The Age of Shakespeare/Chapter 4
If justice has never been done, either in his own day or in any after age, to a poet of real genius and original powers, it will generally be presumed, with more or less fairness or unfairness, that this is in great part his own fault. Some perversity or obliquity will be suspected, even if no positive infirmity or deformity can be detected, in his intelligence or in his temperament: some taint or some flaw will be assumed to affect and to vitiate his creative instinct or his spiritual reason. And in the case of John Marston, the friend and foe of Ben Jonson, the fierce and foul-mouthed satirist, the ambitious and overweening tragedian, the scornful and passionate humorist, it is easy for the shallowest and least appreciative reader to perceive the nature and to estimate the weight of such drawbacks or impediments as have so long and so seriously interfered with the due recognition of an independent and remarkable poet. The praise and the blame, the admiration and the distaste excited by his works, are equally just, but are seemingly incompatible: the epithets most exactly appropriate to the style of one scene, one page, one speech in a scene or one passage in a speech, are most ludicrously inapplicable to the next. An anthology of such noble and beautiful excerpts might be collected from his plays, that the reader who should make his first acquaintance with this poet through the deceptive means of so flattering an introduction would be justified in supposing that he had fallen in with a tragic dramatist of the very highest order—with a new candidate for a station in the very foremost rank of English poets. And if the evil star which seems generally to have presided over the literary fortunes of John Marston should misguide the student, on first opening a volume of his works, into some such arid or miry tract of wilderness as too frequently deforms the face of his uneven and irregular demesne, the inevitable sense of disappointment and repulsion which must immediately ensue will too probably discourage a casual explorer from any renewal of his research.
Two of the epithets which Ben Jonson, in his elaborate attack on Marston, selected for ridicule as characteristically grotesque instances of affected and infelicitous innovation—but which nevertheless have taken root in the language, and practically justified their adoption—describe as happily as any that could be chosen to describe the better and the worse quality of his early tragic and satiric style. These words are 'strenuous' and 'clumsy.' It is perpetually, indefatigably, and fatiguingly strenuous; it is too often vehemently, emphatically, and laboriously clumsy. But at its best, when the clumsy and ponderous incompetence of expression which disfigures it is supplanted by a strenuous felicity of ardent and triumphant aspiration, it has notes and touches in the compass of its course not unworthy of Webster or Tourneur or even Shakespeare himself. Its occasionally exquisite delicacy is as remarkable as its more frequent excess of coarseness, awkwardness, or violent and elaborate extravagance. No sooner has he said anything especially beautiful, pathetic, or sublime, than the evil genius must needs take his turn, exact as it were the forfeit of his bond, impel the poet into some sheer perversity, deface the flow and form of the verse with some preposterous crudity or flatulence of phrase which would discredit the most incapable or the most fantastic novice. And the worst of it all is that he limps or stumbles with either foot alternately. At one moment he exaggerates the license of artificial rhetoric, the strain and swell of the most high-flown and hyperbolical poetic diction; at the next, he falls flat upon the naked level of insignificant or offensive realism.
These are no slight charges; and it is impossible for any just or sober judgment to acquit John Marston of the impeachment conveyed in them. The answer to it is practical and simple: it is that his merits are great enough to outweigh and overshadow them all. Even if his claim to remembrance were merely dependent on the value of single passages, this would suffice to secure him his place of honour in the train of Shakespeare. If his most ambitious efforts at portraiture of character are often faulty at once in colour and in outline, some of his slighter sketches have a freshness and tenderness of beauty which may well atone for the gravest of his certainly not infrequent offences. The sweet constancy and gentle fortitude of a Beatrice and a Mellida remain in the memory more clearly, leave a more life-like impression of truth on the reader's mind, than the light-headed profligacy and passionate instability of such brainless and blood-thirsty wantons as Franceschina and Isabella. In fact, the better characters in Marston's plays are better drawn, less conventional, more vivid and more human than those of the baser sort. Whatever of moral credit may be due to a dramatist who paints virtue better than vice, and has a happier hand at a hero's likeness than at a villain's, must unquestionably be assigned to the author of 'Antonio and Mellida.' Piero, the tyrant and traitor, is little more than a mere stage property: like Mendoza in 'The Malcontent' and Syphax in 'Sophonisba,' he would be a portentous ruffian if he had a little more life in him; he has to do the deeds and express the emotions of a most bloody and crafty miscreant; but it is only now and then that we catch the accent of a real man in his tones of cajolery or menace, dissimulation or triumph. Andrugio, the venerable and heroic victim of his craft and cruelty, is a figure not less living and actual than stately and impressive: the changes of mood from meditation to passion, from resignation to revolt, from tenderness to resolution, which mark the development of the character with the process of the action, though painted rather broadly than subtly and with more of vigour than of care, show just such power of hand and sincerity of instinct as we fail to find in the hot and glaring colours of his rival's monotonous ruffianism. Again, in 'The Wonder of Women,' the majestic figures of Massinissa, Gelosso, and Sophonisba stand out in clearer relief than the traitors of the senate, the lecherous malignity of Syphax, or the monstrous profile of the sorceress Erichtho. In this laboured and ambitious tragedy, as in the two parts of 'Antonio and Mellida,' we