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Of misery, and find myself past hope,
That I am falling.-Act 4. sc. 1. But if Massinger does not always exhibit the liveliest and most natural expressions of passions; if, like most other poets,
he sometimes substitutes declamation for those expressions, in description at least he puts forth all his strength, and never disappoints us of an astonishing exertion. We may be content to rest his character, in the description of passion, on the following single instance. In The Very Woman, Almira's lover, Caidenes, is dangerously wounded in quarrel, by Don John Antonio, who pays his addresses to her. Take, now, a description of Almira's frenzy on this event, which the prodigal author has put into the mouth of a chambermaid:
If she slumber'd, straight,
Beating her breast.-Act 2. sc. 3. To praise or to elucidate this passage would be equally superfluous. I am acquainted with nothing superior to it in descriptive poetry; and it would be hardy to bring any single instance in competition with it. Our poet is not less happy in his descriptions of inanimate nature; and his descriptions bear the peculiar stamp of true genius in their beautiful conciseness. What an exquisite picture does he present in the compass of less than two lines!
Yon hanging cliff that glasses
Renegado, act 2. sc. 5.
There's a perpetual spring, perpetual youth;
The Virgin Martyr, act 4. sc. 3.
After all the encomiums on a rural life, and after all the soothing sentiments and beautiful images lavished on it, by poets who never lived in the country, Massinger has furnished one of the most charming unborrowed descriptions that can be produced on the subject:
Happy the golden mean! Had I been born
We might walk
The Great Duke of Florence, act 1. sc. 1. and act 4. sc. 2.
Let us oppose to these peaceful and inglorious images, the pic ture of a triumph, by the same masterly hand:
When she views you,
The oxen, crown'd with garlands, led before you,
Appointed for the sacrifice; and the altars
To be thought worthy of you.--The Bondman, act 3. sc. 4. Every thing here is animated; yet every action is appropriate. A painter might work after this sketch, without requiring an additional circumstance.
The speech of young Charalois, in the Funeral Procession, if too metaphorical for his character and situation, is at least highly poetical:
How like a silent stream, shaded with night,
Whilst I, the only murmurer in this grove
The Fatal Dowry, act 2. sc. 1.
may afford some consolation to inferior genius to remark, that even Massinger sometimes employs pedantic and overstrained allusions. He was fond of displaying the little military knowledge he possessed, which he introduces in the following passage, in a most extraordinary manner. One beautiful image in it must excuse the rest.
Were Margaret only fair,
you feel her touch, and breath
Hyppolitus himself would leave Diana,
A New Way to Pay Old Debts, act 3. sc. La
What pity that he should ever write so extravagantly, who could produce this tender and delicate image, in another piece:
What's that? Oh, nothing but the whispering wind
The Old Law, act 4. sc. 2. I wish it could be added to Massinger's just praises, that he had preserved his scenes from the impure dialogue which digusts us in most of our old writers. But we may observe, in defence of his failure, that several causes operated at that time to produce such a dialogue; and that an author, who subsisted by writing, was absolutely subjected to the influence of those causes. The manners of the age permitted great freedoms in language; the theatre was not frequented by the best company; the male part of the audience was by much the more numerous; and, what perhaps had a greater effect than any of these, the women's parts were performed by boys. So powerful was the effect of those circumstances, that Cartwright is the only dramatist of that age whose works are tolerably free from indecency. Massinger's error, perhaps, appears more strongly, because his indelicacy has not always the apology of wit; for, either from a natural deficiency in that quality, or from the peculiar model on which he had formed himself, his comic characters are less witty than those of his cotemporaries; and when he attempts wit, he frequently degenerates into buffoonery. But he has showed, in a remarkable manner, the justness of his taste, in declining the practice of quibbling; and as wit and a quibble were supposed, in that age, to be inseparable, we are perhaps to seek, in his aversion to the prevailing folly, the true cause of his sparing employment of wit.
Our poet excels more in the description than in the expression of passion. This may be ascribed, in some measure, to his nice attention to the fable: while his scenes are managed with consummate skill, the lighter shades of character and sentiment are lost in the tendency of each part of the catastrophe.
The prevailing beauties of his productions are dignity and elegance; their predominant fault is want of passion.
The melody, force and variety of his versification are every where remarkable. Admitting the force of all the objections which are made to the employment of blank verse in comedy, Massinger possesses charms sufficient to dissipate them all. It is indeed
of the new..
equally different from that which modern author's are pleased to style blank verse, and from the flippant prose so loudly celebrated in the comedies of the day. The neglect of our old comedies seems to arise from other causes than from the employment of blank verse in their dialogue; for, in general, its construction is so natural, that, in the mouth of a good actor, it runs into elegant prose. The frequent delineations of perishable manners, in our old comedy, have occasioned this neglect; and we may foresee the fate of our present fashionable pieces, in that which has attended Jonson's, Fletcher's, and Massinger's: they are either entirely overlooked, or so mutilated, to fit them for representation, as neither to retain the dignity of the old comedy, nor to acquire the graces
The changes of manners have necessarily produced very remarkable effects on theatrical performances. In proportion as our best writers are further removed from the present times, they exhibit bolder and more diversified characters, because the prevailing manners admitted a fuller display of sentiments, in the common intercourse of life. Our own times, in which the intention of polite. education is to produce a general uniform manner, afford little diversity of character for the stage. Our dramatists, therefore, mark the distinctions of their characters by incidents more than by sentiments; and abound more in striking situations than interesting dialogue. In the old comedy, the catastrophe is occasioned, in general, by a change in the mind of some principal character, artfully prepared, and cautiously conducted; in the modern, the unfolding of the plot is effected by the overturning of a screen, the opening of a door, or by some other equally dignified machine.
When we compare Massinger with the other dramatic writers of his age, we cannot long hesitate where to place him. More natural in his characters, and more poetical in his diction, than Jonson or Cartwright, more elevated and nervous than Fletcher, the only writers who can be supposed to contest his preeminence, Massinger ranks immediately under Shakspeare himself.
It must be confessed, that, in comedy, Massinger falls considerably beneath Shakspeare; his wit is less brilliant, and his ridicule less delicate and various; but he affords a specimen of elegant comedy,* of which there is no archetype in his great pre
* The Great Duke of Florence.