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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

VI. The Plays of the University Wits

§ 12. Peele’s poetry

Though Peele’s life may have had its unseemly sides, he had a real vision of literature as an art: primus verborum artifex, Thomas Nashe called him; nor, for the phrasing of the time were the words exaggerated. Reading his songs, such as that of Paris and Oenone in The Araygnement of Paris, or the lines at the opening of King David and Fair Bethsabe, one must recognise that he had an exquisite feeling for the musical value of words; that he had the power to attain a perfect accord between words and musical accompaniment. One can hear the tinkling lute in certain lines in which the single word counts for little; but the total collocation produces something exquisitely delicate. Yet Peele is far more than a mere manipulator of words for musical effect. He shows a real love of nature, which, breaking free from much purely conventional reference to the nature gods of mythology, is phrased as the real poet phrases. The seven lines of the little song in The Old Wives Tale beginning, “Whenas the rye reach to the chin,” are gracefully pictorial; but the following lines from The Araygnement of Paris show Peele at his best, as he breaks through the fetters of conventionalism into finely poetic expression of his own sensitive observation:

  • Not Iris, in her pride and bravery,
  • Adorns her arch with such variety;
  • Nor doth the milk-white way, in frosty night,
  • Appear so fair and beautiful in sight,
  • As done these fields, and groves, and sweetest bowers,
  • Bestrew’d and deck’d with parti-colour’d flowers.
  • Along the bubbling brooks and silver glide,
  • That at the bottom do in silence slide;
  • The water-flowers and lilies on the banks,
  • Like blazing comets, burgeen all in ranks;
  • Under the hawthorn and the poplar-tree,
  • Where sacred Phoebe may delight to be,
  • The primrose, and the purple hyacinth,
  • The dainty violet, and the wholesome minth,
  • The double daisy, and the cowslip, queen
  • Of summer flowers, do overpeer the green;
  • And round about the valley as ye pass,
  • Ye may ne see for peeping flowers the grass:
  • Is there not in the italicised lines something of that peculiar ability which reached its full development in the mature Shakespeare—the power of flashing before us in a line or two something definitive both as a picture and in beauty of phrase?

    One suspects that Peele, in the later years of his life, gave his time more to pageants than to writing plays, and not unwillingly. He certainly wrote lord mayors’ pageants—in 1585, for Woolstone Dixie, and, in 1591, his Discursus Astraeae for William Webbe. Moreover, all his plays except The Old Wives Tale were in print by 1594, and even that in 1595. One of the Merrie Conceited Jests of George Peele, those rather dubious bits of biography, tells us “George was of a poetical disposition never to write so long as his money lasted.” Whether the Jests be authentic or not, those words probably state the whole case for Peele. He was primarily a poet, with no real inborn gift for the drama, and he never developed any great skill as a playwright. This may have been because he could not; the reason may, probably, be sought in the mood which finds expression in The Old Wives Tale—a mood partly amused by the popular crude forms of art, partly contemptuous towards them. Consequently, as he went on with his work without artistic conscience, without deep interest in the form, he could not lift it; he could merely try to give an imperfectly educated public what he deemed it wanted. But even this compromise with circumstance could not keep the poet from breaking through occasionally. And in his feeling for pure beauty—both as seen in nature and as felt in words—he is genuinely of the renascence.