Friday, September 30, 2011

William Hazlitt, Lectures on the Dramatic Literature of the Age of Elizabeth

William Hazlitt, Lectures on the Dramatic Literature of the Age of Elizabeth, Wiley and Putnam, 161 Broadway, New York, 1845.

…statesmen, warriors, divines, scholars, poets, and philosophers, Ralegh, Drake, Coke, Hooker, and higher and more sounding still, and still more frequent in our mouths, Shakespeare, Spenser, Sidney, Bacon, Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher, men whom fame has eternized in her long and lasting scroll, and who by their words and acts were benefactors of their country, and ornaments of human nature. (1)

…restraining my own admiration within reasonable bounds. (2)

There is not a lower ambition, a poorer way of thought, than that which would confine all excellence, or arrogate its final accomplishment to the present, or modern times. (2-3)

Form thence we date a new era, the dawn of our own intellect, (3)

Because, in a word, the last generation, when tottering off the stage, were not so active, so sprightly, and so promising as we were, we begin to imagine that people formerly must have crawled about in a feeble, torpid state, like flies in winter, in a sort of dim twilight of the understanding; (4)

[English dramatists before Shakespeare] It is the present fashion to speak with veneration of old English literature; but the homage we pay to it is more akin to the rites of superstition than to the worship of true religion. Our faith is doubtful; our love cold; our knowledge little or none. We now and then repeat the names of some of the old writers by rote, but we are shy of looking into their works. Though we seem disposed to think highly of them, and to given them every credit for a masculine and original vein of thought, as a matter of literary courtesy and enlargement of taste, we are afraid of coming to the proof, as too great a trial of our candour and patience. We regard the enthusiastic admiration of these obsolete authors, or a desire to make proselytes to a belief in their extraordinary merits, as an amiable weakness, a pleasing delusion; and prepare to listen to some favourite passage, that may be referred to in support of this singular taste, with in incredulous smile; and are in no small pain for the result of the hazardous experiment; feeling much the same awkward condescending disposition to patronize these first crude attempts at poetry and lispings of the Muse, as when a fond parent brings forward a bashful child to make a display of its wit of learning. (6)

Shakespeare… He was not something sacred and aloof from the vulgar herd of men, but shook hands with nature and the circumstances of the time, and is distinguished from his immediate contemporaries, not in kind, but in degree and greater variety of excellence. (7)

The sweetness of Decker, the thought of Marston, the gravity of Chapman, the grace of Fletcher and his young-eyed wit, Jonson’s learned sock, the flowing vein of Middleton, Heywood’s ease, the pathos of Webster, and Marlowe’s deep designs, (8)

The first cause I shall mention, as contributing to this general effect, was the Reformation, which had just then taken place. This event gave a mighty impulse, and increased activity to thought and inquiry, and agitated the inert mass of accumulated prejudices through Europe. … Liberty was held out to all to think and speak the truth. men’s brains were busy; their spirits stirring; their hearts full; and their hands not idle. … their ears burned with curiosity and zeal to know the truth, that the truth might make them free. The death-blow which had been struck at scarlet vice and bloated hypocrisy loosened their tongues, … The translation of the Bible was the chief engine in the great work. It threw open, by a secret spring, the rich treasures of religion and morality, which had been there and locked up as in a shrine. It revealed the visions of the prophets, and conveyed the lessons of inspired teachers (such they were thought) to the meanest of the people. (9-10)

What also gave an unusual impetus to the mind of man at this period, was the discovery of the New World, and the reading of voyages and travels. Green islands and golden sands seemed to arise, as by enchantment, out of the bosom of the watery waste, and invite the cupidity, or wing the imagination of the dreaming speculator. Fairy land was realized in the new and unknown worlds. (15)

Man’s life was (as it appears to me) more full of traps and pit-falls; of hair-breadth accidents by flood and field; more way-laid by sudden and startling evils; (17)

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 form 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 Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Fletcher’s Noble Kinsmen. (18)

This does not look as if in those days “it snowed of meat and drink,” as a matter of course throughout the year! (19)

