The Age of Shakespeare/Chapter 9

Previously printed in The Nineteenth Century, March 1887, pp. 415-427.

'They, shut up under their roofs, the prisoners of darkness, and fettered with the bonds of a long night, lay exiled, fugitives from the eternal providence. For while they supposed to lie hid in their secret sins, they were scattered under a dark veil of forgetfulness, being horribly astonished, and troubled with sights. . . . Sad visions appeared unto them with heavy countenances. No power of the fire might give them light: neither could the bright flames of the stars endure to lighten that horrible night. Only there appeared unto them a fire kindled of itself, very dreadful: for being much terrified, they thought the things which they saw to be worse than the sight they saw not. . . . . The whole world shined with clear light, and none were hindered in their labour: over them only was spread an heavy night, an image of that darkness which should afterward receive them: but yet were they unto themselves more grievous than the darkness.' In this wild world of fantastic retribution and prophetic terror the genius of a great English poet—if greatness may be attributed to a genius which holds absolute command in a strictly limited province of reflection and emotion—was born and lived and moved and had its being. The double mainspring of its energy is not difficult to define: its component parts are simply adoration of good and abhorrence of evil: all other sources of emotion were subordinate to these: love, hate, resentment, resignation, self-devotion, are but transitory agents on this lurid and stormy stage, which pass away and leave only the sombre fire of meditative indignation still burning among the ruins of shattered hopes and lives. More splendid success in pure dramatic dialogue has not been achieved by Shakespeare or by Webster than by Cyril Tourneur in his moments of happiest invention or purest inspiration: but the intensity of his moral passion has broken the outline and marred the symmetry of his general design. And yet he was at all points a poet: there is an accent of indomitable self-reliance, a note of persistence and resistance more deep than any note of triumph, in the very cry of his passionate and implacable dejection, which marks him as different in kind from the race of the great prosaic pessimists whose scorn and hatred of mankind found expression in the contemptuous and rancorous despondency of Swift or of Carlyle. The obsession of evil, the sensible prevalence of wickedness and falsehood, self-interest and stupidity, pressed heavily on his fierce and indignant imagination; yet not so heavily that mankind came to seem to him the 'damned race,' the hopeless horde of millions 'mostly fools' too foolish or too foul to be worth redemption, which excited the laughing contempt of Frederic the Great and the raging contempt of his biographer. On this point the editor to whom all lovers of high poetry were in some measure indebted for the first collection and reissue of his works has done much less than justice to the poet on whose text he can scarcely be said to have expended an adequate or even a tolerable amount of pains. A reader of his introduction who had never studied the text of his author might be forgiven if he should carry away the impression that Tourneur, as a serious or tragic poet, was little more than a better sort of Byron; a quack less impudent but not less transparent than the less inspired and more inflated ventriloquist of 'Childe Harold's Pilgrimage': whereas it is hardly too much to say that the earnest and fiery intensity of Tourneur's moral rhetoric is no less unmistakable than the blatant and flatulent ineptitude of Byron's.

It seems to me that Tourneur might say with the greatest of the popes, 'I have loved justice, and hated iniquity: therefore I die in exile'; therefore, in other words, I am cast aside and left behind by readers who are too lazy, too soft and slow of spirit, too sleepily sensual and self-sufficient, to endure the fiery and purgatorial atmosphere of my work. But there are breaths from heaven as surely as there are blasts from hell in the tumultuous and electric air of it. The cynicism and egotism which the editor already mentioned has the confidence to attribute to him are rather the outer garments than the inner qualities of his genius: the few and simple lines in which his purer and nobler characters are rapidly but not roughly drawn suffice to give them all due relief and all requisite attraction. The virtuous victims of the murderous conspirator whose crimes and punishment are the groundwork of 'The Atheist's Tragedy' have life and spirit enough to make them heartily interesting: and the mixed character of Sebastian, the high-hearted and gallant young libertine whose fearless frankness of generosity brushes aside and breaks away the best-laid schemes of his father, is as vividly and gracefully drawn as any of the same kind on the comic or the tragic stage.

