The Lives of the Poets-Laureate/Sir William Davenant
The lot of Sir William Davenant fell on strange and stirring times. He contributed to found a new literature, witnessed the installation of a new political system, and the birth-convulsions of a new religion. His life spanned that mighty chasm which separates the ancient from the modern of English History: when those principles of thought and action which had cradled the infant kingdoms of Europe, and toned their civilization, retreated angrily before the stormy ingress of a meaner though stronger spirit. But unlike his great contemporary, Milton, his character took no form or colour from the solemn events that were passing around him. If he was prominent in the scene, it was from an inherent buoyancy, rather than from any intellectual superiority; nor from the perusal of his works can we gather that the wreck of old opinions that everywhere met his gaze, affected him with apprehension, or excited him to deeper thought or more vigorous expression. To his private history a more touching interest attaches. Shakespeare was his early friend. He, whose very name to us is an inspiration, listened to his boyish talk, encouraged his awakening literary tastes. The matchless harmony of his deepest utterances was then newly vibrating on the public ear. Davenant pondered over them, loved them to the last, taught others to love them, but never penetrated the mystery of their influence. Thus he lived to witness the banishment of his idol from the English stage, and was himself an effectual instrument in contributing to such a result.
He was born at Oxford in the parish of St. Martin, towards the close of February, 1605. His father was a vintner in that city, and kept the "Crown Inn" near Carfax, where Shakespeare was accustomed to stay on his annual journeys from London to Warwickshire. His mother, who was a woman of great beauty and sprightliness, contrasting strangely with the severe gravity of her husband, has well-nigh had her fair fame tarnished through the culpable vanity or levity of her son, who among boon companions would sometimes indulge in sly inuendoes touching Shakespeare's preference for his father's inn. "Where are you running to so fast?" said an Oxford dignitary one day to little Davenant, whom he met in the street, scampering along in breathless haste. "I am going to see Godfather Shakespeare," replied the boy. "Fie! fie!" rejoined the divine, "why are you so superfluous? Have you not learnt the third commandment?" This unbecoming jest, Davenant himself in after years, with strange indelicacy adopted; and was wont to observe, though an impartial judge will scarcely concur in his estimate of the likelihood of its truth, that "it seemed to him he writ with the very pen that Shakespeare wrote, and was contented enough to be thought his son." Aubrey, too, observes that he "was proud of being thought so, and had often, in his cups, owned the report to be true to Butler the poet." Such unseemly jocularity would have been unworthy of record, had it not been made the work of serious comment by writers of credit and position, who have inclined to favour the insinuation. There exist not, however, the slightest grounds for such an imputation, which is falsified by all we know of the mother of Sir William Davenant, and jars with our well-grounded belief in the irreproachable moral character of our great national dramatist.
Davenant, in very early life, gave promise of a taste for literature, and one of his first attempts at composition was "An Ode in Remembrance of Master William Shakespeare." He acquired the rudiments of knowledge at the grammar school of his native parish, then flourishing under the management of Edward Sylvester, and in 1621, he matriculated at Lincoln College, his father being Mayor of the city that year. He pursued his studies there for some little time, but did not proceed to his degree. Wood, who terms him the "sweet swan of Isis," tells us "he obtained some smattering of logic," so "that, though he wanted much of University learning, yet he made as high and noble flights in the poetical faculty as fancy could advance without it." On quitting the University, he went to London; and we first hear of him as page to the famous Frances, Duchess of Richmond. The eccentric career of this lady had acquired for her considerable notoriety, and in her household she observed all the etiquette and ceremony of a court. She was the grand-daughter of the third Duke of Norfolk, had been thrice married, and, to complete her ambition, aspired to the august dignity of Queen of England. Her first match, which appears to have been made through affection or caprice, was with "one Prannel, a vintner's son," for which, in her after days of grandeur and magnificence she was frequently and sharply twitted. Her second husband was Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford. During her widowhood, she had inspired one Sir George Rodney, a Somersetshire gentleman, with so infatuated a passion, that, on her marriage, his frenzy acquired the mastery over his reason; and retiring to an inn in the town in which the Earl and Countess were staying, he composedly drew up a copy of verses, which he transcribed in his own blood, sent to the object of his extravagant ardour, and then ran himself through with his sword. She next married Ludowick Stuart, Duke of Lenox and Richmond. “After his decease,” says Wilson, “Lenox and Richmond, with the great title of Duchess, gave period to her honour, which could not arrive at her mind, she having the most glorious and transcendant heights in speculation; for finding the King a widower, she vowed, after so great a Prince as Richmond, never to be blown with the kisses, or eat at the table of a subject, and this vow must be spread abroad that the King might take notice of the bravery of her spirit. But this bait would not catch the old King, so that she missed her aim; and to make good her resolution, she speciously observed her rule to the last.”
Davenant next resided in the household of Sir Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke, a poet and philosopher, a patron of learning, and the friend of Sir Philip Sydney. His stay there was but short, as that nobleman fell in 1628 by the hand of one of his servants, who stabbed him in a fit of discontent, and afterwards, “to save the law a trouble,” as Winstanley tersely expresses it, put an end to his own existence. This melancholy event was a severe blow to the hopes of Davenant. He was thereby thrown upon his own resources; and, as frequently happens, misfortune begat success, as it necessitated the attempt to achieve it. Bereft of his patron, without fortune or position, he addressed himself seriously to the business of life, and his predilections pointed to the theatre. In the following year, he presented for representation his “Albovine, King of the Lombards,” a tragedy written in prose, the plot taken from a novel by Bandello. He had already had some practice in dramatic composition, having some two or three years previously written a piece called "The Cruel Mother," which was duly licensed by the Master of the Revels, but whether it was ever brought on the stage or not is uncertain. His present tragedy, however, was acted with great applause, and lifted him at once into notice. It was published with a dedication to the favourite Car, Earl of Somerset, which commences with the following fulsome conceit: "My Lord, you read this tragedy, and smiled upon it that it might live; and therein your mercy was divine, for it exceeded your justice." And in conclusion he says: "I shall live in vain unless you still continue to acknowledge, your humblest creature, Davenant."
Recommendatory verses were prefixed to it, as was the fashion of that age, written by Sir Henry Blount, Hyde, afterwards Earl of Clarendon, and others; and the success of this piece confirmed his tastes and decided his future career. For the next eight years he resided constantly about the Court, in high favour with the principal men of wit and fashion of the age. He possessed a pleasing address, a handsome person, buoyant spirits and a ready wit; and his society was courted and enjoyed by the choicest intellects of the day. The leaven of the courtier was strongly infused into his nature, but he exhibited only its more alluring qualities.
Though devoid of any very lofty principles of honour, he was not destitute of generous and manly sentiments, as the sincerity and duration of his friendships with several eminent men abundantly testifies. Carew, Sir John Suckling, Endymion Porter, Jermyn, afterwards Earl of St. Albans, the Hon. Henry Howard and others were among his friends; and his poems show that he was regarded with consideration by the Earl of Dorset, the Lord Treasurer Weston, and other influential personages in the State.
This sudden gale of success acted as a refreshing stimulantto his sanguine temperament, and during the period in question he poured forth a series of plays, which (though there is some difficulty in ascertaining the dates of each) seem to have appeared in the following order of succession:
- "The Colonel."
- "The Just Italian."
- "The Wits."
- "Love and Honour."
- "News from Plymouth."
- "The Unfortunate Lovers."
- "The Fair Favourite."
- "The Spanish Lovers."
"The Just Italian" is a witty, bustling production, and exhibits great skill in contrivance, but on its first appearance was only saved from condemnation by the expressed approbation of the Earl of Dorset. "The Wits," dedicated "to the chiefly-beloved of all, that ingenious and noble Endymion Porter, of his Majesty's Bedchamber," had likewise a narrow escape on the first night of representation, though it afterwards had a successful run.
Sir Henry Herbert, who was Master of the Revels at this time, and possessed the privilege of licensing plays, was occasionally, like the Lord Chamberlain in modern times, troubled with qualms of conscience, occasioned by the delicate nature of his duties.
"This morning," he writes, "being the 9th Jan., 1633, the Kinge was pleased to call mee into his withdrawinge chamber, to the windowe, wher he went over all that I had croste in Davenant’s play-booke, and allowing of faith and slight to bee asseverations only, and no oathes, markt them to stande, and some other few things, but in the greater part allowed of my reformations. This was done upon a complaint of Mr. Endymion Porter’s, in December.
"The Kinge is pleased to take faith, death, slight, for asseverations and no oathes, to which I doe humbly submit, as my master's judgment; but, under favour, conceive them to be oathes, and enter them here to declare my opinion and submission."
The play which gave rise to this difference of sentiment between his Majesty and Sir Henry must have been "The Wits," as on the following day there is this entry in his journal:
"The 10th Jan., 1633, I returned unto Mr. Davenant his play-booke of 'The Witts,' corrected by the Kinge.
"The King would not take the booke at Mr. Porter's hands, but commanded him to bring it unto mee, which he did, and likewise commanded Davenant to come to me for it as I believe; otherwise he would not have byn so civill"
Davenant doubtless being irate with the keen-eyed Master of the Revels for detecting so much bad language lurking in his seemingly innocent production.
At a later date there is the following entry in the same work:
"'The Witts' was acted on Tuesday night, the 28 January, 1633, at Court, before the Kinge and Queene. Well likt. It had a various fate on the stage, and at Court, though the Kinge commended the language, but dislikt the plott and characters."
In "Love and Honour" may be traced manifest imitations of the style of Shakespeare; and the care manifested in the composition shows that success had no effect in abating the most strenuous endeavours to deserve it.
Evelyn, writing many years later, after the Restoration, says, "I was so idle as to go see a play called 'Love and Honour.' Dined at Arundel House; and that evening discoursed with his Majestie about shipping, in which he was exceeding skilfull." From which it appears that the performance took place in the day-time.
Davenant likewise produced the following masques for the entertainment of the Court:
"The Temple of Love," 1634, "a masque presented by the Queen's Majesty and her ladies at Whitehall."
"The Triumphs of the Prince d'Amours," 1635, represented in the Middle Temple Hall, and written at the request of the Benchers for an entertainment given by the Inn to the Prince Charles Elector Palatine, nephew of King Charles I.
"Britannia Triumphans," 1637.
"Salmacida Spolia," presented to the King and Queen at Whitehall, the 21st of January, 1639; the scenery and ornaments of which were the work of Inigo Jones.
The first nobles of the day took their parts in these pageants; and in "The Temple of Love," the Queen herself, who held Davenant in great favour, condescended to appear—a circumstance which the rising puritanical spirit of the times did not suffer to pass unnoticed. She likewise honoured the entertainment given at the Middle Temple in a marked manner.
Sir William Herbert writes: "On Wensday, the 23 of Febru., 1635, the Prince d'Amours gave a masque to the Prince Elector and his brother in the Middle Temple, when the Queene was pleased to grace the entertaynment by putting off majesty to putt on a citizen's habitt, and to sett upon the scaffold on the right hand amongst her subjects.
"The Queene was attended in the like habitts by the Marques Hamilton, the Countess of Denbighe, the Countess of Holland, and the Lady Elizabeth Feildinge. Mrs. Basse, the law woman (i. e., the woman who had the care of the Hall), leade in this royal citizen and her company.
"The Earle of Hollande, the Lord Goringe, Mr. Percy, and Mr. Jermyn were the men that attended.
"The Prince Elector sat in the midst, his brother Robert on the right hand of him, and the Prince d'Amours on the left.
"The masque was very well performed in the dances, scenes, cloathing, and musique; and the Queene was pleased to tell mee, at her going away, that she liked it very well.
|"Henry Lause||made the musique.|
"Mr. Corseilles made the scenes."
