Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Fletcher, Phineas

FLETCHER, PHINEAS (1582–1650), poet, was elder son of Giles Fletcher, LL.D. [q. v.], by his wife, Joan Sheafe, and was baptised at his birthplace, Cranbrook, Kent, of which his grandfather, Richard Fletcher, was rector, on 8 April 1582. Like his father, he was educated at Eton, and was thence elected on 24 Aug. 1600 a scholar of King's College, Cambridge, where he graduated B.A. in 1604, M.A. in 1607–8, and afterwards B.D. He obtained a fellowship before midsummer 1611; contributed English verse to the university collections in 1603, and acquired the reputation of a poet among his Cambridge friends. In 1614 he wrote a pastoral play, ‘Sicelides,’ to be acted before James I on his visit to Cambridge, but the royal party left the university before it was ready, and the piece was performed later at King's College. Fletcher remained at King's College till midsummer 1616. In his ‘Piscatory Eclogues,’ where he writes of himself under the name of Thyrsil, he asserts that he left the university—‘ungrateful Chame,’ he calls it—in resentment for some slight cast upon him by the authorities:

Not I my Chame, but me proud Chame refuses,
His froward spites my strong affections sever;
Else from his banks could I have parted never.

For the next five years Sir Henry Willoughby seems to have entertained Fletcher as his chaplain at Risley, Derbyshire. In 1621 Willoughby presented the poet to the rectory of Hilgay, Norfolk, where he lived for the rest of his life. Soon after settling at Hilgay he married Elizabeth Vincent. In 1627 the publication of his ‘Locustæ,’ an attack on Roman catholicism, seems to have involved him in a quarrel with some neighbours. His intimate friends included Edward Benlowes [q. v.], his junior by more than twenty years, and Benlowes introduced him to Francis Quarles. In Quarles's ‘Emblems’ (1635), bk. v. No. vi., a globe representing the world is inscribed with the name of four places, one of them being Hilgay. Fletcher died at the close of 1650. His will, dated 21 June 1649, was proved by his widow, the sole executrix, 13 Dec. 1650. Mention is made there of two sons, Phineas and William, and four daughters, Ann, Elizabeth, Frances, and Sarah.

Fletcher's chief volume, ‘The Purple Island or the Isle of Man, together with Piscatorie Eclogs and other Poeticall Miscellanies by P. F.,’ was printed by the printers to the university of Cambridge in 1633. The dedication to Benlowes is dated ‘Hilgay, 1 May 1633.’ There Fletcher describes the poems that follow as ‘these raw essayes of my very unripe yeares, and almost childehood,’ and says that Benlowes insisted on their publication. A commendatory preface by Daniel Featley, D.D., is succeeded by eulogistic verses by E. Benlowes, his brother William, Francis Quarles (two poems), Lodowick Roberts, and A. C., who has been identified with Cowley. ‘The Piscatory Eclogs and other Poeticall Miscellanies’ has a separate title-page. The seven ‘Eclogs’ contain much autobiographical matter, but the names of the author's friends are disguised. Thelgon is the poet's father, Thyrsil himself, and Thomalin is John Tomkins. The ‘Miscellanies’ include epithalamia in honour of the author's cousins, ‘Mr. W.’ and ‘M. R.’ (perhaps Walter and Margaret Robarts) of Brenchley, and poems addressed to Cambridge friends, the initials of whose names alone are given, together with metrical versions of the psalms. Members of the Courthope family are believed to be intended by ‘W. C.’ and ‘E. C.’ Cole suggested that ‘E. C., my son by the university,’ was one Ezekiel Charke. A third title-page introduces another poem, ‘Elisa: an Elegie upon the unripe demise of Sr Antonie Irby.’ The lady had died in 1625, and at the time that the elegy was published the husband was on the point of marrying again. A poem by Quarles closes the volume. In the British Museum is the presentation copy given by Fletcher to Benlowes. ‘The Piscatory Eclogs’ was edited separately by Lord Woodhouselee in 1771. ‘The Purple Island’ was reissued separately in 1784 and 1816; the latter edited by Headley.

