Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Beaumont and Fletcher
THE critical memoir prefixed by Mr Dyce to the only good and scholar-like edition of Beaumont and Fletcher has summed up once for all, in fulness of perfect order, what little can now be known of their lives. It may suffice here to extract from this complete and careful record a few main facts and necessary dates, taking as little note as need be of any supplementary or hypothetical matters. Six or seven years before the birth of his brother in art, John Fletcher was born in December 1579 at Rye in Sussex, and baptized on the 20th of the same month. Richard Fletcher, his father, afterwards queen’s chaplain, dean of Peterborough, and bishop successively of Bristol, Worcester and London, was then minister of the parish in which the son was born who was to make their name immortal. That son was just turned of seven when the dean distinguished and disgraced himself as the spiritual tormentor of the last moments on earth of Mary Stuart. When not quite twelve he was admitted pensioner of Bene’t College, Cambridge, and two years later was made one of the Bible-clerks: of this college Bishop Fletcher had been president twenty years earlier, and six months before his son’s admission had received from its authorities a first letter of thanks for various benefactions, to be followed next year by a second. Four years later than this, when John Fletcher wanted five or six months of his seventeenth year, the bishop died suddenly of over much tobacco and the displeasure of Queen Elizabeth at his second marriage,—this time, it appears, with a lady of such character as figures something too frequently on the stage of his illustrious son. He left eight children by his first marriage in such distress that their uncle, Dr Giles Fletcher, author of a treatise on the Russian commonwealth which is still held in some repute, was obliged to draw up a petition to the queen on their behalf, which was supported by the intercession of Essex, but with what result is uncertain. From this date we know nothing of the fortunes of John Fletcher, till the needy orphan boy of seventeen reappears as the brilliant and triumphant poet whose name is linked for all time with the yet more glorious name of Francis Beaumont, third and youngest son of Sir Francis Beaumont of Grace-Dieu, one of the justices of the Common Pleas,—born, according to general report, in 1586, but, according to more than one apparently irrefragable document, actually born at least a year earlier. The first record of his existence is the entry of his name, together with those of his elder brothers Henry and John, as a gentleman-commoner of Broadgates Hall, Oxford, now supplanted by Pembroke College. But most lovers of his fame will care rather to remember the admirable lines of Wordsworth on the “eager child” who played among the rocks and woodlands of Grace-Dieu; though it may be doubted whether even the boy’s first verses were of the peaceful and pastoral character attributed to them by the great laureate of the lakes. That passionate and fiery genius which was so soon and for so short a time to “shake the buskined stage” with heroic and tragic notes of passion and of sorrow, of scorn and rage and slighted love and jealousy, must surely have sought vent from the first in fancies of a more ardent and ambitious kind; and it would be a likelier conjecture that when Frank Beaumont (as we know on more authorities than one that he was always called by his contemporaries, even in the full flush of his adult fame—“never more than Frank,” says Heywood) went to college at the ripe age of twelve, he had already committed a tragedy or two in emulation of Tamburlaine, Andronicus or Jeronymo. The date of his admission was the 4th of February 1597; on April 22d of the following year his father died; and on the 3d of November 1600, having left Oxford without taking his degree, the boy of fifteen was entered a member of the Inner Temple, his two brothers standing sponsors on the grave occasion. But the son of Judge Beaumont was no fitter for success at the bar than the son of Bishop Fletcher for distinction in the church: it is equally difficult to imagine either poet invested with either gown. Two years later appeared the poem of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus, a voluptuous and voluminous expansion of the Ovidian legend, not on the whole discreditable to a lad of seventeen, fresh from the popular love-poems of Marlowe and Shakespeare, which it naturally exceeds in long-winded and fantastic diffusion of episodes and conceits. At twenty-two Beaumont prefixed to the magnificent masterpiece of Ben Jonson some noticeable verses in honour of his “dear friend” the author; and in the same year (1607) appeared the anonymous comedy of The Woman-Hater, usually assigned to Fletcher alone; but being as it is in the main a crude and puerile imitation of Jonson’s manner, and certainly more like a man’s work at twenty-two than at twenty-eight, internal evidence would seem to justify, or at least to excuse, those critics who in the teeth of high authority and tradition would transfer from Fletcher to Beaumont the principal responsibility for this first play that can be traced to the hand of either. As Fletcher also prefixed to the first edition of Volpone a copy of commendatory verses, we may presume