1852 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Fletcher

Mary Russell Mitford, "Authors associated with Places. Beaumont and Fletcher" Recollections of a Literary Life; or Books, Places, and People (1852) 89-99.



There are home places that seem formed by nature for doubling and redoubling the delight of reading and dreaming over the greater poets. Living in the country, one falls into the habit of choosing out a fitting nest for that enjoyment, and with Beaumont and Fletcher especially, to whose dramatic fascinations I have the happy knack of abandoning myself, without troubling myself in the least about their dramatic faults (I do not speak here of graver sins, observe, gentle reader); their works never seem to me half so delightful as when I pore over them in the silence and solitude of a certain green lane, about half a mile from home; sometimes seated on the roots of an old fantastic beech, sometimes on the trunk of a felled oak, or sometimes on the ground itself, with my back propped lazily against a rugged elm.

In that very lane am I writing on this sultry June day, luxuriating in the shade, the verdure, the fragrance of hay-field and of bean-field, and the absence of all noise, except the song of birds, and that strange mingling of many sounds, the whir of a thousand forms of insect life, so often heard among the general hush of a summer noon.

Woodcock Lane is so called, not after the migratory bird so dear to sportsman and to epicure, but from the name of a family, who, three centuries ago, owned the old manor-house, a part of which still adjoins it, just as the neighboring eminence of Beech Hill is called after the ancient family of De la Beche, rather than from the three splendid beech-trees that still crown its summit; and this lane would probably be accounted beautiful by any one who loved the close recesses of English scenery, even though the person in question should happen not to have haunted it these fifty years as I have done.

It is a grassy lane, edging off from the high-road, nearly two miles in length, and varying from fifty to a hundred yards in width. The hedgerows on either side are so thickly planted with tall elms as almost to form a verdant wall, for the greater part doubly screened by rows of the same stately tree, the down-dropping branches forming close shady footpaths on either side, and leaving in the center a broad level strip of the finest turf, just broken, here and there, by cart-tracks, and crossed by slender rills. The effect of these tall solemn trees, so equal in height, so unbroken, and so continuous, is quite grand and imposing as twilight comes on; especially when some slight bend in the lane gives to the outline almost the look of an amphitheater.

On the southern side, the fields slope with more or less abruptness to the higher lands above, and winding footpaths and close woody lanes lead up the hill to the breezy common. To the north, the fields are generally of pasture-land, broken by two or three picturesque farm-houses, with their gable ends, their tall chimneys, their trim gardens, and their flowery orchards; and varied by a short avenue, leading to the equally picturesque old manor-house, of darkest brick and quaintest architecture. Over the gates, too, we catch glimpses of more distant objects. The large white mansion where my youth was spent, rising from its plantations, and the small church, embowered in trees, whose bell is heard at the close of day, breathing of peace and holiness.

Toward the end of the lane, a bright clear brook comes dancing over a pebbly bed, bringing with it all that water is wont to bring of life, of music, and of color. Gayly it bubbles through banks adorned by the yellow flag, the flowering rush, the willow-herb, the meadow-sweet, and the forget-me-not; now expanding into a wide quiet pool, now contracted into a mimic rapid between banks that almost meet; and so the little stream keeps us company, giving, on this sunny day, an indescribable feeling of refreshment and coolness, until we arrive at the end of the lane, where it slants away to the right amid a long stretch of water-meadows; while we pause to gaze at the lovely scenery on the other hand, where a bit of marshy ground leads to the park paling and grand old trees of the Great House at Beech Hill, through an open grove of oaks, terminated by a piece of wild woodland, so wild, that Robin Hood might have taken it for a glade in his own Forest of merry Sherwood.

Except about half a mile of gravelly road, leading from the gate of the manor-house to one of the smaller farms, and giving by its warm orange tint, much of richness to the picture, there is nothing like a passable carriage-way in the whole length of the lane, so that the quiet is perfect.

