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Chester Mysteries, to the time of George Peele and Robert Greene, illustrated with such quotations as were characteristic of the writers or of the times, or distinguished for their poetical excellence. We propose, in the present article, to continue the inquiry, taking for our subject the age of the last-named authors—an age as remarkable for the peculiarities of its dramatic productions, as for the manners and habits of the writers of them. Greene, Peele, Nash, and Marlowe, formed a choice band of scholars and poets; and if some of the stories told of Greene, or the small pamphlet entitled The merrie, conceited jests of George Peele, may be relied on, the two former, at least, were as nimble-witted in bilking mine host and shirking a tavern bill, as they were quick in their compositions and joyous in their lives. They were careless of every thing, but "to have a spell in their purses to conjure up a good cup of wine with, at all times." Their money, however, was of the true quicksilver kind, sliding through their fingers almost at the very instant it blessed their palms. Many a tavern in London and its neighbourhood could testify its fugitive qualities and their jovial meetings—their merry jests and mad pranks. They made wine the whetstone of their minds, and as it went round wit flashed out in sparkling corruscations, as if
"All their lives should gilded be
High fellows were they, and as poor as they were proud, bold, pleasant, and resolute. Poverty, indeed, griped them sometimes with a wintry shake of the hand, although it could not paralyse their minds. Nash, in his Pierce Penilesse, his supplication to the Divell, gives a very feeling account of his own struggles with this rugged acquaintance.
"Having," he says, " spent many years in studying how to live and liv'de a long time without money; having tired my youth with follie, and surfetted my mind with vanitie, I began, at length, to looke backe to repentance, and addreste my endeavors to prosperitie: but all iu vaine, I sate up late and rose early, contended with colde and conversed with searcitie: for all my labours turned to losse, my vulgar muse was despised and neglected, my paines not regarded or slightly rewarded, and I myselfe (in prime of my best wit) laid open to povertie."
The generic character of the dramatic poetry of Greene, Peele, and Marlowe is the same, and is referable to the same causes. What these causes were, is a matter of nice and curious speculation. The proprieties and beauties of the drama were unknown to their predecessors, who were content to narrate dry facts without embellishment and without feeling. With the exception of Gorboduc, which was not likely to excite to imitation men who considered poetry " the honey of all flowers, the quintessence of all sciences, the marrowe of all wittes, and the very phrase of angels," there was nothing in the English language like a regular tragedy. Having no models, therefore, before them, except the compositions of classical antiquity, which were not applicable to the species of writing most interesting to the general taste of the age, they were restrained by no apprehension of offending the feelings of their auditors—on the contrary, it was necessary that the dramatist " should compose his parts after the vulgar form—be new with men's new affections: he must not counter-course out from the scent of those humours the times approved."
Disgusted with the feeble and imperfect attempts of the tragic muse, they thought they could not make a flight too far beyond them. The imagination had been locked up, until, by a lucky experiment, the secret spring was discovered, and, at the very first touch, it burst out of its prison and became intoxicated with its new acquired liberty. The irradiation which streamed forth, like the flash of the lightning, converted the brain from sober reality to high-toned insanity. As the Indian mistook a watch for a god, did they mistake madness for inspiration, and the precincts of Bedlam* for the court of Apollo and the muses. They seized the lyre of Melpomene, and, being ravished with the delightful tone which emanated from it, they swept the strings with wild extatic haste, and produced a strange, original, and unnatural air. Intimately connected with the stage, and some of them actors, they were very likely to be infected with the turgid demeanour and mock dignity of Blackfriars or the Globe; and although, in a more advanced state of the dramatic art, the affections and sufferings of natural humanity, instead of the fantastic tricks of stilted braggadocios, would be necessary to excite any deep sympathy, yet the very ricketyness and rampant gestures of infant tragedy were calculated to rouse the astonishment and admiration of unripe judgments. The natural course of the authors was to cross over rather than fall short of the boundaries of propriety and truth.
Their individual characters, too, had no small influence on their writings. Sack and claret were the inspirers of their imaginations, and the tavern the hot bed of their poetry—and, in such a state of excitement, they sat down for the purpose of supplying the next night's revel. It is said of Greene, by one of his confraternity, "in a night and a day would he have yarkt up a pamphlet as well as in seven years, and glad was the printer
* Greene was buried in the church-yard near this place.
that he might be so blest as to pay his dear for the very dregs of his wit." They wrote not for fame but bread, and of the former they were as careless, as of their wit and purses they were prodigal.