In this earlier of the two plays extant which preserve the name of Cyril Tourneur the magnificent if grotesque extravagance of the design may perhaps be partly accounted for by the didactic or devotional aim of the designer. A more appalling scarecrow or scarebabe, as the contemporaries of his creator would have phrased it, was certainly never begotten by orthodoxy on horror than the figure of the portentous and prodigious criminal who here represents the practical results of indulgence in free thought. It is a fine proof of the author's naturally dramatic genius that this terrific successor of Vanini and precursor of Diderot should be other than a mere man of straw. Huge as is the wilful and deliberate exaggeration of his atrocity, there are scenes and passages in which his daring and indomitable craft is drawn with native skill as well as force of hand; in which it is no mere stage monster, but a genuine man, plausible and relentless, versatile and fearless, who comes before us now clothed in all the cajoleries of cunning, now exultant in all the nakedness of defiance. But indeed, although the construction of the verse and the composition of the play may both equally seem to bear witness of crude and impatient inexperience, there is no lack of life in any of the tragic or comic figures which play their part through these tempestuous five acts. Even so small a figure as the profligate Puritan parasite of the atheist who hires his hypocrisy to plead against itself is bright with touches of real rough humour. There is not much of this quality in Tourneur's work, and what there is of it is as bitter and as grim in feature and in flavour as might be expected of so fierce and passionate a moralist: but he knows well how to salt his invective with a due sprinkling of such sharply seasoned pleasantry as relieves the historic narrative of John Knox; whose 'merry'[1] account, for instance, of Cardinal Beaton's last night in this world has the very savour of Tourneur's tragic irony and implacable disgust in every vivid and relentless line of it.

The execution of this poem is singularly good and bad: there are passages of such metrical strength and sweetness as will hardly be found in the dramatic verse of any later English poet; and there are passages in which this poet's verse sinks wellnigh to the tragic level of a Killigrew's, a Shadwell's, or a Byron's. Such terminations as 'of,' 'to,' 'with,' 'in,' 'and,' 'my,' 'your,' preceding the substantive or the verb which opens the next verse, make us feel as though we were reading 'Sardanapalus' or 'The Two Foscari'—a sensation not easily to be endured. In a poet so far superior as Tourneur to the author of those abortions we must seek for an explanation of this perverse error in a transient and tentative theory of realism rather than in an incurable infirmity or obliquity of talent: for no quality is more remarkable in the execution of his masterpiece than his mastery of those metrical properties in which the style of this play is so generally deficient. Whether in dialogue or in monologue, 'The Revenger's Tragedy' is so equally admirable for instinctive obedience to nature and imaginative magnificence of inspiration, so equally perfect in the passionate harmony of its verse and the inspired accuracy of its locution, that years of study and elaboration might have seemed necessary to bring about this inexpressible improvement in expression of yet more sombre and more fiery thought or feeling. There are gleams in 'The Atheist's Tragedy' of that clear light in which the whole Shakespearean world lay shining, and here and there the bright flames of the stars do still endure to lighten the gloom of it by flashes or by fits; the gentle and noble young lovers, whose patient loyalty is at last rescued from the toils of crime to be crowned with happiness and honour, are painted, though rapidly and slightly, with equal firmness of hand and tenderness of touch; and there is some vigorous and lively humour in the lighter action of the comic scenes, however coarse and crude in handling: but there is no such relief to the terrors of the maturer work, whose sultrier darkness is visible only by the fire kindled of itself, very dreadful, which burns in the heart of the revenger whom it lights along his blood-stained way. Nor indeed is any relief wanted; the harmony of its fervent and stern emotion is as perfect, as sufficient, as sublime as the full rush and flow of its diction, the fiery majesty of its verse. There never was such a thunder-storm of a play: it quickens and exhilarates the sense of the reader as the sense of a healthy man or boy is quickened and exhilarated by the rolling music of a tempest and the leaping exultation of its flames. The strange and splendid genius which inspired it seems now not merely to feel that it does well to be angry, but to take such keen enjoyment in that feeling, to drink such deep delight from the inexhaustible wellsprings of its wrath, that rage and scorn and hatred assume something of the rapturous quality more naturally proper to faith and hope and love. There is not a breath of rant, not a pad of bombast, in the declamation which fills its dazzling scenes with fire: the language has no more perfect models of style than the finest of its more sustained and elevated passages. The verse is unlike any other man's in the solemn passion of its music: if it reminds us of Shakespeare's or of Webster's, it is simply by right of kinship and equality of power with the most vivid and sonorous verse that rings from the lips of Coriolanus or of Timon, of Brachiano or the Duchess of Malfy; not by any servility of discipleship or reverberation of an imitative echo. It is so rich and full and supple, so happy in its freedom and so loyal in its instinct, that its veriest audacities and aberrations have an indefinable harmony of their own. Even if we admit that Tourneur is to Webster but as Webster is to Shakespeare, we must allow, by way of exception to this general rule of relative rank, that in his noblest hours of sustained inspiration he is at least the equal of the greater dramatist on the score of sublime and burning eloquence, poured forth in verse like the rushing of a mighty wind, with fitful breaks and pauses that do but enhance the majestic sweetness and perfection of its forward movement, the strenuous yet spontaneous energy of its triumphant ardour in advance.

