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HARVARD COLLEGE LIBRARY
1885, Jan. 21,
The Heirs of O. O Felton!
REMARKS ON BEAUMONT AND FLETCHER
INCIDENTAL TO THIS SELECTION.
It is not customary, I believe, to write prefaces to books of selection. “ Beauties” are understood to speak for themselves ; and the more they deserve the name, the less politic it may be considered to dilate on the merits of the writings from which they have been culled. A wit who was shown the collection of detached passages called the Beauties of Shakspeare, is reported to have said: “Where are the other ning volumes ?"
There are such especial reasons, however, why a selection from the works of Beaumont and Fletcher is a thing not only warrantable but desirable (to say nothing of the difference of this volume from collections of inerely isolated thoughts and fancies), that it is proper I should enter into some explanations of them; and for this purpose I must begin with a glance at the lives of the two poets.
FRANCIS BEAUMONT, youngest son of a judge of the Common Pleas, is supposed to have been borri' about the year 1584, at the abbey of Grace-Dieu, in Leicestershire, which, at the dissolution of the monasteries, had become possessed by the judge's father, who was recorder of the county, and subsequently a judge himself. The poet was intended for the family profession, and, after studying awhile at Oxford, was entered of the Middle Temple; but on becoming acquainted with the stage, he probably felt that bis. vocation had been otherwise destined. The date of his first acquaintance with Fletcher is unknown; but it must of necessity have been when he was young; and the intimacy became so close, that the two friends are said not only to have lived in the same house (which was on the Surrey side of the Thames, near the Globe Theatre), but to have possessed everything in common.
Beaumont however, if not Fletcher, married; and he had not passed what is called the prime of life, when he died ; for, according to Ben Jonson, he had not completed his
But there is reason to believe otherwise. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.
John FLETCHER, son of a Bishop of London who had acquired an unenviable celebrity as one of the troublers of the last moments of Mary Queen of Scots, was born at Rye, in Sussex, in the
to have been educated at Cambridge, and to have led a life wholly theatrical. There is nothing to prove that he ever married; though, on the other hand, there is nothing to disprove that he was the “ John Fletcher" whose marriage with “ Jone Herring" in the year
1612 is on record in the Southwark books. Be this it may,
he continued to live and write in the parish of St. Saviour long after the death of the friend who had kept house with him; and he died there, and was buried in the church, in the year 1625. He himself had not lived to be old; for he was not forty-six. His death was occasioned by an accident. Requiring a new suit of clothes for a visit to which he had been invited in the country, he stopped in town to have it made, and the consequence was
seizure by the plague, which sent him on the journey from which “110 traveller returns."
Nothing is known of the personal habits of these illustrions men except that they were intimate with other celebrated poets, Ben Jonson in particular; that Beaumont (and doubtless Fletcher) frequented the famous Mermaid Tavern, of which he has recorded the merits ; that Fletcher, though dissatisfied with his plays when he saw them acted, hated to bespeak favour for them in prologues; and that neither Beaumont nor Fletcher entertained much respect for their critics in general. The very talk of the two friends is said to have been “a comedy.” A certain aristocratical tone, as well as the ultra-loyal breeding which has been noticed in them, is, I think, discernible in their writings, though qualified occasionally as genius is sure to qualify it. Ben Jonson told Drummond that Beaumont thought too much of himself, —
probably because Beaumont had joined the rest of the world in saying the same thing of Ben; but this did not hinder them, or had not hindered them, from giving one another the warmest praises. Of Shakspeare, who said nothing of any. body, Beaumont and Fletcher said as little. Their only allusions to his writings look very like banters. Perhaps the artificial superiority of their birth and breeding, and the tone of fashionable society in which they excelled, conspired with a natural jealousy to make them fancy him a less man than he was; as, on the other hand, Shakspeare's extraordinary silence with regard to his contemporaries may have originated in habits of self-suppression, attributable to anything but pride of position.
Whatever Beaumont and Fletcher may have thought in this particular instance, little did the two young poets suspect, that the advantages of rank and training on which they probably valued themselves, as giving their genius its solidest opportunities and most crowning grace, were the very things destined to do it the greatest mischief, and to threaten their nanies with extinction. Though poets truly so called, and therefore naturally possessed of earnestness of mind and a tendency to believe in whatsoever was best and wisest, they had not sufficient complexional strength to hinder a couple of lively and flattered young men from falling in with the tone of the day and the licenses in fashion; and unfortunately for their repute in a day to come, they entered on their career at a tin when the example in both these respects happened to be set by a court which was the vulgarest in its language, and the most profligate in its morals, of any that ever disgraced the country : for the court of Charles the Second, however openly dissolute, and compared with our present refinement) coarse in its language, was elegance itself in comparison with that of James the First ;- to say nothing of depths of crime and enormity, with which our poets had assuredly nothing in common. It is interesting to see how the diviner portion of spirit inherent in all true genius saved these extraordinary men from being corrupted to the core, and losing those noblest powers of utterance which nothing but sincerity and right feeling can bestow; how, in the midst of the grossest effeminacy, they delighted
in painting the manliest characters; how they loved simplicity and tenderness, and never wrote so well as when speaking their language ; and how, when on the very knees of the slavishest of the doctrines in which they had been bred, their hearts could rise against the idols of their worship, and set above all other pretensions the rights of justice and humanity. To read one of the pages of the beautiful portions of their works, you would think it impossible that such writers should frame their lips to utter what disgraces the page ensuing: yet there it is, like a torrent of feculence beside a chosen garden ; nay, say rather like a dream, or a sort of madness,—the very spite and riot of the tongue of a disordered incontinence for the previous self-restraint. And this was the privilege of their position ! the gain they had got by their participation of polite life in the days of James the First, and their right to be considered its perfect exponents ! Had Beaumont been fortunate enough to have been the son of a briefless barrister, or Fletcher's father, happily for himself, have risen no higher in the Church than his ministry in the village of Rye,--the two dramatists, unhurt by those blighting favours of the day, and admonished to behave themselves as decorously as their brethren, might now have been in possession of a thoroughly delightful fame, and such a volume as the one before us have been a thing out of the question ; but the son of the judge, and the son of the bishop, unluckily possessed rank as well as gaiety enough to constitute themselves the representatives of what in the next age was styled the “gentleman of wit and pleasure about town;" and the consequence was, that while on the serious side of their natures they were thoughtful and beautiful poets, and probably despised nine-tenths of the persons whom they amused, -on the other side, and in the intoxication of success, they threw themselves with their whole stock of wit and spirits into the requirements of the ribaldry in fashion, and, by a combination peculiar to the reigns of the Stuarts, became equally the delight of the highest" and the "lowest circles.” Not that there was wanting in those times a circle of a less nominal altitude, in which their condemnation was already commencing; for though the gloomier class of Puritang were as vulgar in their way, as the Im-puritans were in theirs,