Monday, July 9, 2012

James Shirley: Poet

James Shirley was born in London in 1596. He belonged to the great period of English dramatic literature, but is sadly known not so much for his genius as he is for simply being "the last of a great race, all of whom spoke nearly the same language and had a set of moral feelings and notions in common." Like many men of his era he wrote both plays and poetry. Shirley was born to great dramatic wealth, and he handled it freely. He constructed his own plots out of the abundance of materials that had been accumulated during thirty years of unexampled dramatic activity. He did not strain after novelty of situation or character, but worked with confident ease and buoyant copiousness on the familiar lines, contriving situations and exhibiting characters after types whose effectiveness on the stage had been proved by ample experience. He spoke the same language with the great dramatists, it is true, but this grand style is sometimes employed for the artificial elevation of commonplace thought. "Clear as day" becomes in this manner "day is not more conspicuous than this cunning"; while the proverb "Still waters run deep" is ennobled into — "The shallow rivers glide away with noise — The deep are silent." The violence and exaggeration of many of his contemporaries left him untouched. His scenes are ingeniously conceived, his characters boldly and clearly drawn; and he never falls beneath a high level of stage effect.

His first poem, Echo, or the Unfortunate Lovers (of which no copy is known, but which is probably the same as Narcissus of 1646), was put to print in 1618 and his first play, Love Tricks, seems to have been written while he was teaching at St Albans. He moved in 1625 to London, where he lived in Gray's Inn, and for eighteen years from that time he was a prolific writer for the stage, producing more than thirty regular plays, tragedies, comedies, and tragicomedies, and showing no sign of exhaustion... until his career was put to a stop by the Puritan edict of 1642 which closed all public theaters.

On the outbreak of the English Civil War he seems to have served with the Earl of Newcastle, but when the King's fortunes began to decline he returned to London. He owed something to the kindness of Thomas Stanley, but supported himself chiefly by teaching -- for he had an M.A. from Cambridge. He published during the period of dramatic eclipse four small volumes of poems and plays, in 1646, 1653, 1655, and 1659. He "was a drudge" for John Ogilby in his translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and survived into the reign of Charles II, but, though some of his comedies were revived, he did not again attempt to write for the stage. Wood says that he and his second wife died of fright and exposure after the Great Fire of London; Only a few deaths from the fire are officially recorded, and deaths are traditionally believed to have been few, but it's acknowledged that some deaths must have gone unrecorded and that besides direct deaths from burning and smoke inhalation, refugees also perished in the impromptu camps and huddled in shacks or living among the ruins that had once been their homes in the cold winter that followed, including James Shirley and his wife. The two of them were buried at St Giles in the Fields on October 29th, 1666.

We've posted two of Shirley's poems before at Gothica Gothique: Death's Final Conquest and Stay, Cupid.

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