« AnteriorContinuar »
Giles Fletcher, the author of one of the finest religious poems to which the seventeenth century gave birth, has not received the attention due to his genius, either from his contemporaries, or from posterity. Yet in him and his brother Phineas we behold the two most gifted followers of Spenser; in their hands the torch of allegorical poetry was extinguished, until it was rekindled, after many years, by Dryden, in the Hind and Panther; and by Thomson, in the Castle of Indolence. Browne, indeed, was an admirer and an imitator of Spenser, but in his pastoral vein, rather than in the arabesque imagery of the Fairy Queen. Of Giles Fletcher's life little has hitherto been told, and that little imperfectly. Mr. Chalmers has reprinted Christ's Victory, with a prefatory notice of the writer, in his edition of the British Poets, but without adding much, if anything, to the previous stock of knowledge. In the following memoir something has, perhaps, been accomplished towards the illustration of the poet's history, and the additional facts relating to his father will not, it is trusted, be uninteresting.
Dr. Giles Fletcher, the father of the poet, was the brother of Richard Fletcher, bishop of London. Having been educated at Eton in 1565, he was elected to King's College, Cambridge, where, in 1569, he took the degree of B.A.; that of M.A. in 1573; and LL.D. in 1581. Anthony Wood says that he became an excellent poet. The only specimens of his poetical talent I have seen are the verses upon the death of "Walter Haddon*.
Fletcher's political talents appear to have been highly
* Haddon was a member of King's College, and one of the most eminent men of the age.
appreciated by Elizabeth, who employed him as her Commissioner in Scotland, Germany, and the Low Countries. I have ascertained that he sat in Parliament in 1585, with Herbert Pelham, Esq., for the then flourishing town of Winchelsea*. In 1588, the memorable year of the Armada, he was sent to Russia, where he concluded a treaty with the Czar, beneficial to English commerce. Soon after his return, he published his observations upon that country; they were, however, soon suppressed, and not reprinted until 1643. They were afterwards incorporated in Hackluyt's Voyages.
The worthy Fuller informs us that, upon Fletcher's arrival in London, he sent for his intimate friend Mr. Wayland, prebendary of St. Paul's, and tutor to Fullers father, "with whom he expressed his thankfulness to God for his return from so great a danger." The quaint historian, in his careless way, talks of the emperor being habited in blood, and adds that, if he had cut off the ambassador's head, he and his friends might have sought their own amends; but, says he, the question is, "where he would have found it." The reigning monarch was Theodore Ivanowich, and Dr Fletcher expressly assures us that "he was verie gentle, of an easie nature, quiet and mercyful." P. 110, ed. 1591.
On his return, Fletcher was made secretary (townclerk) to the city of London, and one of the Masters of the Court of Requests. The situation of treasurer of St. Paul's he seems to have resigned in 1610. His death is thought to have taken place in the same year.
He also wrote a very curious Discourse concerning the Tartars, which Whiston reprinted in his Memoirs.
Giles Fletcher, the poet, we are told by Fuller, was bom in the city of Londont, and according to Mr. Chalmers's
* Kotitia Parliamentaria, vol. iii. p. 107.
t Worthiesof England, vol. ii. London, p.82, ed. Nichols, 1811.
conjecture, about the year 1588. Fuller received bis information from Mr. Rainsey, who married the poet's widow; and it is to be regretted that his account is so brief and uncircumstantial. Fletcher's birth may probably be carried back two or three years, for we shall presently find him hailing the accession of James in 1603, in strains such as a boy of fourteen or fifteen could scarcely be expected to produce. He was sent, it appears, at an early age, to Westminster School, from which he is said to have been elected to Trinity College, Cambridge. This is the relation of Fuller; but I am unable to reconcile it with the declaration of Giles Fletcher himself. In the dedication of Christ's Victory, to Dr. Nevil, he speaks, with all the ardour of a young and noble heart, of the kindness he had experienced from that excellent man. He mentions his having reached down " as it were out of heaven, a benefit of that nature and price, than which he could wish none (only heaven itself excepted) either more fruitful and contenting for the time that is now present, or more comfortable and encouraging for the time that is already past, or more hopeful and promising for the time that is yet to come." And further on, he expressly states that he was placed in Trinity College by Dr. Nevil's "only favour, most freely, without either any means from other, or any desert" in himself. This praise could not have been consistent with truth, if Fletcher had obtained his election from Westminster School; and a careful examination of the Register Books enables me to add that he was not upon the Foundation. Nevil merited the laudatory epithet applied to him by Camden*, whether we look upon him as the public benefactor of the college over which he presided, or in the still more endearing character of the benevolent and disinterested patron of the poor and the learned. Bishop Hacket, also, was a partaker of his gene• "Magnificent."
