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John Ford Biography | Poet

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FORD, JOHN (1586-c. 1640), English dramatist, was baptized on the 17th of April 1586 at Ilsington in north Devon. He came of a good family; his father was in the commission of the peace and his mother was a sister of Sir John Popham, successively attorney-general and lord chief justice. The name of John Ford appears in the university register of Oxford as matriculating at Exeter College in 1601. Like a cousin and namesake (to whom, with other members of the society of Gray’s Inn, he dedicated his play of The Lover’s Melancholy), the future dramatist entered the profession of the law, being admitted of the Middle Temple in 1602; but he seems never to have been called to the bar. Four years afterwards he made his first appearance as an author with an elegy called Fame’s Memorial, or the Earl of Devonshire deceased, and dedicated to the widow of the earl (Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy, “coronized,” to use Ford’s expression, by King James in 1603 for his services in Ireland)—a lady who would have been no unfitting heroine for one of his own tragedies of lawless passion, the famous Penelope, formerly Lady Rich. This panegyric, which is accompanied by a series of epitaphs and is composed in a strain of fearless extravagance, was, as the author declares, written “unfee’d”; it shows that Ford sympathized, as Shakespeare himself is supposed to have done, with the “awkward fate” of the countess’s brother, the earl of Essex. Who the “flint-hearted Lycia” may be, to whom the poet seems to allude as his own disdainful mistress, is unknown; indeed, the record of Ford’s private life is little better than a blank. To judge, however, from the dedications, prologues and epilogues of his various plays, he seems to have enjoyed the patronage of the earl, afterwards duke, of Newcastle, “himself a muse” after a fashion, and Lord Craven, the supposed husband of the ex-queen of Bohemia. Ford’s tract of Honor Triumphant, or the Peeres Challenge (printed 1606 and reprinted by the Shakespeare Society with the Line of Life, in 1843), and the simultaneously published verses The Monarches Meeting, or the King of Denmarkes Welcome into England, exhibit him as occasionally meeting the festive demands of court and nobility; and a kind of moral essay by him, entitled A Line of Life (printed 1620), which contains references to Raleigh, ends with a climax of fulsome praise to the address of King James I. Yet at least one of Ford’s plays (The Broken Heart, iii. 4) contains an implied protest against the absolute system of government generally accepted by the dramatists of the early Stuart reigns. Of his relations with his brother-authors little is known; it was natural that he should exchange complimentary verses with James Shirley, and that he should join in the chorus of laments over the death of Ben Jonson. It is more interesting to notice an epigram in honour of Ford by Richard Crashaw, morbidly passionate in one direction as Ford was in another. The lines run:

“Thou cheat’st us, Ford; mak’st one seem two by art:

What is Love’s Sacrifice but the Broken Heart?”

It has been concluded that in the latter part of his life he gratified the tendency to seclusion for which he was ridiculed in The Time Poets (Choice Drollery, 1656) by withdrawing from business and from literary life in London, to his native place; but nothing is known as to the date of his death. His career as a dramatist very probably began by collaboration with other authors. With Thomas Dekker he wrote The Fairy Knight and The Bristowe Merchant (licensed in 1624, but both unpublished), with John Webster A late Murther of the Sonne upon the Mother (licensed in 1624). A play entitled An ill Beginning has a good End, brought on the stage as early as 1613 and attributed to Ford, was (if his) his earliest acted play; whether Sir Thomas Overbury’s Life and untimely Death (1615) was a play is extremely doubtful; some lines of indignant regret by Ford on the same subject are still preserved. He is also said to have written, at dates unknown, The London Merchant (which, however, was an earlier name for Beaumont and Fletcher’s Knight of the Burning Pestle) and The Royal Combat; a tragedy by him, Beauty in a Trance, was entered in the Stationers’ Register in 1653, but never printed. These three (or four) plays were among those destroyed by Warburton’s cook. The Queen, or the Excellency of the Sea, a play of inverted passion, containing some fine sensuous lines, printed in 1653 by Alexander Singhe for private performance, has been recently edited by W. Bang (Materialien zur Kunde d. älteren engl. Dramas, 13, Louvain, 1906), and is by him on internal evidence confidently claimed as Ford’s. Of the plays by Ford preserved to us the dates span little more than a decade—the earliest, The Lover’s Melancholy, having been acted in 1628 and printed in 1629, the latest, The Lady’s Trial, acted in 1638 and printed in 1639.

