The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 3. Charles Robert Maturin
Hazlitt’s last lecture on the dramatic literature of the age of Elizabeth is largely concerned with German influence on the tragedy and romantic drama of his day. That influence can be clearly discerned in the plays of Charles Robert Maturin, an Irish clergyman, whose three tragedies—Bertram; or, The Castle of St. Aldobrond; Manuel; and Fredolfo—were produced in London in the years 1816 and 1817. Bertram was a famous and successful play in its time. It was brought to the notice of Edmund Kean by Walter Scott and Byron; it was the object of an attack by Coleridge in The Courier, which, in its turn, roused a notorious attack by Hazlitt on Coleridge. The ridicule of The Anti-Jacobin had not opened the eyes of the public to the shortcomings of the drama of Kotzebue; and Coleridge’s translation of Wallenstein appears to have had no corrective influence on taste. Maturin’s Bertram, with its gloomy “Byronic” herovillain, its strained sentiment, its setting in castle and monastery and its attempt at the portrayal of frantic passions, has all the vices of a vicious order of tragedy. Nothing, to the modern reader, seems real; nothing inevitable. In Hazlitt’s words: “There is no action: there is neither cause nor effect.… The passion described does not arise naturally out of the previous circumstances, nor lead necessarily to the consequences that follow.” This is true, also, of Manuel; and Fredolfo, “a piece of romanticism run mad,” shocked the first and last audience that ever saw it with a display of villainy which even that age could not stomach. Maturin, in later years, admitted that his acquaintance with life was so limited as to make him dependent on his imagination alone (and he might have added the imagination of other dramatists) for his characters, situations and language. He was, however, a better poet than Sheil. For all his excess in physical horror, his verse shows sensibility and has some beauty.