Minor Elizabethan Poets
IN the April number of this magazine we ventured some remarks on the genius of Spenser. In the present we propose to speak of a few of his more eminent contemporaries and successors, who were rated as poets in their own generation, however neglected they may be in ours. We shall select those who have some pretensions to originality of character as well as mind; and though there is no space to mention all who claim the attention of students of literary history, we fear we shall gain the gratitude of the reader for those omitted, rather than for those included, in the survey. Sins of omission are sometimes exalted by circumstances into a high rank among the negative virtues.
Among the minor poets of this era were two imitators of Spenser, — Phineas and Giles Fletcher. They were cousins of Fletcher the dramatist, but with none of his wild blood in their veins, and none of his flashing creativeness in their souls, to give evidence of the relationship. “The Purple Island,” a poem in twelve cantos, by Phineas, is a long allegorical description of the body and soul of man, perverse in design, melodious in expression, occasionally felicitous in the personification of abstract qualities, but on the whole to be considered as an exercise of boundless ingenuity to produce insufferable tediousness. Not in the dissecting-room itself is anatomy less poetical than in the harmonious stanzas of “The Purple Island.” Giles, the brother of Phineas, was the more potent spirit of the two, but his power is often directed by a taste even more elaborately bad. His poem of “ Christ’s Victory and Triumph,” in parts almost sublime, in parts almost puerile, is a proof that imaginative fertility may exist in a mind without any imaginative grasp. Campbell, however, considers him a connecting link between Spenser and Milton.
Samuel Daniel, another poet of this period, was the son of a music-master, and was born in 1562. Fuller says of him, that “he carried, in his Christian and surname, two holy prophets, his monitors, so to qualify his raptures that he abhorred all profaneness.” Amiable in character, gentle in disposition, and with a genius meditative rather than energetic, he appears to have possessed that combination of qualities which makes men personally pleasing if it does not make them permanently famous. He was patronized both by Elizabeth and James, was the friend of Shakespeare and Camden, and was highly esteemed by the most accomplished women of his time. A most voluminous writer in prose and verse, he was distinguished in both for the purity, simplicity, and elegance of his diction. Browne calls him “the welllanguaged Daniel.” But if he avoided the pedantry and quaintness which were too apt to vitiate the style of the period, and wrote what might be called modern English, it has still been found that modern Englishmen cannot be coaxed into reading what is so lucidly written. His longest work, a versified History of the Civil Wars, dispassionate as a chronicle and unimpassioned as a poem, is now only read by those critics in whom the sense of duty is victorious over the disposition to doze. The best expressions of his pensive, tender, and thoughtful nature are his epistles and his sonnets. Among the epistles, that to the Countess of Cumberland is the best. It is a model for all adulatory addresses to women ; indeed, a masterpiece of subtile compliment; for it assumes in its object a sympathy with whatever is noblest in sentiment, and an understanding of whatever is most elevated in thought. The sonnets, first published in 1592, in his thirtieth year, record the strength and the disappointment of a youthful passion. The lady, whom he addresses under the name of Delia, refused him, it is said, for a wealthier lover, and the pang of this baffled affection made him wretched for years, and sent him
“ Haunting untrodden paths to wail apart.”Echo, — he tells us, while he was aiming to overcome the indifference of the maiden, —
Babbling guest of rocks and rills,
Knows the name of my fierce fair,
And sounds the accents of my ills.”
Throughout the sonnets, the matchless perfection of this Delia is ever connected with her disdain of the poet who celebrates it: —
Her brow shades frowns, although her eyes are sunny;
Her smiles are lightning, though her pride despair;
And her disdains are gall, her favors honey.
A modest maid, decked with a blush of honor,
Who treads along green paths of youth and love,
The wonder of all eyes that gaze upon her,
Sacred on earth, designed a saint above.”
This picture of the “modest maid, decked with a blush of honor,” is exquisite ; but it is still a picture, and not a living presence. Shakespeare, touching the same beautiful object with his life-imparting imagination, suffuses at once the sense and soul with a feeling of the vital reality, when he describes the French princess as a “maiden rosed over with the virgin crimson of modesty.”
The richest and most elaborately fanciful of these sonnets is that in which the poet calls upon his mistress to give back her perfections to the objects from which she derived them : —
Yield Cytherea’s son those arcs of love;
Bequeath the heavens the stars that I adore ;
And to the orient do thy pearls remove.