We are a nation of islanders, and we cannot help it; nor mend ourselves if we would. We are something in ourselves, 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. (20)

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. (21)

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 work, is Gothic and grotesque; unequal and irregular; (21)

The names of Ben Jonson, for instance, Massinger, Beaumont and Fletcher, are almost, though not quite, as familiar to us as that of Shakespeare; and their works still keep regular possession of the stage. Another set of writers included in the same general period (the end of the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth century,) who are next, or equal, or sometimes superior to these in power, but whose names are now little known, and their writings nearly obsolete, are Lyly, Marlowe, Marston, Chapman, Middleton, and Rowley, Heywood, Webster, Decker, and Ford. [!!] (23)

Lyly made a more attractive picture of Grecian manners at second-hand, than of English characters from his own observation. (29)

It is singular that the style of this author, which is extremely sweet and flowing, should have been the butt of ridicule to his contemporaries, particularly Drayton, (32)

Marlowe is a name that stands high, and almost the first in this list of dramatic worthies. … There is a lust of power in his writings, a hunger and thirst after unrighteousness, a glow of the imagination, un hallowed by any thing but its own energies. … His “Life and Death of Doctor Faustus,” though an imperfect and unequal performance, is his greatest work. Faustus himself is a rude sketch, but it is a gigantic one. (33)

As the outline of the character is grand and daring, the execution is abrupt and fearful. The thoughts are vast and irregular; and the style halts and staggers under them, “what uneasy steps;”—“ such footing found the sole of unblest feet.” (34)

There is one passage more of this kind, which is so striking and beautiful, so like a rapturous and deeply passionate dream, that I cannot help quoting it here: it is the address to the Apparition of Helen. (36)

Perhaps the finest trait in the whole play, and that which softens and subdues the horror of it, is the interest taken by the two scholars in the fate of their master, and their unavailing attempts to dissuade him from his relentless career. The regard to learning is the ruling passion of this drama, and its indications are as mild and amiable in them as its ungoverned pursuit has been fatal to Faustus. (37)

The immediate comic parts, in which Faustus is not directly concerned, are mean and groveling to the last degree. One of the Clowns says to another, “Snails! What hast got there? A book? Why thouh can’st not tell ne’er a word on’t.” Indeed, the ignorance and barbarism of the time, as here described, might almost justify Faustus’s overstrained admiration of learning, (38)

I cannot find in Marlowe’s play, any proofs of the atheism or impiety attributed to him, (38)

Edward II. is, according to the modern standard of composition, Marlowe’s best play. It is written with few offences against the common rules, and in a succession of smooth and flowing lines. The poet however succeeds less in the voluptuous and effeminate descriptions which he here attempts, than in the more dreadful and violent bursts of passion. Edward II. is drawn with historic truth, but without much dramatic effect. The management of the plot is feeble and desultory; little interest is excited in the various turns of fate; the characters are too worthless, have too little energy, and their punishment is, in general, too well deserved to excite our commiseration; so that this play will bear, on the whole, but a distant comparison with Shakespeare’s Richard II. in conduct, power, or effect. But the death of Edward II., in Marlowe’s tragedy, is certainly superior to that of Shakespeare’s King; and in heart-breaking distress, and the sense of human weakness, claiming pity from utter helplessness and conscious misery, is not surpassed by any writer whatever. (43)

As Marlowe’s imagination glows like a furnace, Heywood’s is a gentle, lambent flame, that purifies without consuming. His manner is simplicity itself. There is nothing supernatural, nothing startling, or terrific. He makes use of the commonest circumstances of every-day life, (44)

The dialogue (bating the verse) is such as might be uttered in ordinary conversation. It is beautiful prose put into heroic measure. (44)

The names of Middleton and Rowley, with which I shall conclude this Lecture, generally appear together as two writers who frequently combined their talents in the production of joining pieces. Middleton (judging from their separate works) was “the more potent spirit” of the two; but they were neither of them equal to some others. Rowley appears to have excelled in describing a certain amiable quietness of disposition and disinterested tone of morality, … with a pleasing simplicity and naivete equal to the novelty of the conception. Middleton’s style was not marked by any peculiar quality of his own, but was made up, in equal proportions, of the faults and excellences common to his contemporaries. (47)

