Page images

their work: and so, though in a different manner, the comedies of that Georgian era remain a thing apart, as the Elizabethan drama stands alone. Of course, the age was different from ours, for example: every succeeding generation has its own outlook, its own peculiar savour. But too many of us too often forget that there is a permanent foundation beneath the passing fashions of life; and that, in its deepest qualities, both tragic and comic, human nature changes little, and that very slowly. Consequently, Goldsmith's and Sheridan's comedies are as entrancing and convincing to us as to the men and women of the eighteenth century; we still delight in The Good-natured Man. She Stoops to Conquer is as fresh as when it was written, and Tony Lumbkin never passes from the land of true comedy and laughter. Sheridan's Rivals and The School for Scandal bear revival again and again: Mrs. Malaprop is a friend against whom death itself is powerless.

In the literature of the nineteenth century, with its wealth and astonishing variety, the drama has been the very weakest point, perhaps partly on account of the rise of the novel.

[ocr errors]

Shelley, in the early part of the century, wrote lyrical dramas," like Hellas and Prometheus Unbound, but they were not meant for the actual stage. He produced one great tragedy, The Cenci, which has remained unacted until quite recently.

The plays of Tennyson were staged, but as they really never lived they can scarcely be said to have died: still they are printed among his Collected Works, and wisely, for they will always be searched from time to time by a few, for the sake of those lyrical passages which he could never wholly exclude from anything he wrote. His genius was essentially lyrical, not dramatic. Though Robert Browning could write fine lyrics, yet his attitude to human life was essentially dramatic. Oddly enough, his genius only once came to fruition, and that in a single scene of a play: the magnificent scene between Charles and the man he has betrayed, in Strafford, the

pathos of which is comparable to the famous deposition scene in Richard II. It would be hard to find human words more moving than Strafford's, betrayed, surrendered to his enemies by the king he had served, at the moment when the king, stung with remorseful shame, makes an ineffectual gesture to save him. Strafford just puts it aside:

Balfour, say nothing to the world of this!
I charge you, as a dying man, forget
You gazed upon this agony of one

Of one

or if... why you may say, Balfour,
The king was sorry: 'tis no shame in him:
Yes, you may say he even wept, Balfour,
And that I walked the lighter to the block
Because of it. I shall walk lightly, sir!

Earth fades, heaven breaks on me; I shall stand next
Before God's throne; the moment's close at hand

When man the first, last time, has leave to lay

His whole heart bare before its Maker, leave

To clear up the long error of a life

And choose one happiness for evermore.
With all mortality about me, Charles,

The sudden wreck, the dregs of violent death—
What if despite the opening angel-song,
There penetrate one prayer for you?

Be saved

Through me! Bear witness, no one could prevent
My death! Lead on! ere he awake-best, now!
All must be ready: did you say, Balfour,

The crowd began to murmur? They'll be kept
Too late for sermon at St. Antholin's.

Now! But tread softly-children are at play
In the next room. Precede! I follow-

When Macready presented Strafford in London it ran but a few days. Browning seems to have expended his dramatic power best in that great poem in twelve books, as tragic as anything to be found in the world's literature, The Ring and the Book.

No staging could increase the awfulness of that picture of Guido, the treacherous murderer, coming at last, however men may or may not punish him, to his own proper state and place:

Let us go away-leave Guido all alone
Back on the world again that knows him now!
I think he will be found (indulge so far!)
Not to die so much as slide out of life,

Push'd by the general horror and common hate
Low, lower,-left o' the very ledge of things,
I seem to see him catch convulsively
One by one at all honest forms of life,
At reason, order, decency and use-

To cramp him and get foothold by at least;
And still they disengage them from his clutch.

[blocks in formation]

And thus I see him slowly and surely edged
Off all the table-land whence life upsprings
Aspiring to be immortality,

As the snake, hatched on hill-top by mischance,
Despite his wriggling, slips, slides, slidders down
Hill-side, lies low and prostrate on the smooth
Level of the outer place, lapsed in the vale;
So I lose Guido in the loneliness,

Silence and dusk, till at the doleful end,
At the horizontal line, creation's verge,
From what just is to absolute nothingness-
Whom is it, straining onward still, he meets ?


Judas, made monstrous by much solitude!
The two are at one now.


Kiss him the kiss, Iscariot !

There let them grapple, denizens o' the dark,
Foes or friends, but indissolubly bound,
In their one spot out of the ken of God
Or care of man, for ever and ever more.

Thus Browning in the nineteenth century treated the sin of treachery, as Shakespeare did in the sixteenth, or the great Florentine, Dante, in the thirteenth.

Again, he can squeeze tragedy into a line, like the last line in Guido's own speech; into five verses like The Incident of the French Camp; into some sixty lines like Porphyria's Lover. Or he will show the poignant drama of a soul torn bare of its covering by remorse

as in Martin Relph. Yet, apparently, his plays proper cannot be so staged as to hold an audience.

The nineteenth century had one success in drama, however, in the unique light opera" of Gilbert and Sullivan. Their work, the Mikado, Pinafore, etc., is not usually regarded as a part of English literature. Yet, the musical genius of Ŝullivan wedded to the apt speech and barbed wit of Gilbert furnished operas which were and are loved by all and sundry, by simple and learned, and which repetition does not stale. These are no mean tests of literary worth. They are the work of fancy, of sense, of understanding of human nature, and of exquisite wit; which things are factors in literature. So if they are not worthy of the name, what shall they be called?

A multitude of "Plays" have been written and staged, of which a few comedies of manners deserve the name of Literature. Some will probably live.

The fate of Elroy Flecker's Hassan, published, at last, in November, 1922, awaits decision. Some of us fancy it is a work of genius; it has a terrible sombre awe which recalls the thundery terror of Webster in Elizabethan days, but this Oriental play is shot through with a keen white wit, playing and dancing over the darkness like lightning out of some piled-up storm cloud. It is full, too, of delicate poetry, and it may yet prove to be the one great tragedy (apart from Shelley's Cenci) which England has produced since her finest dramatic days in the reigns of Elizabeth and James.




N Essay is not a collection of words flung together anyhow about nothing in particular. Nor is it merely a difficult element in the process of passing an examination. Nor should it ever be just a method of that money-making which is legitimate enough when we boil together unpleasant substances to make soap or candles.

In its simplest essence, an essay is a composition according to flexible but orderly rules; something deliberately thought out duly said about some person, or thing, or idea which, to the writer, seems to be of interest and importance.

Strictly speaking, an essay should set forth the particular point to be discussed, should then deal with that point fully from various standpoints, and finally come to a just conclusion from the facts and arguments. It is a form of composition more naturally handled by the logical, lucid French mind than by us, who are more diffuse, more apt to stray into by-paths. Yet the great Montaigne was discursive enough, and our own Francis Bacon kept more to his main point, perhaps, than the Frenchman. Perhaps Perhaps no Englishman has been so purely an essayist as Sainte-Beuve in the earlier part of the French nineteenth century; Macaulay, who played a somewhat similar part, was less bound by rules.

Among the chief English essayists, Francis Bacon, who popularised essays, will always have a conspicuous place. His first collected essays, few in number, appeared in 1597. When in 1625 he was dedicating the

« PreviousContinue »