Much ridicule has, in later times, been heaped upon these diversions; and we have been taught to smile at the grotesque taste which was gratified with such fanciful exaggerations; but there is this diversity between a Court pageant of the olden time and a modern costume ball. In our advanced stage of civilization, we rely solely upon the genius of the tailor and the milliner; while our forefathers, less enlightened, called in the additional aid of the poet and the artist. The noble of the nineteenth century lounges languidly through a quadrille, bedizened in the coxcombry of an exploded fashion; the noble of the seventeenth exercised both body and mind, and betrayed a heartiness of enjoyment that would provoke only wonder and contempt in a more refined and fastidious age.
Davenant had now established his fame as a popular dramatist, and his successive productions were sure of a cordial welcome. They, as must the works of all save the chosen few, have now fallen into oblivion; so that their very titles are probably quite new to the majority of our readers; but they will repay the labour of perusal. They were the popular pieces of their day. Men the most competent, from their acquirements to judge, pronounced in their favour, and the applause of the vulgar was the ready ratification of the decision of the learned. These, together with some miscellaneous poems, constituted his claim to the laureateship when Ben Jonson died in 1637. For sixteen months the office remained in abeyance. The Queen interested herself in behalf of Davenant, and he obtained the appointment on the 13th of December, 1638.
Thomas May, the translator of "Lucan," who had expected it from the favour of the King, was sorely nettled; and in after years, the quondam royalist, when writing his parliamentary history, could not altogether forget his paltry disappointment. "As for Mr. Davenant," observes his biographer, "he continued very steadfast in his old road, adhered to his old principles and his old friends, writing from time to time new poems, exhibiting new plays, and having the chief direction and management of the Court diversions, so long as the disorders of those times would permit."
The following tribute to Davenant's poetical merits is from the pen of Sir John Suckling:
TO MY FRIEND,
ON HIS OTHER POEMS.
Thou hast redeemed us, Will, and future times
Shall not account unto the age's crimes
Dearth of pure wit: since the great lord of it,
Donne, parted hence, no man has ever writ
So near him, in 's own way. I would commend
Particulars; but then, how should I end
Without a volume? Every line of thine
Would ask (to praise it right) twenty of mine.
The struggle between the Crown and the Commons was now rapidly approaching a crisis, and Davenant's station about the Court rendered him too conspicuous an object to be passed over unnoticed by the popular party. In May, 1641, he was accused of being implicated in a plot set on foot to induce the army to desert the Parliament for the King. Davenant, aware of the inevitable consequence of such an accusation at such a time, sought safety in flight, and a proclamation was issued for his arrest. He was overtaken at Faversham, brought back to London, and consigned to the custody of the Serjeant-at-Arms. In the month of July, he was released on bail, and a second time betook himself to flight. His second attempt was as unsuccessful as the former one, as he was seized and detained by the Mayor of Canterbury. Sir John Mennis thus introduces the circumstance in some indifferent verses addressed to a friend:
"To make amends,
There's news for Jack to tell his friends.
You heard of late what chevaliers,
(Who durst not tarry for their ears)
Proscribed were for laying a plot,
Which might have ruin'd God knows what!
Suspected for the same 's Will Davenant,
Whether he have been in't or haven't.
He is committed, and like sloven,
Lolls on his bed in Garden Coven;
He had been rack'd, as I am told,
But that his body would not hold.
Soon as in Kent they saw the bard,
(As, to say truth, it is not hard,
For Will has in his face the flaws
Of wounds received in 's country's cause.)
They flew on him, like lions passant,
And tore his nose, as much as was on't:
They call'd him superstitious groom,
And Popish dog, and curre of Rome;
But this I'm sure was the first time
That Will's religion was a crime.
Whate'er he is in outward part,
He's sure a poet in his heart.
But 'tis enough: he is my friend,
And so am I, and there's an end."
Eventually, Davenant contrived to effect his escape, and remained abroad two years. Jermyn, Sir John Suckling, Percy, brother to the Earl of Northumberland, were of the number of those who were implicated, and fled on this occasion. The Queen was at that time residing in France, and had been active in collecting military stores for the army, under the command of the Earl of Newcastle. The opportunity was tempting, and Davenant, sick of exile and inaction, returned with the transports, and offered his services to the Earl. He was named Lieutenant-General of the Ordnance, but the appointment excited some dissatisfaction, and a military laureate was deemed a fitting subject for ridicule. It must have been forgotten, or perhaps it was remembered to his disadvantage, that the General himself was a play-writer. Davenant's subsequent conduct showed that he was deficient neither in skill nor bravery, and fully approved his patron's discernment. He was present at the siege of Gloucester (September, 1643), and received the honour of knighthood for his signal services on that occasion.
His military avocations did not entirely break off his connection with the booksellers, since he published about this time a tragedy, a tragi-comedy, and a volume entitled "Madagascar and other Poems." To the second edition of this book, published some years later, he prefixed a few graceful lines, which contrast favourably with the prolix dedications customary at that time. They run thus: "If these poems live, may their memories by whom they were cherished, Endymion Porter and H. Jermyn, live with them."
He shortly afterwards returned to France, renounced his religion, and conformed to the Church of Rome. His whole course of life, which was tinctured with the dissoluteness that almost became a badge of his party, forbids us to believe that he was ever the subject of any very serious convictions; and his attendance upon the Queen, who was a Roman Catholic, and possibly the belief that the maintenance of the Established Church in its integrity would prove an insuperable obstacle to any reconciliation between the King, and the faction who were now obtaining the ascendancy, might have induced him to desert what he deemed a hopeless cause. "His private opinion," says Aubrey, "was, that religion at last (e.g., a hundred years hence) would come to a settlement, and that in a kind of ingeniose Quakerisme." Why, if such was his private opinion, he should desert to so opposite a system as the papal one, is not very apparent.
