There is a story that when George Wither, an officer in the parliamentary forces during the English Civil War, was captured by the Royalists, he was in danger of being executed. But the Royalist and poet Sir John Denham is said to have interceded successfully for Wither on the ground that as long as Wither lived, Denham could not be accounted the worst poet in England. This story and the overwhelming quantity of his literary production—Wither claimed to have written eighty-six separate works by 1660—have done much over the ages to damage the poet’s reputation. The truth is that at his best Wither is a fine poet.
After two years at Oxford, Wither was in London in 1605 studying law. Among his first publications was a group of poems, mostly sonnets in the Shakespearean form, titled PRINCE HENRY’S OBSEQUIES, published in 1612. This collection, occasioned by the death of Prince Henry, was largely courtly in tone, as was EPITHALAMIA, which appeared in the next year, a volume of gratulatory poems on the wedding of Princess Elizabeth. However, Wither’s most sincere feelings were not with the life of the court and the city, which, it appears, he had learned to loathe. This is the burden of his first important and successful volume, ABUSES STRIPT AND WHIPT, a collection of scathing satires.
The book went through four editions in the year it was published. Wither’s purpose he says, was to “teach my rough satiric rimes/To be as mad and idle as the times.” He divided the volume into two parts, the first containing sixteen satires which in safe general terms denounced such depraving passions as Revenge, Ambition, Lust. The second part contained four satires “Of the Vanity, Inconstancy, Weakness and presumption of Men.” These poems were rather more specific. Among other things the poet condemned in strong words the new knights, vain preachers, and dishonest lawyers of the universities. He also attacked the court and the courtiers, and in a poem called “The Scourge” he attacked the Lord Chancellor. Moreover, Wither managed to disagree with a recent policy of truce with Spain. On the positive side, Wither fulsomely praised contemporary poets and drama. The style of the satires is witty and biting, and they are written in pleasingly fluid rhyming couplets. The major result of the book as far as Wither was concerned, however, was several months imprisonment in Marshalsea.
During his imprisonment, the poet wrote, among his less important works, THE SHEPERD’S HUNTING, a collection of five pastorals. The fourth of these poems contains a well-known passage in praise of poetry. One of the major purposes of this volume, however, was to justify allegorically his ABUSES STRIPT AND WHIPT. Wither’s technique was to use the traditional pastoral, the allegorical dialogue form best known in English in Spenser’s THE SHEPHEARDES CALENDAR. Adopting the name of Philarete (“lover of virtue”) a name he used for himself in some of his later poetry also, Wither pleaded his case to another Shepherd, Willy.
After his release from prison, primarily due to the intervention of Princess Elizabeth, Wither published his FIDELIA....
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