The life of Dryden has been given to the world by two of the greatest of English writers. The triumphs and sufferings of that literary career have been recorded by Dr. Johnson and Sir Walter Scott, and upon the genius and writings of this poet some of the best essays in the language have been penned.
In succeeding such biographers there can be but little to perform, and yet how difficult that little! What remains for us but to compile from their narratives a short memoir of the Laureate; and in doing so to avail ourselves of the few more recent materials that exist—to collect some scattered notices—and to add some criticism upon his genius and character?
It is trite to tell any well-informed reader that Dryden was satirist, dramatist, didactic poet, essayist, translator, controversialist, and critic; that he was the monarch of his own age, and the idol of the first men of the next; that his life is the history of half a century; and that he is at once the glory and the shame of our literature.
To classify the sons of genius has always been a difficult task; but to him has been justly assigned the first place in the second rank of our poets. We dare not compare even his rich endowments with Shakespeare's almost omniscience of human character, and profound penetration into the mysteries of the human heart. Spenser must remain the Lord of Allegory. Still farther is Dryden removed from the celestial purity and holy grandeur of Milton. With the satirist and dramatist of the Restoration we cannot breathe the serene atmosphere of the Empyrean, listen to the voices of angel-visitants of Eden, climb the flaming battlements of the universe, or sit at the council-table of Heaven. It may be said of Dryden:
"He was the Bard, who knew so well
All the sweet windings of Apollo's shell;"
but however sweet the notes, however brilliant the execution, those strains will bear no comparison to the holy harmonies in which seems to have been echoed through all eternity the symphonious chorus of joy and rapture hymned by triumphant hierarchies on the morn of creation.
Without raising the question of the extent to which worth, moral or intellectual, be connected with birth, it may be remarked that Dryden was a man of what is called good family. His grandfather was a baronet. The poet was born in 1630, and his father Erasmus had no occasion on Scriptural ground to be ashamed to meet his enemy at the gates, for he had thirteen children besides John. Mr. Malone's industry has made some discoveries about some of them, but brought nothing very important to light. Perhaps the longevity of one was the most remarkable thing in connection with them. This was the sister who, in spite of her ancient lineage, stooped to marry a tobacconist, and lived to the age of ninety, surviving the poet twenty years.
It is said that the family were Anabaptists, but great doubt hangs over the question. The destruction of a parish register leaves us to mere conjecture on the subject, and induces us to remark that those records have been so carelessly kept, even in later times, that much valuable information is lost by the wanton negligence evinced in the custody of what are the title-deeds of the humbler classes of the community. There is no doubt that the poet's early opinions were tinged with Puritanism, and that he had some hopes of patronage and promotion while that party was in power. Tichmarsh was the place which lays claim to being the scene of his childish days. He was thence removed to Westminster, where he was placed on the foundation. This justly famous school was then under the management of Dr. Busby of flogging notoriety.
We find that, as in the case of Ben Jonson and Camden, at the same place of education, the friendship between master and pupil was strengthened by time. Dryden sent his sons to Westminster; and a letter, in which he wrote to the Doctor to complain of some harsh treatment which one of them had received, is most respectful in its language. It was here that he gave an early proof of his talents for versifying and translation, for he tells us in his preface to "Persius," that he had, when a boy at Westminster, translated the third satire, as a Thursday night's exercise, for the head master; and he adds that the Doctor was still probably in possession of that and others of his earliest poetical essays. They are now, at the school, justly proud of "glorious John " as an "Old Westminster," and his name is still shown carved on a desk in the shell form, it is said, by his own hand.
