Mr. Lucas’s Webster. A second review of The Complete Works of John Webster, ed. F. L. Lucas
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[ 425 Mr. Lucas’s Webster1 A second review of The Complete Works of John Webster, ed. F. L. Lucas. Four vols. London: Chatto and Windus, 1927.2 The Criterion: A Literary Review, 7 (June 1928) 443-46 Mr. Lucas’s Webster, like Simpson and Herford’s Jonson, is one of those monuments of editing which look eternal.3 It is obviously the product of many years’ labour. Scholars may be able to wrangle over a note or two, in a work so amply annotated; but I cannot conceive of justification for any future edition. Even to read and ponder these notes is an occupation of months; and the text is, I believe, as firmly established as it ever will be. As for the critical introduction, that is naturally a different matter, though the opinion of a scholar and man of letters like Mr. Lucas, who has devoted many years to this subject, will always be considerable. My own disagreements with his estimate of Webster spring partly from a different attitude towards the “Renaissance,” and from a slightly different angle of viewing Webster in relation to his contemporaries.4 The two points of difference may perhaps be reduced to one. But it is natural that anyone who has spent much time in the study of one Elizabethan dramatist, should have a different point of view from that of an amateur who has dabbled in all without any exclusive preferences. Just as many students of Shakespeare, from their preoccupation with that study, have tended to isolate Shakespeare too far from his contemporaries, so Mr. Lucas seems to me to emphasize too strongly the personal differences of Webster. It is not that Mr. Lucas has neglected the working relations of Webster with other dramatists. On the contrary, he has traced these as fully as possible , and I should hardly question any of his attributions. I still incline to believe that Jonson was the author of the additions to The Spanish Tragedy, though I am unable to explain why he should have been paid five pounds for so little work; but Mr. Lucas’s argument against assigning them to Webster is ingenious and convincing. About the possibility of assigning any lines in Sir Thomas Wyatt to Webster I am not so sure. Mr. Lucas admits the probability of Webster’s hand in this play, but doubts whether any lines can 1928 426 ] certainly be attributed to him. He observes quite justly, that the similarities may be explained by imitation or direct borrowing.5 It is quite true that a poet of original genius may first distinguish himself by accomplished counterfeit of another’s works; it is also true that Webster borrowed without scruple from other dramatists, as well as from such writers as Montaigne and Sidney.6 I only think that Mr. Lucas does not make sufficient allowance for the likelihood of a poet’s borrowing from himself: or more fairly, for a poet in maturity working up into better form some image or rhythm which was an inspired flash of his youth. This can be shown to have been done by Marlowe;7 though, as Mr. Percy Allen has recently shown (Shakespeare, JonsonandWilkinsasBorrowers)Shakespeareprobablyborrowed,andturned into poetry, other men’s verse from a play in which he had but little to do.8 Mr. Lucas is quite as likely to be right about the lines in Sir Thomas Wyatt asIam;butIstillthinkthattheparallelsarelikeliertheworkofamanremodelling his own lines, than that of a man improving the lines of another.9 These are details. The main point is this: having myself written some scattered essays on several Elizabethan dramatists,10 and being not satisfied with them, I incline to think that what is needed is a view which will consider the dramatists – including Shakespeare – together rather than separately; and that in order to do this the critic must have a general conception of, and a positive attitude towards the period. Though his criticism be purely literary, it will imply a positive judgment of the whole background of the period, and its whole relation to other periods. Mr. Lucas does not give – I must add – a flagrant example of the contrary attitude. As against Sir William Watson and William Archer, for example, who quite wrongly exalt Shakespeare above Webster, not merely as poet and dramatist, but chiefly for his superior “morality,” Mr. Lucas is on the right side.11 The great example of artificial dissociation is Swinburne. Nearly all of Swinburne’s essays are good, and at least they excite...