Marston is a writer of great merit, who rose to tragedy from the ground of comedy, and whose forte wsa not sympathy, either with the stronger or softer emotions, but an impatient scorn… He was not a favourite with his contemporaries, nor they with him. (57)

Next to Marston, I must put Chapman, whose name is better known as the translator of Homer than as a dramatic writer. He is, like Marston, a philosophic observer, a didactic reasoner: but he has both more gravity in his tragic style, and more levity in his comic vein. (64)

He is too stately for a wit, in his serious writings—too formal for a poet. … Our author aims at the highest things in poetry, and tries in vain, wanting imagination and passion, to fill up the epic moulds of tragedy with sense and reason alone, so that he often runs into bombast and turgidity—is extravagant and pedantic at one and the same time. (65)

It remains for me to say something of Webster and Decker. For these two writers I do not know how to show my regard and admiration sufficiently. Noble-minded Webster, gentle-hearted Decker, (69)

Webster would, I think, be a greater dramatic genius than Decker, if he had the same originality; and perhaps is so, even without it. His ‘White Devil’ and ‘Duchess of Malfy,’ upon the whole, perhaps, come the nearest to Shakespeare of anything we have upon record; the only drawback to them, the only shade of imputation than can be thrown upon them, “by which they lose some colour,” is, that they are too like Shakespeare, and often direct imitations of his, both in general conception and individual expression. (76)

Decker has, I think, more truth of character, more instinctive depth of sentiment, more of the unconscious simplicity of nature; but he does not, out of his own stores, clothe his subject with the same richness of imagination, or the same glowing colours of language. Decker excels in giving expression to habitual, deeply-rooted feelings, which remain pretty much the same in all circumstances, the simple uncompounded elements of nature and passion:—Webster gives more scope to their various combinations and changeable aspects, (76)

Beaumont and Fletcher, with all their prodigious merits, appear to me the first writers who in some measure departed form the genuine tragic style of the age of Shakespeare. They thought less of their subject, and more of themselves, than some others. They had a great and unquestioned command over the stores both of fancy and passion; but they availed themselves too often of common-place extravagances and theatrical trick. (85)

It cannot be denied that they are lyrical and descriptive poets of the highest order; every page of their writings is a florilegium: they are dramatic poets of the second class, in point of knowledge, variety, vivacity, and effect; … (86)

Their fault is a too ostentatious and indiscriminate display of power. Everything seems in a state of fermentation and effervescence, and not to have settled and found its centre in their minds. The ornaments, through neglect or abundance, do not always appear sufficiently appropriate: there is evidently a rich wardrobe of words and images, to set off any sentiments that occur, but not equal felicity in the choice of the sentiments to be expressed; the characters in general do not take a substantial form, or excite a growing interest, or leave a permanent impression; (86)

Besides these more critical objections, there is a too frequent mixture of voluptuous softness or effeminacy of character with horror in the subjects, a conscious weakness (I can hardly think it wantonness) of moral constitution struggling with willful and violent situation, like the tender wings of the moth, attracted to the flame that dazzles and consumes it. In the hey-day of their youthful ardour, and the intoxication of their animal spirits, they take a perverse delight in tearing up some rooted sentiment, to make a mawkish lamentation over it; and fondly and gratuitously cast the seeds of crimes and forbidden grounds, to see how they will shoot up and vegetate into luxuriance, to catch the eye of fancy. They are not safe teachers of morality: they tamper with it, (87)

The tone of Shakespeare’s writing is manly and bracing; there is at once insipid and meretricious, in the comparison. Shakespeare never disturbs the grounds of moral principle; but leaves his characters (after doing them heaped justice on all sides) to be judged of by our common sense and natural feeling. Beaumont and Fletcher constantly bring in equivocal sentiments and characters, as if to set them up to be debated by sophistical casuistry, or varnished over with the colours of poetical ingenuity. (87)

I do not say that this was the character of the men; but it strikes me as the character of their minds. … some of the most unguarded professors of a general license of behaviour, have been the last persons to take the benefit of their own doctrine, form which they reap nothing, but the obloquy, and the pleasure of startling their “wonder-wounded” hearers. (87)

Beaumont and Fletcher were the first, also, who laid the foundation of the artificial diction and tinseled pomp of the next generation of poets, by aiming at a profusion of ambitious ornaments, and by transplanting the commonest circumstances into the language of metaphor and passion. It is this misplaced and inordinate craving after striking effect and continual excitement that had at one time rendered our poetry the most vapid of all things, (88)

Ben Jonson’s serious productions are, in my opinion, superior to his comic ones. What he does, is the result of strong sense and painful industry; but sense and industry agree better with the grave and sever, than with the light and gay productions of the muse. … His fault is, that he sets himself too much on his subject, and cannot let go his hold of an idea, after the insisting on it becomes tiresome or painful to others. But his tenaciousness of what is grand and lofty, is more praiseworthy than his delight in what is low and disagreeable. (101)

I must hasten to conclude this Lecture with some account of Massinger and Ford, who wrote in the time of Charles I. I am sorry I cannot do it con amore. The writers of whom I have chiefly had to speak were true poets, impassioned, fanciful, “musical as is Apollo’s lute;” but Massinger is harsh and crabbed, Ford finical and fastidious. I find little in the works of these two dramatists, but a display of great strength or subtlety of understanding, inveteracy of purpose, and perversity of will. (105)

Massinger makes an impression by hardness and repulsiveness of manner. … It is in vain to hope to excite much sympathy with convulsive efforts of the will, or intricate contrivances of the understanding, to obtain that which is better left alone, and where the interest arises principally from the conflict between the absurdity of the passion and the obstinacy with which it is persisted in. for the most part, his villains are a sort of lusus naturae; his impassioned characters are like drunkards or madmen. Their conduct is extreme and outrageous, their motives unaccountable and weak; their misfortunes are without necessity, (105)

Ford is not so great a favourite with me as with some others, form whose judgment I dissent with diffidence. It has been lamented that the play of his which has been most admired (‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore’) had not a less exceptionable subject. I do not know, but I suspect that the exceptionableness of the subject is that which constitutes the chief merit of the play. The repulsiveness of the story is what gives its critical interest; for it is a studiously prosaic statement of facts, and naked declaration of passions. …
I do not deny the power of simple painting and polished style in this tragedy in general, and of a great deal more in some few of the scenes, particularly in the quarrel between Annabella and her husband, which is wrought up to a pitch of demoniac scorn and phrensy with consummate art and knowledge; but I do not find much other power in the author (generally speaking) than that of playing with edged tools, and knowing the use of poisoned weapons. And what confirms me in this opinion is the comparative inefficiency of his other plays. (109)

The name of Drummond of Hawthorden is in a manner entwined in cipher with that of Ben Jonson. He had not done himself or Jonson any credit by his account of their conversation; but his sonnets are in the highest degree elegant, harmonious, and striking. It appears to me that they are more in the manner of Petrarch than any others that we have, with a certain intenseness in the sentiment, an occasional glitter of thought, and uniform terseness of expression. (143)

I should, on the whole, prefer Drummond’s sonnets to Spenser’s; and they leave Sydney’s, picking their way through verbal intricacies and “thorny queaches,” at an immeasurable distance behind. (147)

Ben Jonson’s detached poetry I like much, as indeed I do all about him, except when he degraded himself by “the laborious foolery” of some of his farcical characters, which he could not deal with sportively, and only made stupid and pedantic. I have been blamed for what I have said, more than one, in disparagement of Ben Jonson’s comic humour; but I think he was himself aware of his infirmity, (147)

Carew was an elegant court-trifler. Herrick was an amorist, with perhaps more fancy than feeling, though he has been called by some the English Anacreon. Crashaw was a hectic enthusiast in religion and in poetry, and erroneous in both. Marvell deserves to be remembered as a true poet as well as patriot, not in the best of times. (156)

Carew… We may perceive, however, a frequent mixture of superficial and common-place, with far-fetched and improbably conceipts. (157)

