Jonathan Strange and the Friends of English Verse Drama

This article was originally published by Blogging Shakespeare.

 ‘This other magic, it will not do, sir.’

– Gilbert Norrell

‘But Shakespear’s Magick could not copy’d be,
Within that Circle none durst walk but he.’

– John Dryden

It’s entirely possible that my thesis is giving me tunnel vision, but the way characters discuss the ‘wild, cruel, medieval’ magic of the Raven King in the BBC’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell series is starting to seem eerily familiar to me. The terms being used are remarkably similar to what writers in the century and a half after the Restoration say about Shakespeare’s poetry.

The ‘magic of the modern age’ championed by Gilbert Norrell in the Regency world of the Susanna Clarke adaptation is defined by its refinement, its restriction, its unwillingness to ‘meddle’ with powerful but dangerous forces. His polite, precise, bookish discrimination is associated with Georgian Englishness, a particular view of national identity which his magic is intended to further in the Napoleonic wars.

Jonathan Strange, by contrast, is something of a Romantic: an untamed and untaught free agent, intent on exploration of the possibilities of the world and the self, the ‘mysteries and dreams of the past’, even if they lead him into madness. Strange draws his inspiration from the half-understood, controversial and dramatically unpredictable showmanship of a lost past master: the Raven King.

These positions are staked out as the show’s key opposition, between modern and ancient magic. But they don’t exist in a vacuum: they arise from a hundred and fifty years of debate about art, poetry, and the powers of the imagination in the real society which inspired the show. These debates – about what English literature, and verse in particular, ought to look like – take shape at least partly in reaction to the legacy left by Shakespeare.

John Dryden, in a Prologue to the version of the The Tempest he co-wrote with William Davenant in 1667, acknowledges his forebear’s talents as different in kind to those of other writers:

But Shakespear’s Magick could not copy’d be,
Within that Circle none durst walk but he.

His praise is mingled with a kind of admonition: such writing is no longer possible in his more enlightened times, and can only be justified by reference to Shakespeare’s elevated (and removed) status:

I must confess ’twas bold, nor would you now,
That liberty to vulgar Wits allow,
Which works by Magick supernatural things:
But Shakespear’s pow’r is sacred as a King’s.

Similarly, the Raven King’s abandonment of England is linked to the demise of an older form of magic. Norrell tells Strange – the vulgar wit whose liberty he repeatedly curbs – that the King’s loss ‘took the best part of English magic with him’, and it isn’t coming back: ‘such magic belongs to an England that is dead. And it is out of our control.’

Scattered throughout Dryden’s commentaries on Shakespeare and drama are concerns about belatedness, lost powers, and control. Praising the use of rhyme over blank verse, he argues that it is necessary because ‘it bounds and circumscribes the fancy. For imagination in a poet is a faculty so wild and lawless, that, like an high-ranging spaniel, it must have clogs tied to it, lest it outrun the judgment.’

Undeniably hilarious though this image of a tied-up (or shoe-wearing) dog might be, it shouldn’t blind us to Dryden’s message: wild and lawless forces can’t be allowed to roam free, because we don’t know what will happen. Shakespeare’s example, as an ‘untaught’ artist, is an especially dangerous one: it isn’t safe for him to be operating this kind of equipment. Dramatic theorist Thomas Rymer also described the ‘fancy’ as ‘wild, vast and unbridled’, and ‘art’ over the following century gradually came to be associated with restraining just this kind of unpredictable, free-flowing force. Playwrights such as Otway and Lee who tended towards older traditions were criticised as undisciplined, drunk on language to the point of madness.

‘Nat Lee, the Mad Poet’

As Scipio comments in James Thomson’s Sophonisba (1730), ‘Real glory/Springs from the silent conquest of ourselves’, and the rational conduct needed to build and manage a global empire was seen partly to spring from self-restraint of the messy, disruptive emotions. The old magic – the unconstrained, liberated imagination – might still be possible, but if so, Norrell says, it would be best for everyone if we ‘let it alone’.

There were moments of nostalgia among this self-assertion, but many works argue that the writers of the present century understand humanity, and poetry, far better than the primitive, barbaric playwrights of ‘the last age’. We have moved on too far to go back now, even if we wanted to. Jonathan Strange’s backward-looking impulse criticises just such aggressive modernity: ‘Surely magic should be magical? Surely magic is to dream? Where is the wonder of England’s past? Of magic’s golden age?’

But in 1714, Alexander Pope mocked Nicholas Rowe for writing his play Jane Shore ‘professedly in Shakspear’s style; that is, professedly in the style of a bad age.’ Faced with this level of cultural resistance, it is easy to imagine writers wondering: what exactly was so ‘bad’ about it? What were the powers and resources they were being denied in the name of propriety and modern English restraint?

By 1769, the tide was turning in favour of Shakespeare, led by David Garrick, the Drury Lane actor-manager who organised a Shakespeare Jubilee in his hometown, Stratford-upon-Avon, complete with Garrick himself reciting an Ode in tribute to this ‘blest genius of the isle’. The association between Shakespeare and Englishness is starting to take shape, though it would go through many further stages of negotiation.

Garrick’s ‘Ode’ is keen to stress the benign nature of Shakespeare’s ‘magic art’. But his anxious caution to diminish the dangerous aspects of the great power of this writing in favour of its wholesome and morally improving qualities tells a slightly different story:

What tho’ with more than mortal art,
Like Neptune he directs the storm,
Lets loose like winds the passions of the heart,
To wreck the human form;
Tho’ from his mind rush forth, the Demons to destroy,
His heart ne’er knew but love, and gentleness, and joy.

‘What tho” indeed. There seems to be a genuine concern about what might happen

When our Magician, more inspir’d,
By charms, and spells, and incantations fir’d,
Exerts his most tremendous pow’r …

The greatest fanboy of the 18th century wishes that his poetry could even begin to imitate Shakespeare’s, but in describing the power that his idol possesses, something strange happens in the picture Garrick is painting:

O from his muse of fire
Could but one spark be caught,
Then might these humble strains aspire,
To tell the wonders he has wrought.
To tell,—how sitting on his magic throne,
Unaided and alone,

In dreadful state,
The subject passions round him wait;
Who tho’ unchain’d, and raging there,
He checks, inflames, or turns their mad career;
With that superior skill,
Which winds the fiery steel at will,
He gives the aweful word—
And they, all foaming, trembling, own him for their Lord.

With these his slaves he can controul,
Or charm the soul …

For a moment, the most renowned poet in English history doesn’t sound quite as benevolent and uplifting a national symbol as Garrick might hope. Sitting on his demonic throne, surrounded by foaming minions whose dark forces he can unleash at will, he doesn’t sound a lot like a friend to England, or even a friend of English magic. He sounds a lot more like the Raven King.

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