see the poet at his best—and also at his worst. A vehement and resolute desire to give weight to every line and emphasis to every phrase has too often misled him into such brakes and jungles of crabbed and convulsive bombast, of stiff and tortuous exuberance, that the reader in struggling through some of the scenes and speeches feels as though he were compelled to push his way through a cactus hedge: the hot and heavy blossoms of rhetoric blaze and glare out of a thickset fence of jagged barbarisms and exotic monstrosities of metaphor. The straining and sputtering declamation of narrative and oratory scarcely succeeds in expressing through a dozen quaint and far-fetched words or phrases what two or three of the simplest would easily and amply have sufficed to convey. But when the poet is content to deliver his message like a man of this world, we discover with mingled satisfaction, astonishment, and irritation that he can write when he pleases in a style of the purest and noblest simplicity; that he can make his characters converse in a language worthy of Sophocles when he does not prefer to make them stutter in a dialect worthy of Lycophron. And in the tragedy of 'Sophonisba' the display of this happy capacity is happily reserved for the crowning scene of the poem. It would be difficult to find anywhere a more preposterous or disjointed piece of jargon than the speech of Asdrubal at the close of the second act:—
Brook open scorn, faint powers!—
Make good the camp!—No, fly!—yes, what?—wild rage!—
To be a prosperous villain! yet some heat, some hold;
But to burn temples, and yet freeze, O cold!
Give me some health; now your blood sinks: thus deeds
Ill nourished rot: without Jove nought succeeds.
And yet this passage occurs in a poem which contains such a passage as the following:—
And now with undismayed resolve behold,
To save you—you—for honour and just faith
Are most true gods, which we should much adore—
With even disdainful vigour I give up
An abhorred life!—You have been good to me,
And I do thank thee, heaven. O my stars,
I bless your goodness, that with breast unstained,
Faith pure, a virgin wife, tried to my glory,
I die, of female faith the long-lived story;
Secure from bondage and all servile harms,
But more, most happy in my husband's arms.
The lofty sweetness, the proud pathos, the sonorous simplicity of these most noble verses might scarcely suffice to attest the poet's possession of any strong dramatic faculty. But the scene immediately preceding bears evidence of a capacity for terse and rigorous brevity of dialogue in a style as curt and condensed as that of Tacitus or Dante:
Sophonisba. What unjust grief afflicts my worthy lord?
Massinissa. Thank me, ye gods, with much beholdingness;
For, mark, I do not curse you.
Sophonisba.Tell me, sweet,
The cause of thy much anguish.
Massinissa.Ha, the cause?
Let's see; wreathe back thine arms, bend down thy neck,
Practise base prayers, make fit thyself for bondage.
Massinissa.Bondage: Roman bondage.
Massinissa. How then have I vowed well to Scipio?
Sophonisba. How then to Sophonisba?
Massinissa.Right: which way
Run mad? impossible distraction!
Sophonisba. Dear lord, thy patience; let it maze all power,
And list to her in whose sole heart it rests
To keep thy faith upright.
Massinissa.Wilt thou be slaved?
Sophonisba. No; free.
Massinissa.How then keep I my faith?
Gives help to all. From Rome so rest we free:
So brought to Scipio, faith is kept in thee.
Massinissa. Thou darest not die!—Some wine.—Thou darest not die!
Sophonisba. How near was I unto the curse of man, Joy!
How like was I yet once to have been glad!
He that ne'er laughed may with a constant face
Contemn Jove's frown. Happiness makes us base.
The man or the boy does not seem to me enviable who can read or remember these verses without a thrill. In sheer force of concision they recall the manner of Alfieri; but that noble tragic writer could hardly have put such fervour of austere passion into the rigid utterance, or touched the note of emotion with such a glowing depth of rapture. That 'bitter and severe delight'—if I may borrow the superb phrase of Landor—which inspires and sustains the imperial pride of self-immolation might have found in his dramatic dialect an expression as terse and as sincere: it could hardly have clothed itself with such majestic and radiant solemnity of living and breathing verse. The rapid elliptic method of amoebæan dialogue is more in his manner than in any English poet's known to me except the writer of this scene; but indeed Marston is in more points than one the most Italian of our dramatists. His highest tone of serious poetry has in it, like Alfieri's, a note of self-conscious stoicism and somewhat arrogant self-control; while as a comic writer he is but too apt, like too many transalpine wits, to mistake filth for fun, and to measure the neatness of a joke by its nastiness. Dirt for dirt's sake has never been the apparent aim of any great English humorist who had not about him some unmistakable touch of disease—some inheritance of evil or of suffering like the congenital brain-sickness of Swift or the morbid infirmity of Sterne. A poet of so high an order as the author of 'Sophonisba' could hardly fail to be in general a healthier writer than such as these; but it cannot be denied that he seems to have been somewhat inclined to accept the illogical inference which would argue that because some wit is dirty all dirt must be witty—because humour may sometimes be indecent, indecency must always be humorous. 'The clartier the cosier' was an old proverb among the northern peasantry while yet recalcitrant against the inroads of sanitary reform: 'the dirtier the droller' would seem to have been practically the no less irrational motto of many not otherwise unadmirable comic writers. It does happen that the drollest character in all Marston's plays is also the most offensive in his language—'the foulest-mouthed profane railing brother'; but the drollest passages in the whole part are those that least want washing. How far the example of Ben Jonson may have influenced or encouraged Marston in the indulgence of this unlovely propensity can only be conjectured; it is certain that no third writer of the time, however given to levity of speech or audacity in the selection of a subject, was so prone—in Shakespeare's phrase—to 'talk greasily' as the authors of 'Bartholomew Fair' and 'The Dutch Courtesan.'
