Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. II. The Seventeenth Century: Ben Jonson to Dryden
Critical Introduction by Edmund W. Gosse
Thomas Randolph (16051635)
[Thomas Randolph was born at Dodford, in Northamptonshire, and died at Blatherwick, in the same county. His drama of The Jealous Lovers was printed in 1632; the remainder of his works appeared posthumously in 1638.]
IT seems probable that in the premature death of Randolph, English literature underwent a very heavy loss. He died unexpectedly when he was only twenty-nine, leaving behind him a mass of writing at once very imperfect and very promising. The patronage of Ben Jonson, it would seem, rather than any very special bias to the stage, led him to undertake dramatic composition, and though he left six plays behind him, it is by no means certain that he would have ended as a dramatist. His knowledge of stage requirements is very small indeed; it would be impossible to revive any of his pieces on the modern boards on account of the essential uncouthness of the movement, the length of the soliloquies, and the thinness of the plot. His three best dramas are distinguished by a vigorous directness and buoyancy of language, and by frequent passages of admirable rhetorical quality, but they are hardly plays at all, in the ordinary sense. His master-piece, The Muses Looking Glass, is a moral essay in a series of dialogues, happily set in a framework of comedy; the Jealous Lovers is full, indeed, of ridiculous stratagems and brisk humorous transitions, but it has no sanity of plot; while Amyntas is a beautiful holiday dream, aery and picturesque, and ringing with peals of faery laughter, but not a play that any mortal company of actors could rehearse. Intellect and imagination Randolph possessed in full measure, but as he does not seem to have been born to excel in play-writing or in song-writing, and as he died too early to set his own mark on literature, we are left to speculate down what groove such brilliant and energetic gifts as his would finally have proceeded. Had he lived longer his massive intelligence might have made him a dangerous rival or a master to Dryden, and as he shows no inclination towards the French manner of poetry, he might have delayed or altogether warded off the influx of the classical taste. He showed no precocity of genius; he was gradually gathering his singing-robes about him, having already studied much, yet having still much to learn. There is no poet whose works so tempt the critic to ask, what was the next step in his development? He died just too soon to impress his name on history.
Besides his dramas, Randolph composed a considerable number of lyrics and occasional poems. Of these the beautiful Ode to Master Anthony Stafford to hasten him into the country is the best. In this he is more free and graceful in his Latinism than usual. He was a deep student of the Roman poets, and most of his non-dramatic pieces are exercises, performed in a hard though stately style, after Ovid, Martial and Claudian. It cannot be said that these have much charm, except to the technical student of poetry, who observes, with interest, the zeal and energy with which Randolph prepared himself for triumphs which were never to be executed. In pastoral poetry he had attained more ease than in any other, and some of his idyls are excellently performed. The glowing verses entitled A Pastoral Courtship remind the reader of the twenty-seventh idyl of Theocritus, on which they were probably modelled. The Cotswold Eclogue, which originally appeared in a very curious book entitled Annalia Dubrensia, 1636, is one of the best pastorals which we possess in English. But in reviewing the fragments of the work of Randolph, the critic is ever confronted by the imperfection of his growing talent, the insufficiency of what exists to account for the personal weight that Randolph carried in his lifetime, and for the intense regret felt at his early death. Had he lived he might have bridged over, with a strong popular poetry, the abyss between the old romantic and the new didactic school, for he had a little of the spirit of each. As it is, he holds a better place in English literature than Dryden, or Gray, or Massinger would have held had they died before they were thirty.