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SHIRLEY the dramatist, when concluding his Preface to the works of BEAUMONT and
FLETCHER, pronounces an interdict by way of an opinion—"he must be a bold man that dares undertake to write their lives." Yet Shirley lived at the same time as our authors, was a member of the same literary guild to which they belonged, and, moreover, stood towards one of them (Fletcher) in the position of friend. What had deserved the name boldness under his circumstances, would escape with no such ambiguous epithet under those of a modern biographer. Biography and history differ beyond common idea in this, that a
a subtle philosophical process will oftentimes, from the multifold, inter-dependent, full-fraught, known facts of the latter, elicit other facts unrecognised before, even by the age itself when they took place; whilst the facts of a particular life, unless it were prominent enough to be historic, are so scanty, exclusive, and meagre, that a similar process, applied to them, would seldom have a similar effect. Man's general nature is sufficiently uniform to admit of our reasoning out consequences which must have occurred at a certain time past, because parallel situations would always produce them; but man, as an individual, being far more variable than any other sentient creature upon earth, to divine from all he ever did aught he would ever do again, baffles the calculus of probabilities in most cases. Hence, without exact and abundant contemporaneous memoirs, it becomes an easier matter to develope, by help of those few and superficial we may have, the united life of Mankind during a given period gone by, than the life of one Man.
Such desirable memoirs of Beaumont and of Fletcher we should now possess, had Shirley not been either too modest or too proud for a biographer, a very circumspect or a very careless friend. He gives us in his Preface but a single trait, and that at second-hand, of their private character. His aforesaid Preface, less a critique than a panegyrical flourish, little elucidates even the character of their works. I cannot well forgive him the amiable, or the unamiable, motive of his silence, through which my present task seems yet more hopeless than that of a Jew under Pharaoh, as to make my bricks I have only the straw, and not the clay. But let me excuse Shirley, if possible, though his costiveness places me in the predicament of a tombstone-poet, expected to draw out a handsome epitaph from a proper name, two calendar dates, and “here lies.” An inventive age leaves the business of criticism to a barren one, just as biography, a sort of criticism upon lives, is left for the most part to those whose own lives are benenth its notice. This explains why Fletcher's friend, himself an original dramatist, left the office of critic and biographer to Theobald, to Seward, to Weber, and to me. Another reason yet more honourable for his suppression of evidence may be pleaded. Fireside treachery was less venial in his time, or was at least made less a marketable article of literature than in ours ; rich-minded men were
less swarmed upon by brain-suckers to qualify themselves as book-makers ; and
persons of great note could then admit persons of none to their discourse, without much dread lest it would be sold (adulterated or attenuated), by the retailer, towards his own especial benefit, except in reputation. The example of Drummond had not become contagious ; nor can we rank among petty-traitors of this species an eminent poet, whose crime against friendship sprang from a darker source than love of money, while theirs arises from the dirtier. I have no such cause for gratitude to the literary parasites of Beaumont and Fletcher as future biographers will have to those of our intellectual notables. If Shirley be taciturn, other persons who were acquainted with my authors are dumb. How simple a thing will prove the compilation of Lives belonging to this present tell-tale era ! Aliquid usui est in illo malo.
Another disposition our earlier poets seem to have cultivated far less than our modernfar less than is convenient to life-compilers—videlicet, egotism. Egotism displays a good deal of the owner's character besides his vanity, and records some important facts along with many things which appear such to himself alone. Jonson has, it is true, facilitated not a little his biographer's task by frequent allusions to “Ben” throughout his minor poems, and a genial indulgence in this overflow of the soul everywhere. But even he had not that particular view, as it were, towards the ease of us pitiable gropers after personal details, which a modern poet exhibits, whose works, well furnished with what he might call — Contributions to the Memoirs of Myself, will do much to render our office henceforth a sinecure. “He spreads his bounty with a sowing hand,” it may be said of each generous author like this ; and we shall reap a plentiful, perhaps a superabundant, harvest. As in Beaumont and Fletcher's age, however, it was not the fashion to make poetry subservient to the poet, rather than the poet to poetry, I am denied those aids their egotism might have afforded. Some hints from their prologues and smaller pieces-some casual remarks thrown out by others—some few dates—and some anecdotes, trivial or dubious—must complete these brief memoirs, with which I can have no hope the public will be satisfied, being myself discontent with them altogether.