In the two parts of his earlier tragedy the interest is perhaps, on the whole, rather better sustained than in 'The Wonder of Women.' The prologue to 'Antonio's Revenge' (the second part of the 'Historie of Antonio and Mellida') has enjoyed the double correlative honour of ardent appreciation by Lamb and responsive depreciation by Gifford. Its eccentricities and perversities of phrase may be no less noticeable, but should assuredly be accounted less memorable, than its profound and impassioned fervour of grave and eloquent harmony. Strange, wayward and savage as is the all but impossible story, rude and crude and crabbed as is the pedantically exuberant language of these plays, there are touches in them of such terrible beauty and such terrible pathos as to convince any competent reader that they deserve the tribute of such praise and such dispraise. The youngest student of Lamb's 'Specimens' can hardly fail to recognise this when he compares the vivid and piercing description of the death of Mellida with the fearful and supernatural impression of the scene which brings or thrusts before us the immolation of the child, her brother.
The laboured eccentricity of style which signalises and disfigures the three chief tragedies or tragic poems of Marston is tempered and subdued to a soberer tone of taste and a more rational choice of expression in his less ambitious and less unequal works. It is almost impossible to imagine any insertion or addition from the hand of Webster which would not be at once obvious to any reader in the text of 'Sophonisba' or in either part of 'Antonio and Mellida.' Their fierce and irregular magnificence, their feverish and strenuous intemperance of rhetoric, would have been too glaringly in contrast with the sublime purity of the greater poet's thought and style. In the tragicomedy of 'The Malcontent,' published two years later than the earlier and two years earlier than the later of these poems, if the tone of feeling is but little changed or softened, the language is duly clarified and simplified. 'The Malcontent, (augmented) by Marston, with the additions written by John Webster,' is as coherent, as harmonious, as much of a piece throughout, as was the text of the play in its earlier state. Not all the conscientious art and skill of Webster could have given this uniformity to a work in which the original design and execution had been less in keeping with the bent of his own genius and the accent of his natural style. Sad and stern, not unhopeful or unloving, the spirit of this poem is more in harmony with that of Webster's later tragedies than with that of Marston's previous plays; its accent is sardonic rather than pessimistic, ironical rather than despondent. The plot is neither well conceived nor well constructed; the catastrophe is little less than absurd, especially from the ethical or moral point of view; the characters are thinly sketched, the situations at once forced and conventional; there are few sorrier or stranger figures in serious fiction than that of the penitent usurper when he takes to his arms his repentant wife, together with one of her two paramours, in a sudden rapture of forgiving affection; the part which gives the play its name is the only one drawn with any firmness of outline, unless we except that of the malignant and distempered old parasite; but there is a certain interest in the awkward evolution of the story, and there are scenes and passages of singular power and beauty which would suffice to redeem the whole work from condemnation or oblivion, even though it had not the saving salt in it of an earnest and evident sincerity. The brooding anger, the resentful resignation, the impatient spirit of endurance, the bitter passion of disdain, which animate the utterance and direct the action of the hero, are something more than dramatically appropriate; it is as obvious that these are the mainsprings of the poet's own ambitious and dissatisfied intelligence, sullen in its reluctant submission and ardent in its implacable appeal, as that his earlier undramatic satires were the tumultuous and turbid ebullitions of a mood as morbid, as restless, and as honest. Coarse, rough, and fierce as those satires are, inferior alike to Hall's in finish of verse and to Donne's in weight of matter, it seems to me that Dr. Grosart, their first careful and critical editor, is right in claiming for them equal if not superior credit on the score of earnestness. The crude ferocity of their invective has about it a savour of honesty which atones for many defects of literary taste and executive art; and after a more thorough study than such rude and unattractive work seems at first to require or to deserve, the moral and intellectual impression of the whole will not improbably be far more favourable than one resulting from a cursory survey or derived from a casual selection of excerpts. They bring no manner of support to a monstrous and preposterous imputation which has been cast upon their author; the charge of having been concerned in a miserably malignant and stupid attempt at satire under the form of a formless and worthless drama called 'Histriomastix'; though his partnership in another anonymous play—a semi-romantic semi-satirical comedy called 'Jack Drum's Entertainment'—is very much more plausibly supportable by comparison of special phrases as well as of general style with sundry mannerisms as well as with the habitual turn of speech in Marston's acknowledged comedies. There is a certain incomposite and indigestive vigour in the language of this play which makes the attribution of a principal share in its authorship neither utterly discreditable to Marston nor absolutely improbable in itself; and the satire aimed at Ben Jonson, if not especially relevant to the main action, is at all events less incongruous and preposterous in its relation to the rest of the work than the satirical or controversial part of Dekker's 'Satiromastix.' But on the whole, if this play be Marston's, it seems to me the rudest and the poorest he has left us, except perhaps the comedy of 'What you Will,' in which several excellent and suggestive situations are made less of than they should have been, and a good deal of