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I know few things more difficult to account for than the deep and lasting impression made by the more tragic portions of Ford's poetry. Whence does it derive that resistless power which all confess, of afflicting, I had almost said, harassing, the better feelings? It is not from any peculiar beauty of language—for in this he is equalled by his contemporaries, and, by some of them, surpassed; nor is it from any classical or mythological allusions happily recollected and skilfully applied, for of these he seldom avails himself. It is not from any picturesque views presented to the mind; for of imaginative poetry he has little or nothing: he cannot conjure up a succession of images, whether grave or gay, to fit across the fancy, or play in the eye; yet it is hardly possible to peruse his passionate scenes without the most painful interest, the most heart-thrilling delight. This can only arise—at least, I can conceive nothing else adequate to the excitement of such sensations—from the overwhelming efficacy of intense thought devoted to the embodying of conceptions adapted to the awful situations in which he has, imperceptibly and with matchless felicity, placed his principal characters.
Mr. Campbell observes that Ford interests us in no other passion than that of love; “ in which he displays á peculiar depth and delicacy of romantic feeling.” Comparatively speaking, this
may be admitted; but, in justice to the poet, it should be added that he was not insensible to the power of friendship, and, in more than one of his dramas, has delineated it with a master-hand. Had the critic forgotten the noble Dalyell? the generous and devoted Malfato?--Nor can it justly be inferred (even setting aside the romantic feelings here alluded to) that the female characters of his second-rate pieces fail to interest us, and occasionally in a high degree, in affections and passions very distinct from those of love. Mr. Campbell, however, terms him “one of the ornaments of our ancient poetry.”
So many remarks are incidentally scattered through these pages on the nature of our poet's plots, that little more seems called for here than to remark that in the construction, or rather perhaps in the selection of his fables, there is usually much to commend : like Kent, indeed, he
possessed the faculty of marring a plain tale in the telling; but this is only saying, in other words, that he planned better than he executed. His besetting error was an unfortunate persuasion, that he was gifted with a certain degree of pleasantry with which it behoved him occasionally to favour the stage; and to this we are indebted for the intrusion of those ill-timed underplots, and those prurient snatches of language, which debase and pollute several of his best dramas. It saddens
the heart to see a man, from whom nature has withheld all perception of the tones and attitudes of humour, labouring with all his might to be airy and playful; and it is impossible to contemplate Ford under this strange infatuation without being reminded of the poor maniacs in the Masque of Corax, to whom many of the characters, that figure in his idle buffooneries, might be introduced without ceremony. It is not pleasant to dwell on these defects; though justice requires that they should be noticed. Time has long since avenged them: for it can scarcely be doubted that somewhat of the obscurity into which the poet has fallen should be laid to their charge.
But Ford is not all alone unhappy. In his day, there was, in fact, no model to work after. The elements of composition, as far as regards taste and judgment, far from being established, were not even arranged; and, with the exception of Sir Philip Sidney's Essay, nothing can be more jejune and unsatisfactory than the few attempts at poetic criticism then before the public. Add to this, that the scale of ethic as well as of poetic fitness seems to have had few gradations marked on it, and those at remote and uncertain distances; hence the writers. suddenly drop from all that is pure in taste and exquisite in feeling, to whining imbecility; and from high-toned sentiment and ennobling action, to all that is mean and vicious,
apparently unconscious of the vast interval through which they have passed, and the depth to which they have fallen. In other respects, they all seem to have acquiesced in the humble station in which prejudice had placed them, and instead of attempting to correct the age, to have sought little more than to interest and amuse with the materials so richly provided for them by the extraordinary times on which they were cast. One man, indeed, there was, one eminent man, who sought, from early life, to enlist the stage on the side of learning and virtue, and called on the people to view the scene in its genuine light,
“ Attired in the majesty of art,
Set high in spirit with the precious taste
With any relish of an earthly thought !-" -but he found few supporters, and no followers; and the stage went on as before; attended, but not honoured-popular, but not influential.
It is not a little mortifying to reflect, that while dramatic poetry towered in its pride of place, and long sustained itself at an elevation, which it will never reach again, the writers themselves possessed no sway whatever over the feelings of
* See p. v.
the people ; while, at a subsequent period, when the power of the stage for good and evil was understood, it was turned wholly to the purposes of the latter; and the greatest men of the age formed themselves into factions, for trash that would not now be heard, and names that cannot be pronounced without scorn and shame, that depravity of every kind might be transmittedfrom the court to the stage,—from the stage to the people, and none escape the contagion. And who was the Choragus of this pernicious band ? Let Cibber tell. “ In this almost general corruption, Dryden led the way, which he fairly confesses, and endeavours to excuse in his Epilogue to the Pilgrim, revived in 1700 for the benefit of his declining age.
Langbaine supposes Ford to be dead when the
Witch of Edmonton” was published, by Bird and Pennycuicke, in 1657. He probably had no better authority than an expression in the Dedication—that “the Piece was an orphan one.” It may, however, be so; for at this period he would have passed his seventieth year: but this still leaves a considerable interval in his history, during
* Cibber's Life, p. 219. Such as desire to see what Cibber calls his “excuse,” may turn to the passage. For an old man of seventy, it is a very gracious plea. Dryden died a few months after this.