In the second installment of a series on the English poets, Henry Neele presents characters of Spenser, Shakespeare, Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher, and Massinger. If not still in grammar school, Neele was at least a very recent graduate. His characters are thoroughly commonplace, an indication of how the body of criticism that had been growing over the past fifty years was beginning to reach a broader readership. The criticism of Elizabethan writers by Hazlitt, Hunt, and Lamb — more personal, more memorable, and addressed to a more sophisticated audience — was only just beginning to appear at this time.
In one respect, Neele anticipates criticism to come when he finds Spenser deficient in "the knowledge of human nature," at least as this was understood by a novel-reading public: "His Saracens are all monstrous, his ladies unrivalled, his knights invincible, and consequently we meet with none of those fine touches, those delicate shadings of character, which are equally dear to fancy and the heart. Those feelings of human nature, which are more poignant and extreme, the cravings of avarice, the agonies of love, and the deep and settled apathy of despair; he has indeed delineated with the pencil of a master; but the flutterings of doubt, the timid strugglings between hope and fear, and the occurrences of domestic life, he appears to have considered either beneath his notice, or beyond his power" p. 203.
The Monthly Magazine, which was publishing anonymously Neale's poetry, was considerably weaker in the literary department than several of its rivals. Nonetheless, it managed to make Henry Neele into something of a minor celebrity. His more mature thoughts on English poetry were delivered a decade later at the Russell Institution and subsequently published after his early death.
Samuel Austin Allibone: "Henry Neele, 1798-1828, the son of a London engraver, put an end to his life whilst suffering under a fit of insanity" Critical Dictionary of English Literature (1858-71; 1882) 2:1406.
Having in my last offered a few remarks on the writings and genius of Chaucer, I shall now attempt the characters of some of the principal luminaries who dazzled in the reign of Elizabeth. It is that period which may justly be denominated, the Augustan age of England. The personal talents and patronage of a court which was crouded with such men as Sidney, Cecil, and Raleigh; and the spirit of enterprise and liberality manifested by the nation at large, necessarily excited emulation, and the triumph of genius was unequivocal and great.
We may wander far before we meet with a writer displaying more genuine talent than Spenser. The Faery Queene is a poem, which, for richness of imagination, fertility of invention, and singularity of design, will for ever remain unrivalled. We there find all the varieties of nature observed, and the whole round of the sciences explored. We are introduced to an inexhaustible imagination, knight follows knight, and legend multiplies upon legend; we scarcely see one fairy fabric melt away, before another rises as brilliant and beautiful as the preceding; and under the whole is a hidden truth conveyed, which is as dear to the heart, as all its splendid types were interesting to the fancy. But, with all his learning and genius, the unwieldy subject of Spenser is evidently ill planned; and he was deficient in that knowledge which, though not essential to genius, is a most powerful coadjutor — the knowledge of human nature. His Saracens are all monstrous, his ladies unrivalled, his knights invincible, and consequently we meet with none of those fine touches, those delicate shadings of character, which are equally dear to fancy and the heart. Those feelings of human nature, which are more poignant and extreme, the cravings of avarice, the agonies of love, and the deep and settled apathy of despair; he has indeed delineated with the pencil of a master; but the flutterings of doubt, the timid strugglings between hope and fear, and the occurrences of domestic life, he appears to have considered either beneath his notice, or beyond his power. But, whatever may be the blemishes of Spenser, they are partial, while his beauties are universally admired and acknowledged. He was the constructor of a difficult, but pleasing, stanza; and the author of a vast and gigantic scheme, in the execution of which it cannot be denied, that he displayed an inexhaustible imagination, evinced a most extensive erudition, and left behind him a durable monument of fame; which, imperfect as it is, would have been vain and impracticable to any genius but his own.
The reputation of Shakspeare is now established upon too durable a basis to be ever shaken. The poet of nature and fancy, of feeling and the heart, has survived the calumny of detractors; and, what is more surprising, the ill-judged partiality of friends. To deny that Shakspeare has faults would be absurd, for no other poet has more; but, at the same time, in no other poet can be produced beauties so rich, so various, and so extensive. Description, sentiment, character, are all at his command, and the comic and tragic crowns both glitter on his brow. His Lear is not a more natural and admirable picture than his Falstaff; and we are indebted to the same play for the pensive melancholy of a Jacques, and the equally inimitable vivacity of a Rosalind. Shakspeare, too, is a master of the sublime. The sublimity of Young consists in his sentiments, of Milton in his descriptions, but that of Shakspeare in his characters; his descriptions being more remarkable for beauty, and his sentiments for pathos. The luxuriant imagery of the Midsummer Night's Dream, and the fine sentiments in Henry VIII. have their charms; but the demoniac majesty of Lady Macbeth, the high spirit and broken heart of Lear, and the mingled virtues, vices, weakness, and dignity of Othello, are unrivalled specimens of the sublime; whether we consider the characters abstractly, or in their operations and effects. In all the qualities of the poet, (among the writers of his own country at least), Shakspeare is unequalled, and his name is of itself sufficient to immortalize the reputation of this memorable period.
From the merits of Shakspeare, we pass on to those of his great rival and contemporary, Jonson. A complete master of ancient literature, he has not been sparing of its application in his works, of which, (although he bestowed great industry and art on them,) that is probably the best which cost him the least trouble, for certainly there are few of his productions possessing the humour and interest displayed by Volpone. He evidently did not want either genius or feeling, for some passages in his tragedies, particularly the speech of Petreius, in Cataline, are both pathetic and sublime; but he appears to have drudged through the compositions of others, and laboured over his own, till fancy was damped, and feeling was enveloped in a cloud of words, creditable indeed to his industry, but scarcely demonstrative of his genius or his taste.
The dramas of Beaumont and Fletcher are now scarcely known but in the closet. They are nevertheless replete with genius and poetry, frequently sublime, and in tenderness only equalled by Shakspeare and Otway. But their licentiousness (and whatever may be said, I am afraid the same excuse cannot be made for them as for Chaucer,) has condemned them to what all similar offenders may expect as their merited punishment — a partial oblivion.
Massinger is a writer possessing many of the faults and excellencies of Shakspeare; "his comic wit," (as Dryden has said of the latter, and if all the miserable ribaldry with which the pages of Massinger are loaded, be indeed his own), degenerating "into clenches, his serious swelling into bombast." His imagination is rich, but sometimes extravagant; and his style, though always flowing, frequently resembles the smoothness of periods, rather than the melody of verse. His conceptions, however, are generally wildly grand, and no where more strikingly so than in the Unnatural Combat, a composition as beautiful as it is exceptionable, and abounding with some of the noblest and most genuine touches of poetry.