When the choice came, it fell to Dryden's lot to go up as scholar to Trinity, Cambridge, and not Christ Church, Oxford. What his feelings were at the time, we have no power of ascertaining; but he doubtless afterwards regretted it, for in mentioning the two Universities in a prologue, he speaks with disparagement of his own, and of Oxford with affectionate admiration. At Cambridge, through some irregularities of conduct, he fell into disgrace. It is doubtful whether he was expelled or fled to avoid expulsion. Shadwell, after they quarrelled, reminding Dryden of the incident, avers that it was in consequence of Dryden's traducing a young nobleman, who was his contemporary at College. Mr. Malone has shown that he was confined to his College, and "put out of Commons for his disobedience to the Vice-Master, and his contumacy in taking the punishment inflicted on him." It is, however, a well-established fact, that he took his Bachelor's degree, but he then left, and the degree of M.A. was afterwards conferred on him, not by his University, but by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
After leaving Cambridge, he took up his abode in London, and, if Shadwell is to be trusted, was in very needy circumstances; lived in a lodging that had a window "no bigger than a pocket looking-glass, and dined at a threepenny ordinary, enough to starve a vacation tailor." He was, according to the account of a contemporary, very simply clad; and one of his sources of income was to write prefaces for Herringman, the bookseller. His interest lay entirely with the Puritan party. In 1658, on the death of Cromwell, he poured forth an elegy. Spratt, Waller, and other poets paid their tributes also, but Dryden's lines were good enough to create great expectations from future efforts of his Muse. This was the first poem that he published, except the well-known lines mentioned by Johnson on the death of Lord Hastings.
Sir Gilbert Pickering, a kinsman of Dryden, was an influential man, from whose patronage the young poet hoped much. The Restoration banished all such expectations. Sir Gilbert had been one of the Judges who had condemned Charles I. to death. When Charles II. returned, the knight sought safety in obscurity and retired into private life. Dryden, therefore, had nothing to look to in this quarter, and so he paid his homage to the rising sun, and produced "Astrea Redux," and added a "Panegyric on his Sacred Majesty." He now seems to have determined on devoting himself to a literary life. The theatres, so long closed by the austerity of the Puritans, became popular places of amusement when the Merry Monarch was restored. He planned and wrote a portion of "The Duke of Guise," but was dissuaded from finishing it by the advice of some friends.
In the vindication of that play, which he published in the form of an appendix to it, he writes:
"In the year of his Majesty's happy return, the first play I undertook was 'The Duke of Guise,' as the fairest way which the act of indemnity had left of setting forth the rise of the late rebellion, and by exploding the villanies of it upon the stage, to caution posterity against the like errors."
The play was afterwards acted in 1682.
The first drama of Dryden's which was exhibited on the stage, was "The Wild Gallant," a comedy. It fully merits the depreciatory criticism of Pepys, who tells us that it was ill acted, and "so poor a thing as I never saw in my life, and so little answering the name that I could not, nor can tell at this time which was the Wild Gallant." It was patronised by Lady Castlemaine, to whom Dryden in consequence wrote some grateful verses, for which he has been ridiculed. It has the faults visible in many first attempts at humorous dramatic writing; and it has faults peculiar to the particular circumstances under which it was produced. Dryden had but little dramatic power, an assertion which can be proved by instances from almost all his numerous plays, with scarcely an exception, and which is at once discoverable in this. The plot is weak, meagre, and ludicrously improbable. There are many smart things and broad and obvious jokes; but the dramatis personæ carry on contests of wit with each other, in which the action does not proceed. Its gross obscenity was doubtless owing much to the manners of the times; and how great the licence which prevailed is so well known to all acquainted with the history of those times, we need not enter upon the question. It is full, as most of the comedies of the next twenty years were, of constant allusions to the lowest vices, and the grossest sensuality.
In the words of Sir Walter Scott, "the licence of a rude age was then revived by a corrupted one." Dryden was much influenced by his own times, and had not the courage or independence to write what was moral, when it was not likely to satisfy the morbid craving of the public. The comedies now attempted by him and others were quite unlike those of the Elizabethan era. Though Jonson was much admired and occasionally played, yet the comedy of character was not the model of any of these dramatic writers, except Shadwell. They borrowed from the Spanish theatre, and aimed at intricacy of plot, sudden surprises, mistakes, disguises, and escapes.
