« PreviousContinue »
and desperate catastrophes. The tales of Boccacio are founded on the great pestilence of Florence; Fletcher the poet died of the plague, and Marlowe was stabbed in a tavern quarrel. The strict authority of parents, the inequality of ranks, or the hereditary feuds between different families, made more unhappy loves or matches.
Again, the heroic and martial spirit which breathes in our elder writers, was yet in considerable activity in the reign of Elizabeth. “ The age of chivalry was not then quite gone, nor the glory of Europe extinguished for ever.” Jousts and tourna. ments were still common with the nobility in England and in foreign countries. Sir Philip Sidney was particularly distinguished for his proficiency in these exercises (and indeed fell a martyr to his ambition as a soldier)—and the gentle Surrey was still more famous, on the same account, just before him. It is true, the general use of fire-arms gradually superseded the necessity of skill in the sword, or bravery in the person: and we find many symptoms of the rapid degeneracy in this respect. It was comparatively an age of peace,
“Like strength reposing on his own right arm;"
but the sound of civil combat might still be heard in the distance, the spear glittered to the eye of memory, or the clashing of armour struck on the imagination of the ardent and the young. They were borderers on the savage state, on the times of war and bigotry, though in the lap of arts, of luxury, and knowledge. They stood on the shore and saw the billows rolling after the storm: “they heard the tumult, and were still.” The manners and out-of-door amusements were more tinctured with a spirit of adventure and romance. The war with wild beasts, &c., was more strenuously kept up in country sports. I do not think we could get from sedentary poets, who had never mingled in the vicissitudes, the dangers, or excitements of the chase, such descriptions of hunting and other athletic games, as are to be found in Shakspeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, or Fletcher's Noble Kinsmen.
With respect to the good cheer and hospitable living of those times, I cannot agree with an ingenious and agreeable writer of the present day, that it was general or frequent. The very stress laid upon certain holidays and festivals, shows that they did not keep up the same Saturnalian license and open-house all the year round. They reserved themselves for great occasions, and made the best amends they could for a year of abstinence and toil by a week of merriment and convivial indulgence. Persons in middle life at this day, who can afford a good dinner every day, do not look forward to it as any particular subject of exul. tation : the poor peasant, who can only contrive to treat himself to a joint of meat on a Sunday, considers it as an event in the week. So, in the old Cambridge comedy of the Returne from Parnassus, we find this indignant description of the progress of luxury in those days, put into the mouth of one of the speakers :
“ Why is't not strange to see a ragged clerke,
Act III, Scene 2.
This does not look as if in those days “it snowed of meat and drink,” as a matter of course throughout the year! The distinctions of dress, the badges of different professions, the very signs of the shops, which we have set aside for written inscriptions over the doors, were, as Mr. Lamb observes, a sort of visible language to the imagination, and hints for thought. Like the costume of different foreign nations, they had an immediate striking and picturesque effect, giving scope to the fancy. The surface of society was embossed with hieroglyphics, and poetry existed “ in act and complement extern." The poetry of former times might be directly taken from real life, as our poetry is taken from the poetry of former times. Finally, the face of nature, which was the same glorious object then that it is now, was open to them; and coming first, they gathered her fairest Aowers to live for ever in their verse—the movements of the human heart were not hid from them, for they had the same passions as we, only less disguised, and less subject to control. Decker has given an admirable description of a mad-house in one of his plays. But it might be perhaps objected, that it was only a literal account taken from Bedlam at that time: and it might be answered, that the old poets took the same methods of describing the passions and fancies of men whom they met at large, which forms the point of communion between us ;- for the title of the old play, 'A Mad World, my Masters,' is hardly yet obsolete; and we are pretty much the same Bedlam still, perhaps a little better managed, like the real one, and with more care and humanity shown to the patients !
