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tragedy of Lear it is difficult to ascertain whether the horrors of the scene aro more heightened by the seeming thoughtless levity of the former, or by the delirious imagery of the latter. The greater part of the bitterly sportive metres, attributed to the fool, in this drama, appears evidently to have been written for the character; and as the reliques drawn from more ancient minstrelsy seem rather the foot or burden of each song than the commencement, and are at the same time of little poetical value, we shall forbear enumerating them. The fragments, however, allotted to Edgar are both characteristic and apparently initial; the line which Mr. Steevens î sserts to have seen in an old ballad,
Through the sharp hawthown blows the cold wind, is so impressive as absolutely to chill the blood; and the legendary pieces beginning
“ Saint Withold footed thrice the wold," and
u Child Rowland to the dark tower came,” Act iji. sc. 4. are reliques which well accord with the dreadful peculiarity of his situation. The two subsequent quotations are from pastoral songs, of which the first,
6 Come o'er the bourn, Bessy, to me,” Act iji. sc. 6. as Mr. Malone observes, has a marked propriety, alluding to an association then common; for in a description of beggars, published in 1607, one class of these vagabonds is represented as counterfeiting madness;
they were so frantique They knew not what they did, but every day
Make sport with stick and flowers like an antique ;
One calls herself poor Besse, the other Tom." The second seems to have been suggested to the mind of Edgar by some connection, however distant and obscure, with the business of the scene. Lear fancies he is trying his daughters; and the lines of Edgar, who is appointed one of the commission, allude to a trespass which takes place in consequence of the folly of a shepherd in neglecting his charge, - the lines appear to be the opening stanza of a lyris pastoral. “A shepherd,” remarks Dr. Johnson, “ is desired to pipe, and the request is enforced by a promise, that though his sheep be in the corn, i. e. committing a trespass by his negligence-yet a single tune upon his pipe shall secure them from the pound.
« Sleepest, or wakest thou, jolly shepherd ?
Thy sheep be in the corn;
Thy sheep shall take no harm." If the assumed madness of Edgar is heightened by the casual repetition of these artless strains, how is the real distraction of the heart-broken Ophelia augmented in its pathos by a similar appeal! The interesting fragments which she sings, certainly do not produce their effect, as Sir Joshua Reynolds imagined, by marking an “utter insensibility to her own misfortunes;" for they manifestly refer both to her father's death, and to her own unfortunate attachment, their iniluence over the heart being felt as the consequence of this indirect allusion.
of the first three fragments, which appear to be parts of the same ballad, and, as the king observes, are a “conceit upon her father," the two prior have been beautifully incorporated by Dr. Percy in his “Friar of Orders Gray:"
“ How should I your true love know,
From another one ?
* This finely descriptive line, Dr. Percy has interwoven in his ballad of The Friar of Orders Gray,
He is dead and gone, lady,
He is dead and gone;
Act iv. sc. 5.
“ White his shroud as the mountain snow,"
has been parodied by Chatterton, in the Mynstrelle's Songe in OElla,
“Whyte his rode as the sommer snowe." The subsequent songs, beginning
* Good morrow, 'tis Saint Valentine's day, and
“ By Gis, and by Saint Charity," were, there is little doubt, suggested to the fair sufferer's mind, by an obscure and distant association with the issue of her unfortunate amour, a connection, however, which is soon dissipated by reverting to the fate of her father, the scene closing with two fragments exquisitely adapted to unfold the workings of her mind on this melancholy event.
“ They bore him barefac'd on the bier
No, no, he is dead,
Go to thy death-bed,
He never will come again, &c." Act iv. sc. 5. passages of which Dr. Percy has admirably availed himself in his “Friat of Orders Gray,” and to which the Mynstrelle's song in OElla is indebted for its pathetic burden :
Mie love ys dedde,
Alle underre the wyllowe tree.” 0 The vacillation of poor Ophelia amid her heavy afflictions is rendered strikingly apparent by the insertion of two ballad lines between the stanzas last quoted, which again manifestly allude to her lover :
• Oph. You must sing, Down a-down, an you call him a down-a. O, how the wheel becomes it! It is the false steward, that stole his master's daughter.
“ For bonny sweet Robin is all my joy." We may remark that the expression “O how the wheel becomes it !" is meant to imply the popularity of the song, that
“The spinsters and the knitters in the sun
Do use to chaunt it, a custom which, as exercised in the winter, is beautifully exemplified by Mr. Malone, in a passage frem Sir Thomas Overbury's characters, 1614:4" She makes her hands hard with labour, and her head sost with pittie ; and when winter evenings fall early, sitting at her merry wheele, she sings a defiance to the giddy wheele of fortune."
