That sigh would fain have utterance:
take pity on’t,
And lend it a free word; ’las, how it labors
For liberty! I hear the murmur yet
Beat at your bosom.
The wording of this passage is sufficient to attest the presence and approve the quality of a poet: the manner and the moment of its introduction would be enough to show the instinctive and inborn insight of a natural dramatist. As much may be said of the few words which give us a ghostly glimpse of supernatural terror:
Ha! what art thou that tak’st
away the light
Betwixt that star and me! I dread thee not:
’Twas but a mist of conscience.
But the real power and genius of the work cannot be shown by extracts—not even by such extracts as these. His friend and colleague Dekker shows to better advantage by the process of selection: hardly one of his plays leaves so strong and sweet an impression of its general and complete excellence as of separate scenes or passages of tender and delicate imagination or emotion beyond the reach of Middleton: but the tragic unity and completeness of conception which distinguish this masterpiece will be sought in vain among the less firm and solid figures of his less serious and profound invention. Had “The Changeling” not been preserved, we should not have known Middleton: as it is, we are more than justified in asserting that a critic who denies him a high place among the poets of England must be not merely ignorant of the qualities which involve a right or confer a claim to this position, but incapable of curing his ignorance by any process of study. The rough and rapid work which absorbed too much of this poet’s time and toil seems almost incongruous with the impression made by the noble and thoughtful face, so full of gentle dignity and earnest composure, in which we recognize the graver and loftier genius of a man worthy to hold his own beside all but the greatest of his age. And that age was the age of Shakespeare.
Of all the poets and humorists who lit up the London stage for half a century of unequalled glory, William Rowley was the most thoroughly loyal Londoner: the most evidently and proudly mindful that he was a citizen of no mean city. I have always thought that this must have been the conscious or unconscious source of the strong and profound interest which his very remarkable and original genius had the good-fortune to evoke from the sympathies of Charles Lamb. That divine cockney, if the word may be used—and “why in the name of glory,” to borrow the phrase of another immortal fellow-townsman, should it not be?—as a term of no less honor than Yorkshireman or Northumbrian, Cornishman or Welshman, has lavished upon Rowley such cordial and such manfully sympathetic praise as would suffice to preserve and to immortalize the name of a far lesser man and a far feebler workman in tragedy or comedy, poetry or prose.