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Readers who delight in startling contrasts could not be more easily gratified, than by turning from Browne to the prose writ 6. 1606. ings of the poet Cowley. His eleven short “ Discourses d. 1668.) by way of Essays, in Prose and Verse,” the latest of all his works, show an equal want of ambition in the choice of topics and in the manner of dealing with them. The titles, describing objects of a common-place kind, but possessing interest for every one, fulfil the promise which they hold out, by introducing us to a few obvious though judicious reflections, set off by a train of thoughtfully placid feeling. The style calls for especial attention. Noted in his poems for fantastic affectation of thought generating great obscurity of phrase, Cowley writes prose with undeviating simplicity and perspicuity: and the whole cast of his language, not in diction only, but in construction, has a smoothness and ease, and an approach to tasteful regularity, of which hardly an instance, and certainly none of such extent, could be produced from any other book written before the Restoration.
* ABRAHAM COWLEY.
From the Essay “ Of Solitude." The first minister of state has not so much business in public, as a wise man has in private: if the one have little leisure to be alone, the other has less leisure to be in company: the one has but part of the affairs of one nation, the other all the works of God and Nature under his consideration. There is no saying shocks me so much as that, which I hear very often, that a man does not know how to pass his time. 'Twould have been but ill spoken by Methusalem in the nine-hundred-sixty-ninth year of his life: so far it is from us, who have not time enough to attain to the utmost perfection of any part of any science, to have cause to com. plain that we are forced to be idle for want of work. But this, you'll say, is work only for the learned: others are not capable either of the employments or divertisements that arrive from letters. I know they are not; and therefore cannot much recommend solitude to a man totally illiterate. But, if any man be so unlearned, as to want entertainment of the little intervals of accidental solitude, which frequently occar in almost all conditions, (except the very meanest of the people, who have business enough in the necessary provisions for life,) it is truly a great shame, both to his parents and himself
. For a very small portion of any ingenious art will stop up all those gaps of our time. Either music, or painting, or designing, or chymistry, or history, or gardening, or twenty other things will do it usefully and pleasantly; and, if he happen to set his affections on Poetry, (which I do not advise him too immoderately,) that will overdo it: no wood will be thick enough to hide him from the importunities of company or business, which would abstract him from his beloved.
Hail, old patrician trees, so great and good!
Hail, ye plebeian underwood,
Where the poetic birds rejoice, And, for their quiet nests and plenteous food,
Pay with their grateful voice!
Here Nature does a house for me erect,
Nature the wisest architect,
Who those fond artists does despise, That can the fair and living trees neglect,
Yet the dead timber prize. Here let me, careless and unthoughtful lying,
Hear the soft winds, above me flying,
With all their wanton boughs dispute, And the more tuneful birds to both replying ;
Nor be myself too mute.
A silver stream shall roll his waters near,
Gilt with the sunbeams here and there,
On whose enameli'd bank I'll walk,
How prettily they talk.
Who loves not his own company!
He'll feel the weight of't many a day, Unless he call in Sin or Vanity
To help to bear't away!
THE AGE OF SPENSER, SHAKSPEARE, BACON, AND MILTON.
A. D. 15584A. D. 1660.
SECTION FOURTH: THE DRAMATIC POETRY.
INTRODUCTION. 1. The Drama a Species of Poetry-Recitation of Narrative Poems and
Plays-Effects of Recitation on the Character of the Works-Relations of Prose and Verse to Poetry.—2. The Regular and Irregular Schools of Dramatic Art-The French Rules—The Unities of Time and Place-Their Principle--Their Effects.-3. The Unity of Action-Its Principle-Its Relations to the Other Unities—The Union of Tragedy and Comedy.-SHAKSPEARE AND THE OLD ENGLISH DRAMA. 4. Its Four Stages. 5. The First Stage--Shakspeare's Predecessors and Earliest WorksMarlowe-Greene. 6. Shakspeare's Earliest Histories and Comedies—Character ol the Early Comedies. 7. The Second Stage-Shakspeare's Later Histories—His best Comedies. 8. The Third Stage-Shakspeare's Great Tragedies-His Latest Works. 9. Estimate of Shakspeare's Genius.- Minor DRAMATIC Poets. 10. Shakspeare's Contenporaries-- Their Genius-Their Morality. 11. Beaumont and Fletcher. 12. Ben Jonson. 13. Minor Dramatists-Middleton-Webster-Heywood-Dekker. 14. The Fourth Stage of the Drama-Massinger-Ford-Shirley-Moral Declension.
1. SHAKSPEARE, the greatest of the great men who have created the imaginative literature of the English language, is so commonly spoken of as a poet, that it can hardly surprise any of us to hear the name of Poetry given to such works as those amongst which his are classed. But we ought to make ourselves familiar with the principle which this way of speaking involves.
