1819 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Nathaniel Lee

Thomas Campbell, in Specimens of the British Poets (1819; 1845) 301-02.



Many of the Bedlam witticisms of this unfortunate man have been recorded by those who can derive mirth from the most humiliating shape of human calamity. His rant and turgidity as a writer are proverbial; but those who have witnessed justice done to the acting of his Theodosius must have felt that he had some powers in the pathetic. He was the son of a clergyman in Hertfordshire. He was bred at Westminster, under Dr. Busby, and became a scholar on the foundation at Trinity College, Cambridge. From thence he came to London, and attempted the profession of an actor. The part which he performed was Duncan, in Sir William Davenant's alteration of Macbeth. He was completely unsuccessful. "Yet Lee," says Cibber, "was so pathetic a reader of his own scenes, that I have been informed by an actor who was present, that while Lee was reading to Major Mohun, at a rehearsal, Mohun, in the warmth of his admiration, threw down his part, and said, 'Unless I were able to play it as well as you read it, to what purpose should I undertake it?' And yet," continues the laureate, "this very author, whose elocution raised such admiration in so capital an actor, when he attempted to be an actor himself, soon quitted the stage in an honest despair of ever making any profitable figure there." Failing in this object, he became a writer for the stage, and his first tragedy of Nero, which came out in 1675, was favourably received. In the nine subsequent years of his life he produced as many plays of his own, and assisted Dryden in two; at the end of which period an hereditary taint of madness, aggravated by habits of dissipation, obliged him to be consigned for four years to the receptacle of Bethlem. He recovered the use of his faculties so far as to compose two pieces, the Princess of Cleves, and the Massacre of Paris; but with all the profits of his invention his circumstances were so reduced that a weekly stipend of ten shillings was his principal support toward the close of his life, and to the last he was not free from occasional derangement.