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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VI. The Drama to 1642, Part Two.

XIII. Masque and Pastoral

§ 10. Rapid increase of dramatic elements in Jonson’s Masques

We have now to notice in Jonson’s work the rapid growth of dramatic interest. Passing over the graceful and original A Challenge at Tilt and the realistic The Irish Masque, both produced in December, 1613, we find that, for four successive years, Jonson wrote the Twelfthnight masque at court and, in 1617, added a second, produced in February, as well as The Masque of Christmas, of the previous 25 December. Mercury Vindicated from the Alchemists, 1615, is the first of these. The antimasque, broadly, is in the style of Love Restored. Mercury delivers two admirable addresses in prose, worthy of a place beside the harangues of Robin Goodfellow. The scene is “a laboratory or alchemists’ work-house, Vulcan looking to the registers,” with a Cyclope tending the fires. The Cyclope begins with a beautiful song, “Soft, subtile fire, thou soul of art.” Mercury then peeps out “at the tunnel of the middle furnace,” whereupon Vulcan cries to hold him—“Dear Mercury! Help. He flies. He is scaped. Precious golden Mercury, be fixt: be not so volatile!” Mercury, after running “once or twice about the room, takes breath,” and begins a long relation of his troubles—

  • Now the place and goodness of it protect me.… I will stand close up anywhere, to escape this poult-footed philosopher, old Smug here of Lemnos, and his smoky family.… The whole household of them are become Alchemists.
  • The comic invention of this opening is in Jonson’s happiest vein; and Mercury’s speech worthily maintains it. In his masques, Jonson’s prose is more uniformly strong and distinguished than his verse, and has not received the attention it merits. Mercury recounts all he has suffered:
  • It is I, that am corroded, and exalted, and sublimed, and reduced, and fetched over, and filtered, and washed, and wiped; what between their salts and their sulphurs, their oils and their tartars, their brines and their vinegars, you might take me out now a soused Mercury, now a salted Mercury, now a smoaked and dried Mercury, now a powdered and pickled Mercury: never herring, oyster, or cucumber past so many vexations.
  • And his account of what the alchemists claim to perform comes to an excellent climax:
  • They will lay you an old courtier on the coals like a sausage, of a bloat herring, and after they have broiled him enough, blow a soul into him with a pair of bellows, till he start up into his galliard, that was made when Monsieur was here.
  • There are two antimasques: one, “a troop of threadbare Alchemists”; and the second, a troop “of imperfect creatures with helms of limbecks on their heads,” which Vulcan and his alchemists by their art have created. These “ridiculous monsters” vanish at Mercury’s command, and a glorious bower appears in which are Nature, Prometheus and the twelve masquers. The lyrics are melodious, but short, and their effect in the reading is insignificant, after the vigorous life of the first scene.

    The Golden Age Restored, of 1 and 6 January, 1616, goes back to the lyrical style. It is a graceful and beautiful conception, but not very fully reported. For next Christmas, Jonson wrote The Masque of Christmas, which Fleay says was “not a mask proper.” By the allusions to Burbage and Heminge, we gather that it was acted by the king’s players, and, consequently, there is no real masque—it is all antimasque, and, in style and form, very like the opening of Love Restored. Christmas takes the place of Robin Goodfellow as presenter, but is not allowed speeches of such length. Nowhere in our literature is the old merry Christmas more graphically put before us: “I am old Gregory Christmas still, and though I come out of Pope’s-head alley, as good a Protestant as any in my parish.” He has brought a masque of his own making, “and do present it by a set of my sons, that come out of the lanes of London, good dancing boys all.”.… “Bones o bread, the King!” (seeing James). His sons and daughters enter, ten in number, “led in, in a string, by Cupid, who is attired in a flat cap and a prentice’s coat, with wings at his shoulders.” The family are, Misrule, Carol, Minced-Pie, Gambol, Post and Pair, New-Year’s-Gift, Mumming, Wassel, Offering and Baby-Cake. Each has his torchbearer, and Jonson’s magnificent knowledge of English ways and manners finds delightful scope in their attire, which is succinctly described. In place of the usual elegant lyrics, we have a rollicking song, sung by Christmas to drum and fife; but, before this can be delivered, there is a short scene of comedy. “Venus, a deaf tire-woman” presents herself; she is Cupid’s mother; she dwells in Pudding lane; “yes, I can sit anywhere, so I may see Cupid act; I had him by my first husband, he was a smith, forsooth, we dwelt in Do-little-Lane then.” “Will you depart,” says Christmas, impatiently;

