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CYRIL TOURNEUR (1575-1626)

The following article is reprinted from Chambers's Cyclopædia of English Literature. Ed. David Patrick. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1902.

English dramatist Cyril Tourneur was possibly the son of Richard Turnor, Lieutenant of the Brill (the Dutch having in 1585 agreed to a temporary English occupation of Briel and Flushing), served in the Low Countries, was secretary to Cecil in the Cadiz expedition, was put ashore sick at Kinsale on his return, and died in Ireland, February 28, 1626, leaving his widow destitute.

In 1600 he published his Transformed Metamorphosis (discovered in 1872), a satirical poem, marred by pedantic affectations; in 1609 a Funeral Poem on the English governor of the Brill; in 1613 an Elegy on Prince Henry. His fame rests on two plays, The Revenger's Tragedy, printed in 1607, and the (earlier and poorer) Atheist's Tragedy, printed in 1611. The Revenger's Tragedy, an appalling tale of all the unholy passions, shows tragic intensity, condensed passion, fiery strength of phrase, cynical and bitter mockery. Hazlitt compared it to Webster's work; Fleay (without due reason) thought it was Webster's; Mr. Swinburne, who eulogizes this as Tourneur's own masterpiece, says the only other dramatist's work it resembles is Shakespeare's. Charles Lamb could never read it but his ears tingled. Ward, while admitting the tragic power of the play, says, almost with Swinburne's vehemence, that its plot "is in its sewer-like windings one of the blackest and most polluting devised by the perverted imagination of an age prone to feed on the worst scandals of the Italian decadence," and that it is "pruriency steeped in horrors." Mr. Addington Symonds is equally decided, and calls it "an entangled web of lust, incest, fratricide, rape, adultery, mutual suspicion, hate, and bloodshed."

The Atheist's Tragedy is less revolting, but has enough and to spare of unnatural wickedness, besides being crude and ill-constructed. The wicked uncle helps his nephew off to the wars in order that he may murder his brother, the good lord, at his leisure, and secure the rich heiress, his nephew's betrothed, for his contemptible son. He hires an assassin to murder the excellent and unsuspicious brother, and apparently simply to torment the father's heart before his murder, suborns the murderer as a disguised soldier to bring the perfectly false intelligence that the son is dead. In mere superfluity of naughtiness the women seek their own dishonour, and a stage "Puritan" eagerly agrees to carry out every villainy proposed to him. To one of his victims the worst villain of the piece, the uncle, says (explaining the title beforehand):

No? Then invoke
Your great supposed protector. I will do 't.

To which the victim rather inconsequently replies:

Supposed protector! Are ye an atheist? then
I know my prayers and tears are spent in vain.

It is significant that the passage which seems to contain the only really true and tender touch in The Atheist's Tragedy is the speech of the assassin, disguised as a soldier from the wars, telling the noble Montferrers the base lie about his son's death:

BORACHIO: The enemy, defeated of a fair
Advantage by a flatt'ring stratagem,
Plants all the artillery against the town;
Whose thunder and lightning made our bulwarks shake,
And threatened in that terrible report
The storm wherewith they meant to second it.
The assault was general. But, for the place
That promised most advantage to be forced,
The pride of all their army was drawn forth
And equally divided into front
And rear. They marched, and coming to a stand,
Ready to pass our channel at an ebb,
We advised it for our safest course, to draw
Our sluices up and mak 't impassable.
Our governor opposed and suffered them
To charge us home e'en to the rampier's foot.
But when their front was forcing up our breach
At push o' pike, then did his policy
Let go the sluices, and tripped up the heels
Of the whole body of their troop that stood
Within the violent current of the stream.
Their front, beleaguered 'twixt the water and
The town, seeing the flood was grown too deep
To promise them a safe retreat, exposed
The force of all their spirits (like the last
Expiring gasp of a strong-hearted man)
Upon the hazard of one charge, but were
Oppressed, and fell. The rest that could not swim
Were only drowned; but those that thought to 'scape
By swimming were by murderers that flanked
The level of the flood, both drowned and slain....
Walking next day upon the fatal shore,
Among the slaughtered bodies of their men
Which the full stomached sea had cast upon
The sands, it was my unhappy chance to light
Upon a face whose favour, when it lived,
My astonished mind informed me I had seen.
He lay in his armour, as if that had been
His coffin; and the weeping sea, like one
Whose milder temper doth lament the death
Of him whom in his rage he slew, runs up
The shore, embraces him, kisses his cheek;
Goes back again, and forces up the sands
To bury him; and every time it parts,
Sheds tears upon him; till at last, as if
It could no longer endure to see the man
Whom it had slain, yet loath to leave him--with
A kind of unresolved unwilling pace,
Winding her waves one in another like
A man that folds his arms, or wrings his hands,
For grief--ebbed from his body, and descends;
As if it would sink down into the earth,
And hide itself for shame of such a deed.

From the same play comes the quaintly antithetical but pleasing 'Epitaph of Charlemont,' quite unlike Tourneur's usual thought or diction:

His body lies interr'd within this mould
Who died a young man yet departed old.
And all that strength of youth that man can have
Was ready still to drop into his grave;
Far ag'd in Virtue, with a youthful eye,
He welcom'd it, being still prepared to die;
And living so, though young depriv'd of breath,
He did not suffer an untimely death;
But we may say of his brave bless'd decease,
He died in war and yet he died in peace.

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