that their common admiration for a common friend was among the earliest and strongest influences which drew together the two great poets whose names were thenceforward to be for ever indivisible. During the dim eleven years between the death of his father and the dawn of his fame, we cannot but imagine that the career of Fletcher had been unprosperous as well as obscure. From seventeen to twenty-eight his youth may presumably have been spent in such painful struggles for success, if not for sustenance, as were never known to his younger colleague, who, as we have seen, was entered at Oxford a few months after Fletcher must in all likelihood have left Cambridge to try his luck in London; a venture most probably resolved on as soon as the youth had found his family reduced by the father’s death to such ruinous straits that any smoother course can hardly have been open to him. Entering college at the same age as Fletcher had entered six years earlier, Beaumont had before him a brighter and briefer line of life than his elder. But whatever may have been their respective situations when, either by happy chance or, as Mr Dyce suggests, by the good offices of Jonson, they were first brought together, their intimacy soon became so much closer than that of ordinary brothers that the household which they shared as bachelors was conducted on such thoroughly communistic principles as might have satisfied the most trenchant theorist who ever proclaimed, as the cardinal point of his doctrine, a complete and absolute community of bed and board, with all goods thereto appertaining. But in the year following that in which the two younger poets had united in homage to Jonson, they had entered into a partnership of more importance than this in “the same clothes and cloak, &c.,” with other necessaries of life specified by Aubrey. In 1608, if we may trust the reckoning which seems trust-worthiest, the twin stars of our stage rose visibly together for the first time. The loveliest, though not the loftiest, of tragic plays that we owe to the comrades or the successors of Shakespeare, Philaster, has generally been regarded as the first-born issue of their common genius. The noble tragedy of Thierry and Theodoret has sometimes been dated earlier and assigned to Fletcher alone; but we can be sure neither of the early date nor the single authorship. The main body of the play, comprising both the great scenes which throw out into full and final relief the character of either heroine for perfect good or evil, bears throughout the unmistakable image and superscription of Fletcher; yet there are parts which for gravity and steady strength of style, for reserve and temperance of effect, would seem to suggest the collaboration of a calmer and more patient hand; and these more equable and less passionate parts of the poem recall rather the touch of Massinger than of Beaumont. In the second act, for example, the regular structure of the verse, the even scheme of the action, the exaggerated braggardism which makes of the hero a mere puppet or mouthpiece of his own self-will, are all qualities which, for better or for worse, remind us of the strength or the weakness of a poet with whom we know that Fletcher, before or after his alliance with Beaumont, did now and then work in common. Even the Arbaces of Beaumont, though somewhat too highly coloured, does not “write himself down an ass,” like Thierry on his first entrance, after the too frequent fashion of Massinger’s braggarts and tyrants; does not proclaim at starting or display with mere wantonness of exposure his more unlovely qualities in the naked nature of their deformity. Compare also the second with the first scene of the fourth act. In style and metre this second scene is as good an example of Massinger as the first is of Fletcher at his best. Observe especially in the elaborate narrative of the pretended self-immolation of Ordella these distinctive notes of the peculiar style of Massinger; the excess of parenthetic sentences, no less than five in a space of twenty lines; the classical common-place of allusion to Athens, Rome and Sparta in one superfluous breath; the pure and vigorous but somewhat level and prosaic order of language, with the use of certain cheap and easy phrases familiar to Massinger as catchwords; the flat and feeble terminations by means of which the final syllable of one verse runs on into the next without more pause or rhythm than in a passage of prose; the general dignity and gravity of sustained and measured expression. These are the very points in which the style of Massinger differs from that of Fletcher; whose lightest and loosest verses do not overlap each other without sensible distinction between the end of one line and the beginning of the next; who is often too fluent and facile to be choice or forcible in his diction, but seldom if ever prosaic or conventional in phrase or allusion, and by no means habitually given to weave thoughts within thoughts, knit sentence into sentence, and hang whole paragraphs together by the help of loops and brackets. From these indications we might infer that this poem belongs altogether to a period later than the death of Beaumont; though even during his friend’s life it appears that Fletcher was once at least allied with Massinger and two lesser dramatists in the composition of some play now unknown to men.
