1819 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Fletcher

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



The theatre of Beaumont and Fletcher contains all manner of good and evil. The respective shares of those dramatic partners, in the works collectively published with their names, have been stated in a different part of this volume. Fletcher's share in them is by far the largest; and he is chargeable with the greatest number of faults, although at the same time his genius was more airy, prolific, and fanciful. There are such extremes of grossness and magnificence in their drama, so much sweetness and beauty interspersed with views of nature either falsely romantic, or vulgar beyond reality; there is so much to animate and amuse us, and yet so much that we would willingly overlook, that I cannot help comparing the contrasted impressions which they make, to those which we receive from visiting some great and ancient city, picturesquely but irregularly built, glittering with spires and surrounded with gardens, but exhibiting in many quarters the lanes and hovels of wretchedness. They have scenes of wealthy and high life which remind us of courts and palaces frequented by elegant females and high-spirited gallants, whilst their noble old martial characters, with Caractacus in the midst of them, may inspire us with the same sort of regard which we pay to the rough-hewn magnificence of an ancient fortress.

Unhappily, the same simile, without being hunted down, will apply but too faithfully to the nuisances of their drama. Their language is often basely profligate. Shakspeare's and Jonson's indelicacies are but casual blots; whilst theirs are sometimes essential colours of their painting, and extend, in one or two instances, to entire and offensive scenes. This fault has deservedly injured their reputation; and, saving a very slight allowance for the fashion and taste of their age, admits of no sort of apology. Their drama, nevertheless, is a very wide one, and "has ample room and verge enough" to permit the attention to wander from these, and to fix on more inviting peculiarities — as on the great variety of their fables and personages, their spirited dialogue, their wit, pathos, and humour. Thickly sown as their blemishes are, their merit will bear great deductions, and still remain great. We never can forget such beautiful characters as their Cellide, their Aspatia, and Bellario, or such humorous ones as their La Writ and Cacafego. Awake they will always keep us, whether to quarrel or to be pleased with them. Their invention is fruitful; its beings are on the whole anactive and sanguine generation; and their scenes are crowded to fulness with the warmth, agitation, and interest of life.

In thus speaking of them together, it may be necessary to allude to the general and traditionary understanding, that Beaumont was the graver and more judicious genius of the two. Yet the plays in which he may be supposed to have assisted Fletcher are by no means remarkable either for harmonious adjustment of parts, or scrupulous adherence to probability. In their "Laws of Candy," the winding up of the plot is accomplished by a young girl commanding a whole bench of senators to descend from their judgment-seats, in virtue of an ancient law of the state which she discovers; and they obey her with the most polite alacrity. "Cupid's Revenge" is assigned to them conjointly, and is one of the very weakest of their worst class of pieces. On the other hand, Fletcher produced his "Rule a Wife and have a Wife," after Beaumont's death, so that he was able, when he chose, to write with skill as well as spirit.

Of that skill, however, he is often so sparing as to leave his characters subject to the most whimsical metamorphoses. Sometimes they repent, like methodists, by instantaneous conversion. At other times they shift from good to bad, so as to leave us in doubt what they were meant for. In the tragedy of "Valentinian" we have a fine old soldier, Maximus, who sustains our affection through four acts, but in the fifth we are suddenly called upon to hate him, on being informed, by his own confession, that he is very wicked, and that all his past virtue has been but a trick on our credulity. The imagination, in this case, is disposed to take part with the creature of the poet's brain against the poet himself, and to think that he maltreats and calumniates his own offspring unnaturally. But for these faults Fletcher makes good atonement, and has many affecting scenes. We must still indeed say scenes; for, except in "The Faithful Shepherdess," which, unlike his usual manner, is very lulling, where shall we find him uniform? If "The Double Marriage" could be cleared of some revolting passages, the part of Juliana would not he unworthy of the powers of the finest tragic actress. Juliana is a high attempt to portray the saint and heroine blended in female character. When her husband Virolet's conspiracy against Ferrand of Naples is discovered, she endures and braves for his sake the most dreadful cruelties of the tyrant. Virolet flies from his country, obliged to leave her behind him; and falling at sea into the hands of the pirate Duke of Sesse, saves himself and his associates from death, by consenting to marry the daughter of the pirate i (Martia), who falls in love and elopes with him from her father's ship. As they carry off with them the son of Ferrand, who had been a prisoner of the Duke of Sesse, Virolet secures his peace being made at Naples; but when he has again to meet Juliana, he finds that he has purchased life too dearly. When the ferocious Martia, seeing his repentance, revenges herself by plotting his destruction, and when his divorced Juliana, forgetting her injuries, flies to warn and to save him, their interview has no common degree of interest. Juliana is perhaps rather a fine idol of the imagination than a probable type of nature; but poetry which "conforms the shows of things to the desires of the soul," has a right to the highest possible virtues of human character. And there have been women who have prized a husband's life above their own, and his honour above his life, and who have united the tenderness of their sex to heroic intrepidity. Such is Juliana, who thus exhorts the wavering fortitude of Virolet on the eve of his conspiracy.