"The Wild Gallant" was considered by Dryden himself as a failure; in the epilogue, he confesses that comedy is the most difficult kind of dramatic writing, though in his defence of his "Essay on Dramatic Poetry," written some years after, he makes some remarks which prove how low a view he took of his mission as a poet, and also the estimation in which he held his comic powers. "I confess," he writes, "my chief endeavours are to delight the age in which I live. If the humour of this be in low comedy, small accidents, and raillery, I will force my genius to obey it, though with more reputation I could write in verse. I know I am not so fitted by nature to write comedy; I want that gaiety of humour which is required to it; my conversation is slow, dull, my humour saturnine and reserved. In short, I am none of those who endeavour to break jests in company or make repartees; so that those who decry my comedies do me no injury, except it be in point of profit; reputation in them is the last thing to which I shall pretend."
That he had changed his mind, and adopted a higher view of the poet's duties a few years before his death, we see in his preface to the comedy written by his son John, from which we quote an extract, for the sake of its contrast to the last. Speaking of his son, he says:
"If it shall please God to restore him to me, I may perhaps inform him better of the rules of writing; and if I am not partial, he has already shown that a genius is not wanting to him. All that I can reasonably fear is that the perpetual good success of ill plays may make him endeavour to please by writing worse, and by accommodating himself to the wretched capacity and liking of the present audience, from which Heaven defend any of my progeny. A poet indeed must live by the many; but a good poet will make it his business to please only the few."
In the year in which his first comedy was exhibited he wrote his verses to Lord Chancellor Hyde on "New Year's Day," and his satire on the Dutch. The versification of both poems, though it is vastly below the perfection which afterwards he arrived at, shows a wonderful mastery of the heroic metre, which had hitherto, however beautiful the image or profound the thought it conveyed, for the most part been rough and halting. His next production for the stage was "The Rival Ladies," a tragi-comedy, which is superior to "The Wild Gallant," and which was tolerably successful.
He appears, about this period, to have made the acquaintance of Sir Robert Howard through Herringman, with whom Dryden lodged, and who was Sir Robert's publisher; and he and the aristocratic author joined in one of those literary partnerships which, especially in dramatic composition, have been so common. King Charles had, during his exile, contracted French tastes in poetry and music, as well as in other matters, and he possessed an especial regard for the use of rhyme on the stage. Dryden, anxious to merit the royal favour, joined Sir Robert in the production of "The Indian Queen," which was acted before his Majesty with great applause. Pepys, though he censures the rhyme as breaking the sense, admits that it was well acted, and that he and Mrs. P. came home from the theatre "mightily contented." Evelyn has spoken eulogistically of the grandeur of the scenic decoration.
Dryden soon followed it up by "The Indian Emperor," which is a continuation of the story, and forms a part of the plot of the former play. It would be superfluous here to pronounce any grave censure on what all critics have agreed to condemn. To us, accustomed to hear rhyming heroics made the vehicle of parody, burlesque, and bombast, in extravaganzas and travesties, it is difficult to imagine an audience either terror-stricken or melted into pity by sentiments conveyed in stilted heroics, tagged with rhymes. Where long descriptive passages occur, such a poet as Dryden could not but write poetry; but when the dialogue is short and broken, the effect of rhyme is peculiarly absurd.
In 1665, he wrote his lines "On the Victory over the Dutch." In this year the plague broke out, and was succeeded by the fire. The theatres were closed from May, 1665, to Christmas, 1666. Dryden's intimacy with Sir Robert Howard had increased, and he spent the greater portion of this interval at Charlton, the seat of the Earl of Berkshire, Sir Robert's father. Here Dryden met, wooed, and married Lady Elizabeth, his friend's sister. There is no evidence to show in what light the family viewed the match. Lampoons written long after, dictated by the virulence of political hatred, asserted that the alliance took place under circumstances not very creditable to either party. As no proof whatever was adduced in support of these ill-natured statements, all his biographers have consented to discredit or overlook them. The slander may have been suggested by the seeming inequality in the circumstances of the two. But a moment's reflection will show that there was no vast disproportion between them. Dryden was of good and old, though not noble family. He had been educated at Westminster and Cambridge; his prospects had been excellent before the Restoration; and he had proved himself, by the verses he had published, and his successes on the stage, a man of genius and promise. As regards his personal qualifications, we need not wonder at Lady Elizabeth's choice, for if his portrait can be trusted, he must as a young man have possessed much manly beauty.