In the churchyard scene of this play, one of the grave-diggers, after amusing himself and his companion hy queries, whichi, as Mr. Steevens observes, “perhaps composed the chief festivity of our ancestors by an evening fire,” sings three
* Poems, supposed to have been written at Bristol, by Thomas Rowley, and others. Cambridge edition, 1794, p. 70.
stanzas, though somewhat corrupted either by design or accident, of " A dyttie or sopet made by the lord Vaus, in the time of the noble quene Marye, representing the image of death." This poem was originally published in Tottel's edition of Surrey and Wyatt, and the Poems of Uncertain Authors; the earliest poetical miscellany in our language, and first printed in 1557 under the title of "Songes and sonettes by the right honourable Henry Howard, late earl of Surrey, and other.” To this very popular collection, which underwent many editions during the sixteenth century, Slender alludes, in the Merry Wives of Windsor, where he exclaims, “ I had rather than forty shillings, I had my book of Songs and Sonnets here;" from which we may conclude that this was the fashionable manual for lovers in the age of Elizabeth. Lord Vaux’s lines have been reprinted by Dr. Percy, who remarks on the apparent corruptions of Shakspeare's transcript, that they were “perhaps so designed by the poet himself, the better to suit the character of an illiterate clown.”
No fragment of our minstrel poetry has been introduced by Shakspeare with greater beauty and effect, than the melancholy ditty which he represents Desdemona as singing, under a presentiment of her approaching sate :
“ Des. My mother had a maid call'd-Barbara ;
And sing it like poor Barbara.” Act iv. sc. 3. of this song of willow, ushered in with such a powerful appeal to the heart, Dr. Percy has given us a copy in his reliques; it is in two parts, and proves that the poet has not only materially altered the few lines which he quotes, but has changed also the sex of its subject; for in the original in the Pepys collection, it is entitled “ A Lover's Complaint, being forsaken of his Love."
From the ample, we may almost say complete, epumeration, which we have now given, of the fragments selected by Shakspeare from the minstrel-poetry of his country, together with the accompanying remarks, may be formed, not only a tolerably accurate estimate of the most popular songs of this period, but a clear idea of the use to which Shakspeare has applied them. † They will be found, in fact, with scarcely any exceptions, either elucidatory of the business of the scene, illustrative of the progress of the passions, or powerfully assistant in developing the features and the shades of character.
It will appear also, from the view which has been taken of romantic literature, as comprehending all the branches noticed in this chapter, that its influence, in the age of our poet, was great and universally diffused : that he was himself, perhaps more than any other individual, if we except Spenser, addicted to its study and partial to its fictions; and that, if we take into consideration, what will hereafter be mentioned, the bases of his various plays, he may be affirmed to have availed himself of its stores often with great skill, and with as much frequency as the nature of the province which he cultivated would admit.
Namely in 1565, 1567, 1569, 1574, 1585, 1587, &c. + To form a complete enumeration of the songs of the Elizabethan era, it would be necessary not only lo consult all the dramatic writers of this age, but to acquire a perfect series of the very numerous Collections of Madrigals which were published during the same period.
Cursory View of Poetry, with the Exception of the Drama, during the Age of Shakspeare.
The space which elapsed between the birth and the death of Shakspeare, from April 1564 to April 1616, a period of fifty-two years, may be pronounced, perhaps. the most fertile in our annals, with regard to the production of poetical literature. Not only were the great outlines of every branch of poetry chalked out with skill and precision, but many of its highest departments were filled up and finished in a manner so masterly as to have bid defiance to all subsequent competition. Consequently, if we take a survey of the various channels through which the genius of poetry has been accustomed to diffuse itself, it will be found, that, during this half century every province had its cultivators; that poems, epic and dramatic, historic and didactic, lyric and romantic, that satires, pastorals, and sonnets, songs, madrigals, and epigrams, together with a multitude of translations, brightened and embellished its progress.
On a subject, however, so productive, and which would fill volumes, it is necessary that, in consonancy with the limits and due keeping of our plan, the utmost solicitude for condensation be observed. In this chapter, accordingly, which, to a certain extent, is meant to be introductory to a critical consideration of the miscellaneous poems of Shaskpeare, the dramatic writers are omitted ; a future section of the work being appropriated to a detail of their more peculiar labours for the stage.
After a few general observations, therefore, on the poetry of this era, it is our intention to give short critical notices of the principal bards who flourished during its transit; and with the view of affording some idea of the extensive culture and diffusion of poetic taste, an alphabetical table of the minor poets, accompanied by slight memoranda, will be added. An account of the numerous Collections of Poetry which reflect so much credit on this age, and a few remarks and inferences, more particularly with respect to Shakspeare's study of his immediate predecessors and contemporaries in miscellaneous poetry, will complete this portion of our subject.
The causes which chiefly contributed to produce this fertility in poetical genius may, in a great measure, be drawn from what has been already remarked under the heads of superstition, literature, and romance.
The sun of philosophy and science, which had just risen with the most captivating beauty, and which promised a meridian of uncommon splendour, had not yet dissipated those mists that for centuries had enveloped and darkened the human mind. What remained, however, of the popular creed, was much less gross and less contradictory to common experience, than what had vanished from the scroll; these reliques were, indeed, such as either appealed powerfully to a warm and creative imagination, or were intimately connected with those apprehensions which agitate the breast of man when speculating on his destiny in another and higher order of existence.
Under the first of these classes may be included all that sportive, wild, and terrific imagery which resulted from a partial belief in the operations of fairies, witches, and magicians, and the reveries of the alchemist, the rosicrusian, and the astrologer; and under the second will be found, what can scarcely be termed superstition in the customary sense, that awful and mysterious conception of the spiritual word, which supposes its frequent intervention, through the agency either of departed spirits, or superhuman beings.