George Wither was an English poet, pamphleteer, and satirist. He was a prolific writer who adopted a deliberate plainness of style;he was several times imprisoned. C. V. Wedgwood wrote "every so often in the barren acres of his verse is a stretch enlivened by real wit and observation, or fired with a sudden intensity of feeling".
Context and poetic reputation
Wither has been classified as a Spenserian, with Michael Drayton, Giles Fletcher, Phineas Fletcher, and Henry More. The early Jacobean Spenserians were generally republican rather than imperial (at least in terms of ancient Rome), of the "country party" rather than the "court party", nostalgic for Elizabeth I, and in favour of the older ornateness rather than the plain style of James I.
According to Christopher Hill:
"... we can trace a line from Spenser ... through a group of poets ... ranging from Shakespeare, Drayton, the two Fletchers, William Browne and Samuel Daniel to George Wither".
"A line of poets could be traced from Sidney and Spenser through Sylvester and Browne to Wither— not, admittedly, of a rising quality, but of a consistent political attitude."
Where Hill identifies connections via the aristocratic patrons and politics, Alastair Fowler takes Drayton to be the poetic centre of a group,which besides Wither comprised Browne, John Davies of Hereford, William Drummond of Hawthornden, George Sandys and Joshua Sylvester.
From c.1640 onwards, Wither assumed an overtly prophetic voice. His wide range of publication, in prose as well as various poetic genres over nearly half a century, has left a very uneven impression of his interests and affected his poetic reputation. George Gilfillan wrote that "Wither was a man of real genius, but seems to have been partially insane". Herbert Grierson found something to praise in early love poems, but spoke of "endless diffuse didactic and pious poems, if they can be called poems".
Wither was born in Bentworth, near Alton, in the heart Hampshire, the son of George Wither Senior of that place and his wife, Mary, who was possibly from the family of Hunt. His grandfather, Richard Wither, lived at Manydown in Wootton St Lawrence, where the family had resided since at least 1344. His early schooling took place under Rev. John Greaves, the father of John, Sir Edward and Thomas Greaves. Between the ages of fifteen and seventeen he studied at Magdalen College, Oxford. Despite his neighbors' advice that his father put him to some mechanic trade, he was sent to one of the Inns of Chancery, eventually obtaining an introduction at Court.
It is thought that he spent some time in Ireland, perhaps with Adam Loftus at Rathfarnham Castle. He wrote what amounted to a masque for a wedding that took place there in 1610, of the parents of Francis Willughby.
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.
Imprisonment and release
Some time between 1611 and 1613 he wrote Abuses Stript and Whipt, twenty satires directed against Revenge, Ambition, Lust. These satires — aimed at exposing "th'abuses of these wicked Times" — achieved some popular success and there were seven printings from 1613 to 1617.] The volume included a poem called "The Scourge", in which the Lord Chancellor was attacked, and a series of epigrams. Despite the fact that the satires referenced nobody by name, and that Wither had published them a year before with no trouble, he was arrested for libel "on or about 20 March 1614" and held in the Marshalsea prison for four months before being released.
In A Satyre: Dedicated to His Most Excellent Majestie, Wither made a bold appeal to King James for his release, claiming that he had "not sought to scandalize the state, nor sowne sedition." The cause for his initial imprisonment is somewhat unclear, as the Abuses were in fact very general, and had not satirized any one person by name.
Charles Lamb commented "that a man should be convicted of libel when he named no names but Hate, and Envy, and Lust, and Avarice, is like one of the indictments 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'."
This view has been held by most later critics and scholars, in addition to the possibility of earlier editions containing text which was erased in later editions.Several scholars in the late 19th and early 20th centuries also claimed that Wither had offended Lord Chancellor Ellesmere with one of the verses in Abuses. This claim, however, was rejected by Pritchard, who blames the misreading of the verses.
