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468

EARLY LIFE OF KNOWLES,

CHAPTER VI.

SHERIDAN KNOWLES.

Born 1784 A.D....

..Died 1862 A.D.

The modern drama.
Early life.
Hazlitt's help.
Goes on the stage.
At Waterford.

Chief plays
Pensioned
Preaching
Poetic style.
Illustrative extract

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ALTHOUGH the English drama has fallen from its high estate, a few men still remind us in this nineteenth century that we aro the countrymen of Shakspere, of Jonson, and of Massinger. Among such may be named Sheridan Knowles, the author of Virginius; Henry Taylor, the author of Philip van Artevelde; and Thomas Noon Talfourd, the author of Ion. That dramatic writing may not be entirely without a representative name in this last era of our literary history, we take the first and most prolific of these dramatists as the subject of a brief sketch.

James Sheridan Knowles was born in the year 1784, in Anne Street, Cork. His father was an English master and teacher of elocution there. During the boyhood of the dramatist the family removed to London, where the spirit of poetry began to stir in his heart, when he was about twelve years old. Writing a play for his boy friends, he conducted the performance hinself. Then came from the new-fledged pen an opera, a ballad called The Welsh Harper, and a Spanish tragedy. But what more than all gave the genius of young Knowles its decided literary bent, was the notice with which the distinguished critic Hazlitt honoured him. Many a clever boy has written plays and poems at twelve or fourteen without turning ont a Sheridan Knowles. Hazlitt, however, brought the boy to his house, made him known to Coleridge and to Lamb, and did him the invaluable

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kindness of criticising his juvenile productions, and cultivating his dramatic tastes.

It was in the Crow Street Theatre of Dublin that Knowles made his debut upon the stage. He did not take with the audience; in fact, his first appearance was an utter failure. Yet we find him persevering in his efforts to be an actor; and it was well for his fame that he did persevere, for his stage-experience must have greatly aided him in the preparation of his popular dramas. Conjoining, as did his far greater prototype Shakspere, the occupations of actor and dramatic author, he knew, from daily habit and observation, what was required to make a play tell upon

the house. None but a practical teacher can produce a thoroughly good and useful school-book; and, granting bim to possess the requisite brains, we may reaso

sonably expect the actor to produce a more cffective play than the working lawyer, or the author who never leaves his desk.

In a theatrical company at Waterford, to which Knowles was .for some time attached, he met Edmund Kean, who filled the principal part in his first acted play, called Leo the Gipsy. There, too, the publication of a small volume of poems, entitled Fugitive Pieces, brought the literary struggler a little money and some reputation.

But Belfast was the opening scene of his decided success in the walk he had chosen. While engaged there as a teacher of elocution and grammar, he produced a drama called Brian Boroihme, which was received in the local theatre with enthusiastic applause. And then came the first of his great plays, Caius Gracchus. 1815 Spurred on by success, for which he had long been battling and hoping, he continued his dramatic authorship. Virginius was the next production of his facile pen. Though offered to Kean-indeed it is said to have been written at his request it was not first acted at Drury Lane, but came out under less favourable auspices in Glasgow. There it had a most success

Macready soon got hold of it, studied it, played it, and made his own fortune and the fame of Knowles. According to the opinion of Hazlitt, the author's old friend and mental father

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470

LATER LIFE OF KNOWLES.

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no mean authority on a point of dramatic criticism – “Virginius” was Macready's greatest character. William Tell; The Beggar of Bethnal Green; The Hunchback; The Wife, a Tale of Mantua; Love ; and several other popular and successful plays, added, during the next twenty-three years, to the fame that Knowles had already won. In many of these he played the leading character himself. Crossing the Atlantic in 1836, he found in America the warmest welcome and the kindest appreciation of his professional talent.

When his health began to fail, application having been made to the Government by a number of dramatic authors, and also by some Glasgow merchants, a pension of £200 a year was granted to him in 1849.

Since the close of his professional life he has written a couple of novels, of which we shall say no more than that they are unworthy of his earlier fame; and has also displayed his controversial power in two works, The Rock of Rome, and The Idol. Demolished by its own Priest. So long as his health permitted, he acted in his later years as a lay preacher of the Baptist persuasion; and after some time of decaying strength he died at Tor

quay in 1862.

