Home  »  Volume VI: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part Two  »  § 16. Ben Jonson’s The Sad Shepherd

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

§ 16. Ben Jonson’s The Sad Shepherd

Our second pastoral is Jonson’s Sad Shepherd, which is almost as fine an achievement as Fletcher’s Faithfull Shepheardesse. Of Jonson’s work, something has already been said in an earlier chapter. The work suggests a most perplexing problem of literary criticism. It was published after Jonson’s death, and thus purports to be a work of his last years left unfinished because of his death. But this last effort of the partially paralysed poet is distinguished by a vigour of style and freshness of imagination that seem to mark it as a work of his prime. After reading Jonson’s last masques and plays, in which a certain stiffening and flagging of his powers are clearly to be discerned, it seems impossible to ascribe The Sad Shepherd to the same date. Moreover, we hear of a work by Jonson called The May Lord, in which case, Jonson’s poem, probably, was some kind of pastoral play. Was The May Lord the first title of The Sad Shepherd, when Robin Hood was intended to be the central figure of the play? In that case, Æglamour’s part would be a later edition. But Æglamour, in some respects, is the most remarkable of all the characters. He strikes the true romantic note, which is conspicuously absent in Jonson’s main work. What could be finer in cadence and romantic suggestion that the first lines of the play, when Æglamour appears for a moment?

  • Here she was wont to go! and here! and here!
  • Just where those daisies, pinks, and violets grow:
  • The world may find the spring by following her.
  • Even if we suppose that Jonson borrowed this opening from Goffe, we have not got over the difficulty, because Æglamour’s speeches are consistently and strongly romantic in tone. It is easier to connect them in style and spirit with the additions and The Spanish Tragedie than with anything else written by Jonson. The man who wrote those additions and The Sad Shepherd might have been a great romantic. Castelain has pointed out that the prologue divides itself into two parts. The first thirty lines are the real prologue to The Sad Shepherd. They are beautiful in feeling, and the silent passing of the Sad Shephered over the stage in the middle of them seems absolutely right in imagination, if we omit the second thirty-six lines about the heresy “that mirth by no means fits a pastoral.” These last lines might have been a prologue for The May Lord, but our problem is to decide when the first lines were written which form an admirable prologue to The Sad Shepherd. As to this, we must note that, in spite of the “forty years” of the first line, the succeeding statement, that the public have “at length grown up to him,” must refer to the vogue enjoyed by Jonson from 1605 to 1615, and cannot mean that he has forgiven the rejection of The New Inne. Another fine romantic motive in the play is Karolin’s kissing of Amie under the mad Æglamour’s compulsion. It compels us to revise all our conceptions of Jonson. He treats it with a sureness and delicacy of touch that Shakespeare could hardly have bettered; while, at the same time, he proves his authorship of the episode by the absurd list of “lovers’ scriptures” and by putting into innocent Amie’s lips the reference to

  • the dear good angel of the spring,
  • The nightingale.
  • But, so far, we have only touched upon one side or aspect of the play. We must add that the part of the witch is realised with great power. Alken’s speech beginning “Within a gloomy dimble she doth dwell,” and his later speech which describes the

  • spanlong elves that dance about a pool,
  • With each a little changeling in their arms,
  • are both in blank verse, marked by a freer movement than Jonson usually permits himself, and they also convey the old world idea of the witch with a force to be paralleled only in Jonson’s own Masque of Queens, presented in 1609. One would wish to place these speeches of Alken within measurable distance of that date. Finally, the presentment of Robin Hood and Marian, while not so fully romantic as Æglamour’s part, is such sunny sweet realism as touches upon romance; and may have led Jonson to add a fully romantic note to a play originally intended to prove that mirth befitted pastoral. Puck-Hairy or Robin Goodfellow appeared in the masque Love Restored, which we have dated 1612; again, we desire to put the Puck-Hairy of the play and all its Robin Hood scenes not too far from the splendid Robin Goodfellow of the masque. But the Scottish dialect, which is the only serious drawback to the artistic effect of the play, must, surely, have been introduced after the poet’s visit to Scotland in 1618. That visit may have stimulated Jonson to compose The Sad Shepherd as we have it; our fragment began, perhaps, as The May Lord, for which the last thirty-six lines were originally intended as prologue. Its composition should be placed both before and after the visit.

    The doubtful question of the date must not divert our attention from the merits of Jonson’s play. The Sad Shepherd reads as if the poet had forborne to write out his play in prose, as he tells us was his custom, and had set down his first sketch in verse, rapidly, with his impulse fresh upon him. Perhaps, he found he could not finish it by his usual methods. Perhaps, he was disconcerted by the unfamiliar features of this surprising child of his imagination and was half-ashamed of it. It is strongly dramatic, and the breath of Jonson’s realism gives it substance, but it is touched by a romantic grace which is almost romantic passion; and, therefore, it stands alone among Jonson’s dramas and will always have a special fascination for his readers.