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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

§ 12. A Faire Quarrell

That Middleton learnt from Rowley, or did, with his help, more than either of them could do by himself, is evident for the first time clearly in A Faire Quarrell. The best part of the actual writing is not Rowley’s. Middleton was a man of flexible mind, and we find in him everywhere a marvellous tact of matching his matter and manner. Never, in his wild comedies, does he bring in false heroics; he can keep on a due actual level beyond any dramatist of his time; and, when a great human moment comes to him, and has to be dealt with, he rises easily, and is no less adequate. He does not rise of himself—his material compels him, he is obedient to it, and, as it would seem, awake to a fierier impulse like Rowley’s. It is certain that Rowley could not have written the two great captain Ager scenes as they stand; but it is equally certain that, with all his promptness of response to an emotion, Middleton could not have begun to render, at such a moral height, such an “absolute man,” without some spiritual aid or lift from Rowley. When there, when started, he drew his poetry, as he was wont to do, directly from his subject, and the natural emotion of it; and made a great scene where a weak one would have been contemptible. Can nature and poetry go further together, poetry hardly distinguishable from the direct speech of nature, so warmed is it by human breath? Captain Ager’s last words to his mother shine like fire and cut like steel, and are mere plain words with no more rhetoric in them than in this line, which strikes straight:

  • I never shall have need of honour more.
  • In the scene of the duel, when all this fire in the man’s soul is out, the tamer verses are not less absolute in their disheartened speech:
  • What shall be done in such a worthless business
  • But to be sorry, and to be forgiven;
  • You, sir, to bring repentance, and I pardon?
  • That the writing, in the two great scenes of captain Ager, is Middleton’s, and owes nothing in form, whatever it may owe in substance, to Rowley, can be proved beyond doubt by a mere reading over together of two speeches, one in this play, one in a play so wholly and characteristically Middleton’s as A Chast Mayd in Cheape-side—the speech of captain Ager, which begins
  • Mine? think me not so miserable,
  • and ends
  • Without which I ’m ten fathoms under coward,
  • That now am ten degrees above a man,
  • Which is but one of virtue’s easiest wonders;
  • and the speech of Sir Walter which begins
  • O death! is this
  • A place for you to weep?
  • and ends
  • this shows like
  • The fruitless sorrow of a careless mother,
  • That brings her son with dalliance to the gallows,
  • And then stands by and weeps to see him suffer.
  • The difference is all in the feeling; there is none in the phrasing.

    But the difference in the feeling! There is no indication, in anything which Middleton has so far written by himself, that he was capable of conceiving a character like captain Ager, or of keeping such a character on a single level of high emotion. This Rowley could do, and it can scarcely be doubted that he was the “only begetter” of what he left to Middleton to develop. It is Rowley who writes the dedication, and it is evident that he takes much of the credit of the play to himself. “You see, sir,” he says, “I write as I speak, and I speak as I am, and that’s excuse enough for me.” His share in the actual writing, indeed, is almost too evident; there is cold, pedantic, sour and crabbed prose, aping comedy, and, in the scene between Jane and the physician, a hard, reasoning kind of serious verse which jars singularly on the rich and copious verse of Middleton, in the finer parts of the play. Some of the worst of the mechanical fooling in prose was added in a second edition, and (the public being much the same in all ages) it was probably added because the original sample had given much satisfaction. Rowley worked for hire, and this is some of his hired work.