From the reign of Henry IV, the Habington (or Abington) family had been a representative one, and during the sixteenth century its annals were particularly stirring. A certain John Habington was cofferer to Queen Elizabeth, and seems to have lived peaceably enough through those tumultuous times; but his two sons were of more radical temper. Edward was executed in 1586 for participation in Anthony Babington's Conspiracy; and his brother Thomas (the father of the poet) was only less unfortunate. His studies at Oxford had been supplemented at Paris and Rheims, whence, "after some time spent there in good letters," he returned to England—an exceedingly zealous Catholic. Although onetime godson to Queen Elizabeth, Thomas Habington now acknowledged himself an adherent of Mary Stuart—and was promptly despatched to the Tower. His imprisonment there lasted six years, and from Anthony à Wood's account we learn that "he profited more in that time in several sorts of learning than he had before in all his life." He seems, indeed, to have passed most of his subsequent years in scholarly pursuits, living at the family estate of Hindlip Hill with his wife Mary, a sister of Lord Mounteagle.
In the year 1604, after a brief respite, King James revived the penal laws against his Catholic subjects. Severe fines for recusancy were once more demanded (even for the period of toleration); and in default of such payment all the personal goods and two-thirds of the lands of the victim became forfeit to the Crown. Hundreds of families were thus pauperised, and conditions became more and more intolerable all over England. "It is both odious and grievous," wrote Father Gerard, "that true and free-born subjects should be given as in prey to others." But the work went on until the fanaticism of one little band of zealots rose to fever heat, and in the mind of Robert Catesby was conceived the Gunpowder Plot. The writer of the warning letter sent to Lord Mounteagle by which the Plot was frustrated has never been positively identified, but Wood asserts that it was none other than Mary Habington. On the very day which had been set for the Gunpowder affair—the fifth (or possibly the fourth) of November, 1605—her son William was born. It was in truth a troublous world upon which the future poet opened his infant eyes. England, from her vacillating King to her intensely Puritan Commons, had fallen into a panic over the Plot. Catholics were in worse repute than ever, and upon the Jesuits burst the main torrent of popular fury. In this crisis, Father Garnett, their Provincial, (he who had sailed with Robert Southwell to the unhappy island some twenty years before) fled for shelter to the home of the Habingtons. Hindlip was admirably adapted to the situation, containing no less than eleven secret chambers, and having served before this as refuge for the persecuted priesthood. But the Government was watching. In January, 1606, after a search of eleven nights and twelve days, Garnett was discovered: a few months later he, too, was executed. And while the elder Habington's life was spared, it was on condition that he never subsequently put foot outside of Worcestershire.
After that, Hindlip Hill was tranquil enough. William's childhood passed uneventfully amid its beautiful surroundings, while the father continued his antiquarian researches concerning the cathedrals of Worcester, Chichester, etc. At least two characteristics of the poet's later life—his fervent and enlightened catholicity and his love of peace—may be traced to the environment of these early years. For bloody and turbulent memories were a thing of the past to Hindlip: little by little the smoke of battle faded from its walls, and sunlight entered in. When William was old enough he was sent to the famous Jesuit College at St. Omer's, France, where the Fathers were so deeply impressed by his virtue and ability that after a time he was, says Anthony à Wood, "earnestly invited to take upon him the habit" of the Society. Eminently fitting would it have seemed for a Habington to enter that Company of Jesus, whose aims and dangers the family had shared in England, but human destinies will "e'en gang their ain gate." William, apparently uncertain of his vocation, "by excuses got free and left them," passing on to continue his studies in Paris. And, as the final decision was against the apostolate, he returned to England, where "being then at man's estate," Wood tells us "he was instructed at home in matters of history by his father, and became an accomplished gentleman."
It could not have been so very long after this that Habington met Lucy Herbert, youngest daughter of the Baron Powis, and his vita nuova dawned. "I found," he subsequently wrote, "that Oratory was dombe when it began to speak her, and wonder . . . a lethargie." His ingenuous little character sketch of "A Mistris"(prefixed to Castara) gives a more detailed description of this "fairest treasure the avarice of love can covet" "She is chaste. . . . She is as fair as Nature intended her, helpt perhaps to a more pleasing grace by the sweetness of education, not by the slight of Art. . . . She is young. . . . She is innocent even from the knowledge of sinne. . . . She is not proud. . . . In her carriage she is sober, and thinkes her youth expresseth life enough, without the giddy motion fashion of late hath taken up. She dances to the best applause, but doates not on the vanity of it. . . . She sings, but not perpetually, for she knows silence in woman is the most persuading oratorie. She never arrived at so much familiarity with man as to know the diminutive of his name, and call him by it. . . . She is never sad, and yet not jiggish. . . . She is not ambitious to be prais'd and yet values death beneath infamy."
