Spenser, Jonson, and Shakespeare
THE characters of these three great masters of English poetry are sketched by Fuller, in his “Worthies of England.” It is a literary morsel that must not be passed by. The criticisms of those who lived in or near the times when authors flourished merit our observation. They sometimes elicit a ray of intelligence, which later opinions do not always give.
He observes on SPENSER.—“The many Chaucerisms used (for I will not say affected by him) are thought by the ignorant to be blemishes, known by the learned to be beauties, to his book; which, notwithstanding, had been more SALEABLE, if more conformed to our modern language.”
On JONSON.—“ His parts were not so ready to run of themselves, as able to answer the spur; so that it may be truly said of him, that he had an elaborate wit, wrought out by his own industry. He would sit silent in learned company, and suck in (besides wine) their several humours into his observation. What was ore in others, he was able to refine himself.
“He was paramount in the dramatic part of poetry, and taught the stage an exact conformity to the laws of comedians. His comedies were above the Volge (which are only tickled with downright obscenity), and took not so well at the first stroke as at the rebound, when beheld the second time; yea, they will endure reading so long as either ingenuity or learning are fashionable in our nation, if his latter be not so spriteful and vigorous as his first pieces, all that are old will, and all who desire to be old should, excuse him therein.”
On SHAKESPEARE.—“He was an eminent instance of the truth of that rule, poeta non fit, sed nascitur; one is not made, but born a poet. Indeed his learning was but very little; so that as Cornish diamonds are not polished by any lapidary, but are pointed and smoothed, even as they are taken out of the earth, so Nature itself was all the art which was used upon him.
“Many were the wit-combats betwixt him and Ben Jonson, which two I behold like a Spanish great galleon, and an English man-of-war. Master Jonson, (like the former) was built far higher in learning; solid, but slow in his performances. Shakspeare, with an English man-of-war, lesser in bulk but lighter in sailing, could turn with all tides, and take advantage of all winds, by the quickness of his wit and invention.”
Had these “Wit-combats” between Shakspeare and Jonson, which Fuller notices, been chronicled by some faithful Boswell of the age, our literary history would have received an interesting accession. A letter has been published by Dr. Berkenhout relating to an evening’s conversation between our great rival bards, and Alleyn the actor. Peele, a dramatic poet, writes to his friend Marlowe, another poet. The Doctor unfortunately in giving this copy did not recollect his authority.
“I never longed for thy companye more than last night: we were all very merrye at the Globe, where Ned Alleyn did not scruple to affirme pleasantly to thy friend WILL, that he had stolen his speeche about the qualities of an actor’s excellencye in Hamlet his Tragedye, from conversations manyfold which had passed between them, and opinyons given by Alleyn touchinge this subject. SHAKSPEARE did not take this talk in good sorte; but JONSON put an end to the strife, by wittylie remarking,—this affaire needeth no contention: you stole it from NED, no doubt, do not marvel; have you not seen him act times out of number?”
This letter is not genuine, but one of those ingenious forgeries which the late George Steevens practised on the literary antiquary; they were not always of this innocent cast. It has been frequently quoted as an original document. I have preserved it as an example of Literary Forgeries, and the danger which literary historians incur by such nefarious practices.
¶ This article is revised and expanded from its original in early (1790s) editions of the Curiosities.