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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Sir Henry Taylor (1800–1886)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
THE MODERN English drama of literary significance is too scant to make it easy to overlook so sterling a performance as Sir Henry Taylor’s ‘Philip Van Artevelde.’ Taylor was a poet by deliberation and culture rather than by creative necessity. But he devoted himself with a calm singleness of purpose to literature for a long term of years; and his work was always self-respecting, careful, and artistically acceptable. He did his share in lending dignity to letters. His career was fortunate in allowing him to exercise his poetic talent in quiet ease; and the solid quality and considerable extent of his literary endeavor are to show for it. Of course his vogue is not now what it once was. Professor Saintsbury has pointed out that whereas he was much quoted between 1835 and 1865, he has been little quoted by the generation coming between 1865 and 1895. But this is only the common fate of all but the greatest. ‘Philip Van Artevelde,’ Taylor’s masterpiece, will remain one of the most notable achievements in the English historical drama of the first half of the nineteenth century. It may be added that in the lyric snatches imbedded in his plays, he sometimes strikes a rare note,—one that sends the reader back to Elizabethan days. These perfect songs are few in number, but sufficient to stamp their maker as a true poet in his degree.  1
  Henry Taylor was born at Bishop Middleham, Durham, England, on October 18th, 1800. He came of a family of small land-owners. He entered the navy as a lad, and was a midshipman for some months. But this life he did not take to; and after four years in the storekeeper’s department, he found his true place in entering the Colonial Office. He went in as a young man of twenty-four; he remained well-nigh a half-century, became an important figure, and acquired property. Taylor exercised much influence in his relation to government: a fact indicated by the offer of Under-Secretaryship of State in 1847, which he declined, and by his being knighted in 1869. His employment left him the leisure necessary to carry on his literary work tranquilly, as an avocation. Dramatic writing constitutes the bulk and the best of his efforts. He began when twenty-seven with the play ‘Isaac Comnenus’ (1827), which was not well received. But seven years later, ‘Philip Van Artevelde’ won great success; deservedly, since it is by far his finest production. Other dramas are the historical ‘Edwin the Fair’ (1842), the romantic comedy ‘The Virgin Widow’ (1850), and ‘St. Clement’s Eve’ (1862). His essays on political and literary topics are gathered in the three volumes ‘The Statesman’ (1836), ‘Notes from Life’ (1847), and ‘Notes from Books’ (1849). His non-dramatic verse appears in ‘The Eve of the Conquest, and Other Poems’ (1847), and in ‘A Sicilian Summer, and Minor Poems’ (1868), of which the title-piece is the already noted ‘The Virgin Widow’ under another name.  2
  ‘Philip Van Artevelde’ is a historical drama in two parts, or two five-act plays. Its length alone would preclude its production in a theatre; but in all respects it is a closet drama, to be read rather than enacted upon the stage. It makes use of the fourteenth-century Flemish struggle, in which Van Artevelde was a protagonist; the first play carrying the leader to his height of power, the second conducting him to his downfall and death. Taylor has a feeling for character; he gets the spirit of the age, and writes vigorous blank verse, rising at times to an incisive strength and nobility of diction which suggests the Elizabethans. The sympathetic handling of ‘Philip Van Artevelde’ has been explained by the fact that certain incidents in the Fleming’s career—those having to do with his love—tally with Taylor’s own subjective experiences. ‘Philip Van Artevelde’ is weakest on the purely dramatic side: as a study and description of character in an interesting historical setting, it is admirable,—a drama that can always be read with pleasure. The lyrics it contains show the author at his happiest in this kind.  3
  The works of Sir Henry Taylor were published in five volumes in 1868. His very entertaining biography appeared in 1885, the Correspondence following in 1888. He died on March 28th, 1886, at Bournemouth, where he spent his final days in the sun of general esteem and regard. He had attained to the good old age of nearly eighty-six.  4
 
 
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