But Habington was not to find this Rose of the World altogether without its thorns. His family, although an eminent one, was scarcely a mate for the Herberts or the Percys, whose blood was mingled in "Castara's" veins; and his worldly fortunes were doubtless far inferior to those of other suitors. But there was something in the grave, cultured grace of this young student to which the lady could not be indifferent. Moreover, his unfaltering assurances that they were created for each other had a persuasive power quite their own. William Habington knew how to love: and he told his story in a series of poems so severely pure and so exquisitely tender that, inaddition to winning the heart of Lucy Herbert, they won him a place among the makers of English literature.
Very little did he dream of this latter result as he penned the praises of his well-beloved:
Let all the amorous Youth, whose faire desire
Felt never warmth but from a noble fire,
Bring hither their bright flames: which here shall shine
As tapers fixt about Castara's shrine.
While I, the Priest, my untam'd heart surprise,
And in this Temple make't her sacrifice. . . .
Thus characteristically does the little volume open; and from its first part we learn the story of that somewhat chequered courtship. There is a charming little poem, "To Castara, Praying"; another to the same "Softly Singing to Her Selfe." And as evidence that, with all her rare discretion, Lucy Herbert was still a very woman, Habington has left some beautiful verses "To Castara, Inquiring why I loved her." "Why," he retorts,
Why doth the stubborne iron prove
So gentle to th' magnetique stone?
How know you that the orbs do move;
With musicke too? Since heard of none?
And I will answer why I love.
But not unnaturally, the young poet was keenly sensitive to the opposition of Castara's family. In lines addressed to her "right honourable" mother, he impetuously wishes that his high-born mistress were
The daughter of some mountain cottager,
Who, with his toils worne out, could dying leave
Her no more dowre, than what she did receive
From bounteous Nature.
A few pages further on we find him boldly asserting that
Parents' lawes must bear no weight
When they happinesse prevent.
But the lady was too dutiful to heed such questionable doctrine, and was finally induced to leave town for Seymors, on the Thames. Habington—after the manner of disconsolate lovers—composed a number of poems lamenting her absence, immortalising "a trembling kisse" stolen at the moment of departure, and be-rating his friends for their philosophical advice. Then, very sensibly, he followed her. Subsequent titles—"To Castara, being debarr'd her presence," and "To the Dew, In hope to see Castara walking"—usher in the pastoral phase of their romance. Under the "kinde shadow" of some friendly tree, or on the banks of the "courteous Thames," the old vows were once more repeated. And love had grown strong and brave during those months of probation—far too strong to fear what the hand of man could do. The young lovers had passed their Purgatory, and now at last the gates of Paradise were yielding before them.
Yet are we so by Love refin'd,
From impure drosse we are all mind.
Death could not more have conquer'd sense,
Habington wrote in the climax of his great joy. A touch of the unearthly, a certain kinship with the angels, tempered his most ardent moments: and it is this spiritual element, more than any other, which has separated his songs from the somewhat "madding crowd" of Cupid's votaries.
The marriage of the poet and his Castara was celebrated some time between 1630 and 1633—one cannot be certain of the exact date. And that it was an ideal one, the second part of the poem testifies. It would seem that Lord Powis was to the last unyielding, for one of the finest of these compositions implores his parental blessing as the one thing needful to their happiness:
'Ere th' astonisht Spring
Heard in the ayre the feather'd people sing,
Ere time had motion, or the Sunne obtain'd
His province o'er the day, this was ordain'd,
declares the intrepid bridegroom. And surely the most obdurate of fathers could scarcely be unmoved by such a plea, ending as it does with the assurance:
There's nought beyond this. The whole world is she.
To just what extent Castara's worth was "above rubies" Habington has not left us ignorant. A second prose portrait, this time of "A Wife," is inserted among the poems; and, reading it, one scarcely marvels that he calls her "the sweetest part in the harmony of our being." "She is," he writes, "so true a friend, her Husband may to her communicate even his ambitions, and if successe crowne not expectation, remains neverthelesse uncontemned. She is colleague with him in the Empire of prosperity; and a safe retyring place when adversity exiles him from the World. . . . She is inquisitive only of new wayes to please him, and her wit sayles by no other compasse than that of his direction. She looks upon him as Conjurors upon the Circle, beyond which there is nothing but Death and Hell; and in him she believes Paradise circumscrib'd. His virtues are her wonder and imitation; and his errors her credulite thinkes no more frailtie than makes him descend to the title of Man." So, if Habington did not cease to be a lover when he became a husband, the credit was possibly not all his own.
