1817 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Greene

Nathan Drake, in Shakespeare and his Times (1817; 1838) 238-43.



Of Robert Greene, the author of near fifty productions, the history is so highly monitory and interesting as to demand more than a cursory notice. It affords, indeed, one of the most melancholy proofs of learning, taste, and genius being totally inadequate, without a due control over the passions, to produce either happiness or respectability. This misguided man was born at Norwich, about the middle of the sixteenth century, of parents in genteel life and much esteemed. He was sent to St. John's College, Cambridge, from whence, at an early period of his education, he was, unfortunately for his future peace of mind, induced to absent himself, on a tour through Italy and Spain. His companions were wild and dissolute, and, according to his own confession, he ran headlong with them into every species of dissipation and vice.

On his return to England, he took his degree of Bachelor of Arts at St. John's, in 1578, and afterwards, removing to Clare-hall, his Master of Arts degree in that college, 1583. We learn, from one of his numerous tracts, that, immediately after this event, he visited the metropolis, where he led a life of unrestrained debauchery. Greene was one of those men who are perpetually sinning and perpetually repenting; he had a large share of wit, humour, fancy, generosity, and good-nature, but was totally deficient in that strength of mind which is necessary to resist temptation; he was conscious, too, of his great abilities, but at the same time deeply conscious of the waste of talent which had been committed to his care. When we find, therefore, that he was intended for the church, and that he was actually presented to the vicarage of Tollesbury, in Essex, on the 19th of June, 1584, we may easily conceive how a man of his temperament and habits would feel and act; he resigned it, in fact, the following year, no doubt shocked at the disparity between his profession and his conduct; for we find, from his own relation, that a few years previous to this incident, he had felt extreme compunction on hearing a sermon "preached by a godly learned man," in St. Andrew's Church, Norwich.

It was shortly after this period that he married; and, if any thing could have saved Greene from himself, this was the expedient; for the lady he had chosen was beautiful in her person, amiable and moral in her character, and we know, from the works of this unhappy man, that his heart had been the seat of the milder virtues, and that he possessed a strong relish for domestic life.

The result of the experiment must lacerate the feelings of all who hear it; for it exhibits, in a manner never surpassed, the best emotions of our nature withering before the touch of Dissipation. The picture is taken from a pamphlet of our author's, entitled Never Too Late, printed in 1590, where his career is admirably and confessedly shadowed forth under the character of the Palmer Francesco. It would appear from this striking narrative, if the minutiae, as well as the outline of it, are applicable to Greene, that he married his wife contrary to the wishes of her father; their pecuniary distress was great, but prudence and affection enabled them to realize the following scene of domestic felicity:

"Hee and Isabel joyntly together taking them to a little cottage, began to be as Ciceronicall as they were amorous; with their hands thrift coveting to satisfy their hearts thirst, and to he as diligent in labours, as they were affectionate in loves; so that the parish wherein they lived, so affected them for the course of their life, that they were counted the very mirrors of methode; for he being a scholer, and nurst up in the universities, resolved rather to live by his wit, than any way to be pinched with want, thinking this old sentence to be true, 'the wishers and woulders were never good householders'; therewith he applied himselfe in teaching of a schoole, where, by his industry, hee had not onely great favour, but gate wealthe to withstand fortune. Isabel, that shee might seeme no less profitable, then her husband carefull, fell to her needle, and with her worke sought to prevent the injurie of necessitie. Thus they laboured to maintain their loves, being as busie as bees, and as true as turtles, as desirous to satisfie the world with their desert, as to feede the humours of their own desires. Living thus in a league of united virtues, out or this mutuall concord of conformed perfection, they had a sonne answerable to their owne proportion, which did increase their amitie, so as the sight of their young infant was a double ratifying of their affection. Fortune and love thus joyning in the league, to make these parties to forget the stormes, that had nipped the blossom of their former yeres.

The poetry of Greene abounds still more than the prose with the most exquisite delineations of rural peace and content, and the following lines feelingly paint this short and only happy period of his life:—

Sweet are the thoughts that savour of content,
The quiet minde is richer than a crowne:
Sweete are the nights in carelesse slumber spent,
The poor estate scornes Fortune's angry frowne:
Such sweete content, such minde, such sleepe, such blis,
Beggers injoy, when princes oft doe mis.

The homely house that harbour, quiet rest,
The cottage that affoords no pride nor care,
The meane that grees with country musicke best,
The sweete consort of mirth and musick's fare,
Obscured life sets downe a type of blis,
A minde content both crowne and kingdome is.

