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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

§ 15. Fletcher’s The Faithful Shepheardesse

Fletcher, unmistakably basing his effort on Guarini’s Pastor Fido, was the first to try, and his attempt failed. He tells us that the public, “missing Whitsun-ales, cream, wassel, and morris-dances, began to be angry.” They did not understand that pastoral deals with shepherds who own thier flocks, and not with “hirelings,” who would be reasonably expected to behave as rude rustics. Such “owners of flocks,” says Fletcher,

  • are not to be adorned with any art but such improper nature is said to bestow, as singing and poetry; or such as Experience may teach them, as the virtues of herbs and fountains, the ordinary course of the sun, moon and stars, and such like.
  • His characters were to be unsophisticated, but not vulgar, country people; and his play was to be a tragicomedy; there were to be no deaths, but “some were to come near it.” It is impossible to read this note “To the reader” without feeling that Fletcher, as yet, has no practical experience as a dramatist. His effort is not to create men and women but to observe certain rules of pastoral tragicomedy. As a drama, the play fails; the plot is crude, and the characters are without life. But Fletcher has taken it for granted that his play must take us out of doors, and he has put so much exquisite description of nature into it that his dramatic failure hardly matters. Swinburne claims justly that The Faithfull Shepheardesse “is simply a lyric poem in semi-dramatic shape, to be judged only as such, and as such almost faultless.” The liquid melody of the verse, too, has the natural sweetness of the songs of birds, and the rustle of leaves, and the flow of waters. There is no laboured description of nature; but green grass and cool waters are everywhere in the play; the poet has the spring in his heart, and his poetry blossoms like the flowers of April and bubbles like the brook; there is no natural magic to compare with it until we come to Keats; and, even in Endymion, there is something hectic, something strained, when it is read along with Fletcher’s play. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It, we get descriptions of nature which, in our literature, are the nearest in their quality to Fletcher’s work in The Faithfull Shepheardesse; but Fletcher is both more copious and more concentrated than Shakespeare just because his art fails on the dramatic side; whereas Shakespeare succeeds, and nature, in his dramas, is duly subordinated to human character. As a work of art, therefore, The Faithfull Shepheardesse is like Comus. Neither is dramatic; although it is probable that, in both cases, the writers aimed at a kind of drama. But, in both poems, we find, instead of drama, descriptive poetry of extraordinary richness and beauty, the first full expression of the young writer’s genius. But, here, a contrast begins. Fletcher is Elizabethan; his self-consciousness of Milton; while, on the other hand, this self-conscioness of Milton puts him out of touch with nature—which, for two centuries, was to recede into the background in English poetry. In Comus, the beautiful descriptions of nature are incidental; in no sense are they the reason or aim of the poem. And Milton’s spiritual imagination is everywhere, ousting Pan and installing Apollo. But Fletcher’s unembarrassed, happy enjoyment of Pan’s Arcadia, in its natural greenness and freshness, is the abiding merit of his poem.

    But a word must be said on the dramatic question. Fletcher has some plan of describing various types of love—for there is a “modest shepherd,” a “wanton shepherd,” a “holy shepherdess.” Having his mind fixed on some special grade of propriety or impropriety in love, he does not give us men and women. If we do not ask for men and women, there is much in his work that is beautiful. The conception of Clorin, who has “buried her love in an arbour,” and has her mind fixed on holy things, except in so far as she pursues “the dark hidden virtuous use of herbs” for the relief of the sick—that being an “art” with which a shepherdess may be adorned—has much imaginative beauty and charm. The satyr, again, the wild creature tamed by a dim perception of spiritual beauty, and stedfastly loyal to that perception, is exquisite in its simplicity. But what can we say of Cloe, “a wanton shepherdess”? If she were a woman, she would be endurable, however wanton; but an abstraction illustrating wantonness in shepherdesses is unendurable, except when Fletcher forgets about the wantonness, and makes her talk pure poetry, as when she says to Thenot:

  • Tales of love,
  • How the pale Phoebe, hunting in a grove,
  • First saw the boy Endymion, from whose eyes
  • She took eternal fire that never dies;
  • How she conveyed him, softly in a sleep,
  • His temples bound with poppy, to the steep
  • Head of old Latmus, where she stoops each night,
  • Gilding the mountain with her brother’s light,
  • To kiss her sweetest.
  • This particular problem, as to how a young girl thinks of love, is particularly delicate and difficult for a young poet, whether the girl be good or bad. He reads his own mind into the woman’s, and the result has an unnaturalness something like that which must have been the drawback of the acting of women’s parts by men on the Elizabethan stage. This unnaturalness passes over from Fletcher’s pastoral into Milton’s Comus. There, it is the young Milton, disguised as a maiden, who utters, with some self-consciousness and bashfulness, the famous encomium on chastity. The speech is essentially undramatic—what neither the man nor the maiden would have said in their own persons.