When writing The Lover’s Melancholy, it would seem that Ford had not yet become fully aware of the bent of his own dramatic genius, although he was already master of his powers of poetic expression. He was attracted towards domestic tragedy by an irresistible desire to sound the depths of abnormal conflicts between passion and circumstances, to romantic comedy by a strong though not widely varied imaginative faculty, and by a delusion that he was possessed of abundant comic humour. In his next two works, undoubtedly those most characteristically expressive of his peculiar strength, ’Tis Pity she’s a Whore (acted c. 1626) and The Broken Heart (acted c. 1629), both printed in 1633 with the anagram of his nameFide Honor, he had found horrible situations which required dramatic explanation by intensely powerful motives. Ford by no means stood alone among English dramatists in his love of abnormal subjects; but few were so capable of treating them sympathetically, and yet without that reckless grossness or extravagance of expression which renders the morally repulsive aesthetically intolerable, or converts the horrible into the grotesque. For in Ford’s genius there was real refinement, except when the “supra-sensually sensual” impulse or the humbler self-delusion referred to came into play. In a third tragedy, Love’s Sacrifice (acted c. 1630; printed in 1633), he again worked on similar materials; but this time he unfortunately essayed to base the interest of his plot upon an unendurably unnatural possibility—doing homage to virtue after a fashion which is in itself an insult. In Perkin Warbeck (printed 1634; probably acted a year later) he chose an historical subject of great dramatic promise and psychological interest, and sought to emulate the glory of the great series of Shakespeare’s national histories. The effort is one of the most laudable, as it was by no means one of the least successful, in the dramatic literature of this period. The Fancies Chaste and Noble (acted before 1636, printed 1638), though it includes scenes of real force and feeling, is dramatically a failure, of which the main idea is almost provokingly slight and feeble; and The Lady’s Trial (acted 1638, printed 1639) is only redeemed from utter wearisomeness by an unusually even pleasingness of form. There remain two other dramatic works, of very different kinds, in which Ford co-operated with other writers, the mask of The Sun’s Darling (acted 1624, printed 1657), hardly to be placed in the first rank of early compositions, and The Witch of Edmonton (printed 1658, but probably acted about 1621), in which we see Ford as a joint writer with Dekker and Rowley of one of the most powerful domestic dramas of the English or any other stage.

A few notes may be added on some of the more remarkable of the plays enumerated. A wholly baseless anecdote, condensed into a stinging epigram by Endymion Porter, asserted that The Lover’s Melancholy was stolen by Ford from Shakespeare’s papers. Undoubtedly, the madness of the hero of this play of Ford’s occasionally recalls Hamlet, while the heroine is one of the many, and at the same time one of the most pleasing, parallels to Viola. But neither of them is a copy, as Friar Bonaventura in Ford’s second play may be said to be a copy of Friar Lawrence, whose kindly pliability he disagreeably exaggerates, or as D’Avolos in Love’s Sacrifice is clearly modelled on Iago. The plot of The Lover’s Melancholy, which is ineffective because it leaves no room for suspense in the mind of 642the reader, seems original; in the dialogue, on the other hand, a justly famous passage in Act i. (the beautiful version of the story of the nightingale’s death) is translated from Strada; while the scheme of the tedious interlude exhibiting the various forms of madness is avowedly taken, together with sundry comments, from Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. Already in this play Ford exhibits the singular force of his pathos; the despondent misery of the aged Meleander, and the sweetness of the last scene, in which his daughter comes back to him, alike go to the heart. A situation—hazardous in spite of its comic substratum—between Thaumasta and the pretended Parthenophil is conducted, as Gifford points out, with real delicacy; but the comic scenes are merely stagy, notwithstanding, or by reason of, the effort expended on them by the author.

