London, April 23, 1837
Paracelsus found an enthusiastic reader in the actor Macready, who begged Browning to write him a play, even suggesting the subject to him, which did not awaken the poet’s interest. More than a year passed, when the two met at a supper given by Macready after the successful presentation of Talfourd’s Ion. As the guests were leaving, Macready said to Browning: “Write a play, Browning, and keep me from going to America.” “Shall it be historical and English?” replied Browning. “What do you say to a drama on Strafford?” and the poet now had his subject. His choice is readily explained by the fact that he was at this time helping his friend John Forster with his Life of Strafford contained in Lives of Eminent British Statesmen. Indeed, Mr. Furnivall says without hesitation that the agreement of the Strafford of the play with the Strafford of Forster’s biography is due to the fact that Browning wrote the whole of the Life of Strafford after the first seven paragraphs.
When the play was rehearsing Browning gave Macready a lilt which he had composed for the children’s song in Act V. It was not used, because the two children who were to sing wished a more pretentious song. The lilt which Browning composed was purposely no more than a crooning measure. He afterward gave it to Miss Hickey for her special edition of Strafford, and it is reproduced here in its place. The following is Browning’s preface to the first edition: —
“I had for some time been engaged in a Poem of a very different nature, when induced to make the present attempt; and am not without apprehension that my eagerness to freshen a jaded mind by diverting it to the healthy natures of a grand epoch, may have operated unfavorably on the represented play, which is one of Action in Character, rather than Character in Action. To remedy this, in some degree, considerable curtailment will be necessary, and, in a few instances, the supplying details not required, I suppose, by the mere reader. While a trifling success would much gratify, failure will not wholly discourage me from another effort: experience is to come; and earnest endeavor may yet remove many disadvantages.
“The portraits are, I think, faithful; and I am exceedingly fortunate in being able, in proof of this, to refer to the subtle and eloquent exposition of the characters of Eliot and Strafford, in the Lives of Eminent British Statesmen, now in the course of publication in Lardner’s Cyclopedia, by a writer [John Forster] whom I am proud to call my friend; and whose biographies of Hampden, Pym, and Vane, will, I am sure, fitly illustrate the present year — the Second Centenary of the Trial concerning Ship-Money. My Carlisle, however, is purely imaginary: I at first sketched her singular likeness roughly in, as suggested by Matthews and the memoir-writers — but it was too artificial, and the substituted outline is exclusively from Voiture and Waller.
“The Italian boat-song in the last scene is from Redi’s ‘Bacco,’ long since naturalized in the joyous and delicate version of Leigh Hunt.”
Earl of Holland.
Sir Henry Vane.
Wentworth, Viscount Wentworth, Earl of Strafford.
The younger Vane.
Earl of Loudon.
Maxwell, Usher of the Black Rod.
Balfour, Constable of the Tower.
Lucy Percy, Countess of Carlisle.
Presbyterians, Scots Commissioners, Adherents of Strafford, Secretaries, Officers of the Court, etc.
Two of Stafford’s Children.
Vane. I say, if he be here —
Rudyard. (And he is here!) —
Hollis. For England’s sake let every man be still
Nor speak of him, so much as say his name,
Till Pym rejoin us! Rudyard! Henry Vane!
One rash conclusion may decide our course
And with it England’s fate — think — England’s fate!
Hampden, for England’s sake they should be still!
Vane. You say so, Hollis? Well, I must be still.
It is indeed too bitter that one man,
Any one man’s mere presence, should suspend
England’s combined endeavor: little need
To name him!