Algernon Charles Swinburne.

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It shall attend while I attend on thee.

And with this pretty little instance of courtly and courteous euphuism we
pass from the first to the second and most important act in the play.

Any reader well versed in the text of Shakespeare, and ill versed in the
work of his early rivals and his later pupils, might surely be forgiven
if on a first reading of the speech with which this act opens he should
cry out with Capell that here at least was the unformed hand of the
Master perceptible and verifiable indeed. The writer, he might say, has
the very glance of his eye, the very trick of his gait, the very note of
his accent. But on getting a little more knowledge, such a reader will
find the use of it in the perception to which he will have attained that
in his early plays, as in his two early poems, the style of Shakespeare
was not for the most part distinctively his own. It was that of a crew,
a knot of young writers, among whom he found at once both leaders and
followers to be guided and to guide. A mere glance into the rich lyric
literature of the period will suffice to show the dullest eye and teach
the densest ear how nearly innumerable were the Englishmen of Elizabeth's
time who could sing in the courtly or pastoral key of the season, each
man of them a few notes of his own, simple or fantastic, but all sweet,
clear, genuine of their kind: -

Facies non omnibus una,
Nec diversa tamen:

and yet so close is the generic likeness between flower and flower of the
same lyrical garden that the first half of the quotation seems but half
applicable here. In Bird's, Morley's, Dowland's collections of music
with the words appended - in such jewelled volumes as _England's Helicon_
and _Davison's Poetical Rhapsody_ - their name is Legion, their numbers
are numberless. You cannot call them imitators, this man of that, or all
of any; they were all of one school, but it was a school without a master
or a head. And even so it was with the earliest sect or gathering of
dramatic writers in England. Marlowe alone stood apart and above them
all - the young Shakespeare among the rest; but among these we cannot
count, we cannot guess, how many were wellnigh as competent as he to
continue the fluent rhyme, to prolong the facile echo, of Greene and
Peele, their first and most famous leaders.

No more docile or capable pupil could have been desired by any master in
any art than the author of _David and Bethsabe_ has found in the writer
of this second act. He has indeed surpassed his model, if not in grace
and sweetness, yet in taste or tact of expression, in continuity and
equality of style. Vigour is not the principal note of his manner, but
compared with the soft effusive ebullience of his master's we may fairly
call it vigorous and condensed. But all this merit or demerit is matter
of mere language only. The poet - a very pretty poet in his way, and
doubtless capable of gracious work enough in the idyllic or elegiac line
of business - shows about as much capacity to grasp and handle the fine
intimacies of character and the large issues of circumstance to any
tragic or dramatic purpose, as might be expected from an idyllic or
elegiac poet who should suddenly assume the buskin of tragedy. Let us
suppose that Moschus, for example, on the strength of having written a
sweeter elegy than ever before was chanted over the untimely grave of a
friend and fellow-singer, had said within himself, "Go to, I will be
Sophocles"; can we imagine that the tragic result would have been other
than tragical indeed for the credit of his gentle name, and comical
indeed for all who might have envied the mild and modest excellence which
fashion or hypocrisy might for years have induced them to besprinkle with
the froth and slaver of their promiscuous and pointless adulation?

As the play is not more generally known than it deserves to be, - or
perhaps we may say it is somewhat less known, though its claim to general
notice is faint indeed compared with that of many a poem of its age
familiar only to special students in our own - I will transcribe a few
passages to show how far the writer could reach at his best; leaving for
others to indicate how far short of that not inaccessible point he is too
generally content to fall and to remain.

The opening speech is spoken by one Lodowick, a parasite of the King's;
who would appear, like Francois Villon under the roof of his Fat Madge,
to have succeeded in reconciling the professional duties - may I not say,
the generally discordant and discrepant offices? - of a poet and a pimp.

