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BEAUMONT AND FLETCHER.
BEAUMONT, BORN 1586,—DIED 1615.
POETRY of the highest order and of the loveliest character abounds in Beaumont and Fletcher, but so mixed up with inconsistent, and too often, alas! revolting matter, that, apart from passages which do not enter into the plan of this book, I had no alternative but either to confine the extracts to the small number which ensue, or to bring together a heap of the smallest quotations,—two or three lines at a time. I thought to have got a good deal more out of the Faithful Shepherdess, which I had not read for many years; but on renewing my acquaintance with it, I found that the same unaccountable fascination with the evil times which had spoilt these two fine poets in their other plays, had followed its author, beyond what I had supposed, even into the regions of Arcadia. Mr. Hazlitt, who loved sometimes to relieve his
mistrust by a fit of pastoral worship, pronounces the
Faithful Shepherdess to be “a perpetual feast of nectar'd sweets, where no crude surfeit reigns.” I wish I could think so. There are both hot and cold dishes in it, which I would quit at any time to go and dine with the honest lovers of Allan Ramsay, whose Gentle Shepherd, though of another and far inferior class of poetry, I take upon the whole to be the completest pastoral drama that ever was written.
It is a pity that Beaumont and Fletcher had not been born earlier, and in the neighbourhood of Shakspeare, and become his playmates. The wholesome company of the juvenile yeoman (like a greater Sandford) might have rectified the refined spirits of the young gentlemen, and saved their Hippocrene from becoming ditch-water. Even as it is, they seem different men when writing in their own persons, and following the taste of the town. Compare, for example, Beaumont's exquisite verses on Melancholy (here printed) with any one of their plays; or Fletcher's lines entitled An Honest Man's Fortune, with the play of the same name, to which it is appended. The difference is so great, and indeed is discernible to such an equal degree in the poetry which startles you in the plays themselves (as if two different souls were writing one passage), that it appears unaccountable, except on some principle anterior to their town life, and to education itself. Little is known of either of their families, except that there were numerous poets in both; but Fletcher's father was that Dean of Peterborough (afterwards Bishop of London) who behaved with such unfeeling impertinence to the Queen of Scots in her last moments, and who is said (as became such a man) to have died of chagrin because Elizabeth was angry at his marrying a second time. Was poetry such a “drug” with “both their houses” that the friends lost their respect for it? or was Fletcher's mother some angel of a womansome sequestered Miranda of the day—with whose spirit the “ earth” of the Dean her husband but ill accorded ?
Every devout lover of poetry must have experienced the wish of Coleridge, that Beaumont and Fletcher had written “poems instead of tragedies.” Imagine as voluminous a set of the one as they have given us of the other! It would have been to sequestered real life what Spenser was to the land of Faery,-a retreat beyond all groves and gardens, a region of medicinal sweets of thought and feeling. Nor would plenty of fable have been wanting. What a loss! And this,—their birthright with posterity– these extraordinary men sold for the mess of the loathsome pottage of the praise and profiigacy of the court of James I.
But let us blush to find fault with them, even for
such a descent from their height, while listening to their diviner moods.
Hence, all you vain delights,
Wherein you spend your folly;
But only Melancholy;
Welcome, folded arms and fixed eyes ;
Fountain heads and pathless groves,
2. « Lovely Melancholy.”—Tradition has given these verses to Beaumont, though they appeared for the first time in a play of Fletcher's after the death of his friend. In all probability Beaumont had partly sketched the play, and left the verses to be inserted.
I cannot help thinking that a couplet has been lost after the words “bats and owls.” It is true the four verses ending with those words might be made to belong to the preceding four, as among the things “welcomed;" but the junction would be forced, and the modulation injured. They may remain, too, where they are, as combining to suggest the “sounds” which the melancholy man feeds upon; “ fountain-heads” being audible, “groves” whispering, and the “moonlight walks” being attended by the hooting “owl.” They also modulate beautifully in this case. Yet these intimations themselves appear a little forced; whereas, supposing a couplet to be supplied, there would be a distinct reference to melancholy sights, as well as sounds.
The conclusion is divine. Indeed the whole poem, as Hazlitt says, is “the perfection of this kind of writing.” Orpheus might have hung it, like a pearl, in the ear of Proserpina. It has naturally been thought to have suggested the Penseroso to Milton, and is more than worthy to have done so; for fine as that is, it is still finer. It is the concentration of a hundred melancholies. Sir Walter Scott, in one of his biographical works, hardly with the accustomed gallantry and goodnature of the great novelist, contrasted it with the “ melo-dramatic” abstractions of Mrs. Radclyffe (then living). He might surely, with more justice