This eminent dramatic poet was the son of a clergyman of the church of England, and was educated at Westminster school under Dr. Busby. After he left this school, he was some time at Trinity College, Cambridge; whence returning to London, he went upon the stage as an actor.
Very few particulars are preserved concerning Mr. Lee. He died before he was 34 years of age, and wrote eleven tragedies, all of which contain the divine enthusiasm of a poet, a noble fire and elevation, and the tender breathings of love, beyond many of his cotemporaries. He seems to have been born to write for the Ladies; none ever felt the passion of love more intimately, none ever knew to describe it more gracefully, and no poet ever moved the breasts of his audience with stronger palpitations, than Lee. The excellent Mr. Addison, whose opinion in a matter of this sort, is of the greatest weight, speaking of the genius of Lee, thus proceeds.
"Among our modern English poets, there is none who was better turned for tragedy than our author; if instead of favouring the impetuosity of his genius, he had restrained it, and kept it within proper bounds. His thoughts are wonderfully suited for tragedy; but frequently lost in such a cloud of words, that it is hard to see the beauty of them. There is an infinite fire in his works, but 1o involved in smoke, that it does not appear in half its lustre. He frequently succeeds in the passionate part of the tragedy; but more particularly where he slackens his efforts, and eases the stile of those epithets and metaphors in which he so much abounds." It is certain that our author for some time was deprived of his senses, and was confined in Bedlam; and as Langbaine observes, it is to be regretted, that his madness exceeded that divine fury which Ovid mentions, and which usually accompany the best poets. "Est Deus in nobus agitante calescimus illo." His condition in Bedlam was far worse; in a Satire on the Poets it is thus described.
There in a den remov'd from human eyes,
Possest with muse, the brain-sick poet lies,
Too miserably wretched to be nam'd;
For plays, for heroes, and far passion fam'd:
Thoughtless he raves his sleepless hours away
In chains all night, in darkness all the day.
And if he gets some intervals from pain,
The it returns; he foams and bites his chain,
His eyeballs roll, and he grows mad again.
The reader may please to observe, the two last lines are taken from Lee himself in his description of madness in Caesar Borgia, which is inimitable. Dryden has observed, that there is a pleasure in being mad, which madmen only know, and indeed Lee has described the condition in such lively terms, that a man can almost imagine himself in the situation,
To my charm'd ears no more of woman tell,
Name not a woman, and I shall be well:
Like a poor lunatic that makes his moan,
And for a while beguiles his lookers on;
He reasons well. — His eyes their wildness lore
He vows the keepers his wrong'd sense abuse.
But if you hit the cause that hurt his brain,
Then his teeth gnash, he foams, he shakes his chain,
His eye-balls roll, and he is mad again.
If we may credit he earl of Rochester, Mr. Lee was addicted to drinking; for in a satire of his, in imitation of Sir John Suckling's Session of the Poets, which, like the original, is destitute of wit, poetry, and good manners, he charges him with it.
The lines, miserable as they ate, we shall insert;
Nat. Lee stept in next, in hopes of a prize;
Apollo remembering he had hit once in thrice:
By the rubies in's face, he could not deny,
But he had as much wit as wine could supply;
Confess'd that indeed he had a musical note,
But sometimes strain'd so hard that it rattled in the throat;
Yet own'd he had sense, and t' encourage him for't
He made him his Ovid in Augustus's court.
The testimony of Rochester indeed is of no great value, for he was governed by no principles of honour, and as his ruling passion was malice, he was ready on all occasions to indulge it, at the expence of truth and sincerity. We cannot ascertain whether our author wrote any of his Plays in Bedlam, tho' it is not improbable he might have attempted something that way in his intervals.
Mad people have often been observed to do my ingenious things. I have seen a ship of straw, finely fabricated by a mad ship-builder; and the most lovely attitudes have been represented by a mad statuary in his cell.
