Abuses Stript, and Whipt, 1613
The Shepheards Hunting, 1615
Wither’s Motto: nec habeo, nec careo, nec curo, 1621
Faire-Virtue, the Mistresse of Phil’arete, 1622
The Hymnes and Songs of the Church, 1623
Britain’s Remembrancer, 1628
A Collection of Emblemes, Ancient and Moderne, 1635
Haleluiah: Or, Britans Second Remembrancer, 1641
The Poetry of George Wither, 1902
George Wither was the son of a Hampshire gentleman. He was sent to Oxford in 1603, where he apparently did not do well. Two years later, at the age of seventeen, he left the university without graduating and went to London, where he entered one of the Inns of Chancery to study law. He was eventually introduced at court. In 1612 and 1613, respectively, he wrote an elegy on the death of Prince Henry and a poem celebrating the marriage of Princess Elizabeth. In 1613 he also published his collection of satires, Abuses Stript, and Whipt, in which, among other unwise things, he insulted the lord chancellor. The poet was imprisoned for a few months but was released at the intercession of Princess Elizabeth.
While in prison, Wither continued to write. After his release he was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn (1615); the same year he published Fidelia, the book containing his best-known lyric, “Shall I, wasting in despair.” By 1621 he was again writing satire, publishing Wither’s Motto, a biting poem that is said to have quickly sold thirty thousand copies and which again landed him in jail with charges of libel. He was soon released without trial, however, and in 1622 he published Faire-Virtue, the Mistresse of Phil’arete, his best single volume of poetry. This book was a watershed in Wither’s career; it ended what he later called his juvenilia.
Most of the rest of his writing is religious in character. Wither had begun as a moderate in religion and politics, but he became increasingly Puritan. He published a book of hymns in 1623. In 1628, after witnessing the London plague of 1625, he published Britain’s Remembrancer, in which he described what he saw and prophesied disaster for England. In 1641 Wither’s best book of religious poems, Haleluiah: Or, Britans Second Remembrancer, was published in Holland.
In 1639 the poet served as a captain of horse in King Charles I’s expedition against the Scottish Covenanters, but at the outbreak of the civil war he sided with Parliament and sold his estate to raise a troop of cavalry. During the war he was once captured by the Royalist forces and threatened with execution. He was saved, it is said, by the intervention of the Royalist poet Sir John Denham. Denham purportedly begged Wither’s life on the grounds that, as long as Wither was alive, Denham could not be called the worst poet in England.
Before the end of the civil war, Wither was promoted to the rank of major; he was present at the siege of Gloucester (1643) and the battle of Naseby (1645), though because of legal troubles he had been deprived of command in 1643. During the years of Oliver Cromwell’s administration the poet experienced various financial troubles and also managed to lose Cromwell’s favor by, claimed Wither, “declaring unto him those truths which he was not willing to hear of.” After the restoration of Charles II in 1660, the poet was imprisoned for three years. He died at the age of seventy-eight in London.