Изображения страниц

double fury on its author's head. At this point, Jonson took a manly resolution, and one that confirms our respect for the essential goodness of his nature. He published a dialogue in verse setting forth his case, and apologising where he thought apology was due. In the course of this self-vindication, he acknowledged that the Comic Muse had not been favourable to his satiric bent of mind, and proclaimed his intention of courting her severer Tragic sister.

Sejanus, produced in 1603, two years after The Poetaster, was Jonson's next venture on the public stage. It was brought out by Shakespeare's company, Shakespeare acting in it, and Shakespeare contributing (if an old tradition be correct) some passages to the play. When Jonson gave this tragedy to the press, he carefully omitted the additions, and bade his readers take note that he had done so. But who had helped him, he did not say; only remarking that he would not "defraud so happy a genius of his right by my loathed usurpation." Sejanus proved that Jonson's conception of tragedy differed no less from the romantic ideal than his conception of comedy. It is a laboured, carefully-sententious transcript from classical authorities, so composed as to preserve a semblance of unity in time and place and action, and furnished with choruses after the manner of Seneca. Probably the author fondly imagined that it approached nearer to the type of a "high and lofty" tragedy than the Antony and Cleopatra which Shakespeare, so

genially, and yet apparently so carelessly, evolved from North's translation of Plutarch. Posterity thinks otherwise, and condemns Sejanus as one of Jonson's meritorious failures.

The accession of James I. to the English throne in 1604 opened a new era for our poet. James loved nothing better than splendid shows, and he prized nothing more than erudition. So learned a bard as Jonson was sure of his patronage. But when it was discovered that this scholar-poet held within the vast mines of his intellect an inexhaustible vein of fancy, specially adapted for Masque and Pageant, his fortune was assured. From the specimens of his art previously given to the world, no one could have predicted that Jonson had it in him to furnish forth motives and lyrics for those gorgeous court-toys, resembling our pantomimes and ballets, which then had the name of Masque. Yet so it was. Every year, until his genius sank in dotage, Jonson wrote libretti of rarest quality and most curious variety, for the court and noble folk of England. To dwell upon them here in detail would be to transcend the limits of an essay which has to deal with the main current of a great dramatist's life-work. It must suffice to mention that the peculiar aptitudes he displayed in composing Masques and entertainments, brought him into favour with the royal family, and made him personally acquainted with the chief members of the aristocracy. He was appointed Laureate, with an annual stipend, and in due course with a butt of Canary wine. James

wished to dub him knight; but, unlike artists of the present age, he laughingly put by the honour. He frequented the houses of the great, and spent many months of each year on visits to their country-seats, complimenting them with poems, and receiving from them in return the honoraria of timely presents. Lord Pembroke, for example, sent him each year £20 to buy books with. In this commerce with royalty and nobility I find that Jonson always maintained the dignified attitude of a self-respecting man. He never condescended to flattery. When he praised, he chose the point on which his patron deserved commendation. He dared to tell a pedant king that his manner of reciting verses was atrocious. He told the Prince of Wales, before the Court, that his favourite architect was an arch-scoundrel. This excursion into the particulars of Jonson's connection with the Court was necessary, because it forms a special feature in his biography, and distinguishes him from every poet of his time.

Meanwhile, Jonson did not neglect the public stage. Strangely enough, we next find him collaborating with Chapman and his old adversary, Marston, in a comedy called Eastward Ho! Some allusions in this play were thought to reflect upon the Scots. So precarious was the existence of a playwright in those days, and so vigorous was the censorship, that these three poor fellows met together in jail, with the prospect of having their noses and ears cut off. Chapman and Marston had been sent to prison. Jonson, hearing of their

mischance, joined them of his own free will. The circumstance has to be dwelt on, since it illustrates the generous and reckless nature of the man. All three were eventually liberated; and Jonson gave a supper party on the occasion. No less personages than Camden and Selden took their share in it; which proves, I think, that Jonson's peril had been considerable. His old mother was also there. She showed the company a paper of poison, which she had meant to mix with her son's drink, in the event of his being sentenced; and "since she was no churl," it had been her purpose to quaff the goblet with him. Whether she truly so intended, or whether the supper inspired her with bravado, cannot now be estimated. But at this point of Jonson's domestic history the good woman disappears.

Between the years 1609 and 1615 Jonson put forth all his strength, and produced the best work of his lifetime. That decade saw the appearance in rapid succession of Volpone, The Silent Woman, The Alchemist, Catiline, and Bartholomew Fair. Volpone is a comedy, less of humours than of character and manners. With grimmest satire it exposes the master vice of cupidity, that accursed hunger after gold which debases human nature below the brutes, supersedes domestic affection, obliterates the sense of honour, and swallows up such powerful passions even as jealousy. The construction of the mighty plot is masterly; the interest never flags; the art of Volpone throughout is burning and intense. Yet we rise from its

perusal with the feeling that wickedness so unmitigated, cynicism so crude, characters so utterly abandoned to evil, are not human. True perhaps in detail, piece by piece, and personage by personage, these component parts exceed the truth when brought thus into combination. The Silent Woman shifts the scene from satire to humour, from comedy to farce. While Volpone is written in blank verse of highly sustained quality, The Silent Woman is in prose. Dryden esteemed this play not only as the most perfect of Jonson's works, but also as the most admirably constructed specimen of modern dramatic art. Coleridge reckoned it the most entertaining of its author's comedies. That The Silent Woman observes the rules of classical propriety, that the unities are maintained without sacrifice of ease and probability, that the threads of its simple but varied intrigue are skilfully twined into one knot, which is cut at last by a single discovery no less ingenious than unexpected, forms perhaps the slightest merit of this masterpiece. From beginning to ending, it provokes mirth, and the mirth increases as the situation deepens. The characters, moreover, are portrayed with inimitable freshness and vivacity. None of them are so bad as to stir loathing; some are so foolish, others so eccentric, as to affect us with a lively sense of the ridiculous. Jonson conceived the character of a perverse old man, who spites his nephew. Morose has this weakness, that he cannot endure noise. His life is spent in preserving himself from the least disturbance. Yet he thinks of marriage, as

« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »