1819 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Heywood

Thomas Campbell, in Specimens of the British Poets (1819; 1845) 191-92.



THOMAS HEYWOOD was the most prolific writer in the most fertile age of our drama. In the midst of his theatrical labours as an actor and poet, he composed a formidable list of prose works, and defended the stage against the puritans, in a work that is full of learning. One of his projects was to write the lives of all poets who were ever distinguished, from the time of Homer downwards. Yet it has happened to the framer of this gigantic design to have no historian so kind to his own memory as to record either the period of his death, or the spot that covers his remains. His merits entitled him to better remembrance. He composed indeed with a careless rapidity, and seems to have thought as little of Horace's precept of "saepe stylum vertas" as of most of the injunctions of the Art of Poetry. But he possesses considerable power of interesting the affections, by placing his plain and familiar characters in affecting situations. The worst of him is, that his commonplace sentiments and plain incidents fall not only beneath the ideal beauty of art, but are often more fatiguing than what we meet with in the ordinary and unselected circumstances of life. When he has hit upon those occasions where the passions should obviously rise with accumulated expression, he lingers on through the scene with a dull and level indifference. The term artlessness may be applied to Heywood in two very opposite senses. His pathos is often artless in the better meaning of the word, because its objects are true to life, and their feelings naturally expressed. But he betrays still more frequently an artlessness, or we should rather call it, a want of art, in deficiency of contrivance. His best performance is, "A Woman killed with Kindness." In that play the repentance of Mrs. Frankford, who dies of a broken heart, for her infidelity to a generous husband, would present a situation consummately moving, if we were left to conceive her death to be produced simply by grief. But the poet most unskillfully prepares us for her death, by her declaring her intentions to starve herself; and mars, by the weakness, sin, and horror of suicide, an example of penitence that would otherwise be sublimely and tenderly edifying. The scenes of the death of Mrs. Frankford has been deservedly noticed for its pathos by an eminent foreign critic, Mr. Schlegel, who also commends the superior force of its inexorable morality to the reconciling conclusion of Kotzbue's drama on a similar subject. The learned German perhaps draws his inference too rigidly. Mrs. Frankford's crime was recent, and her repentance and death immediately follow it; but the guilt of the other tragic penitent, to whom Mr. S. alludes, is more remote, and less heinous; and to prescribe interminable limits, either in real or imaginary life, to the generosity of individual forgiveness, is to invest morality with terrors, which the frailty of man and the mercy of Heaven do not justify.