Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. II. The Seventeenth Century: Ben Jonson to Dryden
Critical Introduction by William Minto
James Shirley (15961666)
[Shirley was born in London and lived through the Civil War and Commonwealth into the Restoration. His copious dramatic activity began in 1625, in which year he produced the comedy entitled Loves Tricks. Before this, in 1618, he had published an imitation of Venus and Adonis under the title of Echo. His plays were produced in rapid succession up to 1641. In 1646 he published a volume of poems, chiefly erotic, and two small volumes of Masques etc. in 1653 and 1659.]
SHIRLEY was essentially an imitative not an original genius. His claim to a place among the great poets of his age rests solely upon his wonderful manipulative dexterity, his power of assimilating and reshaping the creations of his great predecessors. Towards the close of a grand period, perhaps even while its leading spirits are in full creative swing, two distinct tendencies manifest themselves. Men of independent mind separate themselves from the main current, and cast about for fields which the masters have left unoccupied. Men of more pliant and docile intellect follow humbly in the footsteps of the masters, and seize freely upon the wealth which they have accumulated. Shirley belonged to the latter class. He did not try to invent new types, or to say what had not been said before; but stored his mind with the thoughts and the imagery of his predecessors, and reproduced them with joyous facility. We may admire the fluency, the elegance, and the force of Shirleys verse, the ease and naturalness of his dramatic situations, but the attentive reader of his predecessors is never called upon to admire anything new. Fletcher was his chief model and exemplar, but he laid them all freely under contribution. The chief critical pleasure in reading him is the pleasure of memory.