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With sweete remembrance of his pleasures past,
Recounting which, how would he sob and shreek?
But and the cruell fates so fixed be,
Had brought on him, all were it woe and griefe,
He might a while yet linger forth his life,
In depth of darknesse waste and weare to nought,
But who had seene him, sobbing how he stood
This wretched Age should life desire so faine,
And knowes ful wel life doth but length his paine.
Fumbling and driueling as he drawes his breath,
John Lyly (born in the Weold of Kent about the year 1553), was the author of Midas and Endymion, of Alexander and Campaspe, and of the comedy of Mother Bombie. Of the last it may be said, that it is very much what its name would import, old, quaint, and vulgar.-I may here observe, once for all, that I would not be understood to say, that the age of Elizabeth was all of gold without any alloy. There was both gold and lead in it, and often in one and the same writer. In our impatience to form an opinion, we conclude, when we first meet with a good thing, that it is owing to the age; or, if we meet with a bad one, it is characteristic of the age, when, in fact, it is neither; for there are good and bad in almost all ages, and one age excels in one thing, another in another :-only one age may excel more and in higher things than another, but none can excel equally and completely in all. The writers of Elizabeth, as poets, soared to the height they did, by indulging their own unrestrained enthusiasm: as comic writers, they chiefly copied the manners of the age, which did not give them the same advantages over their successors. Lyly's comedy, for instance, is “ poor, unfledged, has never winged from view o’th' nest," and tries in vain to rise above the ground with crude conceits and clumsy levity. Lydia, the heroine of the piece, is silly enough, if the rest were but as witty. But the author has shewn no partiality in the distribution of his gifts. To say truth, it was a very common fault of the old comedy, that its humours were too low, and the weaknesses exposed too great to be credible, or an object of ridicule, even if they were. The affectation of their courtiers is passable, and diverting as a contrast to present manners; but the eccentricities of their clowns are very tolerable, and not to be endured.” Any kind of activity of mind might seem to the writers better than none : any nonsense served to amuse their hearers ; any cant phrase, any coarse allusion, any pompous absurdity, was taken for wit and drollery. Nothing could be too mean, too foolish, too improbable, or too offensive, to be a proper subject for laughter. Any one (looking hastily at this side of the question only) might be tempted to suppose the youngest children of Thespis a very callow brood, chirping their slender notes, or silly swains “ grating their lean and flashy jests on scrannel pipes of wretched straw.” The genius of comedy looked too often like a lean and hectic pantaloon; love was a slip-shod shepherdess ; wit a parti-coloured fool like Harlequin, and the plot came hobbling, like a clown, after all. A string of impertinent and farcical jests (or rather blunders), was with great formality ushered into
the world as
a right pleasant, and conceited comedy." Comedy could not descend lower than it sometimes did, without glancing at physical imperfections and deformity. The two young persons in the play before us, on whom the event of the plot chiefly hinges, do in fact turn out to be no better than changelings and natural idiots. This is carrying innocence and simplicity too. far. So again, the character of Sir Tophas in Endymion, an affected, blustering, talkative, cowardly pretender, treads too near upon blank stupidity and downright want of common sense, to be admissible as a butt for satire. Shakespear has contrived to clothe the lamentable nakedness of the same sort of character with a motley garb from the wardrobe of his imagination, and has redeemed it from insipidity by a certain plausibility of speech, and playful extravagance of humour. But the undertaking was nearly desperate. Ben Jonson tried to overcome the difficulty by the force of learning and study; and thought to gain his end by persisting in error; but he only made matters worse ; for his clowns and coxcombs (if we except Bobadil), are the most incorrigible and insufferable of all others.
- The story of Mother Bombie is little else than a tissue of absurd mistakes, arising from the confusion of the different characters one with another, like another Comedy of Errors, and ends
in their being (most of them), married in a game at cross-purposes to the persons they particularly dislike.
To leave this, and proceed to something pleasanter, Midas and Endymion, which are worthy of their names and of the subject. The story in both is classical, and the execution is for the most part elegant and simple. There is often something that reminds one of the graceful communicativeness of Lucian or of Apuleius, from whom one of the stories is borrowed. Lyly made a more attractive picture of Grecian manners at second-hand, than of English characters from his own observation. The poet (which is the great merit of a poet in such a subject) has transported himself to the scene of action, to ancient Greece or Asia Minor; the manners, the images, the traditions are preserved with truth and delicacy, and the dialogue (to my fancy) • glides and sparkles like a clear stream from the Muses' spring. I know few things more perfect in characteristic painting, than the exclamation of the Phrygian shepherds, who, afraid of betraying the secret of Midas's ears, fancy that “ the very reeds bow down, as though they listened to their talk;" nor more affecting in sentiment, than the apostrophe addressed by his friend Eumenides to Endymion, on waking from