1819 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir William Davenant

Thomas Campbell, in Specimens of the British Poets (1819; 1845) 239.



Davenant's personal history is sufficiently curious without attaching importance to the insinuation of Wood, so gravely taken up by Mr. Malone, that he was the son of Shakespeare. He was the son of a vintner at Oxford, at whose house the immortal poet is said to have frequently lodged. Having risen to notice by his tragedy of Albovine, he wrote masques for the court of Charles I. and was made governor of the king and queen's company of actors in Drury-lane. In the civil wars we find the theatric manager quickly transmuted into a lieutenant-general of ordinance, knighted for his services at the siege of Gloucester, and afterwards negotiating between the king and his advisors at Paris. There he began his poem of Gondibert, which he laid aside for a time for the scheme of carrying a colony from France to Virginia; but his vessel was seized by one of the Parliament ships, he was thrown into prison, and owed his life to friendly interference — it is said, to that of Milton, whose friendship he returned in kind. On being liberated, his ardent activity was shown in attempting to restore theatrical amusements in the very teeth of bigotry and puritanism, and he actually succeeded so far as to open a theatre in the Charterhouse Yard. At the Restoration he received the patent of the Duke's Theatre in Lincoln's Inn, which he held till his death.

Gondibert has divided the critics. It is undeniable, on the one hand, that he showed a high and independent conception of epic poetry, in wishing to emancipate it from the slavery of ancient authority and to establish its interest in the dignity of human nature, without incredible and stale machinery. His subject was well chosen from modern romantic story, and he strove to give it the close and compact symmetry of the drama. Ingenious and witty images and majestic sentiments are thickly scattered over the poem. But Gondibert, who is so formally described, has certainly more of the cold and abstract air of an historical, than of a poetical portrait, and, unfortunately, the beauties of the poem are those of elegy and epigram, more than of heroic fiction. It wants the charm of free and forcible narration; the life-pulse of interest is incessantly stopped by solemn pauses of reflection, and the story works its way through an intricacy of superfluous fancies, some beautiful and others conceited, but all as they are united, tending to divert the interest, like a multitude of weeds upon a stream, that entangle its course while they seem to adorn it.