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THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY.

A MAGAZINE OF LITERATURE, ART, AND POLITICS.

VOL. II. - AUGUST, 1858. - NO. X.







DAPHNAIDES:

OR THE ENGLISH LAUREL, FROM CHAUCER TO TENNYSON.


They in thir time did many a noble dede,
And for their worthines full oft have bore
The crown of laurer leavés on the hede,
As ye may in your oldé bookés rede:
And how that he that was a conquerour
Had by laurer alway his most honour.
DAN CHAUCER: _The Flowre and the Leaf_.


It is to be lamented that antiquarian zeal is so often diverted from
subjects of real to those of merely fanciful interest. The mercurial
young gentlemen who addict themselves to that exciting department of
letters are open to censure as being too fitful, too prone to flit,
bee-like, from flower to flower, now lighting momentarily upon an
indecipherable tombstone, now perching upon a rusty morion, here
dipping into crumbling palimpsests, there turning up a tattered
reputation from heaps of musty biography, or discovering that the
brightest names have had sad blots and blemishes scoured off by the
attrition of Time's ceaseless current. We can expect little from
investigators so volatile and capricious; else should we expect the
topic we approach in this paper to have been long ago flooded with
light as of Maedler's sun, its dust dissipated, and sundry curves and
angles which still baffle scrutiny and provoke curiosity exposed even
to Gallio-llke wayfarers. It is, in fact, a neglected topic. Its
derivatives are obscure, its facts doubtful. Questions spring from
it, sucker-like, numberless, which none may answer. Why, for
instance, in apportioning his gifts among his posterity, did Phoebus
assign the laurel to his step-progeny, the sons of song, and pour the
rest of the vegetable world into the pharmacopoeia of the favored
Æsculapius? Why was even this wretched legacy divided in aftertimes
with the children of Mars? Was its efficacy as a non-conductor of
lightning as reliable as was held by Tiberius, of guileless memory,
Emperor of Rome? Were its leaves really found green as ever in the
tomb of St. Humbert, a century and a half after the interment of that
holy confessor? In what reign was the first bay-leaf, rewarding the
first poet of English song, authoritatively conferred? These and other
like questions are of so material concern to the matter we have in
hand, that we may fairly stand amazed that they have thus far escaped
the exploration of archaeologists. It is not for us to busy ourselves
with other men's affairs. Time and patience shall develope profounder
mysteries than these. Let us only succeed in delineating in brief
monograph the outlines of a natural history of the British
Laurel, - _Laurea nobilis, sempervirens, florida_, - and in posting
here and there, as we go, a few landmarks that shall facilitate the
surveys of investigators yet unborn, and this our modest enterprise
shall be happily fulfilled.

One portion of it presents no serious difficulty. There is an
uninterrupted canon of the Laureates running as far back as the reign
of James I. Anterior, however, to that epoch, the catalogue fades away
in undistinguishable darkness. Names are there of undoubted splendor,
a splendor, indeed, far more glowing than that of any subsequent
monarch of the bays; but the legal title to the garland falls so far
short of satisfactory demonstration, as to oblige us to dismiss the
first seven Laureates with a dash of that ruthless criticism with
which Niebuhr, the regicide, dispatched the seven kings of Rome. To
mark clearly the bounds between the mythical and the indubitable, a
glance at the following brief of the Laureate _fasti_ will
greatly assist us, speeding us forward at once to the substance of our
story.


I. The MYTHICAL PERIOD, extending from the supposititious coronation
of Laureate CHAUCER, _in temp. Edv. III., 1367_, to that of
Laureate JONSON, _in temp. Caroli I._ To this period belong,


GEOFFREY CHAUCER, 1367-1400
JOHN SCOGAN, 1400-1413
JOHN KAY, 1465-
ANDREW BERNARD, 1486-
JOHN SKELTON, 1509-1529
EDMUND SPENSER, 1590-1599
SAMUEL DANIEL, }
MICHAEL DRAYTON, } 1600-1630
BEN JONSON, }



II. The DRAMATIC, extending from the latter event to the demise of
Laureate SHADWELL, _in temp. Gulielmi III., 1692._ Here we have


