GILES FLETCHER, author of Licia, was one of that distinguished family that included Richard Fletcher, the Bishop of London, and his son John Fletcher, the dramatist. The two sons of Dr. Giles Fletcher were also men of marked poetic ability: Phineas, the author of that extraordinary allegorical poem, The Purple Island; and Giles, of Christ's Victory and Triumph. There was a strong family feeling in this circle; Phineas and Giles pay compliments to each other in their verse and show great reverence and tenderness toward the memory of the poetic powers of their father. But Giles Fletcher the elder was not thought of in his own time as a poet. Educated at Eton and Trinity, Cambridge, where he was made LL.D. in 1581, a member of Parliament in '85, employed in many public services at home and abroad during a career that lasted until 1611, in which year Dr. Fletcher died at the age of seventy-two, he was known as a man of action, a man for public responsibility, rather than as the retired scholar or riming courtier. Most important among the foreign embassages undertaken by Fletcher was the one to Russia. The results were of great import to England, commercially and otherwise, but the book he wrote on his return was, for political reasons, suppressed.
It happened that the years of enforced idleness that followed the suppression of this book came in the time when the young sonneteers at London were all busy. He returned from his embassage in '89; the book was suppressed in '91. Licia was published in '93. The writing of Licia was "rather an effect than a cause of idleness;" he did it "only to try his humor," he says apologetically in the dedicatory addresses. "Whereas my thoughts and some reasons drew me rather to have dealt in causes of greater weight, yet the present jar of this disagreeing age drives me into a fit so melancholy, as I had only leisure to grow passionate."
In case wise heads should think him to be treating "an idle subject and so frivolous," or that it has been "vainly handled and so odious," he sets forth the nobility of his view. "Howsoever, Love in this age hath behaved himself in that loose manner as it is counted a disgrace to give him but a kind look, yet I take the passion in itself to be of that honor and credit, as it is a perfect resemblance of the greatest happiness, and rightly valued at his just price (in a mind that is sincerely and truly amorous), an affection of greatest virtue and able of himself to eternise the meanest vassal." "For Love," he declares, "is a goddess (pardon me though I speak like a poet) not respecting the contentment of him that loves, but the virtues of the beloved; satisfied with wondering, fed with admiration; respecting nothing but his lady's worthiness; made as happy by love as by all favors; chaste by honor; far from violence; respecting but one, and that one in such kindness, honesty, truth, constancy, and honor, as were all the world offered to make a change, yet the boot were too small and therefore bootless. This is love, and far more than this, which I know a vulgar head, a base mind, an ordinary conceit, a common person will not nor cannot have. Thus do I commend that love wherewith in these poems I have honoured the worthy Licia."
The sonnet-cycle is inscribed "To the worthie kinde wise and virtuous ladie, the Ladie Mollineux; wife to the right worshipful Sir Richard Mollineux Knight." Nothing is known of this lady, except that her family may possibly have been very distantly connected with that of Fletcher. What the poet's feeling was towards his patroness he defines sufficiently. "Now in that I have written love sonnets, if any man measure my affection by my style, let him say I am in love. . . . Yet take this by the way; though I am so liberal to grant thus much, a man may write of love and not be in love, as well as of husbandry and not go to the plough, or of witches and be none, or of holiness and be flat profane."
What "shadowings" the poet may intend he refuses to confide to us. "If thou muse what my Licia is, take her to be some Diana, at the least chaste; or some Minerva; no Venus, fairer far. It may be she is Learning's image, or some heavenly wonder, which the precisest may not dislike: perhaps under that name I have shadowed Discipline. It may be I mean that kind courtesy which I found at the patroness of these poems. It may be some college; it may be my conceit, and portend nothing." It is evident then that the patroness herself is not the real person behind the poetic title. He therefore dedicates Licia to Lady Molineux, not because the sonnets themselves are addressed to her, but because he has received "favours undeserved" at her hands and those of "wise Sir Richard" for which he "wants means to make recompence," and therefore in the meantime he begs her to accept this. "If thou like it," he says to the reader, "take it, and thank the worthy Lady Mollineux, for whose sake thou hast it; worthy, indeed, and so not only reputed by me in private affection of thankfulness but so equally to be esteemed by all that know her. For if I had not received of her . . . those unrequitable favours, I had not thus idly toyed."
A warm admirer of Fletcher has expressed his opinion that Licia "sparkles with brilliants of the first water." A more temperate judgment is that of another, who says that he "took part without discredit in the choir of singers who were men of action too." Licia is what a typical sonnet-cycle ought to be, a delicate and almost intangible thread of story on which are strung the separate sonnet-pearls. In this case the jewels have a particular finish. Fletcher has adopted the idea of a series of quatrains, often extending the number to four, and a concluding couplet, which he seems fond of utilising to give an epigrammatic finish to the ingenious incident he so often makes the subject of the sonnet. He is fully in the spirit of the Italian mode, however, acknowledging in his title page his indebtedness to poets of other nationalities than his own.