Lastly, to conclude this account; what gave a unity and common direction to all these causes, was the natural genius of the country, which was strong in these writers in proportion to their strength. We are a nation of islanders, and we cannot help it ; nor mend ourselves if we would. We are something in ourhelves, nothing when we try to ape others. Music and painting are not our forte : for what we have done in that way has been little, and that borrowed from others with great difficulty. But we may boast of our poets and philosophers. That's something. We have had strong heads and sound hearts among us. Thrown on one side of the world, and left to bustle for ourselves, we have fought out many a battle for truth and freedom.
That is our natural style; and it were to be wished we had in no instance departed from it. Our situation has given us a certain cast of thought and character; and our liberty has enabled us to make the most of it. We are of a stiff clay, not moulded into every fashion, with stubborn joints not easily bent. We are slow to think, and therefore impressions do not work upon us till they act in masses. We are not forward to express our feelings, and therefore they do not come from us till they force their way in the most impetuous eloquence. Our language is, as it were, to begin anew, and we make use of the most singular and boldest combinations to explain ourselves. Our wit comes from us, “like birdlime, brains and all.” We pay too little attention to form and method, leave our works in an unfinished state, but still the materials we work in are solid and of nature's mint; we do not deal in counterfeits. We both under and over-do, but we keep an eye to the prominent features, the main chance. We are more for weight than show; care only about what interests ourselves, instead of trying to impose upon others by plausible appearances, and are obstinate and intractable in not conforming to common rules, by which many arrive at their ends with half the real waste of thought and trouble. We neglect all but the principal object, gather our force to make a great blow, bring it down, and relapse into sluggishness and indifference again. Materiam superabat opus, cannot be said of us. We may be accused of grossness, but not of flimsiness; of extravagance, but not of affectation ; of want of art and refinement, but not of a want of truth and nature. . Our literature, in a word, is Gothic and grotesque ; unequal and irregular; not cast in a previous mould, nor of one uniform texture, but of great weight in the whole, and of incomparable value in the best parts. It aims at an excess of beauty or power, hits or misses, and is either very good indeed, or absolutely good for nothing. This character applies in particular to our literature in the age of Elizabeth, which is its best. period, before the introduction of a rage for French rules and French models; for whatever may be the value of our own original style of composition, there can be neither offence nor presumption in saying, that it is at least better than our second-hand imitations of others. Our understanding (such as it is and must remain, to be good for anything) is not a thoroughfare for common places, smooth as the palm of one's hand, but full of knotty points and jutting excrescences, rough, uneven, overgrown with brambles; and I like this aspect of the mind (as some one said of the country), where nature keeps a good deal of the soil in her own hands. Perhaps the genius of our poetry has more of Pan than of Apollo; “but Pan is a God, Apollo is no more !”
On the Dramatic Writers contemporary with Shakspeare, Lyly, Marlowe,
Heywood, Middleton, and Rowley.
The period of which I shall have to treat (from the Reformation to the middle of Charles I.) was prolific in dramatic excellence even more than in any other. In approaching it, we seem to be approaching the RICH STROND described in Spenser, where treasures of all kinds lay scattered, or rather crowded together on the shore in inexhaustible but unregarded profusion, “rich as the oozy bottom of the deep in sunken wrack and sumless trea. suries." We are confounded with the variety, and dazzled with the dusky splendour of names sacred in their obscurity, and works gorgeous in their decay, “majestic, though in ruin,” like Guyon when he entered the Cave of Mammon, and was shown the massy pillars and huge unwieldy fragments of gold, covered with dust and cobwebs, and shedding a faint shadow of uncertain light,
“ Such as a lamp whose light doth fade away
The dramatic literature of this period only wants exploring, to fill the inquiring mind with wonder and delight, and to convince us that we have been wrong in lavishing all our praise on “new. born gauds, though they are made and moulded of things past ;" and in “giving to dust, that is a little gilt, more laud than gilt o'er-dusted.” In short, the discovery of such an unsuspected and forgotten mine of wealth will be found amply to repay the labour of the search, and it will be hard if in most cases curi. osity does not end in admiration, and modesty teach us wisdom. A few of the most singular productions of these times remain unclaimed; of others, the authors are uncertain; many of them