Occasional passengers there are, however, gentle and simple; my friend, Mr. B., for instance, has just cantered past on his blood horse, with a nod and a smile, saying nothing, but apparently, a good deal amused with my arrangements. And here comes a procession of cows going to milking, with an old attendant, still called the cow-boy, who, although they have seen me often enough, one should think, sitting underneath a tree writing, with my little maid close by hemming flounces, and my dog, Fanchon, nestled at my feet — still will start, as if they had never seen a woman before in their lives. Back they start, and then they rush forward, and then the old drover emits certain sounds, which it is to be presumed the cows understand; sounds so horribly discordant that little Fanchon — although to her, too, they ought to be familiar, if not comprehensible — starts up in a fright on her feet, deranging all the economy of my extempore desk, and well-nigh upsetting the inkstand. Very much frightened is my pretty pet, the arrantest coward that ever walked upon four legs! And so she avenges herself, as cowards are wont to do, by following the cows, at safe distance, as soon as they are fairly past, and beginning to bark amain when they are nearly out of sight. Then follows a motley group of the same nature, colts, yearlings, calves, heifers, with a shouting boy and his poor shabby mongrel cur for driver. The poor cur wants to play with Fanchon, but Fanchon, besides being a coward, is also a beauty, and holds her state; although, I think, if he could but stay long enough, that the good-humor of the poor merry creature would prove infectious, and beguile the little lady into a game of romps. Lastly, appears the most solemn troop of all, a grave company of geese and goslings, with the gander at their head, marching with the decorum and dignity proper to the birds who saved Rome. Fanchon, who once had an affair with a gander, in which she was notably worsted, retreats out of sight, and ensconces herself between me and the tree.

Besides these mere passing droves, we have a scattered little flock of ewes and lambs belonging to an industrious widow on the hill, and tended by two sunburnt smiling children, her son and daughter; a pretty pair, as innocent as the poor sheep they watch beside, never seen apart. And peasants returning from their work, and a stray urchin bird's-nesting; and that will make a complete catalogue of the frequenters of our lane — except, indeed, that now and then a village youth and village maiden will steal along the sheltered path. Perhaps they come to listen to the nightingales, for which the place is famous; perhaps they come to listen to the voice which each prefers to all the nightingales that ever sang — who knows?

Such are our passers-by. Sometimes, however, we have what I was about to call settled inhabitants, in the shape of a camp of gipsys.

Just where the lane, enlivened by a rustic bridge, suddenly expands to nearly double its proper width, a nook appears, so dry, so snug, so shady, so cozy, that it is almost worth while to be a gipsy to live in it. Here, at almost every season, between May and November, may be seen two or three low tents with a cart or, so drawn up under the hedge, an old horse and sundry donkeys grazing round about. At safe distance from the encampment appears a fire, glimmering and vapory by day, glowing into an intensity of blaze and comfort in the twilight. Sometimes a pot is hung on by the primitive contrivance of three sticks united at the top, sometimes a copper kettle dazzlingly bright and clean, and around it the usual group of picturesque women and children. The men, who carry on a small trade in forest ponies, are seldom visible at the camp: the children make baskets, the women sell them and tell fortunes; the former calling affording an excuse and an introduction to the less ostensible, but not less profitable craft.

Baskets they make and baskets they sell, at about double the price at which they might be bought at the dearest shop in the good town of Belford Regis; of this I am myself a living instance, having been talked into buying a pair at that rate only the last Saturday that ever fell.

I confess to liking the gipsys: strange, wild, peculiar people, whose origin, whose history, whose very language is a mystery! I do not like then the less that I have never experienced at their hands the slightest incivility or the most trifling wrong — for this affair of the baskets can hardly be called such, it being wholly at my option to buy or to refuse.

Last Saturday I happened to be sitting on a fallen tree somewhat weary; my little damsel working as usual at the other end, and Fanchon balancing herself on the trunk between us; the curls of her brown coat — she is entirely brown — turning into gold as the sunshine played upon them through the leaves.

In this manner were we disposed, when a gipsy, with a pair of light baskets in her hand, came and offered them for sale. She was a middle-aged woman, who, in spite of her wandering life, perhaps; because of that, hardy out-of-door life, had retained much of her early beauty; the flashing eyes, the pearly teeth, the ruddy cheeks, the fine erect figure. It happened that, not wanting them, my companion had rejected these identical baskets when brought to our door in the morning. She told me so, and I quietly declined them. My friend the gipsy apparently gave the matter up, and claiming me as an old acquaintance, began to inquire after my health, and fell into the pleasantest strain of conversation possible; spoke of my father, who, she said, had been kind to her and to her tribe (no doubt she said truly; he was kind to every body, and had a liking for the wandering race); spoke of her children at the gipsy school in Dorsetshire; of the excellent Mr. Crabbe, the friend of her people, at Southampton; then she began stroking Fanchon (who, actually to my astonishment, permitted the liberty; in general she suffers no one to touch her that is not gentleman or lady); Fanchon she stroked, and of Flush, the dear old dog, now lying under the rose-tree, she talked; then, to leave no one unpropitiated, she threw out a word of pleasant augury, a sort of gratuitous fortune-telling, to the hemmer of flounces; then she attacked me again with old recollections, trusting, with singular knowledge of human nature, to the power of the future upon the young, and of the past upon the old — to me she spoke of happy memories, to my companion of happiness to come; and so (how could I help it?) I bought the baskets.