Hardly eight years of toil and triumph of joyous and glorious life were spared by destiny to the younger poet between the date assigned to the first radiant revelation of his genius in Philaster and the date which marks the end of all his labours. On the 6th of March 1616 Francis Beaumont died—according to Jonson and tradition, “ere he was thirty years of age,” but this we have seen to be inconsistent with the registry of his entrance at Oxford. If we may trust the elegiac evidence of friends, he died of his own genius and fiery overwork of brain; yet from the magnificent and masculine beauty of his portrait one should certainly never have guessed that any strain of spirit or stress of invention could have worn out so long before its time so fair and royal a temple for so bright and affluent a soul. A student of physiognomy will not fail to mark the points of likeness and of difference between the faces of the two friends; both models of noble manhood, handsome and significant in feature and expression alike;—Beaumont’s the statelier and serener of the two, with clear thoughtful eyes, full arched brows, and strong aquiline nose, with a little cleft at the tip; a grave and beautiful mouth, with full and finely curved lips; the form of face a long pure oval, and the imperial head with its “fair large front” and clustering hair set firm and carried high with an aspect at once of quiet command and kingly observation: Fletcher’s a more keen and fervid face, sharper in outline every way, with an air of bright ardour and glad fiery impatience; sanguine and nervous, suiting the complexion and colour of hair; the expression of the eager eyes and lips almost recalling that of a noble hound in act to break the leash it strains at;—two heads as lordly of feature and as expressive of aspect as any gallery of great men can show. That spring of 1616, we may note in passing, was the darkest that ever dawned upon England or the world; for, just forty-eight days afterwards, it witnessed, on the 23rd of April, the removal from earth of the mightiest genius that ever dwelt among men. Scarcely more than a month and a half divided the death-days of Beaumont and of Shakespeare. Some three years earlier by Dyce’s estimate, when about the age of twenty-nine, Beaumont had married Ursula, daughter and co-heiress to Henry Isley of Sundridge in Kent, by whom he left two daughters, one of them posthumous. Fletcher survived his friend just nine years and five months; he died “in the great plague, 1625,” and was buried on the 29th of August in St Saviour’s, Southwark; not, as we might have wished, beside his younger fellow in fame, who but three days after his untimely death had added another deathless memory to the graves of our great men in Westminster Abbey, which he had sung in such noble verse. Dying when just four months short of forty-six, Fletcher had thus, as well as we can now calculate, altogether some fourteen years and six months more of life than the poet who divides with him the imperial inheritance of their common glory.
The perfect union in genius and in friendship which has made one name of the two names of these great twin brothers in song is a thing so admirable and so delightful to remember, that it would seem ungracious and unkindly to claim for either a precedence which we may be sure he would have been eager to disclaim. But if a distinction must be made between the Dioscuri of English poetry, we must admit that Beaumont was the twin of heavenlier birth. Only as Pollux was on one side a demigod of diviner blood than Castor can it be said that on any side Beaumont was a poet of higher and purer genius than Fletcher; but so much must be allowed by all who have eyes and ears to discern in the fabric of their common work a distinction without a difference. Few things are stranger than the avowal of so great and exquisite a critic as Coleridge, that he could trace no faintest line of demarcation between the plays which we owe mainly to Beaumont and the plays which we owe solely to Fletcher. To others this line has always appeared in almost every case unmistakable. Were it as hard and broad as the line which marks off, for example, Shakespeare’s part from Fletcher’s in The Two Noble Kinsmen, the harmony would of course be lost which now informs every work of their common genius, and each play of their writing would be such another piece of magnificent patchwork as that last gigantic heir of Shakespeare’s invention, the posthumous birth of his parting Muse which was suckled at the breast of Fletcher’s as a child of godlike blood might be reared on the milk of a mortal mother—or in this case, we might sometimes be tempted to say, of a she-goat who left in the veins of the heaven-born suckling somewhat too much of his nurse Amalthaea. That question however belongs in any case more properly to the study of Shakespeare than to the present subject in hand. It may suffice here to observe that the contributions of Fletcher to the majestic temple of tragedy left incomplete by Shakespeare show the lesser workman almost equally at his best and at him worst, at his weakest and at his strongest. In the plays which we know by evidence surer than the most trustworthy tradition to be the common work of Beaumont and Fletcher, there is indeed no trace of such incongruous and incompatible admixture as leaves the greatest