George Wither



Oliver Millar, The Inventories and Valuations of the King's Goods 1649-1651, Walpole Society, Vol. 43 (1972)


The Poetry of George Wither, ed. Frank Sidgwick, 2 vols (London, 1902)


Authorial Manuscripts

The quarrelsome republican poet and polemicist George Wither (or Withers) — who may be destined to live in literary annals chiefly on account of Aubrey's perhaps apocryphal tale of his life being spared by Sir John Denham during the Civil War so that he (Denham) could not be accounted the worst living poet in England — has left relatively few literary manuscripts. This would not be surprising but for the extent of Wither's prolific, and eventful, literary activity over a period of well over half a century and in view of the ample evidence that much of what he wrote remained unpublished (itself not surprising considering his perpetual state of war with publishers and stationers). He himself published a list of his ‘Scriblings’, allegedly ‘to satisfie the requests of his Friends’, at the end of his Fides-Anglicana (London, 1660), pp. 90-4. Among the many titles listed there as ‘not Printed’ or ‘lost in Manuscript’ — ‘when his house was plundred, or by other casualties’ — are various works in verse, such as ‘Iter Hibernicum’, ‘Iter Boreale’, ‘Patricks Purgatory’, and ‘The Dutchess’, as well as prose tracts such as ‘A Treatise of ancient Hieroglyphicks’, ‘The pursuit of Happiness’, ‘Domestick Devotions’, and ‘A Tract of Usury’. Even apart from specified ‘lost’ works, Wither gives the impression of a writer in a state of constant activity, who was wont to have various works in progress at the same time, some of which might remain unfinished for years. As he declared in the eleventh poem in A Proclamation in the name of the King of Kings, to All the Inhabitants of the Isles of Great Britain (London, 1662):

I sometimes think my work is done, and then

Resolved am to lay aside my Pen;

Yet, when I do discover some remain

Unfinished, I take it up again.

His ‘unfinished’ works would remain in what (in his preface to The Psalmes of David in 1632) he called his ‘blurred papers’ before being ‘made legible to others’.

The solitary known surviving example of such ‘blurred papers’ — a rare example of an autograph working draft by any seventeenth-century poet and particularly interesting in view of the circumstances of its preservation — is the extensive autograph draft of his unfinished poem Vox Vulgi. One of his many attacks on Parliament, this work survives because the draft was confiscated by order of the Privy Council, being now preserved among the Earl of Clarendon's papers (*WiG 35). As he recorded himself in his ‘Appollogy for composing the Poem called Vox Vulgi’, published in An Improvement…Evidenced in a few Crums & Scraps (London, 1661), the fact that his ‘imperfect Poem’, lacking his ‘last thoughts thereon’, was ‘designed for private view / Of Clarendon’, and dedicated to him, did not spare it from seizure or Wither from committal (for three years) to ‘an ignominious Jail’ because of it.

Examples of Wither's fair copies, ‘made legible to others’, are only marginally more plentiful. The author's own manuscript of a version of The Psalmes of David survives (*WiG 26). This is not, as has sometimes been thought, his autograph throughout. Nevertheless, it is clearly a text produced by a professional scribe commissioned by him and bears the poet's distinctive autograph additions, including his own formal title-page. What was evidently the author's own fair copy of The History of the Pestilence (1625), a work unpublished in its own right in his lifetime but which evolved into the first two cantos of his Britain's Remembrancer (1628), also survives (WiG 22). Although, again, sometimes tentatively described as autograph, this manuscript is evidently the work of an accomplished professional scribe, presumably commissioned by Wither, but — unlike The Psalmes — it bears no sign of the author's own hand.

It may be added that identification of the poet's handwriting has traditionally been regarded as difficult, and even such Wither scholars as J. Milton French have hesitated to pronounce conclusively on the main manuscripts, or to distinguish properly between the hands of scribes and of the author himself. This confusion has arisen partly because of the equally traditional assumption that clear examples of Wither's hand are extremely rare. Even granted the possible source of confusion caused by signatures by other George Withers namesakes, examples of the poet's handwriting survive in sufficient numbers to provide an adequate basis for identification of his hand, at least from the 1630s onwards. Even over a period of some decades, Wither's hand, with his characteristic letter-forms, remains distinctive, sufficiently so — under close scrutiny — for its sporadic appearance to be detected quite clearly in a manuscript such as The Psalmes, even on occasions when he inserts only a word or so of correction.

