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Observe the phrases “Old Spenser," "a barbarous age,"
, “uncultivate and rude" by contrast with "an understanding age," the superior and altogether excellent age of Anne. Or take this from Evelyn's Diary (1661), “I saw 'Hamlet, Prince of Denmark,' played, but now the old plays began to disgust this refined age, since his Majesties being so long abroad." So swift a change in the national mind and outlook upon life had never before taken place, it has never taken place since. The Elizabethan traditions were lost, the ideals forgotten, the manners outgrown. The age of barbarism, it was assumed as beyond debate, had given place to that of civility. Partly, no doubt, the feeling arose out of the double victory of the Renaissance and the Reformation. Literature and religion had together thrown off the mediæval yoke. But we must add that at the same time literature had ceased to be national, and become in a high degree aristocratic. Poetry and criticism,” wrote Pope in 1716, “ being by no means the universal concern of the world, but only the affair of idle men who write in their closets, and of idle men who read there.” To be unlettered, unable to read, was no hindrance to the enjoyment of the works of Shakespeare and his fellow dramatists. So little was our greatest writer concerned with readers that he made no provision for the publication of his plays. When the theatres were closed, however, literature was altogether withdrawn from the people. They had no other resources. The first daily newspaper was not published until 1700, nor even at that date were readers numerous. “The call for books,” said Johnson,
“" was not in Milton's age what it is at present. To read was not then a general amusement; neither traders, nor often gentlemen, thought themselves disgraced by ignorance. The women had not then aspired to literature, nor was every house supplied with a closet of knowledge. Those indeed who professed learning were not less learned than at any other time; but of that middle race of students who read for pleasure or accomplishment, and who buy the numerous products of modern typography, the number was then comparatively small.” 1
i Life of Milton,
With the Restoration the theatres were indeed reopened, but neither the new drama nor the new poetry made any attempt to address the people. Both took their colour from the taste of the Court and fashionable society. Although the Civil War had ended in favour of the Puritans, the aristocratic party returned to place and power under the restored monarchy, bringing with it French preferences, and the reign of polite learning was established. Comedy apart, the taste of the polite" was the “heroic drama," the “heroic romance,” and the "heroic poem.” To understand the last-named, a form of narrative peculiar to the seventeenth century, one must know something of the former two. The novel is an eighteenth-century invention, the romances which formed the favourite reading of fashionable society in the previous century,“ ponderous and unmerciful” as Scott called them, were introduced from France during the Commonwealth period. The amorous Baron in the Rape of the Lock
every power ador'd
Of twelve vast French Romances, neatly gilt.” The earliest appears to have been de Gomberville's Polexandre, which was followed by other translations, like the famous Artamène ou le Grand Cyrus 2 (1649-53) by Mlle. Scudéry, and by the works of English imitators, like Roger Boyle, Earl of Orrery (Parthenissa, 1654), or Sir George Mackenzie (Aretina, 1661). These Romans de longue Haleine were of mixed lineage. Their immediate forefathers were the pastoral romances, and though the marvels and enchantments of the earlier chivalric tales are gone,
“the love of honour and the honour of love" remain to prove a relationship to these also, while the mingling of Moorish and classical personages recalls both Greek and Arabian fiction. But their chief recommendation to English society lay in their French manners, the elaborate code of sentiment and gallantry for which the Court of Louis XIV. was famous. The long-suffering reader followed through many volumes a rambling story without coherent plot or interest of character, out of all relation to real life, but his education was not neglected. At every turn and on every page he was lectured upon the etiquette of heroic behaviour and instructed in the proper carriage of an amorous suit. He had too the satisfaction of moving only in the highest society. "Romances," said Congreve, "are generally composed of the constant loves and invincible courages of Heroes, Heroines, Kings and Queens, mortals of the first rank, and so forth; where lofty language, miraculous contingencies, and impossible performances elevate and surprise the reader into a giddy delight, which leaves him flat