’Tis Pity she’s a Whore has been justly recognized as a tragedy of extraordinary power. Mr Swinburne, in his eloquent essay on Ford, has rightly shown what is the meaning of this tragedy, and has at the same time indicated wherein consists its poison. He dwells with great force upon the different treatment applied by Ford to the characters of the two miserable lovers—brother and sister. “The sin once committed, there is no more wavering or flinching possible to him, who has fought so hard against the demoniac possession; while she who resigned body and soul to the tempter, almost at a word, remains liable to the influences of religion and remorse.” This different treatment shows the feeling of the poet—the feeling for which he seeks to evoke our inmost sympathy—to oscillate between the belief that an awful crime brings with it its awful punishment (and it is sickening to observe how the argument by which the Friar persuades Annabella to forsake her evil courses mainly appeals to the physical terrors of retribution), and the notion that there is something fatal, something irresistible, and therefore in a sense self-justified, in so dominant a passion. The key-note to the conduct of Giovanni lies in his words at the close of the first scene—

“All this I’ll do, to free me from the rod

Of vengeance; else I’ll swear my fate’s my god.”

Thus there is no solution of the conflict between passion on the one side, and law, duty and religion on the other; and passion triumphs, in the dying words of “the student struck blind and mad by passion”—

“O, I bleed fast!

Death, thou’rt a guest long look’d for; I embrace

Thee and thy wounds: O, my last minute comes!

Where’er I go, let me enjoy this grace

Freely to view my Annabella’s face.”

It has been observed by J.A. Symonds that “English poets have given us the right key to the Italian temperament.... The love of Giovanni and Annabella is rightly depicted as more imaginative than sensual.” It is difficult to allow the appositeness of this special illustration; on the other hand, Ford has even in this case shown his art of depicting sensual passion without grossness of expression; for the exception in Annabella’s language to Soranzo seems to have a special intention, and is true to the pressure of the situation and the revulsion produced by it in a naturally weak and yielding mind. The entire atmosphere, so to speak, of the play is stifling, and is not rendered less so by the underplot with Hippolita.

’Tis Pity she’s a Whore was translated into French by Maurice Maeterlinck under the title of Annabella, and represented at the Théâtre de l’Œuvre in 1894. The translator prefixes to the version an eloquent appreciation of Ford’s genius, especially in his portraits of women, whose fate it is to live “dans les ténèbres, les craintes et les larmes.”

Like this tragedy, The Broken Heart was probably founded upon some Italian or other novel of the day; but since in the latter instance there is nothing revolting in the main idea of the subject, the play commends itself as the most enjoyable, while, in respect of many excellences, an unsurpassed specimen of Ford’s dramatic genius. The complicated plot is constructed with greater skill than is usual with this dramatist, and the pathos of particular situations, and of the entire character of Penthea—a woman doomed to hopeless misery, but capable of seeking to obtain for her brother a happiness which his cruelty has condemned her to forego—has an intensity and a depth which are all Ford’s own. Even the lesser characters are more pleasing than usual, and some beautiful lyrics are interspersed in the play.

Of the other plays written by Ford alone, only The Chronicle Historie of Perkin Warbeck. A Strange Truth, appears to call for special attention. A repeated perusal of this drama suggests the judgment that it is overpraised when ranked at no great distance from Shakespeare’s national dramas. Historical truth need not be taken into consideration in the matter; and if, notwithstanding James Gairdner’s essay appended to his Life and Reign of Richard III., there are still credulous persons left to think and assert that Perkin was not an impostor, they will derive little satisfaction from Ford’s play, which with really surprising skill avoids the slightest indication as to the poet’s own belief on the subject. That this tragedy should have been reprinted in 1714 and acted in 1745 only shows that the public, as is often the case, had an eye to the catastrophe rather than to the development of the action. The dramatic capabilities of the subject are, however, great, and it afterwards attracted Schiller, who, however, seems to have abandoned it in favour of the similar theme of the Russian Demetrius. Had Shakespeare treated it, he would hardly have contented himself with investing the hero with the nobility given by Ford to this personage of his play,—for it is hardly possible to speak of a personage as a character when the clue to his conduct is intentionally withheld. Nor could Shakespeare have failed to bring out with greater variety and distinctness the dramatic features in Henry VII., whom Ford depicts with sufficient distinctness to give some degree of individuality to the figure, but still with a tenderness of touch which would have been much to the credit of the dramatist’s skill had he been writing in the Tudor age. The play is, however, founded on Bacon’s Life, of which the text is used by Ford with admirable discretion, and on Thomas Gainsford’s True and Wonderful History of Perkin Warbeck(1618). The minor characters of the honest old Huntley, whom the Scottish king obliges to bestow his daughter’s hand upon Warbeck, and of her lover the faithful “Dalyell,” are most effectively drawn; even “the men of judgment,” the adventurers who surround the chief adventurer, are spirited sketches, and the Irishman among them has actually some humour; while the style of the play is, as befits a “Chronicle History,” so clear and straightforward as to make it easy as well as interesting to read.

