1874 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Henry Chettle

William Minto, in Characteristics of English Poets (1874) 329-32.



Chettle, the editor of Greene's posthumous Groatsworth of Wit, which contained the memorable attack on Shakespeare, was very much superior to Munday. He seems to have been originally a printer or stationer (he subscribes himself "stationer" in a note of acknowledgment to Henslowe in 1598), and probably took to writing plays about the same time as Marlowe. Between 1597 and 1603, during which time he was often in distress from want of money, his name is connected with the production of forty-seven plays, of sixteen of which he was sole author. Of his sixteen original plays, only one survives, Hoffman, or a Revenge for a Father, a tragedy, written probably about 1602, to compete with Shakespeare's Hamlet, then in course of successful performance at the Globe Theatre. Of the thirty-one plays that he had a share in, all but three are lost — Patient Grissell (Chettle, Dekker, and Haughton), Robin Hood (Chettle and Munday), Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green (Chettle and Day). In 1607, Dekker speaks of Chettle as being in the Elysian fields, and gives the only record we have of his personal appearance — namely, that he was a fat man.

"Hoffman" is a horrid inflated thing, absurd and bloody. The hero in revenging his father certainly does not suffer from the weakness of irresolution. Fortune throws an opportunity in his way, and he seizes it pitilessly, and makes it beget other opportunities, till a long list of enemies, their relatives, and the stranger within their gates, perish by poison or steel. His mission of slaughter is very nearly fulfilled when he has the weakness to fall in love with the Duchess of Luneberg, one of his intended victims, who pretends to listen to his addresses, and betrays him to his father's death by a red-hot crown of iron. It is remarkable that Chettle, like so many other of the Elizabethan poets, no matter how inflated he is in expressing vehement passions of rage, hatred, and revenge, displays considerable felicity in the expression of the tender feelings. One might apply to the poets of that age two lines used by old Janicolo in Patient Grissell—

Indeed, my child, men's eyes do nowadays
Quickly take fire at the least spark of beauty.

The beginning of the Third Act of "Hoffman" is very beautiful. It is a moonlight scene between the runaways Lodowick and Lucibella, imitated apparently from the Merchant of Venice. They have walked till they are weary, the moon strewing silver on their path, and weeping a gentle dew on the flower-spotted earth. The flowers are beguiled by the light of Lucibella's eyes to open their petals "as when they entertain the lord of May." They rest on a bank of violets, and talk themselves asleep.

LOD.
O Love's sweet touch! with what a heavenly charm
Do your soft fingers my war-thoughts disarm!
Prussia had reason to attempt my life,
Enchanted by the magic of thy looks
That cast a lustre on the blushing stars.
Pardon, chaste Queen of Beauty! make me proud,
To rest my toiled head on your tender knee !
My chin with sleep is to my bosom bowed;
Fair, if you please, a little rest with me!

[He reclines his head upon her lap.

LUCI.
No, I'll be sentinel; I'll watch for fear
Of venomous worms or wolves, or wolvish thieves.
My hand shall fan your eyes, like the filmed wing
Of drowsy Morpheus: and my voice shall sing
In a low compass for a lullaby.

LOD.
I thank you! I am drowsy; sing, I pray,
Or sleep; do what you please; I'm heavy, I!
Good night to all our care! Oh! I am blest
By this soft pillow, where my head doth rest!

[LODOWICK sleeps.

LUCI.
In sooth, I'm sleepy too; I cannot sing:
My heart is troubled with some heavy thing.
Rest on these violets, whilst I prepare
In thy soft slumber to receive a share!
Blush not, chaste Moon, to see a virgin lie
So near a prince! 'tis no immodesty;
For when the thoughts are pure, no time nor place
Have power to work fair chastity's disgrace.
Lod'wick, I clasp thee thus! so, arm clip arm;
Let sorrow fold them that wish true love's harm!
[She sleeps, embracing LODOWICK.

The finest lines in the play are the exclamation of Matthias when he believes that he has killed Lucibella unjustly, and finds that she still breathes—

There's life in Lucibella, for I feel
A breath more odoriferous than balm
Thrill through the coral portals of her lips.

The beautiful song in Patient Grissell, quoted in Palgrave's Treasury under the title of The Happy Heart, is in all probability the work of Dekker. But Chettle also had a certain gift of song. He appended to his Mourning Garment, in memory of the death of Elizabeth, a "Shepherd's Spring Song," in celebration of the accession of James. Such raptures can hardly be other than feigned; still, there are touches of beauty in the song.

Thenot and Chloris, red-lipped Driope,
Shepherds, nymphs, swains, all that delight in field,
Living by harmless thrift, your fat herds yield,
Why slack ye now your loved company?
Up sluggards, learn, the lark doth mounted sing
His cheerful carols, to salute our king.

The mavis, blackbird, and the little wren,
The nightingale upon the hawthorn brier,
And all the wing'd musicians in a quire
Do with their notes rebuke dull lazy men.
Up, shepherds, up, your sloth breeds all your shames;
You sleep like beasts, while birds salute K. James.

The gray-eyed morning with a blustering cheek,
Like England's royal rose mixt red and white,
Summons all eyes to pleasure and delight:
Behold the evening's dews do upward reek,
Drawn by the sun, which now doth gild the sky
With its light-giving and world-cheering eye.

Oh, that's well done! I see your cause of stay
Was to adorn your temples with fresh flowers;
And gather beauty to bedeck your bowers
That they may seem the cabinets of May.
Honour this time, sweetest of all sweet springs,
That so much good, so many pleasures brings.