1860 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir William Davenant

George Gilfillan, in Specimens with Memoirs of the less-known British Poets (1860) 2:129-30.



The author of Gondibert, was the son of a vintner in Oxford, and born in February 1605. Gossip says — but says with her usual carelessness about truth — that he was the son of no less a person than William Shakspeare, who used, in his journeys between London and Stratford, to stop at the Crown, an inn kept by Davenant's reputed father. This story is hinted at by Wood, was told to Pope by Betterton the player, and believed by Malone, but seems to be a piece of mere scandal. It is true that Davenant had a great veneration for Shakspeare, and expressed it, when only ten years old, in lines In remembrance of Master William Shakspeare, beginning thus

Beware, delighted poets, when you sing,
To welcome nature in the early spring,
Your numerous feet not tread
The banks of Avon, for each flower
(As it ne'er knew a sun or shower)
Hangs there the pensive head.

Southey says — "The father was a man of melancholy temperament, the mother handsome and lively; and as Shakspeare used to put up at the house on his journeys between Stratford and London, Davenant is said to have affected the reputation of being Shakspeare's son. If he really did this, there was a levity, or rather a want of feeling, in the boast, for which social pleasantry, and the spirits which are induced by wine, afford but little excuse."

He was entered at Lincoln College; he next became page to the Duchess of Richmond; and we find him afterwards in the family of Fulk Greville, Lord Brooke — famous as the friend of Sir Philip Sidney. He began to write for the stage in 1628; and on the death of Ben Jonson he was made Poet Laureate — to the disappointment of Thomas May, so much praised by Johnson and others for his proficiency in Latin poetry, as displayed in his Supplement to Lucan's Pharsalia. He became afterwards manager of Drury Lane; but owing to his connexion with the intrigues of that unhappy period, he was imprisoned in the Tower, and subsequently made his escape to France. On his return to England, he distinguished himself greatly in the Royal cause; and when that became desperate, he again took refuge France, and wrote part of his Gondibert. He projected scheme for carrying over a colony to Virginia; but his vessel was seized by one of the Parliamentary ships-he himself was conveyed a prisoner to Cowes Castle, in the Isle of Wight, am thence to the Tower, preparatory to being tried by the High Commission. But a giant hand, worthy of having saved him had he been Shakspeare's veritable son, was now stretched forth to his rescue — the hand of Milton. In this generous act Milton was seconded by Whitelocke, and by two aldermen of York, to whom our poet had rendered some services. Liberated from the Tower, Davenant was also permitted, through the influence of Whitelocke, to open, in defiance of Puritanic prohibition, a kind of theatre at Rutland House, and by enacting his own plays there, he managed to support himself till the Restoration. He then, it is supposed, repaid to Milton his friendly service, and shielded him from the wrath of the Court. From this period Davenant continued to write for the stage — having received the patent of the Duke's Theatre, in Lincoln's Inn — till his death. This event took place on April 7, 1668. His last play, written in conjunction with Dryden, was an alteration and pollution of Shakspeare's Tempest, which was more worthy of Trinculo than of the authors of Absalom and Ahithophel and of Gondibert. Supposing Davenant the son of Shakspeare, his act to his father's masterpiece reminds us, in the excess of its filial impiety, of Ham's conduct to Noah.

Gondibert is a large and able, without being a great poem. It has the incurable and indefensible defect of dulness. "The line labours, and the words move slow." The story is interesting of itself, but is lost in the labyrinthine details. It has many fine lines, and some highly and successfully wrought passages; but as a whole we may say of it as Porson said of certain better productions, "It will be read when the works of Homer and Virgil are forgotten — but not till then."