Other Manuscript Copies

What is a clearly authoritative text of a commendatory poem by Wither on Christopher Brooke is copied by Brooke himself in one of his own manuscripts prepared, towards the end of his life, for the licensers of the press but not published until the nineteenth century (WiG 28). Otherwise, with the qualified exceptions of his popular lyric ‘Shall I wasting in despair’ (WiG 1-12.2) and a few interesting contemporary texts of the rare tract Vox et Lacrimae Anglorum (WiG 30-34), there is little evidence of any widespread dissemination of Wither's work in manuscript form outside his immediate circle — and this despite, for instance, the professed fear of the stationer who published Faire-Virtue, the Mistresse of Phil'Arete (1622) that ‘some imperfecter Coppies might hereafter be scattered abroad in writing’.

One or two other manuscript items that have been attributed to Wither are much more doubtful. For instance, the book catalogue of Joseph Lilly in 1861 included (p. 82) what was alleged to be ‘the original manuscript’ of Vox et Lacrymae Anglorum (1668), a quarto in calf ‘most probably in the autograph of Wither himself’. It is quite likely that this was one of the contemporary transcripts of this poetical tract which are known to have circulated and are recorded below (WiG 30-34).

Yet another almost certainly spurious item offered in the same catalogue (p. 83) is a legal notebook supposedly identified as Wither's by the collector James Brook Pulham. It is described as ‘Wither's Manuscript Note Book, 1650-60, a small 8vo. volume, written in a remarkably neat hand, so lettered by direction of Mr. Pulham, and believed by him, after an inspection and comparison of several of Wither's Manuscripts in the British Museum, to be in the autograph of the Poet, who was brought up to the law and had chambers in Lincoln's Inn. It contains memoranda of law cases’. The mention here of ‘several of Wither's Manuscripts in the British Museum’ alone would perhaps be sufficient to undermine Pulham's alleged ‘identification’; but it might also be noted that one of the poet's namesakes in this period was indeed a lawyer: the George Wither who was a member of Gray's Inn in 1640, who was called to the Bar in 1650, and who became Recorder of Romsey in 1658.

Inscribed Presentation Exempla of Works by Wither

Elsewhere, a few presentation exempla of certain of Wither's books are recorded, chiefly inscribed by Wither himself (WiG 44-47).

In ‘Thorn-Drury's Notes on George Wither’, Huntington Library Quarterly, 23 (1959-60), 379-88, J. Milton French records George Thorn-Drury's references to the existence of an alleged ‘signature’ of Wither — possibly on detached slips and not certainly autograph — in an exemplum of Juvenilia (London, 1622) advertised for sale in 1906, as well as of other vague and rather dubious references to inscriptions attributed to him. This particular Juvenilia is probably that offered earlier in Joseph Lilly's book catalogue of 1861, described (pp. 69-70) as having pasted on the flyleaf ‘a slip of paper on which is written in a very old hand, “George Wither”, following which is the “Gloria Patri”, presumed to be in the handwriting of the poet’.

Equally uncertain is alleged ‘MS. corrections in the Poet's autograph’ in exempla of Vox Pacifica (1645) and Gemitus de Carcere Nantes (1684) sold in the John Matthew Gutch sale at Sotheby's, 16 March 1858, lots 2674 (to Willes) and 2704 (to Boone) respectively.

Letters and Documents

Examples of Wither's handwriting are increased by the survival of three original letters by him and a considerable number of official or legal documents signed by him. His three known autograph letters, dating from 1645 to 1661, are given entries below (WiG 48-50).