The Queen, who, as Lord Clarendon observes, "was never advised by those who either understood or valued his (the King's) true interest," was induced about this time to send an embassy to the King, to entreat him to consult his own safety by sacrificing the Church; and Sir William Davenant was selected, on account of his recent conversion, to conduct this delicate negotiation. The choice was as injudicious as the failure was signal, and we read that, on Davenant urging his reasons for the unpalatable course he was suggesting, "the King was transported with so much passion and indignation, that he gave him more reproachful terms and a sharper reprehension than he did ever towards any other man, and forbade him to presume to come again into his presence," whereupon he returned, "exceedingly dejected and afflicted."
Feeling much chagrined at the ill success of his diplomacy, he returned to France, and settled at Paris, where the Prince of Wales was then staying. He here began his much talked-of metrical romance, or epic, "Gondibert," which Pope justly characterizes as "not a good poem, if you take it in the whole, though there are many good things in it." The first two books, which he wrote at the Louvre while staying with Lord Jermyn, were published in 1651, with a long letter to Hobbes prefixed, and a shorter and well-written reply from that philosopher. They caused some sensation on their appearance, and long divided the suffrage of the literary world. Hobbes, Waller, Cowley, Aikin, Hendley defended them; Rymer, Blackwall, Grange, Knox, Hurd, Hayley are amongst those who have most severely censured them. A satirical pamphlet on the subject, written by Sir John Denham and others, gave Davenant some annoyance.
In 1650, his active mind, barred from its accustomed occupation, projected a plan for leading out a body of workmen to Virginia, as that colony was in great need of artificers. This scheme was warmly encouraged by the Queen, and he was not long in collecting a band of men, chiefly weavers, with whom he embarked at one of the ports of Normandy.
But Davenant was wofully unsuccessful in all his travels, for his little vessel had hardly quitted the French coast when it was pounced upon by a Parliament ship and captured, and he himself carried a prisoner to Cowes Castle, in the Isle of Wight. Here in his forlorn solitude he set to work again on "Gondibert," and had written about half of the third book, when he laid aside his pen, apprehensive that the darkness of the grave was about to enclose him. "I am here arrived," says he, "at the middle of the third book, which makes an equal half of the poem, but 'tis high time to strike sail and cast anchor, though I have run but half my course, when at the helm I am threatened with Death; who, though he can visit us but once, seems troublesome; and even in the innocent may beget such a gravity as diverts the music of verse. And I beseech thee, if thou art pleased with what is written, not to take ill, that I run not on till my last gasp; for in a worthy design I shall ask leave to desist, when I am interrupted in so great an experiment as dying, and 'tis an experiment to the most experienced, for no man, though his mortifications may be much greater than mine, can say he has already died."
His situation soon became critical in the extreme. The Parliament delivered him over by an ordinance to the High Commission Court, and he was removed to the Tower, preparatory to his being tried for his life. How he escaped we have no very authentic grounds for determining; but Milton is said to have interceded for him, and two aldermen of York, who had formerly been his prisoners under Newcastle, and whose escape he had favoured, hearing of his distress, hastened to London, and exerted themselves so effectually in his behalf as to obtain his pardon. Aubrey says: "'Twas Harry Martyn that saved Sir William's life; in the House when they were talking of sacrificing one, then said Henry, that in sacrifices they were always offered pure and without blemish; 'now ye talk of making a sacrifice of an old rotten rascal,' alluding to the personal deformity caused by his irregular course of life, and on which the wits were so 'cruelly bold.'" And not the wits only, but others of less pretensions ventured to indulge their raillery upon his unfortunate peculiarity. One day, while pensively perambulating the mews, a beggar-woman followed him, and with frequent and earnest tones implored Heaven his eyesight might be spared. Davenant, annoyed, at length turned round, and asked why she was so solicitous about his eyesight, as he felt no symptoms of approaching blindness. "Perhaps not," said she, "but if you ever should, you have nothing to hang your spectacles upon."
Though pardoned, he was not liberated, as, two years later, we find him still a prisoner in the Tower, by the following letter inserted in "Whitelocke's Diary."
Whitelocke writes: "12th Oct., 1652.—I received this letter from Sir William Davenant."
"I am in suspense whether I should present my Thankfulness to your Lordship for my Liberty of the Tower; because, when I consider how much of your time belongs to the Public, I conceive that, to make a Request to you, and to thank you afterwards for the Success of it, is to give you no more than a Succession of Trouble, unless you are resolved to be continually patient and courteous to afflicted Men, and agree in your Judgment with the late wise Cardinal; who was wont to say, If he had not spent as much time in Civilities as in Business, he had undone his master.
"But whilst I endeavour to excuse this Present of Thankfulness, I shall rather ask your Pardon for going about to make a Present to you of myself, for it may argue me to be incorrigible, that, after so many afflictions, I have yet so much Ambition as to desire to be at Liberty, that I may have more opportunity to obey your Lordship's Commands, and show the World how much I am,
"Your Lordship's most obliged,
"Most humble, and obedient Servant,
"Tower, Oct. 9th, 1652."
By unceasing exertions, however, he finally obtained his release, and then began to reflect how he might resume his old occupation. He showed great address in his method of proceeding. Tragedies and comedies were held to be abominable things by the dominant faction, and yet the prevalent hypocrisy was already beginning to disgust even those who had watched the progress of political events with undisguised satisfaction. He knew if he could once open a house, he should be sure of an audience; and Davenant, ever restless, loved exertion, and was inspired by difficulty. After much scheming and solicitation, to the surprise of every one, he was successful. The required licence was obtained, but his dramatic exhibitions were to hold no affinity with ordinary plays—laughter and tears were discountenanced. Instead of the regular drama, the audience was to be roused by sonorous declamation, or soothed by the gentle influence of music. Lord Keeper Whitelocke, Serjeant Maynard, and other men of note, looked with favour on the undertaking; and responsible citizens were pledged that the performances should be conducted with decency, seemliness, and without rudeness.