Herrick is a writer who does not answer the expectations I had formed of him. He is in a manner a modern discovery, and so far has the freshness of antiquity about him. He is not trite and thread-bare. But neither is he likely to become so. He is a writer of epigrams, not of lyrics. He has point and ingenuity, but I think little of the spirit of love or wine. Form his frequent allusion to pearls and rubies, one might take him for a lapidary instead of a poet. … His poems, from their number and size, are “like the moats that play in the sun’s beams;” that glitter to the eye of fancy, but leave no distinct impression on the memory. (157)

Of Marvell I have spoken with such praise as appears to me his due, on another occasion; but the public are deaf, except to proof or to their own prejudices, and I will therefore given an example of the sweetness and power of his verse. [To His Coy Mistress] (159)

But so it is: if an author is once detected in borrowing, he will be suspected of plagiarism ever after; and every writer than finds an ingenious or partial editor, will be made to set up his claim to originality against him. A more serious charge of this kind has been urged [161] against the principal characters in ‘Paradise Lost’ (that of Satan), which is said to have been taken from Marino, an Italian poet. Of this we may be able to form some judgment by a comparison with Crashaw’s translation of Marino’s ‘Sospetto d’Herode.’ … This portrait of monkish superstition does not equal the grandeur of Milton’s description: [162] … Milton has got rid of the horns and tail, the vulgar and physical insignia of the devil, and clothed him with other greater and intellectual terrors, reconciling beauty and sublimity, and converting the grotesque and deformed into the ideal and classical. Certainty, Milton’s mind rose superior to all others in this respect, on the outstretched wings of philosophic contemplation, in not confounding the depravity of the will with physical distortion, or supposing that the distinctions of good and evil were only to be subjected to the gross ordeal of the senses. In the subsequent stanzas, we however find the traces of some of Milton’s boldest imagery, though its effect be injured by the incongruous mixture above stated. …
The poet adds— “The while his twisted tail he gnaw’d for spite.”
There is no keeping in this. This action of meanness and mere vulgar spite, common to the most contemptible creatures, [163] takes away from the terror and power just ascribed to the prince of Hell, (163)

Crashaw’s translation of Strada’s description of the contention between a nightingale and a musician, is elaborate and spirited, but not equal to Ford’s version of the same story in his ‘Lover’s Melancholy.’ One line may serve as a specimen of delicate quaintness, as of Crashaw’s style in general:
“And with a quavering coyness [tastes?] the strings.” (164)

Sir Philip Sidney is a writer for whom I cannot acquire a taste. As Mr. Burke said, “he could not love the French Republic”—so I may say, that I cannot love ‘The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia,’ with all my good-will to it. (164)

At the time that Sir Philip Sidney’s ‘Arcadia’ was written, those middle-men, the critics, were not known. The author and [166] reader came into immediate contact, and seemed never tired of each other’s company. We are more fastidious and dissipated: the effeminacy of modern taste would, I am afraid, shrink back affrighted at the formidable sight of this once popular work, which is about as long (horresco referens!) as all Walter Scott’s novels put together; but besides its size and appearance, it has, I think, other defects of a more intrinsic and insuperable nature. It is to me one of the greatest monuments of the abuse of intellectual power upon record. It puts one in mind of the court dresses and preposterous fashions of the time, which are grown poetry, but casuistry; … Out of five hundred folio pages, there are hardly, I conceive, half a dozen sentences expressed simply and directly, with the sincere desire to convey the image implied, and without a systematic interpolation of the wit, learning, ingenuity, wisdom, and everlasting impertinence of the writer, so as to disguise the object, instead of displaying in its true colours and real proportions. (166)

His Sonnets, inlaid in the Arcadia, are jejune, far-fetched and frigid. I shall select only one that has been much commended. (172-3)

His ‘Defence of Poesy’ is his most readable performance; there he is quite at home, in a sort of special pleader’s office, where his ingenuity, scholastic subtlety, and tenaciousness in argument stand him in good stead; and he brings off poetry with flying colours; for he was a man of wit, of sense, and learning, though not a poet of true taste or unsophisticated genius. (173)

