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broad in appeal. They are softer, more relaxing, and we feel that in them the sharp distinctions between right and wrong are blurred or obscured. So the work of Beaumont and Fletcher, like that of Ben Jonson, shows in its own fashion that the decadence of the drama has begun.
Decline of the Drama. For some years before Jonson's death, the Elizabethan drama had shown symptoms of decline, and when he died in 1637 the force and productiveness of this extraordinary dramatic period were nearing their end. Plays were indeed written after that time in which something of the old glory survived, but these are but the echoes of a greater age. At last in JAMES SHIRLEY (1596-1666), the great part of whose work was done between 1625–1655, these last echoes of the Elizabethan drama died away, and the splendid creative energy, that had sustained itself so long was almost entirely exhausted.
Puritan Hostility to the Stage. - But we must remember that in addition to any decline in its original power, to any failure that came from within, the drama was forced to contend with the bitter attacks of the Puritans from without. In the early seventeenth century this hostility to the stage increased; unsuccessful attempts were made (1619–1631-1633) to suppress the Blackfriars Theater, and the representation of plays on Sunday was prohibited. Many of the more respectable people stayed away from the theaters altogether, while those who came demanded plays of a more and more depraved character. Finally, about the beginning of the Civil War (1642), the theaters were closed altogether, and the drama almost ceased, until the Restoration of the Stuart Kings in 1660.
General Survey. — Looked at as a whole, the Elizabethan drama, even apart from Shakespeare, in its
magnitude, its intensity, its beauty, its variety, its snatches of exquisite song, is one of the most astonishing achievements of the English genius in literature. In attempting to form any general estimate of it, we must remember that these dramas were, as a rule, not carefully elaborated literary productions, but acting plays, hastily put together for immediate use. Playwriting was an art, but it was a business also. The demand for plays was great, the price (especially before 1600) was comparatively trifling. Under these circumstances, the dramatists naturally saved time and invention by appropriating such material as could serve their turn. They ransacked the literatures of Italy, Spain, or France; they borrowed from foreign novels or dramas; they worked singly, or in partnership like Beaumont and Fletcher; they translated, they made new plays, they adapted or furbished up old ones. We can form no definite idea of the number of these plays; many of them are doubtless irretrievably lost. Only twenty-three of Thomas Heywood's plays have been preserved, yet he declared in 1633, before his adventurous career was over, that he had had “an entire hand, or at least a main finger,” in the composition of no less than two hundred and twenty plays. Work produced under such conditions is naturally of very unequal merit, yet even in the poorer plays we are likely to stumble upon a passage that shows us that the lesser men could catch for a moment the accent of the masters. De Quincey, speaking of the Elizabethan drama, has said, "No literature, not excepting even that of Athens, has ever presented such a multiform theater, such a carnival display, mask and antimask, of impassioned life — breathing, moving, acting, suffering, laughing."
NON-DRAMATIC POETRY OF THE EARLY SEVENTEENTH
From the Death of Spenser, 1599, to the Restoration, 1660
The non-dramatic poetry of the early half of the seventeenth century, like the dramatic, is largely a continuation of that of the greater Elizabethans. As we have just seen, many of the rising generation of writers were united by a personal loyalty to Ben Jonson, and by a reverence for his critical opinions. Other poets took Spenser for their model, drawing inspiration from his pastoral rather than from his chivalric poetry, and following him chiefly in his more serious moods. Still others wrote under the influence of John Donne, another Elizabethan of wayward but powerful genius, of whom we have not yet spoken. Among these rising writers were a number of religious poets who through the medium of verse gave utterance to different moods and degrees of devotional piety. Some, like the saintly George Herbert, expressed in poetry much that was best in the Church of England; others, like Milton, stirred by different ideals, represented the militant and reforming spirit of Puritanism. But great as this difference may seem between the Anglican and the Puritan, it is insignificant to that which separates the Cavalier poets — gay, elegant triflers of the Court - from those poets who, apart in some respects, are at least united by a devotion to high ideals and by a lofty spirituality of nature. The variety of these schools, or groups, into which the poets of this time may be divided, the irreconcilable differences in feeling, and in the general attitude towards life, are characteristic of the confusion of the time. This diversity, we must remember, is not wholly due to the inevitable differences in human character, it is also national,
for it is the literary expression of those conflicting beliefs and ideals which were fought out in the Civil War.
The Spenserian School. – While he had few followers among his contemporaries, Spenser has exercised a profound and almost continuous influence upon the English poetry of the succeeding time. His effect upon the poetry of the early seventeenth century was probably greater than that of any other Elizabethan, not excepting Shakespeare himself. Especially at this time a number of poets, of whom we may speak as the Spenserian School, were directly and specifically influenced by Spenser's poetic mood. They used the old forms of allegory and romance in which to treat new themes in science, religion, and philosophy. Retaining the familiar figures and associations of classical mythology, one poet explains the parts of the human body, another tells the story of the life of Christ. This strange combination naturally leads to great incongruity; but there is in these poems much genuine beauty. The authors have caught something of the master's fluent melody and
and ease of versification. Descriptions of Nature, of dawn and sunset, of field and stream, are woven in with the story of shepherds' and shepherdesses' loves; and we are often made to forget the scientific or religious theme in the background of romantic adventure, and the charm of an Arcadian atmosphere of quiet and beauty.
John Donne. — While these poets thus followed
Divinest Spenser,” others were led in a very different direction through the example of the great but eccentric poet, John DONNE (1573–1631). Donne was a man of intense and "highly passionate” nature. In his youth he showed that delight in action, travel, and adventure characteristic of so many of the great Elizabethans.
hard student. Yet he found time to join the group at the Mermaid Tavern, to frequent the best society, and gather round him a host of friends. In 1617 the death of his wife seemed to work a great change in him; he turned from worldly interests and pursuits and concentrated his thought on things spiritual. He had entered the Church in 1615. In 1621 he was made Dean of St. Paul's, and became one of the greatest preachers England had ever known. His poetry was almost all written before the death of his wife; after that event he expressed himself chiefly through his sermons.
Donne is one of the great figures in Elizabethan literature. Both in subject-matter and in form his poetry is distinguished from that of his contemporaries. Rejecting the stock figures and poetic apparatus — gods and goddesses, nymphs and shepherds – which the Elizabethan writers had gleaned from their study of the classics, Donne drew his comparisons from the lore of science, law, and metaphysics, in which he was deeply versed. He differed too from most Elizabethans in his rather careless versification and in his frequent obscurity of thought. Ben Jonson once said that “Donne, for not keeping accent, deserved hanging," and that "for not being understood he would perish.” But Jonson also spoke of him as “the first poet in the world in some things;” and we feel that the praise was not undue. Donne's poetry is difficult and abstruse, but it is the poetry of a great mind. His obscurity is largely due to his use of far-fetched figures of speech, called conceits. Many writers of the time were going out of their way in the search for these ingenious comparisons and wiredrawn subtleties of thought. But with Donne such over-refinements, in many instances, seem natural rather than affected, and more profound than fantastic.