« ZurückWeiter »
of rhythm and expression, and to leave the dialect more pliable and fertile for his successors.
During the half-century in which the Drama flourished, English became a language capable of conveying exquisite, profound, and varied thought. The elements of which it is composed, were fused into one vital whole. And though we dare not attribute this advance to the Drama alone, yet if we compare the poetry of that age with contemporary prose, it will be clear that, while both started nearly on a par, the style of the prosaists declined in perspicuity and rhythm, while that of the playwrights became versatile, melodious, and dignified. Even the prose writing of the stage was among the best then going. Lyly, first of English authors, produced prose of scrupulous refinements ; Nash used a prose of incomparable epigrammatic pungency; while some of Shakspere's prose is modern in its clearness. A similar comparison between the verse of the Drama and that of translations from the Latin or of satire and elegy-Phaer's Virgil, Marston's 'Scourge of Villany,' or Donne's epistles for example—will lead to not dissimilar results. The dramatic poetry of the period is superior to all but its lyrics.
It is not difficult to understand why this should be. The capabilities of the English language were exercised in every department by dramatic composition. For the purposes of conversation, it had to assume epigrammatic terseness. In description of scenery,
1 These remarks must of course be taken in a general sense. It would be easy to adduce Sidney's Defence of Poetry as an example of pure prose, Fairfax's Tasso as a specimen of pure translation, and the Faery Queen as a masterpiece of lucid narrative in verse.
DEVELOPMENT OF ENGLISH,
and in the eloquent outpouring of passion, it suggested pictures to the mind and clothed gradations of emotion with appropriate words. At one time the sustained periods of oratory were needed ; at another, the swiftest and most airy play of fancy had to be conveyed in passages of lyric lightness. Different characters demanded different tones of diction, yet every utterance conformed to uniformity of style and rhythm. Throughout all changes, the writer was obliged to remain clear and intelligible to his audience.
In handling the language of the theatre, each author developed some specific quality. The fluent grace of Heywood, the sweet sentiment of Dekker, Marston's pregnant sentences, the dream-like charm of Fletcher's melody, Marlowe's mighty line, Webster's sombreness of pathos and heart-quaking bursts of rage, Jonson's gravity, Massinger's smooth-sliding eloquence, Ford's adamantine declamation, and the style of Shakspere, which embraces all—as some great organ holds all instruments within its many stops—these remain as monuments of composition for succeeding ages. Who shall estimate what benefits those men conferred upon the English speech ? Our ancestors accustomed their ears to that variety of music, impregnated their intellects with all those divers modes of thought. Besides, the vocabulary was nearly doubled. Shakspere is said to have some 15,000, while the Old Testament contains under 6,000 words. The dramatists collected floating idioms, together with the technical phraseology of trades and professions, the learned nomenclature of the schools, the racy proverbs of the country, the ceremonious expressions of the Court and Council-chamber,
and gave them all a place in literature. Instead of being satisfied with the meagre and artificial diction of the Popian age, we may now return to those “pure wells of English undefiled,' and from their inexhaustible springs refresh our language when it seems to fail.
Nor must it finally be forgotten that the Drama, in its effort after self-emancipation, created the great pride of English poetry-blank verse. Further occasion will be granted me for dwelling upon this point in detail. It is enough here to remark that when Milton used blank verse for the Epic, he received it from the Drama, and that the blank verse of the present century is consciously affiliated to that of the Eliza
To conclude a panegyric, rather than criticism, of the English Drama, it would be well to give some history of opinion regarding so great a treasure of our literature during the past three centuries.
Not very long ago Shakspere himself was halfforgotten. By degrees admirers disinterred his plays, and wrote of him as though he had been born like Pallas from the brain of Jupiter. Garrick reformed, and acted some of his chief parts. Johnson paid surly homage to his genius; but of Shakspere's contemporaries this critic said that “they were sought after because they were scarce, and would not have been scarce had they been much esteemed.' Malone and Steevens, about the same time, made it known that other playwrights of great merit flourished with Shakspere in the days of his pre-eminence. The book
HISTORY OF CRITICISM.
seller, Dodsley, published twelve volumes of old plays. Gifford spent pains upon the text of some of them, and Scott used their defunct reputation for a mask to headings of his chapters. They became the shibboleth of a coterie. Coleridge and Hazlitt lectured on them. Charles Lamb made selections, which he enriched with notes of purest gold of criticism. The 'Retrospective Review' printed meritorious notices of the more obscure authors. After those early days, Alexander Dyce, Hartley Coleridge, J. O. Halliwell, Thomas Wright, and many others, began to edit the scattered works of eminent dramatists with antiquarian zeal and critical ability; while J. P. Collier illustrated by his industry and learning the theatrical annals of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Continuing this pious tradition, a host of eloquent and genial writers have risen to vindicate the honours of that Drama in our times. I have attempted in the preface to this volume to recognise the luminous and solid labours of contemporary
scholars in this field. It cannot now be said that the English Drama has not received its due meed of attention from literary men. But it may still be said that it is not sufficiently known to the reading public.
For the close of this exordium and prelude to more detailed studies, I will borrow words from a prose writer in whom the spirit of old English rhetoric lived again with singular and torrid splendour. De Quincey writes about our Drama : “No literature, not excepting even that of Athens, has ever presented such a multiform theatre, such a carnival display, mask and antimask, of impassioned life-breathing, moving, acting, suffering, laughing :
Quicquid agunt homines : votum, timor, ira, voluptas,
All this, but far more truly and more adequately than was or could be effected in that field of composition which the gloomy satirist contemplated, whatsoever in fact our medieval ancestors exhibited in the “Dance of Death,” drunk with tears and laughter, may here be reviewed, scenically draped, and gorgeously coloured. What other national Drama can pretend to any competition with this ?'