Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. I. Early Poetry: Chaucer to Donne
Critical Introduction by Edmund W. Gosse
Robert Greene (15581592)
[Robert Greene was born at Norwich. He was a graduate of St. Johns College, Cambridge, in 1578, but took his degree of M.A. five years later at Clare Hall. After this he travelled in Italy and Spain, and, returning to London, gained his living as a playwright and pamphleteer. He died in Dowgate, Sept. 3, 1592. His first work was the novel of Mamillia, 1580, which was followed by a rapid succession of tales, poems, plays, and pamphlets. His most remarkable lyrics appeared in Menaphon, 1589; Never Too Late, 1590: and The Mourning Garment, 1590.]
IT has been well said that the lyrical brightness of Greenes smaller poems compared with the tame versification of his plays, is as surprising as when an indifferent walker proves a light and graceful runner. Yet the reason is perhaps not very far to find; personally a lover of riotous companions and outrageous surfeiting, this hopeless reprobate was imaginatively one of the purest of idyllic dreamers. There was an absolute chasm between the foulness of his life and the serenity of his intellect, and, at least until he became a repentant character, no literary theme interested him very much, unless it was interpenetrated with sentimental beauty. This element inspired what little was glowing and eloquent in his plays; it tinctured the whole of his pastoral romances with a rosy Euphuism, and it turned the best of his lyrics to the pure fire and air of poetry. From his long sojourn in Italy and Spain he brought back a strong sense of the physical beauty of men and women, of fruits, flowers, and trees, of the coloured atmosphere and radiant compass of a southern heaven. All these things passed into his prose and into his verse, so that in many of the softer graces and innocent voluptuous indiscretions of the Elizabethan age he is as much a forerunner as Marlowe is in audacity of thought and the thunders of a massive line. For the outward part of his prose style he was obviously indebted to Lyly; for the inward character of his poetical matter less obviously, but more essentially, to Spenser, whose antiquated idioms, even, he affected to cherish. The publication of Euphues just preceded his apprenticeship in letters, and without question stimulated him to the production of his first work. He never reached the sententious force and persuasive morality of Lylys extraordinary master-piece, but he made this form of literature acceptable to a less exacting taste. His own pastorals enjoyed a very wide success, and were imitated with more or less talent by Lodge, Dickenson, and other writers of less note. They were delicate blossoms of exotic growth, appealing wholly to a literary taste, and, being unable to hold their ground after the close of the sixteenth century, they were completely swept away by the tide of realistic pamphlets, coarse comedies, and sensational tragedies. It is impossible to regret this, because, although these tales of Arcadia and Silistria were full of sweetness and tender beauty, they were foreign to our native habit of mind, and their prevalence might have doomed us to some such tradition of artificial poetry as the example of Petrarch so long inflicted on Italian literature.
The lyrics of Greene show a sense of colour that recalls the masters of Italian painting in the century that preceded him, and it was certainly in the art of the south of Europe that he formed his favourite conception of the brown shepherd and rosy nymph reclining in a whispering boscage of green shadow, to whom appears in vision
the God that hateth sleep,
Clad in armour all of fire,
Hand in hand with Queen Desire.
His employment of metre and rhythm were in unison with this golden style of imagery. His metres are very various, and are usually in direct analogy with the theme in hand. Doron glorifies Samela in a stanza that sounds like the tramp of a conquering army, while Menaphon laments the precarious and volatile nature of love in lines that rise and fall with the rush of a swallows flight. Towards the end of his life Greene lost something of this metrical elasticity, and adopted for most of his ideas a sober six-line stanza; his only long poem, A Maidens Dream, is written in rime-royal.
It is not easy to say much of the shorter pieces of Greene which is not also true of all the best verses of the early Elizabethan period. He is the type of that warm brood of poetic youth that still sings in chorus from the dells of Englands Helicon, or the Paradise of Princely Pleasures. Life and the whole world of youthful pleasures attract him with their delight, and he hastens to clothe himself in a gay silken doublet, and to throw away his forefathers Puritan coat of hodden gray. But anything more specific and definite than this it would scarcely be safe to say. Greene has not Lodges individuality of style, nor does he approach his finest flights, but he is more nearly allied to him than to any other of his contemporaries. It will probably seem to a careful reader that his ordinary level of writing was sustained at a higher point than Lodges. In his rapid passages of octosyllabic verse Greene sometimes comes very close to Barnfield, and, through that mysterious and exquisite poet, to the juvenile manner of Shakespeare, with whom, as is well known, he cultivated a lively spirit of rivalry. But the most curious and notable thing, after all, about Greenes poetry is that, in all its sylvan sweetness, it should have proceeded from the lawless bully, whose ruffled hair and long red beard became a beacon and terror to all good citizens, till in the midst of his villainous cogging and foisting, and all his rascally sleights, he was carried off in the thirty-second year of his life by a surfeit of Rhenish wine and pickled herrings. Upon the poor dishonoured head of this strange genius, the wretched woman who was with him when he died set a garland of bay-leaves, in a happy prescience of the tenderness with which posterity would pardon all his sins for the sake of his pure and beautiful verses.