promising comic invention is wasted for want of a little more care and a little more conscience in cultivation of material and composition of parts. The satirical references to Jonson are more pointed and effective in this comedy than in either of the two plays last mentioned; but its best claim to remembrance is to be sought in the admirable soliloquy which relates the seven years' experience of the student and his spaniel. Marston is too often heaviest when he would and should be lightest—owing apparently to a certain infusion of contempt for light comedy as something rather beneath him, not wholly worthy of his austere and ambitious capacity. The parliament of pages in this play is a diverting interlude of farce, though a mere irrelevance and impediment to the action; but the boys are less amusing than their compeers in the anonymous comedy of 'Sir Giles Goosecap,' first published in the year preceding: a work of genuine humour and invention, excellent in style if somewhat infirm in construction, for a reprint of which we are indebted to the previous care of Marston's present editor. Far be it from me to intrude on the barren and boggy province of hypothetical interpretation and controversial commentary; but I may observe in passing that the original of Simplicius Faber in 'What you Will' must surely have been the same hanger-on or sycophant of Ben Jonson's who was caricatured by Dekker in his 'Satiromastix' under the name of Asinius Bubo. The gross assurance of self-complacent duncery, the apish arrogance and imitative dogmatism of reflected self-importance and authority at second hand, are presented in either case with such identity of tone and colouring that we can hardly imagine the satire to have been equally applicable to two contemporary satellites of the same imperious and masterful egoist.
That the same noble poet and high-souled humourist was not responsible for the offence given to Caledonian majesty in the comedy of 'Eastward Ho!' the authentic word of Jonson would be sufficient evidence; but I am inclined to think it a matter of almost certain likelihood—if not of almost absolute proof—that Chapman was as innocent as Jonson of a jest for which Marston must be held responsible—though scarcely, I should imagine, blamable at the present day by the most rabid of Scottish provincialists. In the last scene of 'The Malcontent' a court lady says to an infamous old hanger-on of the court: 'And is not Signor St. Andrew a gallant fellow now?' to which the old hag replies: 'Honour and he agree as well together as a satin suit and woollen stockings.' The famous passage in the comedy which appeared a year later must have been far less offensive to the most nervous patriotism than this; and the impunity of so gross an insult, so obviously and obtrusively offered, to the new knightships and lordships of King James's venal chivalry and parasitic nobility, may naturally have encouraged the satirist to repeat his stroke next year—and must have astounded his retrospection, when he found himself in prison, and under threat of worse than imprisonment, together with his unoffending associates in an admirable and inoffensive comedy. It is impossible to suppose that he would not have come forward to assume the responsibility of his own words—as it is impossible to imagine that Jonson or Chapman would have given up his accomplice to save himself. But the law of the day would probably have held them all responsible alike.
In the same year as 'Eastward Ho!' appeared the best and completest piece of work which we owe to the single hand of Marston. A more brilliant and amusing play than 'The Dutch Courtesan,' better composed, better constructed, and better written, it would be difficult to discover among the best comic and romantic works of its incomparable period. The slippery and sanguinary strumpet who gives its name to the play is sketched with such admirable force and freedom of hand as to suggest the existence of an actual model who may unconsciously have sat for the part under the scrutiny of eyes as keen and merciless as ever took notes for a savagely veracious caricature—or for an unscrupulously moral exposure. The jargon in which her emotions are expressed is as Shakespearean in its breadth and persistency as that of Dr. Caius or Captain Fluellen; but the reality of those emotions is worthy of a less farcical vehicle for the expression of such natural craft and passion. The sisters, Beatrice and Crispinella, seem at first too evidently imitated from the characters of Aurelia and Phoenixella in the earliest surviving comedy of Ben Jonson; but the 'comedy daughter,' as Dickens (or Skimpole) would have expressed it, is even more coarsely and roughly drawn than in the early sketch of the more famous dramatist. On the other hand, it must be allowed—though it may not be recognised without a certain sense of surprise—that the nobler and purer type of womanhood or girlhood which we owe to the hand of Marston is far above comparison with any which has been accomplished or achieved by the studious and vehement elaboration of Ben Jonson's. The servility of subservience which that great dramatist exacts from his typically virtuous women—from the abject and anaemic wife of a Corvino or a Fitzdottrel—is a quality which could not coexist with the noble and loving humility of Marston's Beatrice. The admirable scene in which she is brought face to face with the impudent pretentions of the woman who asserts herself to have been preferred by the betrothed lover of the expectant bride is as pathetic and impressive as it is lifelike and original; and even in the excess of gentleness and modesty which prompts the words, 'I will love you the better; I cannot hate what he affected,' there is nothing less noble or less womanly than in the subsequent reply to the harlot's repeated taunts and inventions of insult: 'He did not ill not to love me, but sure he did not well to mock me: gentle minds will pity, though they cannot love; yet peace and my love sleep with him.' The powerful soliloquy which closes the scene expresses no more than the natural emotion of the man who has received so lovely a revelation of his future bride's invincible and single-hearted love.