I might perceive his eye in her eye lost,
His ear to drink her sweet tongue's utterance;
And changing passion, like inconstant clouds,
That, rackt upon the carriage of the winds,
Increase, and die, in his disturbed cheeks.
Lo, when she blushed, even then did he look pale;
As if her cheeks by some enchanted power
Attracted had the cherry blood from his: {245a}
Anon, with reverent fear when she grew pale,
His cheeks put on their scarlet ornaments;
But no more like her oriental red
Than brick to coral, or live things to dead. {245b}
Why did he then thus counterfeit her looks?
If she did blush, 'twas tender modest shame,
Being in the sacred presence of a king;
If he did blush, 'twas red immodest shame
To vail his eyes amiss, being a king;
If she looked pale, 'twas silly woman's fear
To bear herself in presence of a king;
If he looked pale, it was with guilty fear
To dote amiss, being a mighty king.

This is better than the insufferable style of _Locrine_, which is in
great part made up of such rhymeless couplets, each tagged with an empty
verbal antithesis; but taken as a sample of dramatic writing, it is but
just better than what is utterly intolerable. Dogberry has defined it
exactly; it is most tolerable - and not to be endured.

The following speech of King Edward is in that better style of which the
author's two chief models were not at their best incapable for awhile
under the influence and guidance (we may suppose) of their friend
Marlowe.

She is grown more fairer far since I came hither;
Her voice more silver every word than other,
Her wit more fluent. What a strange discourse
Unfolded she of David and his Scots!
_Even thus_, quoth she, _he spake_ - and then spake broad,
With epithets and accents of the Scot;
But somewhat better than the Scot could speak:
_And thus_, quoth she - and answered then herself;
For who could speak like her? but she herself
Breathes from the wall an angel's note from heaven
Of sweet defiance to her barbarous foes.
When she would talk of peace, methinks her tongue
Commanded war to prison; {246} when of war,
It wakened Caesar from his Roman grave
To hear war beautified by her discourse.
Wisdom is foolishness, but in her tongue;
Beauty a slander, but in her fair face;
There is no summer but in her cheerful looks,
Nor frosty winter but in her disdain.
I cannot blame the Scots that did besiege her,
For she is all the treasure of our land;
But call them cowards that they ran away,
Having so rich and fair a cause to stay.

But if for a moment we may fancy that here and there we have caught such
an echo of Marlowe as may have fallen from the lips of Shakespeare in his
salad days, in his period of poetic pupilage, we have but a very little
way to go forward before we come upon indisputable proof that the pupil
was one of feebler hand and fainter voice than Shakespeare. Let us take
the passage on poetry, beginning -

Now, Lodowick, invocate {247} some golden Muse
To bring thee hither an enchanted pen;

and so forth. No scholar in English poetry but will recognise at once
the flat and futile imitation of Marlowe; not of his great general style
alone, but of one special and transcendant passage which can never be too
often quoted.

If all the pens that ever poets held
Had fed the feeling of their masters' thoughts,
And every sweetness that inspired their hearts,
Their minds, and muses on admired themes;
If all the heavenly quintessence they still
From their immortal flowers of poesy,
Wherein, as in a mirror, we perceive
The highest reaches of a human wit;
If these had made one poem's period,
And all combined in beauty's worthiness,
Yet should there hover in their restless heads
One thought, one grace, one wonder, at the least,
Which into words no virtue can digest. {248}

Infinite as is the distance between the long roll of these mighty lines
and the thin tinkle of their feeble imitator's, yet we cannot choose but
catch the ineffectual note of a would-be echo in the speech of the King
to his parasite -

For so much moving hath a poet's pen, etc., etc.

It is really not worth while to transcribe the poor meagre versicles at
length: but a glance at the text will show how much fitter was their
author to continue the tradition of Peele than to emulate the innovations
of Marlowe. In the speeches that follow there is much pretty verbiage
after the general manner of Elizabethan sonnetteers, touched here and
there with something of a higher tone; but the whole scene drags, flags,
halts onward at such a languid rate, that to pick out all the prettiest
lines by way of sample would give a favourable impression but too likely
to be reversed on further and fuller acquaintance.