John FLETCHER was born in the year 1576,* of something more than “honest parents,” as the phrase is ; we may guess even of more than respectable ; for his father had pretensions to a bishopric, which he soon after obtained at the hands of a Sovereign Mistress not wont to confer such dignities when unchallenged by particular merit. . This circumstance likewise warrants the supposition that our poet's mother, although her name is forgotten, must have been of good repute; more especially since it appears Elizabeth took much greater care about her dependants' moral connexions than her own. Dr. Fletcher, upon his elevation to the see of London, having married again, had to endure a suspension from his sacred office, for an act so little in accord with the Queen's notions of episcopal decorum, and, I may add, with her celibatarian prejudices. He was, it is said, like most of her favourites, very handsome, eloquent, accomplished, and courtly ; attributes to which, perhaps, as well as solider recommendations, he owed the repeal of his suspension after a few months, and all the re-admission a twice-married bishop could expect to that Royal Coquette's good graces. His son inherited the perfections above specified, if his portrait and his friends flatter him no more than is customary ; but he did not, I believe, inherit the weakness (so called by Elizabeth), as he remained a bachelor till thirty ; and research has failed to detect he ever had a wife. Whether he derived his poetic tastes from his father, or, like Alfred, from his gentler parent, or from Heaven alone, may be a question : although the talents of a bishop are seldom left unrecorded, we do not find poetry numbered amongst Dr. Fletcher's. Yet there was, beyond doubt, a rich imaginative vein flowing through his family: Dr. Giles
[* John Fletcher was born at Rye, in Sussex (while his father officiated there as minister), in December, 1579. See Dyce's Account of the Lives and Writings of Beaumont and Fletcher, p. xvii.]
(t Bishop Fletcher's second wife was Lady Baker (widow of Sir Richard Baker, of Sisingherst, in Kent). Her character was very doubtful; and the marriage was hurried on with unusual haste. See Dyce's Account, &c., p. ix. seq./
Fletcher, the bishop's younger brother, is entitled by Wood “an excellent poet,” terms indeed often applied to a lettered person for the sake of rounding his character, but here it would seem justifiable : his sons, Giles and Phineas, wrote, the one,“ Christ's Victory and Triumph," a poem of merit enough to attract Milton; the other, what he names with classical indistinctness, “ The Purple Island,” which poem also deserves praise. These particulars may go some length towards an explanation of certain details and various peculiarities in our author's life and in his works. I do not see what light is thrown upon either by such circumstances as my predecessor, Weber, takes pains to mention—that the Bishop “was extremely dextrous in the management of the great horse," or that Camden charges him with having died of tobacco. But the wanderer through a desert will often stop to pluck trash from the few wild shrubs which adorn it, and to take a mouthful, no less green and bitter, from its brackish springs.
Cambridge had the honour of completing our poet's education, and Bene't College lays more particular claim to it, the bishop having remembered this establishment in his will. A youth from London of his name was admitted to Bene't, October the 15th, 1591, when Fletcher was about fifteen,t the usual entrance-age then : this appears to fix both his birth-place and his college. Here we are told he acquired much classical erudition, of which, however, no creditable degree remains as a proof, nor do his works furnish a valid one, although they superabound with antique dramatis personæ and localities that might as well be modern. So many of his plots taken from Spanish, French, and Italian dramas then untranslated, seem to attest his knowledge of the living languages, which may have been sought at the expense of the dead. We are not told what verses the mellifluous waters of Cam inspired, or the memory of Spenser, who had chosen its sweetest reed for his Dorique pipe a little before. Fletcher was born that same year the immortal Sizar of Pembroke took a master's degree at Cambridge, where it is probable the “Shepherd's Calendar," which came out soon after, had been meditated or composed, and must have been in high repute when our author entered college. Is it subtilizing (no mark of true discerning power), when I trace the origin of his “Faithful Shepherdess," a pastoral drama, to these pastoral dialogues of his fellow-academic ? Various thoughts, descriptions, &c., are taken or imitated from the “Shepherd's Calendar;" some peculiar words, as “dell,” “leese,” are common to both productions ; and so likewise are some proper names, as Thenot, Perigot, which do not exist in Fletcher's supposed prototypes, the “Aminta” and the “ Pastor Fido." I will give two specimens of the former coincidences :
"Sort all your shepherds from the lazy clowns
Faithful Shepherdess, Act v. Scene 5.
Shepherd's Calendar. February.
Spenser himself imitated in this a passage of Chaucer, from which I quote the last lines, to show how much sweeter the stream of poetry often is at the source :
" And many a floite and litlyng horne,
House of Fame. Boke iii. 133,
• As others might deem this of some consequence, I give Camden's accusation at length:-“ Endeavouring to smother the cares of an unlucky match in the smoke of tobacco, which he took to excess, and falling under the Queen's displeasure, who thought it enough for Bishops to be fathers of the Church Calluding to his marriage], between the experiment and the misfortune, lost his life."--History of England, vol. ii., p. 596.
Weber should have furnished the answer when he quoted the accusation. Tobacco, on its first introduction, was imagined by many sagacious persons, besides Camden and King James, most fatal to health, with perhaps the same justice as it is imagined beneficial now.
[f He had not completed his twelfth year; but in those days students were admitted into the universities at a very early age. His Father had been Fellow and President of Bene't College. See Dyce's Account, &c., p. xvii.]