Of all the poets and humorists who lit up the London stage for half a century of unequalled glory, William Rowley was the most thoroughly loyal Londoner: the most evidently and proudly mindful that he was a citizen of no mean city. I have always thought that this must have been the conscious or unconscious source of the strong and profound interest which his very remarkable and original genius had the good-fortune to evoke from the sympathies of Charles Lamb. That divine cockney, if the word may be used—and “why in the name of glory,” to borrow the phrase of another immortal fellow-townsman, should it not be?—as a term of no less honor than Yorkshireman or Northumbrian, Cornishman or Welshman, has lavished upon Rowley such cordial and such manfully sympathetic praise as would suffice to preserve and to immortalize the name of a far lesser man and a far feebler workman in tragedy or comedy, poetry or prose.
If Lamb had known and read the first work published by Rowley, it is impossible to imagine that it would not have been honored by the tribute of some passing and priceless word. Why it has never been reissued (except in a private reprint for the Percy Society) among the many less deserving and less interesting revivals from the apparently and not really ephemeral literature of its day would be to me an insoluble problem, if I were so ignorant as never to have realized the too obvious fact that chance, pure and simple chance, guides or misguides the intelligence, and suggests or fails to suggest, the duty of scholars and of students who have given time and thought to such far from unimportant or insignificant matters. “A Search for Money; or, a Quest for the Wandering Knight Monsieur L'Argent,” is not comparable with the best pamphlets of Nash or of Dekker: a competent reader of those admirable improvisations will at the first opening feel inclined to regard it as a feeble and servile imitation of their quaint and obsolescent manner; but he will soon find an original and a vigorous vein of native humor in their comrade or their disciple. The seekers after the wandering knight, baffled in their search on shore, are compelled to recognize the sad fact that “the sea is lunatic, and mad folks keep no money, he would sink if he were there.” The description of an usurer is memorable by its reference to the first great poet of England, among whose followers Rowley is far from the least worthy of honor. “His visage (or vizard), like the artificial Jew of Malta's nose,” brings before the reader in vivid realism the likeness of Alleyn or Burbage as he represented in grotesque and tragic disguise the magnificent figure of Marlowe's creative invention or discovery by dint of genius. (I do not remember the curious verb “to rand” except in this little book: “he randed out these sentences”: I presume it to be the first form of “rant.”) The account of St. Paul's in 1609 is very curious and scandalous: “the very Temple itself (in bare humility) stood without his cap, and so had stood many years, many good folks had spoke for him because he could not speak for himself, and somewhat had been gathered in his behalf, but not half enough to supply his necessity.”
When we pass from “the Temple” to Westminster Hall we come upon a sample of humor which would be famous if it were the gift of a less ungratefully forgotten hand.
“Here were two brothers at buffets with angels in their fists about the thatch that blew off his house into the other's garden and so spoiled a Hartichoke.”
It should not have been left to a later hand—it should surely have been the privilege of Lamb's or Hazlitt's, and perhaps rather Hazlitt's than even Lamb's—to unearth and to transcribe the quaint and spirited description of Thames watermen “howling, hollowing, and calling for passengers, as if all the hags in hell had been imprisoned, and begging at the gate, fiends and furies that (God be thanked) could vex the soul but not torment it, yet indeed their most power was over the body, for here an audacious mouthing-randing-impudent-scullery-wastecoat-and-bodied rascal would have hail'd a penny from us for his scullerships.”
Could Rabelais himself have described them better, or with vigor of humorous expression more heartily and enjoyably characteristic of his own all but incomparable genius?
The good old times, as remote in Shakespeare's day as in our own, were never more delightfully described than by Rowley in this noble and simple phrase: “Then was England's whole year but a St. George's day.”
Webster wished that what he wrote might be read by the light of Shakespeare: an admirer of Rowley might hope and must wish that he should be read by the light of Lamb. His comedies have real as well as realistic merit: not equal to that of Dekker's or Middleton's at their best, but usually not far inferior to Heywood's or to theirs. The first of them, “A New Wonder: A Woman Never Vext,” has received such immortal honor from the loving hand of Lamb that perhaps the one right thing to say of it would be an adaptation of a Catholic formula: “Agnus locutus est: causa finita est.” The realism is so thorough as to make the interest something more than historical: and historically it is so valuable as well as amusing that a reasonable student may overlook the offensive “mingle-mangle” of prose and verse which cannot but painfully affect the nerves of all not congenitally insensitive readers, as it surely must have ground and grated on the ears of an audience accustomed to enjoy the prose as well as the verse of Shakespeare and his kind. No graver offence can be committed or conceived by a writer with any claim to any but contemptuous remembrance than this debasement of the currency of verse.