Forget not to set down, how passionate,
How heart-sick, and how full of languishment,
Her beauty makes me. . . . . .
Write on, while I peruse her in my thoughts.
Her voice to music, or the nightingale:
To music every summer-leaping swain
Compares his sunburnt lover when she speaks;
And why should I speak of the nightingale?
The nightingale sings of adulterate wrong;
And that, compared, is too satirical:
For sin, though sin, would not be so esteemed;
But rather virtue sin, sin virtue deemed.
Her hair, far softer than the silkworm's twist,
Like as a flattering glass, doth make more fair
The yellow amber: - _Like a flattering glass_
Comes in too soon; for, writing of her eyes,
I'll say that like a glass they catch the sun,
And thence the hot reflection doth rebound
Against my breast, and burns the heart within.
Ah, what a world of descant makes my soul
Upon this voluntary ground of love!

"Pretty enough, very pretty! but" exactly as like and as near the style
of Shakespeare's early plays as is the style of Constable's sonnets to
that of Shakespeare's. Unless we are to assign to the Master every
unaccredited song, sonnet, elegy, tragedy, comedy, and farce of his
period, which bears the same marks of the same date - a date, like our
own, of too prolific and imitative production - as we find inscribed on
the greater part of his own early work; unless we are to carry even as
far as this the audacity and arrogance of our sciolism, we must somewhere
make a halt - and it must be on the near side of such an attribution as
that of _King Edward III_. to the hand of Shakespeare.

With the disappearance of the poetic pimp and the entrance of the
unsuspecting Countess, the style rises yet again - and really, this time,
much to the author's credit. It would need a very fine touch from a very
powerful hand to improve on the delicacy and dexterity of the prelude or
overture to the King's avowal of adulterous love. But when all is said,
though very delicate and very dexterous, it is not forcible work: I do
not mean by forcible the same as violent, spasmodic, emphatic beyond the
modesty of nature; a poet is of course only to be commended, and that
heartily, for keeping within this bound; but he is not to be commended
for coming short of it. This whole scene is full of mild and temperate
beauty, of fanciful yet earnest simplicity; but the note of it, the
expression, the dominant key of the style, is less appropriate to the
utterance of a deep and deadly passion than - at the utmost - of what
modern tongues might call a strong and rather dangerous flirtation.
Passion, so to speak, is quite out of this writer's call; the depths and
heights of manly as of womanly emotion are alike beyond his reach.

Thought and affliction, passion, hell itself,
He turns to favour and to prettiness.

"To favour and to prettiness"; the definition of his utmost merit and
demerit, his final achievement and shortcoming, is here complete and
exact. Witness the sweet quiet example of idyllic work which I extract
from a scene beginning in the regular amoebaean style of ancient
pastoral.

_Edward_. Thou hear'st me say that I do dote on thee.

_Countess_. If on my beauty, take it if thou canst;
Though little, I do prize it ten times less:
If on my virtue, take it if thou canst;
For virtue's store by giving doth augment:
Be it on what it will that I can give
And thou canst take away, inherit it.

_Edward_. It is thy beauty that I would enjoy.

_Countess_. O, were it painted, I would wipe it off,
And dispossess myself to give it thee:
But, sovereign, it is soldered to my life;
Take one and both; for like an humble shadow
It haunts the sunshine of my summer's life.

_Edward_. But thou mayst lend it me to sport withal.

_Countess_. As easy may my intellectual soul
Be lent away, and yet my body live,
As lend my body, palace to my soul,
Away from her, and yet retain my soul.
My body is her bower, her court, her abbey,
And she an angel, pure, divine, unspotted;
If I should lend her house, my lord, to thee,
I kill my poor soul, and my poor soul me.

Once more, this last couplet is very much in the style of Shakespeare's
sonnets; nor is it wholly unlike even the dramatic style of Shakespeare
in his youth - and some dozen other poets or poeticules of the time. But
throughout this part of the play the recurrence of a faint and
intermittent resemblance to Shakespeare is more frequently noticeable
than elsewhere. {252} A student of imperfect memory but not of defective
intuition might pardonably assign such couplets, on hearing them cited,
to the master-hand itself; but such a student would be likelier to refer
them to the sonnetteer than to the dramatist. And a casual likeness to
the style of Shakespeare's sonnets is not exactly sufficient evidence to
warrant such an otherwise unwarrantable addition of appendage to the list
of Shakespeare's plays.

A little further on we come upon the first and last passage which does
actually recall by its wording a famous instance of the full and ripened
style of Shakespeare.

