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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By George Wither (1588–1667)

THERE is delightful spontaneity and enjoyment of life in George Wither’s early poems. The young cavalier found the world rich and beautiful. His Chaucer-like spirit exulted in nature,—in

  • “—the murmurs of a spring,
  • Or the least bough’s rustling,”
  • and he was intolerant of all meanness and artifice. He was ambitious of royal favor, and meant to merit it. But the state of corruption he found at the court of James I. revolted him, and inspired one of his earliest works. ‘Abuses Stript and Whipt’ is a satire far milder than its title, upon society’s moral obliquities. In spite of its general, impersonal tone, the poem invited resentment, and its author was punished by imprisonment in the Marshalsea. There he beguiled the tedium by writing ‘The Shepherd’s Hunting,’—a pleasant pastoral, and one of his most beautiful poems. Another fine example of his cavalier period is ‘The Mistress of Philarete,’—probably the longest love panegyric in the language. Its gently rambling eclogues are sweet though sometimes tedious; and they end with lovely lyrics, which establish Wither’s fame.

    The ‘Motto’ (1618) is a long naïvely egotistic poem in three parts; the motto being “Nec habeo, nec careo, nec curo.” There is quaint charm in the treatment, and the lines reveal much of his own simple high-minded personality. Perhaps his melody and lyric gift are best exemplified in the well-known “Shall I, wasting in despair,” and ‘The Steadfast Shepherd.’ In later life, when depressed with poverty and Puritanism, Wither repented of much of his early work as sinful. But in a time of license and coarse expression, he was noteworthy for delicacy of sentiment and refinement of taste, which kept him clear of impropriety.

    George Wither was born at Brentworth in Hampshire in 1588. Perhaps the two happiest years of his youth were those he spent at Magdalen College, Oxford. Unfortunately his father desired his aid in the management of his estate, and George was not allowed to take his degree. But he soon tired of country life, and went to London. It was there he formed the friendship with his fellow-poet, William Browne, to whose influence something of his grace and technical skill is due. Few poets have more ably handled octosyllabic verse.

    With the outbreak of the civil war, Wither cast off King and court, and became an ardent Puritan. He sold his lands to equip a company of horse for the Parliamentary army; and henceforth all he wrote reflected his change of view. He was no longer the singer of love songs and light delights. Instead he composed ‘Hymns and Songs of the Church’ (1623); ‘Britain’s Remembrancer’ (1628); ‘Hallelujah’ (1641); and other collections of religious and political poems. Writing thus with a didactic purpose, he lost much of his earlier lyric quality; and these later verses do not entitle him to remembrance.