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Art. VI. - Lives of Sacred Poets : containing a Bio
graphical and Critical View of English Sacred Poetry during the Reigns of Elizabeth, James, and Charles the First. By Robert Aris Williott, Esq., of Trinity College, Cambridge. To the lovers of whatever is old, because it is old, and to the lovers of what is good, because it is good, whether old or not, this volume will be a source of great pleasure. It has been published with the above title, “under the direction of the Committee of general literature and education, appointed by the Society for promoting Christian Knowledge” in England. The first series only has reached this country.
The object of the work, as the author states in his preface, is not to furnish a history of English Sacred Poetry; "a rapid view of some of its principal cultivators, in addition to the more extended memoirs, was all that could be offered. This object appeared likely to be attained by the interspersion of occasional biographical and critical sketches, together with specimens."
The present volume commences with an introduction, in which are given brief notices of several poets who employed their genius upon sacred subjects previous to the seventeenth century. “It should never be forgotten,” says our author, “in speaking of Chaucer, that he was among the first to resort to that precious fountain which his contemporary Wickliffe had opened, and that he drank of the water springing up to everlasting life.'"
From the death of Chaucer to the reign of Henry VIII. a blank ensues in English literature. The Reformation which began under Henry, while it gave a vast impulse to the human mind in every department of thought, most especially affected the species of literature we are considering. The book of books was then unsealed; and we at the present day, when Bibles are in every house, can hardly conceive with what eager eyes its pages were pored over, and with what panting hearts its truths and promises were meditated. The stream, that had been for ages dammed up, was set free. The imagination, that had been priest-bound, leaped for joy to find itself at liberty to “wander through eternity," and form a paradise for itself, without consulting the formulas of the Church. Then Poetry, that had left the earth a prey to ignorance, superstition, and tyranny, descended again from the
heaven to which she had flown, and resumed her sway over the hearts of men. The imaginations and affections, that had been shut out by spiritual despotism from the garden of religion, and had been driven to the haunts of vulgarity and earth-born vice, returned to drink at the holy wells that had so long been closed; the faith of the Christian and the aspirations of genius, which had been most unnaturally dissevered, were again united; the devotion of the worshipper and the enthusiasm of the bard flowed once more in the same channel ; poet and prophet became one ; the first fruits of genius were laid upon the altar ; and God was honored, as he should ever be, in the gifts he had bestowed.
And it might with reason have been expected, that the Scriptures, upon being opened to the public eye, should awaken and bring to life whatever of poetry lay concealed in the community. They are not only depositories of truths valuable to every individual, because connected intimately with every individual's present and future welfare, but they abound in brilliant pictures for the imagination ; their solid and substantial contents are inlaid with the diamond ornaments of Eastern poetry, which throw a splendid lustre over their pages, making them as delectable to the taste, as they are invigorating to the moral and spiritual nature of man. It is true, the first attempts at sacred verse in England were rude, of which the version of the Psalms in Edward the Sixth's time, by Sternhold and Hopkins, is an example. But a new era was about to commence. The sky of English literature was red with the rising glory of Spenser, and his Faery Queen walked forth with blended majesty and sweetness to captivate all hearts. The poet designed in this work, it seems, "to represent all the moral virtues, assigning to every virtue a knight, to be the patron and defender of the same; in whose actions, the feats of arms and chivalry, the operations of that virtue whereof he is the protector, are to be expressed ; and the vices and unruly appetites that oppose themselves against the same, are to be beaten down and overcome.”
Among the poets noticed by Mr. Willmott in his Introduction is Robert Southwell. He belonged to the society of Jesuits, and in 1592 was imprisoned on a charge of sedition. After an imprisonment of three years, he was condemned, and executed at Tyburn. We copy the following verses from his lines “Upon the Picture of Death." VOL. XVII. N. S. VOL. XIII. NO. II.
“The gown which I do use to wear,
The knife wherewith I cut my meat,
Which is my only usual seat:
And yet my life amend not I.
of my mates are gone ;
And can I think to 'scape alone ?
And yet my life amend not I.” Francis Davison is another of the early poets noticed by our author. He was the son of Mr. Davison, Secretary to Elizabeth. The genius with which he was gifted, formed a beautiful compensation for the reverses of fortune that visited him. Like David, whom he copied, his harp was his companion in the wilderness of his sorrows, and it seems to have been ever vocal with the sweet strains of piety and love. The following verse from the 130th Psalm has music for the ear and the heart too.
“My soul, base earth despising,
More longs with God to be,
Tired watchmen watch to see.” The principal part of the volume we are noticing consists of the biographies of Fletcher, Wither, Quarles, Herbert, and Crashaw, with selections from their works. Giles Fletcher was author of a sacred poem called “ Christ's Victory,” first published in the year 1610. We agree with Mr. Willmott, that in the following stanza “every word is full of beautiful meaning.” A writer who could pen such lines ought surely to be rescued from dust and worms. “ No sorrow now hangs clouding on their brow,
No bloodless malady empales their face,
No unchaste sleep their precious time deflowers,
The biography of Wither is the longest and most interesting contained in the volume before us. His life, which was a long one, was crowded with interesting incidents. He lived during a period of great excitement and feverish activity, and his ardent temper forced him into the thickest press of the times. One of his earliest productions was a satirical poem entitled “ Abuses Stript and Whipt,” written by him in a season of disappointment, and, as is frequently the case with satire, more productive of harm to the writer than of good to the community. His imprudence in this work caused him to be thrown into prison. Here he suffered much; but his vigorous mind, conscious of honest intentions, rose above his situation, and he composed in the Marshalsea prison many poems, among others, “ The Shepherd's Hunting,” a pastoral of great beauty. The following extract from “A Prisoner's Lay,' will show that Wither could derive from his gloomy dungeon the most sublime reflections.
“Or when through me thou seest a man
Think if in that such grief thou see,
How sad will ‘Go, ye cursed' be!
Then think between thy heart and thee,
How glad will • Come, ye blessed' be ! ” We wish we had room also for the exquisite address to Poetry from “ The Shepherd's Hunting."
Afier Wither's liberation, appeared his poem called " The Motto.” “Not the least singular part of The Motto,'” says his biographer, “is the frontispiece. The author is represented sitting on a rock, with gardens, houses, woods, and meadows, spread beneath him, to which he points with his finger, holding a ribband, on which is written Nec habeo, ‘Nor have 1.' At his feet is a globe of the earth, with the words, Nec curo, Nor care l.' The poet himself sits with eyes uplifted towards heaven, from which a ray of light descends, and from his lips proceed, Nec careo, ‘Nor want I.?”
Among Wither's numerous works was the “ Preparation for the Psalter," "a specimen of a voluminous commentary upon the Psalms, which the author never completed.” We give two verses from his paraphrase of the 148th Psalm.
“ Let such things as do not live
In still music praises give :
In this chorus take your place,
Everlasting, as is He."
In 1641 he published “ The Halleluiah, or Britain's Second Remembrancer”; and with this poem, says his biographer," the poetical life of Wither may be considered to have terminated.” The remainder of his mortal career, which extended far into the shades of old age, was any thing but poetical. He had been a friend to royalty and the established church; and it does not appear that he ever became a thorough Puritan, or lost his regard for a well-balanced monarchy. He was honest himself, and probably gave credit for honesty to those who had