The first of these "entertainments," as they were termed, took place at Rutland House, Charterhouse Yard, May, 1656, and was published in the following September.
A copy of the piece, with the following letter, was forwarded to the Lord Keeper:
"When I consider the nicety of the Times, I fear it may draw a curtain between your Lordship and our Opera; therefore I have presumed to send your Lordship, hot from the Press, what we mean to represent; making your Lordship my supreme Judge, though I despair to have the honour of inviting you to be a Spectator. I do not conceive the perusal of it worthy any part of your Lordship's leisure, unless your ancient relation to the Muses make you not unwilling to give a little entertainment to Poetry, though in so mean a dress as this, and coming from
"Your Lordship's most obedient servant,
Its title runs: "The First Day's Entertainment at Rutland House, by Declamations and Music, after the Manner of the Ancients." The success was complete. This literary curiosity, interesting as being the first representation on our present stage, is highly ingenious, and affords a favourable specimen of Davenant's skill and mental resources. It was a bold experiment. He had to amuse his auditory, yet not let them think they were amused—to give them a play, and yet cozen them into a belief that it was not a play they were witnessing, but something totally different. It began with a flourish of music, for which Davenant had procured the assistance of some able composers. Then came a somewhat long prologue, in which the poet gives a sketch of what the audience were to expect, and the curtains were closed again. Then "A consort of instrumental music adapted to the sullen disposition of Diogenes, being heard awhile, the curtains are suddenly opened, and in two gilded rostras appear sitting Diogenes the Cynic and Aristophanes the Poet, in habits agreeable to their country and professions: who declaim against and for public entertainment by moral representations;" and Diogenes accordingly addresses the Athenians in a long speech, in which are elaborately set forth the folly and evil of all public amusements. Then "a consort of music befitting the pleasant disposition of Aristophanes being heard," that personage comes forward, and makes a long speech on the other side of the question, in which, of course, he has the best of the argument. This done, "the curtains are suddenly closed, and the company entertained by instrumental and vocal music." This was the serious section of the entertainment—the tragedy before the farce—which was wound up by a song, containing a brief summing-up of the views of each antagonist.
The second part was something similar, though in a lighter strain. "The song being ended, a consort of instrumental music, after the French composition, being heard awhile, the curtains are suddenly opened, and in the rostras appear sitting a Parisian and a Londoner, in the livery robes of both cities, who declaim concerning the pre-eminence of Paris and London." The Parisian has the first speech, in which all the odd customs and habits of the Londoners are ridiculed with considerable humour. "After a consort of instrumental music, imitating the Waites of London, the Londoner rises," and retaliates on the pleasantry of his antagonist in a similar vein; then "the curtains are suddenly closed, and the company entertained by instrumental music and a song. The song ended, the curtains are drawn open again, and the Epilogue enters." The Epilogue performs his business, and "after a flourish of loud music, the curtain is closed, and the entertainment ended."
With this singular performance, our theatres recommenced their career under the Protectorate, after their violent suppression during the civil troubles. It was not a drama, it was not an opera, though partaking of the nature of each; and thus the English stage, at its second birth, received an impress which has affected its future progress.
Although from the time of Sir William Davenant to that of Sir Bulwer Lytton, men the most conspicuous in their day for literary attainments have been candidates for the palm of dramatic excellence, their efforts in this walk have been either feeble or exaggerated.
During the intervening period we have had authors who have excelled in every other department of literature, but not one dramatist who can be compared with that "giant race before the flood," the play-writers of the Elizabethan age. Mere amusement has been the aim; and with no more exalting object to purify its tone, the theatre at one time sank to be the nursery of vice, the hot-bed of idleness and depravity. The grandeur and the depth of its earlier votaries were unappreciated. It recognised no ennobling mission, ministered to no lofty purpose, inculcated no eternal truths; and therefore it has produced no great embodiment of thought and passion, appealing to the universal sympathies of the human race. One main cause was the frivolity and coarseness of the times which immediately succeeded the revival of the drama. Davenant himself had a masculine taste, and his productions exhibit nothing offensive to virtue or morality. But not so his immediate successor, Dryden. The rhyming plays of that great poet are disgraceful to the author who so debased his talents, and to the public that not only endured but applauded such offensive exhibitions. Then, too, when the intolerant bigotry of the Puritan fanaticism had generated that awful revulsion of tastes, manners, feelings and beliefs, that spread with such baneful rapidity over the land; and men sought relief from their previous forced hypocrisy in a licentious and depraved extravagance, the wickedness found its fullest and most perfect expression in the theatre; and the most consummate wit was exhausted in ridiculing all the loftier propensions of man's nature, and the foundation-principles of morality and social life. A literature nursed in so poisonous an atmosphere, necessarily progressed to a sickly maturity. Effects frequently become causal; and long after the nation had changed, the old manners exercised a traditionary influence on the stage, and literary aspirants continued to model their conceptions by established precedents.
The next piece brought out was styled the "Playhouse to be Let, containing the History of Sir Francis Drake, and the Cruelty of the Spaniards at Peru." The piece itself is a stranger jumble than the title. It is divided into five acts, and each act is a complete performance. In the first act, which is a sort of introduction to the rest, we have depicted the distress of the players in vacation time, compelling them to let their theatre. Several applicants come forward, offering to take the building for various purposes, and among the rest a Frenchman proposes to hire it for the performance of a farce by his troop of French actors. The second act constitutes the farce which is the "Sganarelle," of Molière, translated into broken English. The third act gives the history of Sir Francis Drake, put together as a sort of comic opera; and the serious opera follows in the fourth act, which depicts the cruelties of the Spaniards in Peru. The fifth act is a burlesque, written in the heroic measure, upon Antony's passion for Cleopatra, which was so popular that it was frequently acted afterwards as a separate piece. The amiable and pious Evelyn attended the representation, and thus mentions the fact in his diary:
"5 May, 1659.—I went to visit my brother in London, and next day to see a new opera, after the Italian way, in recitative music and sceanes, much inferior to the Italian composure and magnificence; but it was prodigious that in a time of such publiq consternation such a vanity should be kept up or permitted. I being engaged with company, could not decently resist the going to see it, though my heart smote me for it."
