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Who would go to witness the imaginary · Politician of the dramatist, when he might watch the unravelling of the great plot in either House of Parliament? who listen to the hired actor at the Globe or the Cockpit, when he could see the Pyms and the Hampdens, the Hydes and the Falklands on that spirit-stirring stage ? Even the apprentices had more animating work than in the galleries of the theatres, in themselves learning to take a part, by hooting down bishops, or malignants, in the tragedies of the day, and accelerating the last scene of Stratford, or of Charles.* Even the pulpits would drain away the few lingering votaries from the sock and buskin, not merely by their stern maledictions on the sin of stage-playing, but by ministering themselves still stronger excitement. They dealt more largely, more effectively, in tragic terrors; they were not sparing even in comic buffoonery ;—they no longer dwelt, in their high, and solemn, and serene, and unworldly dignity, upon the eternal interests of man ;—they appealed to earthly passions ;—they addressed themselves to the personal, to the immediate hopes and fears; the eventful present occupied all minds far more than the remote and mysterious future. It was another form in which the same great political drama was developed, and absorbed all less real, all fictitious interest; men's passions were in too vehement and tumultuous a state during every hour of the day, and at every occupation, whether religious or political, to be purged and softened, according to the advice of the old Greek critic, by the imaginary terror and pity of poetic representations.
The life of Shirley is perversely enough as obscure as that of most of his poetic fraternity. It appears to have been far from unfertile of incidents, but those incidents are unconnected, and unexplained by any knowledge of his private feelings or personal character. His poems, though sufficiently explicit upon his political sentiments, betray little of the workings of his mind, or of his moral temperament. To the meagre and unsatisfactory outline of Antony Wood, we know that Mr. Gifford despaired of adding anything of value; and where the diligent research and ex
* Thomas May, himself once no unsuccessful votary of the prohibited stage, but now a fiery partizan of the parliament, whose historian he became, thus addresses Shirley :
Although thou want the theatre's applause,
Of real tragedies'— He concludes, in a high strain of compliment, which shows the estimation in which our poet was held in his own day:
* All Muses are not guiltless; but such strains
tensive knowledge of Mr. Dyce are found at fault, we can scarcely hope, unless new and, at present, inaccessible sources of information should be unexpectedly opened, that anything further will be gleaned to throw light on his personal history. Yet, living at such a period, it would have been singularly interesting to have traced the personal feelings and opinions of a man of genius in his peculiar situation, who, from a clergyman of the Protestant church, became a Roman Catholic; then a popular writer for the stage ; who lived on terms of intimate friendship with most of the literary characters of his day, shared in the patronage of Strafford, was a personal follower of Newcastle ; sank again, in the troublous times, to his old employment of a schoolmaster, and, finally, became a fellow drudge with Ogilvy, and with him was exposed to the ignominious immortality of Dryden's satire.
James Shirley was descended from a family of good name, whe had ancient manors both in Sussex and Warwickshire. He was born in 1596, in the parish of St. Mary Woolnoth, London. He was educated at Merchant Taylors' School, and went from thence to St. John's College, Oxford. Laud, then the head of that society, and already an ecclesiastical Martinet, is said, though he admired the talents of Shirley, to have considered him disqualified for the clerical profession by—a mole on his cheek. Mr. Dyce quotes a whimsical improvement of this anecdote from " Cibber's Lives of the Poets':
· Shirley had unfortunately a large mole upon his left cheek, which much disfigured him, and gave him a forbidding appearance. Laud observed very justly, that an audience can scarcely help conceiving a prejudice against a man whose appearance shocks them, and were he to preach with the tongue of an angel, that prejudice could never be surmounted ; besides the danger of women with child fixing their eyes on him in the pulpit; and as the imagination of pregnant women has strange influence on the unborn infants, it is somewhat cruel to expose them to the danger, and by these means do them great injury, as one's fortunes, in some measure, depend upon external comeliness.'
If these were Laud's motives, other dignitaries of the church were not equally sensitive as to personal appearance, nor so provident of the beauty of unborn generations, for Shirley, having graduated at Catherine Hall, Cambridge, entered into orders, and obtained a living in or near St. Alban's. But the sweet sin' of poetry had already captivated the imagination, and no doubt interfered with the professional studies of the young divine; he had already ventured on the press : his first work was a poem, called • Echo, or the Unfortunate Lovers. His mind, as was too common in those days of fierce religious strife, became unsettled, and more, of course, under the influence of imagination than of reason,
he embraced the Roman Catholic religion, to which he afterwards adhered with fidelity. Of course he had made
up mind to forfeit his benefice, and, for his livelihood, he submitted, for a short time, to the drudgery of teacher to a grammarschool in St. Alban’s. But the neighbourhood of the metropolis opened brighter prospects to a man of poetic talent. Perhaps while yet in his humble situation he had made his first attempt on the stage with Love's Tricks. This comedy, though with little originality or power, yet from its liveliness, and its strokes of satire at some of the follies, the affected language, and ridiculous accomplishments of the day, seems to have met with success, and probably determined at once the future destination of Shirley,
He had protested in his prologue, and at the time, perhaps, in perfect sincerity,
• This play is
To swear herself a factor for the scene.' But, supposing, no doubt, that at poets', as well as “at lovers' perjuries Jove laughs,' his ambition soon soared beyond drilling the accidence into the little boys of St. Alban's :-he chose, if the more precarious, the more pleasant and lucrative employment of ministering to the delight and sharing in the favour of a splendid court and an opulent city. In the downright words of old Wood, he retired to the metropolis, lived in Gray's Inn, and set up for a play-maker.' The halcyon days of the stage were not yet over; the dark times to which we have alluded did not yet even cast their shadows before.' For several years the prolific invention of Shirley poured forth dramas in quick and unfailing succession; he appears to have lived on terms of intimacy with many of his brother poets—to have been universally esteemed for his gentle manners and amiable disposition; real respect for the blamelessness of his morals may be traced even through the flattering language of commendatory verses. Though his printed plays are by no means free from the vice of the age, coarse and indelicate allusions, yet in his later dramas he is far less offensive, and by the master of the revels, he is quoted as a pattern of a more beneficial and cleanly way of poetry.' • The comedy called The Young Admiral, being free from oaths, prophaneness, or obsceaness, hath given mee much delight and satisfaction in the readinge, and may serve for a patterne to other poetts, not only for the bettring of maners and language, but for the improvement of the quality, which hath received some brushings of late.'* Such is part of an
entry * Mr. Dyce quotes another curious passage from this document: it appears that
entry in the office-book of Sir Henry Herbert, who latterly seems to have turned somewhat of a precisian.'