1 Unless we include L'Astrée, by Honore d'Urfé, part of which was translated in 1620.
2. Upon which Dryden's heroic play, Secret Love, or the Maiden Queen, is founded.
upon the ground whenever he leaves off.” The "heroic poems” of Davenant and Chamberlayne are of the same family as these romances, the poetical brethren of Pandion and Amphigenia,in which the sentiment and reflections suitable to persons of "quality" overpower both plot and characterisation, in which a formidable thicket of commentary overarches and almost completely conceals a thin and trickling stream of narrative. They are close relations also of the “heroic play” of the same period, which, said Dryden,“ should be an imitation in little of an heroic poem," drawing all things so far above the ordinary proportion of the stage, as that is beyond the cornmon words and actions of human life.” 2 How may this species of drama, a species in which, to quote Dryden again, we may justly claim precedence of Shakespeare and Fletcher," best be described? In its technical seventeenthcentury sense the title has been the cause of some confusion. Directly derived from its being writ" in that Verse," as Rymer said, “ which with Cowley, Denham, and Waller I take to be most proper for Epic Poetry," the "heroic play” is properly the rhymed play, of which, till he tired of it and changed his mind, Dryden was so stout a champion. But all heroic plays were not rhymed. To describe it, therefore, one must note other
1 By John Crowne, the author also of various“ heroic plays." 2 Of Heroic Plays, an Essay. 3 See the Prologue to Aurengzebe, 1676.
features by which the species may be distinguished. Davenant's Siege of Rhodes has sometimes been claimed as the first of the kind, and with reason enough, but Davenant, not venturing in 1656 upon a direct breach of the law against dramatic performances, cast his drama into the form of a musical entertainment accompanied by dialogue, and called it "opera," a work or
“ composition as distinguished from improvisation. If Davenant, however, the author of the first “heroic poem,” be disallowed the authorship of the first “heroic play,” the honour must go to the author of the first English "heroic romance," Roger
“ Boyle. It was written, as was his prose story, in a new way, “in the French manner, because I heard the king declare himself more in favour of their way of writing than ours. In effect the “heroic play” simply places upon the stage the romance of chivalry, a decayed and degenerate chivalry indeed, the child of a new generation, born and nurtured in France, modern in speech and manners, but with certain unmistakable marks of his blood and descent. A child of the French Renaissance, it need not surprise us that it preserved the unities and reduced the number of characters much below that usual in the Elizabethan drama. The mediæval material here meets the classical form. It chose, too, names historic and high-sounding, Greek or MoorishMustapha, son of Solyman the Magnificent : Almanzor and Almahide ; or the Conquest of Granada : The Amazon Queen ; or the Amours of Thalestris to Alexander the Great. It dealt almost exclusively with matter of love and honour, debated after the fashion of the mediæval courts of love, the aristocratic code of an exclusive society. “Are these heroes ?” inquires Boileau in his ridicule of the romances. “ Have they vowed never to speak of anything but love? Is it love that constitutes heroic quality ?"1 Its preference was all for exalted characters, typical perhaps though in no sense real, tremendous in speech as they were superhuman in capacity. These majestic persons,“ kings and kaisars," stalk the stage like Tamburlaine, the extravagance of their whirling eloquence matched by a sentiment soaring above the human pitch. As in the romances the story is so
1 Les Héros de Roman.
sheltered behind the amorous metaphysic, the love interest so predominates that what happens is matter only of secondary importance.
The play is at an end, but where's the plot ?
That circumstance the poet Bayes forgot.” 1 The directions for the composition of such a play, given by Tutor in Reformation, a Comedy (1673), succinctly set forth the requirements
Tut. Then, Sir, I take you some three or four or half-a-dozen Kings, but most commonly two or three serve my turn, not a farthing matter whether they lived within a hundred years of one another, not a farthing. Gentlemen, I have tryed it, and let the Play be what it will, the characters are still the same.
Pis. Trust me, Sir, this is a secret of your art.
Tut. As, Sir, you must always have two Ladies in Love with one man, or two men in love with one woman; if you make them the Father and Son, or two Brothers, or two Friends, 'twill do the better. There you know is opportunity for love and honour and fighting, and all that.
Ped. Very well, Sir.
Tut. Then, Sir, you must have a Hero that shall fight with all the world; yes, i'gad, and beat them too, and half the gods into the bargain, if occasion serves.
Ant. This method must needs take.
Davenant has other claims to remembrance than his poetry. He was Shakespeare's godson. He succeeded Ben Jonson as Poet-Laureate. When condemned to death as a Royalist Milton's intervention is said to have saved his life. As for Gondibert, unlike the Davidcis, it lived before it died. Not only was it praised by leading writers, like Hobbes, who declared that " it would last as long as the 'Iliad' or the 'Aeneid,'” but it
appears for a time to have ousted the French romances from ladies' favours. Cowley commended Gondibert for its freedom from romantic fiction, Waller too made handsome remarks in commendatory verses—
“ Now to thy matchless book
In such a style as courts may boast of now; 1 Buckingham's Rehearsal.
Quoted by Professor L. N. Chase in The English Heroic Play : a critical description of the rhymed tragedy of the Restoration. See also Scott's Dryden, Section 3.