The Witch of Edmonton was attributed by its publisher to William Rowley, Dekker, Ford, “&c.,” but the body of the play has been generally held to be ascribable to Ford and Dekker only. The subject of the play was no doubt suggested by the case of the reported witch, Elizabeth Sawyer, who was executed in 1621. Swinburne agrees with Gifford in thinking Ford the author of the whole of the first act; and he is most assuredly right in considering that “there is no more admirable exposition of a play on the English stage.” Supposing Dekker to be chiefly responsible for the scenes dealing with the unfortunate old woman whom persecution as a witch actually drives to become one, and Ford for the domestic tragedy of the bigamist murderer, it cannot be denied that both divisions of the subject are effectively treated, while the more important part of the task fell to the share of Ford. Yet it may be doubted whether any such division can be safely assumed; and it may suffice to repeat that no domestic tragedy has ever taught with more effective simplicity and thrilling truthfulness the homely double lesson of the folly of selfishness and the mad rashness of crime.

With Dekker Ford also wrote the mask of The Sun’s Darling; or, as seems most probable, they founded this production upon Phaeton, an earlier mask, of which Dekker had been sole author. Gifford holds that Dekker’s hand is perpetually traceable in the first three acts of The Sun’s Darling, and through the whole of its comic part, but that the last two acts are mainly Ford’s. If so, he is the author of the rather forced occasional tribute on the accession of King Charles I., of which the last act largely consists. This mask, which furnished abundant opportunities for the decorators, musicians and dancers, in showing forth how the seasons and their delights are successively exhausted by a “wanton darling,” Raybright the grandchild of the Sun, is said to have been very popular. It is at the same time commonplace enough in conception; but there is much that is charming in the descriptions, Jonson and Lyly being respectively laid under contribution in the course of the dialogue, and in one of the incidental lyrics.

Ford owes his position among English dramatists to the intensity of his passion, in particular scenes and passages where the character, the author and the reader are alike lost in the situation and in the sentiment evoked by it; and this gift is a supreme dramatic gift. But his plays—with the exception of The Witch of Edmonton, in which he doubtless had a prominent share—too often disturb the mind like a bad dream which ends as an unsolved dissonance; and this defect is a supreme dramatic defect. It is not the rigid or the stolid who have the most reason to complain of the insufficiency of tragic poetry such as Ford’s; nor is it that morality only which, as Ithocles says in The Broken Heart, “is formed of books and school-traditions,” which has a right to protest against the final effect of the most powerful creations of his genius. There is a morality which both

“Keeps the soul in tune,

At whose sweet music all our actions dance,”

and is able to physic

“The sickness of a mind

Broken with griefs.”

Of that morality—or of that deference to the binding power within man and the ruling power above him—tragedy is the truest expounder, even when it illustrates by contrasts; but the tragic poet who merely places the problem before us, and bids us stand aghast with him at its cruelty, is not to be reckoned among the great masters of a divine art.


Bibliography.—The best edition of Ford is that by Gifford, with notes and introduction, revised with additions to both text and notes by Alexander Dyce (1869). An edition of the Dramatic Works of Massinger and Ford appeared in 1840, with an introduction by Hartley Coleridge.The Best Plays of Ford were edited for the “Mermaid Series” in 1888, with an introduction by W.H. Havelock Ellis, and reissued in 1903. A.C. Swinburne’s “Essay on Ford” is reprinted among his Essays and Studies (1875). Perkin Warbeck and ’Tis Pity were translated into German by F. Bodenstedt in 1860; and the latter again by F. Blei in 1904. The probable sources of the various plays are discussed in Emil Koeppel’sQuellenstudien zu den Dramen George Chapman’s, Philip Massinger’s und John Ford’s (1897).


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