BEN JONSON, 1630-1637
WILL DAVENANT, 1637-1668
JOHN DRYDEN, 1670-1689
THOMAS SHADWELL, 1689-1692



III. The LYRIC, from the reign of Laureate TATE, 1693, to the demise
of Laureate PYE, 1813: -


NAHUM TATE, 1693-1714
NICHOLAS ROWE, 1714-1718
LAURENCE EUSDEN, 1719-1730
COLLEY CIBBER, 1730-1757
WILLIAM WHITEHEAD, 1758-1785
THOMAS WARTON, 1785-1790
HENRY JAMES PYE, 1790-1813



IV. The VOLUNTARY, from the accession of Laureate SOUTHEY, 1813, to
the present day: -


ROBERT SOUTHEY, 1813-1843
WILLIAM WORDSWORTH, 1843-1850
ALFRED TENNYSON, 1850-


Have no faith in those followers of vain traditions who assert the
existence of the Laureate office as early as the thirteenth century,
attached to the court of Henry III. Poets there were before
Chaucer, - _vixere fortes ante Agamemnona_, - but search Rymer from
cord to clasp and you shall find no documentary evidence of any one of
them wearing the leaf or receiving the stipend distinctive of the
place. Morbid credulity can go no farther back than to the "Father of
English Poetry": -


"That renounced Poet,
Dan Chaucer, well of English undefyled,
On Fame's eternall beadroll worthie to be fyled":[1]


"Him that left half-told
The story of Cambuscan bold;
Of Camball, and of Algarsife,
And who had Canace to wife":[2]


"That noble Chaucer, in those former times,
Who first enriched our English with his rhymes,
And was the first of ours that ever broke
Into the Muse's treasures, and first spoke
In mighty numbers."[3]


Tradition here first assumes that semblance of probability which
rendered it current for three centuries. Edward the Third - resplendent
name in the constitutional history of England - is supposed to have
been so deeply impressed with Chaucer's poetical merits, as to have
sought occasion for appropriate recognition. Opportunely came that
high festival at the capital of the world, whereat


"Franccis Petrark, the laureat poete,
... whos rethorike swete
Enlumined all Itaille of poetrie,"[4]


received the laurel crown at the hands of the Senate of Rome, with a
magnificence of ceremonial surpassed only by the triumphs of imperial
victors a thousand years before. Emulous of the gorgeous example, the
English monarch forthwith showered corresponding honors upon Dan
Chaucer, adding the substantial perquisites of a hundred marks and a
tierce of Malvoisie, a year. To this agreeable story, Laureate Warton,
than whom no man was more intimately conversant with the truth there
is in literary history, appears in one of his official odes to yield
assent: -


"Victorious Edward gave the vernal bough
Of Britain's bay to bloom on Chaucer's brow:
Fired with the gift, he changed to sounds sublime
His Norman minstrelsy's discordant chime."[5]


The legend, however, does not bear inquiry. King Edward, in 1367,
certainly granted an annuity of twenty marks to "his varlet, Geoffrey
Chaucer." Seven years later there was a further grant of a pitcher of
wine daily, together with the controllership of the wool and petty
wine revenues for the port of London. The latter appointment, to which
the pitcher of wine was doubtless incident, was attended with a
requirement that the new functionary should execute all the duties of
his post in person, - a requirement involving as constant and laborious
occupation as that of Charles Lamb, chained to his perch in the India
House. These concessions, varied slightly by subsequent patents from
Richard II. and Henry IV., form the entire foundation to the tale of
Chaucer's Laureateship.[6] There is no reference in grant or patent to
his poetical excellence or fame, no mention whatever of the laurel, no
verse among the countless lines of his poetry indicating the reception
of that crowning glory, no evidence that the third Edward was one whit
more sensitive to the charms of the Muses than the third William,
three hundred years after. Indeed, the condition with which the
appointment of this illustrious custom-house officer was hedged
evinced, if anything, a desire to discourage a profitless wooing of
the Nine, by so confining his mind to the incessant routine of an
uncongenial duty as to leave no hours of poetic idleness. Whatever
laurels Fame may justly garland the temples of Dan Chaucer withal, she
never, we are obliged to believe, employed royal instrument at the
coronation.

John Scogan, often confounded with an anterior Henry, has been named
as the Laureate of Henry IV., and immediate successor of
Chaucer. Laureate Jonson seems to encourage the notion: -


"_Mere Fool._ Skogan? What was he?

"_Jophiel._ Oh, a fine gentleman, and master of arts
Of Henry the Fourth's time, that made disguises
For the King's sons, and writ in ballad-royal
Daintily well.

"_Mere Fool_. But he wrote like a gentleman?