Deeply is it to be lamented, and with a sense, too, of humiliation for the frailty of human nature, that, with such inducements to a moral and rational life, with sufficient to support existence comfortably, for he had some property of his own, and his wife's dowry had been paid, and with a child whom he loved, and with a wife whom he confesses was endowed with all that could endear and dignify her sex, he could suffer his passions so far to subdue his reason, as to throw these essentials towards happiness away! In the year 1586 he abandoned this amiable woman and her son, to revel in all the vicious indulgences of the metropolis. The causes of this iniquitous desertion may be traced in his works; from these we learn that, in the first place, she had endeavoured, and perhaps too importunately for such an irritable character, to reform his evil propensities; and secondly that on a visit to London on business, he had been fascinated by the allurements of a courtesan, and on this woman, whose name was Ball, and on her infamous relations, for her brother was afterwards hanged, he squandered both his own property and that of his wife.

It is almost without a parallel that during the remainder of Greene's life, including only six years, he was continually groaning with anguish and repentance, and continually plunging into fresh guilt; that in his various tracts he was confessing his sins with the deepest contrition, passionately apostrophising his injured wife, imploring her forgiveness in the most pathetic terms, and describing, in language the most touching and impressive, the virtue of her whom he had so basely abandoned.

He tells us, under the beautifully drawn character of Isabel, by whom he represents his wife, that upon her being told, by one of his friends, of his intended residence in London, and by another, of the attachment which had fixed him there, she would not at first credit the tale; but, when convinced, she hid her face, and inwardly smothered her sorrows, yet grieving at his follies, though unwilling to hear him censured by others, and at length endeavouring to solace her affliction by repeating to her cittern some applicable verses from the Italian of Ariosto. He then adds, that she subsequently hinted her knowledge of the amour to hint in a letter, saying "the onely comfort that I have in thine absence is the child, who lies on his mother's knee, and smiles as wantonly as his father when he was a wooer. But, when the boy says, 'Mam, where is my dad, when wil he come home'; then the calm of my content turneth to a present storm of piercing sorrow, that I am forced sometime to say, 'unkinde Francesco that forgets his Isabell.' I hope Francesco it is thine affaires, not my faults, that procure this long delay."

The following pathetic song seems to have been suggested to Greene by the scene just described, and is a further proof of the singular disparity subsisting between his conduct and his feelings.

BY A MOTHER TO HER INFANT.
Weepe not, my Wanton, smile upon my knee,
When thou art old theres griefe enough for thee.
Mothers wagge, prettie boy,
Fathers sorrow, fathers joy;
When thy father first did see
Such a boy by him and me,
He was glad, I was woe,
Fortune changd made him so,
When he had left his prettie boy,
Last his sorrow, first his joy.

Weepe not, my Wanton, smile upon my knee,
When thou art old theres griefe enough for thee.
Streaming teares that never stint,
Like pearle drops from a flint,
Fell by course from his eies,
That one anothers place supplies.
Thus he grieved in every part,
Teares of blond fell from his heart,
When he left his prettie boy,
Fathers sorrow, fathers joy.

Weep not, my Wanton, smile upon my knee,
When thou art old theres griefe enough for thee.
The wanton smilde, father wept,
Mother cried, babie lept;
Now he crow'd more he cride,
Nature could not sorrow hide;
He must goe, he must kisse
Childe and mother, babie blisse,
For he left his prettie boy,
Fathers sorrow, fathers joy.
Weep not, my Wanton, smile upon my knee,
When thou art old theres griefe enough for thee.

In the mean time he pursued his career of debauchery in Town, whilst his forsaken wife retired into Lincolnshire. In July, 1588, he was incorporated at Oxford, at which time, says Wood, he was "a pastoral sonnet maker, and author of several things which were pleasing to men and women of his time: they made much sport, and were valued among scholars." In short, such had been the extravagance of Greene, that he was now compelled to write for his daily support, and his biographers probably without any sufficient foundation, have chosen to consider him as the first of our poets who wrote for bread. It should be recorded, however, that his pen was employed not only for himself but for his wife; for Wood tells us, and it is a mitigating fact which has been strangely overlooked by every other writer, that he "wrote to maintain his wife, and that high and loose course of living which poets generally follow." We have reason, indeed, to conclude, that the income which he derived from his literary labours was considerable, for his popularity as a writer of prose pamphlets, which, as Warton observes, may "claim the appellation of satires," was unrivalled. Ben Jonson alludes to them in his Every Man out of his Humour, and Sir Thomas Overbury, describing a chamber-maid, says "she reads Greene's works over and over; but is so carried away with the Mirror of Knighthood, she is many times resolv'd to run out of herself, and become a lady-errant."

