Home  »  Volume VII: English CAVALIER AND PURITAN  »  § 12. Sir William D’Avenant; Gondibert

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

III. Writers of the Couplet

§ 12. Sir William D’Avenant; Gondibert

The general inclination to restrain poetic fluency within definite bounds, which led to the adoption of the self-contained couplet as the standard form of verse after the restoration, prompted Sir William D’Avenant to write his epic poem, Gondibert, in a series of quatrains with alternate rimes. The first two books of Gondibert were written at Paris, where D’Avenant was the guest of lord Jermyn in his rooms at the Louvre. The whole poem was intended to consist of five books, corresponding to the five acts of a play, each divided into a number of cantos. D’Avenant, according to Aubrey, was much in love with his design; and his preoccupation with it excited the ridicule of Denham and other courtiers then at Paris. In 1650, the two finished books were published, prefaced by a long letter from the author to Hobbes, who had read the work as it advanced, and by a complimentary answer from Hobbes himself. Gondibert was never completed. Early in 1650, Sir William left Paris for Virginia: his voyage was intercepted by a parliamentary ship, which took him prisoner. He wrote six cantos of the third book during his imprisonment in Cowes castle, but, finding that the sorrows of his condition begat in him “such a gravity, as diverts the musick of verse,” he abandoned the poem, and, during the remaining eighteen years of his life, added to it but one fragment, which was printed in the collected edition of his works in 1673. The unfinished poem, with a postscript dated from Cowes castle, 22 October, 1650, was published in 1651.

In his epistle to Hobbes, D’Avenant elaborately explained his theory of poetry, his choice of the epic form, and his conduct of the various parts of the poem. He was much in earnest in defending the moral value of poetry, and in indicating the salutary influence which “princes and nobles, being reformed and made angelicall by the heroick” form of verse, may exercise on their subjects who, by defect of education, are less capable of feeling its advantages. His aim was to give his readers a perfect picture of virtue, avoiding the snares into which critics had found that previous epic poets, from Homer to Spenser and Tasso, had fallen. His stage was to be filled with characters remarkable for noble birth or greatness of mind, whose schools of morality were courts or camps. The “distempers” chosen as objects of warning were not to be vulgar vices, but the higher passions of love and ambition. As for his “interwoven stanza of four”

  • I believed [he says] it would be more pleasant to the reader, in a work of length, to give this respite or pause, between every stanza (having endeavoured that each should contain a period) than to run him out of breath with continued couplets. Nor doth alternate rime by any lowliness of cadence make the sound less heroick, but rather adapt it to a plain and stately composing of musick; and the brevity of the stanza renders it less subtle to the composer, and more easie to the singer, which in stilo recitativo, when the story is long, is chiefly requisite.
  • The stanza itself was no novelty: D’Avenant’s innovation consisted in his adaptation of it to an epic poem, and in his attempt to give to each quatrain an individual completeness, to which he felt the couplet unequal. Gondibert, even had it been finished, would hardly have achieved the place among epics which its author designed it to fill; and the compliments paid to it by Hobbes, in a letter whiich contains much sound criticism, flattered it excessively. The characters of Gondibert himself and the virtuous and highly educated Birtha, a Miranda instructed by another Prospero in the shape of her father Astragon, fail to inspire much interest: Rhodalind, the rival of Birtha for the love of Gondibert, is a mere lay figure; and the subtle Hermegild, the haughty Gartha and the rest, merely threaten complications in the plot, the development of which we are spared. The descriptions are long, and the speeches of the characters are intolerably prolix: Gondibert declares his love to Birtha in nine stanzas, and explains his intentions to her father in two speeches, extending over thirty stanzas more. The language, however, is uninvolved, although D’Avenant, who set much store by wit in poetry, indulges constantly in images dear to the fantastic poets, such as those drawn from the mandrake or from the details of alchemy. If he placed too high a hope in the future of his work, he yet strove in it consistently for directness of expression and succinctness of sense. The virtues of his quatrain were proved by the admiration of Dryden, who chose it as the stanza of Annus Mirabilis; and the practice, which Dryden, by its use, gained in clear and pointed writing, gives it a place as a link in the development of the couplet form, of which he became the most accomplished master.