Imagens das páginas
PDF
ePub

English, the old classic Roman drama, and aim in their construction at a rigorous adherence to the models afforded by those of Plautus, and Terence, and Seneca. They are admirable for their elaborate art, which is, moreover, informed by a power of strong conception of a decidedly original character; they abound both in wit and eloquence, which in some passages rises to the glow of poetry; the figures of the scene stand out in high relief, every one of them, from the most important to the most insignificant, being finished off at all points with the minutest care ; the dialogue carries on the action, and is animated in many parts with the right dramatic reciprocation; and the plot is in general contrived and evolved with the same learned skill, and the same attention to details, that are shown in all other particulars. But the execution, even where it is most brilliant, is hard and angular; nothing seems to flow naturally and freely; the whole has an air of constraint, and effort, and exaggeration; and the effect that is produced by the most ar. resting passages is the most undramatic that can be, namely, a greater sympathy with the performance as a work of art than as anything else. It may be added that Jonson's characters, though vigorously delineated, and though not perhaps absolutely false to nature, are most of them rather of the class of her occasional excrescences or eccentricities than samples of any general humanity; they are the oddities and perversions of a particular age or state of manners, and have no universal truth or interest. What is called the humour of Jonson consists entirely in the exhibition of the more ludicrous kinds of these morbid aberrations; like everything about him, it has force and raciness enough, but will be most relished by those who are most amused by dancing bears and other shows of that class. It seldom or never makes the heart laugh, like the humour of Shakspeare, which is, indeed, a quality of altogether another essence. As a poet, Jonson is greatest in his masques and other court pageants. The airy elegance of these compositions is a perfect contrast to the stern and rugged strength of his other works; the lyrical parts of them especially have often a grace and sportiveness, a flow as well as a finish, the effect of which is very brilliant. Still, even in these, we want the dewy light, and rich, coloured irradiation of the poetry of Shakspeare and Fletcher: the lustre is pure and bright, but at the same time cold and sharp, like that of crystal. In Jonson's unfinished pastoral of The Sad Shepherd there is some picturesque description and more very harmonious verse, and the best parts of it (much of it is poor enough) are perhaps in a higher style than anything else he has written; but to compare it, as has sometimes been done, either as a poem or as a drama, with The Faithful Shepherdess of Fletcher seems to us to evince a deficiency of true feeling for the highest things, equal to what would be shewn by preferring, as has also been done by some critics, the humour of Jonson to that of Shakspeare. Fletcher's pastoral, blasted as it is in some parts by fire not from heaven, is still a green and leafy wilderness of poetical beauty; Jonson's, deformed also by some brutality more elaborate than anything of the same sort in Fletcher, is at the best but a trim garden, and, had it been ever so happily finished, would have been nothing more.

MASSINGER.—FORD.

After Shakspeare, Beaumont and Fletcher, and Jonson, the next great name in our drama is that of Philip Massinger, who was born in 1584, and is supposed to have begun to write for the stage soon after 1606, although his first published play, his tragedy of The Virgin Martyr, in which he was assisted by Decker, did not appear till 1622. Of thirty-eight dramatic pieces which he is said to have written, only eighteen have been preserved ; eight others were in the collection of Mr. Warburton, which his servant destroyed. Massinger, like Jonson, had received a learned education, and his classic reading has coloured his style and manner; but he had scarcely so much originality of genius as Jonson. He is a very eloquent writer, but has little power of high imagination or pathos, and still less wit or comic power. He could rise, however, to a vivid conception of a character moved by some single aim or passion; and he has drawn some of the darker shades of villany with great force. His Sir Giles Overreach, in A New Way to Pay Old Debts, and his Luke in the City Madam, are perhaps his most successful delineations in this style. In the conduct of his plots, also, he generally displays much skill. In short, all that can be reached by mere talent and warmth of susceptibility he has achieved ; but his province was to appropriate and decorate rather than to create.

John Ford, the author of about a dozen plays that have . survived, and one of whose pieces is known to have been acted so early as 1613, has one quality, that of a deep pathos, perhaps more nearly allied to high genius than

any Massinger has shown ; but the range of the latter in the delineation of action and passion is so much more extensive, that we can hardly refuse to regard him as the greater dramatist. Ford's blank verse is not so imposing as Massinger's; but it has often a delicate beauty, sometimes a warbling wildness and richness, beyond anything in Massinger's fuller swell.

LATER ELIZABETHAN PROSE WRITERS. *

Even the prose literature of the present period is much of it of so imaginative a character, that it may be considered to be a kind of half poetry. We have already traced the change which English prose-writing underwent in the course of the second and third quarters of the sixteenth .century, passing from the familiar but elegant simplicity of the style of Sir Thomas More to the more formal and elaborate but still succinct and unincumbered rhetoric of Ascham, from thence to the affectations of Lyly the Euphuist and his imitators, and finally out of what we may call that sickly and unnatural state of transition to the richly decorated elegance of Sidney. Along with Sidney's famous work, though of somewhat later date, may be mentioned his friend Spenser's “View of the State of Ireland, written dialogue-wise between Eudoxus and Irenaeus,' probably about the year 1590. It is a composition worthy of the many-visioned poet—full of matter, full of thought, full of life, with passages of description in it that make present the distant and the past, like the painter's colours. The style has not so much that is outwardly imposing as Sidney's, but more inward vigour and earnestness, as well as more compactness and sinew; in short, more of the true glow of eloquence, more of a heart leaping within it, and sending a pulse through every word and cadence.

On the whole, by the end of the century, our prose, as exhibited in its highest examples, if it had lost something in ease and clearness, had gained considerably in copiousmess, in sonorousness, and in splendour. In its inferior specimens, also, a corresponding change is to be traced, but of a, modified character. In these the ancient simplicity and directness had given place only to a longwinded wordiness, and an awkwardness and intricacy, sometimes so excessive as to be nearly unintelligible, produced by piling clause upon clause, and involution upon involution, in the endeavour to crowd into every sentence as much meaning or as many particulars as possible. Here the change was nearly altogether for the worse— the loss in one direction was compensated by hardly anything that could be called a gain in another. One additional point of difference, as yet chiefly exemplified in the sermons and other writings of divines, was the introduction towards the close of the reign of Elizabeth of what may be described as at once the most artificial and the most puerile mode of composition ever practised, consisting in an incessant fire of alliteration, punning, and the most jejune verbal conceits, often in a Babylonish dialect, or party-coloured tissue of words, made up of nearly as much Latin, Greek, and Hebrew as native English. This was what had been substituted in popular preaching for the buffoonery of Latimer; whether to the gain or loss of sound religion and theological literature, it might

, be hard to determine.

« AnteriorContinuar »