1880 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Fletcher

A. C. Bradley, in The English Poets: Selections with Critical Introductions, ed. Thomas Humphry Ward (1880) 2:43-46.



Coleridge wished that Beaumont and Fletcher had written poems instead of tragedies. It was a bold wish, though not an unfriendly one; but perhaps we should be readier to echo it if Coleridge had spoken of lyrics rather than of poems generally. The longer poems of Beaumont which remain to us are, on the whole, not remarkable. He composed a free paraphrase of Ovid's Remedia Amoris. Salmacis and Hermaphroditus, printed as early as 1602, when he was probably seventeen years old, is noteworthy chiefly on that account. In this poem, written in the same metre as Marlowe's Hero and Leander, and founded on a passage in Ovid's Metamorphoses, there is plenty of luxuriance and facility, but also a superabundance of mere voluptuous description and of frigid conceits. Some of Beaumont's memorial poems are marked by an almost incredible want of taste. But the case is very different with the letter to Ben Jonson, in which "their merry meetings at the Mermaid" are described with great animation and doubtless with truth. By Fletcher there are but three poems extant; but each has an interest of its own. Two of them are addressed to "the true master in his art" and "his worthy friend," Ben Jonson; and the other, Upon an Honest Man's Fortune, is more than worthy of its place at the end of the comedy which bears that name. In it we seem to come nearer than usual to the poet himself, who probably knew too much of "want, the curse of man," but never lost heart or belief in himself, and who has here described with admirable strength, what Goethe afterwards felt so keenly, the self-sufficience of the mind and its superiority to fortune.

Man is his own star, and the soul that can
Render an honest and a perfect man,
Commands all light, all influence, all fate;
Nothing to him falls early or too late;
Our acts our angels are, or good or ill,
Our fatal shadows that walk by us still.

These are fine lines, and there are others in the poem at good; yet we should hardly be willing to exchange one of the best of the plays for them. But when we come to the purely lyrical poems, the songs from the dramas and the speeches from The Faithful Shepherdess, we feel that we are standing on different ground. Of the passages here selected some belong indubitably to Fletcher alone, and one, certainly the grandest, to Beaumont alone. The great lines On the Tombs in Westminster are written in the common rhyming couplets of four accents which have been so plentifully and so variously used in English poetry. It was a favourite metre of Fletcher's too, and it is interesting to compare the difference of its effect in the hands of the two poets. There is a grave strength in Beaumont's verse, and a concentrated vigour of imagination in such lines as

Here are sands, ignoble things,
Dropt from the ruin'd sides of kings,

which hardly belongs to Fletcher's lighter nature. On the other hand, all the qualities of his dramatic verse, its delightful ease and grace, and its overflowing fancifulness, come out in the lyrical speeches of the Faithful Shepherdess. Milton himself, though he put a greater volume of imagination and sound into the measure, never gave it such an airy lightness; and we must look onwards to Shelley's "Ariel to Miranda" for an echo to these lyrics, still sweeter than their melody, and to his "Music, when soft voices die" for a fellow to "Weep no more."

There is the same buoyant grace in Fletcher's songs, and something more. In that age of songs, many a playwright could produce a lyric or two of the stamp which seems to have bean wellnigh lost since; but songs seem to flow by nature from Fletcher's pen in every style and on every occasion, and to be always right and beautiful. If he wants a drinking song, he can rise to "God Lyaeus, ever young," or can produce, what on a much lower level is hardly less perfect, the "Drink to-day and drown all sorrow" of the Bloody Brother. The wonderful verses on Melancholy, which suggested Il Penseroso and are hardly surpassed by it, come as easily to his call as the mad laughing-song of the same play. "Sad songs," like that quoted from The Queen of Corinth; dirges, like the "Come you, whose loves are dead" of The Knight of the Burning Pestle, or the "Lay a garland on my hearse"; invocations, prayers to Cupid, hymns to Pan, — each has its own charm, and Fletcher is as ready with his Beggars' or Broom-man's songs, or even with a dramatic battle-lyric like the tumultuous "Arm, arm, arm, arm!" of The Mad Lover. Some of the best of these occur, indeed, in plays of which Beaumont was the joint author; but a comparison of those lyrics which undeniably belong to each poet alone is perhaps enough to convince us that Fletcher was the author of "Lay a garland on my hearse," if not also of "Come you, whose loves are dead." Probably however he has touched his highest point in the song from Valentinian, "Hear, ye ladies that despise." Here the reader will observe (what applies also to another fine song from the same play, "Now the lusty spring is seen") that the rhythm exactly corresponds in the two stanzas without as all interfering with the spontaneous effect of the whole.

Fletcher was the sole author of The Faithful Shepherdess, the forerunner of Milton's Comus; and we may safely assume that no one of the extracts which follow is a joint production of the two poets. But this is not the case with their dramatic works. So complete was their poetical union that it is impossible, in the absence of external evidence, to say with any certainty what part of those plays which belong to both is due to each, or even to describe their separate characteristics. An old tradition contrasted the "judgment" of the younger poet, who was Jonson's intimate friend, with the fancy and facility of the elder. That Fletcher possessed the latter qualities is certain but we have no reason to attribute to Beaumont any of the deficiencies which the "faint praise" of "judgment" might seem to imply.

The opening song of The Two Noble Kinsmen has been included in this selection, although it is difficult to attribute it to any one but Shakespeare. On the other hand, "Take, oh take those lips away," the first stanza of which occurs in Measure for Measure, has been excluded.