Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Tourneur, Cyril

TOURNEUR, Cyril, a tragic poet of the first order, has left no record of his existence beyond the respective dates of his first and last extant works (1600-1613). An allegorical poem, worthless as art and incomprehensible as allegory, is the earliest of these; an elegy on the death of Prince Henry, son of James I., is the latest. The two plays on which his fame rests, and on which it will rest for ever, were published respectively in 1607 and 1611, but all students have agreed to accept the internal evidence which assures us that the later in date of publication must be the earlier in date of composition. His only other known work is an epicede on Sir Francis Vere, of no great merit as poetry, but of some value as conveying in a straightforward and masculine style the poet's ideal conception of a perfect knight or "happy warrior," comparable by those who may think fit to compare it with the more nobly realized ideals of Chaucer and of Wordsworth. But if Tourneur had left on record no more memorable evidence of his powers than might be supplied by the survival of his elegies, he could certainly have claimed no higher place among English writers than is now occupied by the Rev. Charles Fitzgeoffrey, whose voluminous and fervent elegy on Sir Francis Drake is indeed of more actual value, historic or poetic, than either or than both of Tourneur's elegiac rhapsodies. The singular power, the singular originality, and the singular limitation of his genius are all equally obvious in The Atheist's Tragedy, a dramatic poem no less crude and puerile and violent in action and evolution than simple and noble and natural in expression and in style. The executive faculty of the author is in the metrical parts of his first play so imperfect as to suggest either incompetence or perversity in the workman; in The Revenger's Tragedy it is so magnificent, so simple, impeccable, and sublime, that the finest passages of this play can be compared only with the noblest examples of tragic dialogue or monologue now extant in English or in Greek. There is no trace of imitation or derivation from an alien source in the genius of this poet. The first editor of Webster has observed how often he imitates Shakespeare; and, in fact, essentially and radically independent as is Webster's genius also, the sovereign influence of his master may be traced not only in the general tone of his style, the general scheme of his composition, but now and then in a direct and never an unworthy or imperfect echo of Shakespeare's very phrase and accent. But the resemblance between the tragic verse of Tourneur and the tragic verse of Shakespeare is simply such as proves the natural affinity between two great dramatic poets, whose inspiration partakes now and then of the quality more proper to epic or to lyric poetry. The fiery impulse, the rolling music, the vivid illustration of thought by jets of insuppressible passion, the perpetual sustenance of passion by the implacable persistency of thought, which we recognize as the dominant and distinctive qualities of such poetry as finds vent in the utterances of Hamlet or of Timon, we recognize also in the scarcely less magnificent poetry, the scarcely less fiery sarcasm, with which Tourneur has informed the part of Vindice a harder-headed Hamlet, a saner and more practically savage and serious Timon. He was a satirist as passionate as Juvenal or Swift, but with a finer faith in goodness, a purer hope in its ultimate security of triumph. This fervent constancy of spirit relieves the lurid gloom and widens the limited range of a tragic imagination which otherwise might be felt as oppressive rather than inspiriting. His grim and trenchant humour is as peculiar in its sardonic passion as his eloquence is original in the strenuous music of its cadences, in the roll of its rhythmic thunder. As a playwright, his method was almost crude and rude in the headlong straightforwardness of its energetic simplicity; as an artist in character, his interest was intense but narrow, his power magnificent but confined; as a dramatic poet, the force of his genius is great enough to ensure him an enduring place among the foremost of the followers of Shakespeare. (a. c. s.)