Yield thy hand’s pride unto the ivory white ;
To Arabian odors give thy breathing sweet ;
Restore thy blush unto Aurora bright;
To Thetis give the honor of thy "feet.
Let Venus have thy graces, her resigned ;
And thy sweet voice give back unto the spheres ;
But yet restore thy fierce and cruel mind
To Hyrcan tigers and to ruthless bears ;
Yield to the marble thy hard heart again ;
So shalt thou cease to plague and I to pain.”
There is a fate in love. This man, who could not conquer the insensibility of one country girl, was the honored friend of the noblest and most celebrated woman of his age. Eventually, at the age of forty, he was married to a sister of John Florio, to whom his own sister, the Rosalind who jilted Spenser, is supposed to have been previously united. He died in retirement, in 1619, in his fifty-eighth year.
A more powerful and a more prolific poet than Daniel was Michael Drayton, who rhymed steadily for some forty years, and produced nearly a hundred thousand lines. The son of a butcher, and born about the year 1563, he early exhibited an innocent desire to be a poet, and his first request to his tutor at college was to make him one. Like Daniel, he enjoyed the friendship and patronage of the noble favorers of learning and genius. His character seems to have been irreproachable. Meres, in his “ Wit’s Treasury,” says of him, that among all sorts of people “ he is held as a man of virtuous disposition, honest conversation, and wellgoverned carriage, which is almost miraculous among good wits in these declining and corrupt times, when there is nothing but roguery in villanous man ; and when cheating and craftiness is counted the cleanest wit and soundest wisdom.” But the marketvalue, both of his poetry and virtue, was small, and he seems to have been always on bad terms with the booksellers. His poems, we believe, were the first which arrived at second editions by the simple process of merely reprinting the title-pages of the first, — a fact which is ominous of his bad success with the public. The defect of his mind was not the lack of materials, but the lack of taste to select, and imagination to fuse, his materials. His poem of “ The Barons’ Wars” is a metrical chronicle ; his "Poly-Olbion” is an enormous piece of metrical topography, extending to thirty thousand twelve-syllabled lines. In neither poem does he view his subject from an eminence, but doggedly follows the course of events and the succession of objects. His “ Poly-Olbion ” is in general so accurate as a description of England, that it is quoted as authority by such antiquaries as Hearne and Wood and Nicholson. Campbell has felicitously touched its fatal defect in saying that Drayton “ chained his poetry to the map.” The only modern critic who seems to have followed all its wearisome details with loving enthusiasm is Charles Lamb, who speaks of Drayton as that “panegyrist of my native earth who has gone over her soil with the fidelity of a herald and the painful love of a son; who has not left a rivulet (so narrow that it may be stepped over) without honorable mention ; and has animated hills and streams with life and passion above the dreams of old mythology.” But, in spite of this warm commendation, the essential difficulty with the “ PolyOlbion ” is, that, with all its merits, it is unreadable. The poetic feeling, the grace, the freshness, the pure, bright, and vigorous diction, which characterize it, appear to more advantage in his minor poems, where his subjects are less unwieldy, and the vivacity of his fancy makes us forget his lack of high imagination. His fairy poem of “ Nymphidia,” for instance, is one of the most deliciously fanciful creations in the language ; and many of his smaller pieces have the point and sparkle of Carew’s and Suckling’s. In reading, too, his longer poems, we frequently light upon passages as perfect of their kind as this description of Queen Isabella’s hand : —
The God’s pure sceptres and the darts of love,
That with their touch might make a tiger meek,
Or might great Atlas from his seat remove.
So white, so soft, so delicate, so sleek,
As she had worn a lily for a glove.”