Shirley was twice married, and had several children, but of the birth or quality of his two wives we know nothing, though Mr. Dyce conjectures that the first was a lady, whom he addresses in many poems, written in the conceited and metaphysical style of the day, under the name of Odelia. • He gained, says Wood, not only a considerable livelihood, but also great respect and encouragement from persons of quality, especially from Henrietta Maria, the queen consort, who made him her servant.' It appears, however, that he failed in improving the opportunities of advancement which such patronage afforded.
I never,' he observes, affected the ways of flattery; some say, I have lost my preferment by not practising that court sin.' His broad and humorous song on the birth of Charles II., considering the adulation usually poured forth on such events, will scarcely impeach his sinlessness on this head.
Probably something of a chivalrous feeling of indignation at the insult supposed to be offered to Henrietta Maria by Prynne in his . Histriomastix'embittered the fierce irony with which he dedicated his Bird in a Cage' to the Puritan in prison :
• The fame of your candour and innocent love to learning, especially to that musical part of humane knowledge, poetry, and in particular that which concerns the stage and scene (yourself, as hear, having lately written a tragedy*), doth justly challenge from me this dedication. I had an early desire to congratulate your happy retirement; but no poem could tempt me with so fair a circumstance as this in the title, wherein I take some delight to think (not without imitation of yourself, who have ingeniously fancied such elegant and apposite names for your own compositions, as Health's Sickness, The Unloveliness of Lovelocks, fc.) how aptly I may present you, at this time, with the “ Bird in a Cage," a comedy which wanteth, I must consess, much of that ornament, which the stage and action lent it, for it comprehending also another play or interlude, personated by ladies, I must refer to your imagination the music, the songs, the the players were apt to speak more than was set down for them, and to interpolate oaths and other offensive expressions, the blame of which fell upon the innocent licenser of the plays. This led to a delicate question. "The kinge is pleased to take faith, death, slighi, for asseverations, and no oaths—as to which I doe humbly submit to my master's judgment; but under favour conceive them to be oaths, and enter them here, to declare my opinion and submission. This will remind the reader of a scene in the “Spiritual Quixote,' or of a still more recent farce enacted in the Committeeroom of the House of Commons, where a part of the great legislative council of this nation were gravely employed in ascertaining from the elderly Grinner, who, we presume, upon the same principle on which the famous Barrington was made a judge in New South Wales, has been selected to watch over the morals of the drama, his opinions on the propriety of calling a woman an angel, and other equally deep points of doctrine ! * The second part of the ' Histriomastix' was entitled the Actor's Tragedie.'
dancing, and other varieties, which I know would have pleased you infinitely in the presentment.' The cruel sentence of Prynne, it is well known, was inflicted on account of some real or supposed allusion to the queen as having danced in an interlude at court; and our poet no doubt justified by his loyalty, as well as by the internecine hostility between puritanism, whose spirit was embodied in Prynne, and the stage, of which 'Shirley might stand forth as the champion, this merciless tone of exultation in his sufferings.
Shirley was engaged in a more honourable and more public testimony which was borne at this time against the austere opinions of Prynne. He was appointed to write the poetry for the most splendid interlude ever performed at Whitehall, · The Triumph of Peace,' which, at this seasonable time,' was represented at the expense, and by members, of the Inns of Court. The distinguished names, which were selected to conduct this gorgeous pageant, remind us of the days when
-The grave Lord Keeper led the brawls,
The seals and maces danced before him ; while at the same time they carry us on to that darker period, of which the clouds were beginning to gather, and in which these great men, now uniting in festive rejoicings, and alike eager to display their loyalty, were to be arrayed in opposite ranks, and grapple in deadly opposition. For the Middle Temple were chosen Mr. Hyde and Mr. Whitelock; Sir Edward Herbert and Mr. Selden for the Inner Temple; for Lincoln's Inn, Mr. Attorney Noy and Mr. Gerling ; Sir John Finch and another for Gray's Inn. The pageant paraded London from Ely House in Holborn to Whitehall. The masque was performed in the Banqueting-house ; the decorations were by Inigo Jones, the music by William Lawes and Simon Ives. The sumptuousness of the dresses and decorations may be best estimated by the expense —the interlude cost 20,000l. to the Inns of Court. The following observation of a correspondent of Strafford's, then Lord Deputy in Ireland, is very remarkable, and illustrative of the memorable chapter in Clarendon, in which he expatiates on the prosperity of the nation before the civil wars :-" Oh that they would give over these things, or lay them by for a time, and bend all their endeavours to make the king rich! For it gives me no satisfaction, who am but a looker on, to see a rich commonwealth, a rich people, and the crown poor. God direct them to remedy this quickly.'
When Strafford proceeded to Ireland in 1639, John Ogilby, a name with which that of Shirley was unfortunately associated in later days, went over as posture-master, and teacher of the art of