Other documents written or signed by Wither — assuming those documents whose whereabouts is not currently known were correctly identified in earlier times — can best be categorised in two groups. One, given entries below, is of miscellaneous and legal documents, including petitions by him and one by a scribe (WiG 51-61, WiG 66-70). For some of these documents, see J. Milton French, ‘Thorn-Drury's Notes on George Wither’, Huntington Library Quarterly, 23 (1959-60), 379-88; Allan Pritchard, ‘A Manuscript of George Wither's Psalms’, HLQ, 27 (1963-4), 73-7; Herbert Berry, ‘John Denham at Law’, Modern Philology, 71 (1973-4), 266-76; and David Norbrook, ‘Levelling Poetry: George Wither and the English Revolution, 1642-1649’, English Literary Renaissance, 21 (1991), 217-56.

The other category of documents signed by Wither— which is indeed the most extensive source of examples of his signature — relates to his activities after the Civil War when he was a member of the Committee of Trustees for the Sale of the Late King's Goods. The most historically significant of these documents are four inventories, prepared in or after 1649 (WiG 62-65). These have all been edited in full in Oliver Millar, The Inventories and Valuations of the King's Goods 1649-1651, Walpole Society, Vol. 43 (1972). Then (not given entries below) there is a series of orders by the Commissioners to Carew Mildmay, Groom of His Majesty's Jewels and Plate, demanding the delivery of various goods, books and papers in his custody. But then, to the astonishment of J. Milton French, who first recorded them in ‘George Wither's Verses to Dr. John Raven’, PMLA, 63 (1948), 749-51 (p. 751), there are hundreds of surviving warrants signed by Wither and his fellow commissioners relating to the disposal of, and payments for, chattels in their custody. In fact, a total of nearly 900 such warrants, issued chiefly between 1649 and 1653, are to be found in the National Archives alone (WiG 71-72), besides other examples now dispersed (WiG 73-81). Many of these warrants are manuscripts, but the majority are printed forms with details inserted by hand and then signed by the Commissioners. One other item in the National Archives which is relevant to this series is a scribal ledger recording payments by the Commissioners (SP.28/350/9).

Documents Signed by Other George Withers

A number of other documents that have been recorded as being signed by George Wither the poet would appear to have been signed instead by one or other of his contemporary namesakes, some of them associated with his native county of Hampshire . These would include George Wither of Hall, in the parish of Dean, who signed an indenture of 28 July 1664, and his nephew George Wither of Winchester, whose will is in the National Archives, Kew, (PROB 10/953, proved 9 April 1662). Among such documents are:

(i) A deed of acquitance from Richard Trewe of Church Oakley, to William Trewe of Worthing, Hampshire, signed by ‘George Wither’ as a witness, 8 June 1613 (Magdalen College, Oxford, MS 919). This was donated by a Fellow of the College at Christmas 1884, and probably to be identified with the ‘Letter of Attorney, 1 page folio’ signed by Wither ‘as witness…June 8, 1613’, sold at Puttick & Simpson's, 28 February 1851, lot 215.

(ii) A deed of enfeoffment from John May Sr to John May Jr of the Manor of Worting, Hampshire, signed by ‘George Wither’ as a witness, 23 December 1646 (Harvard, bMS Am 1631 (432)). This is presumably to be identified with the document sometimes dated ‘21’ December 1646 sold at Puttick & Simpson's, 14 May 1849, lot 564; at Sotheby's, 21 March 1892, lot 351; at Samuel J. Davey's sale catalogue (1899), item 295; at Sotheby's, 24 July 1905, lot 191; and in Maggs's sale catalogues No. 317 (1913), item 3728; No. 554 (1931), item 340; and No. 593 (1934), item 257.

(iii) A receipt signed by ‘George Wither’ as a witness, 5 May 1647. Sold at Puttick & Simpson's, 21 June 1850 (Richard Burton sale) lot 267, to Montagu.