A more popular poet than Daniel, or Drayton, or the Fletchers, was William Warner, an attorney of the Common Pleas, who was born about the year 1558, and who died in 1609. His “Albion’s England,” a poem of some ten thousand verses, was published in 1586, ran through six editions in sixteen years, and died out of the memory of mankind with the last, in 1612. After having conscientiously waded through such immense masses of uninteresting rhyme, as we have been compelled to do in the preparation of these notices, we confess, with a not unmalicious exultation, that we know Warner’s poem only by description and extracts. Albion is a general name for both Scotland and England; and Albion’s England is a metrical history — “not barren,” in the author’s own words, “of inventive intermixtures ” — of the southern portion, of the island, beginning at the deluge, and ending with the reign of James I. As James might have said, anticipating Metternich, “ after me the deluge,” Warner’s poem may be considered as ending in some such catastrophe as it began. The merit of Warner is that of a storyteller, and he reached classes of readers to whom Spenser was hardly known by name. The work is a strange mixture of comic and tragic fact and fable, exceedingly gross in parts, with little power of imagination or grace of language, but possessing the great popular excellence of describing persons and incidents in the fewest and simplest words. The best story is that of Argentile and Curan, and it is told as briefly as though it were intended for transmission by telegraph at the cost of a dollar a word. Warner has some occasional touches of nature and pathos which almost rival the old ballads for directness and intensity of feeling. The most remarkable of these, condensed in two of his long fourteensyllabled lines, is worth all the rest of his poems. It is where he represents Queen Eleanor as striking the fair Rosamond : —
Hard was the heart that gave the blow, soft were those lips that bled.”
It is a rapid transition from Warner, the poet of the populace, to Donne, the poet of the metaphysicians, but the range of the Elizabethan mind is full of contrasts. In the words of the satirist, Donne is a poet, —
Wreathes iron pokers into true love-knots;
Rhyme’s sturdy cripple, fancy’s maze and clue,
Wit’s forge and fire-blast, meaning’s press and screw.
A cynic and a sycophantic mind,
A fancy shared party per pale between
Death’s heads and skeletons and Aretine ! —
Not his peculiar defect and crime,
But the true current mintage of the time.
Such were the established signs and tokens given
To mark a loyal churchman, sound and even,
Free from papistic and fanatic leaven.”
John Donne, the ludicrous complexity of whose intellect and character is thus maliciously sketched, was one of the strangest of versifiers, sermonizers, and men. He was the son of a wealthy London merchant, and was born in 1573. One of those youthful prodigies who have an appetite for learning as other boys have an appetite for cakes and plums, he was, at the age of eleven, sufficiently advanced in his studies to enter the University of Oxford, where he remained three years. He was then transferred to Cambridge. His classical and mathematical education being thus completed, he, at the age of seventeen, was admitted into Lincoln’s Inn to study the law. His relations being Roman Catholics, he abandoned, at the age of nineteen, the law, in order to make an elaborate examination of the points in dispute between the Romanists and the Reformed churches. Having in a year’s time exhausted this controversy, he spent several years in travelling in Italy and Spain. On his return to England he was made chief secretary of Lord Chancellor Ellesmere, — an office which he held five years. It was probably during the period between his twentieth and thirtieth years that most of his secular poetry was written, and that his nature took its decided eccentric twist. An insatiable intellectual curiosity seems, up to this time, to have been his leading characteristic ; and as this led him to all kinds of literature for mental nutriment, his faculties, in their formation, were inlaid with the oddest varieties of opinions and crotchets. With vast learning, with a subtile and penetrating intellect, with a fancy singularly fruitful and ingenious, he still contrived to disconnect, more or less, his learning from what was worth learning, his intellect from what was reasonable, his fancy from what was beautiful. His poems, or rather his metrical problems, are obscure in thought, rugged in versification, and full of conceits which are intended to surprise rather than to please ; but they still exhibit a power of intellect, both analytical and analogical, competent at once to separate the minutest and connect the remotest ideas. This power, while it might not have given his poems grace, sweetness, freshness, and melody, would still, if properly directed, have made them valuable for their thoughts ; but in the case of Donne it is perverted to the production of what is bizarre or unnatural, and his muse is thus as hostile to use as to beauty. The intention is, not to idealize what is true, but to display the writer’s skill and wit in giving a show of reason to what is false. The effect of this on the moral character of Donne was pernicious. A subtile intellectual scepticism, which weakened will, divorced thought from action and literature from life, and made existence a puzzle and a dream, resulted from this perversion of his intellect. He found that he could wittily justify what was vicious as well as what was unnatural ; and his amatory poems, accordingly, are characterized by a cold, hard, labored, intellectualized sensuality, worse than the worst impurity of his contemporaries, because it has no excuse in passion for its violations of decency.
