1819 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Philip Massinger

Thomas Campbell, in "Essay on English Poetry" Specimens of the British Poets (1819; 1841) lxxiii-iv.



Massinger is distinguished for the harmony and dignity of his dramatic eloquence. Many of his plots, it is true, are liable to heavy exceptions. The fiends and angels of his Virgin Martyr are unmanageable tragic machinery; and the incestuous passion of his Ancient Admiral excites our horror. The poet of love is driven to a frightful expedient, when he gives it the terrors of a maniac passion breaking down the most sacred pale of instinct and consanguinity. The ancient admiral is in love with his own daughter. Such a being, if we fancy him to exist, strikes us as no object of moral warning, but as a man under the influence of insanity, in a general view, nevertheless, Massinger has more art and judgment in the serious drama than any of the other successors of Shakspeare. His incidents are less entangled than those of Fletcher, and the scene of his action is more clearly thrown open for the free evolution of character. Fletcher strikes the imagination with more vivacity, but more irregularly, and amidst embarrassing positions of his own choosing. Massinger puts forth his strength more collectively. Fletcher has more action and character in his drama, and leaves a greater variety of impressions upon the mind. His fancy is more volatile and surprising, but then he often blends disappointment with our surprise, and parts with the consistency of his characters even to the occasionally apparent loss of their identity. This is not the case with Massinger. It is true that Massinger excels more in description and declamation than in the forcible utterance of the heart, and in giving character the warm colouring of passion. Still, not to speak of his one distinguished hero in comedy, he has delineated several tragic characters with strong and interesting traits. They are chiefly proud spirits. Poor himself, and struggling under the rich man's contumely, we may conceive it to have been the solace of his neglected existence to picture worth and magnanimity breaking through external disadvantages, and making their way to love and admiration. Hence his fine conceptions of Paris, the actor, exciting by the splendid endowments of his nature the jealousy of the tyrant of the world; and Don John and Pisander, habited as slaves, wooing and winning their princely mistresses. He delighted to show heroic virtue stripped of all adventitious circumstances, and tried, like a gem, by its shining through darkness. His Duke of Milan is particularly admirable for the blended interest which the poet excites by the opposite weaknesses and magnanimity of the same character. Sforza, Duke of Milan, newly married and uxoriously attached to the haughty Marcelia, a woman of exquisite attractions, makes her an object of secret but deadly enmity at his court, by the extravagant homage which he requires to be paid to her, and the precedence which he enjoins even his own mother and sisters to yield her. As Chief of Milan, he is attached to the fortunes of Francis I. The sudden tidings of the approach of Charles V., in the campaign which terminated with the battle of Pavia, soon afterwards spread dismay through his court and capital. Sforza, though valiant and self-collected in all that regards the warrior or politician, is hurried away by his immoderate passion for Marcelia; and being obliged to leave her behind, but unable to bear the thoughts of her surviving him, obtains the promise of a confidant to destroy her, should his own death appear inevitable. He returns to his capital in safety. Marcelia, having discovered the secret order, receives bins with coldness. His jealousy is inflamed; and her perception of that jealousy alienates the haughty object of his affection, when she is on the point of reconcilement. The fever of Sforza's diseased heart is powerfully described, passing from the extreme of dotage to revenge, and returning again from thence to the bitterest repentance and prostration, when he has struck at the life which he most loved, and has made, when it is too late, the discovery of her innocence. Massinger always enforces this moral in love; — he punishes distrust, and attaches our esteem to the unbounded confidence of the passion. But while Sforza thus exhibits a warning against usorbidly-selfish sensibility, he is made to appear, without violating probability, in all other respects a firm, frank, and prepossessing character. When his misfortunes are rendered desperate by the battle of Pavia, and when he is brought into the presence of Charles V., the intrepidity with which be pleads his cause disarms the resentment of his conqueror; and the eloquence of the poet makes us expect that it should do so. Instead of palliating his zeal for the lost cause of Francis, he thus pleads—

I come not, Emperor, to invade thy mercy
By fawning on thy fortune, nor bring with me
Excuses or denials; I profess,
And with a good man's confidence, even this instant
That I am in thy power, I was thins enemy,
Thy deadly and vow'd enemy; one that wish'd
Confusion to thy person and estates,
And with my utmost power, and deepest counsels,
Had they been truly follow'd, further'd it.
Nor will I now, although my neck were under
The hangman's axe, with one peer syllable
Confess but that I honour'd the French king
More than thyself and all men.

After describing his obligations to Francis, he says—

He was indeed tome as my good angel,
To guard me from all danger. I dare speak,
Nay moot and will, his praise now in as high
And loud a key as when he was thy equal.
The benefits he sow'd in me met not
Unthankful ground. * * * *
* * * * If then to he grateful
For benefits received, or not to leave
A friend in his necessities, be a crime
Amongst you Spaniards, Sforza brings his head
To pay the forfeit. Nor come I as a slave,
Pinion'd and fetter'd, in a squalid weed,
Falling before thy feet, kneeling and howling
For a forestall'd remission — that were poor,
And would but shame thy victory, for conquest
Over base foes is a captivity,
And not a triumph. I ne'er fear'd to die
More than I wish'd to live. When I had reach'd
My ends in being a Duke, I wore these robes,
This crown upon my head, and to my side
This sword was girt; and, witness truth, that now
'Tis in another's power, when I shall part
With life and them together, I'm the same—
My veins then did not swell with pride, nor now
Shrink they for fear.

If the vehement passions were not Massinger's happiest element, he expresses fixed principle with an air of authority. To make us feel the elevation of genuine pride was the master-key which he knew how to touch in human sympathy; and his skill in it must have been derived from deep experience in his own bosom.