rosity. Plume informs us, in his life of that prelate, that when Hacket's father, although personally unknown to Dr. Nevil, applied to him for his interest to procure his son's election from Westminster to Trinity College, the worthy master replied, that the boy should go to Cambridge, "or he would carry him on his own back." I shall have occasion to recur to Nevil in the life of Herbert*.
The accession of James furnished an universal theme of joy and gratulation; "the very poets with their idle pamphlets," writes that unwearied correspondent, Mr. Chamberlain, "promise themselves great part in his favourt." The University of Cambridge put forth its welcome under the ingenious title of Sorrowe's JoyJ, and the writers evinced their skill in blending their mourning with gladness, and while they lamented that "Phoebe"' was gone, they remembered that a " Phoebus" was shining in her place§.
The contribution of Giles Fletcher—A Canto upon the Death of Elba—is the most poetical in the collection. It is a pastoral allegory, conceived in a spirit of grace and elegance. The monosyllabic terminations of the following lines produce an inharmonious effect, but the imagery is very rural.
Tell me, sad Philomel, that yonder sit'st
Piping thy songs unto the dancing twig,
So let the friendly prickle never dig
* For an interesting notice of Dr. Nevil, the reader is referred to Todd's Account of the Deans of Canterbury. He was appointed to the mastership of Trinity College by Queen Elizabeth in 1592-3, and we learn from a MS. quoted by Mr. Todd, and in his own possession, that before the departure of James from the University in 1614-15, he visited Dr. Nevil, who was too infirm to leave his rooms, and after having thanked him for the generosity and splendour of his entertainment, he concluded by saying that he was proud of sack a subject.
t In a letter to Sir Dudley Carleton, April 13, 1603. Printed in Nichols's Progresses of King James I.
X Sorrowe's Joy,or a Lamentation for our DeceasedSoveraigne Elizabeth, with a Triumph for the Prosperous Succession of our Gratious King James. Printed by John Legat, printer to the University of Cambridge, 1603.
§ See verses in Sorrowe's Joy, by H. Campion, of Emanuel College. VOL. I. F
Thy watchful breast, with wound or small or big, Whereon thou leanest; so let the hissing snake Sliding with shrinking silence, never take Th' unwary foot, while thou, perchance, hang'st half awake.
The picture of the snake "sliding with shrinking silence," is very happily imagined. It would be impossible more vividly to represent the sudden rustling of the leaves, and the "shrinking" stillness that follows. The idea is partly borrowed from Virgil. The verses upon the " velvetheaded violets," sparkle with the conceits of the Italian school:
So let the silver dew but lightly lie.
Like little watery worlds, within your azure sky.
This image might Lave dropped from the pencil of Spenser. Every wanderer in our green lanes on a spring morning must have seen these "little watery worlds."
Phineas Fletcher has a poem in the same volume, dated from King's College, but very inferior to his brother's.
Fuller says of Christ's Victory, that it discovered the piety of a saint and the divinity of a doctor; the piety is more evident than the theological skill. The first edition appeared at Cambridge in 1610, and a second was not required until 1632. It is sufficiently clear, therefore, that the poem could not have been popular; and Phineas Fletcher, in some verses addressed to his brother upon its publication, entreats him not to esteem the censure of "malicious tongues*!" That he was dissatisfied with the reception of his work, may be inferred from the circumstance of his relinquishing the cultivation of the Muse, and applying himself to the study of scholastic divinity; the biographer of the Worthies informs us, that, though "cross to the grain of his genius," he attained to " good skill therein." We learn from the same writer, that
* " Upon my brother, Mr. G. F., his book, intituled Christ's Victorie and Triumph."