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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

§ 5. Ben Jonson’s Masques

Elizabeth’s frugality prevented the masque from developing in her reign. It was in frequent use, but the queen had not the special taste for it which made it prominent as an amusement of the aristocracy in the courts of Henry VIII and James I. But “entertainments,” during the queen’s numerous progresses, were plentifully produced. The entertainment was the masque out-of-doors, and consisted of some kind of welcoming device or function arranged for greeting the queen on her arrival, or “discovered” afterwards, as she was conducted round gardens and park. The entertainment had more dramatic possibilities in it than the masque, because it depended less upon scenery, but the English climate kept it always short and slight. One, by Sir Philip Sidney, of considerable merit, has survived—The May Lady, presented in May, 1578, when the queen visited his uncle, the earl of Leicester, at Wanstead. Jonson’s reverence for Sidney makes it likely that he did not overlook Sidney’s work when he composed the entertainments which were the beginning of his masque work. But it seems more probable that The May Lady guided Jonson’s views on pastoral than that it influenced his conception of masque, and it remains by itself as a short out-of-doors scene of pastoral comedy, not without influence upon Shakespeare’s early comedy. The schoolmaster, master Rombus, is, obviously, an ancestor of Holofernes, and the play’s likeness to masque lies in its complementary character. Some of Lyly’s plays, also, have affinities with the masque. They are elaborate compliments; their ideas are not concerned with the real world of men and women; their characters are mythological. But perhaps their most important connection with the masque is their influence upon Jonson’s Cynthia’s Revels. This play magnifies at all points Lyly’s limited strength to such a degree that the reader may easily fail to notice its debt to Lyly. But its connection with Jonson’s masques is obvious. In Cynthia’s Revels, a great realist, the author of Bartholomew Fayre, succeeds in making us understand how he came to write masques. We see his mind becoming absorbed in the particular art and method of which the masque was an expression.

But, before we pass to Jonson’s masques, one Elizabethan play must be mentioned which was neither a masque, nor a pastoral, nor a drama, but partook of the character of all three. It is, perhaps, the most elaborate and beautiful entertainment extant, and the brilliance of its total effect makes us regret that such a delightful type of renascence art did not receive fuller development. Peele’s Araygnement of Paris comes before the development of the masque, as Milton’s Comus comes after it, to suggest to us that in the method of the out-of-door entertainment or pastoral there is inherent a truer breath of poetry than is to be found in that of the indoor masque, in which scenary and carpentry and music and dance were always tending to smother and suppress the poetical soul.

The first court masque after king James’s accession was produced on 8 January, 1604, at Hampton court, because plague was prevalent in London. It was The Vision of the Twelve Goddesses, in which the masquers were queen Anne herself and eleven of her ladies. By the recommendation of Lucy countess of Bedford, Daniel was chosen to design and write the masque. An indiscreet printer presumptuously brought out an unauthorised account, and this obliged Daniel in self-defence to print a description “of the whole form thereof in all points as it was then performed by a most magnificent Queen, whose heroical spirit and bounty only gave it so fair an execution as it had.” Daniel thinks that “these ornaments and delights of peace” deserve to be remembered; and, therefore, he relates how he devised his twelve goddesses to represent the blessings enjoyed by the realm under king James. Night ascends from below and awakes Somnus, who is sleeping in his cave, that he may conjure up the visions which are to delight and entertain the spectators. By the waving of the white horny wand of Somnus, the spectators are enbled to see the temple of Peace, elaborately constructed, where a sibyl stands as priestess,

