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dramatic effect. Peele and Greene make their characters act on and draw out one another in the several scenes, but they have no idea of making a plot, or of working out their plays, scene by scene, to a natural conclusion ; they are in one word, without art, and their characters, even when they talk in good poetry, are neither natural nor simple.
Christopher Marlowe (d. 1593), on the other hand, rose by degrees and easily into mastery of his art. Though less than Shakspeare, he was worthy to precede him. As he may be said to have invented and made the verse of the drama, so he created the English tragic drama. The plays are wrought with art to their end, his characters are sharply and strongly outlined."
William Shakspeare (1564-1616), the greatest dramatist of the world, took up the work of Marlowe. On the subject of Shakspeare so many authors have written that we may well despair of saying anything new. Dryden has portrayed his genius in the following nervous and masterly lines which have been served up to us in a diluted state by many a modern critic :-"To begin, then, with Shakspeare. He was the man who, of all modern and perhaps ancient poets, had the largest and most comprehensive soul. All the images of nature were still present to him, and he drew them not laboriously but luckily : when he describes anything, you more than see it-you feel it too. Those who accuse him to have wanted learning, give him the greater commendation ; he was naturally learned : he needed not the spectacles of books to read nature ; he looked inward and found her there. I cannot say he is everywhere alike ; were he so, I shall do him injury to compare him with the greatest of mankind. He is many times flat and insipid ; his comic wit degenerates into clenches, his serious swelling into bombast. But he is always great when some great occasion is presented to him ; no man can say he ever had a fit subject for his wit and then did not raise himself as high above the rest of the poets, “ Quantum lenta solent inter viburna cupressi ( As the cypresses are wont to do among the lesser shrubs). The consideration of this made Mr. Hales of Eaton, say, that there
was no subject of which any poet ever wrote, but he would produce it much better done in Shakspeare.”
Another of the poets and dramatists of this age of giants was “rare Ben Jonson,” (1574-1637) whose works altogether consist of about fifty-four dramatic pieces. By far the greater part of them, however, are masques and interludes, for which his genius seemed better fitted, being too destitute of passion and sentiment for the regular drama. tragedies,” says a critic, seem to bear about the same resemblance to Shakspeare's, that sculpture does to actual life.” There are, however, interspersed throughout his works many lyrical pieces that have peculiar neatness and beauty of diction, and will bear comparison with any in our language.
The names of Beaumont (1586-1615) and Fletcher (15761625), united in their lives by friendship and confederate genius, have always been considered together ; for they wrote together, their works were published together, nor is it possible now to assign to each his specific share of their joint labours. The plays of Beaumont and Fletcher consist of tragedies, comedies and mixed pieces. They too often contain what is repulsive to a virtuous mind, but a proper selection from the works of these dramatists would make a volume of refined sentiment, and of lofty and sweet poetry, combined with good sense, humour and pathos.
In lyrics they have not been surpassed, not even by Shakspeare or Milton.
Contemporary with Beaumont and Fletcher was Giles Fletcher (1588-1623) a very different sort of character, of whom Campbell says that “inferior as he is to Spencer and Milton he might be figured, in his happiest moments, as a link of connection in our poetry between these congenial spirits, for he reminds us of both, and evidently gave hints to the latter, in a poem on the same subject with Paradise Regained.”
Michael Drayton (1563-1631), a very voluminous and popular poet of this age, has sunk into an oblivion which he does not deserve. His poems are mostly of an historical and topographical character, but it is by his pastoral and miscellaneous pieces that Drayton will continue to be known and valued. Some of these possess beauties of the highest order. Such, for instance, is the fairy poem called Nymphidia, than which a more exquisite creation of the fancy can hardly be found, and it has been well remarked that "had he written nothing else he would deserve immortality."
* All poetry declined after the reign of James I. It grew fantastic in style and overwrought in thought. It was diffuse or violent in expression. There was a burst however of lyric poetry later on during the reign of Charles I. and during the civil war, when we have such writers as William Carew, Sir John Suckling, Colonel Lovelace, and Robert Herrick.
