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And many years afterward Herrick sang an echoing strain :
“ Ah Ben!
Outdid the meat, outdid the frolic wine." As a dramatist, Jonson paid more attention to classic models than his contemporaries; and in his Roman tragedies he plundered the Latin poets and historians in the vain endeavour to reproduce the life of Rome; so that, as Dryden says, you track him everywhere in their snow. In “The Alchemist,” the unities of time, place, and action are preserved, though it is a comedy of contemporary life, and yet the interest is so varied that no sense of restriction comes to the reader. The movement of the play is rapid and natural ; the leading characters are full of life to the finger-tips; and if some of the minor characters seem rather too grotesque and foolish, they at least serve to keep up the fun and set off the sharpers with whom they are brought into contact. The play shows not less plainly than his Roman tragedies Jonson's painstaking study of detail. The whole nomenclature of alchemy, a jargon in which the modern scholar can only catch the faintest meaning, is at the poet's command, and he seems to have mastered enough of the laboratory work at least to give colour to the imposture on which turns the action of the play. The same minute knowledge is displayed in regard to the tobacconist's business, because a tobacconist is introduced. We hardly realize in our day what a part alchemy played in the middle ages; and it remained a source of fraud even after Jonson's time, though it is supposed that this comedy did much to make men ashamed of the dream of transmuting baser metals into gold. In Evelyn's “ Diary” is this entry for January 2, 1651, at Paris : “I went to one Mark Antonio, an incomparable artist in enameling. He wrought by the lamp figures in boss of a large size, even to the life, so that nothing could be better moulded. He told us stories of a Genoese jeweller, who had the great arcanum and had made projection before him several times. He met him at Cyprus travel
ling into Egypt, on his return from whence he died at sea, and the secret with him ; that else he had promised to have left it to him; that all his effects were seized on and dissipated by the Greeks in the vessel to an immense value. He also affirmed that, being in a goldsmith's shop at Amsterdam, a person of very low stature came in and desired the goldsmith to melt him a pound of lead; which done he unscrewed the pommel of his sword, and taking out of a little box a small quantity of powder, casting it into the crucible, poured an ingot out, which when cold he took up, saying, “Sir, you will be paid for your lead in the crucible, and so went out immediately. When he was gone the goldsmith found four ounces of good gold in it; but could never set eye again on the little man, though he sought all the city for him. Antonio asserted this with great obtestation; nor know I what to think of it, there are so many impostors and people that love to tell strange stories, as this artist did, who had been a great rover, and spoke ten different languages.” If Evelyn was so puzzled, we need not wonder at Sir Epicure Mammon in the play and his gorgeous dreams, as he listened to the report of the progress of the alchemist and his experiments :
My meat shall all come in, in Indian shells,
There are many good strokes in the play, but few better strokes anywhere than that which pictures the new view that Sir Epicure
takes of things, when he learns of the imposture of the pretended alchemist and realizes that his luscious visions are gone forever :
“I will go mount a turnip-cart and preach
The end of the world within these two months."
In the days of Elizabeth and her successor, partnership in dramatic composition was common; but there were two dramatists, Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, who worked together so constantly and harmoniously, and who were united by so firm a friendship, that their literary partnership has become an element of their fame. For a time each lost his identity, and the name of both was used to cover even the work of the survivor, done long after the death of the younger poet had dissolved their companionship. They not only worked together but lived together; and it is said that they had even their clothes in common, and some things about which men are apt to be more jealous than about their clothes. They were both of good birth, breeding, and education, and came of families distinguished in literature. It is said that they were more popular in their day than Shakespeare or Ben Jonson, and it is not hard to believe the story as we glance through their plays. Every line is evidently the work of men writing for praise and popularity. There is little of solemn purpose, little of moral force, little of artistic reticence. There is plenty of genius, but it is genius wild, not unstudied, but full of perversity. The construction is often admirable, the movement rapid, the stage effects striking, the style buoyant and brilliant, the passion strong, the wit keen, and the humour broad. There is so much that is good that you wonder why the whole effect is not better. After a while you notice that the workmanship is a trifle too hurried. A play that begins in a noble strain of poetry is apt to fail as the plot proceeds and sink into mere melodrama where it ought to rise to a climax of tragedy. It is as if the authors grew weary of their work or were spurred beyond their normal pace by impatient managers. You notice a sameness, too, in many of the characters. They are led astray by the same devices, and avenge themselves by the same methods. Above all, there is a constant recurrence of the same theme, love or lust; and even the relations of the sexes may grow wearisome when dealt upon in fifty-two dramas. Throughout all there is a looseness of manners and language that is startling even to a student of old English literature. The men seem to be made up
without any sense of the obligation of purity, though occasionally one of them is kept true by a great passion ; with the women, as has been well said, chastity seems to be more a matter of physical condition than of moral nature. Yet on the whole it is no great wonder that those gay young gentlemen, whose genius blossomed in the beginning of King James's reign, were popular then, and no wonder that their works have maintained their fame even in more fastidious times.