The Drama, in all its kinds and forms, is properly to be considered as a kind of Poetry. A Tragedy is a poem, just as much as an Epic or an Ode. It is not here possible, either to prove this cardinal doctrine of criticism, or to set it forth with those explanations by which the practical application of it ought to be guarded. It must be enough to assert peremptorily, that Spenser and Milton, our masters of the chivalrous and the religious epos, are not more imperatively subject to the laws of the poetical art, than are Shakspeare, and Jonson, and Beaumont and Fletcher, and the other founders and builders of our dramatic poetry. The Epic, and the Drama are alike representations of human action and suffering, of human thought, and feeling, and desire ; and they are representations whose purposes are so nearly akin, that the processes used are, amidst many secondary diversities, subject primarily to the same theoretical laws.
Modern habits cause the Narrative poem and the Dramatic to wear a greater appearance of dissimilarity than they wore in older times. We consider the one as designed to be read, the other as designed to be acted. Before the invention of printing, and long afterwards, recitation was the mode of communication used for both. The romance, in which the poet told his tale in his own person, was chanted by the minstrel ; just as the morality or miracle-play, in which every word was put into the mouths of the characters, was declaimed by the monks or their assistants. Our recollection of this fact suggests several considerations. It is exceedingly probable that the expectation, which our middle-age poets must have had, of this recitative use of their works, may have been one chief cause of the vigorous animation which atones for so many of their irregularities. It is at all events certain, that a similar feeling acted powerfully on those dramatic poems, whose progress we are now about to study. All of them wrote for the stage: none of them, not even Shakspeare himself, wrote for the closet. Their having this design tended, beyond doubt, to lower the tone both of their taste and of their morality; but as certainly it was the mainspring of their passionate elasticity, the principal source of the life-like energy which they poured into their dramatic images of human life.
Another doctrine also should be remembered, both for its own importance and for its bearing on the history of our dramatic literature. Works which we are accustomed to call Poems are almost always written in verse. But the distinction between Verse and Prose, a distinction of form only, is no more than secondary; the primary character of a literary work depends on the purpose for which it is designed, the kind of mental state which it is intended to excite in the hearers or readers. Consequently a work which, having a distinctively poetical purpose, is justly describable as a poem, would not cease to deserve the name, though it were to be couched in prose. It would, however, by being so expressed, lose much of its poetical power. The truth of this last assertion has been clearly perceived in all kinds of poetry except the dramatic. No one would dream of composing an ode in prose; and the adoption of that form for a narrative poem is an experiment which, though it has been tried, as in the Telemachus of Fenelon, has never been successful. But metrical language has not always prevailed in the drama. In our own country the example of Shakspeare has fortunately preserved Tragedy from the intrusion of prose : no man of genius has ever written an English tragic drama in any other form but that of verse ; and even the frequent intermixture of prose, in which our great dramatist indulges, has not found many imitators. But, with us as elsewhere, prose has gradually become almost universal as the form of language in Comedy. Now, this class of dramas, by reason of its comparative lowness of purpose, has in its own nature a much stronger tendency than the other, to sink below the poetical sphere: and it is, in a degree yet greater, liable to that risk of moral corruption, by which the drama of Modern Europe has always been beset. Both of these dangers are aggravated by the use of prose. Comedy, on decisively adopting this form, not only loses more rapidly its poetical and imaginative character, but becomes more readily a minister and teacher of evil. The fact is pertinently illustrated by the state of the comic stage in the time of Charles the Second : and the better period with which we are at present engaged does not want proofs of it
, proofs, especially strong in their bearing on the moral part of the question. Even for Comedy, verse continued to be the prevalent form of expression till the fall of the Old Drama: prose was introduced but occasionally, though oftener than in Tragedy. The poetical declension, however, caused by the writing of whole dramas in prose, is exemplified in comedies of Ben Jonson: and, of the coarse indecencies that deform so many of our old plays, a large majority (and those the worst) are written in prose, as if the poets had been ashamed to invest them with the garb of verse.
2. Before beginning to consider the works of Shakspeare and his fellow-dramatists, we must still pause for a moment. They will be better understood if we know a little as to certain peculiarities, which distinguish the Old English Drama from that of some other nations.
When our National Drama is described as Romantic, in contradistinction to the Classical Drama, whose masterpieces were framed in ancient Greece, principles are implied which relate to the poetical spirit and tone of the works, and which are applicable to all kinds of poetry. The inquiry into these lies beyond our competency.
When the English Drama is called Irregular, and contrasted with the Regular Drama of Greece, and of modern France, the comparison is founded on differences of form. In regard to these it is well we should learn something. The epithet given to our dramatic works intimates that they do not obey certain rules, which, it is alleged, are observed by those of the other class We cannot here attempt to take account of the Greek Drama; nor we called on to do so. We know enough