1880 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

George Peele

William Minto, in The English Poets: Selections with Critical Introductions, ed. Thomas Humphry Ward (1880) 1:398-99.



Peele was one of the singers before the great Elizabethan sunrise, and his notes contain no anticipatory vibration of the burst of song that was to follow him. His University friends, even after Marlowe had made his voice heard, spoke of him as the Atlas of poetry, inferior to none, and in some respects superior to all; but this partial verdict can now be recorded only as an example of how contemporary criticism is sometimes mistaken. In reading his plays now one is more astonished that Greene and Nash should have considered him worthy to be named in the same breath with Marlowe, than that the theatrical managers of the time, so much to their indignation, should have rejected his plays in favour of the productions of non-academic workmen. Peele's blank verse, which was so much admired by his academic contemporaries, gives us a fair idea of the environment out of which Marlowe emerged, and increases our admiration of that mighty genius. It deserves the praise of "smoothness" which it received from Campbell; it is graceful and elegant, but it has neither sinew nor majesty. I have quoted what seems to me to be the most favourable example of his use of this instrument, an address prefixed to one of his plays, The Tale of Troy, published in 1599, two years after the production of Tamburlaine. The inspiration of the subject seems to have contributed a fire and a freedom of movement which is generally lacking in Peele's blank verse. In using this form at all, Peele essayed an instrument which was beyond his powers and unsuited to his bent of feeling. His was an adroit, subtle, versatile mind, without passionate intensity, and he is seen at his best in the expression of graceful and humorous fancies. He was not however a follower of Marlowe in the application of blank verse to tragic purposes. In the Arraignment of Paris, the prologue spoken by Ate is in that metre, and it is also adopted by Paris in his speech before the council of the Gods, and by Diana in her description of the nymph Eliza, a "figure" of Queen Elizabeth. This seems to show that among the University poets, from whose circle Marlowe burst to reform the common stage, blank verse was considered the appropriate instrument for tragic and stately speeches. But it was not apparently till after the production of Tamburlaine that Peele wrote whole plays in blank verse. David and Bethsabe is the best of these, and is full of happy touches in the tender scenes, but the firmness of a masterly hand is wanting. The verse seldom moves far without having recourse to the crutch of weak and superfluous epithets. In the Battle of Alcazar Peele tried, perhaps at the instigation of his hard taskmasters the theatrical managers, to make up by sound and fury for his want of natural strength in the expression of passion, and thereby furnished Shakespeare with the model for some of the best-known extravagances of Pistol. Peele has also left us in Sir Clyomon and Sir Clamydes an example of the jigging measure of fourteen syllables, from which Marlowe aspired to redeem the stage. It cannot he said that Peele helped forward the great literary movement of his time; he is perhaps the best illustration of the utmost that could be done by a cultured man of facile talent and poetic temperament before the advent of the great Elizabethans.