(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

George Wither 1588-1667

English poet, pamphleteer, and satirist.

A prolific and enormously successful poet and pamphleteer, George Wither saw his role as a writer as a dual one: as a public poet whose duty was to instruct and advise the people and their rulers, and as a prophetic writer whose responsibility was to admonish and correct. In the turbulent period before and during the Interregnum, Wither's willingness to address controversial subjects repeatedly resulted in his imprisonment. Moreover, his shifts in political allegiance between the Crown and Parliament, together with the diversity of his output, from political satires to personal supplications to versifications of biblical psalms, led to his long-persistent reputation as inconstant and erratic. Recently, however, the wide contemporary popularity and topical subject matter of Wither's compositions has resulted in a renewed appreciation of them as the works of a professional writer who was deeply engaged in the events of his time.

Biographical Information

Born June 11, 1588, in Bentworth, Hampshire, Wither was the son of George and Mary Hunt Wither. The family was prosperous and, as he later described in Britain's Remembrancer (1628), he enjoyed an easy and luxurious childhood. He was educated locally, first by a relative and then by an area schoolmaster, before entering Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1603. He left Oxford a few years later, without earning a degree, and his activities are unknown during the next five years; there is some evidence in his poetry that he traveled to Ireland and some speculation by literary historians that he served in the military there under the command of Sir Thomas Ridgway. He began writing poetry and one of his early satires, Abuses Stript and Whipt (1613) led to his imprisonment in Marshalsea Prison. After his release in 1615 Wither entered Lincoln's Inn to study law but rarely made use of his legal training, preferring to earn his living as a professional writer. He entered the national debate on religious toleration as a moderate and continued publishing political satires, which led to his second incarceration in 1621. After 1623 Wither's reputation as a poet began to decline, and he became embroiled in a lengthy legal dispute with the Company of Stationers over a patent granted him by James I for his Hymnes and Songs of the Church (1623). Sometime in the late 1620s or early 1630s, Wither married Elizabeth Emerton, to whom he was greatly devoted; the couple had two children, Elizabeth and Robert.

Although Wither had long supported the royal family, if not their ministers, he parted company with Charles I in 1642 and sided with the Parliamentary cause. During the Civil War he resumed his life in the military, first as a captain, then as a major, but he continued to produce both poetry and prose throughout the conflict. In 1646 he published Justitiarius Justificatus, in which he accused a prominent member of Parliament of royalist sympathies, resulting in his third incarceration, this time in Newgate Prison. During the 1640s Wither's writings became more and more personal, reflecting his growing discontent and his many grievances against a variety of individuals and institutions. Much of his work during this period consisted of moralizing prophecies and appeals for money, first to Parliament and later to the Crown. Although he left London for a village in Hampshire during the final days of the Commonwealth, he returned after the Restoration, was arrested, and yet again consigned to Newgate. After his release in 1663 Wither returned to his home in the Savoy and resumed writing until his death in London on May 2, 1667.

Major Works

Wither's first published works were prompted by events in the lives of the royal family: an elegiac poem, Prince Henries Obsequies (1612), composed on the death of Henry, Prince of Wales, and Epithalamia (1613), dedicated to Princess Elizabeth on her wedding day. His next work, far more controversial, was the satiric verse Abuses Stript and Whipt, for which he was imprisoned in the Marshalsea. While there, Wither wrote the pastoral The Shepheards Hunting (1614), which some critics consider his finest poetry, and A Satyre: Dedicated to His Most Excellent Majestie (1614), in which he defended his earlier work, thereby securing his release from prison. Wither published several religious texts over the next few years as the nation struggled with the question of religious toleration. Sharing James I's interest in the Psalms, and perhaps wishing to publish less-controversial material after his imprisonment, he produced A Preparation to the Psalter (1619), a prose essay on the Psalms. He then began the task of versifying the Psalms and hymns of the Old Testament, resulting in The Songs of the Old Testament (1621) and Hymnes and Songs of the Church. Meanwhile, however, Wither again composed a lengthy satiric poem, the enormously popular Wither's Motto (1621), which led to his second incarceration.

In 1628 Wither published one of his most famous works, Britain's Remembrancer, a lengthy prophecy warning James I against the duplicity of one of his favorite advisors. In this work and in the many other prophetic works he produced throughout his lifetime, Wither maintained that England's troubles, including the plague of 1625, were the result of God's displeasure with the monarchy and with the English citizenry. Turning to less controversial matters, in 1635 Wither published A Collection of Emblemes, based on the ancient and modern emblems of Gabriel Rollenhagen, each accompanied by an explanatory verse composed by Wither, and in 1641 he published Halelujah, a collection of hymns dedicated to Parliament. Two years later Wither explained his return to military service and justified his stance against the monarchy in Campo-Musae (1643). Many of his later works were considered self-serving efforts to defend himself against various charges or to detail his personal sufferings and misfortune. In one such diatribe, Justitiarius Justificatus, Wither defended his abandonment of Farnham Castle during a Royalist attack—for which he had been widely criticized—by shifting the blame to his superior, Sir Richard Onslow.

Critical Reception

Although much of Wither's early work was well received by the public, his reputation had already begun to wane by the mid-1620s. In his later years and after his death, he was known more as a contentious and litigious troublemaker than a serious literary figure. His work was neglected and apparently forgotten until the end of the eighteenth century, when a number of his publications were reissued. In the early nineteenth century Charles Lamb published an essay on Wither's poetry, and in the 1870s and early 1880s, Wither's entire canon was reprinted by the Spenser Society of Manchester. Modern criticism has been mixed. Rosemary Freeman has acknowledged Wither's limitations as a poet, but has claimed nonetheless that the verses he composed to accompany his collection of emblems demonstrate “a gift of exposition suitable for the form,” as well as “a genuine quality of emotion.” Many scholars have commented on the contrast between Wither's early work and his later literary output, among them William B. Hunter, Jr., who has maintained that the poet's best work appeared before 1622 and that the large amount of verse produced during the remainder of his long and prolific writing career became “the synonym for bad poetry for the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—garrulous, pedantic, and dull.” Christopher Hill has observed that “Wither's sad deterioration is usually attributed to his vision of himself as an inspired prophet with a message for the English people.”

Despite the generally negative assessment of Wither's verse, his career has often been compared to John Milton's. Norman E. Carlson, discussing Wither's preoccupation with his personal complaints in his later writings, has claimed that “Wither did in little what Milton had done on a grand scale in Areopagitica—translate personal grievance into literature.” Joseph Loewenstein has praised Wither's contribution to the contemporary discourse on intellectual property, comparing him to Milton, who is usually credited with developing the concept of authorship in early modern England. Loewenstein, however, has proposed Wither as “the great historiographer of early modern authorship, or at least of that important aspect of authorship that was constituted specifically as a trade function.” Christopher Hill has suggested that despite the considerable difference in the literary reputations of Wither and Milton, there are many similarities in their political careers, as well as in their personal views on both politics and religion. In his study of Wither's role in the seventeenth-century discourse on the “Jewish Question,” Jeffrey S. Shoulson claimed that although the poet's early pastoral eclogues led scholars to classify him as a Spenserian, his later verse represented “a decidedly prophetic and didactic strain of poetry—Miltonic in ambition, if not in success.” Still, according to Shoulson, Wither's reputation in relation to Milton's was surprisingly positive in the seventeenth century; in fact, the poet's popularity with his contemporaries was such that in his own time he “enjoyed a reputation that matched, and on occasion surpassed, that of Spenser and Milton.”