With success Davenant grew bolder, and soon ventured to bring on the stage several new plays, which were well received. He imperceptibly introduced a style novel both in the language and the acting; he studied smoothness of diction, and what a succeeding age would have termed greater correctness in the structure of his compositions. The circumstances, too, under which he was compelled to produce his pieces, forced him to appeal to the eye and the ear more than to the imagination, and he was the first that exchanged the rude hanging for the illusory scene. What he began, Dryden and others carried out to greater completion; and the public taste eventually became so changed, that Otway's "Caius Marius" displaced "Romeo and Juliet" for seventy years. For eighty years, Dryden's "All for Love" was performed instead of "Antony and Cleopatra;" and Davenant's alteration of "Macbeth" was preferred to the original for a like number of years. Dryden looked on this as the commencement of a new and more auspicious era for the English stage. "For myself," he observes, "and others who come after him we are bound with all veneration to his memory, to acknowledge what advantage we received from that excellent groundwork which he laid." But, as Hazlitt remarks, "Dryden had no dramatic genius, either in tragedy or comedy." He was unable to estimate correctly in what the great excellence of the Elizabethan writers consisted, nor did he discern the tendency or the causes of the literary revolution in which he was so conspicuous an actor. His appreciation, however, of the peculiar talents of his coadjutor shows both generosity and discernment. "I found him," says he, "of so quick a fancy, that nothing was proposed to him, on which he could not suddenly produce a thought extremely pleasant and surprising; and those first thoughts of his, contrary to the old Latin proverb, were not always the least happy. And as his fancy was quick, so likewise were the products of it remote and new. He borrowed not of any other; and his imaginations were such as could not easily enter into any other man. His corrections were sober and judicious; and he corrected his own writings much more severely than those of another man, bestowing twice the time and labour in polishing which he used in invention."
Davenant's loyalty or restlessness brought him into further trouble during the commotions which took place previous to the Restoration. To use his own words, he could not sit idle, and sigh with such as mourn to hear the drum. He became implicated in some way in the insurrection headed by Sir George Booth which extended over the counties of Cheshire and Lancashire, and was again consigned to a prison.
Whitelocke has the following entries:
"9 Aug. 1659.—A Proclamation past, declaring Sir George Booth and his adherents to be rebels and traitors.
"16.—Sir William Davenant was released out of prison."
So that his incarceration lasted but a few days. With the Restoration all political perils vanished, as well as the dangers that attended the exercise of his vocation.
To no class of men in England was that event more auspicious than to the persecuted actors. During the civil troubles they had been widely scattered, and but few of the old race remained. Some had sunk beneath the pressure of poverty and despair; some had fought and fallen for their Sovereign with unflinching heroism; some had been murdered in cold blood, by the pious enthusiasts who called that, "doing the work of the Lord." Those that survived had gradually gathered hope, new aspirants appeared, and soon a sufficient number was collected to constitute two efficient companies.
Rhodes, a bookseller, who had formerly been wardrobe-keeper to the Blackfriars Company, had got a small company together. But Killegrew and Davenant obtained the sole privilege of opening places for theatrical entertainments by the following grant, which passed the Privy Signet 21st of August, 1660.
"Charles II., by the grace of God, of England, Scotland, France and Ireland, King, Defender of the Fayth, &c., to all to whome these presents shall come, greeting. Whereas we are given to understand that certain persons in and about our citty of London, or the suburbs thereof, doe frequently assemble for the performing and acting of playes, and enterludes for rewards, to which divers of our subjects doe for their entertainment resort; which said playes, as we are informed, doe containe much matter of profanation, and scurrility, soe that such kind of entertainments, which, if well managed, might serve as morall instructions in human life, as the same are now used, doe for the most part tend to the debauchinge of the manners of such as are present at them, and are very scandalous and offensive to all pious and well-disposed persons. We taking the premisses into our princely consideration, yett not holding it necessary totally to suppresse the use of theaters, because wee are assured, that, if the evill and scandall in the playes that now are or haue bin acted were taken away, the same might serve as innocent and harmlesse divertisement for many of our subjects; and hauing experience of the art and skill of our trusty and well-beloued Thomas Killegrew, Esq., one of the Groomes of our Bedchamber, and of Sir William Dauenant, knight, for the purposes hereafter mentioned, doe hereby giue and grante unto the said Thomas Killigrew and Sir William Dauenant, full power and authority to erect two companies of players, consistinge respectively of such persons as they shall chuse and appoint, and to purchase builde and erect, or hire at their charge, as they shall thinke fitt, two houses or theatres, with all convenient roomes and other necessaries thereunto appertaining for the representation of tragydies, comedyes, playes, operas, and all other entertainments of that nature, in convenient places: and likewise to settle and establish such payments to be paid by those that shall resort to see the said representations performed, as either haue bin accustomely giuen and taken in the like kind, or as shall be reasonable in regard of the great expences of scenes, musick, and such new decorations as haue not been formerly used, with further power to make such allowances out of that which they shall so receive, to the actors, and other persons employed in the saide representations in both houses respectively, as they shall think fitt: the said companies to be under the government and authority of them the said Thomas Killegrew and Sir William Davenant. And in regard of the extraordinary licentiousness that hath been lately used in things of this nature, our pleasure is that there shall be no more places of representations, nor companies of actors or playes, or operas by recitative, or musick, or representations by dancing and scenes, or any other entertainments on the stage, in our citties of London or Westminster, or in the liberties of them, than the two to be now erected by vertue of this authority. Nevertheless, wee doe hereby by our authority royal, strictly enjoine the said Thomas Killegrew and Sir William Dauenant, that they do not at any time hereafter, cause to be acted or represented, any play, enterlude, or opera, containing any matter of prophanation, scurrility or obscenity. And wee doe further hereby authorise and command them the said Thomas Killegrew and Sir William Davenant to peruse all plays that have been formerly written, and to expunge all prophanesse and scurrility from the same, before they be represented or acted. And this our grant and authority, made to the said Thomas Killegrew and Sir William Davenant, shall be effectual and remaine in full force and virtue, notwithstanding any former order or direction by us given, for the suppressing of playhouses and playes, or any other entertainments of the stage. Given, &c.
