1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Heywood

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 1:221.



THOMAS HEYWOOD was one of the most indefatigable of dramatic writers. He had, as he informs his readers, "an entire hand, or at least a main finger," in two hundred and twenty plays. He wrote also several prose works, besides attending to his business as an actor. Of his huge dramatic library, only twenty-three plays have come down to us, the best of which are, A Woman Killed with Kindness, the English Traveller, A Challenge for Beauty, the Royal King and Loyal Subject, the Lancashire Witches, the Rape of Lucrece, Love's Mistress, &c. The few particulars respecting Heywood's life and history have been gleaned from his own writings and the dates of his plays. The time of his birth is not known but he was a native of Lincolnshire, and was a fellow of Peter-House, Cambridge: he is found writing for the stage in 1596, and he continued to exercise his ready pen down to the year 1640. In one of his prologues, he thus adverts to the various sources of his multifarious labours:

To give content to this most curious age,
The gods themselves we've brought town to the stage,
And figured them in planets; made even hell
Deliver up the furies, by no spell
(Saving the muse's rapture) farther we
Have traffick'd by their help; no history
We have left unrifled; our pens have been dipt
As well in opening each hid manuscript
As tracks more vulgar, whether read or sung
In our domestic or more foreign tongue
Of fairies, elves, nymphs of the sea and land,
The lawns, the groves, no number can be scann'd
Which we have net given feet to.

This was written in 1637, and it shows how eager the play-going public were then for novelties, though they possessed the theatre of Shakspeare and his contemporaries. The death of Heywood is equally unknown with the date of his birth. As a dramatist, he had a poetical fancy and abundance of classical imagery; but his taste was defective; and scenes of low buffoonery, "merry accidents, intermixed with apt and witty jests," deform his pieces. His humour, however, is more pure and moral than that of most of his contemporaries. "There is a natural repose in his scenes," says a dramatic critic, "which contrasts pleasingly with the excitement that reigns in most of his contemporaries. Middleton looks upon his characters with the feverish anxiety with which we listen to the trial of great criminals, or watch their behaviour upon the scaffold. Webster lays out their corpses in the prison, and sings the dirge over them when they are buried at midnight in unhallowed ground. Heywood leaves his characters before they come into those situations. He walks quietly to and fro among them while they are yet at large as members of society; contenting himself with a sad smile at their follies, or with a frequent warning to them on the consequences of their crimes." The following description of Psyche, from "Love's Mistress," is in his best manner:—

ADMETUS. — ASTIOCHE. — PETREA.
ADMETUS.
Welcome to both in one! Oh, can you tell
What fate your sister hath?

BOTH.
Psyche is well.

ADMETUS.
So among mortals it is often said,
Children and friends are well when they are dead.

ASTIOCHE.
But Psyche lives, and on her breath attend
Delights that her surmount all earthly joy;
Music, sweet voices, and ambrosian fare;
Winds, and the light-wing'd creatures of the air;
Clear channell'd rivers, springs, and flowery meads,
Are proud when Psyche wantons on their streams,
When Psyche on their rich embroidery treads,
When Psychic gilds their crystal with her beams.
We have but seen our sister, and, beheld!
She sends us with our laps full brimm'd with gold.

In 1635, Heywood published a poem entitled the Hierarchy of Angels. Various songs are scattered through Heywood's neglected plays, some of them easy and flowing.