The dramatic style of Sheridan Knowles was modelled after the Elizabethan plays, especially those of Philip Massinger. And

ere, with all our admiration for the effectiveness and artistic construction of Virginius and Tell, we must confess that the model seems at times to peep out too plainly, and that we would rather have Knowles writing in his own proper and natural manner than be obliged to look upon him sometimes as a second-hand Massinger, revived on the stage of the nineteenth century, but speaking after the fashion of those days when the Globe and the Rose were in all their primitive glory. The poetry of Knowles is not of the intense school, but "sparkles through his plays, mildly and agreeably; seldom impeding with useless glitter the progress and development of incident and character, but mingling itself with them, and raising them pleasantly above the prosaic level of common life.”

SPECIMEN OF KNOWLES' VERST,

471

FROM "WILLIAM TELL."

Scaling yonder peak,
I saw an eagle wheeling near its brow,
O'er the abyss. His broad expanded wings
Lay calm and motionless upon the air,
As if he floated there, without their aid,
By the sole act of his unlorded will,
That buoyed him proudly up. Instinctively
I bent my bow: yet kept he rounding still
His airy circle, as in the delight
Of measuring the ample range beneath
And round about; absorbed, he heeded not
The death that threatened him. I could not shoot-
'Twas Liberty! I turned my bow aside,
And let him soar away.

Ileavens! with what pride I used
To walk these hills, and look up to my God,
And think the land was free. Yes, it was free-
From end to end, from cliff to lake, 'twas free-
Free as our torrents are that leap our rocks
And plough our valleys without asking leave;
Or as our peaks that wear their caps of snow
In very presence of the regal sun.
How happy was I then! I loved
Its very storms. Yes, I have often sat
In my boat at night, when midway o'er the lake-
The stars went out, and down the mountain-gorge
The wind came roaring. I have sat and eyed
The thunder breaking from his cloud, and smiled
To see him shake his lightnings o'er any head,
And think I had no master save his own.
--On the wild jutting cliff, o'ertaken oft
By the mountain-blast, I've laid me flat along;
And while gust followed gust more furiously,
As if to sweep me o'er the horrid brink,
Then I have thought of other lands, whose storms
Are summer flaws to those of mine, and just
Have wished me there;—the thought that mine was frco
Has checked that wish; and I have raised my head,
And cried in thraldom to that furious wind,
Blow on!-this is the land of Liberty !

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472

EARLY LIFE OF TENNYSON.

CHAPTER VII.

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ALFRED TENNYSON.

Born 1810 A.D...........

Still living, 1869 A.D.

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Made Laureatc.
Maud.
Idylls of the King.
Illustrative extract,

whose pure

Not always has the Laurel been given to him most worthy of that royal honour; but when the reverend brow of Wordswortlı drooped in death, there was none fitter to succeed “the old man cloquent” than the English gentleman who now wears the wreath. . By consent of all, Alfred Tennyson stands at the head of English poets in the passing generation. In his own department of literature he is the representative man of the age—caressed by critics, admired by all, imitated by not a few. Rare are the poems published now-a-days untouched with the light of this master-mind,

and steady radiance has been diffusing itself in everwidening circles for more than thirty years.

A Lincolnshire clergyman, rector of Somersby, had three sons—Frederick, Charles, and Alfred. All have written poetry, the third and greatest of the three being the present Laureate. Tennyson's poetic career may be said to have begun in 1829, when, as an undergraduate of Trinity College, Cambridge, he won the Chancellor's medal for a poem in English blank-verse upon the somewhat unpromising theme of Timbuctoo. About the same time he joined his brother Charles in the publication of Poems by two Brothers. But in 1830 a bolder step was taken. A Cornhill publisher

announced a modest volume, bearing on its title-page the 1830

words Poems, chiefly Lyrical, by Alfred Tennyson, in which

such pieces as Mariana in the Moated Grange, Claribel, and The Ballad of Oriana, showed that a minstrel of brilliant

A.D.

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