Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. II. The Seventeenth Century: Ben Jonson to Dryden
Critical Introduction by William Minto
John Ford (1586c. 1640)
[John Ford belonged to a Devonshire family. He was born in 1586, and his last work was published in 1639. In his younger days, while practising as a barrister, he took part with professional playmakers, Webster, Dekker, Rowley, in the composition of various occasional stage productions. He first appeared in print as a dramatic author with The Lovers Melancholy, in 1628. His subsequent plays were published at intervals up to 1639.]
FORD was not one of the herd of playwrights, and he lost no opportunity of letting the world know that he cared not to please many. His poetry was the fruit of leisure moments; he wrote for his own satisfaction, and the enjoyment of his equals in condition. Genial expansive sentiment, joyful presentation of the ordinary virtues, the exaltation of common ideals, was not to be expected in plays that bore upon their title-pages such an avowal of proud reserve. Ford would not walk in beaten dramatic paths; his pride lay in searching out strange freaks of tragic passion. The heart is not purified and ennobled by his tragedies; it is surprised, stunned, perplexed. Passion speaks in his verse with overpowering force; but though he shows profound art in tracing the most monstrous aberrations of love, jealousy, and revenge to a natural origin in strangeness of temper, the sense of strangeness is left predominant. In the preface to The Broken Heart the names of the dramatis personae are explained as being fitted to their qualities, and from this one might carelessly rush to the conclusion that the strangeness of Fords characters is due to their being extravagant personifications of single attributes, and not types of real men and women. But his art was much too profound, his mastery of thought and emotion much too living for any such mechanical superficiality. His creations are not inanimate figures; the pulse of life beats in them. The secret of their strangeness seems to lie in a certain intensity and concentration of nature, a hardness and strength of fibre which will not relax where once it has taken hold. The kinship of passion to insanity is strongly suggested by Fords plays. We seem to have before us men and women with a fixed delusion on some one point, impressed upon them not by the force of overmastering circumstances, but by some vicious warp in their own nature. In Shakespeares plays men are driven into tragic error by the conspiracy of forces outside themselves; in Fords plays fatal false steps are made from mere waywardness of character. In the one case, we are struck with the nearness of the victims of misleading passion to our common humanity; in the other their remoteness from common motives is bewildering. The strangeness of the passions which Ford brings into conflict mars the effect of his two great tragedies as artistic wholes; we do not turn from them with awestruck hearts, full of subdued fear and wonderthey leave us dissatisfied, tortured, bewildered. If these plays were all that were left to us by which to judge of the Elizabethan age they would justify all that M. Taine has said about its ferocity of spirit. In the play that bears the harsh and mocking title Tis Pity Shes a Whore, we feel as if we were present at a hellish carnival of passion. There is no relief to its horrors, except the rapturous exultation of brother and sister in their guilty love. The revolting coarseness of the low-comedy scenes is not a relief but a sickening addition to the chaos.
Ford is not a poet who appears to advantage in quotations. Charles Lamb says truly of him that he sought for sublimity, not by parcels, in metaphors or visible images, but directly where she has her full residence in the heart of man. The sublimity to which his own gloomy austere temper directed him was the sublimity of demoniac resolution, the heroism of unyielding will. Even his heroines are not of the soft and tender type which his contemporaries delighted to paint; they are as firm and resolute in their purposes as the men whom they love. The sorrowful Penthea, though she bends to her brothers will so far as to marry a husband of his choice, resists all the prayers of her discarded lover to prove unfaithful, and with silent and secret determination starves herself to death. Calantha, his flower of beauty, bears stroke after stroke of appalling misfortune without betraying to the vulgar world one sign of the grief which is breaking her heart; she falls dead without a tear, when she has set the affairs of her kingdom in order. It is on the supreme force and patient completeness with which he has displayed such stern and passionate natures, that Fords title to a high place among poets must rest. There is no great intrinsic charm in his verse: it is an admirable vehicle for the expression of intense restrained passion, word following word with severe clear-cutting emphasis; but without a knowledge of the character and situation one cannot feel the force by which it is animated. Even in his songs, with all the softness of their music, we are conscious of the same severely regulating taste. All his few songs are of a sad strain, but they are not filled with the ecstasy of grief; their music is chastened and subdued.