1782 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Thomas Stratford

Horace Walpole to William Mason, April 1782; Letters, ed. Cunningham (1906) 8:198-200.



I wish it was possible to give you a full account of a tragedy that has just been lent to me; an adequate one is totally impossible. The Bishop-Count of Bristol, whom I met t' other night at Mrs. Delany's, desired to send me a play, that he confessed he thought equal to the noblest flights of Shakspeare. Such an honour was not to be refused. Arrived the thickest of quartos, full as the egg of an ostrich; with great difficulty I got through it in two days. It is on the story of Lord Russell. John Lilburne himself could not have more whig-zeal. The style, extremely deficient in grammar, is flogged up to more extravagant rants than Statius's or Claudian's, with a due proportion of tumbles into the kennel. The Devils and damnation supply every curse with brimstone, and Hell's sublime is coupled with Newgate, St. James's, and Stock's market; every scene is detached, and each as long as an act; and every one might be omitted without interrupting the action — for plot or conduct there is none. Jeffries and Father Petre open the drama, and scourge one another up to the blackest pitch of iniquity. They are relieved by Algernon Sidney and Lord Howard; the first rants like a madman and damns the other to the pit of hell. Lady Russell is not a whit less termagant. The good Earl of Bedford, on the contrary, is as patient as Job, and forgets the danger of his son to listen to the pathetic narrative of his old steward, whose wife had been Lord Russell's nurse, and died at seeing him sent to the Tower. The second act begins, and never ends, with Lord Russell's visit to Newgate, where he gives money to the gaoler for leave to see his son. The gaoler chouses him, calls him Emperor of Newgate, and promises to support his dignity by every act of royal tyranny; compares himself to Salmoneus, and talks of Nabobs, Stock's Alley, and Whitfield. Lord Russell comes to the grate, gives more money equally in vain. At last the monarch-gaoler demands 1000, Russell promises it: the gaoler tenders a promissory note. Lord Russell takes it to sign, and finds it stipulates 7000 and so on. King Charles and the Duke of York enter, quarrel about religion, but agree on cutting Lord Essex's throat, with many such pathetic amoenities. The last act contains the whole trial verbatim, with the pleadings of the Attorney and Solicitor Generals; Tillotson and Burnet are called to the prisoner's character — in vain; he is condemned. Lord Bedford falls at the King's feet, begging his son's life; the King tells him he teases him to death, and that he had rather be still in Scotland listening to nine hour's sermons delivered—

—Though the funnel
Of noses lengthened down into proboscis.

This is the only flower I could retain of so dainty a garland. The piece concludes with Lady Russell's swooning on hearing the two strokes of the axe. Now you are a little acquainted with our second Shakspeare! Be assured that I have neither exaggerated in the character given, nor in the account of this tedious but very diverting tragedy; which, as the Earl-Bishop told me, Mr. Cumberland has had a mind to fit to the stage. What a hissing there would be between his ice and this cataract of sulphur! Adieu. I have broken my word and wrote a volume, but my pen was hurried on by the torrent of lava.