Philip Massinger
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244 ] Philip Massinger1 I Massinger has been more fortunately and more fairly judged than several of his greater contemporaries. Three critics have done their best by him: the notes of Coleridge exemplify Coleridge’s fine and fragmentary perceptions ; the essay of Leslie Stephen is a piece of formidable destructive analysis; and the essay of Swinburne is Swinburne’s criticism at its best.2 None of these, probably, has put Massinger finally and irrefutably into a place.3† English criticism is inclined to argue or persuade rather than to state; and, instead of forcing the subject to expose himself, these critics have left in their work an undissolved residuum of their own good taste, which, however impeccable, is something that requires our faith. The principles which animate this taste remain unexplained. Canon Cruickshank’s book is a work of scholarship; and the advantage of good scholarship is that it presents us with evidence which is an invitation to the critical faculty of the reader: it bestows a method, rather than a judgment.4† It is difficult – it is perhaps the supreme difficulty of criticism – to make the facts generalize themselves; but Mr. Cruickshank at least presents us with facts which are capable of generalization. This is a service of value; and it is therefore wholly a compliment to the author to say that his appendices are as valuable as the essay itself. The sort of labour to which Mr. Cruickshank has devoted himself is one that professed critics ought more willingly to undertake. It is an important part of criticism, more important than any mere expression of opinion. To understand Elizabethan drama it is necessary to study a dozen playwrights at once, to dissect with all care the complex growth, to ponder collaboration to the utmost line. Reading Shakespeare and several of his contemporaries is pleasure enough, perhaps all the pleasure possible, for most. But if we wish to consummate and refine this pleasure by understanding it, to distil the last drop of it, to press and press the essence of each author, to apply exact measurement to our own sensations, then we must compare; and we cannot compare without parcelling the threads of authorship and [ 245 Philip Massinger influence. We must employ Mr. Cruickshank’s judgments;5† and perhaps the most important judgment to which he has committed himself is this: Massinger, in his grasp of stagecraft, his flexible metre, his desire in the sphere of ethics to exploit both vice and virtue, is typical of an age which had much culture, but which, without being exactly corrupt, lacked moral fibre. [19] Here, in fact, is our text: to elucidate this sentence would be to account for Massinger. We begin vaguely with good taste, by a recognition that Massinger is inferior: can we trace this inferiority, dissolve it, and have left any element of merit? We turn first to the parallel quotations from Massinger and Shakespeare collocated by Mr. Cruickshank to make manifest Massinger’s indebtedness .Oneofthesurestoftestsisthewayinwhichapoetborrows.Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest. Chapman borrowed from Seneca; Shakespeare and Webster from Montaigne. The two great followers of Shakespeare, Webster and Tourneur, in their mature work do not borrow from him; he is too close to them to be of use to them in this way. Massinger, as Mr. Cruickshank shows, borrows from Shakespeare a good deal. Let us profit by some of the quotations with which he has provided us – Massinger: Can I call back yesterday, with all their aids That bow unto my sceptre? or restore My mind to that tranquillity and peace It then enjoyed? Shakespeare: Not poppy, nor mandragora, Nor all the drowsy syrops of the world 1920 246 ] Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep Which thou owedst yesterday.6 Massinger’s is a general rhetorical question, the language just and pure, but colourless. Shakespeare’s has particular significance; and the adjective “drowsy” and the verb “medicine” infuse a precise vigour. This is, on Massinger’s part, an echo, rather than an imitation or a plagiarism – the basest, because least conscious form of...