A MORE friendly critic, Mr. A. C. Swinburne, observes of this poet that “the father of English tragedy and the creator of English blank verse was therefore also the teacher and the guide of Shakespeare. ” In this sentence there are two misleading assumptions and two misleading conclusions. Kyd has as good a title to the first honour as Marlowe; Surrey has a better title to the second; and Shakespeare was not taught or guided by one of his predecessors or contemporaries alone.
The less questionable judgment is, that Marlowe exercised a strong influence over later drama, though not himself as great a dramatist as Kyd; that he introduced several new tones into blank verse, and commenced the dissociative process which drew it farther and farther away from the rhythms of rhymed verse; and that when Shakespeare borrowed from him, which was pretty often at the beginning, Shakespeare either made something inferior or something different.
The comparative study of English versification at various periods is a large tract of unwritten history. To make a study of blank verse alone, would be to elicit some curious conclusions. It would show, I believe, that blank verse within Shakespeare’s lifetime was more highly developed, that it became the vehicle of more varied and more intense art-emotions than it has ever conveyed since; and that after the erection of the Chinese Wall of Milton, blank verse has suffered not only arrest but retrogression.
That the blank verse of Tennyson, for example, a consummate master of this form in certain applications, is cruder (not “rougher” or less perfect in technique) than that of half a dozen contemporaries of Shakespeare; cruder, because less capable of expressing complicated, subtle, and surprising emotions. 2 Every writer who has written any blank verse worth saving has produced particular tones which his verse and no other’s is capable of rendering; and we should keep this in mind when we talk about “influences” and “indebtedness.
“Shakespeare is “universal” (if you like) because he has more of these tones than anyone else; but they are all out of the one man; one man cannot be more than one man; there might have been six Shakespeares at once without conflicting frontiers; and to say that Shakespeare expressed nearly all human emotions, implying that he left very little for anyone else, is a radical misunderstanding of art and the artisti?? a misunderstanding which, even when explicitly rejected, may lead to our neglecting the effort of attention necessary to discover the specific properties of the verse of Shakespeare’s contemporaries.
The development of blank verse may be likened to the analysis of that astonishing industrial product coal-tar. Marlowe’s verse is one of the earlier derivatives, but it possesses properties which are not repeated in any of the analytic or synthetic blank verses discovered somewhat later. 3 The “vices of style” of Marlowe’s and Shakespeare’s age is a convenient name for a number of vices, no one of which, perhaps, was shared by all of the writers.
It is pertinent, at least, to remark that Marlowe’s “rhetoric” is not, or not characteristically, Shakespeare’s rhetoric; that Marlowe’s rhetoric consists in a pretty simple huffe-snuffe bombast, while Shakespeare’s is more exactly a vice of style, a tortured perverse ingenuity of images which dissipates instead of concentrating the imagination, and which may be due in part to influences by which Marlowe was untouched. Next, we find that Marlowe’s vice is one which he was gradually attenuating, and even, what is more miraculous, turning into a virtue.
And we find that this bard of torrential imagination recognized many of his best bits (and those of one or two others), saved them, and reproduced them more than once, almost invariably improving them in the process. 4 It is worth while noticing a few of these versions, because they indicate, somewhat contrary to usual opinion, that Marlowe was a deliberate and conscious workman. Mr. J. M. Robertson has spotted an interesting theft of Marlowe’s from Spenser. Here is Spenser (Faery Queen, I. vii. 32):
Like to an almond tree y-mounted high On top of green Selinis all alone, With blossoms brave bedecki?? d daintily; Whose tender locks do tremble every one At every little breath that under heaven is blown. And here Marlowe (Tamburlaine, Part II. Act iv. sc. iii. ): Like to an almond tree y-mounted high Upon the lofty and celestial mount Of evergreen Selinus, quaintly deck’d With blooms more white than Erycina’s brows, Whose tender blossoms tremble every one At every little breath that thorough heaven is blown.