1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

George Peele

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 1:166-67.



GEORGE PEELE held the situation of city poet and conductor of pageants for the court. He was also an actor and a shareholder with Shakspeare and others, in 1589, in the Blackfriars theatre. In 1584, his Arraignment of Paris, a court show, was represented before Elizabeth. The author was then a young man, who had recently left Christ-church, Oxford. In 1593, Peele gave an example of an English historical play in his Edward I. The style of this piece is turgid and monotonous; yet, in the following allusion to England, we see something of the high-sounding kingly speeches in Shakspeare's historical plays:—

Illustrious England, ancient scat of kings,
Whose chivalry hath royalis'd thy fame,
That, sounding bravely through terrestrial vale,
Proclaiming conquests, spoils, and victories,
Rings glorious echoes through the farthest world
What warlike nation, train'd in feats of arms,
What barbarous people, stubborn, or untam'd,
What climate under the meridian signs,
Or frozen zone under his brumal stage,
Erst have not quak'd and trembled at the name
Of Britain and her mighty conquerors?
Her neighbour realms, as Scotland, Denmark, France,
Awed with their deeds, and jealous of her arms,
Have begg'd defensive and offensive leagues.
Thus Europe, rich and mighty in her kings,
Hath fear'd brave England, dreadful in her kings.
And now, to eternise Albion's champions,
Equivalent with Trojan's ancient fame,
Comes lovely Edward from Jerusalem,
Veering before the wind, ploughing the sea;
His stretched sails fill'd with the breath of men,
That through the world admire his manliness.
And lo, at last arrived in Dover road,
Longshank, your king, your glory, and our son,
With troops of conquering lords and warlike knights,
Like bloody-crested Mars, o'erlooks his host,
Higher than all his army by the head,
Marching along as bright as Phoebus' eyes!
And we, his mother, shall behold our son,
And England's peers shall see their sovereign.

Peele was also author of the Old Wives' Tale, a legendary story, part in prose, and part in blank verse, which afforded Milton a rude outline of his fable of Comus. The Old Wives' Tale was printed in 1595, as acted by "the Queen's Majesty's Players." The greatest work of Peele is his Scripture drama, the Love of King David and Fair Bethsabe, with the tragedy of Absalom, which Mr. Campbell terms "the earliest fountain of pathos and harmony that can be traced in our dramatic poetry." The date of representation of this drama is not known; it was not printed till 1599, after Shakspeare had written some of his finest comedies, and opened up a fountain compared with which the feeble tricklings of Peele were wholly insignificant. It is not probable that Peele's play was written before 1590, as one passage in it is a direct plagiarism from the Faery Queen of Spenser. We may allow Peele the merit of a delicate poetical fancy and smooth musical versification. The defect of his blank verse is its want of variety: the art of varying the pauses and modulating the verse without the aid of rhyme had not yet been generally adopted. In David and Bethsabe this monotony is less observable, because his lines are smoother, and there is a play of rich and luxurious fancy in some of the scenes.

[...]
DAVID.
Bright Bethsabe shall wash in David's bower
In water mixed with purest almond flower,
And bathe her beauty in the milk of kids;
Bright Bethsabe gives earth to my desires,
Verdure to earth, and to that verdure flowers,
To flowers sweet odours, and to odours wings,
That carries pleasures to the hearts of kings.

* * *

Now comes my lover tripping like the roe,
And brings my longings tangled in her hair.
To 'joy her love I'll build a kingly bower,
Seated in hearing of a hundred streams,
That, for their homage to her sovereign joys,
Shall, as the serpents fold into their nests,
In oblique turnings wind the nimble waves
About the circles of her curious walks,
And with their murmur summon easeful sleep,
To lay his golden sceptre on her brows.

Mr. Lamb says justly, that the line "seated in hearing of a hundred streams" is the best in the above passage. It is indeed a noble poetical image. Peele died before 1599, and seems, like most of his dramatic brethren, to have led an irregular life, in the midst of severe poverty. A volume of Merry Conceited Jests, said to have been by him, was published after his death in 1607, which shows that he was not scrupulous as to the means of relieving his necessities.