(iv) An indenture signed by ‘George Wither’ as a witness, 17 December 1647. Sold at Sotheby's, 19 May 1906, lot 51, to Pearson. To this list of signatures by other George Withers may be added:

(v) A folio manuscript of state tracts and papers, the first leaf bearing (amidst other scribbling, including ‘Robert Daye’, ‘Thomas Ward’ and ‘Westminster Church’) the inscription ‘George Withers his booke Anno Dni 1633’ (British Library, Harley MS 2283).

The Canon

No collected edition of Wither's works has been published in recent times, although the Spenser Society, which flourished in Manchester from 1867 to 1894, went a considerable way towards producing one by reprinting the great majority of Wither's published works. Several works found in the most notable Wither manuscripts recorded above are, nevertheless, discoveries made in the twentieth century, while yet further pieces by Wither have been found on occasions in printed sources: see, for instance, William D. Templeman, ‘Some Commendatory Verses by George Wither’, N&Q, 183 (19 December 1942), 365-6, and an uncollected epithalamium reprinted in J. Milton French's article in Huntington Library Quarterly, 23 (1959-60), 379-88 (pp. 383-5). To these may be added one or two ‘new’ poems found in manuscripts: notably Mr George Withers, to the king when hee was Prince of wales discovered by Allan Pritchard before 1963 (WiG 24) and the 1610 epithalamium beginning ‘When Pirrhous did wedd Hipodama’ found even more recently (WiG 36). Thus there is no reason to suppose that Wither's canon has yet been established in full. For a listing of publications attributed to him, see the bibliography in Charles S. Hensley, The Later Career of George Wither (The Hague & Paris, 1969), pp. 144-53.

On the other hand a salutary caution about modern attributions to Wither of various works is offered in David Norbrook, ‘Some Notes on the Canon of George Wither’, N&Q, 241 (1996), 276-81. Of those works that Norbrook rejects from the canon perhaps only one, Vox et Lacrimæ Anglorum, had some circulation in manuscript copies. References in this work that appear to date from 1668, a year after Wither's death, would seem to be fairly conclusive arguments against his authorship.

A few other poems that are uncertainly, or spuriously, ascribed to Wither in manuscripts are given entries below in the appropriate category (WiG 37-41). Two of these (WiG 37-38, WiG 40-41) are inspired, whether by Wither himself or by other writers, by one or more of his spells of imprisonment. One of these and another (WiG 39, WiG 41) are ascribed to him in the same verse miscellany, of one Richard Jackson, the ascriptions in which are generally unreliable.


Some recorded printed exempla of works by Wither have contemporary manuscript additions by readers, or else missing pages supplied in manuscript. They include exempla of:

(i) A Memorandum to London, occasioned by the Pestilence (London, 1665), with the last page supplied in manuscript (Victoria and Albert Museum, Dyce 10,706 (pressmark: D.16.C.58)).

(ii) Britain's Remembrancer (London, 1628), with a manuscript copy on the flyleaves of verses headed ‘A pulpit to be lett…’, beginning ‘Beloved, & hee sweetly thus goes on’, subscribed ‘London printed for ye Author 1665’, owned in 1702 by Thomas Hearne (Victoria and Albert Museum, Dyce 10,673(1) (pressmark: D.16.B.44)).

(iii) Prosopopoeia Britannica (London, 1648), with notes on ‘temporall oppressions’ (Victoria and Albert Museum, Dyce 10,687(2) (pressmark: D.16.C.39)).

(iv) Prosopopoeia Britannica (London, 1648), with numerous reader's corrections and, at the end, a manuscript copy of the seven-stanza poem The Authors Ode in his Campomusae (‘Alass! how darksome bee!’) (Victoria and Albert Museum, Dyce 10,687(1) (pressmark: D.16.C.40)).

(v) The Shepheard's Hunting (London 1615), with two leaves of ‘the prose “Postscript to the Reader”…in MS’ (Joseph Lilly's sale catalogue for 1861, p. 68).

In addition, a complete transcript of Faire Virtue, the Mistresse of Phil'Aretethe (London 1633), on 91 quarto leaves, made in 1708, is now in the Bodleian (MS Add. B. 7).

