Home  »  Volume VI: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part Two  »  § 15. His imagination and poetic power

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

VII. Tourneur and Webster

§ 15. His imagination and poetic power

Webster, however, is not only a great tragic dramatist. He is also a great poet. And the same sombre cast of thought which made him the one appears also in the other. His imagination loves to linger round thoughts and symbols, of mortality, to take shape in “strange images of death.” The grim horrors of The Dutchesse Of Malfy will at once recur to the memory; the yew tree of Vittoria spreads its gloom over the whole drama. Yet nothing is more remarkable than the thrift with which Webster uses this perilous material. His reserve presents the strongest contrast with the wild waste of the other dramatists of blood. Everything in the two tragedies is subordinated to imaginative ends; everything is presented with the self-restraint of the artist. Nowhere is the essentially poetic genius of the dramatist more manifest than here; nowhere does his kinship with all that is best in the other arts, particulary that of the painter, appear more plainly. The latter point has hardly received due attention. Yet no reader can fail to notice the eagerness with which this poet provides a pictorial setting for the action of his drama; the pains he takes to imprint upon the eye the countenance, gestures and bearing of the characters in his most significant scenes. The opening scene of The Dutchesse Of Malfy is devoted largely to this purpose. The same appears in the trial scene of The White Divel. And other instances, mainly from The Dutchesse Of Malfy, will readily suggest themselves. It is doubtful whether this quality is so persistently marked in any other dramatist, with the single exception of Marston. And no one will claim that the pictures of Marston approach those of Webster in imaginative genius. Allied with this, perhaps, is his love of connecting a whole train of thought with a tangible image, of embodying his reflections on life in symbols which, at the first moment, may seem insignificant or repulsive, but which acquire a curious fascination from the surroundings in which he places them. It was this that made him, like Donne or Sir Thomas Browne, a lover of strange learning or forgotten fragments of erudition, and led him, like Burton, to ransack the dust heaps of antiquarian research. The instinct is typical of his age; but no man put it uses more imaginative. With this peculiar cast of imagination, the style of Webster is in marvellous accord: compressed and pregnant; full, at once, both of grace and of severity; capable of sudden flashes—“Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle; she died young”—capable, also, of a sustained musical cadence, as in Cornelia’s dirge, or the wonderful lyric of Leonora.