Cannot that woman's evil, jealousy,
Despite disgrace, nay, which is worse, contempt,
Once stir thy faith?
Coarse as is often the language of Marston's plays and satires, the man was not coarse-minded—not gross of spirit nor base of nature—who could paint so delicately and simply a figure so beautiful in the tenderness of its purity.
The farcical underplot of this play is worthy of Molière in his broader mood of farce. Hardly any Jourdain or Pourceaugnac, any George Dandin or Comtesse d'Escarbagnas of them all, undergoes a more grotesque experience or plays a more ludicrous part than is devised for Mr. and Mrs. Mulligrub by the ingenuity of the indefatigable Cocledemoy—a figure worthy to stand beside any of the tribe of Mascarille as fourbum imperator. The animation and variety of inventive humour which keep the reader's laughing attention awake and amused throughout these adventurous scenes of incident and intrigue are not more admirable than the simplicity and clearness of evolution or composition which recall and rival the classic masterpieces of Latin and French comedy. There is perhaps equal fertility of humour, but there certainly is not equal harmony of structure in the play which Marston published next year—'Parasitaster; or the Fawn'; a name probably suggested by that of Ben Jonson's 'Poetaster,' in which the author had himself been the subject of a greater man's rage and ridicule. The wealth and the waste of power displayed and paraded in this comedy are equally admirable and lamentable; for the brilliant effect of its various episodes and interludes is not more obvious than the eclipse of the central interest, the collapse of the serious design, which results from the agglomeration of secondary figures and the alternations of perpetual by-play. Three or four better plays might have been made out of the materials here hurled and huddled together into one. The Isabelle of Molière is not more amusing or more delightful in her audacity of resource, in her combination of loyalty with duplicity, innocence with intrigue, than the daring and single-hearted young heroine of this play; but the 'École des Maris' is not encumbered with such a crowd of minor interests and characters, of subordinate humours and complications, as the reader of Marston's comedy finds interposed and intruded between his attention and the main point of interest. He would fain see more of Dulcimel and Tiberio, the ingenious and enterprising princess, the ingenuous and responsive prince; he is willing to see as much as is shown him of their fathers, the masquerading philosopher and the self-complacent dupe; Granuffo, the patrician prototype of Captain John Bunsby, may take a seat in the chambers of his memory beside the commander of the Cautious Clara; the humours of a jealous foul-minded fool and a somewhat audaciously virtuous wife may divert him by the inventive and vigorous exposure of their various revolutions and results; but the final impression is one of admiring disappointment and possibly ungrateful regret that so much energetic satire and so much valuable time should have been spent on the somewhat nauseous follies of 'sickly knights' and 'vicious braggarts' that the really admirable and attractive parts of the design are cramped and crowded out of room for the due development of their just and requisite proportions.
A more eccentric, uneven, and incomposite piece of work than 'The Insatiate Countess' it would be difficult to find in English or in other literature. The opening scene is picturesque and impressive; the closing scene of the serious part is noble and pathetic; but the intervening action is of a kind which too often aims at the tragic and hits the burlesque. The incessant inconstancy of passion which hurries the fantastic heroine through such a miscellaneous multitude of improvised intrigues is rather a comic than a tragic motive for the conduct of a play; and the farcical rapidity with which the puppets revolve makes it impossible for the most susceptible credulity to take any real interest or feel any real belief in the perpetual rotation of their feverish moods and motives, their irrational doings and sufferings. The humour of the underplot constantly verges on horse-play, and is certainly neither delicate nor profound; but there is matter enough for mirth in it to make the reader duly grateful for the patient care and admirable insight which Mr. Bullen has brought to bear upon the really formidable if apparently trivial task of reducing the chaotic corruption and confusion of the text to reasonable form and comprehensible order. William Barkstead, a narrative poet of real merit, and an early minister at the shrine of Shakespeare, has been credited with the authorship of this play: I am inclined to agree with the suggestion of its latest editor—its first editor in any serious sense of the word—that both he and Marston may have had a hand in it. His 'Myrrha' belongs to the same rather morbid class of poems as Shakespeare's 'Venus and Adonis' and Marston's 'Pygmalion's Image.' Of the three Shakespeare's is not more certainly the finest in occasional touches of picturesque poetry than it is incomparably the most offensive to good taste and natural instinct on the score of style and treatment. Marlowe's 'Hero and Leander' can only be classed with these elaborate studies of sensual aberration or excess by those 'who can see no difference between Titian and French photographs.' (I take leave, for once in a way, to quote from a private letter—long since addressed to the present commentator by the most illustrious of writers on art.)
