George Wither was the son of a Hampshire gentleman. He was sent to Oxford in 1603, where he apparently did not do well. Two years later, at the age of seventeen, he left the university without graduating and went to London, where he entered one of the Inns of Chancery to study law. He was eventually introduced at court. In 1612 and 1613, respectively, he wrote an elegy on the death of Prince Henry and a poem celebrating the marriage of Princess Elizabeth. In 1613 he also published his collection of satires, Abuses Stript, and Whipt, in which, among other unwise things, he insulted the lord chancellor. The poet was imprisoned for a few months but was released at the intercession of Princess Elizabeth.
While in prison, Wither continued to write. After his release he was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn (1615); the same year he published Fidelia, the book containing his best-known lyric, “Shall I, wasting in despair.” By 1621 he was again writing satire, publishing Wither’s Motto, a biting poem that is said to have quickly sold thirty thousand copies and which again landed him in jail with charges of libel. He was soon released without trial, however, and in 1622 he published Faire-Virtue, the Mistresse of Phil’arete, his best single volume of poetry. This book was a watershed in Wither’s career; it ended what he later called his juvenilia.
Most of the rest of his writing is religious in character. Wither...
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