I seem to have wandered pretty widely from my subject; but the old dramatists loved these commoners of nature. Broome, in the "Jovial Crew," has constructed a pleasant and genial comedy out of no higher materials, and our authors, themselves, in "Beggar's Bush," have made most dramatic and effective use of these outlawed wanderers, and would, I am sure, have been the last to blame me for dallying in their company.

I extract some of the charming lyrics interspersed through their plays, not starting from them as Ben Jonson's do, a shining gem in a dusky mine, but incorporate with the golden ore as rich and precious as themselves.

FROM THE "MAID'S TRAGEDY."
Lay a garland on my hearse,
Of the dismal yew;
Maidens willow branches bear,
Say I died true.
My love was false, but I was firm,
From my hour of birth;
Upon my buried body lie
Lightly, gentle earth.

FROM THE "LITTLE FRENCH LAWYER."
This way, this way, come and hear,
You that hold these pleasures dear;
Fill your ears with our sweet sound,
While we melt the frozen ground.
This way, come: make haste, O fair!
Let your clear eyes gild the air.
Come and bless us with your sight;
This way, this way, seek delight!

FROM THE "ELDER BROTHER."
Beauty clear and fair,
Where the air
Rather like a perfume dwells;
Where the violet and the rose,
Their blue veins in blush disclose,
And come to honor nothing else.

Where to live near
And planted there,
Is to live, and still live new;
Where to gain a favor is
More than light, perpetual bliss,
Make me live by serving you.

Dear, back again recall,
To this light:
A stranger to himself and all.
Both the wonder and the story,
Shall be yours and eke the glory;
I am your perpetual thrall.

FROM "VALENTINIAN."

The following songs are strikingly illustrative of a peculiarity that has often struck me in reading the dramas of Beaumont and Fletcher; the absence of any mark of antiquity, either in the diction or the construction. Hardly any thing in their verse smacks of the age. They were cotemporary with Ben Jonson, and yet how rugged is his English compared with their fluent and courtly tongue! They were almost cotemporary with a greater than he — a greater far than any or all, and yet Shakspeare's blank verse has an antique sound when read after theirs. Dryden, himself so perfect a model as regards style, says in one of those master-pieces of criticism, the prefaces to his plays, that in Beaumont and Fletcher, our language has attained to its perfection. I doubt if it have much improved since, nor has it for the uses of poetry very materially altered. This "Invocation to Sleep" might, for diction and rhythm, have been written today, always supposing that we had any body capable of writing it.

Care-charming Sleep, thou easer of all woes,
Brother to Death, sweetly thyself dispose
On this afflicted Prince! Fall like a cloud
In gentle showers; give nothing that is loud
Or painful to his slumbers; easy, light,
And as a purling stream thou son of night
Pass by his troubled senses; sing his pain,
Like hollow-murmuring wind or silver rain!
Into this Prince, gently, oh gently slide,
And kiss him into slumbers like a bride!

The same may be said of the next.

God Lyaeus, ever young,
Ever honored, ever sung;
Stained with blood of lusty grapes,
In a thousand lusty shapes.
Dance upon the mazer's brim,
In the crimson liquor swim;
From the plenteous hand divine,
Let a river run with wine.
God of youth, let this day here
Enter neither care nor fear!

FROM "ROLLO."
Take, oh, take those lips away,
That so sweetly were forsworn;
And those eyes, the break of day,
Lights that do mislead the morn.
But my kisses bring again,—
Seals of love, though sealed in vain.

Hide, oh, hide those hills of snow,
Which thy frozen bosom bears,
On whose tops the pinks that grow,
Are yet of those that April wears.
But first set my poor heart free,
Bound in those icy chains by thee.

