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Art. I.—The Dramatic Works and Poems of James Shirley,
now first collected. With Notes by the late William Gifford, Esq. And additional Notes, and some Account of Shirley and his Writings, by the Rev. Alexander Dyce. 6 vols.
London, 1832. SHIRLEY at length takes his place among the poets of
England. His collected works are, for the first time, within the reach of the common reader. A few years ago these volumes would have excited more general interest, and stood a chance of more extensive popularity. The admiration of our older dramatists was then at its height. The wonder and delight raised by a vein of poetry so rich and so deep, almost suddenly disclosed, tempted the public mind to imagine that its wealth was inexhaustible, and, in the fresh ardour of enthusiasm, it refused to suspect that much dross might be mingled with the precious metal. The strong excitement, in those days, perpetually administered by mo- . dern poetry, kept the popular taste in a state prepared, and wrought up, as it were, to receive with pleasure the force, the passionate vehemence, the splendid imagery of our ancient theatre. Most of the successful poets then living were professed admirers, some avowed imitators, of the Elizabethan dramatists. They seemed to demand, and obtained a favourable hearing for their masters in the art.
If latterly this ardour of the public mind has sunk into comparative apathy, and its curiosity languished into indifference, we are not inclined altogether to ascribe this defection from the objects of brief idolatry to its general inconstancy :—the blame must be borne, at least in an equal share, by the injudicious panegyrists of our older poets. Of these some had but a cold, an antiquarian, or a bibliomaniac passion for these neglected writers—they loved, not their invention, their poetry, their character, but their rarity; their admiration rose and fell, not with the kindling of their imagination, or the thrilling of their inmost heart, but with the anxiouslywatched vibrations of Mr. Sotheby's or Mr. Evans's hammer; their principles of taste were on the margin of a Roxburghe catalogue--and inestimable must be the merit of that drama which was not to be found in the Malone or the Garrick collection. But this was innocent in comparison with the patronage of another class, by which the older dramatists were incumbered. These were a VOL. XLIX. NO. XCVII,
certain race of writers, with little knowledge of the ancient drama, and less discrimination as to its real excellencies — professed admirers of poetry, but egregious admirers of themselves—who seized upon these slumbering worthies, as subjects for showy and epigrammatic essays, in which the public attention was invited, less to the long-neglected genius of the dead, than to the profound and original principles of taste developed by the living. Some of them took possession of the ground, as it were, by a pretended right of discovery; and it became an object of competition to force into notice some name, whose merit had been a secret even to the initiated. In the meantime the authority of the more sound and judicious admirers of the old drama, such as the late Mr. Gifford and Mr. Lamb—(men, perhaps, as opposite in the character of their minds, as two so highly gifted and accomplished could be, but who met upon this common ground)—their ripe and sober judgment was overborne by the louder and more extravagant praises lavished with equal profusion upon the humbler and the better part of this remarkable school. The reaction took place; the public taste, wearied with these incessant demands on its approbation,-unable to admire in the mass, as it was authoritatively required to do, that which, in most cases, is only excellent in particular passages ;-neither inclined, nor scarcely permitted, to make the necessary allowance for the difference of manners, or for the irregularities of writers, who, if the most vigorous, amusing, and various, are, unquestionably, the most unequal,--gradually fell off in its encouragement, and left the field to those whose not less fervent, though more discriminating love of our older poetry, maintained its fidelity. These, as they had been earlier, so they were more lasting votaries ; as uninfluenced by the excitement, so superior to the capriciousness of popular admiration.
In the meantime great advantages had been derived from the impulse given to the public taste. Excellent editions of the better, and even some of the inferior, of these old poets had been published. Men who, like Mr. Collier and Mr. Dyce, united the patient industry of the antiquarian with a real, yet chastened feeling for the beauties of their authors, have continued to work on with unwearied assiduity, though with less hope of reward from the general interest in their studies. The present edition of Shirley, commenced, and almost finished, as to the collection and the arrangement of the plays, by Mr. Gifford, and now completed by the addition of the poems, and a life, by Mr. Dyce, closes that prolific but brilliant series of our dramatic authors, without which no library, which pretends to comprehend the more valuable body of English poetic literature, can be considered perfect.
Shirley was the last minstrel’ of the early English stage. In him expired what may be properly called the school of Shakspeare. Like our northern poet's last of all the bards,'or, as he was called by one of his contemporaries, the last supporter of the dying scene,' after enjoying some years of fame and popularity, Shirley found himself fallen upon an ungenial time, on days in which his art could obtain but little audience. Before his career was half run, his occupation was proscribed; and at the Restoration, the lineal descendant of Fletcher and Massinger saw a new art take possession of the stage. He was a stranger among the race of poets who sprung up around him-he belonged to another age; some of his plays, as well as those of his great masters, Shakspeare and Fletcher, were indeed revived, but the rhyming heroic tragedy, and the profligate comedy of intrigue, were in the ascendant--and Shirley stood aloof. Conscious, as it were, that he belonged to a departed generation, that he had nothing in common with the popular playwrights of the modern æra, he refused to become a pupil in the new, the degenerate school, and thus to form, as he might, the link between the romantic and that which called itself the heroic drama. Hence the civil wars draw a complete line of demarcation between two periods of dramatic art.
Even if it had not thus come to a violent end, the Shakspearian drama might have yielded to that more slow and secret principle of change which seems to operate upon taste, as upon everything else connected with our mortal state; at this period, however, its fate was inevitable. Unless the drama could have taken higher ground, -unless, from an amusement it could have become a political power,—an engine by which one of the conflicting parties could strongly work upon the opinions of men, it could not but become extinct. Even Shakspeare himself, in such days of tumult and fierce collision, would scarcely have commanded a hearing. It needed not the ponderous anathema of Prynne, nor the stern edict of the Puritanical Parliament, to wean the popular taste from that languishing stage, which, for its few last years, was only supported as a faithful adherent of royalty, by the more indolent and careless cavaliers. The public mind was too serious for diversion; a real tragic drama was now darkening over the kingdom, and its still-impending catastrophe held the whole nation in breathless suspense. Characters were developing, in more striking and vivid colours than Shakspeare himself could have drawn ; incidents, which had all the strange and stirring novelty of the boldest fiction, with the tremendous force of truth, were coming home to the hearths, to the bosoms of men.
What, at such a time, was the fiction, the dream of passion ?' "What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba ? ' B 2