To these magnificent qualities of poetry and passion no critic of the slightest note or the smallest pretention to poetic instinct has ever failed to do ample and cordial justice: but to the truthfulness and the power of Cyril Tourneur as a dramatic student and painter of human character, not only has such justice not generally been done, but grave injustice has been too generally shown. It is true that not all the agents in the evolution of his greater tragedy are equally or sufficiently realised and vivified as active and distinct figures: true, for instance, that the two elder sons of the duchess are little more than conventional outlines of such empty violence and futile ambition as might be inferred from the crude and puerile symbolism of their respective designations: but the third brother is a type no less living than revolting and no less dramatic than detestable: his ruffian cynicism and defiant brutality are in life and death alike original and consistent, whether they express themselves in curses or in jeers. The brother and accomplice of the hero in the accomplishment of his manifold revenge is seldom much more than a serviceable shadow: but there is a definite difference between their sister and the common type of virginal heroine who figures on the stage of almost every dramatist then writing; the author's profound and noble reverence for goodness gives at once precision and distinction to the outline and a glow of active life to the colour of this pure and straightforward study. The brilliant simplicity of tone which distinguishes the treatment of this character is less remarkable in the figure of the mother whose wickedness and weakness are so easily played upon and blown about by every gust of penitence or temptation; but there is the same life-like vigour of touch in the smallest detail of the scenes between her children and herself. It has been objected that her ready avowal of weakness as common to all her sex is the undramatic epigram of a satirist, awkwardly ventriloquising through the mechanism of a tragic puppet; but it is really quite in keeping with the woman's character to enlarge and extenuate the avowal of her own infamy and infirmity into a sententious reflection on womanhood in general. A similar objection has been raised against the apparent change of character implied in the confession made by the hero to the duke elect, at the close of the play, that he and his brother had murdered the old duke—'all for your grace's good,' and in the cry when arrested and sentenced to instant execution, 'Heart, was't not for your good, my lord?' But if this seems incompatible with the high sense of honour and of wrong which is the mainspring of Vindice's implacable self-devotion and savage unselfishness, the unscrupulous ferocity of the means through which his revenge is worked out may surely be supposed to have blunted the edge of his moral perception, distorted his natural instinct, and infected his nobler sympathies with some taint of contagious egotism and pessimistic obduracy of imagination. And the intensity of sympathy with which this crowning creation of the poet's severe and fiery genius is steadily developed and displayed should make any critic of reasonable modesty think more than twice or thrice before he assumes or admits the likelihood or the possibility of so gross an error or so grave a defect in the conception of so great an artist. For if the claim to such a title might be disputed in the case of a claimant who could show no better credentials than his authorship of 'The Atheist's Tragedy'—and even in that far from faultless work of genius there are manifest and manifold signs, not merely of excellence, but of greatness—the claim of the man who could write 'The Revenger's Tragedy' is questionable by no one who has any glimmering of insight or perception as to what qualities they are which confer upon a writer the indisputable title to a seat in the upper house of poets.