That the strange insanity of their poetry did not originate from the poverty, but from the superabundance of their imagination, will be manifest to all who read their plays. Brilliant images and poetic expressions are profusely scattered throughout them, but they are frequently out of place—they are good in themselves, but become extravagant and absurd by their application or juxta-position. Their minds appear like a spring, the serenity of whose surface has been broken, and which reflects the surrounding country in a loose, disjointed, and confused landscape, where trees, hills, and sky, are commixed in gay disorder. There is in these authors, and more particularly in Peele, an accumulation of ornament, and a gorgeousness of diction approaching to oriental exuberance. But these seem partly the result of design, and partly of the haste with which some of their dramas were imdoubtedly written, rather than of a vitiated taste. For that they could write better is obvious, from insulated passages in their plays, and from the lyrical poems of both Greene and Marlowe, some of which are composed with uncommon harmony of numbers and felicity of expression. Of these three authors, Greene is, we think, inferior, in point of dramatic skill and power, to Peele; and Marlowe, whose works will form the subject of a future article, infinitely superior to both.
There is, in Peele's dramas, a voluptuousness of imagery, a pomp and stateliness of style, with a richness and amenity of versification, which distinguishes them from those of Greene and every other author, as will be observed from his David and Bethsabe, from which we made copious extracts in the first article on this subject, and, in a less degree, perhaps, in the Araynment of Paris, which we are about to notice.*
* There seems to be a very considerable difference of opinion as to Peele's merits, but it is somewhat extraordinary, that Dr. Drake should place him a degree below mediocrity. On the other hand, Mr. Campbell describes his David and Bethsabe as the earliest fountain of pathos and harmony that can be traced in our dramatic poetry, and he quotes the same passage from it, in terms of praise, as Mr. Charles Lamb has given in his dramatic specimens, and to which he has subjoined, in a note, " there is more of the same stuff, but I suppose the reader has a surfeit." Our readers will be able, from the extracts we have given from this drama and from those which occur in the present article, to form their own judgment of the merits of Peele.
The chief defect of Greene is a want of circumstance—he is ignorant of the winding passages which lead to the portals of passion—of those repeated strokes which mark the progression of emotion, and in the end produce a pathetic effect. We do not find in him any of those casual expressions which escape from the bitterness of the soul—any of those slight indications of the storm within, more effective than a ,cento of extravagant hyperboles. There is spirit enough to produce effervescence, but it rises into bombast or sinks into flatness. These remarks are, of course, made with reference to his dramatic works, not to the capabilities of his mind, which was quick and inventive. In addition to his plays, he was the author of a great variety of works—some of a satirical description which manifest great power of wit and humour; and his paltry novel, as it has been termed, of Dorastus and Faunia, on which, as is well known, Shakspeare founded his Winter's Tale, is an interesting and well related story. Indeed, if his novels had not possessed merit of some kind, they would hardly have obtained the popularity they undoubtedly enjoyed. For that they were bought up with eagerness and read with admiration, appears not only from the authority of Nash before quoted, but even from the testimony of his coward enemy Gabriel Harvey, in the foul and dis
fustmg four letters, which he published against Greene, after is death. After saying that not only the fine comedies of the daintiest attic wit were become stale, he proceeds; "even Guicciardini's silver historie, and Ariosto's golden cantoes, grow out of request, and the Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia is not greene enough for queasie stomackes, but they must have Greene's Arcadia, and I believed most eagerly longed for Greene's Faerie Queene." And we learn from Sir Thomas Overbury, that he was popular amongst one class of females; for that author, in his Character of a Chambermaid, tells us she reads Greene's works over and over.
The first production which we shall now introduce to our readers, is Peele's Araynment of Paris, a pastoral, on the mythological story of the golden apple to be awarded, by Paris, to the most beautiful of the three goddesses, Juno, Venus, and Minerva. This, as well as the other dramas of Peele (with the exception of David and Bethsabe, which was reprinted in Hawkins's collection) is of excessive rarity. From this pastoral we will make a few extracts, selecting, as we generally do, the most favourable specimens; which, of course, chiefly illustrate the eulogistic portion of our criticisms. The Araynment of Paris is written in a variety of measures, partly in rhyme, and partly in verse, and is not divided into acts.
In the preparation of the festival in honour of Diana, Flora is introduced as taking a conspicuous part in the decoration of the sylvan scene; of which, she gives a description in a sweet vein of poetry.
"Flor. Not Iris in her pride and braverie,
Sil. Thou gentle nymphe, what thankes shall we repaie
Flor. Silvanus, when it is thy hap to see
Pom. A rare device, and Flora, well perdie,
Flor. Pallas in flow'rs, of hue and collours red,
Pom. Good Flora, by my flocke 'twere verie goode,
Flor. Faire Venus of sweete violetts in blue,