But now happened an event which proved how little the talents and accomplishments of this voluptuary of intellectual conceits were competent to serve him in a grapple with the realities of life. Lady Ellesmere had a niece, the daughter of Sir George Moore, with whom Donne fell in love; and as, according to Izaak Walton, his behavior, when it would entice, had “a strange kind of elegant, irresistible art,” he induced her to consent to a private marriage, against the wishes and without the knowledge of her father. Izaak accounts for this, on the perhaps tenable ground, that “love is a flattering mischief, that hath denied aged and wise men a foresight of those evils that too often prove to be children of that blind father, a passion that carries us to commit errors with as much ease as whirlwinds move feathers, and begets in us an unwearied industry to the attainment of what we desire.” But Sir George Moore, the father of the lady, an arrogant, avaricious, and passionate brute, was so enraged at the match, that he did not rest until he had induced Lord Ellesmere to dismiss Donne from his service, and until he had placed his son-in-law in prison. Although Sir George, compelled to submit to what was inevitable, became at last reconciled to Donne, be refused to contribute anything towards his daughter’s maintenance. As Donne’s own fortune had been by this time all expended in travel, books, and other dissipation, and as he was deprived of his office, he was now stripped of everything but his power of framing conceits ; and accordingly, in a dismal letter to his wife, recounting his miseries, he has nothing but this quibble to support her under affliction : —
“John Donne, Ann Donne, Undone.”
A charitable kinsman of the Ellesmeres, however, Sir Francis Wolly, seeing the helplessness of this man of brain, took him and his wife into his own house. Here they resided until the death of their benefactor; Donne occupying his time in studying the civil and canon laws, and probably also in composing his treatise on Self-Murder, — a work in which his ingenuity is thought to have devised some excuses for suicide, but the reading of which, according to Hallam, would induce no man to kill himself, unless he were threatened with another volume.
During his residence with Sir Francis Wolly, Donne, whose acquirements in theology were immense, was offered a benefice by Dr. Morton, then Dean of Gloucester; but he declined to enter the Church from a feeling of spiritual unfitness. It is probable that his habits of intellectual self-indulgence, while they really weakened his conscience, made it morbidly acute. He would not adopt the profession of law or divinity for a subsistence, though he was willing to depend for subsistence on the charity of others. Izaak Walton praises his humility ; but his humility was another name for his indisposition to or inability for practical labor, — a humility which makes self-depreciation an excuse for moral laziness, and shrinks as nervously from duty as from pride. Both law and divinity, therefore, he continued to make the luxuries of his existence.
In good time this selfish intellectuality resulted in that worst of intellectual diseases, mental disgust. After the death of his patron, his father-in-law allowed him but £ 80 a year to support his family. Sickness, and affliction, and comparative poverty came to wake him from his dream, and reveal him to himself. In some affecting letters, which have been preserved, he moans over his moral inefficiency, and confesses to an “over-earnest desire for the next life ” to escape from the perplexities of this. “I grow older,” he says, “and not better; my strength diminisheth, and my load grows heavier; and yet I would fain be or do something; but that I cannot tell what is no wonder in this time of my sadness ; for to choose is to do ; but to be no part of anybody is as to be nothing: and so I am, and shall so judge myself, unless I could be so incorporated into a part of the world as by business to contribute some sustenation to the whole. This I made account; I began early, when I undertook the study of our laws ; but was diverted by leaving that, and embracing the worst voluptuousness, an hydroptic immoderate desire of human learning and languages. . . . . Now I am become so little, or such a nothing, that I am not a subject good enough for one of my own letters. . . . . I am rather a sick-
ness or disease of the world than any part of it, and therefore neither love it nor life.” And he closes with the words, “Your poor friend and God’s poor patient, John Donne.”
And this was the mental state to which Donne was reduced by thirty years of incessant study, — of study that sought only the gratification of intellectual caprice and of intellectual curiosity, of study without a practical object. From this wretched mood of self-disgust and disgust with existence, this fret of thought at the impotence of will, we may date Donne’s gradual emancipation from his besetting sins ; for life, at such a point of spiritual experience, is only possible under the form of a new life. His theological studies and meditations were now probably directed more to the building up of character, and less to the pandering to his gluttonous intellectuality. His recovery was a work of years; and it is doubtful if he would ever have chosen a profession, if King James, delighted with his views regarding the questions of supremacy and allegiance, and amazed at his opulence in what then was called learning, had not insisted on his entering the Church. After much hesitation, and long preparation, Donne yielded to the royal command. He was successively made Chaplain in Ordinary, Lecturer at Lincoln’s Inn, and Dean of St. Paul’s; was soon recognized as one of the ablest and most eloquent preachers of his time ; and impressed those who sat under his ministrations, not merely with admiration for his genius, but reverence for his holy life and almost ascetic self-denial. The profession he had adopted with so much self-distrust he came to love with such fervor that his expressed wish was to die in the pulpit, or in consequence of his labors therein. This last wish was granted in 1631, in his fifty-eighth year; “and that body,” says Walton with quaint pathos, “which once was a temple of the Holy Ghost” now became “but a small quantity of Christian dust.”
