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In the spring of 1603, Wither was sent to Magdalen College, Oxford *, and entered under John Warner, afterwards Bishop of Rochester, a sound logician, and a good and ripe scholar.. Wither confessed in later times, that if he had not reaped all the advantages of a collegiate education, it was not because he had been “ill entered :" he left the school of Greaves, no stranger to "Lilly's Latin, or Camden's Greek." His poetical talents were speedily developed. While at Magdalen College he is thought to have composed the graceful Love-Sonnet, printed in Ritson's Ancient English Songs t. Mr. Park has questioned the genuineness of this poem; but Ritson attributed it to Wither, upon the authority of Hearne,
• Not 1604, as Wood, Park, Ritson, &c., assert. Wither's own words are, that he was sent to Oxford
The very spring before I grew to old,
Abuses Il'hipt and Stript. of James Wither, son of John Wither, of Manydown, who died in 1627, at the age of 28, a Fellow of New College, Oxford, a memorial is placed within the cloisters, near the chapel.
P. 205. The sonnet is quoted by Ritson, from a Miscellany, in 12mo., entitled A Description of Love, with certain Epigrams, Elegies, and Sonnets; and also Master Johnson's Answere to Master Withers. Of this book, which obtained great popularity, an 8th edition appeared in 1636. In Warton's Companion to the Oxford Guide, this song is improperly ascribed to Taylor, the Water-poet. Ritson, to cut the matter short," has endeavoured to ascertain the year in which it was written. "The author," he says, " was admitted of Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1604, and having pursued his studies for three years, left the University for the Inns of Chancery. Now it will be evident that this song was written at College. If, therefore, we allow the first year for his falling in love, the second, for the favourable return he experienced, and the third, for the loss of his mistress, this song must have been written in 1606, when the author was eighteen years of age.".
I am sorry to be obliged to demolish a fabric so ingeniously constructed, but we shall presently find Wither in London in his eighteenth year, long after he had left Oxford. So much for Ritson's plan of cutting a matter short. By treading implicitly in the foot-prints of Wood, Ritson has fallen into another error, in saying that John Taylor was, on all occasions, the professed antagonist of Wither. The Water-poet, on the contrary, was the respectful admirer of Wither during the brighter period of his life, and only ceased to be so when Wither forsook the principles and the creed of his earlier days.
of whom Dr. Bliss has remarked, with great truth, that he rarely affirms any thing without sufficient reason. That the song was written at College, is proved by the allusions to the academical costume, and the summer excursions to Medley, "a large house between Godstow and Oxford, very pleasantly situated just by the river," and rendered still more attractive to the poetic mind by the visits of the fair and unfortunate Rosamond. This house has long been removed.
Anthony Wood insinuates that our poet acquired a little learning at the University, “with much ado."
Wither, who rarely concealed either his errors or his virtues, afterwards confessed, that upon his arrival at "the English Athens," he "fell to wondering at each thing he saw," and passed a month in noting the palaces, temples, cloisters, walks, and groves. The “Bell of Osney," and "old Sir Harry Bath," and the forest of Shotover were not forgotten. In the midst of those agreeable occupations, he never "drank at Aristotle's well." But at length he says, the kind affection of his tutor,
From childish humours gently called me in,
To bring me to a love of what he taught. Warner neither encouraged idleness in himself, nor permitted it in others.
The young poet found it easier to "practise at the tennis-ball" than to comprehend the mysteries of logic; his understanding was confused by the rules of "old Scotus, Seton, and new Keckerman." This state of stupor continued a considerable time, and it was not until Cynthia "had six times lost her borrowed light," that being ashamed to find himself outstripped by every
little ignorant “dandiprat," he devoted his mind in earnest to master the difficulty. A little determination will accomplish great things. Wither soon felt his " dull intelligence" begin to opeu, and was astonished to discover that he
perceived more In half an hour, than half a year before. These pleasing occupations were soon to be interrupted.
He had been at Oxford about two years, and was beginning to love a College-life, when he was suddenly removed by his friends, and taken home “to hold the plough." He alludes to this unwelcome change in Abuses Whipt and Stript, where he speaks of returning in discontent to "the beechy shadows of Bentworth *.” But Wither held the plough with no willing hand, and much of his time seems to have been occupied in wandering about the pleasant country around Alton, whose neighbourhood has been invested with a peculiar interest by the reputed partiality of Spenser, who, in this “delicate sweet air" is said to have “enjoyed his Muse and writ good part of his verses t." In the sequestered grassy lanes of Bentworth, the young poet might dream away the summer-hours in the serenest meditations. But Wither's sojourn at home was imbittered by the officious interference of friends, who continually urged his relations to apprentice him to "some mechanick trade." To
But now ensues the worst-I setting foot
Abuses Whipt and Stript, p. 5. * According to Aubrey, who received the information from his friend, Mr. Samuel Woodford, who lived near Alton.
escape from these new-found crocodiles, as he calls
My hopeful friends, at thrice five years and three,
And many hazards I alighted on--
Soon after his arrival in the metropolis, Wither entered himself of Lincoln's Inn, and appears to have formed an early intimacy with William Browne, the pastoral poet, who belonged to the Inner Temple. But his geny, says Anthony Wood, hanging after things more smooth and delightful, he did at length make himself known to the world (after he had taken several rambles therein) by certain specimens of poetry, which being dispersed in several hands, he became shortly after a public author of these several rambles we have no account, but it is probable that the young poet visited Ireland and Scotland ; for in the list of his works we find, Iter Hibernicum, or, an Irish Voyuge *, and Iter Boreale, or, à • In Wither's Catalogue of his books is A Discourse concerning the Plantations of Ulster, in Ireland. Prose. Wood says this was printed, but i han not reached us.
Northern Journey. The MSS, of these poems were lost, we are told by Wither, when his house was plundered, or by some other accident, and Wood was in error, therefore, in saying that they had been recovered, and "printed more than once."
Among Wither's lost works is a prose tract, entitled, “ Pursuit of Happiness, being a character of the author's extravagances and passions in his youth." This would be a treasure to the poet's biographer."
The untimely death of Prince Henry, in 1612, was the theme of universal grief and lamentation. “The world here," wrote Chamberlain to Sir Dudley Carleton, “is much dismayed at the loss of so hopeful and likely a prince all of a sudden." Poetic garlands, without number, were showered upon his hearse. Bishop Hall lamented the “unseasonable death of his sweet master, Prince Henrie;". and Drayton, W. Browne, Chapman, Donne, Sylvester, Heywood, Webster, Drummond of Hawthornden, Wither, and many more, added their tribute to the general elegy. The offering of Wither was one of the most interesting, both in tone and expression, and breathes an affectionate sincerity, rarely found in poems of this description. When Prince Henry, during the King's visit to Oxford, in 1605, "sat in the midst of the upper table,” in the Hall of Magdalen College, Wither, then an undergraduate, formed one of the throng ranged along the sides.
The 32nd elegy offers a favourable specimen. The body of the Prince, it should be remembered, was embalmed, and carried in the funeral procession :
Then as he past along you might espy