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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.

III. Middleton and Rowley

§ 8. Fluency and naturalness of his work

The prose of Middleton, as we see it in the comedies, where it is employed more largely than verse, but drops easily into and out of verse, is a pungent, fluent, very natural and speakable prose. It has lightness and yet is not empty, is often witty without going unduly beyond the probabilities of talk; only at times, as in The Famelie of Love, does it become pedantic; and it rarely loses a certain deftness even when it drops into coarseness. Touches of the edged speech of the period, which shines and strikes, are not wanting. “Bright Helena of this house, would thy Troy were a-fire, for I am a-cold,” says someone, on no particular occasion. The prose goes at a great rate, and carries you with it, while you travel slowly with Rowley, whenever he takes Middleton’s place. And the verse is hardly less swift, galloping often on more feet than the measure demands, but rarely jarring the measure. In some of the plays, Middleton takes no care to modulate from prose into verse, but jumps forward and backward with little need, barely lifting the verse above the measure of the prose. Gradually, the quality and adaptability of the verse improve; developing directly out of the prose, it becomes not less flexible. And we find him cultivating with increasing skill what had always been a homely colloquial tendency, dealing in culinary and haberdashery similes, more at home with a dish or dress than with the moon, and able to set dumb things into gesture, thus:

  • Troth, you speak wondrous well for your old house here;
  • ’T will shortly fall down at your feet to thank you,
  • Or stoop, when you go to bed, like a good child,
  • To ask your blessing.
  • Verse, to Middleton, is a native idiom; he speaks in it naturally, bending it as he pleases, to any shade of meaning, filling it with stuff alien to poetry and yet keeping its good metre. He does not write for the sake of the verse, and only a native honesty of ear keeps him from dropping clean out of it, without knowing, into prose. Thus, he has few fine passages; yet a few of them he has, where imagination has fastened upon him, and dictated his words. His lines run often, in his later work, to fourteen syllables, yet their feet slide easily within the measure. As he lets his lines grow longer, so he allows himself longer speeches, because he knows that he can keep the ear awake and following them. And, by the time of The Changeling, the versification has become graver, with a new thrill in it, through which passion, and not only the mind’s energies, can now speak. Was it Rowley who first showed Middleton the possibility of that passionate note, by which drama becomes not only drama but poetry?