Home  »  Volume V: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part One  »  § 13. Variety in dialect and metre in the English Mysteries and Miracle-plays

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

I. The Origins of English Drama

§ 13. Variety in dialect and metre in the English Mysteries and Miracle-plays

The English mysteries and miracle-plays in general—for moralities, in this respect, are to be judged from a somewhat ferent point of view—and the plays of the former class combined in the four great cycles described below in particular, possess certain artistic features and qualities which entitle them to a place in our literature, not merely as interesting remains of a relatively remote phase of our national civilisation. They were written to please as well as to edify; and, in some of them, which were almost indisputably from the hands of ecclesiastics, the literary sense or instinct may occasionally be said to overpower what sense of propriety existed in the writers. For to speak, in this connection, of lack of reverence would be to betray a misapprehension of the general attitude of the church militant of the Middle Ages towards sacred names, and things, and persons. Above all, it behoved the revisers of these plays—for whatever may have been the original form of each of the four cycles, not one of them has come down to us from the hand of a single author, or without repeated changes and crossborrowings—to remain true to that spirit of naïveté which had presided at their origin and which (with the exception, perhaps, in some respects, of the Coventry Plays in their present form) they, on the whole, consistently maintained. In this spirit they should be read and criticised by later generations—the quality of quaintness, or of unconscious humour, being left to take care of itself. This quality is most abundantly exhibited in the accounts, which we must of course suppose to have been made out by the officers of the gilds or crafts by whom, in the main, the plays were produced and represented, and who would be just the men to see nothing comic in “a link to set the world on fire,” “paid for making of 3 worlds, 3d.” “2 yards and a half of buckram for the Holy Ghost’s coat, 2s. 1d.,” and the like; or in the matter-of-fact descriptions of “properties” such as “Hell-mouth, the head of a whale with jaws worked by 2 men, out of which devil boys ran.” Apart from other merits of composition, which, however, are of too frequent occurrence to be justly regarded as incidental only, it is by the conscious humour as well as by the conscious pathos perceptible in these plays that certain of them, and even particular groups definitively marked out by careful and ingenious criticism, must be held to rank as literary productions of no common order. The pathos was, of course, directly suggested by the materials out of which these plays were constructed; but it is quite distinct and often “drawn out” (if the phrase is appropriate) with considerable effect. Such a passage is the dialogue between Abraham and Isaac, while preparing for the sacrifice, in the Chester Play, which comes home to a modern as it did to a medieval audience, though the dénouement is already lurking in the thicket. Another passage of the kind is the wonderful burst of passionate grief, which can have left no eye dry, from the Mother of the Sufferer in The Betraying of Christ in the Coventry Play. Of a different sort is the pathos—a touch of that nature which comes home to the spectator in any and every kind of drama—in the salutation by the shepherd who, reverencing in the infant Saviour the victor over the powers of hell, is won by his smile into simple human sympathy with the Babe on His Mother’s knee:

  • Haylle comly and clean: haylle young child!
  • Haylle maker, as I mene, of a madyn so mylde.
  • Thou has waryd, I weyne, the warlo so wylde,
  • The fals gyler of teyn, now goys he begylde.
  • Lo, he merys;
  • Lo, he laghys, my swetyng,
  • A welfare metyng,
  • I have holden my hetyng,
  • Have a bob of cherys.
  • More notable, because imported of purpose prepense, is the conscious humour introduced in these plays with the object of gratifying the spectators. An audience must be amused, whatever may be offered to it, all the more so if that offering be a periodical repetition of the same kind of spectacle, and if this constitutes a strain upon the serious emotions. The collective mysteries, as they are preserved to us, are generally true in intention to the principle of allowing no occasion of the kind to slip; but in the York, and still more so in the Towneley, Plays, this intention manifestly becomes a progressive tendency towards the elaboration of opportunities for realistic humour. It may seem going rather far to speak of the York schools of humour and realism, and of the Wakefield master who exhibits the full flower of the promise of his predecessors; but it is one of the legitimate—it is, indeed, one of the highest—functions of criticism to discover and to verify the presence and the influence of personality. And there can be no reasonable doubt as to the individuality of the work in the Towneley Plays, of which the outward sign is the use, preferential rather than uniform, of the nine-lined stanza, not less effective in its way than the Spenserian in its own, of which the unknown contributor may have been the inventor, and of which an example was cited above. “If anyone,” writes A. W. Pollard, “will read the plays” which bear this mark
  • together, I think he cannot fail to feel that they are all the work of the same writer, and that this writer deserves to be ranked—if only we knew his name!—at least as high as Langland, and as an exponent of a rather boisterous kind of humour had no equal in his own day.
  • In his hands, the time-honoured incident of what Chaucer calls
  • The sorwe of Noe with his felawship
  • Or that he might get his wif to ship
  • becomes a farcical play in a series of scenes, of which the interest centres in the tenacity of Noah’s wife rather than in the preservation of the patriarch and the human race. The curious Processus Talentorum, which treats of Pilate’s decision as to the Saviour’s garments, is, in its details, singularly original. But the height of independent treatment, with the comic element in the ascendant, is reached in an earlier play of the same series, the famous Secunda Pastorum, the merry tale of the sheep-stealing Mak—which is nothing short of a play within a play, and which, in freshness of conception and in gaiety of treatment, may be ranked alongside of the famous Maître Pathelin, and the Schwänke of Hans Sachs, though considerably earlier in date than either of them. In the Chester Plays though altogether they are less popular in treatment, the popular demand which the Play of the Shepherds brought with it, is satisfied by the coarse fooling of Trowle; in the Coventry Plays, both humour and coarseness are further subdued, and literary endeavour directs itself rather to the preservation of regularity of form on the one hand and to the display of biblical learning on the other, while humour occasionally takes the form of satire. Contrariwise, it was but natural that the danger of the degeneration of the comic element in religious plays should be ignored, especially where no care was taken for maintaining the time-honoured character of a celebrated cycle. The Digby Conversion of St. Paul (of which the MS. seems to belong to the close of the fifteenth century or a slightly later date) contains a scene of unsavoury fun; and in the Mary Magdalene of the same collection (which, generally, by its almost unprecedented accumulation of sensational effects betrays its late date) there is a burlesque scene between a priest and his boy, who, after being threatened with a flogging, proceeds to deserve it by intoning a mock service in nonsense Latin with
  • snyguer snagoer werwolfforum
  • standgardum lamba beffettorum.
  • What could be sillier or more modern?

    The great English collective mysteries are, of course, differentiated by linguistic, as well as by literary, features; for, while both the York and the Towneley Plays are written in the Northumbrian dialect, which suits so many of their characteristics though it makes them by no means easy reading, we seem in the Chester and Coventry Plays to be moving on ground less remote from the more common forms of fifteenth century English. The so-called Coventry Plays show east-midland peculiarities in their dialect, which agrees with the conclusions as to their origin reached by some of the best authorities, such as ten Brink and A. W. Pollard. In the matter of metre, the most striking feature common to English religious plays is the great variety exhibited by them. (The Harrowing of Hell, which in form has hardly passed from that of the dialogue into that of the drama, and in metre confines itself to a very irregular octosyllabic couplet, can hardly be cited as an exception.) This variety of metrification, contrasting very strongly with the consistency with which the French miracle- and mystery-plays adhere to the metre of the octosyllabic couplet, though permitting themselves an occasional excursion into the fashionable form of the triolet, is already very noticeable in the York Plays: in the Towneley, notwithstanding their close connection with the York Plays, there seems a recognition of the expediency of maintaining the octosyllabic metre as the staple metre of the drama, though, as has already been noticed, the last and most conspicuous writer of all who had a hand in these plays enriched them by the introduction of a new and elaborate stanza of his own. His ordinary stanza-form, which is to be found in practically all the plays in this collection which reveal the comic elaboration of his master hand, is the thirteen-lined stanza riming ababababeddde. The Coventry Plays show a less striking metrical variety, and a tendency towards that length of line, which was to end in the fashion of the doggerel alexandrine, and thus, as Saintsbury observes, to help, by reaction, to establish blank verse as the metre of the English drama. In the Chester Plays, there is again that marked variety of metre which speaks for the early origin of these plays in their first form; and this conclusion is corroborated by the frequent use of alliteration. Altogether, the religious plays exhibit a combined looseness and ingenuity of metrification corresponding to what the historian of English prosody terms its “break-up” in the fifteenth century, to which the bulk of the plays in their present form belong, and harmonising with the freedom of treatment which, notwithstanding the nature of its main source, and what may be termed the single-mindedness of its purpose, was characteristic of the English mystery-and miracle-drama.