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The English in remote times had their scenic representations, adapted to the circumstance of the age, and primitive as were the habits of the people. These at first consisted of certain passages of scripture, and were called Miracle Plays; they were acted in churches, and the characters chiefly sustained by the priesthood. They were, according to the wife of Bath's prologue in the Canterbury Tales, exhibited during the season of Lent,* and sometimes a sequel of scripture histories was carried on for several days. Beelzebub and his host of imps were constantly exposed to the rebukes and blows of the more saintly characters, and by their cries and buffooneries enlivened a performance, that would otherwise have been sufficiently monotonous. The transcript of one of these plays, the well known mystery called Corpus Christi, or the Coventry Play, is yet in existence, and is a valuable specimen of the compositions in which our ancestors delighted. There were also secular plays of great antiquity performed by strolling jestours, which were discountenanced by the religious orders, and were of the most rude and disconnected composition. When the Mysteries ceased to be performed, the Moral Plays usurped their place. They chiefly consisted of moral reasoning, and their characters were allegorical, such
* Myn husbond was at London all that Lent,
Therfore made I my visitations
To vigilies and to processions,
To prechings eke, and to thise pilgrimages,
To playes of Miracles, and mariages.
Good Doctrine, Charity, Faith, Prudence, Discretion, or Death, their discourses being of a serious cast; but the province of making the spectators merry descended from the Devil in the Mystery to the Vice or Iniquity* of the Morality, who usually personified some bad quality, as pride, lust, or any other evil propensity.+ Comedy, it is true, had not been wholly unknown-we meet with some instances of it in the reign of Henry the Eighth and his successor; but it was sadly deficient in plot, and enlivened by wit of the most degenerate species. There had also from early time been the Ludi, or Court Plays, exhibited at court during the Christmas holidays. But they consisted of pageants, mummeries, and disguisings, gorgeous and magnificent indeed, with their crowds of characters, the glitter and variety of their robes, the quaint and grotesque personifications of their actors, their devices and their hilarity, but presenting rather an exhibition than a sustained performance.
It was in the reign of Elizabeth that the drama, in its first infancy, rose to its fullest might and glory; it sprung into existence, like Venus from the waste of waters, in all its power and proportion. It had not been nurtured with
* In allusion to the character, Shakspeare makes the Duke of Gloucester
Thus, like the formal vice, Iniquity,
I moralize two meanings in one word.
Richard the Third, Act 3, Scene 1.
And Ben Johnson has these lines:
But the old Vice
Of mimicry, gets th' opinion of a wit.
+ See Strutt's Sports and Pastimes of the People of England.
careful and difficult study, and matured through a long childhood; but with scarcely a day's existence it had the strength of centuries. It poured into its rich treasury the highest genius and the profoundest thought, it embodied the boldest imagination with the most accurate observation. It held in its huge embrace whatever was great in poetry, in philosophy, and in truth; and, excepting that, were the whole imaginative literature of our language swept away, we might still look back with pride, and boast the possession of such authors as Shakspeare, Ben Johnson, Beaumont and Fletcher, Marlowe, Webster, Shirley, Massinger, and Ford, all of whom adorned the reigns of Elizabeth and her successors, the Stuarts, and were sufficient for the fame of a literary nation.
I have made this short digression because the best poetry of the age we are now entering upon is contained in the dramatic form, and it has been a custom (convenient for my present limits) to consider the drama as a distinct branch of literature. To have passed it wholly in silence would have appeared strange, in speaking of those celebrated in its annals; and with this brief allusion to its rise, I will pass to the consideration of our more immediate subject, without again recurring to the theatrical excellence of the period, which I hope will be borne in mind by my readers.
After Lord Buckhurst followed CHURCHYARD, and EDWARDS, whose works have not retained much popu
larity, although those of the former have been reprinted; LILLY, who introduced the fantastic style called Euphuism, and GASCOYNE, who divided his performances into weeds, flowers, herbs, &c. and was one of the early writers of narrative blank verse.
CHRISTOPHER MARLOWE is chiefly celebrated as a dramatic poet, but he translated Coluthus' Rape of Helen, and Museus' Hero and Leander, and has left us some musical and unaffected songs which are still popular.
SIR PHILIP SYDNEY, who, for his accomplishments and the similarity of their positions, has been compared to Surrey, was at once a hero, a politician, and a poet. Refined in his manners, chivalrous in his sentiments, and generous in his disposition, he was a proud ornament to the court and the age in which he lived; and the anecdote of his fate at the battle of Zutphen, when, being mortally wounded, he commanded the cup of water brought for his relief to be given to a dying soldier who eyed it wistfully, will be remembered as one of those beautiful traits of humanity, which redeem our nature from its taints of dross and passion, and rise, like temples, at which men of all climes and ages, the sinner and the saint, alike bow down and do homage. Sir Philip Sydney's most popular production is a romance entitled Arcadia; but his poems, though infected with a conceit of thought and expression common to the period, have much quiet beauty, shewing amidst all their faults the refined imagination and delicate
feelings of the author, and perhaps doubly interesting because they flowed from the pen of one so celebrated in the history of his country, and renowned for the most engaging virtues of human nature.
SPENSER possessed in an exalted degree a boundless and creative fancy. He held the golden keys of romance, and at his bidding visions crowded with life and beauty streamed upon the world. Nature teemed with a new existence, with new features and new forms. Scenes aerialized with the most delicate tints stretched far and wide; all was sunny and spiritual. Enchantment yielded her wonders and her glowing superstitions, Imagination breathed over them the breath of life, and the result was one of the most exquisite and delightful poems that fancy ever conceived or genius realized. He supposes the Faery Queen presiding at her annual court, which lasted in splendor and festivity for twelve days. Every day some suppliant is presented at her throne; she listens to the prayers of all, and commands twelve knights (each of whom personifies some exalted virtue) to espouse the cause and redress the grievances of the mourners. Prince Arthur representing Magnificence in pursuit of Glory, is by turns the counsellor and ally of these embodied phantoms of chivalry, and was intended to represent a brave knight perfected in the twelve moral virtues. whole allegory celebrates the triumph of good principles over the various temptations of sense and dangers of worldly dissipation. It was originally contained in