  • Preparing reverent rites with holy hand.
  • To her, comes Iris from a mountain raised at the lower end of the hall, to announce the coming of a “celestial presence of Goddesses,” who are leaving their ancient haunts to visit Britain, “the land of civil music and of rest.” Iris hands Sybilla a “prospective” through which to view the goddesses: and Sybilla proceeds to describe all the twelve, one after the other, in four-lined stanzas. Of these, that descriptive of Flora is best:
  • Then cheerful Flora all adorned with flowers,
  • Who clothes the earth with beauty and delight
  • In thousand Sunday suits, whilst shining hours
  • Will scarce afford a darkness to the night.
  • The stanzas read like faint echoes of Tennyson’s descriptions in his Dream of fair Women, except that the last line is not shortened. After being thus described, the goddesses descend from the mountain, in threes, ushered by the three graces, with their torchbearers, also in threes, separating them. As they come down, “the cornets sitting in the concaves of the Mountain, and seen but to their breasts; in the habit of Satyrs, sound a stately march.” This is the entry of the masquers. The company halt before the temple, and “the consort music begins”—the musicians being concealed in the cupola of the temple. Meanwhile, the goddesses, one after another, ascended to the temple and delivered their presents to Sybilla, while the graces sang. Then came the dance of the masquers, to the music of viols and lutes placed on one side of the hall. It was performed “with great majesty and art, consisting of divers strains framed into motions circular, square, triangular, with other proportions exceeding rare and full of variety.” This ended, the graces sang again, in order to rest the ladies; after which, the masquing ladies “prepared to take out the Lords to dance; with whom they performed certain measures, galliards and corantos.” Iris then came now to say that the deities must return, and, after her speech,
  • they fell to a short departing dance and so ascended the Mountain, whilst the cornets taking their notes from the ceasing of the music below, sounded another delightful march.
  • From this description, we can gather what the masque was in its outward features. A band of masquers assume an impressive and magnificent disguise. Some sort of explanation must be given of the nature and meaning of the disguise culminating in the entry of the masquers, which should be as sudden and impressive as possible. After the entry, the main or chief dance is performed by the masquers alone. Then, the masquers “take out” partners from among the spectators—lords if the masquers are ladies, but, more usually, ladies, the masquers being lords. With these partners, slow dances, called by Daniel “certain measures,” are performed; and then quick dances—“galliards and corantos.” It is to these quick dances that the title “the revels” is properly and strictly given. After the revels, the masquers make their exit, usually with some preliminary dance by themselves. In Daniel’s account of his masque, we see clearly how large a part of the interest was absorbed by spectacle, music and dance. The poet has his opportunity only when Sybilla pretends that she can see through her prospective or spy glass the masquers who are presently to march in, and describes them that they may be understood when they appear. The poetry for which occasion is thus found has some touch of the quiet grace of Daniel’s best work, and the pure English of his prose and poetry alike is delightful to read. But this masque would seem to have survived in order to mark Ben Jonson’s superiority. Daniel’s contemplative temperament is contented to keep the masque undramatic, without either briskness or fire, and undifferentiated, without any contrast of its parts. In other words he does not in the least realise the possibilities of the art he is practising. By his own rashness in the publication of Philotas, he lost favour at court, and the queen’s next masque was written by Jonson.

    But, before we consider this, we must examine some slighter pieces by Jonson, which preceded his first court masque. In June, 1603, the queen and prince Henry, when they first came into the kingdom, were received by Sir Robert Spencer at Althorpe, and Jonson composed the entertainment which welcomed them. As the queen came through the park, certain cornets sounded, whereupon a satyr “advanced his head above the top of the wood,” wondering at the solemnities and, after a short strain on his pipe, jumped down to look close at the queen and prince, declaring,