Moreover a series of ‘transcripts’ of various works by Wither, all apparently copied from printed editions, were sold in the fourth portion of the Joseph Lilly sale at Sotheby's, on 27 January (and five following days) 1873, as lots 1994, 1995, 2009, and 2109 (to Salkeld), 2002 (to Henner), 2004-2006, 2008, 2105-2106, and 2108 (to Bumstead), and 2110 (to Kerney?). It seems evident that these transcripts were all made by the Wither enthusiast James Brook Pulham (d.1860), for the same sale contained Pulham's collections and transcripts of various memoranda and pedigrees of the Wither family (lots 2103, 2104, 2107), as well as probably lot 2010, all sold to Bumstead. Some of these items were previously ascribed to Pulham in Joseph Lilly's sale catalogue of 1861, which includes (pp. 67-84) a major ‘Collection of the Works of George Wither…being the most extensive Series ever offered for sale, principally obtained from the Collections of Rev. Dr. Bliss, Rev. J. Mitford, J.M. Gutch, Esq., but chiefly from the Series formed…by the late James Brook Pulham, Esq.’.

Exempla of various of Wither's works containing the copious manuscript notes of Thomas Park (1759-1834) were also sold in the Gutch sale at Sotheby's on 16 March (and eight following days) 1858. They comprised notably lots 2656 (to Thorpe), 2664 (to Dixon), 2667 (Psalmes of 1632, ‘with autograph of “Edw. Hobard from Ferdinando Wither, Uncle to ye author, 1641”’, to Boone), 2695 (to Elkins), 2701 (to Lilly), 2706 (to Boone), and 2708 (Hymns and Songs of the Church, 1856, ‘with MS. corrections in the Wither pedigree, by E. Hopkins, Esq. of Alresford, Hants, the descendant of the Poet’, to Boone).

Some notebooks of George Thorn-Drury, KC (1860-1931) containing information about other Wither items sold at auction in the nineteenth century were acquired by J. Milton French and discussed by him in ‘Thorn-Drury's Notes on George Wither’, Huntington Library Quarterly, 23 (1959-60), 379-88.

A particularly interesting set of proofs of John Matthew Gutch's edition of Wither's Works, which was printed in Bristol in 1820 but remained unissued until 1839-47, was offered in Quaritch's sale catalogue No. 1132 (December 1990), item 58, and is now at Princeton (RTCO1, No. 173). Comprising two volumes of proofs interleaved and heavily annotated by Gutch himself, by his friend Charles Lamb and also by Dr John Nott, with insertions by James Brook Pulham and later by A.C. Swinburne, they are a vivid memento of a particular and influential circle of Wither-admirers in the nineteenth century.

A three-page autograph memorandum by Sir Samuel Egerton Brydges, Bt (1762-1837) for his intended Preface to Wither's The Shepherds Hunting (1615) is at Yale (Osborn MSS Files 2008).

A letter by the poet's son, Robert Wither, to Anthony Wood, 4 November 1673, now in the Bodleian (MS Wood F. 45, f. 142r), gives Robert's account of his father and was used by Wood for his own account in Athenae Oxonienses (see Philip Bliss's edition, vol. III (1817), 762-75). John Aubrey's few notes on Wither are in the Bodleian (MS Aubrey 8, f. 50v) and are edited in Clark (1898), II, 306-7. Some biographical notes on Wither by Dr Bulkeley Bandinel (1781-1861), made c.1825, are also in the Bodleian (MSS Add. B. 77-79). Notes on Wither by the Rev. Joseph Hunter (1783-1861) in his Chorus Vatum Anglicanorum (Volume V) are in the British Library (Add. MS 24491, ff. 24r-8r).

Several unpublished doctoral dissertations on Wither occasionally mentioned by commentators are: J. Milton French, George Wither (Harvard, 1928); Lyle Harris Kendall, George Wither: A Critical Biography (University of Texas, 1952); Allan Duncan Pritchard, George Wither: A Critical Study (University of Toronto, 1957); and Norman E. Carlson, George Wither: ‘A Troublesome Litigious Man’ (Rutgers University, 1962).

Peter Beal