One of the most exquisite of the early lyric poets was the last named (1591-1662). Abating some of his impurities, we can fully join with an able critic in pronouncing him one of the best of lyric authors. “He is the most joyous and gladsome of bards ; singing like the grasshoppers as if he would never grow old. He is as fresh as the spring, as blythe as the summer, and as ripe as the autumn. His poems resemble a luxuriant meadow, full of king-cups and wild flowers, or a July firmament, sparkling with a myriad of stars. His fancy fed upon all the fair and sweet things of nature; it is redolent of roses and jessamine ; it is as light and airy as the thistle
e down, or the bubbles which laughing boys blow into the air, where they float in a waving line of beauty.”
Amongst the religious poets of this period, we have George Herbert. As a poet, Herbert (1593-1633) ranks among the metaphysical class belonging to the same school with John Donne. His poems are generally of a serious character, relating either to the grave realities of this life, or to the momentous concerns of another. Most of them are so quaint, so filled with far-fetched images and illustrations, and are so recondite in their meaning, that they cannot be read with much pleasure.
Another quaint poet of this time is Francis Quarles (15921644). His poems are occasionally de'aced by vulgarisms, and deformed by odd conceits, but his beauties abundantly
atone for his defects, the latter being comparatively few; while his works generally are characterised by great learning, lively fancy, and profound piety.
On the Puritan side poetry found a fantastic representative in George Wither (1588-1657), whose Hallelujah, a series of religious poems, was issued just before the civil war commenced.
We enter a new created world when we come to speak of Milton (1608-1674). “Between the dying poetry of the past,” says a well-known critic, " and the uprising of a new kind of poetry in Dryden, stands alone the majestic work of a great genius who touches the Elizabethan time with one hand and our own time with the other. He stands far above all the poets of his own age, both in learning, invention, and sublimity.” “He had not only,” says Sir Egerton Brydges, every requisite of the muse, but every one of the highest order, and in the highest degree. His invention of poetical fable and poetical imagery, was exhaustless and always grand, and always consistent with the faith of a cultivated and sensitive mind. Sublimity was his primary and unfailing power. His characters were new, surprising, gigantic or beautiful, and full of instruction, such as high wisdom sanctioned. His sentiments were lofty, comprehensive, eloquent, consistent, holy, original; and an amalgamation of spirit, religion, intellect, and marvellous learning. His language was his own : sometimes a little rough and vernacular, but as magnificent as his mind ; of pregnant thought ; naked in its strength ; rich and picturesque, where imagery was required ; often exquisitely harmonious, when the occasion permitted, but sometimes strong, mighty, and speaking with the voice of thunder.”
Having come to Milton we cannot do better than quote the following instructive remarks by Hazlitt ! “ The four greatest names in English poetry,” he says, are almost the first four we come to : Chaucer, Spencer, Shakspeare, and Milton. There are no others that can really be put in competition with these. . . . In comparing these four great writers together, it might be said that Chaucer excels as the
poet of manners, or of real life ; Spencer as the poet of romance ; Shakspeare as the poet of nature in the largest sense of the term), and Milton as the poet of morality. Chaucer most frequently describes things as they are ; Spencer as we wish them to be ; Shakspeare as they would be, and Milton as they ought to be. As poets, and as great poets, imagination, that is, the power of figuring things according to nature, was common to them all ; but the prin. cipal or moving power, to which this faculty was most subservient in Chaucer was habit or inveterate prejudice ; in Spencer, novelty and the love of the marvellous ; in Shakspeare, it was the force of passion, combined with every variety of possible circumstances ; and in Milton, combined only with the highest. The characteristic of Chaucer is intensity; of Spencer, remoteness ; of Milton, elevation ; of Shakspeare, everything."
A few poets might be mentioned, writing partly before and partly after the Restoration, as representing the transition from the fantastic to the more correct style. One of these was Abraham Cowley (1618-1667), who enjoys the distinction of being the first in order of time of the list of English poets whose works were edited, and whose lives were written, by Dr. Johnson. Though Cowley has nothing of the reputatio once had he has sufficient merit to give him a considerable rank among British poets. Dr. Johnson says, “ It may be affirmed that he brought to his poetic labours a mind replete with learning, and that his pages are embellished with all the ornaments which books could supply; that he was the first who imparted to English numbers the enthusiasm of the greater ode and the gaiety of the less; and that he was equally qualified for sprightly sallies and for lofty flights."
Mention must also be made of Edmund Waller (1605-1687), who first made writing in rhyme easy as an art. As a poet, Waller is certainly smooth, as Pope styles him, and comparatively destitute of that affectation which characterises most of his contemporaries. If he rarely sinks, he never rises very high, and we find much good sense and selection,