It must be confessed that many of the prose tracts of Greene are licentious and indecent; but there are many also whose object is useful and whose moral is pure. They are written with great vivacity, several are remarkable for the most poignant raillery, all exhibit a glowing warmth of indignation, and many are interspersed with beautiful and highly polished specimens of his poetical powers. On those which are employed in exposing the machinations of his infamous associates, he seems to place a high value, justly considering their detection as an essential service done to his country; and he fervently thanks his God for enabling him so successfully to lay open the "most horrible Coosenages of the common Cony-Catchers; Cooseners and Crosse Biters," names which in those days designated the perpetrators of every species of deception and knavery.

But the most curious and interesting of his numerous pieces, are those which relate to his own character, conduct, and repentance. The titles of these, as they best untold the laudable views with which they were written, we shall give at length.

1. Greene's Mourning Garment, given him by Repentance at the Funerals of Love, which he presents for a Favour to all young Gentlemen that wishe to weane themselves from wanton desires. Both pleasant and profitable. By R. Greene, Utriusque Academiae in Artibus Magister. Sero sed serio. Lond. 1590.

2. Greene's Never Too Late. Sent to all youthful Gentlemen, decyphering in a true English Historic those particular vanities, that with their frosty vapours nip the Blossomes of every Braine from attaining to his intended perfection. As pleasant as profitable, being a right Pumice Stone, apt to race out Idlenesse with delight, and folly with admonition. By Robert Greene, In Artibus Magister. Lond. 1590.

3. Greene's Groatsworth of Wit. Bought with a million of Repentance, describing the Folly of Youth, the Falshood of make-shift Flatteries, the Miserie of the Negligent, and Mishaps of deceiving Courtezans. Published at his dying Request, and newly corrected and of many errors purged. Felicem fuisse infausturn. Lond. 1592.

4. Greene's Farewell to Follie. Sent to Courtiers and Scholers, as a President to warne them from the vain Delights that drawe Youth on to Repentance. Sero sed serio. By Robert Greene.

5. Repentance of Robert Greene, Maister of Artes. Wherein, by himselfe, is laid open his loose Life, with the Manner of his Death. Lond. 1592.

6. Greene's Vision. Written at the instant of his death, conteyning a penitent Passion for the folly of his Pen. Sero sed serio. By Robert Greene.

In these publications the author has endeavoured to make all the reparation in his power, by exposing his own weakness and folly, by detailing the melancholy effects of his dissipation, and by painting in the most impressive terms the contrition which he so bitterly felt. In what exquisite poetry he could deplore his vicious habits, and by what admirable precepts he could direct the conduct of others, will be learnt from two extracts taken from his Never Too Late, in the first of which the Penitent Palmer, the intended symbol of himself, repeats the following ode:

Whilome in the Winter's rage,
A Palmer old and full of age,
Sate and thought upon his youth,
With eyes, teares, and hart's ruth,
Beeing all with cares yblent,
When he thought on yeeres mispent,
When his follies came to minde,
How fond love had made him blinde,
And wrapt him in a fielde of woes,
Shadowed with pleasures shoes,
Then he sighed, and sayd, alas!
Man is sinne, and flesh is grasse.
I thought my mistres hairs were gold,
And in her locks my harte I folde;
Her amber tresses were the sight
That wrapped me in vaine delight:
Her ivorie front, her pretie chin,
Were stales that drew me on to sin:
Her starry lookes, her christall eyes,
Brighter than the sunnes arise:
Sparkling pleasing flames of fire,
Yoakt my thoughts and my desire,
That I gan cry ere I blin,
Oh her eyes are paths to sin.
Her face was faire, her breath was sweet,
All her lookes for love was meete:
But love is folly this I know,
And beauty fadeth like to snow.
Oh why should man delight in pride,
Whose blossome like a dew doth glide:
When these supposes taught my thought,
That world was vaine, and beautie nought,
I gan to sigh, and say, alas!
Man is sinne, and flesh is grasse.

The second extract, entitled the Farewell of a friend, is supposed to be addressed to Francesco the Palmer, "by one of his companions;" such an one, indeed, as might have saved him from ruin, had he sought for the original in real life.