Donne’s published sermons are in form nearly as grotesque as his poems, though they are characterized by profounder qualities of heart and mind. It was his misfortune to know thoroughly the works of fourteen hundred writers, most of them necessarily worthless ; and he could not help displaying his erudition in his discourses. In what is now called taste he was absolutely deficient. His sermons are a curious mosaic of quaintness, quotation, wisdom, puerility, subtilty, and ecstasy. The pedant and the seer possess him by turns, and in reading no other divine are our transitions from yawning to rapture so swift and unexpected. He has passages of transcendent merit, passages which evince a spiritual vision so piercing, and a feeling of divine things so intense, that for the time we seem to be communing with a religious genius of the most exalted and exalting order; but soon he involves us in a maze of quotations and references, and our minds are hustled by what Hallam calls “ the rabble of bad authors ” that this saint and sage has always at his skirts, even when he ascends to the highest heaven of contemplation. Doubtless what displeases this age added to his reputation in his own. Donne was more pedantic than his clerical contemporaries only because he had more of that thought-suffocating learning which all of them regarded with irrational respect. One of the signs of Bacon’s superiority to his age was the cool audacity with which he treated sophists, simpletons, bigots, and liars, even though they wrote in Latin and Greek.
A poet as intellectual as Donne, but whose intelligence was united to more manliness and efficiency, was Sir John Davies. He was born in 1570, and was educated for the law. The first we hear of him, after being called to the bar, was his expulsion from the society of the Middle Temple, for quarrelling with one Richard Martin, and giving him a sound beating. This was in 1598. The next recorded fact of his biography was the publication, a year afterwards, of his poem on the Immortality of the Soul. A man who thus combined so much pugilistic with so much philosophic power, could not be long kept down in a country so full of fight and thought as England. He was soon restored to his profession, won the esteem both of Elizabeth and James, held high offices in Ireland, and in 1626 was appointed Chief Justice of England, but died of apoplexy before he was sworn in.
The two works on which his fame as a poet rests are on the widely different themes of Dancing and the Immortality of the Soul. The first is in the form of a dialogue between Penelope and one of her wooers, and most melodiously expresses “ the antiquity and excellence of dancing.” Only in the Elizabethan age could such a great effort of intellect, learning, and fancy have arisen from the trifling incident of asking a lady to dance. It was left unfinished ; and, indeed, as it is the object of the wooer to prove to Penelope that dancing is the law of nature and life, the poem could have no other end than the exhaustion of the writer’s ingenuity in devising subtile analogies for the wooer and answers as subtile from Penelope, who aids
With the sweet speech of her alluring eyes.”
To think logically from his premises was the necessity of Davies’s mind. In the poem on Dancing the premises are fanciful; in the poem on the Immortality of the Soul the premises are real; but the reasoning in both is equally exact. It is usual among critics, even such critics as Hallam and Campbell, to decide that the imaginative power of the poem on the Immortality of the Soul consists in the illustration of the arguments rather than in the perception of the premises. But the truth would seem to be that the author exhibits his imagination more in his insight than in his imagery. The poetic excellence of the work comes from the power of clear, steady beholding of spiritual facts with the spiritual eye, — of beholding them so clearly that the task of stating, illustrating, and reasoning from them is performed with masterly ease. In truth, the great writers of the time believed in the soul’s immortality, because they were conscious of having souls; the height of their thinking was due to the fact that the soul was always in the premises, and thought, with them, included imaginative vision as well as dialectic skill. To a lower order of minds than Shakespeare, Hooker, and Bacon, than Chapman, Sidney, and Davies, proceed the theories of materialism, for no thinking from the soul can deny the soul’s existence. It is curious to observe the advantage which Davies holds over his materialistic opponents, through the circumstance that, while his logical understanding is as well furnished as theirs, it reposes on central ideas and deep experiences which they either want or ignore. No adequate idea of the general gravity and grandeur of his thinking can be conveyed by short extracts ; yet, opening the poem at the fourth section, devoted to the demonstration that the soul is a spirit, we will quote a few of his resounding quartrains in illustration of his manner : —
Being like those spirits which God’s face do see,
Or like himself whose image once she was,
Though now, alas ! she scarce his shadow be.