"_Jophiel_. In rhyme, fine, tinkling rhyme, and flowand verse,
With now and then some sense; and he was paid for't,
Regarded and rewarded; which few poets
Are nowadays."[7]


But Warton places Scogan in the reign of Edward IV., and reduces him
to the level of Court Jester, his authority being Dr. Andrew Borde,
who, early in the sixteenth century, published a volume of his
platitudes.[8] There is nothing to prove that he was either poet or
Laureate; while, on the other hand, it must be owned, one person might
at the same time fill the offices of Court Poet and Court Fool. It is
but fair to say that Tyrwhitt, who had all the learning and more than
the accuracy of Warton, inclines to Jonson's estimate of Scogan's
character and employment.

One John Kay, of whom we are singularly deficient in information, held
the post of Court Poet under the amorous Edward IV. What were his
functions and appointments we cannot discover.

Andrew Bernard held the office under Henry VII. and Henry VIII. He was
a churchman, royal historiographer, and tutor to Prince Arthur. His
official poems were in Latin. He was living as late as 1522.

John Skelton obtained the distinction of Poet-Laureate at Oxford, a
title afterward confirmed to him by the University of Cambridge: mere
university degrees, however, without royal indorsement. Henry
VIII. made him his "Royal Orator," whatever that may have been, and
otherwise treated him with favor; but we hear nothing of sack or
salary, find nothing among his poems to intimate that his performances
as Orator ever ran into verse, or that his "laurer" was of the regal
sort.

A long stride carries us to the latter years of Queen Elizabeth,
where, and in the ensuing reign of James, we find the names of Edmund
Spenser, Samuel Daniel, and Michael Drayton interwoven with the
bays. Spenser's possession of the laurel rests upon no better evidence
than that, when he presented the earlier books of the "Faery Queen" to
Elizabeth, a pension of fifty pounds a year was conferred upon him,
and that the praises of _Gloriana_ ring through his realm of
Faëry in unceasing panegyric. But guineas are not laurels, though for
sundry practical uses they are, perhaps, vastly better; nor are the
really earnest and ardent eulogia of the bard of Mulla the same in
kind with the harmonious twaddle of Tate, or the classical quiddities
of Pye. He was of another sphere, the highest heaven of song, who


"Waked his lofty lay
To grace Eliza's golden sway;
And called to life old Uther's elfin-tale,
And roved through many a necromantic vale,
Portraying chiefs who knew to tame
The goblin's ire, the dragon's flame,
To pierce the dark, enchanted hall
Where Virtue sat in lonely thrall.
From fabling Fancy's inmost store
A rich, romantic robe he bore,
A veil with visionary trappings hung,
And o'er his Virgin Queen the fairy-texture flung."[9]


Samuel Daniel was not only a favorite of Queen Elizabeth, but more
decidedly so of her successor in the queendom, Anne of Denmark. In the
household of the latter he held the position of Groom of the Chamber,
a sinecure of handsome endowment, so handsome, indeed, as to warrant
an occasional draft upon his talents for the entertainment of her
Majesty's immediate circle, which held itself as far as possible aloof
from the court, and was disposed to be self-reliant for its
amusements. Daniel had entered upon the vocation of courtier with
flattering auspices. His precocity while at Oxford has found him a
place in the "Bibliotheca Eruditorum Præcocium." Anthony Wood bears
witness to his thorough accomplishments in all kinds, especially in
history and poetry, specimens of which, the antiquary tells us, were
still, in his time, treasured among the archives of Magdalen. He
deported himself so amiably in society, and so inoffensively among his
fellow-bards, and versified his way so tranquilly into the good graces
of his royal mistresses, distending the thread, and diluting the
sense, and sparing the ornaments, of his passionless poetry, - if
poetry, which, by the definition of its highest authority, is "simple,
sensuous, passionate," can ever be unimpassioned, - that he was the
oracle of feminine taste while he lived, and at his death bequeathed a
fame yet dear to the school of Southey and Wordsworth. Daniel was no
otherwise Laureate than his position in the queen's household may
authorize that title. If ever so entitled by contemporaries, it was
quite in a Pickwickian and complimentary sense. His retreat from the
busy vanity of court life, an event which happened several years
before his decease in 1619, was hastened by the consciousness of a
waning reputation, and of the propriety of seeking better shelter than
that of his laurels. His eloquent "Defense of Rhyme" still asserts for
him a place in the hearts of all lovers of stately English prose.