  • That is Cyparissus” face!
  • And the dame hath Syrinx” grace!
  • O that Pan were now in place—
  • Sure they are of heavenly race.
  • He runs off in a fit of shyness and “to the sound of excellent soft music,” a bevy of fairies come tripping up the lawn attending on Mab their queen. The fairies dance in a ring, and queen Mab begins to welcome queen Anne, when the satyr peeps out of the bush again and interrupts:
  • Trust her not, you bonnibell,
  • She will forty leasings tell;
  • I do know her pranks right well.
  • The fairies try to catch the satyr, while he runs about singing in riming eight-syllabled couplets a graphic account of Mab’s traditional pranks. Finally, he is caught and well pinched, but escapes again into his bush. Then the style changes from gay to stately, while a song of welcome is sung to Oriana—quasi Oriens Anna, Jonson explains in a note; this song is not quite the poet’s best. But it is in such a setting as this that Jonson produces exquisite lyrics. Suddenly, he heightens his style, while the movement and merriment cease, and, for a moment, all ears listen. After the song, Mab presents the queen with a jewel, the fairies “hope away in a fantastic dance,” and the satyr runs out again with his saucy octosyllables. After some references to Sir Robert Spencer, he fetches out the eldest son, attired and appointed like a huntsman, who is presented to the service of the prince along with some more gifts:
  • The bow was Phoebe’s, and the horn
  • By Orion often worn;
  • The dog of Sparta breed, and good,
  • As can RING within a WOOD;
  • Thence his name is: you shall try
  • How he hunteth instantly.
  • At this, the whole wood resounded with the noise of cornets, horns and other hunting music, and a brace of choice deer were driven up and “fortunately killed, as they were meant to be, even in the sight of her majesty.”

    Nothing could be better in its kind than this vivacious entertainment. It is not too long; it is full of movement, being broken up into dialogue, song and speeches, all written in easy rimes. The satyr is own brother to Fletcher’s satyr in The Faithfull Shepheardess. Jonson expands him into a charming antimasque in Oberon the Fairy Prince.

    It is surprising to find Jonson, who often gives us too much, and sows with the whole sack, restraining his hand thus artfully. It would seem as if he were able to put off his satiric and moralising instincts only when he conceives himself to be called upon for mere amusement. Perhaps, the awe of royalty natural to an Elizabethan held him in. Next year, on 1 May, 1604, he composed a second entertainment, when the king and queen visited Sir William Cornwallis at Highgate. It is not so happy as the first; but it is quite new in its invention. The Penates or household gods, correctly attired, receive the king at the porch, addressing him in eight five-lined stanzas. The Penates lead the royal party into the house, where Mercury receives them in a prose speech which has more breath of poetry in it than the stanzas. Mercury takes them through the house into the garden, where are various goddesses—Maia, Aurora, Flora and others. Three of the goddesses, when Mercury’s speech is ended, sing a three-part song, beginning, “See, see, O see, who here is come a maying.” Maia then recites some graceful octosyllabic verses of welcome. This is the morning’s entertainment. After dinner, the king and queen are, once more, taken into the garden, when Mercury again accosts them. He explains that “a certain son of mine, whom the Arcadians call a god, howsoever the rest of the world receive him,” is at hand: “yonder he keeps, and with him the wood nymphs.” This is Pan. Mercury apologises for Pan’s uncouth appearance and behaviour, but asks the royal guests to accept from him a cup of “a lusty liquor, that hath a present virtue to expel sadness,” and is flowing from the fountain of Bacchus in the middle of the lawn. Pan then accosts the king, and, in rollicking verses, hopes he will let a god be his skinker. When the king has drunk, the lords and ladies are served. A last word of apology for Pan’s familiarities follows from Mercury, “and thus it ended.” The fancy of all this is sprightly and the execution adequate. What is especially to be noticed is Jonson’s effort to get some contrast into his show, first, by means of the satyr, and, secondly, of Pan. The entertainment is not to be mere spectacle; the tableaux are not to be merely explained; they explain themselves. A breath of the drama gives them life. The entertainment lent itself to this semi-dramatic treatment more readily than the masque, which was a lengthy evening function in a large hall.

