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PREFACE TO THE FIRST EDITION.
When the biography of Sacred Poets was first suggested to me, my memory reverted with delight to some of the least known of our elder Bards, who adorned the reigns of James and Charles the First,—I recollected that while every other species of our poetry had been illustrated by many able and industrious scholars, the fountains of Holy Song were seldom visited. Warton, in his excellent, though imperfect, history, touches very briefly on the subject; and the subsequent publications of Ellis, Southey, and Campbell, embrace too extensive a period to afford more than a passing glance at the writers of religious verse. The most valuable contribution to this department of our literature, with which I happen to be acquainted, is a little volume of Sacred Specimens, by the Rev. J. Mitford, containing several rare and interesting poems, but unaccompanied by any notices of the writers. This omission is to be regretted, since the Editor's taste and learning seem to have peculiarly fitted him for the task.
My own position was felt to be one of considerable difficulty. An unexplored region lay before me, abounding in treasures sufficient to realize the most enthusiastic expectations, and to compensate for the most persevering toil. But it was necessary to bear in mind, that a history of English Sacred Poetry was not meditated, and that 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. In the collection of these, some patience was required; the pearls were to be found before they could be strung; the abundance of materials, however, constituted the chief in pediment. In the introduction, the amplitude of the theme became particularly apparent. Names kept thronging into my remembrance, which I had not the space to record, and which yet advanced important claims to attention.
Among these may be specified Nicholas Breton, whose poetry interests us in his fate, but the mystery of whose life cannot be removed. Sir E. Brydges inclines to the belief that he may have been a collateral branch of the family who enjoyed the manor of Norton in Northamptonshire. He was certainly known to Ben Jonson, whose encomiastic verses on the “ Melancholike Humours," seem to intimate that the poet's sufferings were not feigned. His “ Extreme Passion” must have been the genuine outpouring of unmitigated wretchedness:
Where all day long in helpless cares,
All hopeless of relief,
The objects of my grief.
In such a waking vein,
That it were day again.
Or else mine eyes are blind;
That comes into my mind;
My comforts are so cold,
To be decrepit, old ;
My fortunes are forlorn,
Unto myself a scorn. In the selection of Wither, I was influenced, not more by the hope of rescuing a writer of true genius from unmerited oblivion, than by the desire of presenting in his person an example of the efficacy of a well-grounded religious confidence upon our thoughts and actions, even when, as in Wither, it has to contend with unsettled opinions and an invincible obstinacy. Without attempting to palliate the fickleness of his political conduct, his resignation under trial may be regarded with respect. Charles Lamb has remarked that his spiritual defences were a perpetual source of inward sunshine; no imprisonment could depress his hopes, no opposition could arrest his feet in any fancied path of duty. In all his afflictions he drank of the fountain within his breast-a fountain nourished by the waters of peace. That he often erred was the misfortune of his nature; that he was frequently right, and always wished to be so, was caused by his religion.
A revival of Wither's poetry may not be unproductive of benefit in a higher sense than literary instruction. In everything he wrote can be traced the workings of an amiable and virtuous spirit. His satirical effusions are · usually recommended by their freedom from personalities.
Whoever expects, it has been well said, to be gratified with the peculiarities which pleased him in the satires of Dryden and Pope, will be disappointed. By Wither, vice and luxury are attacked in general, not in the abstract; as they prevail over the masses of society, not in individuals. No unhappy subject is tortured by heartless experiments in moral anatomy,-a liar, a drunkard, a scoffer, is “stript and whipt."
In his more serious poems we find a cheerfulness and serenity, denoting a mind at peace with itself, and which gave to his prison-lays a sweetness irresistibly touching. His Muse does not demand our admiration by the splendour of her charms, but rather wins our love by the simplicity, the modesty, and the grace of her demeanour. We feel in her presence, as with a beloved friend, whose eyes always strike
A bliss upon the day.