Old Michael Drayton, whose portrait has descended to us, surmounted
with an exuberant twig of bays, is vulgarly classed with the
legitimate Laureates. Southey, pardonably anxious to magnify an office
belittled by some of its occupants, does not scruple to rank Spenser,
Daniel, and Drayton among the Laurelled: -


"That wreath, which, in Eliza's golden days,
My master dear, divinest Spenser, wore,
That which rewarded Drayton's learned lays,
Which thoughtful Ben and gentle Daniel bore," etc.


But in sober prose Southey knew, and later in life taught, that not
one of the three named ever wore the authentic laurel.[10] That Drayton
deserved it, even as a successor of the divinest Spenser, who shall
deny? With enough of patience and pedantry to prompt the composition
of that most laborious, and, upon the whole, most humdrum and
wearisome poem of modern times, the "Polyolbion," he nevertheless
possessed an abounding exuberance of delicate fancy and sound poetical
judgment, traces of which flash not unfrequently even athwart the
dulness of his _magnum opus_, and through the mock-heroism of
"England's Heroical Epistles," while they have full play in his "Court
of Faëry." Drayton's great defect was the entire absence of that
dramatic talent so marvellously developed among his contemporaries, - a
defect, as we shall presently see, sufficient of itself to disqualify
him for the duties of Court Poet. But, what was still worse, his mind
was not gifted with facility and versatility of invention, two equally
essential requisites; and to install him in a position where such
faculties were hourly called into play would have been to put the
wrong man in the worst possible place. Drayton was accordingly a
court-pensioner, but not a court-poet. His laurel was the honorary
tribute of admiring friends, in an age when royal pedantry rendered
learning fashionable and a topic of exaggerated regard. Southey's
admission is to this purpose. "He was," he says, "one of the poets to
whom the title of Laureate was given in that age, - not as holding the
office, but as a mark of honor, to which they were entitled." And with
the poetical topographer such honors abounded. Not only was he
gratified with the zealous labors of Selden in illustration of the
"Polyolbion," but his death was lamented in verse of Jonson, upon
marble supplied by the Countess of Dorset: -


"Do, pious marble, let thy readers know
What they and what their children owe
To Drayton's name, whose sacred dust
We recommend unto thy trust.
Protect his memory, and preserve his story;
Remain a lasting monument of his glory:
And when thy ruins shall disclaim
To be the treasurer of his name,
His name, that cannot fade, shall be
An everlasting monument to thee."


The Laureateship, we thus discover, had not, down to the days of
James, become an institution. Our mythical series shrink from close
scrutiny. But in the gayeties of the court of the Stuarts arose
occasion for the continuous and profitable employment of a court-poet,
and there was enough thrift in the king to see the advantage of
securing the service for a certain small annuity, rather than by the
payment of large sums as presents for occasional labors. The masque, a
form of dramatic representation, borrowed from the Italian, had been
introduced into England during the reign of Elizabeth. The interest
depended upon the development of an allegorical subject apposite to
the event which the performance proposed to celebrate, such as a royal
marriage, or birthday, or visit, or progress, or a marriage or other
notable event among the nobility and gentry attached to the court, or
an entertainment in honor of some distinguished personage. To produce
startling and telling stage effects, machinery of the most ingenious
contrivance was devised; scenery, as yet unknown in ordinary
exhibitions of the stage, was painted with elaborate finish; goddesses
in the most attenuated Cyprus lawn, bespangled with jewels, had to
slide down upon invisible wires from a visible Olympus; Tritons had to
rise from the halls of Neptune through waters whose undulations the
nicer resources of recent art could not render more genuinely marine;
fountains disclosed the most bewitching of Naiads; and Druidical oaks,
expanding, surrendered the imprisoned Hamadryad to the air of
heaven. Fairies and Elves, Satyrs and Forsters, Centaurs and Lapithae,
played their parts in these gaudy spectacles with every conventional
requirement of shape, costume, and behavior _point-de-vice_, and were
supplied by the poet, to whom the letter-press of the show had been
confided, with language and a plot, both pregnant with more than
Platonic morality. Some idea of the magnificence of these displays,
which beggared the royal privy-purse, drove household-treasurers mad,
and often left poet and machinist whistling for pay, may be gathered
from the fact that a masque sometimes cost as much as two thousand
pounds in the mechanical getting-up, a sum far more formidable in the
days of exclusively hard money than in these of paper currency. Scott
has described, for the benefit of the general reader, one such pageant
among the "princely pleasures of Kenilworth"; while Milton, in his
"Masque performed at Ludlow Castle," presents the libretto of another,
of the simpler and less expensive sort. During the reign of James, the
passion for masques kindled into a mania. The days and nights of
Inigo Jones were spent in inventing machinery and contriving
stage-effects. Daniel, Middleton, Fletcher, and Jonson were busied
with the composition of the text; and the court ladies and cavaliers
were all from morning till night in the hands of their dancing and
music masters, or at private study, or at rehearsal, preparing for the
pageant, the representation of which fell to their share and won them
enviable applause. Of course the burden of original invention fell
upon the poets; and of the poets, Daniel and Jonson were the most
heavily taxed. In 1616, James I., by patent, granted to Jonson an
annuity for life of one hundred marks, to him in hand not often well
and truly paid. He was not distinctly named as Laureate, but seems to
have been considered such; for Daniel, on his appointment, "withdrew
himself," according to Gifford, "entirely from court." The
strong-boxes of James and Charles seldom overflowed. Sir Robert Pye,
an ancestor of that Laureate Pye whom we shall discuss by-and-by, was
the paymaster, and often and again was the overwrought poet obliged to
raise