This master work of Cyril Tourneur, the most perfect and most terrible incarnation of the idea of retribution impersonate and concentrated revenge that ever haunted the dreams of a tragic poet or the vigils of a future tyrannicide, is resumed and embodied in a figure as original and as impossible to forget, for any one who has ever felt the savage fascination of its presence, as any of the humaner figures evoked and immortalised by Shakespeare. The rage of Swift, without his insanity and impurity, seems to utter in every word the healthier if no less consuming passion of a heart lacerated by indignation and envenomed by contempt as absolute, as relentless, and as inconsolable as his own. And in the very torrent of the man's meditative and solitary passion, a very Phlegethon of agony and fury and ravenous hunger after the achievement of a desperate expiation, comes the sudden touch of sarcasm which serves as a momentary breakwater to the raging tide of his reflections, and reveals the else unfathomable bitterness of a spiritual Marah that no plummet even of his own sinking can sound, and no infusion of less fiery sorrow or less venomous remembrance can sweeten. The mourner falls to scoffing, the justicer becomes a jester: the lover, with the skull of his murdered mistress in his hand, slides into such reflections on the influence of her living beauty as would beseem a sexless and malignant satirist of her sex. This power of self-abstraction from the individual self, this impersonal contemplation of a personal wrong, this contemptuous yet passionate scrutiny of the very emotions which rend the heart and inflame the spirit and poison the very blood of the thinker, is the special seal or sign of original inspiration which distinguishes the type most representative of Tourneur's genius, most significant of its peculiar bias and its peculiar force. Such a conception, clothed in mere prose or in merely passable verse, would be proof sufficient of the mental power which conceived it; when expressed in such verse as follows, it proves at once and preserves forever the claim of the designer to a place among the immortals:

Thou sallow picture of my poisoned love,
My study's ornament, thou shell of death,
Once the bright face of my betrothed lady,
When life and beauty naturally filled out
These ragged imperfections;
When two heaven-pointed diamonds were set
In these unsightly rings;—then 'twas a face
So far beyond the artificial shine
Of any woman's bought complexion
That the uprightest man (if such there be,
That sin but seven times a day) broke custom
And made up eight with looking after her.

The very fall of the verse has a sort of fierce and savage pathos in the note of it; a cadence which comes nearer to the echo of such laughter as utters the cry of an anguish too deep for weeping and wailing, for curses or for prayers, than anything in dramatic poetry outside the part of Hamlet. It would be a conjecture not less plausible than futile, though perhaps not less futile than plausible, which should suggest that the influence of Shakespeare's Hamlet may be responsible for the creation of Tourneur's Vindice, and the influence of Tourneur's Vindice for the creation of Shakespeare's Timon. It is a certainty indisputable except by the blatant audacity of immedicable ignorance that the only poet to whose manner and style the style and manner of Cyril Tourneur can reasonably be said to bear any considerable resemblance is William Shakespeare. The more curt and abrupt style of Webster is equally unlike the general style of either. And if, as his first editor observes, 'the parallel' between Tourneur and Marston, 'as far as it goes, is so obvious that it is not worth drawing,' it is no less certain that the divergence between the genius which created Andrugio and the genius which created Vindice is at least as wide as the points of resemblance or affinity between them are vivid and distinct. While Marston's imaginative and tragic power was at its highest, his style was crude and quaint, turgid and eccentric; when he had cured and purified it—perhaps, as Gifford suggests, in consequence of Ben Jonson's unmerciful but salutary ridicule—he approved himself a far abler writer of comedy or tragicomedy than before, but his right hand had forgotten its cunning as the hand of 'a tragic penman.' Now the improvement of Tourneur's style, an improvement amounting to little less than transfiguration, keeps time with his advance as a student of character and a tragic dramatist as distinguished from a tragic poet. The style of his earlier play has much of beauty, of facility, and of freshness: the style of his later play, I must repeat, is comparable only with Shakespeare's. In the superb and inexhaustible imprecations of Timon there is a quality which reminds us of Cyril Tourneur as delightfully as we are painfully reminded of John Marston in reading certain scenes and passages which disfigure and deface the magnificent but incomprehensible composition of 'Troilus and Cressida.'

Of Tourneur's two elegies on the death of Sir Francis Vere and of Henry Prince of Wales, it may be said that they are about as good as Chapman's work of the same order: and it may be added that his first editor has shown himself, to say the least, unreasonably and unaccountably virulent in his denunciation of what he assumes to be insincere and sycophantic in the elegiac expression of the poet's regret for a prince of such noble promise as the elder brother of Charles I. The most earnest and fervent of republicans, if not wanting in common-sense and common courtesy, would not dream of reflecting in terms of such unqualified severity on the lamentation of Lord Tennyson for the loss of Albert the Good: and the warmest admirer of that loudly lamented person will scarcely maintain that this loss was of such grave importance to England as the loss of a prince who might probably have preserved the country from the alternate oppression of prelates and of Puritans, from the social tyranny of a dictator and the political disgrace of the Restoration.

