1753 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Francis Beaumont

Anonymous, in Cibber-Shiels, Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland (1753) 1:154-60.



Mr. FRANCIS BEAUMONT was descended from the ancient family of his name, seated at Grace dieu in Leicestershire, and was born about the year 1585 in the reign of Queen Elizabeth. His grandfather, John Beaumont, was Master of the Rolls, and his father Francis Beaumont, one of the Judges of the Common Pleas. Our poet had his education at Cambridge, but of what college we are not informed, nor is it very material to know. We find him afterwards admitted a student in the Inner-Temple, but we have no account of his making any proficiency in the law, which is a circumstance attending almost all the poets who were bred to that profession, which few men of sprightly genius care to be confined to. Before he was thirty years of age he died, in 1615, and was buried the ninth of the same month in the entrance of St. Benedictine's Chapel, within St. Peter's Westminster. We meet with no inscription on his tomb, but there are two epitaphs writ on him, one by his elder brother Sir John Beaumont, and the other by Bishop Corbet. That by his brother is pretty enough, and is as follows:

On Death, thy murderer, this revenge I take:
I slight his terror, and just question make,
Which of us two the best preced'ence have,
Mine to this wretched world, thine to the grave,
Thou shouldst have followed me, but Death to blame
Miscounted years, and measured age by fame.
So dearly has't thou bought thy precious lines;
Thy praise grew swiftly, so thy life declines.
Thy muse, the hearer's queen, the reader's love
All ears, all hearts, but Death's could please and move.

Our poet left behind him one daughter, Mrs. Frances Beaumont, who lived to a great age and, died in Leicestershire since the year 1700. She had been possessed of several poems of her father's writing, but they were lost at sea in her voyage from Ireland, where she lived some time in the Duke of Ormond's family. Besides the plays in which Beaumont was jointly concerned with Fletcher, he writ a little dramatic piece entitled A Masque of Grays Inn Gentlemen, and the Inner-Temple; a poetical epistle to Ben Johnson; verses to his friend Mr. John Fletcher, upon his faithful Shepherd, and other poems printed together in 1653, 8vo. That pastoral which was written by Fletcher alone, having met with but an indifferent reception, Beaumont addressed the following copy of verses to him on that occasion, in which he represents thee hazard of writing for the stage, and satirizes the audience for want of judgment, which, in order to shew his versification I shall insert.

Why should the man, whose wit ne'er had a stain,
Upon the public stage present his vein,
And make a thousand men in judgment sit
To call in question his undoubted wit,
Scarce two of which can understand the laws,
Which they should judge by, nor the party's cause.
Among the rout there is not one that hath,
In his own censure an explicit faith.
One company, knowing thy judgment Jack,
Ground their belief on the next man in black;
Others on him that makes signs and is mute,
Some like, as he does, in the fairest sute;
He as his mistress doth, and she by chance:
Nor want there those, who, as the boy doth dance
Between the acts will censure the whole play;
Some, if the wax lights be not new that day:
But multitudes there are, whose judgment goes
Headlong, according to the actors clothes.

Mr. Beaumont was esteemed so accurate a judge of plays, that Ben Johnson, while he lived, submitted all his writings to his censures; and it is thought, used his judgment in correcting, if not contriving most of his plots [Life of Fletcher omitted].

Beaumont and Fletcher, as has been observed, wrote plays in concert, but what share each bore in forming the plots, writing the scenes, &c. is unknown. The general opinion is, that Beaumont's judgment was usually employed in correcting and retrenching the superfluities of Fletcher's wit, whose fault was, as Mr. Cartwright expresses it, to do too much, but if Winstanley may be credited, the former had his share likewise in the drama, for that author relates, that our poets meeting once at a tavern in order to form the rude draught of a tragedy, Fletcher undertook to kill the king, which words being overheard by a waiter, he was officious enough, in order to recommend himself, to lodge an information against them; but their loyalty being unquestioned, and the relation of the circumstance probable, that the vengeance was only aimed at a theatrical monarch, the affair ended in a jest.

The first play which brought them into esteem, as Dryden says, was Philaster, or Love lies a Bleeding; for, before that, they had written two or three very unsuccessfully, as the like is reported of Ben Johnson before he writ every Man in his Humour. These authors had with the advantage of the wit of Shakespear, which was their precedent, great natural gifts improved by study. Their plots are allowed generally more regular than Shakepear's; they touch the tender passions, and excite love in a very moving manner; their faults, notwithstanding Beaumont's castigation, consist in a certain luxuriance, and stretching their speeches to an immoderate length; however, it must be owned their wit is great, their language suited to the passions they raise, and the age in which they live is a sufficient apology for their defects. Mr. Dryden tells us, in his Essay on Dramatic Poetry, that Beaumont and Fletcher's plays in his time were the most pleasing and frequent entertainments of the stage, two of theirs being acted through the year for one of Shakespear's or Johnson's; and the reason he assigns is, because there is a certain gaiety in their comedies, and a pathos in their most serious plays which suits generally with all men's humours; but however it might be when Dryden writ, the case is now reversed, for Beaumont and Fletcher's plays are not acted above once a season, while one of Shakespear's is represented almost every third night. It may seem strange, that wits of the first magnitude should not be so much honoured in the age in which they live, as by posterity; it is now fashionable to be in raptures with Shakespear; editions are multiplied upon editions, and men of the greatest genius have employed all their power in illustrating his beauties, which ever grow upon the reader, and gain ground upon perusal. These noble authors have received incense of praise from the highest pens; they were loved and esteemed by their cotemporaries, who have not sailed to demonstrate their respect by various copies of verses at different times, and upon different occasions, addressed to them, the insertion of which would exceed the bounds proposed for this work. I shall only observe, that amongst the illustrious names of their admirers, are Denham, Waller, Cartwright, Ben Johnson, Sir John Berkenhead, and Dryden himself, a name more than equal to all the rest. But the works of our authors have not escaped the censure of critics, especially Mr. Rhymer the historiographer, who was really a man of wit and judgment, but somewhat ill natured; for he has laboured to expose the faults, without taking any notice of the beauties of Rollo Duke of Normandy, the King and No King, and the Maids Tragedy, in a piece of his called The Tragedies of the Last Age considered, and examined by the practice of the ancients, and by the common sense of all ages, in a letter to Fleetwood Shepherd esquire. Mr. Rymer sent one of his books as a present to Mr. Dryden, who in the blank leaves before the beginning, and after the end of the book, made several remarks, as if he intended to publish an answer to that critic, and his opinion of the work was this; "My judgment (says he) of this piece, is that it is extremely learned, but the author seems better acquainted with the Greek, than the English poets; that all writers ought to study this critic as the best account I have seen of the ancients; that the model of tragedy he has here given is extremely correct, but that it is not the only model of tragedy, because it is too much circumscribed in the plot, characters, &c. And lastly, that we may be taught here justly to admire and imitate the ancients, without giving them the preference, with this author, in prejudice to our own country."

Some of Beaumont and Fletcher's plays were printed in quarto during the lives of their authors; and in the year 1645, twenty years after Fletcher's death, there was published in folio a collection of their plays which had not been printed before, amounting to between thirty and forty. At the beginning of this volume are inserted a great number of commendatory verses, written by the most eminent wits of that age. This collection was published by Mr. Shirley after shutting up the Theatres, and dedicated to the earl of Pembroke by ten of the most famous actors. In 1679 there was an edition of all their plays published in folio. Another edition in 1711 by Tonson in seven volumes 8vo. containing all the verses in praise of the authors, and supplying a large omission of part of the last act of Thierry and Theodoret. There was also another edition in 1751 [List of works omitted].