We are irresistibly reminded of the Penseroso in reading the fine song that follows, as we are of Comus in the "Faithful Shepherdess." That Milton had Fletcher in his thoughts can not be doubted; but the great epic poet added so much from his own rich store, that the imitation may well be pardoned by the admirers of both, the rather that the earlier bard stands the test of such a comparison well. Both are crowned poets; but they wear their bays with a difference.

FROM THE "NICE VALOR, OR THE PASSIONATE MADMAN."
Hence all you vain delights,
As short as are the nights,
Wherein you! speed your folly!
There's naught in this life sweet,
If man were wise to see 't,
But only melancholy.
Oh sweetest melancholy!
Welcome, folded arms, and fixed eyes,
A sigh that piercing mortifies,
A look that's fastened to the ground,
A tongue chained up without a sound!

Fountain-heads and pathless groves,
Places which pale passion loves!
Moonlight walks, when all the fowls
Are warmly housed save bats and owls!
A midnight bell, a parting groan,
These are the sounds we feed upon.
Then stretch our bones in a still gloomy valley,
Nothing's so dainty sweet as lovely melancholy.

THE SATYR'S SPEECH, FROM THE "FAITHFUL SHEPHERDESS."
Thorough yon same bending plain
That flings his arms down to the main,
And thro' these thick woods have I run
Whose bottom never kissed the sun,
Since the lusty Spring began.
All to please my master Pan,
Have I trotted without rest
To get him fruit; for at a feast
He entertains this coming night
His paramour, the Syrinx bright.
But behold, a fairer sight!
By that heavenly form of thine,
Brightest fair, thou art divine;
Sprung from great immortal race
Of the gods; for in thy face
Shines more awful majesty,
Than dull weak mortality
Dare with misty eyes behold
And live! Therefore on this mold
Lowly do I bend my knee
In worship of thy deity.
Deign it, goddess, from my hand
To receive whate'er this land
From her fertile womb doth send
Of her choice fruits; and but lend
Belief to that the satyr tells:
Fairer by the famous wells
To this present day ne'er grew,
Never better nor more true.
Here be grapes, whose lusty blood
Is the learned poet's good;
Sweeter yet did never crown
The head of Bacchus; nuts more brown
Than the squirrel whose teeth crack 'em!
Deign, oh! fairest fair, to take 'em!
For these black-eyed Dryope
Hath oftentimes commanded me
With my clasped knee to climb:
See, how well the lusty time
Hath decked their rising cheeks in red,
Such as on your lips is spread.
Here be berries for a queen,
Some be red, some be green;
These are of that luscious meat
The great god Pan himself doth eat.
All these, and what the woods can yield,
The hanging mountain, or the field
I freely offer, and ere long
Will bring you more, more sweet and strong;
'Till when humbly leave I take,
Lest the great Pan do awake,
That sleeping lies in a deep glade,
Under a broad beech's shade.
I must go, I must run,
Swifter than the fiery sun.

The charming pastoral from whence this beautiful speech is taken, was irrevocably condemned in the theater on the first and only night of representation; which catastrophe, added to a similar one that befell Congreve's best comedy, "The Way of the World," both authors being at the time in the very flood-tide of popularity, has been an unspeakable comfort to unsuccessful dramatists ever since. I recall it chiefly to mention the hearty spirit with which two of the most eminent of Fletcher's friendly rivals came to the rescue with laudatory verses. The circumstance does so much honor to all parties, and some of the lines are so good, that I can not help quoting them; George Chapman says that the poem—

Renews the golden world, and holds through all
The holy laws of homely Pastoral;
Where flowers and founts and nymphs and semi-gods
And all the graces find their old abodes;
Where forests flourish but in endless verse,
And meadows, nothing fit for purchasers:
This iron age

(Think of that in the days of James the First!)

This iron age that eats itself will never
Bite at your golden world, that others ever
Loved as itself.

Ben Jonson, first characterizing the audience after a fashion by no means complimentary, says that the play failed because it wanted the laxity of moral and of language which they expected and desired. He continues:—

I that am glad thy innocence was thy guilt,
And wish that all the muses' blood were spilt
In such a martyrdom, to vex their eyes,
Do crown thy murdered poem, which shall rise
A glorified work to time, when fire
Or moths shall eat what all these fools admire.

For the plays of Beaumont and Fletcher, that mine of superb and regal poetry, I have no room now. They must remain untouched.