example of romantic tragedy—for Cymbeline and the Winter’s Tale, though not guiltless of blood, are in their issues no more tragic than Pericles or the Tempest—a unique instance of glorious imperfection, a hybrid of heavenly aid other than heavenly breed, disproportioned and divine. But throughout these noblest of the works inscribed generally with the names of both dramatists we trace on every other page the touch of a surer hand, we hear at every other turn the note of a deeper voice, than we can ever recognize in the work of Fletcher alone. Although the beloved friend of Jonson, and in the field of comedy his loving and studious disciple, yet in that tragic field where his freshest bays were gathered Beaumont was the worthiest and the closest follower of Shakespeare. In the external but essential matter of expression by rhythm and metre he approves himself always a student of Shakespeare’s second manner, of the style in which the graver or tragic part of his historical or romantic plays is mostly written; doubtless, the most perfect model that can be studied by any poet who, like Beaumont, is great enough to be in no danger of sinking to the rank of a mere copyist, but while studious of the perfection set before him is yet conscious of his own personal and proper quality of genius, and enters the presence of the master not as a servant but as a son. The general style of his tragic or romantic verse is as simple and severe in its purity of note and regularity of outline as that of Fletcher’s is by comparison lax, effusive, exuberant. The matchless fluency and rapidity with which the elder brother pours forth the stream of his smooth swift verse gave probably the first occasion for that foolish rumour which has not yet fallen duly silent, but still murmurs here and there its suggestion that the main office of Beaumont was to correct and contain within bounds the overflowing invention of his colleague. The poet who while yet a youth had earned by his unaided mastery of hand such a crown as was bestowed by the noble love and the loving “envy” of Ben Jonson was, according to this tradition, a mere precocious pedagogue, fit only to revise and restrain the too liberal effusions of his elder in genius as in years. Now, in every one of the plays common to both, the real difficulty for a critic is not to trace the hand of Beaumont, but to detect the touch of Fletcher. Throughout the better part of every such play, and above all of their two masterpieces, Philaster and The Maid’s Tragedy, it should be clear to the most sluggish or cursory of readers that he has not to do with the author of Valentinian and The Double Marriage. In those admirable tragedies the style is looser, more fluid, more feminine. From the first scene to the last we are swept as it were along the race of a running river, always at full flow of light and buoyant melody, with no dark reaches or perilous eddies, no stagnant pools or sterile sandbanks; its bright course only varied by sudden rapids or a stronger ripple here and there, but in rough places or smooth still stirred and sparkling with summer wind and sun. But in those tragic poems of which the dominant note is the note of Beaumont’s genius a subtler chord of thought is sounded, a deeper key of emotion is touched, than ever was struck by Fletcher. The lighter genius is palpably subordinate to the stronger, and loyally submits itself to the impression of a loftier spirit. It is true that this distinction is never grave enough to produce a discord: it is also true that the plays in which the predominance of Beaumont’s mind and style is generally perceptible make up altogether but a small section of the work that bears their names conjointly; but it is no less true that within this section the most precious part of that work is comprised. Outside it we shall find no figures so firmly drawn, no such clearness of outline, no such cunning of hands as we recognize in the three great studies of Bellario, Evadne and Aspatia. In his male characters, as for instance in the parts of Philaster and Arbaces, Beaumont also is apt to show something of that exaggeration or inconsistency for which his colleague is perhaps more frequently and more heavily to blame; but in these there is not a jarring note, not a touch misplaced; unless, indeed, a rigid criticism may condemn as unfeminine and incongruous with the gentle beauty of her pathetic patience the device by which Aspatia procures herself the death desired at the hand of Amintor. This is noted as a fault by Dyce; but may well be forgiven for the sake of the magnificent scene which follows, and the highest tragic effect ever attained on the stage of either poet. That this as well as the greater part of those other scenes which are the glory of the poem is due to Beaumont might readily be shown at length by the process of comparison. The noble scene of regicide, which it was found expedient to cancel during the earlier years of the Restoration, may indeed be the work of Fletcher; but the part of Evadne must undoubtedly be in the main assigned to the more potent hand of his fellow. There is a fine harmony of character between her naked audacity in the second act and her fierce repentance in the fourth, which is not unworthy a disciple of the tragic school of Shakespeare; Fletcher is less observant of the due balance, less heedful