Home  »  Volume VI: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part Two  »  § 2. Middleton’s non-dramatic work

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

§ 2. Middleton’s non-dramatic work

The earliest work attributed to Middleton is an endless composition in six-lined stanzas called The Wisdom of Solomon Paraphrased, published in 1597. The dedication to lord Devereux, and an address, wanting in some copies, “To the Gentlemen-Readers,” are both signed Thomas Middleton, and we can but hope that it was someone else of the same name. Addressing critics as Momus and Zoilus, the writer regrets, not quite truthfully, “I lack a scarecrow,” and bids them “if you gape for stuffing, hie you to dead carrion carcases, and make them your ordinaries.” But no better fare is provided, and a sufficient scarecrow has been set up over this unploughed field by every subsequent editor. The task, if he really endured it, must have effectually cured Middleton of any further inclination for preaching. “O weak capacity of strongest wit!” he laments, and with justice; yet, two years afterwards, he seems to have attempted satire with no less futility than sermonising. Micro-cynicon. Sixe Snarling Satyres, published in 1599, has been attributed to Middleton for no more certain reason than the signature “T. M. Gent,” following the introductory Defiance to Envy with which the writer, in imitation of Hall, introduces his first and only book of satires. They are weakly imitated from Marston.

  • My pen’s two nebs shall turn into a fork,
  • Chasing old Envy from so young a work,
  • the writer threatens; but the threat could not possibly have been needed. The “snarling Muse” that “now thundered rhyme” thus feebly must have been beyond the reach of envy, and has become too insignificant to need identification. But Middleton was an unequal writer, and it is impossible to regard even such bad work as this unlikely, because unworthy, to have been written by him.

    His mark is much more distinctly to be traced in two pamphlets published in 1604, signed “T. M.” in their epistles to the reader. The less interesting of these is Father Hubburd’s Tales, which contains a good deal of indifferent verse, no better than Middleton’s lyric verse usually is. Its main interest for us is in the very kindly and regretful praise of Nashe, whom he calls “honest soul,” “too slothful to thyself,” “cut off in thy best blooming May”:

  • Drones eat thy honey: thou wast the true bee.
  • The tract is one of the allegorising satires of the time, written in a slow narrative style, with abundant detail of the manners and fashions censured, and a good deal of quite sober realism in the descriptions and incidents. The Black Book is more extravagant and more pungent, and is like a sample of the raw material, presented to us by the writer in his first self-conscious pose as moralist. He parades as one “diving into the deep of this cunning age” and bringing to light “the infectious bulks, of craft, cozenage, and panderism, the three bloodhounds of a commonwealth.” He professes that his lively exposures are meant for the warning and confirming of the “truly virtuous,” and commends himself for “the modesty of my phrases, that even blush when they discover vices and unmask the world’s shadowed villanies.” The tale is put into the mouth of Lucifer, who speaks his own prologue in a vigorous piece of blank verse and rime, by way of response to Nashe’s dedication of Pierce Penilesse to “the high and mightie Prince of darknesse, Donsell dell Lucifer, King of Acheron, Stix and Phlegeton, Duke of Tartary, Marquesse of Cocytus, and Lord high Regent of Lymbo.” The pamphlet is done in Nashe’s manner, and shows a knowledge of its subject not inferior to Nashe’s own. It describes what may possibly have been Nashe’s actual deathbed, seen by “the sullen blaze of a melancholy lamp that burnt very tragically upon the narrow desk of a half-bedstead, which descried all the pitiful ruins throughout the whole chamber.” It shows glimpses of “your twelve tribes of villany,” engaged in much the same machinations as in the plays; and the devil, having gone to and fro in London, “to gorge every vice full of poison,” sits down to make out his last will and testament, leaving legacies “like ratsbane to poison the realm,” in a catalogue of the more profitable of the vices. We see Middleton, for all his drawing of a moral, very interested and at home in the details of all that he denounces; preparing himself, deliberately or not, for his work as a writer of dramatic comedy.