"August 21, 1660."
The two companies were speedily organized, one by the title of the King's Servants; the other, under the patronage of the Duke of York, was called the Duke's Company. Killegrew had the former, Sir William Davenant the latter. Killegrew occupied, first the "Red Bull," in St. John's Street; afterwards Gibbon's tennis-court, Vere Street, Clare-Market, and finally removed to the new Theatre Royal built for them in Drury Lane. Davenant, about March, 1662, established his company in a new theatre in Portugal Row, near Lincoln's Inn Fields; and it was under his management that Betterton, who had already a good reputation, gave evidence of his extraordinary powers. The first piece he reproduced here was his "Siege of Rhodes," and this play appears to have been the one in which the female parts were first performed by women; another important innovation some time before made in France and Italy, but for the adoption of which the stage in this country is indebted to the theatrical efforts of Davenant. In the patent granted to Davenant this year, the practice received the royal sanction, as the reader will perceive by the subjoined extract:
"And for as much as many plays, formerly acted, do contain several profane, obscene and scurrilous passages; and the women's parts therein have been acted by men in the habits of women, at which some have taken offence; for the preventing these abuses for the future, we do hereby strictly command and enjoin, that from henceforth no new play shall be acted by either of the said companies, containing any passages offensive to piety and good manners, nor any old or revived play, containing any such offensive passages as aforesaid, until the same shall be corrected and purged, by the said masters or governors of the said companies, from all such offensive and scandalous passages as aforesaid. And we do likewise permit and give leave that all the women's parts to be acted in either of the said two companies, for the time to come, may be performed by women, as long as these recreations which, by reason of the abuses aforesaid, were scandalous and offensive, may, by such reformation, be esteemed not only harmless delights, but useful and instructive representations of human life, to such of our good subjects as shall resort to the same."
We are enabled to form some estimate of the profits of theatrical speculation at that period. The receipts were divided into fifteen shares, of which ten were allotted to Davenant. Of these, one was to provide dresses, scenery, &c., two were to be appropriated to the expenses of house-rent, buildings, &c., and the other seven to maintain the women, &c., and "in consideration of erecting and establishing his actors to be a company, and his pains and expenses for that purpose for many years." The remaining five shares were divided among the company; and Sir Henry Herbert tells us that Davenant drew from these ten shares £200 a week.
During the competition of the two companies for public favour, it was usual for each to secure the "taking" poets by a kind of retaining fee, which, according to Gildon, seldom or never amounted to more than forty shillings a week. There is a petition of Killegrew extant complaining, that although Dryden received his pay with exemplary regularity, he was not very punctual with his work: nay more, that "Mr. Dryden has now, jointly with Mr. Lee (who was in pension with us to the last day of our playing and shall continue), written a play called 'Œdipus,' and given it to the Duke's Company, contrary to his said agreement, his promise, and all gratitude; to the great prejudice and almost undoing of the company, they being the only poets remaining to us."
Davenant's success was so great that his theatre was too small for his audience, and he commenced building a new one in Dorset Gardens, near Dorset Stairs, which he did not live to see completed, but into which his company moved on November 9th, 1671, about three years after his death. The building stood fronting the river on the east side of Salisbury Court. It was taken down about 1730. He still retained his early partiality for Shakespeare, and displayed much ingenuity in bringing his pieces on the stage. "Romeo and Juliet " was not popular, so it was submitted to the amending hand of a fashionable author, who put it into a presentable shape, altered the catastrophe, and gave the drama a happy termination. The piece so improved was acceptable to the public, and had a run, and Davenant smuggled in the original by playing it on alternate nights with the more favoured modification by the Honourable James Howard. His efforts to divert the public diminished not with advancing years. "The Rivals," a comedy, "The Man's the Master," a comedy, "Macbeth," altered from Shakespeare, and "The Enchanted Island," an alteration of "The Tempest," in which he was assisted by Dryden, were produced in rapid succession. The troubles and vicissitudes of his life were over; a popular dramatist and a successful manager, the favourite alike of the Court and the people, he died in the full tide of popularity and success at his lodgings in Lincoln's Inn Fields, April 7th, 1668, aged sixty-three.
He was buried, two days afterwards, in the south transept of Westminster Abbey; his entire company attended to pay their last tribute to his remains, and on his gravestone were inscribed the words:
"O rare Sir William Davenant!"
It would be superfluous here to enter into any further examination of his character or abilities. While still young, he conceived a correct estimate of his own powers, found his proper place in life, and adhered to one definite purpose of action with a consistency and resolution, which neither success nor adversity could weaken or overpower. He possessed invention, facility, an unrivalled sagacity in discerning the taste of the public, and tact in providing for its gratification. Hence, whether inventing for himself, or reconstructing the conceptions of others, he seldom failed of success; for he knew precisely what was wanted, and readily debased or refined his material to the required standard. Calling to his aid "the music of Italy and the scenery of France," he undertook to restore the English stage; but the dramatic, like the political restoration, was the commencement of a new era, rather than a revivification of the old existence. The spirit that brooded over our earlier stage was as hopelessly extinct as was the inner might and the pride that gave life to the dominion of the Tudor. The elder dramatist wrote for the stage, the more recent fitted his compositions to the stage. Each were exponents of the opinions, indices of the tastes of their respective times; but the former ruled as a master, and while reflecting and influenced by the changing phases of contemporary manners, moulded with plastic power the thoughts and opinions of his auditors, and dictated laws which they implicitly obeyed. The later dynasty meekly abnegated all independent action, content to give utterance to the popular feeling, and to register the ephemeral follies that swept across the surface of society. To investigate the causes of so fundamental a change, were to exceed the scope of this memoir. They intertwine with the springs of our political and social economy. Much vapid declamation has been expended on the degeneracy of the modern stage, but it requires no profound penetration to discover that its present condition is an unavoidable effect of our present state of civilization. Spasmodic efforts may be attempted at intervals to make it what it is not, but the influence it once possessed has passed from it for ever.