Pritchard makes the case that the reason for Wither's imprisonment was that he angered Henry Howard, 1st Earl of Northampton, by accusing him and others of colluding with the Spanish—and Catholic—government. Pritchard mentions that Northampton was at the height of his power when Wither was arrested, and notes that he was not able to secure his release until after Northampton's death in June 1614.
Pastoral and later satires
He was early known in the pastoral genre. 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. 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). It is largely allegorical.The fourth of these eclogues contains a famous passage in praise of poetry; the poets are explicit that pastoral is just a preliminary to other work.
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.
Ben Jonson turned satire back on Wither, portrayed as the Chronomastix of the masque Time Vindicated. Wither avenged himself, by a reference to Jonson's drunken conclave. He was obliged to print this book with his own hand, in consequence of his quarrel with the Stationers Company.
Psalmody and hymnody
Wither had begun as a moderate in politics and religion, but his Puritan leanings became more pronounced, as he moved from an Arminian to a more Calvinist position. His later work consists of religious poetry, and of controversial and political tracts. From 1614 he began to work on a new psalm translation, a project in tune with the circle round Sir Edwin Sandys that Wither frequented.
Preparation to the Psalter (1619) was an early work in English on literary aspects of the Bible, and initiated a campaign by Wither to substitute his own writings for the dominant psalms.
His Hymnes and Songs of the Church (1622–1623) were aimed to counter exclusive psalmody, represented by the Sternhold and Hopkins Psalter. Orlando Gibbons provided tunes for some of them.They 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 defended himself in The Schollers Purgatory (1624).
Some more of Wither's religious poetry is contained in Heleluiah: or Britain's Second Remembrancer, which was printed in Holland in 1641. This work assumed the knowledge of metrical psalms. Besides hymns, the book contains songs, 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").
Under Charles I
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.
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 the emblem book 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. In 1636 he translated The Nature of Man by Nemesius.
Civil War soldier
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.
A reported episode from 1642 or 1643 has Wither with Henry Marten mocking the coronation regalia. At this time, in any case, Wither's views were converging with those of the advocates of true popular sovereignty, and his political poem Vox Pacifica called for a purge of Parliament.
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.
Commonwealth and Restoration
He became a political and religious writer using verse as his medium. He is considered to stand out as a supporter of the Commonwealth who also proposed a more egalitarian social vision.] His Respublica Anglicana (1650) was a reply to the Anarchia Anglicana (1649) of Theodorus Verax (Clement Walker), a Presbyterian opponent of the Independents. It defended 'engagement', the notion that recognition of the Parliamentary regime should be required.
A small place given him by the Protector was forfeited after Wither expressed criticism of Cromwell. He was involved in 11 court cases, from 1643 to 1661, including Onslow's libel suit over the poem Justiarius Justificatus. At the Restoration he was arrested, and remained in prison for three years.
He was a conforming Anglican; but by this time he had moved closer to the Quakers. In Parallelogrammaton (1662) he compared to them as predecessors the prophets Ezekiel and Habakkuk.
He died in London.
His extant writings, noted by Thomas Park in Brydges's British Bibliographer, number over a hundred. Wither wrote, generally, in a pure English idiom, and preferred the reputation of rusticity. According to the Dunciad "Withers, Ward, and Gildon rest" together "Safe, where no Critics damn, no duns molest".
After a period of neglect, George Ellis anthologised Wither in Specimens of the Early English Poets (1790). Samuel Egerton Brydges published The Shepherds Hunting (1814), Fidelia (1815) and Fair Virtue (1818), and a selection appeared in Ezekiel Sanford's Works of the British Poets, vol. v. (1819).
Most of Wither's works were edited in twenty volumes for the Spenser Society (1871–82); 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 The Poetry of George Wither was edited by Frank Sidgwick in 1902.
A selection of Wither's hymns was published in 2011 by The Phoenix Press in The Gibbons Songbook. Whilst primarily a realisation of the tunes Orlando Gibbons wrote for The Hymns and Songs of the Church a selection of verses from the hymns is paired with the original verses from the King James Bible which inspired Wither to create the hymns.