The existence of a comedy by the author of 'The Revenger's Tragedy,' and of a comedy bearing the suggestive if not provocative title of 'Laugh and Lie Down,' must always have seemed to the students of Lowndes one of the most curious and amusing pieces of information to be gathered from the 'Bibliographer's Manual'; and it is with a sense of disappointment proportionate to this sense of curiosity that they will discover the non-existence of such a comedy, and the existence in its stead of a mere pamphlet in prose issued under that more than promising title: which yet, if attainable, ought surely to be reprinted, however dubious may be its claim to the honour of a great poet's authorship. In no case can it possibly be of less interest or value than the earliest extant publication of that poet—'The Transformed Metamorphosis.' Its first editor has given proof of very commendable perseverance and fairly creditable perspicacity in his devoted attempt at elucidation of this most astonishing and indescribable piece of work: but no interpretation of it can hope to be more certain or more trustworthy than any possible exposition of Blake's 'Jerusalem' or the Apocalypse of St. John. All that can be said by a modest and judicious reader is that any one of these three effusions may unquestionably mean anything that anybody chooses to read into the text; that a Luther is as safe as a Loyola, that a Renan is no safer than a Cumming, from the chance of confutation as a less than plausible exponent of its possible significance: but that, however indisputable it may be that they were meant to mean something, not many human creatures who can be trusted to go abroad without a keeper will be likely to pretend to a positive understanding of what that significance may be. To me, the most remarkable point in Tourneur's problematic poem is the fact that this most monstrous example of senseless and barbarous jargon that ever disfigured English type should have been written—were it even for a wager—by one of the purest, simplest, most exquisite and most powerful writers in the language.

This extraordinary effusion is the single and certainly the sufficient tribute of a great poet, and a great master of the purest and the noblest English, to the most monstrous and preposterous taste or fashion of his time. As the product of an eccentric imbecile it would be no less curious than Stanihurst's Virgil: as the work of Cyril Tourneur it is indeed 'a miracle instead of wit.' For it cannot be too often repeated that in mere style, in commanding power and purity of language, in positive instinct of expression and direct eloquence of inspiration, the author of 'The Revenger's Tragedy' stands alone in the next rank to Shakespeare. Many if not most of their contemporaries could compose a better play than he probably could conceive—a play with finer variation of incidents and daintier diversity of characters: not one of them, not even Webster himself, could pour forth poetry of such continuous force and flow. The fiery jet of his molten verse, the rush of its radiant and rhythmic lava, seems alone as inexhaustible as that of Shakespeare's. As a dramatist, his faults are doubtless as flagrant as his merits are manifest: as a writer, he is one of the very few poets who in their happiest moments are equally faultless and sublime. The tone of thought or of feeling which gives form and colour to this splendid poetic style is so essentially what modern criticism would define as that of a natural Hebraist, and so far from that of a Hellenist or Latinist of the Renascence, that we recognise in this great poet one more of those Englishmen of genius on whom the direct or indirect influence of the Hebrew Bible has been actually as great as the influences of the country and the century in which they happened to be born. The single-hearted fury of unselfish and devoted indignation which animates every line of his satire is more akin to the spirit of Ezekiel or Isaiah than to the spirit of Juvenal or Persius: though the fierce literality of occasional detail, the prosaic accuracy of implacable and introspective abhorrence, may seem liker the hard Roman style of impeachment by photography than the great Hebrew method of denunciation by appeal. But the fusion of sarcastic realism with imaginative passion produces a compound of such peculiar and fiery flavour as we taste only from the tragic chalice of Tourneur or of Shakespeare. The bitterness which serves but as a sauce or spice to the meditative rhapsodies of Marston's heroes or of Webster's villains is the dominant quality of the meats and wines served up on the stage which echoes to the cry of Vindice or of Timon. But the figure of Tourneur's typic hero is as distinct in its difference from the Shakespearean figure which may possibly have suggested it as in its difference from the Shakespearean figure which it may not impossibly have suggested. There is perhaps too much play made with skulls and cross-bones on the stage of Cyril Tourneur: he cannot apparently realise the fact that they are properties of which a thoughtful poet's use should be as temperate and occasional as Shakespeare's: but the graveyard meditations of Hamlet, perfect in dramatic tact and instinct, seem cool and common and shallow in sentiment when set beside the intensity of inspiration which animates the fitful and impetuous music of such passages as these:

Here's an eye
Able to tempt a great man—to serve God;
A pretty hanging lip, that has forgot now to dissemble.
Methinks this mouth should make a swearer tremble,
A drunkard clasp his teeth, and not undo 'em
To suffer wet damnation to run through 'em.
Here's a cheek keeps her colour let the wind go whistle;
Spout, rain, we fear thee not: be hot or cold,
All's one with us; and is not he absurd,
Whose fortunes are upon their faces set
That fear no other God but wind and wet?
Hippolito. Brother, y'ave spoke that right;
Is this the face that living shone so bright?
Vindice. The very same.
And now methinks I could e'en chide myself
For doting on her beauty, though her death
Shall be revenged after no common action.
Does the silk-worm expend her yellow labours
For thee? for thee does she undo herself?
Are lordships sold to maintain ladyships
For the poor benefit of a bewitching minute?[2]

Why does yon fellow falsify highways
And put his life between the judge's lips,
To refine such a thing, keeps horse and men
To beat their valors for her?
Surely we're all mad people, and they[3]
Whom we think are, are not: we mistake those:
'Tis we are mad in sense, they but in clothes.
Hippolito. 'Faith, and in clothes too we, give us our due.
Vindice. Does every proud and self-affecting dame
Camphire her face for this? and grieve her Maker
In sinful baths of milk—when many an infant starves,
For her superfluous outside,—all for this?

What follows is no whit less noble: but as much may be said of the whole part—and indeed of the whole play. Violent and extravagant as the mere action or circumstance may be or may appear, there is a trenchant straightforwardness of appeal in the simple and spontaneous magnificence of the language, a depth of insuppressible sincerity in the fervent and restless vibration of the thought, by which the hand and the brain and the heart of the workman are equally recognisable. But the crowning example of Cyril Tourneur's unique and incomparable genius is of course to be found in the scene which would assuredly be remembered, though every other line of the poet's writing were forgotten, by the influence of its passionate inspiration on the more tender but not less noble sympathies of Charles Lamb. Even the splendid exuberance of eulogy which attributes to the verse of Tourneur a more fiery quality, a more thrilling and piercing note of sublime and agonising indignation, than that which animates and inflames the address of Hamlet to a mother less impudent in infamy than Vindice's cannot be considered excessive by any capable reader who will candidly and carefully compare the two scenes which suggested this comparison. To attempt the praise or the description of anything that has been praised or described by Lamb would usually be the veriest fatuity of presumption; and yet it is impossible to write of a poet whose greatness was first revealed to his countrymen by the greatest critic of dramatic poetry who ever lived and wrote, and not to echo his words of righteous judgement and inspired applause with more or less feebleness of reiteration. The startling and magical power of single verses, ineffaceable and ineradicable from the memory on which they have once impressed themselves, the consciousness in which they have once struck root, which distinguishes and denotes the peculiar style of Cyril Tourneur's tragic poetry, rises to its highest tidemark in this part of the play. Every other line, one might almost say, is an instance of it; and yet not a single line is undramatic, or deficient in the strictest and plainest dramatic propriety. It may be objected that men and women possessed by the excitement of emotions so desperate and so dreadful do not express them with such passionate precision of utterance: but, to borrow the saying of a later and bearer of the name which Cyril sometimes spelled as Turner, 'don't they wish they could?' or rather, ought they not to wish it? What is said by the speakers is exactly what they might be expected to think, to feel, and to express with less incisive power and less impressive accuracy of ardent epigram or of strenuous appeal.[4]