During those early years of his married life the poet seems to have felt an almost excessive shrinking from public activity. Political struggles had brought his family very near to shipwreck in the old days, and he had slight wish to venture upon the stormy main. For although there was no active persecution under King Charles, Catholics knew full well that they were merely tolerated in England, and their wisdom lay in much quietness. It is doubtful, too, if Habington chafed greatly under this restraint. The peaceful tenderness of his life with Castara is reflected in poem after poem; he writes of her "Being Sicke," then of her recovery; and on the first anniversary of their marriage he compares their passion to the sunlight,
Which had increast, but that, by love's decree
'Twas such at first, it ne'er could greater be!
In the course of time two children were born to them—Thomas and Catherine—of whom, unfortunately, we know little. But such glimpses of the home life as do reach us make lines like the following, with all their breath of the lotus flower, entirely comprehensible:
Though with larger sail
Some dance upon the Ocean, yet more fraile
And faithlesse is that wave than where we glide.
. . . And cause our boat
Dares not affront the weather, we'll ne'er float
Farre from the shore.
Another and very amiable side of Habington's character is revealed in his friendship with George Talbot, brother of the Earl of Shrewsbury. These two cousins had been close friends from childhood. Both had known the culture of "a liberall education," and both developed into men of severely high and noble nature. Looking back after Talbot's death, Habington thought that his friend had inherited "the vertues of all his progenitors"; and he mused lovingly how frank and open had been his speech, yet how faithful his guarding of another's secret; how he was "absolute governor, no destroyer of his passions," and so generous that he could forgive an injury. As for Talbot, he had declared, in verses to his "best friend and kinsman William Habington," the absolute unity "in blood as study" between them, and that their sole contention was "who should be best patterne of a friend." Castara herself, it would seem, did not replace this older companionship; since in the very midst of his courtship Habington found time to reproach Talbot for an absence of three days. But the bond was destined—("Love's the ambassador of loss")—to be the means of a mighty sorrow when the hand of Death fell precipitately upon the vigorous manhood of his friend. For ten days Habington was speechless with grief. Then he sought relief in the touching "Elegies" which add a new solemnity to the 1635 edition of Castara. They are eight in number, perhaps the most powerful being the second:
Talbot is dead. Like lightning which no part
O' th' body touches, but first strikes the heart,
This word hath murder'd me. . . .
No man can look straight into the eyes of Death without having his aspect of Life metamorphosed. After that year, 1634, William Habington was no longer the weaver of delicious day dreams, the tireless singer of Castara's praises. He was her faithful and devoted husband; but that was not all. In the studious repose of Hindlip Hill we find the quondam poet giving himself more and more to historical research. He produced—in collaboration with his father—a History of Edward IV, King of England, which was published in 1640 "at the desire of K. Charles I." That same year saw the appearance of his Queene of Arragon, a tragi-comedy of considerable merit, which the Earl of Pembroke "caused to be acted at Court and afterwards to be published against the author's will." One little dialogue in this play takes on particular interest from the tradition of Habington's Republican sympathies. It is the following:
The stars shoot
An equal influence on the open cottage
Where the poor shepherd's child is rudely nurs'd,
And on the cradle where the prince is rock'd
With care and whisper.
And what hence infer you?
That no distinction is 'tween man and man
But as his virtues add to him a glory,
Or vices cloud him.
These sentiments may or may not have been personal with the author; but when one recalls the Royalist doctrine of Divine Right, and even Cromwell's frank predilection for a "gentleman," one perceives how radical their tenor really was.
