Monday, January 4, 2016

Anticipating Romanticism in Jane Shore

In the prologue to his 1714 play Jane Shore, Nicholas Rowe makes some claims that end up being important to the history of British literature. Rowe begins the prologue like this:

          Tonight, if you have brought your good old taste,
          We'll treat you with a downright English feast—
          A tale, which told long since in homely wise,
          Hath never fail'd of melting gentle eyes.

There is nothing terribly new here, but that is part of the point. Rowe is looking backward for inspiration, not just to the history of medieval England for his plot (though that is true too), but to an older style of telling stories. Explicitly defending the ballad tradition, he continues:

          Let no sir despise our hapless dame
          Because recording ballads chant her name:
          Those venerable ancient song-enditers
          Soared many a pitch above our modern writers:
          They caterwauled in no romantic ditty,
          Sighing for Phillis's, or Chloe's pity.

Notice that for Rowe, medieval ballad writers are "ancient." Antiquity is no longer restricted to just the classical Greek and Roman worlds. "Phillis" and "Chloe" it should be noted are both famous names from ancient Greece. Medieval ballads did not just pine after classical heroines, but had their own artistic traditions, every bit as valid as those of classical times.

The critic Christine Baatz considers Rowe's decision to group medieval authors with classical writers (rather than modern ones) to be an important shift in how the British thought about literature. By placing medieval ballads on the same level as the classical writers held up as models, Rowe is implying that these writers do not need to comply with neoclassical rules. He makes this explicit later on in the Prologue, when he discusses Shakespeare:

          In such an age, immortal Shakespeare wrote,
          By no quaint rules nor hampering critics taught;
          With rough majestic force he moved the heart,
          And Strength and Nature made amends for Art.

Though Rowe seems to scorn the idea of a "romantic ditty" he anticipates Romanticism (with a capital "R") in imitating Shakespeare rather than the Greeks or Romans. As he writes in the Prologue:

          Our humble author does his steps pursue;
          He owns he had the mighty Bard in view,
          And in these scenes has made it more his care
          To rouse the passions than to charm the ear.

The idea of rousing "passions" being superior to coming up with clever rhymes also seems to anticipate Romantic writers later in the century. In many ways, Rowe's Jane Shore seems to be ahead of its time.