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"drowned lands" of ancient days, could not be expected to feel much sympathy with one who found music "in the least bough's rustling," and a spirit of sweet poetry in "the yellow broom at his feet."
Wither seems also to have incurred the hatred of Sir William Davenant. Southey* mentions an atrocious libel upon him in one of the plays of that author, where he is introduced in the character of an assassin.
I have already alluded to the Songs and Hymns of the Church. None of the pqet's numerous works possess greater interest. Their history is detailed at length in the Scholler's Purgatory, a pamphlet addressed, about the year 1624, to Archbishop Abbot and the other Bishops of the Convocation, in vindication of the Patent. The Hymns and Songs arose out of a translation of Psalms, of which notice will be subsequently taken. Wither observed that the "excellent expressions of the Holy Ghost" were put forth in rude and barbarous numbers, while "the wanton fancies were painted and trimmed out in the most moving language;" and that the people, like those against whom the prophet Haggai complained, seemed " to dwell in ceiled houses," while the temple of God was laid waste. Seeing, therefore, no other person prepared to make the attempt, he spent about three years in fitting himself for the task of translating the Psalms; but before he "had half ended them," the report "that one of much better proficiency had made a long and happy progress into the work," induced him for a time to relinquish his labours. That his original intention, however, might not be altogether disappointed, at the request of some of the clergy, he translated into lyric verse the hymns dispersed throughout the Canonical Scriptures, to which he subsequently added spiritual songs appropriated to the several times and and occasions observable in the Church of England. It
• In a letter to Sir E. Brydges, April 8, 1836.
was for this collection that the royal patent had been obtained. Wither found a body of most active enemies in the Company of Stationers, who considered their own privileges invaded by his patent. Among other objections, they asserted that the hymns were written for his pecuniary benefit alone, a charge to which he in part pleaded guilty. "My weak fortunes," he says, "my troubles, and thechargeableness of a study that brings with it no outward supply, put me into a kind of necessity, as it were, to cast my thoughts aside unto worldly prospects. But I have since been sorry for it upon better consideration."
His anxiety respecting his Hymns may be pardoned. He had been induced by the kind and flattering favour of the King "to engage his credit almost 300/. further, to divulge the book;" and by the animosity of the stationers, he felt himself deprived not only of all superfluities, but even of the means of subsistence. "For when those■ friends," he adds, " who are engaged for me, are satisfied,, to which purpose there is yet, I praise God, sufficient set apart, I vow, in the faith of an honest man, that there will not be left me in all the world, to defend me against my adversaries and supply the common necessities of nature, so much as will feed me for one week, unless I labour for it."
His vindication of his own fitness for the work he had undertaken is manly and eloquent:—
"I wonder what divine calling Sternhold and Hopkins had more than I have, that their metrical Psalms may be allowed of rather than my Hymns. Surely if to have been groom of the Privy Chamber were sufficient to qualify them, that profession which I am of may as well fit me for what I have undertaken, who having first laid the foundation of my studies in one of our famous Universities, have ever since builded thereon towards the erecting of such fabrics as I have now in hand.
"But I would gladly know by what rule those men discern of spirits, who condemn my work as the endeavour of a private spirit. The time was, men did judge the tree by its fruit; but now they will judge the fruit by the tree. If I have expressed anything repugnant to the analogy of the Christian Faith, or irreverently opposed the orderly and allowed discipline, or dissented in any point from that spirit of verity which breathes through the Holy Catholic Church, then let that which I have done be taxed for the work of a private spirit. Or if it may appear that I have indecently intruded to meddle with those mysteries of our Christian Sanctuary, which the God of order hath, by his Pivine law, reserved for those who have, according to his Ordinance, a special calling thereunto, then, indeed, let me be taxed as deserving both punishment and reproof.
"But if, making conscience of my actions, I observed that seemly distance which may make it appear I intruded not upon ought appropriated to the outward ministry; if, like an honest-hearted Gibeonite, I have but a little extraordinarily laboured to hew wood and to draw water for the Spiritual sacrifices; if, according to the art of the apothecary, I have composed a sweet perfume to offer unto God, in such manner as is proper to my own faculty only, and then brought it to those to whom the consecration thereof belongs; if, keeping my own place, I have laboured for the building up of God's house, as I am bound to do, in offering up of that which God hath given me, and making use, with modesty, of those gifts which were bestowed on me to that purpose; if, I say, the case be so, what blameworthy have I done? Why should those disciples who follow Christ in a nearer place, forbid us from doing good in his name, who follow him further off? Why should they, with Joshua, forbid Eldad and Medad from prophesying, seeing that every good Christian wisheth, with Moses, that God's people were all prophets, and that He would give his spirit to them all."
This passage is interesting on many accounts, especially as showing the sentiments of Wither towards the established Church. In another part of the same pamphlet he declares, in a strain of vigour and richness almost worthy of Jeremy Taylor himself, that neither the swelling impostumations of vain glory, nor the itchings of singularity, nor the ticklings of self-love, nor the convulsions of envy, nor the inflammations of revenge, nor the hunger and thirst of gold, were able to move him to the prosecution of anything repugnant to religion or the authority of the Church*. So highly were the poet's talents and honesty at this time esteemed, that he was even urged to take Holy Orders; and his "possibilities of outward preferments in that way, he tells us, were not the least." But "while no man living more honoured the calling," he considered himself disabled by his own unworthiness, independently of the belief he constantly indulged, that God had appointed him. "to serve him in some other course."
The opposition to his Hymns was violent and unceasing. "Wherever I come," he complained, "one giddy brain or another offers to fall into disputation with me about my Hymns; yea, brokers, and costermongers, and tapsters, and pedlars, and sempsters, and fiddlers, and feltmakers, and all the brotherhood of Amsterdam, have scoffingly passed sentence upon me in their conventicles, at tap-houses and taverns.''
It was natural for him to feel bitterly these attacks of the ignorant and malevolent; and he alludes with pardonable self-satisfaction to the Christian intentions with which the Sacred Songs had been written, and the many hours at midnight he had devoted to their study when his tra
• The same sentiment had been before expressed in the Motto:
ducers were asleep. Their composition had contributed to beguile the tedious and melancholy season of his imprisonment in the Marshalsea. Wither is not the only poet whose harp has given utterance to the sweetest and holiest music while it hung upon the willow-tree. It was in a lonely dungeon at Coimbra, in Portugal, that the accomplished Buchanan prepared his elegant translation of the Psalms. A list of books produced during confinement would be both interesting and instructive. The names of Boethius, of Grotius, and of Baleigh, arise immediately to the memory*.
The Hymns and Songs of the Church are known to many of my readers, and can hardly fail of being admired for their unaffected piety, and plaintive harmony of expression. They breathe a domestic tenderness and simplicity not more rare than precious. Take for example two stanzas from the Thanksgiving for Victory:—
We love thee, Lord, we praise thy name,
This song we therefore sing to Thee,
* I find the following notices in the Journals of the House of Commons. "One hath a patent of sole printing on one side: hath been often warned to bring it in. To have the sergeant-at-arms go for him. Ordered. The like for Wither's patent."—J. of H. of C, May 15, 1624.
"After complaint made against Withers, the sergeant's man, who took him, related at the bar how he was withstood and abused by one at whose house Withers lay. That Withers assisted him, and kept him from wrong."—J. of H. of C, May 22,1624.
It is probable that these extracts apply to our poet.