Of the plays credited to Beaumont and Fletcher, it is probable that the latter wrote more than thirty and had some share in the rest. To the partnership with Beaumont, formed about 1605, it is thought that he contributed more than his share of wit, invention and poetic inspiration, and less than his share of good taste, sustained power and constructive ability. He had wonderful facility in composition, as he wrote three plays a year for a time, and his first publisher said that in whatever manuscript came to him in Fletcher's hand there were no blots or erasures. In his daily life his genius overflowed and his conversation was said to be in itself a comedy. Few of the English poets were more richly endowed. In gay exuberance of humour, in richness of invention, in the conception of manly strength and gallantry in passionate action, he was next to Shakespeare : in the romantic fervour of his imagination and the quaint faculty for pictures of that shepherd's life that never was on wood and stream, he was akin to Spenser; in the happy grace of poetic expression he rivalled Milton in his lighter moods. “The Faithful Shepherdess " represents him not so much as a dramatist as a poet; and yet it must remain the best type of English achievement in the pastoral drama. It is said that this sort of composition rose out of the “ Favola di Orfeo,” which Politian wrote in two days for a court festival in Mantua in 1483; and Becarri in the “Sagrifizio," 1554, Tasso, in “ Aminta," 1573, and Guarini in “Pastor Fido," 1590, brought it to perfection. The influence of the Italian pastoral like that of every other phase of Italian literature, was felt among the early English dramatists; and Lyly, Jonson, and Fletcher were tempted to direct imitation, while Shakespeare, more wisely, wrought into some of his plays the most available pastoral elements in the Arcadian life conceived by the poets. But the pastoral drama failed to take the English fancy. The best description of Fletcher's play, and the most reasonable explanation of its failure on the stage, is given
in one of several quaint consolations offered by George Chapman, on the occasion of its popular condemnation :
“... But because
The scene of the play is remote from the every-day world and the life of it, and the characters are not men and women, but the offspring of creative art; and yet withal the impression is one of reality, for the river-god, satyr, shepherd, and shepherdess are in harmony with their realm as the poet imagines it and are true to the laws of their being as he conceives it. The theme is the triumph of purity and morality: and Fletcher was sincere in his treatment of it, though high purpose, as in one of Richardson's novels, is somewhat clouded by the elements of impurity in the story. It is clear that he wrought with unusual care, and yet his verse seems to bubble upward with the spontaneous flow of a fountain ; and the poetic quality is deliciously refreshing. Milton probably took the idea of his masque of “ Comus " from “The Faithful Shepherdess,” and imitated some of the best passages : and for that reason “The Faithful Shepherdess” always appears to challenge comparison with “Comus," and no critic ventures to dismiss it without a word of censure, lest he should be open to the charge of disloyalty to Milton's fame. Let us disregard the custom. For dignity and beauty of style, for weight of thought, for elevation of sentiment, the superiority of “Comus" is manifest; but, unlike the music described in it, its strains do not “create a soul under the ribs of death.” There is no enchanted world, no lost lady, no son of Circe; there are no anxious brothers; but merely several poetic puppets, constructed to echo the notes of Milton. The Earl of Bridgewater is described as Lord President of Wales by an angel who takes part in the action, and his sons, Lord Brackly and Mr. Thomas Egerton, and his daughter, Lady Alice Egerton, who played their own parts, are described as coming to Ludlow Castle,