1832 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Payne Collier

Henry Hart Milman, in "Collier's History of English Dramatic Poetry" Quarterly Review 46 (January 1832) 477-79.



The comprehensive and philosophic spirit of modern poetical criticism has fully recognised the high rank which time national drama of England may claim among the creations of the human imagination; the name of Shakspeare not only receives its just homage throughout the vast regions over which the English language is spread, on the shores of the Ganges, the Mississippi, and the St. Lawrence; but throughout the continent of Europe, he is read either in the original language, or in successive and multiplying translations. The admirers of the classical drama are at length obliged to admit "a rival near the throne," even where they are "not driven from the field," by what they consider the Gothic invasion of the romanticists. It is curious to observe the manner in which the best French writers now speak of Shakspeare, (the Germans, it is well known, go almost beyond our own national pride, in their admiration of our great dramatist,) and to contrast it with the half jealous, but half patronizing eulogy of Voltaire, and the still timid and apologetic phrase of La Harpe — "La tragedie fut violee par un geant." Such is the lively expression of the latter critic, embodying his notion of the wonderful power, as well as of the utter lawlessness of the barbarous poet. Nor is the knowledge of the older English drama confined to Shakspeare; abroad as well as at home, curiosity and admiration are beginning to be excited, by the fertility as well as the genius of a theatre, in which poets like Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher, and Massinger, occupy the second rank, while for the third, remain such names as Marlowe, Ford, Middleton, and Webster.

The origin and progress of this theatre, the slow or rapid manner in which so splendid a branch of the great works of human invention attained its perfection; the favourable circumstances which fostered its growth, or the adverse out of which it struggled by the creative power of its earliest masters — these questions would be legitimate objects of historical inquiry, even if they only served to throw light on the poetic life of Shakspeare. The history of the English stage would be a pursuit of the highest intellectual interest, if its only result should be to decide on the accuracy or inaccuracy of Dryden's assertion, that "Shakspeare created the stage among us:" whether the romantic drama of England, as has been finely said of Greek tragedy in relation to Aeschylus, sprung from the head of Shakspeare, perfect and in complete armour, as Pallas from that of Jove. It would be but the legitimate homage to such genius, to examine, with the utmost minuteness, into the state in which he found and in which he left his art; how much he owed to his predecessors, and how far the character and circumstances of his age tended to foster and develope his powers. Yet, considering the long array of volumes to which our editions of Shakspeare have extended, the vast advanced guard of prolegomena, the countless rabble of notes which impede his triumphant progress, and the heavy baggage of dissertations which bring up the rear; considering the number and the avidity of the "black letter dogs," whom the author of the Pursuits of Literature, at the close of the last century, described as hanging on the flanks, and draining the life-blood of the dramatic Acaeton — we might have supposed the subject, by this time, completely exhausted; and, however some master-mind might be wanting to compress, to reduce into order to extract all that was intrinsically valuable from the immense and discordant mass, and to cast it into one agreeable narrative — we should scarcely have expected that much further information could have been obtained, after the minute and laborious researches of the Stevenses and Malones. The volumes of Mr. Collier, however, prove that even in their own department the Shakspeare commentators have left much for future inquirers. The indefatigable diligence of this gentleman has led him to many unsuspected or unknown sources of information; while even in those which were open to former collectors, he has gleaned much, either overlooked by their negligence, or misrepresented by their haste. From our record offices, from public and private libraries, Mr. Collier, with infinite pains and perseverance, has brought together a vast mass of new and curious facts, illustrating that fertile and not altogether unprofitable subject, the amusements of our ancestors; and has traced the gradual though rapid manner, in which the religious representations of the monastic orders, and the barbarous but splendid shows of our Tudor Kings, were refined into the more intellectual and instructive romantic drama of the age of Elizabeth and James I. Had Mr. Collier displayed equal skill in the arrangement and distribution of his materials, as he has zeal and diligence in obtaining them, his work might have been, what it professes to be, a history of the English drama. At present, of great and varied interest to the antiquarian, and of inestimable value to the future historian of this branch of English poetry, it is rather a series of historical dissertations than a history; it is not one, but three separate works, the subjects of which the author has, after all, not been able to keep entirely distinct — Annals of the Stage, Annals of Dramatic Poetry, and an Account of Theatres and their Appurtenances. It is thus a sort of historic trilogy, but without any continuous interest; with three beginnings, three middles, and three ends: we are perpetually travelling onwards, and when we reach the goal, are called back again to start anew from the point at which we originally set forward. It might be difficult, but the increased popularity of his volumes would, we are persuaded, amply repay Mr. Collier for the trouble of recasting his whole work; of distributing it into one consecutive narrative, with its episodes skilfully interwoven, and some of the very curious documents, particularly the accounts, withdrawn from the text, (where they arrest and detain too long the attention of the common reader,) and thrown into an appendix. Unless Mr. Collier shall thus condescend to render his book more attractive, he must content himself with the praise of having made useful collections for the history of the drama, rather than of having adequately filled that chasm in our literary history of which he justly complains.