1819 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Francis Beaumont

Thomas Campbell, in Specimens of the British Poets (1819; 1845) 86-87.



These names [Beaumont and Fletcher], united by friendship and confederate genius, ought not to be disjoined. Francis Beaumont was the son of Judge Beaumont of the Common Pleas, and was born at Grace-Dieu in Leicestershire, in 1586. He studied at Oxford, and passed from thence to the Inner Temple; but his application to the law cannot be supposed to have been intense, as his first play, in conjunction with Fletcher, was acted in his twenty-first year, and the short remainder of his life was devoted to the drama. He married Ursula, daughter and co-heiress of Sir Henry Isley of Kent, by whom he had two daughters, one of whom was alive, at a great age, in the year 1700. He died in 1616, and was buried at the entrance of St. Benedict's chapel, near the Earl of Middlesex's monument, in the collegiate church of St. Peter, Westminster. As a lyrical poet, F. Beaumont would be entitled to some remembrance independent of his niche in the drama.

John Fletcher was the son of Dr. Richard Fletcher, Bishop of London: he was born probably in the metropolis, in 1576, and was admitted a pensioner of Bennet college about the age of fifteen. His time and progress at the university have not been traced, and only a few anecdotes have been gleaned about the manner of his life and death. Before the marriage of Beaumont, we are told by Aubrey, that Fletcher and he lived together in London, near the Bankside, not far from the theatre, had one * * * between them, the same clothes, cloak, &c. Fletcher died in the great plague of 1626. A friend had in invited him to the country, and he unfortunately stayed in town to get a suit of clothes for the visit during which time he caught the fatal infection. He was interred in St. Saviour's, Southwark, where his grave, like that of Beaumont's in Westminster, is without an inscription.

Fletcher survived his dramatic associate ten years so that their share in the drama that passes by their joint names was far from equal in quantity, Fletcher having written between thirty mid forty after the death of his companion. Respecting those which appeared in their common lifetime, the general account is, that Fletcher chiefly supplied the fancy and invention of their pieces, and that Beaumont, though he was the younger, dictated the cooler touches of taste and accuracy. This tradition is supported, or rather exaggerated, in the verses of Cartwright to Fletcher, in which he says,

Beaumont was fain
To bid thee be more dull; that's write again,
And bate of some of thy fire which from thee came
In a clear, bright, full, but too large a flame.

Many verses to the same effect might be quoted, but this tradition, so derogatory to Beaumont's genius, is contradicted by other testimonies of rather an earlier date, and coming from writers who must have known the great dramatists themselves much better than Cartwright. Ben Jonson speaks of Beaumont's originality with the emphasis peculiar to the expression of all his opinions; and Earle, the intimate friend of Beaumont, ascribed to him, while Fletcher was still alive, the exclusive claim to those three distinguished plays, the Maid's Tragedy, Philaster, and King and No King; a statement which Fletcher's friends were likely to have contradicted, if it had been untrue. If Beaumont had the sole or chief merit of those pieces, he could not have been what Cartwright would have us believe, the mere pruner of Fletcher's luxuriancies, an assessor, who made him write again and more dully. Indeed, with reverence to their memories, nothing that they have left us has much the appearance of being twice written: and whatever their amiable editor, Mr. Seward, may say about the correctness of their plots, the management of their stories would lend us to suspect, that neither of the duumvirate troubled themselves much about correctness. Their charm is vigour and variety, their defects a coarseness and grotesqueness that betray no circumspection. There is so much more hardihood than discretion in the arrangement of their scenes, that if Beaumont's taste and judgment had the disposal of them, he fully proved himself tho junior partner. But it is not probable that their departments were so divided.

Still, however, the scanty lights that enable us to guess at what they respectively wrote, seem to warrant that distinction in the cast of their genius which is made in the poet's allusion to "Fletcher's keen treble, and deep Beaumont's base."

Beaumont was a deeper scholar. Fletcher is said to have been more a man of the world. Beaumont's vein was more pathetic and solemn, but he was not without humour; for the mock-heroic scenes, that are excellent in some of their plays, are universally ascribed to him. Fletcher's muse, except where she sleeps in pastorals, seems to have been a nymph of boundless unblushing pleasantry. Fletcher's admirers warmly complimented his originality at the expense of Beaumont, on the strength of his superior gayety, as if gay thoughts must necessarily be more original than serious ones, or depth of sensibility be allied to shallowness of invention. We are told also that Beaumont's taste leant to the hard and abstract school of Jonson, while his coadjutor followed the wilder graces of Shakspeare. But if Earle can be credited for Beaumont's having written Philaster, we shall discover him in that tragedy to be the very opposite of an abstract painter of character; it has the spirit of individual life. The piece owes much less to art than it loses by negligence. Its forms and passions are those of romance, and its graces, evidently imitated from Shakspeare, want only the fillet and zone of art to consummate their beauty.

On the whole, while it is generally allowed that Fletcher was the gayer, and Beaumont the graver genius of their amusing theatre, it is unnecessary to deprecate either, for they were both original and creative; or to draw invidious comparisons between men who themselves disdained to be rivals.