Elizabethan and Jacobean Studies

By Frank Percy Wilson | Go to book overview

'Under which king, Bezonian?'

PETER ALEXANDER

CHARLES LAMB in his Preface to Specimens of English Dramatic Poets explains the principle governing his selection in these words:

My leading design has been to illustrate what may be called the moral sense of our ancestors. To show in what manner they felt, when they placed themselves by the power of imagination in trying situations, in the conflicts of duty and passion, or the strife of contending duties; what sort of loves and enmities theirs were; how their griefs were tempered, and their full-swoln joys abated: how much of Shakespeare shines in the great men his contemporaries, and how far in his divine mind and manners he surpassed them and all mankind.

Lamb's notes throughout show us how in his choice of scenes he has this design continuously before him; it is difficult therefore to understand how Mr. T. S. Eliot came to say that 'the Specimens made it possible to read the plays as poetry while neglecting their function on the stage'.1 As it is possible for us to misunderstand almost any work that was ever written without our being justified in attributing our error to the author, we must suppose Mr. Eliot to imply that the Specimens somehow lead even the judicious reader to look on drama from some uncritical point of view, for he continues, 'all modern opinion of the Elizabethans seems to spring from Lamb, for all modern opinion rests upon the admission that poetry and drama are two separate things'. As representatives of the opposing but equally erroneous schools of criticism Mr. Eliot cites Swinburne and Archer, one preferring Elizabethan drama in spite of its admitted dramatic defects, the other modern drama although it had no claims to poetic worth. For Mr. Eliot's argument, however, the differences between these opposites are unimportant compared with their agreement that poetry and drama are two different things, the common basic assumption made possible, he feels, by Lamb.

Archer's opinions about Elizabethan drama were mistaken from the first, as Mr. O'Casey has often reminded us. Error is always

____________________
1
T. S. Eliot, Elizabethan Essays, 1934, p. 8.

-167-

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