of the nice proportions of good and evil in a faulty and fiery nature, compounded of perverse instinct and passionate reaction. From him we might have had a figure as admirable for vigour of handling, but hardly in such perfect keeping as this of Beaumont’s Evadne, the murderess-Magdalen, whose penitence is of one crimson colour with her sin. Nor even in Fletcher’s Ordella, worthy as the part is throughout even of the precious and exquisite praise of Lamb, is there any such cunning touch of tenderness or delicate perfume of pathos as in the parts of Bellario and Aspatia. These have in them a bitter sweetness, a subtle pungency of mortal sorrow and tears of divine delight, beyond the reach of Fletcher. His highest studies of female character have dignity, energy, devotion of the heroic type; but they never touch us to the quick, never waken in us any finer and more profound sense than that of applause and admiration. There is a modest pathos now and then in his pictures of feminine submission and slighted or outraged love; but this submission he is apt to make too servile, this love too dog-like in its abject devotion to retain that tender reverence which so many generations of readers have paid to the sweet memories of Aspatia and Bellario. To excite compassion was enough for Fletcher as in the masculine parts of his work it was enough for him to excite wonder, to sustain curiosity, to goad and stimulate by any vivid and violent means the interest of readers or spectators. The single instance of noble pathos, the one scene he has left us which appeals to the higher and purer kind of pity, is the death of the child Hengo in Bonduca—a scene which of itself would have sufficed to enrol his name for ever on the list of our great tragic poets. To him we may probably assign the whole merit of that fiery and high-toned tragedy, with all its spirit and splendour of national and martial passion; the conscious and demonstrative exchange of courtesy between Roman and Briton, which is one of the leading notes of the poem, has in it a touch of overstrained and artificial chivalry characteristic of Fletcher; yet the parts of Caratach and Poenius may be counted among the loftiest and most equal of his creations. But no surer test or better example can be taken of the distinctive quality which denotes the graver genius of either poet than that supplied by a comparison of Beaumont’s Triumph of Love with Fletcher’s Triumph of Death. Each little play, in the brief course of its single act, gives proof of the peculiar touch and special trick of its author’s hand: the deeper and more delicate passion of Beaumont, the rapid and ardent activity of Fletcher, have nowhere found a more noticeable vent for the expression respectively of the most tender and profound simplicity of quiet sweetness, the most buoyant and impatient energy of tragic emotion.
In the wider field of their comic or romantic drama it is yet easier to distinguish the respective work of either hand. The bias of Fletcher was towards mixed comedy; his lightest and wildest humour is usually crossed or tempered by an infusion of romance; like Shakespeare in this one point at least, he has left no single play without some touch on it of serious interest, of poetic eloquence or fancy, however slight and fugitive. Beaumont, evidently under the imperious influence of Ben Jonson’s more rigid theories, seems rather to have bent his genius with the whole force of a resolute will into the form or mould prescribed for comedy by the elder and greater comic poet. The admirable study of the worthy citizen and his wife, who introduce to the stage and escort with their applause The Knight of the Burning Pestle through his adventurous career to its untimely end, has all the force and fulness of Jonson’s humour at its best, with more of freshness and freedom. In pure comedy, varied with broad farce and mock-heroic parody, Beaumont was the earliest as well as the ablest disciple of the master whose mantle was afterwards to be shared among the academic poets of a younger generation, the Randolphs and Cartwrights who sought shelter under the shadow of its voluminous folds. The best example of the school of Jonson to be found outside the ample range of his own work is The Scornful Lady, a comedy whose exceptional success and prolonged popularity must have been due rather to the broad effect of its forcible situations, its wealth and variety of ludicrous incidents, and the strong gross humour of its dialogue, than to any finer quality of style, invention or character. It is the only work of Beaumont and Fletcher which a critic who weighs the meaning of his words can admit to be as coarse as the coarsest work of Ben Jonson. They are prone, indeed, to indulge elsewhere in a wanton and exuberant licence of talk; and Fletcher, at least, is liable to confuse the shades of right and wrong, to deface or efface the boundary lines of good and evil, to stain the ermine of virtue and palliate the nakedness of vice with the same indecorous and incongruous laxity of handling. Often in mere haste to despatch the business of a play, to huddle up a catastrophe or throw out some particular scene into sharp and immediate relief, he will sacrifice all seemliness and consistency of character to the present aim of stage effect, and the instant impression of strong incident or audacious