Virolet. * * Unless our hands were cannon
To batter down his walls, our weak breath mines
To blow his forts up, or our curses lightning,
Our power is like to yours, and we, like you,
Weep our misfortunes. * * * *

She replies —

* * * Walls of brass resist not
A noble undertaking — nor can vice
Raise any bulwark to make good a place
Where virtue seeks to enter.

The joint dramas of Beaumont and Fletcher, entitled "Philaster" and "The Maid's Tragedy," exhibit other captivating female portraits. The difficulty of giving at once truth, strength, and delicacy to female repentance for the loss of honour, is finely accomplished in Evadne. The stage has perhaps few scenes more affecting than that in which she obtains forgiveness of Amintor, on terms which interest us in his compassion, without compromising his honour. In the same tragedy, the plaintive image of the forsaken Aspatia has an indescribably sweet spirit and romantic expression. Her fancy takes part with her heart, and gives its sorrow a visionary gracefulness. When she finds her maid Antiphila working a picture of Ariadae, she tells her to copy the likeness from herself, from "the lost Aspatia."

Asp. But where's the lady?
Ant. There, Madam.
Asp. Fie, you have miss'd it here, Antiphila;
These colours are not dull and pale enough,
To show a soul so full of misery
As this sad lady's was. Do it by me—
Do it again by me, the lost Aspatia,
And you shall find all true. Put me on the wild island.
I stand upon the sea-beach now, and think
Mine arms thus, and my hair blown by the wind
Wild as that desert, and let all about me
Be teachers of my story. * * *
* * * * strive to make me look
Like Sorrow's monument, and the trees about me,
Let them be dry and leafless; let the rocks
Groan with continual surges, and behind me
Make all a desolation. See, see, wenches,
A miserable life of this poor picture.

The resemblance of this poetical picture to Guido's Bacchus and Ariadne has been noticed by Mr. Seward in the preface to his edition of Beaumont and Fletcher. "In both representations the extended arms of the mourner, her hair blown by the wind, the barren roughness of the rocks around her, and the broken trunks of leafless trees, make her figure appear like Sorrow's monument."

Their masculine characters in tragedy are generally much less interesting than their females. Some exceptions may be found to this remark; particularly in the British chief Caractacus and his interesting nephew, the boy Hengo. With all the faults of the tragedy of Bonduca, its British subject and its native heroes attach our hearts. We follow Caractacus to battle and captivity with a proud satisfaction in his virtue. The stubbornness of the old soldier is finely tempered by his wise, just, and candid respect for his enemies the Romans, and by his tender affection for his princely ward. He never gives way to sorrow till be looks on the dead body of his nephew, Hengo, when he thus exclaims—

* * * Farewell the hopes of Britain!
Farewell then royal graft for ever! Time and Death,
Ye have done your worst. Fortune, now see, now proudly
Pluck off thy veil, and view thy triumph.
* * * * * O fair flower,
How lovely yet thy ruins show — how sweetly
Ev'n Death embraces thee! The peace of heaven,
The fellowship of all great souls, go with thee!

The character must he well supported which yields a sensation of triumph in the act of surrendering to victorious enemies. Caractacus does not need to tell us, that when a brave man has done his duty, he cannot be humbled by fortune — but be makes us feel it in his behaviour. The few brief and simple sentences which he utters in submitting to the Romans, together with their respectful behaviour to him, give a sublime composure to his appearance in the closing scene.

Dryden praises the gentlemen of Beaumont and Fletcher in comedy as the true men of fashion of "the times." It was necessary that Dryden should call them the men of fashion of the times, for they are not in the highest sense of the word gentlemen. Shirley's comic characters have much more of the conversation and polite manners, which we should suppose to belong to superior life in all ages and countries. The genteel characters of Fletcher form a narrower class, and exhibit a more particular image of their times and country. But their comic personages, after all, are a spirited race. In one province of the facetious drama they set the earliest example; witness their humorous mock-heroic comedy, The Knight of the Burning Pestle.