1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir William Davenant

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 1:146.



SIR WILLIAM DAVENANT, whose life occupies an important space in the history of the stage, preceding and after the Restoration, wrote a heroic poem entitled Gondibert, and some copies of miscellaneous verses. Davenant was horn in 1605, and was the son of a vintner at Oxford. There is a scandalous story, that he was the natural son of Shakspeare, who was in the habit of stopping at the Crown Tavern (kept by the elder Davenant) on his journeys between London and Stratford. This story was related to Pope by Betterton the player; but it seems to rest on no authority but idle tradition. Young Davenant must, however, have had a strong and precocious admiration of Shakspeare; for, when only ten years of age, he penned an ode, In Remembrance of Master William Shakspeare, which opens in the following strain:—

Beware, delighted poets, when you sing,
To welcome nature in the early spring,
Your numerous feet not tread
The banks of Avon, for each flower
(As it ne'er knew a sun or shower)
Hangs there the pensive head.

It is to be regretted (for the sake of Davenant, as well as of the world) that the great dramatist did not live to guide the taste and foster the genius of his youthful admirer, whose life presented some strange adventures. About the year 1628, Davenant began to write for the stage and in 1638, on the death of Ben Jonson, he was appointed laureate. He was afterwards manager of Drury Lane, but, entering into the commotions and intrigues of the civil war, he was apprehended and confined in the Tower. He afterwards escaped to France. When the queen sent to over to the Earl of Newcastle a quantity of military stores, Davenant resolved to return to England, and he distinguished himself so much in the cause of the royalists, that he was knighted for his skill and bravery. On the decline of the king's affairs, he returned to France, and wrote part of his Gondibert. His next step was to sail for Virginia as a colonial projector; but the vessel was captured by one of the parliamentary ships of war, and Davenant was lodged in prison at Cowes, in the Isle of Wight. In 1650, he was removed to the Tower, preparatory to his being tried by the High Commission Court. His life was considered in danger, but he was released after two years' imprisonment. Milton is said to have interposed in his behalf; and as Davenant is reported to have interfered in favour of Milton when the royalists were again in the ascendant, after the Restoration, we would gladly believe the statement to be true. Such incidents give a peculiar grace and relief to the sternness and bitterness of party conflicts. "At Talavera, the English and French troops for a moment suspended their conflict, to drink of a stream which flowed between them. The shells were passed across, from enemy to enemy, without apprehension or molestation. We, in the same manner, would rather assist political adversaries to drink of that fountain of intellectual pleasure, which should be the common refreshment of both parties, than disturb and pollute it with the havoc of unseasonable hostilities" [author's note: Edinburgh Review, vol. 47]. Milton and Davenant must have felt in this manner, when they waived their political differences in honour of genius and poesy. When the author of Gondibert obtained his enlargement, he set about establishing a theatre, and, to the surprise of all, succeeded in the attempt. After the Restoration, he again basked in royal favour, and continued to write and superintend the performance of plays till his death, April 7, 1668.

The poem of Gondibert, though regarded by Davenant's friends and admirers (Cowley and Waller being of the number) as a great and durable monument of genius, is now almost utterly forgotten. The plot is romantic, but defective in interest; and its extreme length (about six thousand lines), and the description of versification in which it is written (the long four-lined stanza, with alternate rhymes, copied by Dryden in his Annus Mirabilis), render the poem languid and tedious. The critics have been strangely at variance with each other as to its merits, but to general readers the poem may be said to be unknown. Davenant prefixed a long and elaborate preface to his poem, which is highly creditable to him for judgment, taste, and feeling, and may be considered the precursor of Dryden's admirable critical introductions to his plays. His worship of Shakspeare continued unabated to the last, though he was mainly instrumental, by his masques and scenery, in driving the elder bard from the stage. Dryden, in his preface to the Tempest, states, that he did not set any value on what he had written in that play, but out of gratitude to the memory of Sir William Davenant, "who," he adds, "did me the honour to join me with him in the alteration of it. It was originally Shakspeare's — a poet for whom he had particularly a high veneration, and whom he first taught me to admire."