Within the body which is less than she?
Or how could she the world’s great shape contain,
And in our narrow breasts containéd be?
tint she all place within herself confines ;
All bodies have their measure and their space;
But who can draw the soul’s dimensive lines?”
The next poet we shall mention was a link of connection between the age of Elizabeth and Cromwell; a contemporary equally of Shakespeare and Milton ; a man whose first work was published ten years before Shakespeare had produced his greatest tragedies ; and who, later in life, defended Episcopacy against Milton. We of course refer to Joseph Hall. He was born in 1574, was educated at Cambridge, and, in 1597, at the age of twenty-three, published his satires. Originally intended for the Church, he was now presented with a living by Sir Robert Drury, the munificent patron of Donne. He rose gradually to preferment, was made Bishop of Exeter in 1627, and translated to the see of Norwich in 1641. In 1643 he was deprived of his palace and revenue by the Parliamentary Committee of Sequestration, and died in 1656, in his eighty-second year. As a churchman, he was in favor of moderate measures, and he had the rare fortune to oppose Archbishop Laud, and to suffer under Oliver Cromwell.
As a satirist, if we reject the claim of Gascoigne to precedence, he was the earliest that English, literature can boast. In his own words : —
And be the second English satirist”
He had two qualifications for his chosen task, — penetrating observation and unshrinking courage. The follies and vices, the manners, prejudices, delusions, and crimes of his time, form the materials of his satires ; and these he lashes or laughs at, according as the subject-matter provokes his indignation or his contempt. “ Sith,” he says in his Preface, “faults loathe nothing more than the light, and men love nothing more than their faults,” it follows that “ what with the nature of the faults, and the faults of the persons,” it is impossible “ that so violent an appeachment should be quietly brooked.” But to those who are offended he vouchsafes but this curt and cutting defence of his plain speaking. “Art thou guilty? Complain not, thou art not wronged. Art thou guiltless ? Complain not, thou art not touched.” These satires, however, striking as they are for their compactness of language and vigor of characterization, convey but an inadequate idea of the depth, devoutness, and largeness of soul displayed in Hall’s theological writings. His “ Meditations,” especially, have been read by thousands who never heard of him as a tart and caustic wit. But the one characteristic of sententiousness marks equally the sarcasm of the youthful satirist and the raptures of the aged saint.
The next writer we shall consider, Sir Henry Wotton, possessed one of the most accomplished and enlightened minds of the age ; though, unhappily for us, he has left few records of it in literature. He was born in 1568, educated at Oxford, and, leaving the university in his twenty-second year, passed nine years in travelling in Germany and Italy. On his return his conversation showed such wit and information, that it was said to be “ one of the delights of mankind.” He entered the service of the Earl of Essex, and, on the discovery of the Earl’s treason, prudently escaped to the Continent. While in Italy he rendered a great service to the Scottish king ; and James, on his accession to the English throne, knighted him, and sent him as ambassador to Venice. He remained abroad over twenty years. On his return he was made provost of Eton College. He died in 1639 in his seventy-first year.
Wotton is one of the few Englishmen who have succeeded in divesting themselves of English prejudices without at the same time divesting themselves of English virtues. He was a man of the world of the kind described by Bacon, — a man “ whose heart was not cut off from other men’s lands, but a continent that joined to them,” One of the ablest and most sagacious diplomatists that England ever sent abroad to match Italian craft with Saxon insight, he was at the same time chivalrous, loyal, and true. Though the author of the satirical definition of an ambassador, as “an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country,” his own course was the opposite of falsehood. Indeed, he laid down this as an infallible aphorism to guide an English ambassador, that he should always tell the truth : first, because he will secure himself if called to account; second, because he will never be believed, and he will thus “put his adversaries, who will ever hunt counter, at a loss.” One of his many accomplishments was the art in conversation of saying pointed things in pithy language. At Rome, a priest asked him, “ Where was your religion before Luther?” To which Wotton answered, “ My religion was to be found then where yours is not to be found now,— in the written Word of God.” He then put to the priest this question: “Do you believe all those many thousands of poor Christians were damned, that were excommunicated because the Pope and the Duke of Venice could not agree about their temporal power, — even those poor Christians, that knew not why they quarrelled ? Speak your conscience.” The priest’s reply was, “ Monsieur, excuse me.” Wotton’s own Protestantism, however, did not consist, like that of too many others of his time and of ours, in hating Romanists. He was once asked “ whether a papist may be saved.” His answer was: “You may be saved without knowing that. Look to yourself.” The spirit of this reply is of the inmost essence of toleration.