eloquence. His heroines are too apt to utter sentiments worthy of Diana in language unworthy of Doll Tearsheet. But in this play both style and sentiment are throughout on a lower level, the action and emotion are of a baser kind than usual; the precept of Aristotle and the practice of Jonson have been so carefully observed and exaggerated that it might almost be said to offer us in one or two places an imitation not merely of the sorrier but of the sorriest qualities of human nature; and full as it is of spontaneous power and humorous invention, the comedy extolled by the moral Steele (with just so much of reservation as permits him to deprecate the ridicule cast upon the clerical character) is certainly more offensive to artistic law and aesthetic judgment by the general and ingrained coarseness of its tone, than the tragi-comedy denounced by the immoral Dryden as exceeding in licence his own worst work and that of his fellow playwrights; an imputation, be it said in passing, as groundless as the protest pleaded on their behalf is impudent; for though we may hardly agree with the uncompromising panegyrist who commends that play in particular to the approval of “the austere scarlet” (remembering, perhaps, that Aristophanes was the chosen bedfellow of Chrysostom), there is at least no such offence against art or taste in the eccentricity of its situations or the daring of its dialogue. The buoyant and facile grace of Fletcher’s style carries him lightly across quagmires in which a heavier-footed poet, or one of slower tread, would have stuck fast, and come forth bemired to the knees. To Beaumont his stars had given as birthright the gifts of tragic pathos and passion, of tender power and broad strong humour; to Fletcher had been allotted a more fiery and fruitful force of invention, a more aerial ease and swiftness of action, a more various readiness and fulness of bright exuberant speech. The genius of Beaumont was deeper, sweeter, nobler than his elder’s; the genius of Fletcher more brilliant, more supple, more prodigal, and more voluble than his friend’s. Without a taint or a shadow on his fame of such imitative servility as marks and degrades the mere henchman or satellite of a stronger poet, Beaumont may fairly be said to hold of Shakespeare in his tragedy, in his comedy of Jonson; in each case rather as a kinsman than as a client, as an ally than as a follower: but the more special province of Fletcher was a land of his own discovering, where no later colonist has ever had power to settle or to share his reign. With the mixed or romantic comedy of Shakespeare it has nothing in common except the admixture or alternation of graver with lighter interest, of serious with humorous action. Nothing is here of his magic exaltation or charm of fairy empire. The rare and rash adventures of Fletcher on that forbidden track are too sure to end in pitiful and shameful failure. His crown of praise is to have created a wholly new and wholly delightful form of mixed comedy or dramatic romance, dealing merely with the humours and sentiments of men, their passions and their chances; to have woven of all these a web of emotion and event with such gay dexterity, to have blended his colours and combined his effects with such exquisite facility and swift light sureness of touch, that we may return once and again from those heights and depths of poetry to which access was forbidden him, ready as ever to enjoy as of old the fresh incomparable charm, the force and ease and grace of life, which fill and animate the radiant world of his romantic invention. Neither before him nor after do we find, in this his special field of fancy and of work, more than shadows or echoes of his coming or departing genius. Admirable as are his tragedies already mentioned, rich in splendid eloquence and strong in large grasp of character as is the Roman history of The False One, full of interest and vigour as is the better part of Rollo Duke of Normandy, and sublime in the loveliness of passion as is the one scene of perfect beauty and terror which crowns this latter tragedy, Fletcher may claim a yet higher and more special station among his great dramatic peers by right of his comic and romantic than by right of his tragic and historic plays. Even in these he is more a romantic than a tragic poet. The quality of his genius, never sombre or subtle or profound, bears him always towards fresh air and sunshine. His natural work is in a midday world of fearless boyish laughter and hardly bitter tears. There is always more of rainbow than of storm in his skies; their darkest shadow is but a tragic twilight. What with him is the noon of night would seem as sunshine on the stage of Ford or Webster. There is but one passage in all these noble plays which lifts us beyond a sense of the stage, which raises our admiration out of speech into silence, tempers and transfigures our emotion with a touch of awe. And this we owe to the genius of Beaumont, exalted for an instant to the very tone and manner of Shakespeare’s tragedy, when Amintor stands between the dead and the dying woman whom he has unwittingly slain with hand and tongue. The first few lines that drop from his stricken lips are probably the only verses of Beaumont or Fletcher which might pass for Shakespeare’s even with a good judge of style—
“This earth of mine doth tremble,” &c.