    But Ben Jonson, having written these two entertainments, was less likely to let his masque be mere spectacle enlivened only by tedious description. He was commanded to supply queen Anne’s second masque, The Masque of Blacknesse, “personated at the Court at Whitehall on the Twelfth-Night, 1605,” in which, again, the queen and her ladies were the masquers. It lacks the light touch of the two entertainments; it is a first attempt, and, evidently, the effort to devise an ingenious, splendid and impressive spectacle has made too absorbing a demand on Jonson’s attention. How ingenious this spectacle was may appear from a short summary of Jonson’s graphic description. Oceanus, presented in human form, the colour of his flesh blue, and Niger, in form and colour of an Aethiop, riding on two great sea-horses, with attendant tritons and sea-maidens, seem to advance out of the sea, which is artfully made to shoot forth as if it flowed to the land. This cavalcade “induces” the masquers, who are twelve nymphs, negroes and daughters of Niger, attended by twelve Oceaniae, who are their lightbearers. The masquers are all placed in “a great concave Shell, like mother of pearl, curiously made to move on those waters and rise with the billow”; the torch-bearing Oceaniae are on the backs of “six huge sea-monsters,” disposed round the great shell. Cunningly placed lights raise the whole elaborate show to the highest point of brilliance. The “lines of prospective” of this show were planned with exact reference to the state at the upper end of the hall. “So much for the bodily part which was of master Inigo Jones’s design and act.” When the shell came to a standstill, a triton and two sea-maidens sang a song—a tenor and two trebles. Then, Oceanus enquires of Niger why he is far out of his course here in the west. Niger explains that his daughters, having heard the fable of Phaeton, are discontented with their blackness, and have seen a vision which ordered them to seek a land whose name ends in the syllables “tania.” They have tried Mauritania and Lusitania and Aquitania; can Oceanus help them to any other? Oceanus answers that they have arrived at Albion, named after his own son; but, at this point, a vision of the moon, “discovered in the upper part of the house,” as a beautiful queen on a throne, makes Niger “interrupt Oceanus with this present passion”: “O see, our silver star,” he begins. The Aethiopians, of course, worshipped the moon as Aethiopia; and this is Aethiopia herself come to tell them that this is the land they are seeking. It is ruled by a sun

  • Whose beams shine day and night and are of force,
  • To blanch an Aethiop and revive a corse.
  • King James is the sun:
  • His light sciential is, and, past mere nature,
  • Can salve the rude defects of every creature.
  • Then comes the main dance of the masquers. When it is finished, and the masquers are about “to make choice of their men, one from the sea was heard to call them with this Charm, sung by a tenor voice.” The song very aptly bids the sirens of the sea beware of the sirens of the land. After the measures and corantos with the men, which are “the revels,” the ladies “were again accited to sea with a song of two trebles whose cadences were iterated by a double echo from several parts of the land.” The echo song over, Aethiopia gives a receipt for removing “this veil the sun has cast Above your blood”; and the masquers “in a dance returned to sea where they took their Shell, and with this full song went out.”

    We have said that this is not one of the best of Jonson’s masques. The general conception is richly poetical; but he writes the heroic couplet awkwardly, the rimes are very harsh and the addresses of Oceanus and Niger are stiff. The arrangement of the songs is admirable; but their effect must have depended more upon the music and singing than the words. There is a lack of charm in the workmanship when we compare it with later work, or even with the earlier entertainments; but this makes only more apparent the contrast in method between this masque and Daniel’s. The latter, in the main, is a description of the masquers; Jonson perceives the absurdity of describing to the audience what they can see for themselves. Since he has no elaborate description, he must invent some incident, and, accordingly, we have Niger’s journey, his colloquy with Oceanus and the appearance of Aethiopia—all ingeniously contrived to compliment king James. For the use of those who did not see the masque, a prose description of the “landtschape,” the dresses of the masquers and the scenic arrangements—a fine piece of terse English—is prefixed to the actual words; and we are told in a short foreword that “it was her majesty’s will to have the masquers blackmoors at first.” This curious desire of the queen and her ladies is the starting-point of Jonson’s scheme of Niger, whose people “are the blackest nation of the world.”