1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Nathaniel Lee

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 1:390.



Another tragic poet of this period was NATHANIEL LEE, who possessed no small portion of the fire of genius, though unfortunately "near allied" to madness. Lee was the son of a Hertfordshire clergyman, and received a classical education, first at Westminster school, and afterwards at Trinity college, Cambridge. He tried the stage both as an actor and author, was four years in bedlam from wild insanity; but recovering his reason, resumed his labours as a dramatist, and though subject to fits of partial derangement, continued to write till the end of his life. He was the author of eleven tragedies, besides assisting Dryden in the composition of two pieces, Aedipus and the Duke of Guise. The unfortunate poet was in his latter days supported by charity: he died in London, and was buried in St Clement's church, April 6, 1692. The best of Lee's tragedies are the Rival Queens, or Alexander the Great, Mithridates, Theodosius, and Lucius Junius Brutus. In praising Alexander, Dryden alludes to the power of his friend in moving the passions, and counsels him to despise those critics who condemn "The too much vigour of his youthful muse." We have here indicated the source both of Lee's strength and of his weakness. In tenderness and genuine passion, he excels Dryden; but his style often degenerates into bombast and extravagant frenzy — a defect which was heightened in his late productions by his mental malady. The author was aware of his weakness. "It has often been observed against me," he says in his dedication of Theodosius, "that I abound in ungoverned fancy; but I hope the world will pardon the sallies of youth: age, despondency, and dulness, come too fast of themselves. I discommend no man for keeping the beaten road; but I am sure the noble hunters that follow the game must leap hedges and ditches sometimes, and run at all, or never come into the fall of a quarry." He wanted discretion to temper his tropical genius, and reduce his poetical conceptions to consistency and order; yet among his wild ardour and martial enthusiasm are very soft and graceful lines. Dryden himself has no finer image than the following:—

Speech is morning to the mind;
It spreads the beauteous images abroad,
Which else lie furled and clouded in the soul.

Or this declaration of love:—

I disdain
All pomp when thou art by: far be the noise
Of kings and courts from us, whose gentle souls
Our kinder stars have steer'd another way.
Free as the forest-birds we'll pair together,
Fly to the arbours, grots, and flowery meads,
And, in soft murmurs, interchange our souls:
Together drink the crystal of the stream,
Or taste the yellow fruit which autumn yields;
And when the golden evening calls us home,
Wing to our downy nest, and sleep till morn.

The heroic style of Lee (verging upon rhodomontade) may he seen in such lines as the following, descriptive of Junius Brutus throwing off his disguise of idiocy after the rape of Lucrece by Tarquin:—

As from night's womb the glorious day breaks forth,
And seems to kindle from the setting stars;
So, from the blackness of young Tarquin's crime
And furnace of his lust, the virtuous soul
Of Junius Brutus catches bright occasion.
I see the pillars of his kingdom totter:
The rape of Lucrece is the midnight lantern
That lights my genius down to the foundation.
Leave me to work, my Titus, O my son!
For from this spark a lightning shall arise,
That must ere night purge all the Roman air,
And then the thunder of his ruin follows.