There are some pretty verses and some ingenious touches in Marston's 'Entertainment,' offered to Lady Derby by her daughter and son-in-law; but the Latinity of his city pageant can scarcely have satisfied the pupil of Buchanan, unless indeed the reputation of King James's tutor as a Latin versifier or master of prosody has been scandalously usurped under the falsest of pretences: a matter on which I am content to accept the verdict of Landor. His contribution to Sir Robert Chester's problematic volume may perhaps claim the singular distinction of being more incomprehensible, more crabbed, more preposterous, and more inexplicable than any other copy of verses among the 'divers poetical essays—done by the best and chiefest of our modern writers, with their names subscribed to their particular works,' in which Marston has the honour to stand next to Shakespeare; and however far he may be from any pretention to rival the incomparable charm of Shakespeare's opening quatrain—incomparable in its peculiar melody and mystery except with other lyrics of Shakespeare's or of Shelley's, it must, I think, be admitted that an impartial student of both effusions will assign to Marston rather than to Shakespeare the palm of distinction on the score of tortuous obscurity and enigmatic verbiage. It may be—as it seems to me—equally difficult to make sense of the greater and the lesser poet's riddles and rhapsodies; but on the whole I cannot think that Shakespeare's will be found so desperately indigestible by the ordinary intelligence of manhood as Marston's. 'The turtles fell to work, and ate each other up,' in a far more comprehensible and reasonable poem of Hood's; and most readers of Chester's poem and the verses appended to it will be inclined to think that it might have been as well—except for a few lines of Shakespeare's and of Jonson's which we could not willingly spare—if the Phœnix and Turtle had set them the example.
If the apparently apocryphal Mountebank's Masque be really the work of Marston—and it is both coarse enough and clever enough to deserve the attribution of his authorship—there is a singular echo in it from the opening of Jonson's 'Poetaster,' the furious dramatic satire which blasted for upward of two centuries the fame or the credit of the poet to whose hand this masque has been hitherto assigned. In it, after a full allowance of rough and ribald jocosity, the presence of a poet becomes manifest with the entrance of an allegoric figure whose declamatory address begins with these words:
Light, I salute thee; I, Obscurity,
The son of Darkness and forgetful Lethe;
I, that envy thy brightness, greet thee now,
Enforced by Fate.
Few readers of these lines will forget the verses with which Envy plays prologue to 'Poetaster; or, his Arraignment':
Light, I salute thee, but with wounded nerves,
Wishing thy golden splendour pitchy darkness.
Whoever may be the author of this masque, there are two or three couplets well worth remembrance in one of the two versions of its text:
It is a life is never ill
To lie and sleep in roses still.
Or who grew ever weary of the spring?
The day must have her night, the spring her fall,
All is divided, none is lord of all.
These verses are worthy of a place in any one of Mr. Bullen's beautiful and delightful volumes of lyrics from Elizabethan song-books; and higher praise than this no lyrical poet could reasonably desire.
An inoffensive monomaniac, who thought fit to reprint a thing in dramatic or quasi-dramatic form to which I have already referred in passing—'Histriomastix; or, the Player Whipt'—thought likewise fit to attribute to John Marston, of all men on earth, a share in the concoction of this shapeless and unspeakable piece of nonsense. The fact that one of the puppets in the puppet-show is supposed to represent a sullen scholar, disappointed, impoverished, and virulent, would have suggested to a rational reader that the scribbler who gave vent to the impotence of his rancor in this hopeless ebullition of envious despair had set himself to ape the habitual manner of Jonson and the occasional manner of Marston with about as much success as might be expected from a malignant monkey when attempting to reproduce in his grimaces the expression of human indignation and contempt. But to students of natural or literary history who cannot discern the human from the simious element it suggests that the man thus imitated must needs have been the imitator of himself; and the fact that the whole attempt at satire is directed against dramatic poetry—that all the drivelling venom of a dunce's denunciation, all the virulent slaver of his grovelling insolence, is aimed at the stage for which Marston was employed in writing—weighs nothing in the scales of imbecility against the consideration that Marston's or Jonson's manner is here and there more or less closely imitated; that we catch now and then some such echo of his accent, some such savor of his style, as may be discovered or imagined in the very few scattered lines which show any glimmer of capacity for composition or versification. The eternal theme of envy, invented by Jonson and worked to death by its inventor, was taken up again by Marston and treated with a vigorous acerbity not always unworthy of comparison with Jonson's; the same conception inspired with something of eloquence the malignant idiocy of the satirical dunce who has left us, interred and embedded in a mass of rubbish, a line or two like these which he has put into the mouth of his patron saint or guardian goddess, the incarnate essence of Envy.
