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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.

IX. Lesser Jacobean and Caroline Dramatists

§ 8. Richard Brome’s life and training: his fifteen extant Plays

Richard Brome, like Field was in a special sense educated by Jonson, and it will be convenient to consider his work after Field’s.

The stagekeeper who opens the induction to Bartholomew Fayre, having occasion to pronounce the play “a very conceited, scurvy one,” looks behind the arras “lest the poet hear me or his man, Master Brome.” This was in 1614. Prefixed to Brome’s Northern Lasse, and dated, therefore, not later than 1632, we have Jonson’s characteristic sonnet “to my old faithful servant and by his continued virtue my loving friend… Mr. Richard Brome.” In the first line, “I had you for a servant, once, Dick Brome,” we almost hear Jonson speak. He goes on to say that Brome has sedulously worked at his profession:

  • You learned it well, and for it served your time,
  • A prenticeship.
  • Fleay regards this apprenticeship as extending over the whole of the seven years 1623 to 1629. In 1623, we first hear of Brome as an author. A Fault in Friendship was licensed in that year, “written by Brome and young Jonson.” Unfortunately, the play has not survived; but we may allow ourselves to suppose that the servant and the son pursued their dramatic studies together, under the father’s august and austere supervision. We know nothing of Brome’s parents; but a sonnet of some literary merit by a brother Stephen is printed among the poems prefixed to The Northern Lasse. We must beware, therefore, of assuming that Brome was of very lowly rank and uneducated till Jonson took him in hand. This notion is suggested by the low life in Brome’s plays, as well as by a humility towards public and private patrons in Brome’s prologues and epilogues, which, sometimes, is almost servile. But the sonnet must not be ignored; and, when we find Jonson, in a well known epigram, expecting his “man” to read “a piece of Virgil, Tacitus, Livy, or of some better book” to his guests at supper, we conjecture that the servant was not so much a valet as a secretary and amanuensis, whose duties, from the first, in connection with Jonson’s dramatic and literary work, required a grammar school education. The same inference is suggested by the easy use of Latin in the sketch of the amusing pedant Sarpego in The City Witt. Jonson is copied unblushingly. Sarpego’s speech, “Diogenes Laertius on a certain time demanded of Cornelius Tacitus, an areopagite of Syracusa, what was the most commodious and expeditest method to kill the itch,” is modelled on Clove’s in Every Man out of His Humour: “Aristotle in his daemonologia approves Scaliger for the best navigator in his time, and in his hypercritics he reports him to be Heautontimorumenos!” But there is very little of this misuse of long words and classical names in the part; Sarpego redeems his promise, “His grace will see that we can speak true Latin and construe Ludovicus Vives”; and his Latin has a sprightliness and comicality hardly to be attained by a writer whose studies began after his school days were over. But, if Brome’s education was not much inferior to Field’s, the contrast between the personal characters of Jonson’s two “sons” is all the more striking. Field has more than a touch of Jonson’s arrogance, and inherits some of his strength of style. Brome’s meekness verges on servility. The note of self-depreciation continually recurs:
  • A little wit, less learning, no poetry
  • This playmaker dares boast.
  • He is always reverent and loyal to Jonson; but his attitude of deference to his audience, and his modest estimate of his own powers as a writer, make quite clear his unlikeness to his master. For all his sedulous imitation of Jonson’s style and methods, Brome has little of his master’s soul in him. He can only be Jonson on a small scale; but Jonson on a small scale is not Jonson. Brome’s sketches of London life are varied, minute, careful, spirited, and yet they displease; they cannot be read continuously without weariness, and are extremely coarse. Some critics have been pleased to decide that Brome describes life from the groom’s point of view, and have ascribed his coarseness to his want of education and humble origin. The truer explanation is that he uses Jonson’s manner without Jonson’s full-blooded, massive humanity, without his satiric intensity, without his intellectual power; so that the Jonsonian scenes in Brome, his numerous efforts to describe the humours of London life, repel or tire the reader.