He that doth clip or counterfeit your stamp
Shall die, my lord: and will your sacred self
Commit high treason 'gainst the King of heaven,
To stamp his image in forbidden metal,
Forgetting your allegiance and your oath?
In violating marriage' sacred law
You break a greater honour than yourself;
To be a king is of a younger house
Than to be married: your progenitor,
Sole reigning Adam on the universe,
By God was honoured for a married man,
But not by him anointed for a king.

Every possible reader, I suppose, will at once bethink himself of the
famous passage in _Measure for Measure_ which here may seem to be faintly
prefigured:

It were as good
To pardon him that hath from nature stolen
A man already made, as to remit
Their saucy sweetness, that do coin heaven's image
In stamps that are forbid:

and the very difference of style is not wider than the gulf which gapes
between the first style of Shakespeare and the last. But men of
Shakespeare's stamp, I venture to think, do not thus repeat themselves.
The echo of the passage in _A Midsummer Night's Dream_, describing the
girlish friendship of Hermia and Helena, which we find in the first act
of _The Two Noble Kinsmen_, describing the like girlish friendship of
Emilia and Flavina, is an echo of another sort. Both, I need hardly say,
are unquestionably Shakespeare's; but the fashion in which the matured
poet retouches and completes the sketch of his earlier years - composes an
oil painting, as it were, from the hints and suggestions of a
water-colour sketch long since designed and long since half forgotten - is
essentially different from the mere verbal and literal trick of
repetition which sciolists might think to detect in the present instance.
Again we must needs fall back on the inevitable and indefinable test of
style; a test which could be of no avail if we were foolish enough to
appeal to scholiasts and their attendant dunces, but which should be of
some avail if we appeal to experts and their attentive scholars; and by
this test we can but remark that neither the passage in _A Midsummer
Night's Dream_ nor the corresponsive passage in _The Two Noble Kinsmen_
could have been written by any hand known to us but Shakespeare's;
whereas the passage in _King Edward III_. might as certainly have been
written by any one out of a dozen poets then living as the answering
passage in _Measure for Measure_ could assuredly have been written by
Shakespeare alone.

As on a first reading of the _Hippolytus_ of Euripides we feel that, for
all the grace and freshness and lyric charm of its opening scenes, the
claim of the poem to our ultimate approval or disapproval must needs
depend on the success or failure of the first interview between Theseus
and his calumniated son; and as on finding that scene to be feeble and
futile and prosaic and verbose we feel that the poet who had a woman's
spite against women has here effectually and finally shown himself
powerless to handle the simplest elements of masculine passion, of manly
character and instinct; so in this less important case we feel that the
writer, having ventured on such a subject as the compulsory temptation of
a daughter by a father, who has been entrapped into so shameful an
undertaking through the treacherous exaction of an equivocal promise
unwarily confirmed by an inconsiderate oath, must be judged by the result
of his own enterprise; must fail or stand as a poet by its failure or
success. And his failure is only not complete; he is but just redeemed
from utter discomfiture by the fluency and simplicity of his equable but
inadequate style. Here as before we find plentiful examples of the
gracefully conventional tone current among the lesser writers of the
hour.

_Warwick_. How shall I enter on this graceless errand?
I must not call her child; for where's the father
That will in such a suit seduce his child?
Then, _Wife of Salisbury_; - shall I so begin?
No, he's my friend; and where is found the friend
That will do friendship such endamagement? - {255}
Neither my daughter, nor my dear friend's wife,
I am not Warwick, as thou think'st I am,
But an attorney from the court of hell;
That thus have housed my spirit in his form
To do a message to thee from the king.

This beginning is fair enough, if not specially fruitful in promise; but
the verses following are of the flattest order of commonplace. Hay and
grass and the spear of Achilles - of which tradition

the moral is,
What mighty men misdo, they can amend -

these are the fresh and original types on which our little poet is
compelled to fall back for support and illustration to a scene so full of
terrible suggestion and pathetic possibility.

The king will in his glory hide thy shame;
And those that gaze on him to find out thee
Will lose their eyesight, looking on the sun.
What can one drop of poison harm the sea,
Whose hugy vastures can digest the ill
And make it lose its operation?