Turn, turn, thou lackey to the wingèd time!
I envy thee in that thou art so slow,
And I so swift to mischief.
But the entire affair is obviously an effusion and an example of the same academic sagacity or lucidity of appreciation which found utterance in other contemporary protests of the universities against the universe. In that abyss of dullness 'The Return from Parnassus,' a reader or a diver who persists in his thankless toil will discover this pearl of a fact—that men of culture had no more hesitation in preferring Watson to Shakespeare than they have in preferring Byron to Shelley. The author of the one deserves to have been the author of the other. Nobody can have been by nature such a fool as to write either: art, education, industry, and study were needful to achieve such composite perfection of elaborate and consummate idiocy.
There is a good deal of bad rubbish, and there is some really brilliant and vigorous writing, in the absurdly named and absurdly constructed comedy of 'Jack Drum's Entertainment'; but in all other points—in plot, incident, and presentation of character—it is so scandalously beneath contempt that I am sorry to recognise the hand of Marston in a play which introduces us to a 'noble father,' the model of knightly manhood and refined good sense, who on the news of a beloved daughter's disappearance instantly proposes to console himself with a heavy drinking-bout. No graver censure can be passed on the conduct of the drama than the admission that this monstrous absurdity is not out of keeping with the rest of it. There is hardly a single character in all its rabble rout of lunatics who behaves otherwise than would beseem a probationary candidate for Bedlam. Yet I fear there is more serious evidence of a circumstantial kind in favour of the theory which would saddle the fame of Marston with the charge of its authorship than such as depends on peculiarities of metre and eccentricities of phrase. Some other poet—though I know of none such—may have accepted and adopted his theory that 'vengeance' must count in verse as a word of three syllables: I can hardly believe that the fancy would sound sweet in any second man's ear: but this speciality is not more characteristic than other and more important qualities of style—the peculiar abruptness, the peculiar inflation, the peculiar crudity—which denote this comedy as apparently if not evidently Marstonian. On the other hand, if it were indeed his, it is impossible to conjecture why his name should have been withheld from the title-page; and it must not be forgotten that even our own day is not more fertile than was Marston's in the generation of that slavish cattle which has always since the age of Horace fed ravenously and thievishly on the pasture-land of every poet who has discovered or reclaimed a field or a province of his own.
But our estimate of John Marston's rank or regiment in the noble army of contemporary poets will not be in any way affected by acceptance or rejection of any apocryphal addition to the canon of his writings. For better and for worse, the orthodox and undisputed roll of them will suffice to decide that question beyond all chance of intelligent or rational dispute. His rank is high in his own regiment; and the colonel of that regiment is Ben Jonson. At first sight he may seem rather to belong to that brighter and more famous one which has Webster among its captains, Dekker among its lieutenants, Heywood among its privates, and Shakespeare at its head. Nor did he by any means follow the banner of Jonson with such automatic fidelity as that imperious martinet of genius was wont to exact from those who came to be 'sealed of the tribe of Ben.' A rigid critic—a critic who should push rigidity to the verge of injustice—might say that he was one of those recruits in literature whose misfortune it is to fall between two stools—to halt between two courses. It is certain that he never thoroughly mastered either the cavalry drill of Shakespeare or the infantry drill of Jonson. But it is no less certain that the few finest passages which attest the power and the purity of his genius as a poet are above comparison with any such examples of tragic poetry as can be attributed with certainty or with plausibility to the hand which has left us no acknowledged works in that line except 'Sejanus his Fall' and 'Catiline his Conspiracy.' It is superfluous to add that 'Volpone' was an achievement only less far out of his reach than 'Hamlet.' But this is not to say or to imply that he does not deserve an honourable place among English poets. His savage and unblushing violence or vehemence of satire has no taint of gloating or morbid prurience in the turbid flow of its fitful and furious rhetoric. The restless rage of his invective is as far as human utterance can find itself from the cynical infidelity of an Iago. Of him we may say with more rational confidence what was said of that more potent and more truculent satirist:
An honest man he is, and hates the slime
That sticks on filthy deeds.
