1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Philip Massinger

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 1:217.



The reign of James produced no other tragic poet equal to PHILIP MASSINGER, an unfortunate author, whose life was spent in obscurity and poverty, and who, dying almost unknown, was buried with no other inscription than the melancholy note in the parish register, "Philip Massinger, a stranger." This poet was born about the year 1584. His father, as appears from the dedication of one of his plays, was in the service of the Earl of Pembroke; and as he was at one time intrusted with letters to Queen Elizabeth, the situation of the elder Massinger must have been a confidential one. Whether Philip ever "wandered in the marble halls and pictured galleries of Wilton, that princely seat of old magnificence, where Sir Philip Sidney composed his Arcadia," is not known: in 1602, he was entered of Alban Hall, Oxford. He is supposed to have quitted the university about 1604, and to have commenced writing for the stage. The first notice of him is in Henslowe's diary, about 1614, where he makes a joint application, with N. Field, and R. Daborne, for a loan of £5, without which, they say, they "could not be bailed." Field and Daborne were both actors and dramatic authors. The sequel of Massinger's history is only an enumeration of his plays. He wrote a great number of pieces, of which eighteen have been preserved, and was found dead in his bed at his house, Bankside, Southwark, one morning in March, 1640. The Virgin Martyr, the Bondman, the Fatal Dowry, the City Madam, and the New Way to Pay Old Debts, are his best-known productions. The last-mentioned has kept possession of this stage, chiefly on account of the effective and original character of Sir Giles Overreach. Massinger's comedy resembles Ben Jonson's, in its eccentric strength and wayward exhibitions of human nature. The greediness of avarice, the tyranny of unjust laws, and the miseries of poverty, are drawn with a powerful hand. The luxuries and vices of a city life, also, afford Massinger scope for his indignant and forcible invective. Genuine humour or sprightliness he had none. His dialogue is often coarse and indelicate, and his characters in low life too depraved. The tragedies of Massinger have a calm and dignified seriousness, a lofty pride that impresses the imagination very strongly. His genius was more eloquent and descriptive than impassioned or inventive; yet his pictures of suffering virtue, its struggles and its trials, are calculated to touch the heart, as well as gratify the taste. His versification is smooth and mellifluous. Owing, perhaps, to the sedate and dignified tone of Massinger's plays, they were not revived after the Restoration. Even Dryden did not think him worthy of mention, or had forgot his works, when he wrote his Essay on Dramatic Poesy.