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INVOCATION TO SLEEP.
Sung to Music : the EMPEROR VALENTINIAN sitting by, sick, in a
Care-charming Sleep, thou easer of all woes,-
6“ Easy, sweet.”—In rhymes like night and sweet, the fine ears of our ancestors discerned a harmony to which we have been unaccustomed. They perceived the double e, which is in the vowel i,-night nah-eet. There is an instance in a passage in the Midsummer Night's Dream, extracted at page 126, where the word bees, as well as mulberries, and dewberries, is made to rhyme with eyes, arise, &c. Indeed, in such words as mulberries the practice is still retained, and e and i considered corresponding sounds in the fainter terminations of polysyllables :free, company-fly, company.
Was ever the last line of this invocation surpassed ? But it is all in the finest tone of mingled softness and earnestness. The verses are probably Fletcher's. He has repeated a pas. sage of it in his poem entitled An Honest Man's Fortune.
Oh, man! thou image of thy Maker's good,
O si sic omnia !
MIDDLETON, DECKER, AND WEBSTER.
When about to speak of these and other extraordinary men of the days of Shakspeare, the Marstons, Rowleys, Massingers, Draytons, &c., including those noticed already, I wasted a good deal of time in trying to find out how it was that, possessing, as most of them did, such a pure vein of poetry, and sometimes saying as fine things as himself, they wrote so much that is not worth reading, sometimes not fit to be read. I might have considered that, either from self-love, or necessity, or both, too much writing is the fault of all ages and of every author. Even Homer, says Horace, sometimes nods. How
odes might not Horace himself have spared us! How many of his latter books, Virgil ! What theology, Dante and Milton! What romances, Cervantes! What Comedies, Ariosto! What tragedies, Dryden! What heaps of words, Chaucer and Spenser! What Iliads, Pope !
Shakspeare's contemporaries, however, appear to have been a singularly careless race of men, compared with himself. Could they have been rendered so by that very superiority of birth and education which threw them upon the town, in the first instance, with greater confidence, his humbler prospects rendering him more cautious ? Or did their excess of wit and fancy require a counter-perfection of judgment, such as he only possessed? Chapman and Drayton, though their pens were among the profusest and most unequal, seem to have been prudent men in conduct; so in all probability were Ford and Webster; but none of these had the animal spirits of the others. Shak. speare had animal spirits, wit, fancy, judgment, prudence in money matters, understanding like Bacon, feeling like Chaucer, mirth like Rabelais, dignity like Milton! What a man! Has anybody discovered the reason why he never noticed a living
contemporary, and but one who was dead ? and this too in an age of great men, and when they were in the habit of acknowledging the pretensions of one another. It could not have been jealousy, or formality, or inability to perceive merits which his own included ; and one can almost as little believe it possible to have been owing to a fear of disconcerting his aristocratic friends, for they too were among the eulogizers: neither can it be attributed to his having so mooted all points, as to end in caring for
none; for in so great and wise a nature, good nature must surely survive everything, both as a pleasure and a duty. I have made up my mind to think that his theatrical managership was the cause. It naturally produced a dislike of pronouncing judgments and incurring responsibilities. And yet he was not always a manager; nor were all his literary friends playwrights. I think it probable, from the style, that he wrote the sonnet in which Spenser is eulogized :
If music and sweet poetry agree, &c.
but this is doubtful; and Spenser was not one of his dramatic fellows. Did he see too many faults in them all to praise them !! Certainly the one great difference between him and them, next to superiority of genius, is the prevailing relevancy of all he wrote'; its freedom, however superabundant, from inconsistency and caprice. But could he find nothing to praise ? Nothing in the whole contemporary drama ? Nothing in all the effusions of his friends and brother clubbists of the Mermaid and the Triple Tun ?
I take Webster and Decker to have been the two greatest of the Shakspeare men, for unstudied genius, next after Beaumont and Fletcher; and in some respects they surpassed them. Beaumont and Fletcher have no such terror as Webster, nor any such piece of hearty, good, affecting human clay, as
Decker's “Old Signior Orlando Friscobaldo.” Is there any such man even in Shakspeare ?-any such exaltation of that most delightful of all things, bonhomie? Webster sometimes overdoes his terror ; nay often. He not only riots, he debauches in it; and Decker, full of heart and delicacy as he is, and qualified to teach refinement to the refined, condescends to an astounding coarseness. Beaumont and Fletcher's good company saved them from that, in words. In spirit they are full of it. But Decker never mixes up (at least not as far as I can remember) any such revolting and impossible contradictions in the same character as they do. Neither does he bring a doubt on his virtue by exaggerating them. He believes heartily in what he does believe, and you love him in consequence. It was he that wrote that character, the piety of which has been pronounced equal to its boldness :
The best of men
His universal sympathy enabled him to strike out that audacious and happy simile, “untameable as flies," which Homer would have admired, though it is fit to make poetasters shudder. The poetaster, had Decker offered to make him a present of it, would have been afraid of being taken for a fly himself. Images are either grand in themselves, or for the thought and feeling that accompany them.
This has all the greatness of Nature's “equal eye.” You may see how truly Decker felt it to be of this kind, by the company in which he has placed it; and there is a consummation of propriety in its wildness, for he is speaking of lunatics :
There are of madmen, as there are of tame,
Middleton partakes of the poetry and sweetness of Decker, but not to the same height; and he talks more at random. You hardly know what to make of the dialogue or stories of some of his plays. But he has more fancy; and there is one character of his (De Flores in the “ Changeling") which, for effect at once tragical, probable, and poetical, surpasses anything I know of in the drama of domestic life. Middleton has the honor of having furnished part of the witch poetry to Macbeth, and of being conjoined with it also in the powerful and beautiful music of Locke.
From Massinger, Ford, and the others (as far as I have met with them, and apart from the connexion of Massinger's name with Decker), I could find nothing to extract of a nature to suit this particular volume, and of equal height with its contents. It is proper to state, however, that I have only glanced through their works: for though no easily daunted reader, I never read an entire play either of Ford or Massinger. They repel me with the conventional tendencies of their style, and their unnatural plots and characters. Ford, however, is elegant and thoughtful; and Massinger has passion, though (as far as I know) not in a generous shape. With these two writers began that prosaical part of the corruption of dramatic style (merging passionate language into conventional) which came to its head in Shirley.
Donusa. What magic hath transform’d me from myself?
To this union
Durham. To this unity, a mystery
Ford's Perkin Warbeck.
Both these passages are the first I came to, on dipping into their works. One might fancy one's self reading Cato or the Grecian Daughter, instead of men who had breathed the air of the days of Shakspeare.