‘The Purple Island,’ in twelve cantos of seven-line stanzas, is an elaborate allegorical description of the human body and of the vices and virtues to which man is subject. There are many anatomical notes in prose. The body is represented as an island, of which the bones stand for the foundations, the veins for brooks, and so forth in minute detail. Fletcher imitates the ‘Faery Queene.’ Quarles calls him ‘the Spencer of this age,’ and Fletcher eulogises his master in canto vi. stanzas 51–2. But Fletcher's allegory is overloaded with detail, and as a whole is clumsy and intricate. His diction is, however, singularly rich, and his versification melodious. Incidental descriptions of rural scenes with which he was well acquainted are charmingly simple, and there is a majesty in his personifications of some vices and virtues which suggest Milton, who knew Fletcher's works well.

Fletcher's other works are: 1. ‘Locustæ vel Pietas Jesuitica. The Locusts or Apollyonists,’ Cambridge, Thomas & John Bucke, 1627. The first part in Latin verse is dedicated to Sir Roger Townshend, the patron of Phineas's brother Giles, and has commendatory verse by S. Collins. The second part in English verse, in five cantos of nine-line stanzas, is dedicated to Lady Townshend, and has prefatory verse by H. M., perhaps Henry More. Two manuscript copies of the Latin part are in the British Museum. One Harl. MS., 3196, is dedicated in Latin prose to Thomas Murray, provost of Eton (d. 1625), and in Latin verse to Prince Charles. The second manuscript (Sloane MS. 444) is dedicated to Montague, bishop of Bath and Wells. The poem is a sustained attack on Roman catholicism, and the English version suggested many phrases to Milton. 2. ‘Sicelides, or Piscatory, as it hath been acted in King's Colledge in Cambridge,’ London, 1631. The piece is in five acts, partly in blank, and partly in rhymed verse. Songs are interspersed, and there are comic scenes in prose. 3. ‘The Way to Blessedness; a treatise … on the First Psalm,’ with the text, London, 1632 (prose). 4. ‘Joy in Tribulation; a Consolation for afflicted Spirits,’ London, 1632 (prose). 5. ‘Sylva Poetica Auctore P. F.,’ Cambridge, 1633; a collection of Latin poems and eclogues; dedicated to Edward Benlowes. 6. ‘A Father's Testament, written long since for the benefit of a particular relation of the Author,’ London, 1670 (prose, with some verse, chiefly translations from Boethius). Fletcher also edited a previously unpublished Latin poem by his father, entitled ‘De Literis Antiquæ Britanniæ,’ Cambridge, 1633. He contributed verses to ‘Sorrowe's Joy,’ Cambridge, 1603 (a collection of Cambridge poems in English on the death of Elizabeth and accession of James I); to ‘Threno-Thriambeuticon,’ Cambridge, 1603 (a similar collection in Latin); to his brother Giles's ‘Christ's Victory,’ 1610; and to his friend Benlowes's ‘Theophila,’ 1632. Dr. Grosart has credited Fletcher with the authorship of a love-poem of considerable beauty, and somewhat lascivious tone, entitled ‘Brittain's Ida,’ an account of the loves of Venus and Anchises. This poem was first issued in 1627, and was described as by Edmund Spenser. It is clear that Spenser was not the author. There is much internal resemblance between Fletcher's other works and ‘Brittain's Ida,’ and no other name has been put forward to claim the latter poem. But no more positive statement is possible. Dr. Grosart has collected Fletcher's poetical works in four volumes in his ‘Fuller's Worthies Library.’

[Dr. Grosart's Memoir, in his edition of Fletcher's Poems; Dr. Grosart's Fuller's Worthies Miscellany, iii. 70, where Fletcher's will is printed; Hunter's MS. Chorus Vatum in Addit. MS. 24487, f. 125; Cole's MS. Hist. of King's College, Cambridge (Cole's MSS. xv. 35); Howell's Letters, ii. 64; Retrospective Review, ii. 341; Phillips's Theatrum Poetarum]

S. L. L.