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It is no flaming lustre made of light,
No sweet concent, or well-timed harmony,
Ambrosia, for to feast the appetite,
Or flowery odour mixt with spicery,
No soft embrace, or pleasure bodily;
And yet it is a kind of inward feast,
A harmony that sounds within the breast,
An odour, light, embrace, in which the soul doth rest.
Although several poems had appeared in Italy, founded upon the life and resurrection of our Saviour, Fletcher claims the merit of having been the earliest of our own poets who strung his lyre to this noble theme. In the management of the subject he was naturally influenced by the character of the Fairy Queen. Spenser died in 1598-9. At this time Fletcher could scarcely have been more than twelve or thirteen years old; but it is evident that his study of that charming poem commenced in childhood. In the preceding remarks it has been sometimes necessary to bring Fletcher into direct comparison with Milton. The peculiar excellencies of the Paradise Regained and Christ's "Victory, are not difficult to define. In Scriptural simplicity of conception, and in calm and sustained dignity of tone, the palm of superiority must be awarded to Milton; while in fertility of fancy, earnestness of devotion, and melody of expression, Fletcher may be said to rival his sublime successor. Christ's Victory consists of a series of pictures; it is deficient in unity, and in the concentration of interest demanded by an epic poem. The power of the writer comes out in occasional touches of great vigour and beauty, indeed, but rendered comparatively ineffective by their uncertainty. His poem, to employ his own magnificent image, does not blaze like a rock of diamond. It has not the lustre of one great luminous whole, unbroken in the purity of its splendour; its brilliancy is dazzling, but fragmentary. Fletcher drew his sacred imagery from Spenser; Milton from the Bible. The first flashes; the second shines.
The life of Phineas Fletcher, though equally studious and retired, seems to have been more happy and tranquil than that of his brother. He was admitted from Eton, a scholar of King's College, Cambridge, of which he became a Fellow. In 1621, Sir Heury Willoughby presented him to the living of Hilgay, in Norfolk, which he probably retained until his death, about 1650. In that year he was succeeded by Arthur Tower, who was appointed by the Committee of plundered ministers *.
The poems of Fletcher, although not published until he was "entering upon his winter," we learn from the dedication to Mr. Edward Benlowes, were the "raw essays" of his "very unripe years." Of his principal composition, The Purple Island, it does not come within my plan to give an elaborate account. It was praised by Cowley, and Quarles addressed the author as the Spenser of the age. Much of the picturesque fancy of the Fairy Queen certainly plays over the ingenious eccentricities of The Purple Island. Fletcher possessed, in no small degree, the same rich imagination, the same love of allegorical extravagances, and the same sweetness and occasional majesty of numbers. But of all the qualities required to form a poet, he was especially deficient in taste, in that sense of the soul, which, by a kind of Ithuriel instinct, examines every image and epithet, and rejects them when not accordant with the dignity of the art. No man of genius, with the exception of Fletcher, and Quarles, who meditated a poem on a similar subject, would have thought
* Blomefield's Essay towards a Topographical History of the County of Norfolk, 11 vols. 8vo. London, 1805-10, v. 7, p. 373. Mr. Chalmens, who refers to this History, takes no notice of its author's error in calling P. Fletcher the brother of the Bishop of London, who, we have seen, was his uncle.
of versifying the structure of the human body. The medical acquirements of the author must have been considerable. But in the midst of all the wearying minutiae of physiological details, the reader is sometimes refreshed by touches of pure and natural description, worthy of Thomson or Burns. How exquisite is this picture of the lark :—
The cheerful lark, mounting from early bed,
The earth she left, and up to heaven is fled—
Purple Island, c. 9, St. 2.
The apostrophe to tb,e fallen empires of the world is sublimely conceived, and vigorously embodied:—
Fond man, that looks on earth for happiness,
And here long seeks what here is never found!
Why shouldst thou here look for perpetual good,
At every loss 'gainst heaven's face repining?
There now the hart, fearless of greyhound, feeds,
Where is the Assyrian lion's golden hide,
That all the east once grasped in lordly paw?
Hardly the place of such antiquity,
Only a fading verbal memory,
But when this second life and glory fades, And sinks at length in time's obscurer shades, A second fall succeeds, and double death invades.
That monstrous beast, which nursed in Tiber's fen,
Did all the world with hideous shape affray;
And that black vulture, which with dreadful wing
And life itself's as fleet as is the air we breathe.
It has been the fashion among critics and readers of poetry to regard Wither only as a fanatical rhymer, and an intemperate puritan; yet, through the longest and brightest period of his life, he was neither. A puritan, indeed, in its true signification, he never was. It has been well observed, that no man is written down except by himself. Wither's political follies had, during his later years, been gradually erasing from the public remembrance the sweetness of his early poetry; and the wit and festivity accompanying the Restoration, tended still more to depress his fame. The accomplished Rochester and his companions held the popular mind in a more silken bondage. From the criticism and taste of that season, Wither could not hope either for favour or justice. The virulence of party feelings obscured the judgment even of the antiquary Wood; he saw in Locke a prating fellow, and in Milton a villanous incendiary. That Wood, in another place, rendered homage to the singer of Paradise Lost, only proves that the partisan was lost for a while in the admirer of that immortal composition. In days when Milton was only a blind old man, Wither had no right to complain that his poems "were accounted mere scribbles, and the fancies of a conceited and confident mind." Heylin had long before called him an old puritan satirist; and Butler, in his Hudibras, made him the drunken companion of the voluminous Prynne, and the despicable Vicars. Philips, in the Theatrum Poetarum, added his mite of contumely; and Dryden, Swift, and Pope, did not forget