The character of Robert Foster is so noble and attractive in its selfless and manful simplicity that it gives us and leaves with us a more cordial sense of sympathetic regard and respect for his creator than we could feel if this gallant and homely figure were withdrawn from the stage of his invention. The female Polycrates who suffers under the curse of inevitable and intolerable good-fortune is an admirable creature of broad comedy that never subsides or overflows or degenerates into farce.
“A Match at Midnight” is as notable for vivid impression of reality, but not so likely to leave a good taste—as Charlotte Bronte might haye said—in the reader's mouth. Ancient Young, the hero, is a fine fellow; but Messrs. Earlack and Carvegut are hardly amusing enough to reconcile us to toleration of such bad company. It is cleverly composed, and the crosses and chances of the night are ingeniously and effectively invented and arranged: there is real and good broad humor in the parts of the usurer and his sons and the attractive but unwidowed Widow Wag. And I am not only free to admit but desirous to remark that a juster and more valuable judgment on such plays as these than any that I could undertake to deliver may very possibly be expected from readers whom they may more thoroughly arride—to use a favorite phrase of the all, but impeccable critic, the all but infallible judge, whose praise has set the name of Rowley so high in the rank of realistic painters and historic naturalists forever.
The copies of two dramatic nondescripts now happily preserved and duly treasured in the library of the British Museum bear inscribed in the same old hand, at the head of the first page and again on the last page under the last line, the same contemptuous three words—“silly old story.” And I fear it can hardly be maintained that either Chapman, when writing “The Blind Beggar of Alexandria,” or Rowley, when writing “A Shoemaker, a Gentleman,” was engaged in any very rational or felicitous employment of his wayward and unregulated powers. “The Printer” of the play last named assures “the Reader” of 1638, whom he assumes to be a member of the gentle craft, that “as plays were then, some twenty years agone, it was in the fashion.” A singular fashion, the rare modern reader will probably reflect: especially when he remembers how far finer and how thoroughly charming a tribute of dramatic and poetic celebration had been paid full eighteen years earlier to the same favored craft by the sweeter and rarer genius of Dekker. This quaintly apologetic assurance of by-gone popularity in subject and in style will remind all probable readers of Heywood's prologue to “The Royal King and Loyal Subject,” and his dedicatory address prefixed to “The Four Prentices of London.” It happily was not, however, in the printer's power to aver that such impudently immetrical verse as Rowley at once breaks ground with was ever in fashion with any of his famous fellows. Nothing can be worse than the headlong and slipshod stumble of Dekker's at its worst; but his were the faults of hurry and impatience and shamefully scamped work: Rowley's, if I mistake not, is the far graver error of a preposterous theory that broken verse, rough and untunable as the shock of short chopping waves, is more dramatic and liker the natural speech of men and women than the rolling and flowing verse of Marlowe and of Shakespeare: which is as much liker life as it is nobler and more satisfying in workmanship. In reading bad verse the reader is constantly reminded that he is not reading good prose; and this is not the effect produced by true realism—the impression left by actual intercourse or faithful presentation of it.
The hagiology of this eccentric play is more like Shirley's in “St. Patrick for Ireland” than Dekker's and Massinger's in “The Virgin Martyr.” Assuredly there is here nothing like the one incomparably lovely dialogue of Dorothea with her attendant angel. But there is the charm of a curious simplicity and sincerity in Rowley's straightforward and homely dramatic handling of the supernatural element: in the miracle of St. Winifred's well, and the conversion of Albon into St. Alban by “that seminary knight,” as the tyrant Maximinus rather comically calls him, Amphiabel Prince of Wales. The courtship of the princely Offa, while disguised as the shoemaker's apprentice Crispinus, by the Roman Princess Laodice, daughter of Maximinus, is very lively and dramatic: the sprightliest scene, I should say, ever played out on the stage of Rowley's fancy. On the other hand, the martyrdom of St. Winifred and St. Hugh is an abject tragic failure; an abortive attempt at cheap terror and jingling pity, followed up by doggrel farce of intolerable grossness.