But in Fletcher’s tragedy, however we may be thrilled and kindled with high contagious excitement, we are never awed into dumb delight or dread, never pierced with any sense of terror or pity too deep or even deep enough for tears. Even his Brunhalts and Martias can hardly persuade us to forget for the moment that “they do but jest, poison in jest.” A critic bitten with the love of classification might divide those plays of Fletcher usually ranked together as comedies into three kinds: the first he would class under the head of pure comedy, the next of heroic or romantic drama, the third of mixed comedy and romance; in this, the last and most delightful division of the poet’s work the special qualities of the two former kinds being equally blended and delicately harmonized. The most perfect and triumphant examples of this class are The Spanish Curate, Monsieur Thomas, The Custom of the Country, and The Elder Brother. Next to these and not too far below them, we may put The Little French Lawyer (a play which in its broad conception of a single eccentric humour suggests the collaboration of Beaumont and the influence of Jonson, but in style and execution throughout is perfect Fletcher), The Humorous Lieutenant (on which an almost identical verdict might be passed), Women Pleased, Beggars’ Bush, and perhaps we might add The Fair Maid of the Inn; in most if not in all of which the balance of exultant and living humour with serious poetic interest of a noble and various kind is held with even hand and the skill of a natural master. In pure comedy Rule a Wife and have a Wife is the acknowledged and consummate masterpiece of Fletcher. Next to it we might class, for comic spirit and force of character, Wit without Money, The Wildgoose Chase, The Chances, and The Noble Gentleman, a broad poetic farce to whose overflowing fun and masterdom of extravagance no critic has ever done justice but Leigh Hunt, who has ventured, not without reason, to match its joyous and preposterous audacities of superlative and sovereign foolery with the more sharp-edged satire and practical merriment of King and No King, where the keen prosaic humour of Bessus and his swordsmen is as typical of the comic style in which Beaumont had been trained up under Ben Jonson as the high interest and graduated action of the serious part of the play are characteristic of his more earnest genius. Among the purely romantic plays of Fletcher, or those in which the comic effect is throughout subordinate to the romantic, The Knight of Malta seems most worthy of the highest place for the noble beauty and exaltation of spirit which informs it with a lofty life, for its chivalrous union of heroic passion and Catholic devotion. This poem is the fairest and the first example of those sweet fantastic paintings in rose-colour and azure of visionary chivalry and ideal holiness, by dint of which the romance of more recent days has sought to cast the glamour of a mirage over the darkest and deadliest “ages of faith.” The pure and fervent eloquence of the style is in perfect keeping with the high romantic interest of character and story. In the same class we may rank among the best samples of Fletcher’s workmanship The Pilgrim, The Loyal Subject, A Wife for a Month, Love’s Pilgrimage, and The Lover’s Progress,—rich all of them in exquisite writing, in varied incident, in brilliant effects and graceful and passionate interludes. In The Coxcomb, and The Honest Man’s Fortune—two plays which, on the whole, can hardly be counted among the best of their class—there are tones of homelier emotion, touches of a simpler and more pathetic interest than usual; and here, as in the two admirable first scenes between Leucippus and Bacha, which relieve and redeem from contempt the tragic burlesque of Cupid’s Revenge, the note of Beaumont’s manner is at once discernible.
Even the most rapid revision of the work done by these great twin poets must impress every capable student with a sense of the homage due to this living witness of their large and liberal genius. The loss of their names from the roll of English poetry would be only less than the loss of the few greatest inscribed on it. Nothing could supply the want of their tragic, their comic or romantic drama; no larger or more fiery planet can ever arise to supplant or to eclipse the twin lights of our zodiac. Whatever their faults of shortcoming or excess, there is in their very names or the mere thought of their common work a kind of special and personal attraction for all true lovers of high dramatic poetry. There is the glory and grace of youth in all they have left us; if there be also somewhat too much of its graceless as well as its gracious qualities, yet there hangs about their memory as it were a music of the morning, a breath and savour of bright early manhood, a joyous and vigorous air of free life and fruitful labour, which might charm asleep for ever all thought or blame of all mortal infirmity or folly, or any stain of earth that may have soiled in passing the feet of creatures half human and half divine while yet they dwelt among men. For good or for evil, they are above all things poets of youth; we cannot conceive of them grown grey in the dignity of years, venerable with the authority of long life, and weighted with the wisdom of experience. In the Olympian circle of the gods and giants of our race who on earth were their contemporaries and corrivals, they seem to move among the graver presences and figures of sedater fame like the two spoilt boys of heaven, lightest of foot and heart and head of all the brood of deity. Shakespeare may have smiled as Jonson may have nodded approval of their bright swift work, neither of these great elders grudging his praise to the special charm which won for it a preference during one generation at least even over their own loftier and weightier verse; and indeed the advance in natural ease, in truth and grace of dialogue, is alike manifest whether we turn to such of their comic characters as Valentine and Don John, Rutilio and Monsieur Thomas, from the Truewit of Jonson or even from the Mercutio of Shakespeare; the one too stiff with classic starch, the other too full of mere verbal catches and forced conceits, to persuade us that either can in any age have fairly represented the light free talk and facile humour of its youth. In another field than this Beaumont and Fletcher hold as high and secure a station of their own as any poet of their race. In perfect workmanship of lyrical jewellery, in perfect bloom and flower of song-writing, they equal all compeers whom they do not excel; the blossoms of their growth in this kind may be matched for colour and fragrance against Shakespeare’s, and for morning freshness and natural purity of form exceed the finest grafts of Jonson. The Faithful Shepherdess alone might speak for Fletcher on this score, being as it is simply a lyric poem in semi-dramatic shape, to be judged only as such, and as such almost faultless; but in no wise to be classed for praise or blame among the acting plays of its author, whose one serious error in the matter was the submission of his Dryad to the critical verdict of an audience too probably in great part composed of clowns and satyrs far unlike the loving and sweet-tongued sylvan of his lovely fancy. And whether we assign to him or to Beaumont the divine song of melancholy (moestius lacrymis Simonideis), perfect in form as Catullus and profound in sentiment as Shelley, which Milton himself could but echo and expand, could not heighten or deepen its exquisite intensity of thought and word alike, there will remain witness enough for the younger brother of a lyric power as pure and rare as his elder’s.
