Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. I. Early Poetry: Chaucer to Donne
Critical Introduction by William Minto
George Peele (15561596)
[George Peele was a most noted poet in the University of Oxford, and taking up his residence in London became one of the band of University writers for the stage, with whom the player Shakespeares first efforts as a dramatist brought him into conflict. His first published play was a pastoral, The Arraignment of Paris, which had been performed before Queen Elizabeth in 1584. It is supposed that he wrote more plays for the public stage than have been preserved. He also composed pageants for the great city festivals, making a precarious living by his wits. Occasional verses of Peeles appear in the poetic collections of the period.]
PEELE was one of the singers before the great Elizabethan sunrise, and his notes contain no anticipatory vibration of the burst of song that was to follow him. His University friends, even after Marlowe had made his voice heard, spoke of him as the Atlas of poetry, inferior to none, and in some respects superior to all; but this partial verdict can now be recorded only as an example of how contemporary criticism is sometimes mistaken. In reading his plays now one is more astonished that Greene and Nash should have considered him worthy to be named in the same breath with Marlowe, than that the theatrical managers of the time, so much to their indignation, should have rejected his plays in favour of the productions of non-academic workmen. Peeles blank verse, which was so much admired by his academic contemporaries, gives us a fair idea of the environment out of which Marlowe emerged, and increases our admiration of that mighty genius. It deserves the praise of smoothness which it received from Campbell; it is graceful and elegant, but it has neither sinew nor majesty. I have quoted what seems to me to be the most favourable example of his use of this instrument, an address prefixed to one of his plays, The Tale of Troy, published in 1599, two years after the production of Tamburlaine. The inspiration of the subject seems to have contributed a fire and a freedom of movement which is generally lacking in Peeles blank verse. In using this form at all, Peele essayed an instrument which was beyond his powers and unsuited to his bent of feeling. His was an adroit, subtle, versatile mind, without massiveness or passionate intensity, and he is seen at his best in the expression of graceful and humorous fancies. He was not however a follower of Marlowe in the application of blank verse to tragic purposes. In the Arraignment of Paris, the prologue spoken by Ate is in that metre, and it is also adopted by Paris in his speech before the council of the Gods, and by Diana in her description of the nymph Eliza, a figure of Queen Elizabeth. This seems to show that among the University poets, from whose circle Marlowe burst to reform the common stage, blank verse was considered the appropriate instrument for tragic and stately speeches. But it was not apparently till after the production of Tamburlaine that Peele wrote whole plays in blank verse. David and Bethsabe is the best of these, and is full of happy touches in the tender scenes, but the firmness of a masterly hand is wanting. The verse seldom moves far without having recourse to the crutch of weak and superfluous epithets. In the Battle of Alcazar Peele tried, perhaps at the instigation of his hard taskmasters the theatrical managers, to make up by sound and fury for his want of natural strength in the expression of passion, and thereby furnished Shakespeare with the model for some of the best-known extravagances of Pistol. Peele has also left us in Sir Clyomon and Sir Clamydes an example of the jigging measure of fourteen syllables, from which Marlowe aspired to redeem the stage. It cannot be said that Peele helped forward the great literary movement of his time; he is perhaps the best illustration of the utmost that could be done by a cultured man of facile talent and poetic temperament before the advent of the great Elizabethans.