There are among poets, as there are among prose writers, some whose peculiar power finds vent only in a broad and rushing stream of speech or song, triumphant by the general force and fulness of its volume, in which we no more think of looking for single lines or phrases that may be detached from the context and quoted for their separate effect than of selecting for peculiar admiration some special wave or individual ripple from the multitudinous magnificence of the torrent or the tide. There are others whose power is shown mainly in single strokes or flashes as of lightning or of swords. There are few indeed outside the pale of the very greatest who can display at will their natural genius in the keenest concentration or the fullest effusion of its powers. But among these fewer than few stands the author of 'The Revenger's Tragedy.' The great scene of the temptation and the triumph of Castiza would alone be enough to give evidence, not adequate merely but ample, that such praise as this is no hyperbole of sympathetic enthusiasm, but simply the accurate expression of an indisputable fact. No lyrist, no satirist, could have excelled in fiery flow of rhetoric the copious and impetuous eloquence of the lines, at once luxurious and sardonic, cynical and seductive, in which Vindice pours forth the arguments and rolls out the promises of a professional pleader on behalf of aspiring self-interest and sensual self-indulgence: no dramatist that ever lived could have put more vital emotion into fewer words, more passionate reality into more perfect utterance, than Tourneur in the dialogue that follows them.

Mother. Troth, he says true.
Castiza.False: I defy you both:
I have endured you with an ear of fire:
Your tongues have struck hot irons on my face.
Mother, come from that poisonous woman there.
Mother. Where?
Castiza. Do you not see her? she's too inward then.

I could not count the lines which on reperusal of this great tragic poem I find apt for illustrative quotation, or suggestive of a tributary comment: but enough has already been cited to prove beyond all chance of cavil from any student worthy of the name that the place of Cyril Tourneur is not among minor poets, nor his genius of such a temper as naturally to attract the sympathy or arouse the enthusiasm of their admirers; that among the comrades or the disciples who to us may appear but as retainers or satellites of Shakespeare his rank is high and his credentials to that rank are clear. That an edition more carefully revised and annotated, with a text reduced to something more of coherence and intelligible arrangement, than has yet been vouchsafed to us, would suffice to place his name among theirs of whose eminence the very humblest of their educated countrymen are ashamed to seem ignorant, it would probably be presumptuous to assert. But if the noblest ardour of moral emotion, the most fervent passion of eager and indignant sympathy with all that is best and abhorrence of all that is worst in women or in men—if the most absolute and imperial command of all resources and conquest of all difficulties inherent in the most effective and the most various instrument ever yet devised for the poetry of the tragic drama—if the keenest insight and the sublimest impulse that can guide the perception and animate the expression of a poet whose line of work is naturally confined to the limits of moral or ethical tragedy—if all these qualities may be admitted to confer a right to remembrance and a claim to regard, there can be no fear and no danger of forgetfulness for the name of Cyril Tourneur.


Lisbon and Cintra, Inchbold, 1907 DJVU page 11 Chatto and Windus publisher mark.jpg
  1. These thingis we wreat mearelie.—Works of John Knox, vol. i., p. 180.
  2. This is not, I take it, one of the poet's irregular though not unmusical lines; the five short unemphatic syllables, rapidly run together in one slurring note of scorn, being not more than equivalent in metrical weight to three such as would take their places if the verse were thus altered—and impaired:    For the poor price of one bewitching minute.
  3. Perhaps we might venture here to read—'and only they.' In the next line, 'whom' for 'who' is probably the poet's own license or oversight.
  4. It is, to say the least, singular to find in the most famous scene of a play, so often reprinted and re-edited a word which certainly requires explanation passed over without remark from any one of the successive editors. When Gratiana, threatened by the daggers of her sons, exclaims:

    Are you so barbarous to set iron nipples
    Upon the breast that gave you suck?

    Vindice retorts, in reply to her appeal—

    That breast
    Is turned to quarled poison.

    This last epithet is surely unusual enough to call for some attempt at interpretation. But none whatever has hitherto been offered. In the seventh line following from this one there is another textual difficulty. The edition now before me, Eld's of 1608, reads literally thus:

    Vind. Ah ist possible, Thou onely, you powers on hie,
    That women should dissemble when they die.

    Lamb was content to read,

    Ah, is it possible, you powers on high,

    and so forth. Perhaps the two obviously corrupt words in italics may contain a clue to the right reading, and this may be it:

    Is't possible, you heavenly powers on high,
    That women should dissemble when they die?

    Or may not this be yet another instance of the Jew-Puritan abhorrence of the word God as an obscene or blasphemous term when uttered outside the synagogue or the conventicle? If so, we might read—and believe that the poet wrote—

    Is't possible, thou only God on high,

    and assume that the licenser struck out the indecent monosyllable and left the mutilated text for actors and printers to patch or pad at their discretion.