"A woful cry
To Sir Robert Pye,"


before some small instalment of long arrearages could be procured. And
when, rarely, very rarely, his Majesty condescended to remember the
necessities of "his and the Muses' servant," and send a present to the
Laureate's lodgings, its proportions were always so small as to excite
the ire of the insulted Ben, who would growl forth to the messenger,
"He would not have sent me this, (_scil._ wretched pittance,) did
I not live in an alley."

We now arrive at the true era of the Laureateship. Charles, in 1630,
became ambitious to signalize his reign by some fitting tribute to
literature. A petition from Ben Jonson pointed out the way. The
Laureate office was made a patentable one, in the gift of the Lord
Chamberlain, as purveyor of the royal amusements. Ben was confirmed
in the office. The salary was raised from one hundred marks to one
hundred pounds, an advance of fifty per cent, to which was added
yearly a tierce of Canary wine, - an appendage appropriate to the
poet's convivial habits, and doubtless suggested by the mistaken
precedent of Chaucer's daily flagon of wine. Ben Jonson was certainly,
of all men living in 1630, the right person to receive this honor,
which then implied, what it afterward ceased to do, the primacy of the
diocese of letters. His learning supplied ballast enough to keep the
lighter bulk of the poet in good trim, while it won that measure of
respect which mere poetical gifts and graces would not have
secured. He was the dean of that group of "poets, poetaccios,
poetasters, and poetillos," [11] who beset the court. If a display of
erudition were demanded, Ben was ready with the heavy artillery of the
unities, and all the laws of Aristotle and Horace, Quintilian and
Priscian, exemplified in tragedies of canonical structure, and
comedies whose prim regularity could not extinguish the most
delightful and original humor - Robert Burton's excepted - that
illustrated that brilliant period. But if the graceful lyric or
glittering masque were called for, the boundless wealth of Ben's
genius was most strikingly displayed. It has been the fashion, set by
such presumptuous blunderers as Warburton and such formal prigs as
Gifford, to deny our Laureate the possession of those ethereal
attributes of invention and fancy which play about the creations of
Shakspeare, and constitute their exquisite charm. This arbitrary
comparison of Jonson and Shakspeare has, in fact, been the bane of the
former's reputation. Those who have never read the masques argue,
that, as "very little Latin and less Greek," in truth no learning of
any traceable description, went to the creation of _Ariel_ and
_Caliban_, _Oberon_ and _Puck_, the possession of Latin, Greek, and
learning generally, incapacitates the proprietor for the same happy
exercise of the finer and more gracious faculties of wit and fancy.
Of this nonsense Jonson's masques are the best refutation. Marvels of
ingenuity in plot and construction, they abound in "dainty invention,"
animated dialogue, and some of the finest lyric passages to be found
in dramatic literature. They are the Laureate's true laurels. Had he
left nothing else, the "rare arch-poet" would have held, by virtue of
these alone, the elevated rank which his contemporaries, and our own,
freely assign him. Lamb, whose appreciation of the old dramatists was
extremely acute, remarks, - "A thousand beautiful passages from his
'New Inn,' and from those numerous court masques and entertainments
which he was in the daily habit of furnishing, might be adduced to
show the poetical fancy and elegance of mind of the supposed rugged
old bard." [12] And in excess of admiration at one of the Laureate's


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