This play is a perfect repertory of slang and quaint phrases: as when the master shoemaker, who has for apprentices two persecuted princes in disguise, and is a very inferior imitation of Dekker's admirable Simon Eyre, calls his wife Lady d'Oliva—whatever that may mean, and when she inquires of one of the youngsters, “What's the matter, boy? Why are so many chancery bills drawn in thy face?” Habent sua fala libelli: it is inexplicable that this most curious play should never have been republished, when the volumes of Dodsley's Old Plays, in their very latest reissue, are encumbered with heaps of such leaden dulness and such bestial filth as no decent scavenger and no rational nightman would have dreamed of sweeping back into sight and smell of any possible reader.
But it is or it should be inconceivable and incredible that the masterpiece of Rowley's strong and singular genius, a play remarkable for its peculiar power or fusion of strange powers even in the sovereign age of Shakespeare, should have waited upward of three hundred years and should still be waiting for the appearance of a second edition. The tragedy of “All's Lost by Lust,” published in the same year with Shakespeare's great posthumous torso of romantic tragedy, was evidently a favorite child of its author's: the terse and elaborate argument subjoined to the careful and exhaustive list of characters may suffice to prove it. Among these characters we may note that one, “a simple clownish Gentleman,” was “personated by the poet”: and having noted it, we cannot but long, with a fruitless longing, for such confidences as to the impersonation of the leading characters in other memorable plays of the period. There is some really good rough humor in the part of this honest clown and his fellows; but no duly appreciative reader will doubt that the author's heart was in the work devoted to the tragic and poetic scenes of a play which shows that the natural bent of his powers was toward tragedy rather than comedy. Alike as poet and as dramatist, he rises far higher and enjoys his work far more when the aim of his flight is toward the effects of imaginative terror and pity than when it is confined to the effects of humorous or pathetic realism. In the very first scene we breathe the air of tragic romance and imminent evil provoked by coalition rather than collision of the will of man with the doom of destiny; and the king's defiance of prophecy and tradition is so admirably rendered or suggested as a sign of brutal and egotistic rather than chivalrous or manful daring as to prepare the way with great dramatic and poetic skill for the subsequent scenes of attempted seduction and ultimate violation. With these the underplot, interesting and original in itself, well conceived and well carried through, is happily and naturally interwoven. The noble soliloquy of the invading and defeated Moorish king is by grace of Lamb familiar to all true lovers of the higher dramatic poetry of England. Nothing can be livelier and more natural than the scenes in which a recent bridegroom's heart is won from his loving and low-born wife by the offered hand and the sprightly seductions of a light-hearted and high-born rival. But the crowning scene of the play and the crowning grace of the poem is the interview of father and daughter after the consummation of the crime which gave Spain into the hand of the Moor. The vivid dramatic life in every word is even more admirable than the great style, the high poetic spirit of the scene. I have always ventured to wonder that Lamb, whose admiration has made it twice immortal, did not select as a companion or a counterpart to it that other great camp scene from Webster's “Appius and Virginia” in which another outraged warrior and father stirs up his friends and fellow-soldiers to vindication of his honor and revenge for his wrong. It is surely even finer and more impressive than that selected in preference to it, which closes with the immolation of Virginia.
The scenes in which the tragic underplot of Rowley's tragedy is deftly and effectively wound up are full of living action and passion; that especially in which the revenge of a deserted wife is wreaked mistakingly on the villanous minion to whose instigation she owes the infidelity of the husband for whom she mistakes him. The gross physical horrors which deform the close of a noble poem are relieved if not beautified by the great style of its age—an age unparalleled in wealth and variety of genius, a style unmatchable for its union of inspired and imaginative dignity with actual and vivid reality of impassioned and lofty life.
No comparison is possible, nor if possible could it be profitable, between the somewhat rough-hewn English oak of Rowley's play and the flawless Roman steel of Landor's great Miltonic tragedy on the same subject. The fervent praise of Southey was not too generous to be just in its estimate of that austere masterpiece; it is lamentable to remember the injustice of its illustrious author to the men of Shakespeare's day. I fear he would certainly not have excepted the noble work of his precursor from his general condemnation or impreachment of “their bloody bawdries”—a misjudgment gross enough for Hallam—or Voltaire when declining to the level of a Hallam. Landor was as headlong as these were hidebound, as fitful as they were futile; but not even the dispraise or the disrelish of a finer if not of a greater dramatic poet could affect the credit or impair the station of one on whose merits the final sentence of appreciation has been irrevocably pronounced by the verdict of Charles Lamb.