Popular opinion has all too readily imputed to the Puritans of that day a monopoly of English piety: but the intensity, the austerity of Habington's later poems might, if better known, serve as a wholesome corrective. The third part of Castara, issued in 1639-40, has comparatively little in common with the earlier pages. Its poems, composed mainly upon Scriptural texts, possess a solemnity, a detachment that is most impressive. From a man like Habington, indeed, it is even alarming! All trace of the youthful lover, who caught the sound of Castara's name in the brook's "harmonious murmures," or fancied Cupid buried in the dimple of her cheek, has disappeared. The intense seriousness of life, the mutability of human joys, man's high destiny and the dread alternative of Hell—these are now the poet's themes. We have earlier referred to Habington's custom of inserting prose sketches which strike the keynote of the various poems: at first it was the "Mistris"; then the "Wife"; still later, the "Friend." But for this Third Part was reserved the most famous of all, his vision of "A Holy Man." It seems a thousand pities to mar the continuity of this study, so wise, so sane, so full of austere beauty, by a mere extract; but the whole is too long to quote. The Holy Man alone, declares Habington, is truly happy:
"In prosperity he gratefully admires the bounty of the Almighty giver, and useth, not abuseth, plenty: but in adversity he remaines unshaken, and like some eminent mountain hath his head above the clouds. . . . Fame he weighes not, but esteemes a smoake, yet such as carries with it the sweetest odour, and riseth usually from the Sacrifice of our best actions." There is no trace of self-righteousness in this little sermon; "for seldome," says the preacher, "the folly we condemne is so culpable as the severity of our judgment. . . . To live he knowes a benefit, and the contempt of it ingratitude, but . . . Death, how deformed soever an aspect it weares, he is not frighted with; since it not annihilates but uncloudes the soule."
There would seem to be more than a superficial significance in this change of Habington's mental attitude. Was the weight of six additional years, the maturing of a deeply serious nature, even the death of George Talbot, sufficient explanation of it? Or did, perhaps, dreams of a lost vocation haunt the soul of the poet? Only his God (and possibly his Castara) could know what chastening hand had rested upon that heart. For, surely, it was not in the school of ease or joy or human consolation that Habington learned to write lines like those which close his Castara:
My God! If 'tis thy great decree
That this must the last moment be
Wherein I breathe this ayre—
My heart obeyes, joy'd to retreate
From the false favours of the great
And treachery of the faire.
For in the fire when Ore is tryed,
And by that torment purified;
Doe we deplore the losse?
And when thou shalt my smile refine,
That it thereby may purer shine,
Shall I grieve for the drosse?
Of Habington's last years, which were passed amid much turmoil, few details have survived. In 1641 appeared the last of his published works, Observations upon Historie; the next year saw England dark with the smoke of her Civil War. His love of freedom must have rendered him a Royalist with reservations, yet with the fanaticism of the reformers he could have had no part. If there was one word which fired every spark of Puritan wrath and Puritan fanaticism, that word was Popery. Very serviceable at all times has a scapegoat been found; and the Parliamentary proclamation which declared Catholicism responsible for the sins and afflictions of Protestant England are not without their own grim humour. "Under such circumstances," says Dr. Lingard, "the Catholics found themselves exposed to insult and persecution wherever the influence of the Parliament extended: for protection they were compelled to flee to the quarters of the Royalists, and to fight under their banners; and this again confirmed the prejudice against them, and exposed them to additional obloquy and punishment," William Habington, says Anthony à Wood, "did then run with the times, and was not unknown to Oliver the Usurper"—words so ambiguous that one longs to call the old Oxford chronicler back from his grave to give an explanation.
Very precious, too, would be some news of Lucy Habington during those "evil days." But nothing is clear save the one ultimate fact of the poet's history. On 13 November, 1654, at the beginning of his fiftieth year, William Habington died. His body was laid to rest in the old vault at Hindlip, by the side of his father and his grandfather: and not improbably close also to his beloved Castara.
Habington's historical works are scarcely read to-day, being supplanted by more recent research; although we have Edward Phillips' word that, twenty years after our author's death, his Historie of Edward IV. was better known than his Castara. The Queene of Arragon, also, was rather highly esteemed by his contemporaries, being revived during the Restoration. In its Prologue, Habington declares the language of this drama to be "easy, such as fell unstudied from his pen"—an assertion the reader will be tempted to take cum grano salis. As might be expected, there is a great deal of beauty in the love passages, and a certain loftiness of tone throughout. Its characterisation, especially in the case of Cleantha, is charged with vivacity. "Madam," observes this sprightly beauty, whose wit is almost worthy to rival the, immortal Beatrice:
I have many servants, but not one so valiant
As dares attempt to marry me!