Sir Thomas Brown [sic] seemed to be of opinion that the only business of life was to think, and that the proper object of speculation was, by darkening knowledge, to breed more speculation, and “find no end in wandering mazes lost.” (181)

His is the sublime of indifference; a passion for the abstruse and imaginary. He turns the world round for his amusement, as if it was a globe of paste-board. He looks down on sublunary affairs as if he had taken his station in one of the planets. (182)

For a thing to have ever had a name is sufficient warrant to entitle it to respectful belief, and to invest it with all the rights of a subject and its predicates. He is superstitious, but not bigoted; to him all religions are much the same, and he says that he should not like to have lived in the time of Christ and the Apostles, as it would have rendered his faith too gross and palpable. His gossiping egotism and personal character have been preferred unjustly to Montaigne’s. He had no personal character at all but the peculiarity of resolving all the other elements of his being into thought, … In describing himself he deals only in negatives. He says he has neither prejudices nor antipathies to manners, habits, climate, food, to persons or things; they were alike acceptable to him as they afforded new topics for reflection; and he even professes that he could never bring himself heartily to hate the devil. (183)

…he had a hand in the execution of some old women for witchcraft, I suppose to keep a decorum in absurdity, and to indulge an agreeable horror at his own fantastical reveries on the occasion. (183)

Jeremy Taylor was a writer as different from Sir Thomas Brown [sic] as it was possible for one writer to be from another. He was a dignitary of the church, and except in matters of casuistry and controverted points, could not be supposed to enter upon speculative doubts, or give a loose to a sort of dogmatical sceptisim. He had less thought, less “stuff of the conscience,” less “to give us pause,” in his impetuous oratory, but he had equal fancy—not the same vastness and profundity, but more richness and beauty, more warmth and tenderness. He is as rapid, as flowing, and endless, as the other is stately, abrupt, and concentrated. (190)

Jeremy Taylor… His characteristic is enthusiastic and delightful amplification. (190)

[note] Sir Thomas Brown has it, “The huntsmen are up in America,” but Mr. Coleridge prefers reading Arabia. I do not thingk his account of the Urn-Buriall very happy. Sir Thomas can be said to be “wholly in his subject,” only because he is wholly out of it. There is not a word in the ‘Hydiotaphia’ about “a thigh-bone, or a skull, or a bit of mouldered coffin, or a tombstone, or a ghost, or a winding-sheet, or an echo,” nor is “a silver nail or a gilt anno domini the gayest thing you shall meet with.” You do not meet with them at all in the text; nor it is possible, either form the nature of the subject, or of Sir T. Brown’s mind, that you should! He chose the subject of Urn-Burial, because it was “one of no mark or likelihood,” totally free form the romantic prettinesses and pleasing poetical common-places with which Mr. Coleridges has adorned it, and because, being “without form and void,” it gave unlimited scope to his high-raised and shadowy imagination. The motto of this author’s compositions might be—“De apparentibus et non existentibus eadem est ralio. He created his own materials: or to speak of him in his own language, “he saw nature in the elements of its chaos, and discerned his favourite notions in the great obscurity of nothing!” (190)

Jeremy Taylor… He puts his heart into his fancy. He does not pretend to annihilate the passions and pursuits of mankind in the pride or philosophic indifference, but treats them as serious and momentous things, warring with conscience and the soul’s health, or furnishing the means of grace and hopes of glory. (191)

His ‘Holy Living and Dying’ is a divine pastoral. He writes to the faithful followers of Christ, as the shepherd pipes to his flock. (191)

His style is prismatic. It unfolds the colours of the rainbow; it floats like the bubble through the air; it is like innumerable dew-drops that glitter on the face of morning, and tremble as they glitter. He does not dig his way underground, but slides upon ice, borne on the winged car of fancy. (191)

His exhortations to piety and virtue are a gay mememto mori. He mixes us death’s-heads and amaranthine flowers; makes life a procession to the grave, but crowns it with gaudy garland, and “rains sacrificial roses” on its path. In a word, his writings are a choral song in praise of virtue, and a hymn to the Spirit of the Universe. (191)


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