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THE

QUARTERLY REVIEW.

Art. I.The Dramatic Works and Poems of James Shirley,

now first collected. With Notes by the late William Gifford, Esq. And additional Notes, and some Account of Shirley and his Writings, by the Rev. Alexander Dyce. 6 vols.

London, 1832. SHIRLEY at length takes his place among the poets of

England. His collected works are, for the first time, within the reach of the common reader. A few years ago these volumes would have excited more general interest, and stood a chance of more extensive popularity. The admiration of our older dramatists was then at its height. The wonder and delight raised by a vein of poetry so rich and so deep, almost suddenly disclosed, tempted the public mind to imagine that its wealth was inexhaustible, and, in the fresh ardour of enthusiasm, it refused to suspect that much dross might be mingled with the precious metal. The strong excitement, in those days, perpetually administered by modern poetry, kept the popular taste in a state prepared, and wrought up, as it were, to receive with pleasure the force, the passionate vehemence, the splendid imagery of our ancient theatre. Most of the successful poets then living were professed admirers, some avowed imitators, of the Elizabethan dramatists. They seemed to demand, and obtained a favourable hearing for their masters in the art.

If latterly this ardour of the public mind has sunk into comparative apathy, and its curiosity languished into indifference, we are not inclined altogether to ascribe this defection from the objects of brief idolatry to its general inconstancy :-the blame must be borne, at least in an equal share, by the injudicious panegyrists of our older poets. Of these some had but a cold, an antiquarian, or a bibliomaniac passion for these neglected writers—they loved, not their invention, their poetry, their character, but their rarity; their admiration rose and fell, not with the kindling of their imagination, or the thrilling of their inmost heart, but with the ansiouslywatched vibrations of Mr. Sotheby's or Mr. Evans's hammer; their principles of taste were on the margin of a Roxburghe catalogue--and inestimable must be the merit of that drama which was not to be found in the Malone or the Garrick collection. But this was innocent in comparison with the patronage of another class, by which the older dramatists were incumbered. These were a VOL. XLIX. NO. XCVII.

certain

B

certain race of writers, with little knowledge of the ancient drama, and less discrimination as to its real excellencies — professed admirers of poetry, but egregious admirers of themselves—who seized upon these slumbering worthies, as subjects for showy and epigrammatic essays, in which the public attention was invited, less to the long-neglected genius of the dead, than to the profound and original principles of taste developed by the living. Some of them took possession of the ground, as it were, by a pretended right of discovery; and it became an object of competition to force into notice some name, whose merit had been a secret even to the initiated. In the meantime the authority of the more sound and judicious admirers of the old drama, such as the late Mr. Gifford and Mr. Lamb—(men, perhaps, as opposite in the character of their minds, as two so highly gifted and accomplished could be, but who met upon this common ground)—their ripe and sober judgment was overborne by the louder and more extravagant praises lavished with equal profusion upon the humbler and the better part of this remarkable school. The reaction took place; the public taste, wearied with these incessant demands on its approbation,-unable to admire in the mass, as it was authoritatively required to do, that which, in most cases, is only excellent in particular passages ;--neither inclined, nor scarcely permitted, to make the necessary allowance for the difference of manners, or for the irregularities of writers, who, if the most vigorous, amusing, and various, are, unquestionably, the most unequal,-gradually fell off in its encouragement, and left the field to those whose not less fervent, though more discriminating love of our older poetry, maintained its fidelity. These, as they had been earlier, so they were more lasting votaries; as uninfluenced by the excitement, so superior to the capriciousness of popular admiration.

In the meantime great advantages had been derived from the impulse given to the public taste. Excellent editions of the better, and even some of the inferior, of these old poets had been published. Men who, like Mr. Collier and Mr. Dyce, united the patient industry of the antiquarian with a real, yet chastened feeling for the beauties of their authors, have continued to work on with unwearied assiduity, though with less hope of reward from the general interest in their studies. The present edition of Shirley, commenced, and almost finished, as to the collection and the arrangement of the plays, by Mr. Gifford, and now completed by the addition of the poems, and a life, by Mr. Dyce, closes that prolitic but brilliant series of our dramatic authors, without which no library, which pretends to comprehend the more valuable body of English poetic literature, can be considered perfect.

Shirley

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