But after all, it is as a lyric poet that William Habington must stand or fall: although he himself took poetry with slight seriousness. "I never set so high a rate upon it as to give myselfe entirely up to its devotion," he once wrote casually; and, of course, in the seventeenth century such an attitude was by no means unusual. Poetry was considered less as a vocation than as a graceful accomplishment, and Milton himself laid aside its composition during those twenty strenuous years from 1640 to 1660. So, like Donne and others, Habington permitted his verses to pass about in private circulation until "importunity prevailed and cleere judgements advis'd" the more permanent form of a printed volume. Then in 1634, Castara was anonymously published, with the author's half-playful assertion that "to write this, love stole some hours from businesse and my more serious study." The verses (which appeared almost simultaneously with Milton's Comus) met with such success that a second edition was called for during the following year, and a third—with additions—in 1640. Since then, Castara has been little known to readers in general, and by the critics little praised. Habington, as we know, was a poet only when some strong emotion—love or grief or religious longing—cast off the bonds of habitual reserve and freed the wings of fancy. In such moments he must be judged; and, because those moments were rare, he cannot be placed among poets of the first order. Yet none could fail to feel the exquisite beauty and sincerity of those lines, beginning:
We saw and woo'd each other's eyes,
My smile contracted then with thine,
And both burnt in one sacrifice,
By which our marriage grew divine.
They are among the most characteristic that Habington wrote. But, perhaps, equally charming in its way, and with a sweet, frank ingenuousness that recalls the lyrics of Elizabeth's own day, is the little poem, "Upon Castara's Departure":
Vows are vaine. No suppliant breath
Stayes the speed of swift-heel'd death.
Life with her is gone and I
Learne but a new way to dye.
See the flowers condole, and all
Wither in my funerall.
The bright Lilly, as if day
Parted with her, fades away.
Violets hang their heads, and lose
All their beauty. That the Rose
A sad part in sorrow beares,
Witnesse all those dewy teares;
Which as Pearle or Dyamond like
Swell upon her blushing cheeke.
All things mourne, but oh, behold
How the wither'd Marigold
Closeth up now she is gone,
Judging her the setting Sunne.
In delicacy and chastity of imagination, in tenderness of sentiment, and in a certain even felicity of verse, Castara has had few rivals. After the fashion of its own age, it may be said to have accomplished very much what Coventry Patmore achieved in The Angel in The House—the glorification of domestic love.
Habington's religious poems form a curious contrast to those of Richard Crashaw, which appeared only five years later. They have scarcely a trace of the younger poet's ecstasy of joy and tenderness, nor of his lyric melody. But they have the solemnity of far-off organ music, and sometimes "heart-perturbing" echoes of the Dies Irae seem floating through the lines:
Eternitie! when I think thee,
(Which never any end must have,
Nor knew'st beginning) and fore-see
Hell is designed for sinne a grave,
My frightened flesh trembles to dust,
My blood ebbes fearefully away:
Both guilty that they did to lust
And vanity my youth betray.
William Habington lived in the decadence of a great age, the Golden Age of English literature. He was a lad of eleven years when Shakespeare was carried to his grave. He was writing prefatory verses for one of Shirley's dramas as early as 1629—and for the Beaumont and Fletcher folio as late as 1647. But there is a directness, a simplicity in his verse very rare among his contemporaries. Neither the overwrought fancies of the Italian School, nor the subtlety and perversity of the so-called "Metaphysical" poets, would seem to have touched him appreciably. Perhaps that insistent moderation which hampered Habington when he would scale the heights of lyric beauty, saved him, also, from the vices of his age. For in his literary, as in his private life, the man's soul was "like a star and dwelt apart." A modest star it was, yet one from which others have taken light for their pathway. It is impossible, for example, to read his lines on "The Grave," without being conscious that they contain, as it were in embryo, almost the whole of Gray's immortal Elegy.
Professor Saintsbury has remarked that our poet's work is "invaluable as showing the counterside to Milton, the Catholic Puritanism which is no doubt inherent in the English nature." A very just criticism, although the word purity might advantageously be substituted for Puritanism. While by no means devoid of humour—surely not of satire, when occasion required—Habington was pre-eminently a man of high seriousness. And his poems are essentially a part of himself. They reveal a nature too proud to stoop to any littleness, yet too gentle for bigotry or censoriousness; a character wherein learning had been tempered and vitalised by the power of love, and the graces of life flourished but as blossoms of some Paradisal fruit. George Talbot was nowise blinded by friendship when he wrote that affectionate little preface to Castara:
. . . Beyond your state
May be a prouder, not a happier Fate.
I write not this in hope t'incroach on fame,
Or adde a greater lustre to your name,
Bright in itselfe enough . . .
. . . . . But I who know
Thy soule religious to her ends, where grow
No sinnes by art or custome, boldly can
Stile thee more than good Poet, a good man.
For we to-day can reach no truer estimate.