Lee, for aught we know, might have some noble flights of fancy, even in Bedlam; and it is reported of him, that while he was writing one of his scenes by moon-light, a cloud intervening, be cried out in extasy, "Jove snuff the Moon;" but as this is only related upon common report, we desire no more credit may be given to it, than its own nature demands. We do not pretend notwithstanding our high opinion of Lee, to defend all his rants and extravagancies; some of them are ridiculous, some bombast, and others unintelligible; but this observation by no means holds true in general; for tho' some passages are too extravagant, yet others are nobly sublime, we had almost said, unequalled by any other poet.
As there are not many particulars preserved of Lee's life, we think ourselves warranted to enlarge a little upon his works; and therefore we beg leave to introduce to our reader's acquaintance a tragedy which perhaps he has not for some time heard of, written by this great man, viz. Lucius Junius Brutus, the Father of his country.
We mention this tragedy because it is certainly the finest of Lee's, and perhaps one of the most moving plays in our language. Junius ins Brutus engages in the just defence of the injured rights of his country, against Tarquin the Proud; he succeeds in driving him out of Rome. His son Titus falls in love, and interchanges vows with the tyrant's daughter; his father commands him not to touch her, nor to correspond with her; he faithfully promises; but his resolutions are baffled by the insinuating and irresistable charms of Teraminta; he is won by her beauties; he joins in the attempt to restore Tarquin; the enterprize miscarries, and his own father sits in judgment upon him, and condemns him to suffer.
The interview between the father and son is inexpressibly moving, and is only exceeded by that between the son and his Teraminta. Titus is a young hero, struggling between love and duty. Teraminta an amiable Roman lady, fond of her husband, and dutiful to her father.
There are throughout this play, we dare be bold to affirm, as affecting scenes as ever melted the hearts of an audience. Why it is not revived, may be difficult to account for. Shall we charge it to want of taste in the town, or want of discernment in the managers? or are our present actors conscious that they may be unequal to some of the parts in it? yet were Mr. Quin engaged, at either theatre, to do the author justice in the character of Brutus, we are not wanting in a Garrick or a Barry, to perform the part of Titus; nor is either stage destitute of a Teraminta. This is one of those plays that Mr. Booth proposed to revive (with some few alterations) had he lived to return to the stage: And the part of Brutus was what he purposed to have appeared in.
As to Lee's works, they are in every body's hands, so that we need not trouble the reader with a list of them.
In his tragedy of the Rival Queens, our author has shewn what he could do on the subject of Love; he has there almost exhausted the passion, painted it in its various forms, and delineated the workings of the human soul, when influenced by it.
He makes Statira thus speak of Alexander.
Not the Spring's mouth, nor breath of Jessamin,
Nor Vi'lets infant sweets, nor op'ning buds
Are half so sweet as Alexander's breast!
From every pore of him a perfume falls,
He kisses softer than a Southern wind,
Curls like a Vine, and touches like a God!
Then he will talk! good Gods! how he will talk!
Even when the joy he sigh'd for is possess'd,
He peaks the kindest words, and looks such things,
Vows with such passion, swears with so much grace
That 'tis a kind of Heaven to be deluded by him.
If I but mention him the tears will fall,
Sure there is not a letter in his name,
But is a charm to melt a woman's eyes.
His Tragedy of Theodosius, or the Force of Love, is the only play of Lee's that at present keeps possession of the stage, an argument, in my opinion, not much in favour of our taste, that a Genius should be so neglected.
It is said, that Lee died in the night, in the streets, upon a frolic, and that his father never assisted him in his frequent and pressing necessity, which he was able to do. It appears that tho' Lee was a player, yet, for want of execution, he did not much succeed, though Mr. Cibber says, that he read excellently, and that the players used to tell him, unless they could act the part as he read it, they could not hope success, which, it seems, was not the case with Dryden, who could hardly read to be understood. Lee was certainly a man of great genius; when it is considered how young he died, he performed miracles, and had he lived 'till his fervour cooled, and his judgment strengthened, which might have been the consequence of years, he would have made a greater figure in poetry than some of his contemporaries, who are not placed in a superior rank.