The excess of influence and popularity over that of other poets usually ascribed to the work of Beaumont and Fletcher for some half century or so after their own time has perhaps been somewhat overstated by tradition. Whatever may have been for a season the fashion of the stage, it is certain that Shakespeare can show two editions for one against them in folio; four in all from 1623 to 1685, while they have but their two of 1647 and 1679. Nor does one see how it can accurately or even plausibly be said that they were in any exact sense the founders of a school either in comedy or in tragedy. Massinger, for some years their survivor, and in some points akin to them as a workman, cannot properly be counted as their disciple; and no leading poet of the time had so much in common with them as he. At first sight, indeed, his choice of romantic subject and treatment of foreign stories, gathered from the fertile tale-tellers of the south, and ranging in date from Boccaccio to Cervantes, may seem to mark him out as a member of the same school; but the deepest and most distinctive qualities of his genius set it far apart from theirs; though undoubtedly not so far that any discrepancy or discord should impair the excellence or injure the keeping of works in which he took part with Fletcher. Yet, placed beside theirs, the tone of his thought and speech seems by comparison severe as well as sober, and sad as well as severe. Their extravagant and boyish insanity of prostrate royalism is not more alien from his half pensive and half angry undertone of political protest than his usually careful and complete structure of story from their frequently lax and slovenly incoherence of character or plot, than his well composed and proportioned metre from their lighter and looser melodies, than the bitter insistence and elaborate acrimony of his judicial satire on hypocrisy or oppression from the gaiety or facility of mood which suffers them in the shifting of a scene to redeem their worst characters by some juggler’s trick of conversion at the last moment allowed them to wind up a play with universal reconciliation and an act of oblivion on all hands. They could hardly have drawn with such steady skill and explicit finish an Overreach or a Luke; but the strenuous and able work of Massinger at its highest point of success has no breath in it of their brighter and more immediate inspiration. Shirley, on the other hand, may certainly be classed as a pupil who copied their style in water-colour; his best tragedy and his best comedy, The Traitor and The Lady of Pleasure, might pass muster undetected among the plays of Fletcher, and might fairly claim to take rank above the lowest class of these. In the finest work of Middleton we recognize an almost exact reproduction of Fletcher’s metrical effects,—a reverberation of that flowing music, a reiteration of those feminine final notes. In his later tragi-comedies, throughout his masterpiece of Women beware Women, and in the noble scenes which make up the tragic or serious parts of The Changeling or The Spanish Gipsy,—wherever, in a word, we find the admirable but unequal genius of this poet at its best—we find a likeness wholly wanting in his earlier and ruder work, which undoubtedly suggests the influence of Fletcher. Other instances of imitation, other examples of discipleship, might perhaps be found among lesser men of the next generation; but the mass of succeeding playwrights began in a very short time to lower the style and debase the scheme of dramatic poetry; and especially to loosen the last ties of harmony, to deface the very form and feature of tragic verse. In Shirley, the last and least of those in whom the lineal blood of the old masters was yet discernible, we find side by side with the fine ancestral indications of legitimate descent exactly such marks of decadence rather than degeneracy as we might have anticipated in the latest heir of a long line which began with the rise of Marlowe, “sun of the morning,” in the highest heaven of our song, to prepare a pathway for the sun. After Shakespeare there was yet room for Beaumont and Fletcher; but after these and the other constellations had set, whose lights filled up the measure of that diviner zodiac through which he moved, there was but room in heaven for the pallid moonrise of Shirley; and before this last reflex from a sunken sun was itself eclipsed, the glory had passed away from English drama, to alight upon that summit of epic song, whence Milton held communion with darkness and the stars.(a. c. s.)