Let God's worship be thy morning's worke, and fits wisdome the direction of thy dayes labour.
Rise not without thankes, nor sleepe not without repentance.
Choose but a few friends, and try those; for the flatterer speakes fairest.
If thy wire be wise, make her thy secretary; else locke thy thoughts in thy heart, for women are seldome silent.
If she he faire, be not jealous; for suspicion cures not womens follies.
If she be wise, wrong her not; for if thou lovest others she will loath thee.
Let thy children's nurture be their richest portion: for wisdome is more precious than wealth.
Be not proude among thy poor neighbours; for a poore man's hate is perillous.
Nor too familiar with great men; for presumption winnes disdaine.

The virtues of Greene were, it is to be apprehended, confined to his books; they were theoretical rather than practical; for, however sincere might be his repentance at the moment, or determined his resolution of reform, the impression seems to have been altogether transient; he continued to indulge, with few interruptions, his vicious course, until a death, too accordant with the dissipated tissue of his life, closed the melancholy scene. He died, says Wood, about 1592, of a surfeit taken by eating pickled herrings and drinking Rhenish wine. It appears that his friend Nash was of the party.

Of the debauchery, poverty, and misery of Greene, Gabriel Harvey, with whom he had carried on a bitter personal controversy, has left us a highly-coloured description. If the last scene of his life be not exaggerated by this inveterate opponent, it presents with a picture of distress the most poignant and pathetic upon record.

"I once bemoned," relates Harvey, "the decayed and blasted estate of M. Gascoigne, who wanted not some commendable parts of conceit, and endevour: but unhappy M. Gascoigne, how lorldly happy, in comparison of most unhappy M. Greene? He never envyed me so much as I pitied him from my hart; especially when his hostessse Isam, with teares in her eies, and sighes from a deeper fountaine (for she loved him deerely) tould me of his lamentable begging of a penny pott of Malmesie; — and how he was faine, poore soule, to borrowe her husbands shirte, whiles his owne was a washing; and how his dublet, and hose, and sworde were sold for three shillings: and beside the charges of his winding sheete, which was four shillinges, and the charges of his buriall yesterday in the New-church-yard neere Bedlam, which was six shillinges and foure pence; how deeply hee was indebted to her poore husbande: as appeered by hys owne bonde of tenne poundes: which the good woman kindly showed me: and beseeched me to read the writing beneath: which was a letter to his abandoned wife, in the behalfe of his gentle host: not so short as persuasible in the beginning, and pitifull in the ending.

"DOLL, I charge thee by the love of our youth, and by my soules rest, that thou wilte see this man paide: for if hee and his wife had not succoured me, I had died in the streetes.

ROBERT GREENE."

The pity which Harvey assumes upon this occasion may justly be considered as hypocritical; for the pamphlet whence the above extract has been taken, abounds in the most rancorous abuse and exaggerated description of the vices of Greene, and contains, among other invectives, a sonnet unparalleled, perhaps, for the keen severity of its irony, and for the dreadful solemnity of tone in which it is delivered. It is put into the mouth of John Harvey, the physician, who had been dead some years, but who had largely participated of the torrent of satire which Greene had poured upon his brothers Gabriel and Richard. If it be the composition of Gabriel, and there is reason to suppose this to be the case, from the tract in which it appears, it must be deemed infinitely superior, in point of poetical merit, to any thing else which he has written.

JOHN HARVEY THE PHYSICIAN'S WELCOME TO ROBERT GREENE!
Come, fellow Greene, come to thy gaping grave,
Bid Vanity and Foolery farewell,
That overlong hast plaid the mad-brained knave,
And overloud hast rung the bawdy bell.
Vermine to vermine must repair at last;
No fitter house for busie folke to dwell;
Thy conny-catching pageants are past,
Some other must those arrant stories tell:
These hungry wormes thinke long for their repast;
Come on; I pardon thy offence to me
It was thy living; be not so aghast!
A Fool and a Physitian may agree!
And for my brothers never vex thyself;
They are not to disease a buried elfe.

We have entered thus fully into the character and writings of Greene, from the circumstance of his having been the most popular miscellaneous author of his day, from the striking talent and genius which his productions display, and from the moral lesson to be drawn from his conduct and his sufferings. It may be useful to remark here, that a well chosen selection from his pamphlets, now all extremely rare, would furnish one of the most elegant and interesting volumes in the language.