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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical Introduction by Ernest Rhys (1859–1946)

By Masques

SOME of the prettiest things in all literature lie hidden and half forgotten in the “masques” and “triumphs” to be found in the old quartos and dusty folios of the early seventeenth century. Lord Bacon unbent to praise them; Milton and Ben Jonson wrote them; Campion used both his music and his poetry upon them; Inigo Jones lent them his art. These are famous names, and in a brief account one must keep to the great craftsmen who worked in that way; but it is fair to remember too the number of less-known writers who left things of the kind, imperfect as whole performances, but full of such effects and pleasant passages as well reward the students and lovers of old poetry.

Among the poets who have not come popularly into the first or second rank, Samuel Daniel—“the well-languaged Daniel,” as he has been called—has written exquisitely parts and passages in this kind. Daniel, it may be recalled, besides writing plays on a classical Senecan model, very remarkable and exceptional in the literature of the time, wrote a very convincing retort in his ‘Defence of Rhyme’ to Campion’s attack on its use in English poetry. The prose ‘Defence’ had its verse counterpart in ‘Musophilus’; in whose terse lines may be found some that may grow proverbial, as e.g.:

  • “While timorous knowledge stands considering,
  • Audacious ignorance hath done the deed.”
  • Something of the same idiomatic force of expression may be found in his masques and in his plays. In his masque of ‘Tethys’s Festival, or the Queen’s Wake,’ which was celebrated at Whitehall in 1610, and which like so many of Ben Jonson’s masques owed a moiety at least of their effect to the genius of Inigo Jones,—as becomes a play devoted to Tethys, Queen of Ocean, and her nymphs, we find that—

  • “The Scene it selfe was a Port or Haven, with Bulworkes at the entrance, and the figure of a Castle commaunding a fortified towne: within this Port were many Ships, small and great, seeming to lie at anchor, some neerer, and some further off, according to perspective: beyond all appeared the Horizon or termination of the Sea, which seemed to moove with a gentle gale, and many Sayles lying, some to come into the Port, and others passing out. From this Scene issued Zephyrus, with eight Naydes, Nymphs of fountaines, and two Tritons sent from Tethys.”
  • Then followed songs and dances, and a change of scene accomplished during a wonderful circular dance of mirrors and lights, devised by Inigo Jones.

  • “After this, Tethys rises, and with her Nymphes performes her second daunce, and then reposes her againe upon the Mount, entertained with another song:—
  • “Are they shadowes that we see?
  • And can shadowes pleasure give?
  • Pleasures onely shadowes bee
  • Cast by bodies we conceive;
  • And are made the things we deeme,
  • In those figures which they seeme.
  • “But these pleasures vanish fast,
  • Which by shadowes are exprest:
  • Pleasures are not, if they last;
  • In their passing is their best.
  • Glory is most bright and gay
  • In a flash, and so away.”
  • Another poet and playwright of a distinctly lower rank than Daniel, and yet a better writer perhaps than we now usually deem him,—Sir William Davenant,—also wrote masques in conjunction with Inigo Jones. Whether it was that Inigo had a good and inspiring influence on the Oxford vintner’s son, whom old report has associated now and again with Shakespeare himself, certainly Davenant is found quite at his most interesting pitch in such masques as ‘The Temple of Love,’ written some twenty-four years after Daniel’s ‘Tethys’s Festival,’ and presented by the “Queenes Majesty and her Ladies at Whitehall, on Shrove Tuesday 1634.” The Queen was Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I. There is a certain quaintness in the conception of this masque, in which “Divine Poesie,” who is called “the Secretary of Nature” in the Argument, plays a prominent part. She appears in the masque itself as a beautiful woman, her garment sky-color, set all with stars of gold, her head crowned with laurel, a spangled veil hanging down behind,” a swan at her side, attended by the Greek poets. For high-priest she has Orpheus, who is seen most picturesquely in the following scene:—

  • “Out of a Creeke came waving forth a Barque of a gracious Antique designe, adorned with Sculpture finishing in Scrowles, that on the poope had for Ornament a great Masque head of a Sea-god; and all the rest enriched with embost worke touched with silver and gold. In the midst of this Barque sate Orpheus with his Harpe; he wore a white robe girt, on his shoulders was a mantle of carnation, and his head crowned with a laurell garland; with him, other persons in habits of Sea-men as pilots and guiders of the Barque; he playing one straine was answered with the voyces and instruments.
  • HEARKE! Orpheus is a Sea-man growne;
  • No winds of late have rudely blowne,
  • Nor waves their troubled heads advance!
  • His Harpe hath made the winds so mild,
  • They whisper now as reconciled;
  • The waves are soothed into a dance.”
  • Obviously much of the picturesqueness of such scenes was due to the fine art of Inigo Jones. But we have to remember that music too was an essential part; and this brings us to the conclusion that in the masque, the arts all meet and combine in close accord. Painting and poetry, music and dancing,—nay, even architecture and sculpture, have their allotted uses in it. For, to take sculpture, not only does the devising and posing of the masquers and their draperies seem as much a sculptor’s as a painter’s prerogative, but in the old masques the device of living statues was a common one. Take for example the ‘Masque of the Gentlemen of Gray’s Inn,’ by Francis Beaumont:—

  • “The statues were attired in cases of gold and silver close to their bodies, faces, hands, and feet,—nothing seen but gold and silver, as if they had been solid images of metal; tresses of hair,… girdles and small aprons of oaken leaves, as if they had been carved or molded out of the metal. At their coming, the music changed from violins to hautboys, cornets, etc.; and the air of the music was utterly turned into a soft time, with drawing notes, excellently expressing their natures,… and the statues placed in such several postures … as was very graceful, besides the novelty.”
  • This is enough to give an idea of the charm, in daintily mingled effects of color and music, which exists in this realm of masques and pageants; which is wide enough to include such pure poetry as Milton’s ‘Comus,’ and such splendid scenes of State as the Field of the Cloth of Gold. A pleasant realm to wander in, which leaves one haunted indeed by such sights and sounds as those of the Dance of the Stars, so frequently introduced, and the song that attended its progress:—

  • “Shake off your heavy trance,
  • And leap into a dance,
  • Such as no mortals use to tread;
  • Fit only for Apollo
  • To play to, for the moon to lead,
  • And all the stars to follow.”