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BEAUMONT AND FLETCHER

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