Cowley, in his elegy on Wotton, has touched happily on those felicities of his nature and culture which made him so admired by his contemporaries : —
Who, when he spoke, all things would silent be?
Who had so many languages in store,
That only fame shall speak of him in more.
Whom England, now no more returned, must see ;
He’s gone to heaven on his fourth embassy.
Of tongues, that Babel sent into the west,
Spoke them so truly, that he had, you’d swear,
Not only lived but been born everywhere.
Who in his breast had all things to express.”
As a poet Sir Henry Wotton is universally known by one exquisite little poem, “ The Character of a Happy Life,” which is in all hymn-books. The general drift of his poetry is to expose the hollowness of all the objects to which as a statesman and courtier the greater portion of his own life was devoted. His verses are texts for discourses, uniting economy of words with fulness of thought and sentiment. His celebrated epitaph on a married couple is condensed to the point of converting feeling into wit: —
To do without him, liked it not, and died.”
In one of his hymns he has this striking image, —
No new-born drams of purging fire ;
One rosy drop from David’s seed
Was worlds of seas to quench their ire.”
Excellent, however, of its kind as Wotton’s poetry is, it is not equal to that living poem, his life. He was one of those men who are not so much makers of poems as subjects about whom poems are made.
The last poet of whom we shall speak, George Herbert, was one in whom the quaintness of the time found its most fantastic embodiment. He began life as a courtier; and on the disappointment of his hopes, or on his conviction of the vanity of his ambitions, he suddenly changed his whole course of thought and life, became a clergyman, and is known to posterity only as “holy George Herbert.” His poetry is the bizarre expression of a deeply religious and intensely thoughtful nature, sincere at heart, but strange, far-fetched, and serenely crotchety in utterance. Nothing can be more frigid than the conceits in which he clothes the great majority of his pious ejaculations and heavenly ecstasies. Yet every reader feels that his fancy, quaint as it often is, is a part of the organism of his character ; and that his quaintness, his uncouth metaphors and comparisons, his squalid phraseology, his holy charades and pious riddles, his inspirations crystallized into ingenuities, and his general disposition to represent the divine through the exterior guise of the odd, are vitally connected with that essential beauty and sweetness of soul which give his poems their wild flavor and fragrance. Amateurs in sanctity, and men of fine religious taste, will tell you that genuine emotion can never find an outlet in such an elaborately fantastic form ; and the proposition, according, as it does, with the rules of Blair and Kames and Whately, commands your immediate assent; but still you feel that genuine emotion is there, and, if you watch sharply, you will find that Taste, entering holy George Herbert’s “ Temple,” after a preliminary sniff of imbecile contempt, somehow slinks away abashed after the first verse at the " Church-porch ” : —
Thy rate and price, and mark thee for a treasure,
Hearken unto a verser, who may chance
Rhyme thee to good, and make a bait of pleasure :
A verse may find him whom a sermon flies,
And turn delight into a sacrifice.”
And that fine gentleman, Taste, having relieved us of his sweetly scented presence, redolent with the “balm of a thousand flowers,” let us, in closing, quote one of the profoundest utterances of the Elizabethan age, George Herbert’s lines on Man : —
Full of proportions, one limbe to another,
And all to all the world besides:
Each part may call the farthest, brother:
For head with foot hath private amitie,
And both with moon and tides.
But man hath caught and kept it, as his prey.
His eyes dismount the highest starre :
He is in little all the sphere
Herbs gladly cure our flesh, because that they
Finde their acquaintance there.
Night draws the curtain, which the sun withdraws :
Musick and light attend our head.
All things unto our flesh are kinde
In their descent and being; to our minde
In their ascent and cause.
Than he ’ll take notice of; in every path
He treads down that which doth befriend him,
When sickness makes him pale and wan,
O mightie love ! Man is one world, and hath
Another to attend him.
So brave a Palace built : O dwell in it,
That it may dwell with thee at last !
Till then afford us so much wit,
That as the world Serves us we may serve thee,
And both thy servants be.”