A reference to "Gondibert," his most cherished production, awakens some sensation of melancholy. This poem, he fondly hoped was to transmit his name as a household word to unborn generations of Englishmen. His plays were written for temporary purposes. They were the exercise of the vocation he had selected for his honour and sustentation through life; but in "Gondibert" he had indulged in higher aspirations, and had challenged the admiration of posterity. He would exalt virtue, teach future ages how to live, and fame should be his immortal reward.
"He who writes an heroic poem," says he, in his postscript to that work, "leaves an estate entailed, and he gives a greater gift to posterity than to the present age; for a public benefit is best measured in the number of receivers; and our contemporaries are but few when reckoned with those who shall succeed.
"If thou art a malicious reader, thou wilt remember my preface, boldly confessed, that a main motive to this undertaking was a desire of fame, and thou mayst likewise say, I may very possibly not live to enjoy it. Truly, I have some years ago considered that fame, like time, only gets a reverence by long running; and that, like a river, it is narrowest where it is bred, and broadest afar off; but this concludes it not unprofitable, for he whose writings divert men from indiscretion and vice, becomes famous, as he is an example to others' endeavours: and exemplary writers are wiser than to depend on the gratuities of this world, since the kind looks and praises of the present age, for reclaiming a few, are not mentionable with those solid rewards in Heaven for a long and continual conversion of posterity."
The dreary oblivion into which the work has fallen presents a touching comment on the vanity of all such enthusiastic anticipations. It has passed the ordeal of a trying criticism, and the partial judgment of its admirers has been overruled by the irreversible decree of time and opinion. It has great beauties, scattered like gems, here and there along the surface; but the grave faults which pervade the whole composition, more than eclipse their lustre. The fable is languid, the subject of no striking interest, the metre tiresome and monotonous, and the soberness of style we require in an epic vitiated by the quaintness and abruptness, the writers of that age so universally affected. But it has fancy, imagery, enlarged views of life and science, and abounds with striking apophthegms and deep moral reflections, clothed in chaste and forcible language. We present the reader with the following extracts:
Of a court he says:
"There prosperous power sleeps long, though suitors wake."
"She visits cities, but she dwells on thrones."
Of the pious man, he
"Served Heaven with praise, the world with prayer."
Men from themselves, but not from power, secure."
"If you approve what numbers lawful think,
Be bold, for numbers cancel bashfulness;
Extremes from which a King would blushing shrink,
Unblushing senates act as no excess."
Describing musical instruments, he says, all
"That joy did e'er invent, or breath inspired,
Or flying fingers touch'd into a voice."
Of a temple:
"This, to soothe Heaven, the bloody Clephes built,
As if Heaven's King so soft and easy were,
So meanly housed in heaven, and kind to guilt,
That he would be a tyrant's tenant here."
The library, which, in the House of Astragon, he places near the Cabinet of Death, he calls:
"The monument of vanished minds."
"Where they thought they saw
The assembled souls of all that men held wise."
"In little tomes these grave first lawyers lie,
In volumes their interpreters below."
"About this sacred little book did stand,
Unwieldy volumes, and in number great;
And long it was since any reader's hand
Had reach'd them from their unfrequented seat.
"For a deep dust (which Time does softly shed,
Where only time does come,) their covers bear,
On which grave spiders streets of webs had spread,
Subtle and slight, as the grave writers were.
"In these, Heaven's holy fire does vainly burn;
Nor warms, nor lights, but is in sparkles spent;
Where froward authors, with disputes have torn
The garment seamless as the firmament."
Of the instruction that the pages of Gondibert receive from their lord, he thus speaks:
"But with the early sun he rose, and taught
These youths by growing Virtue to grow great;
Show'd greatness is without it blindly sought,
A desperate charge which ends in base retreat.
"He taught them Shame, the sudden sense of ill;
Shame, nature's hasty conscience, which forbids
Weak inclination ere it grows to will,
Or stays rash will before it grows to deeds.
"He taught them Honour, virtue's bashfulness,
A fort so yieldless that it fears to treat;
Like power, it grows to nothing, growing less;
Honour, the moral conscience of the great.
"He taught them Kindness, soul's civility,
In which nor courts nor cities have a part;
For theirs is fashion, this from falsehood free,
Where love and pleasure know no lust nor art.
"He taught them love of Toil, Toil which does keep
Obstructions from the mind, and quench the blood;
Ease but belongs to us, like Sleep, and sleep,
Like Opium, is our med'cine, not our food."
We conclude our extracts by the following quatrain:
"Rich are the diligent, who can command
Time, nature's stock! and could his hour-glass fall,
Would, as for seed of stars, stoop for the sand,
And by incessant labour gather all!"
One incident in our poet's life deserves honourable mention. When imprisoned by the Parliament, as has been recorded, Milton is reported to have interceded for his release. The obligation was not unremembered. At the Restoration, that stern and unyielding apologist for regicide was in the most imminent danger. Davenant exerted all his great personal influence in his favour, and succeeded in securing his safety. This graceful and successful interposition in behalf of the immortal writer of "Paradise Lost," when all other claims to remembrance are forgotten, may still suffice to shelter from oblivion, and retain in men's affections, the name of Sir William Davenant.