  • Ay, forsooth he’II say his part, I warrant him, as well as e’er a play-boy of e’m all. I could have had money enough for him, an I would have been tempted, and have let him out by the week to the King’s players. Master Burbage has been about and about with me, and so has old Master Hemings too.
  • The old dame has to be silenced by the drum, but a slight delay occurs because some of the properties are forgotten—“Mumming has not his vizard neither.” “No matter! his own face shall serve for a punishment, and ’t is bad enough.” Misrule’s suit is too small! “The players have lent him one too little, on purpose to disgrace him.” The song has eighteen verses, which give the names and addresses of the masquers:
  • Next in the trace, comes Gambol in place;
  • And to make my tale the shorter,
  • My son Hercules, tane out of Distaff-lane;
  • But an active man and a porter.
  • It is the first purely humorous lyric with which we have met in a masque, and it smacks of the soil, or, to speak more exactly, of the street. It is banged out on the drum with glorious energy, and, when we are breathless with the speed of it, Cupid is called upon to say his piece; but his mother interrupts and puts him out, so poor Cupid breaks down ignominiously and has to be taken away, Venus exclaiming, “You wrong the child, you do wrong the infant, I ’peal to his Majesty.” It was, perhaps, the knowledge that his work was to be acted by skilled professionals that inspired Jonson in this fascinating little sketch. It has to be confessed that, when the dramatist in Jonson gets to work in his masques, we obtain results worth more as literature than all the non-dramatic lyrics and descriptive verse. And Jonson’s humour in his masques is without the acrid, scornful element which, in his great plays, too often obtrudes itself. In this little show, he is with Shakespeare and Dickens in the hearty kindliness of his comic observation. On the Twelfthnight after this Christmas day, The Vision of Delight was presented. It is a notable masque, containing the beautiful lyric, “Break Phant’sie, from thy cave of cloud,” and, in remarkable contrast, the long speech of Phant’sie in doggerel lines of four beats. There is no prose. But we must pass it over, as, also, the interesting Lovers Made Men in order to mention Pleasure Reconciled to Vertue presented Twelfthnight, 6 January, 1618, because this masque supplied Milton with the main idea of Comus.

    It was prince Charles’s first masque. The scene is the mountain Atlas, “who had his top ending in the figure of an old man.” From a grove at his feet, comes “Comus, the god of cheer or the Belly, riding in triumph,” with one in front bearing the bowl of Hercules. The companions of Comus begin with a “Hymn; full chorus”;

  • Room! room! make room for the Bouncing Belly
  • First father of sauce and deviser of jelly,
  • Prime master of arts, and the giver of wit,
  • That found out the excellent engine, the spit.
  • After nearly thirty lines in this style, the bowl-bearer speaks a prose oration on the Belly, which introduces the first antimasque of “men in the shape of bottles, tuns, etc.” Hercules, the “active friend of virtue,” enters, to reclaim his bowl and denounce Comus and his crew; “Help, virtue! These are sponges and not men.” He drives them off, asking, “Can this be pleasure, to extinguish man?” Then he lies down at the foot of Atlas, and the pigmies forming the second antimasque steal in and try to steal his club. At his rising, they run into holes, and Mercury descends to crown Hercules with poplar, because he has “the voluptuous Comus, God of cheer, Beat from his grove, and that defaced.” So far, the idea is clear and well-balanced, and the moral that pleasure must be the servant of virtue is expressed with an intensity that, obviously, influenced Milton in his Comus. But it is interesting to contrast the gross homely Comus of Jonson, the Belly god, with Milton’s dignified abstraction, and to note, that to match his Comus, Jonson’s dramatic instinct supplies, not Virtue, but Hercules. There is fine poetry in the conception and workmanship of Jonson’s masque; but it loses coherence after the crowing of Hercules. Hercules is told that, in James’s court, the “cessation of all jars” between pleasure and virtue is to be found; and, as a proof, twelve princes are brought forth, bred upon Atlas, “the hill of knowledge.” These, led by prince Charles, are the true masquers. The chaplain of the Venetian ambassador has described the masque.

  • He says that, after many dances, the dancers began to flag, “whereupon the King who is naturally choleric got impatient, and shouted aloud, ‘Why don’t they dance? What did you make me come here for? Devil take you all; dance!’ On hearing this, the marquis of Buckingham, his majesty’s most favoured minion, immediately sprang forward, cutting a score of lofty and very minute capers with so much grace and agility, that he not only appeased the ire of his angry sovereign, but, moreover, rendered himself the admiration and delight of everybody. The other masquers, being thus encouraged, continued successively exhibiting their prowess with various ladies; finishing in like manner with capers and by lifting their goddesses from the ground.”
  • Finally, James, delighted at the grace of the prince’s dancing, kisses him affectionately, and pats the marquis on the cheek. The king caused the masque to be repeated, but with “additions.” This, apparently, meant that his majesty did not appreciate the opening part of the masque. Contemporary critics asserted that Inigo Jones had lost his charm, and that Ben Jonson “should return to his old trade of brickmaking.” Jonson, therefore, rewrote it for its second performance on 17 February, making it elaborately complimentary to Wales. Mount Atlas now becomes Craig-Ereri, and we have a dialogue between three Welshmen, which, like the dialogue in The Irish Masque, is inferior in wit and vigour, but curious for the Welsh-English. The Welshmen criticise the first device of Hercules and the Comus rout—“there was a tale of a tub”—and the pigmies, and we have, instead, a dance of men and a dance of goats—“the Welsh goat is an excellent dancer by birth”—as antimasques, with songs in Welsh-English; and then, apparently, the real masquers with their dances and songs followed. Though the first part of Pleasure Reconciled to Vertue seems to have been too serious for the taste of king James, it was able to stir Milton to the composition of Comus.