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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.

III. Middleton and Rowley

§ 11. Rowley’s influence on Middleton

On the title-page of A new Wonder, Rowley is described as “one of his Majesties Servants”; he is mentioned among the principal actors in The Maid in the Mill; in The Inner-Temple Masque, he played Plumporridge; and, in the list of persons in Alls Lost by Lust, we are told that Jaques, “a simple clownish gentleman,” was “personated by the poet.” In the plays which he wrote in collaboration with Middleton, his hand has been most generally traced in the comic underplots, and, sometimes, as a disturbing element there, working for hardly more than the ears of the groundlings. In the low peasants’ humour, earthy and almost animal, over which he takes much trouble in all these plays, sometimes making it really droll, always making it emphatic and telling, there seems to have been something which he really cared to do, perhaps because it was what he could represent best on the stage. In the two chief plays which he wrote by himself, he wove comic prose not ineffectively into more serious substance; but in A Shoo-maker a Gentleman and, indeed, in most of the work done with Middleton, it stands out in sharp contrast. And this is the more curious, as we shall find unmistakable signs of a very different kind of influence exercised by him upon precisely that serious substance.

For it is not as a comic poet that Rowley is most himself, or most admirable. Of his two remaining plays, one is a heroic tragedy and the other a pathetic domestic comedy; and we find in both, very differently exhibited, the same qualities of sincerity and nobility, often turning to uncouthness or exaggeration, but never, as in Middleton, losing the moral sense, the honesty of insight. The action in each is strained beyond probability, and in one becomes barbarous, in the other artificial; the verse follows the action, and halts not only through the treasons of a more than usually treacherous printer. Yet, as the verse is but an emphasis upon profoundly felt speech, so the action rests always on a strong human foundation.

In Alls Lost by Lust (which deals with a subject made more famous by Landor in Count Julian), Rowley shows himself poet by his comprehension of great passions, his sympathy with high moods, and by a sheer and naked speech, which can grasp filth or heroism with equal strength. He has no measure, though sometimes constraint; no subtlety, though he will set consciences or clowns arguing in terms of strange pedantry; no sentiment, though he has all the violences of direct emotion; and he says what he wants to say and then stops. He has no ease or grace, and often labours to give point to his humour and weight to his serious utterances. The kind of verse that characterises him at his best is

  • Thy soul is a hired lackey towards hell,
  • and he can sharpen it thus:
  • Time’s ancient bawd, opportunity,
  • Attends us now, and yet our flaming blood
  • Will scarce give leave to opportunity.
  • Often he will go beyond the bounds of natural speech, not on a carrying imagination, but under the dragging weight of an emphasis which eloquence can do better without. In some of Blake’s drawings of naked men with prodigious muscles, sweeping beards and frantic eyes, the intense imitation of emotion has gone further than nature can support. Just so does some of the tragic speech in Rowley falter through defects of mere force. “Rough Rowley, handling song with Esau’s hand,” as Swinburne has called him in a significant line, sets himself to construct imagery, and does it, sometimes with splendour, but a splendour prolonged to extinction. Thus, he will develop a figure after this manner:
  • We ’ll make so high to quench their silver moons
  • And on their carcases an isthmus make
  • To pass their straits again and forage them.
  • Both in fun and in earnest, he plays on words, and is capable of writing “My heart’s triangled,” as Donne might have done, and of distinguishing the number and position of the points. More often he does it in this wholly Elizabethan manner:
  • My honoured friends,
  • What we all thought to have borne home in triumph
  • Must now be seen there in a funeral,
  • Wrecked honour being chief mourner; here’s the hearse
  • Which we’ll all follow.
  • Even his “virgin martyrs,” like Jacinta, who act nobly, are sometimes set talking with horrible detail, as, like Jacinta they spit at their tormentors and wish
  • that my tongue
  • Were pointed with a fiery Pyramis
  • To strike thee through.
  • It is impossible for him to realise, even in his Dionysia, who dies with some of the ecstasy of Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, that a woman can be lascivious without talking like a courtesan. His men can say memorable things, in which there is some of the passion of meditation; but, however well he knew “what kind of thing a man’s heart” is, he did not know how to give continuously adequate speech to those passions of whose habitation there he was aware.

    In A new Wonder, of which the scene lies in London, and which shows us the strange vehement passions, both petty and ardent, of business men, their small prides and large resolutions, we have a speech more easily on the level of the occasion, whether in this heightened way:

  • Then be not angry, gentle sir,
  • If now a string be touch’d, which hath too long
  • Sounded so harshly over all the city;
  • I now would wind it to a musical height;
  • or whether the unrelenting father in prison repels his son with the direct cry:
  • Ha! what art thou? Call for the keeper there,
  • And thrust him out of doors, or lock me up.
  • Here, as elsewhere, the language is sometimes injured by emphasis, yet there is nothing of Middleton’s aim at point and cleverness, but a speech vividly, and sometimes grossly, natural, which sticks close to the matter. Its comedy is a kind of literalness, and so is its pathos; both are crammed with fine substance, thoughtful humour and thoughtful pity, with that simple acceptance and rendering of things as they are which Lamb noted in the play with much satisfaction. It is of this play that he says: “The old play-writers are distinguished by an honest boldness of exhibition, they show everything without being ashamed.” Here, there is coarseness and there is clumsiness, but there is no flaw in the essential truthfulness and reality of the contest in hearts, in which a natural human charity has its way with invincible softness.

    Now, if we begin to look for the influence of Rowley upon Middleton, we shall find it not so much in the set scenes of low comedy which he inserted among Middleton’s verse, as in a new capacity for the rendering of great passions and a loftiness in good and evil which is not to be recognised as an element in Middleton’s brilliant and showy genius, and which hardly survives the end of his collaboration with Rowley. The whole range of subject suddenly lifts; a new, more real and more romantic world (more real and more romantic because imagination, rather than memory, is at work) is seen upon the stage; and, by some transformation which could hardly have been mere natural growth, Middleton finds himself to be a poet.