And so forth, and so forth; _ad libitum_ if not _ad nauseam_. Let us
take but one or two more instances of the better sort.

_Countess_. Unnatural besiege! Woe me unhappy,
To have escaped the danger of my foes,
And to be ten times worse invir'd by friends!

(Here we come upon two more words unknown to Shakespeare; {256}
_besiege_, as a noun substantive, and _invired_ for _environed_.)

Hath he no means to stain my honest blood
But to corrupt the author of my blood
To be his scandalous and vile soliciter?
No marvel though the branches be infected,
When poison hath encompassed the roots;
No marvel though the leprous infant die,
When the stern dam envenometh the dug.
Why then, give sin a passport to offend,
And youth the dangerous rein of liberty;
Blot out the strict forbidding of the law;
And cancel every canon that prescribes
A shame for shame or penance for offence.
No, let me die, if his too boisterous will
Will have it so, before I will consent
To be an actor in his graceless lust.

_Warwick_. Why, now thou speak'st as I would have thee speak;
And mark how I unsay my words again.
An honourable grave is more esteemed
Than the polluted closet of a king;
The greater man, the greater is the thing,
Be it good or bad, that he shall undertake;
An unreputed mote, flying in the sun,
Presents a greater substance than it is;
The freshest summer's day doth soonest taint
The loathed carrion that it seems to kiss;
Deep are the blows made with a mighty axe;
That sin doth ten times aggravate itself
That is committed in a holy place;
An evil deed, done by authority,
Is sin, and subornation: Deck an ape
In tissue, and the beauty of the robe
Adds but the greater scorn unto the beast.

(Here are four passably good lines, which vaguely remind the reader of
something better read elsewhere; a common case enough with the more
tolerable work of small imitative poets.)

A spacious field of reasons could I urge
Between his glory, daughter, and thy shame:
That poison shows worst in a golden cup;
Dark night seems darker by the lightning flash;
_Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds_;
And every glory that inclines to sin,
The shame is treble by the opposite.
So leave I, with my blessing in thy bosom;
Which then convert to a most heavy curse,
When thou convert'st from honour's golden name
To the black faction of bed-blotting shame! [_Exit_.

_Countess_. I'll follow thee: - And when my mind turns so,
My body sink my soul in endless woe! [_Exit_.

So much for the central and crowning scene, the test, the climax, the
hinge on which the first part of this play turns; and seems to me, in
turning, to emit but a feeble and rusty squeak. No probable reader will
need to be reminded that the line which I have perhaps unnecessarily
italicised appears also as the last verse in the ninety-fourth of those
"sugared sonnets" which we know were in circulation about the time of
this play's first appearance among Shakespeare's "private friends"; in
other words, which enjoyed such a kind of public privacy or private
publicity as one or two among the most eminent English poets of our own
day have occasionally chosen for some part of their work, to screen it
for awhile as under the shelter and the shade of crepuscular laurels,
till ripe for the sunshine or the storm of public judgment. In the
present case, this debatable verse looks to me more like a loan or maybe
a theft from Shakespeare's private store of undramatic poetry than a
misapplication by its own author to dramatic purposes of a line too apt
and exquisite to endure without injury the transference from its original
setting.

The scene ensuing winds up the first part of this composite (or rather,
in one sense of the word, incomposite) poem. It may, on the whole, be
classed as something more than passably good: it is elegant, lively, even
spirited in style; showing at all events a marked advance upon the scene
which I have already stigmatised as a failure - that which attempts to
render the interview between Warwick and the King. It is hardly,
however, I should say, above the highest reach of Greene or Peele at the
smoothest and straightest of his flight. At its opening, indeed, we come
upon a line which inevitably recalls one of the finest touches in a much
later and deservedly more popular historical drama. On being informed by
Derby that

The king is in his closet, malcontent,
For what I know not, but he gave in charge,
Till after dinner, none should interrupt him;
The Countess Salisbury, and her father Warwick.
Artois, and all, look underneath the brows;

on receiving, I say, this ominous intimation, the prompt and
statesmanlike sagacity of Audley leads him at once as by intuition to the


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Online LibraryAlgernon Charles SwinburneA Study of Shakespeare → online text (page 13 of 17)