We may wish that he had not been so much given to trampling and stamping on that slime as to evoke such malodorous exhalations as infect the lower and shallower reaches of the river down which he proceeds to steer us with so strenuous a hand. But it is in a spirit of healthy disgust, not of hankering delight, that he insists on calling the indignant attention of his readers to the baser and fouler elements of natural or social man as displayed in the vicious exuberance or eccentricity of affectation or of self-indulgence. His real interest and his real sympathies are reserved for the purer and nobler types of womanhood and manhood. In his first extant tragedy, crude and fierce and coarse and awkward as is the general treatment of character and story, the sketch of Mellida is genuinely beautiful in its pathetic and subdued simplicity; though certainly no such tender and gentle figure was ever enchased in a stranger or less attractive setting. There is an odd mixture of care and carelessness in the composition of his plays which is exemplified by the fact that another personage in the first part of the same dramatic poem was announced to reappear in the second part as a more important and elaborate figure; but this second part opens with the appearance of his assassin, red-handed from the murder: and the two parts were published in the same year. And indeed, except in 'Parasitaster' and 'The Dutch Courtesan,' a general defect in his unassisted plays is the headlong confusion of plot, the helter-skelter violence of incident, which would hardly have been looked for in the work of a professional and practised hand. 'What you Will' is modestly described as 'a slight-writ play': but slight and slovenly are not the same thing; nor is simplicity the equivalent of incoherence. I have already observed that Marston is apt to be heaviest when he aims at being lightest; not, like Ben Jonson, through a laborious and punctilious excess of conscience which is unwilling to let slip any chance of effect, to let pass any detail of presentation; but rather, we are tempted to suspect, through a sardonic sense of scorn for the pefunctory task on which his ambitious and impatient hand is for the time employed. Now and then, however—or perhaps it would be more accurate to say once or twice—a gayer note is struck with a lighter touch than usual: as, for instance, in the excellent parody of Lyly put into the mouth of an idiot in the first scene of the fifth act of the first part of 'Antonio and Mellida.' 'You know, the stone called lapis, the nearer it comes to the fire, the hotter it is; and the bird which the geometricians call avis, the farther it is from the earth, the nearer it is to the heaven; and love, the nigher it is to the flame, the more remote (there's a word, remote!)—the more remote it is from the frost.' Shakespeare and Scott have condescended to caricature the style or the manner of the inventor of euphuism: I cannot think their burlesque of his elaborate and sententious triviality so happy, so humorous, or so exact as this. But it is not on his capacity as a satirist or humourist, it is on his occasionally triumphant success as a serious or tragic poet, that the fame of Marston rests assuredly established. His intermittent power to rid himself for a while of his besetting faults, and to acquire or assume for a moment the very excellences most incompatible with these, is as extraordinary for the completeness as for the transience of its successful effects. The brief fourth act of 'Antonio and Mellida' is the most astonishing and bewildering production of belated human genius that ever distracted or discomfited a student. Verses more delicately beautiful followed by verses more simply majestic than these have rarely if ever given assurance of eternity to the fame of any but a great master in song.
Conceit you me: as having clasped a rose
Within my palm, the rose being ta'en away,
My hand retains a little breath of sweet,
So may man's trunk, his spirit slipped away,
Hold still a faint perfume of his sweet guest.
'Tis so: for when discursive powers fly out,
And roam in progress through the bounds of heaven,
The soul itself gallops along with them
As chieftain of this winged troop of thought,
Whilst the dull lodge of spirit standeth waste
Until the soul return.
Then follows a passage of sheer gibberish; then a dialogue of the noblest and most dramatic eloquence; then a chaotic alternation of sense and nonsense, bad Italian and mixed English, abject farce and dignified rhetoric, spirited simplicity and bombastic jargon. It would be more and less than just to take this act as a sample or a symbol of the author's usual way of work; but I cannot imagine that a parallel to it, for evil and for good, could be found in the works of any other writer.
The Muse of this poet is no maiden of such pure and august beauty as enthralls us with admiration of Webster's; she has not the gypsy-brightness and vagrant charm of Dekker's, her wild soft glances and flashing smiles and fading traces of tears; she is no giddy girl, but a strong woman with fine irregular features, large and luminous eyes, broad intelligent forehead, eyebrows so thick and close together that detraction might call her beetle-browed, powerful mouth and chin, fine contralto voice (with an occasional stammer), expression alternately repellent and attractive, but always striking and sincere. No one has ever found her lovely; but there are times when she has a fascination of her own which fairer and more famous singers might envy her; and the friends she makes are as sure to be constant as she, for all her occasional roughness and coarseness, is sure to be loyal in the main to the nobler instincts of her kind and the loftier traditions of her sisterhood.
- This verse, unmusical to an English ear, is good Italian metre; possibly an intentional and deliberate example of the poet's Italian predilections, and if so certainly a less irrational and inexplicable one than the intrusion of some villainously bad Italian lines and phrases into the text of 'Antonio and Mellida.'
- In other words—intolerable or unimaginable division or divulsion of mind and spirit between two contending calls of honour, two irreconcilable claims of duty. Modern editors of this great scene have broken up the line into pieces, marked or divided by superfluous dashes and points of exclamation. Campbell, who had the good taste to confute his own depreciatory criticism of Marston by including the passage among his 'Selections,' was the first, as far as I know, to adopt this erroneous and rather spasmodic punctuation.
- One strange phrase in the very first line is surely a palpable misprint—ramps for cramps.
- This abortion of letters is such a very moon-calf, begotten by malice on idiocy, that no human creature above the intellectual level of its author will ever dream of attempting to decipher the insignificant significance which may possibly—though improbably—lie latent under the opaque veil of its inarticulate virulence.