1822 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Philip Massinger

Tobias Oldschool, Gentleman, "Eminent Authors: Massinger" Literary Speculum 2 (July 1822) 39-40.



There is much power, and many scintillations of genius, in the works of the early English dramatists, and of these, Massinger holds the first place. To the critic, who fondly clings to the unity of time and scene, who insists on classical purity of diction in the dialogue, and probability of incident in the plot, who would put genius in the go-cart, and regulate all its movements by the rules of Aristotle, Massinger and the writers of his school have no attractions. But to the candid mind, that delights in beholding the first efforts of the giants of our literature, and in tracing the wide spreading oak of our country's glory to the root, there can be no higher enjoyment than in doing justice to the great talents of those, who by their intellectual achievements prepared the way for the bard of Avon. The age of these, the parents of our drama, was rendered remarkable by the wonderful revolution which took place in the mental world; for centuries the soul of man and its mighty faculties had been dreaming away their energies, and consuming themselves in the gloom of the cloister, the noblest endowments had been wasted on monkish legends or in polemical trifling; skins of parchment to which had been committed the classical treasures of Greece and Rome, were converted by fanatical zeal into albums for tales of superstition; imagination wedded absurdity, wisdom joined itself to credulity, had taste slumbered in the embrace of ignorance. But with the invention of printing came knowledge; and with the Reformation freedom from the shackles of religious despotism; fathers who had grown old in folly and bigotry, saw with amazement their children exercise the privilege of rational creatures, thought, mental capabilities were roused from their long sleep, and though for a season their efforts were wild and irregular, experience soon restrained their errors and conducted them to solid and useful results. The age in which Massinger wrote was perturbed by the convulsive throes of the disarmed demon, Rebellion, and troubled by the tempests of change and discord, his audiences were comparatively barbarous, and could he have written in a style agreeable to the fastidious delicacy of modern times, he would have utterly failed in fixing the attention of his contemporaries. Strong passion, harrowing incident, violent sorrow, and intense excitement, despair, madness and death, were the elements best suited to his purpose; love, with him, was a powerful, all-absorbing feeling, lasting as life, and jealousy and revenge were yoke-fellows. The light, faintly delineated operations of slightly excited affections may satisfy the play-going population at present, but by men, who were often the spectators of rapine, murder, and violence in real life, such weak sketchy scenes would have been treated with derision. The ladies and gentlemen of the year 1822 have become so exquisitely polite and refined, that the appearance of a ghost, or the representation of a violent death in tragedy, is scouted as a sin against taste or morality. But Shakespeare and the lofty ministers of the Muse that preceded him, had not to soothe such intellectual squeamishness, or bring down their fiery tempered agents to the meagre conceptions of a fashionable audience. They were the poets of nature and truth, and white in their enthusiastic reveries, the sublime, the terrible, and the affecting, took shape and locality at their best, they had not the fear of reviews or newspapers before them. To the almost canonized Shakespeare, applause is awarded as a matter of course; Macbeth with its witches, and Hamlet with its ghost, are the theme of never failing admiration. Yet to writers who trod in precisely the same path, and not unfrequently with equal power, we wholly deny the meed of praise, or bestow it with a tardy hand. Surely there must be quackery and prejudice in all this! We admire Othello and King Lear, not because we keenly feel their astonishing beauties, but because our forefathers admired them: and we consign A New Way to Pay Old Debts and the Duke of Milan to oblivion, not because we perceive their defects, but because we have never read them.