It was not his first passion. While at Cambridge, he had paid his addresses to his cousin, Honor Dryden, who was an heiress as well as a beauty. There is still remaining one love letter of his written to her from Cambridge. It is replete with figure and conceits, and with quite as much affectation, and not a tithe of the elegance of the early letters of Pope. She rejected him at the time; but lived to regret her obduracy, for she died single, and was very proud, when Dryden had become famous, to show the love letter he had written her from the University.
Previous to his marriage, he had also an amour with a pretty actress, Mrs. Reeves, who was for some time under his protection. His marriage, in the words of Scott, "interrupted, if it did not terminate his gallantries." His domestic life does not appear to have been very happy; but no open fracas, as is the case of so many others of his brethren of the lyre, took place. A good supplement to the quarrels of authors would be the quarrels of authors with their wives.
At Charlton, Dryden, in addition to the love and matrimony, employed himself on the "Essay on Dramatic Poesy." This composition has justly acquired great fame. It forms an epoch in our literature, and is perhaps the first attempt at regular criticism. Ben Jonson's "Discoveries" had contained many observations on books, as well as men, displaying a critical power profound and philosophical, but this Essay is unique. In certain artistic effects, it is meant to imitate, and it strongly reminds us of "The Platonic Dialogue." The commencement, in which the speakers are represented as floating on the Thames together in their barge, and being drawn into the discussion by one accidental remark; the dramatic nature of the discussion; the manner in which, when it is concluded, they quit the barge at the foot of Somerset Stairs, and look back on the water upon which the moonbeams are playing; how they walked together to the Piazza, and then parted Eugenius and Lisideius to some pleasant appointment they had made, and Crites and Neander to their several lodgings; all impart to it something of the reality of the recorded conversations of Socrates with his disciples; but the nature of dialogue is not well preserved, for each of the disputants delivers his opinions at such length, that it reads more like a series of orations than a colloquy.
Though, from its beautiful style, its learning and grace, it is a charming production; it would be tedious to attempt, by an analysis, to follow all the intricacies of argument which turn on the superiority of the ancients to the moderns, the question of the unities, and the propriety of rhyme in dramatic composition. Such topics criticism has long exhausted. The speakers represented under the classical names are Lord Dorset, Sir Charles Sedley, Sir Robert Howard, and Dryden himself. Sir Robert is represented under the name of Crites, and described as "a person of a sharp judgment, and somewhat too delicate in his taste, which the world hath mistaken in him for ill nature." He is put up in the dialogue to be knocked down. He first debates with Eugenius and Lisideius, and afterwards with Neander. The latter part of the dialogue turns on the propriety of rhyme in tragedy. Neander defends it, and Crites states certain objections which many years after Dryden would have approved. Indeed, on this point he is said to have so changed his opinion, that he stated that were he to begin his Virgil again he would write it in blank verse.
In his dedication of "The Rival Ladies" to the Earl of Orrery, Dryden enters into an elaborate defence of rhyme in tragedy. Either this Essay, or as it is by some asserted, Dryden's connection with him by a marriage which he had been the means of bringing about, gave Sir Robert offence; and in his preface to the Duke of Lerma, while bidding farewell to the stage, he makes an opportunity for assailing Dryden's sentiments on the question of rhyme. Dryden replied rather angrily in a defence of the Essay on Dramatic Poetry, and assailed his brother-in-law with great irony. In speaking of Sir Robert's writings, he says: "I cannot but give this testimony of his style, that it is extremely poetical, even in oratory, his thoughts elevated sometimes above common apprehension." Alluding to Sir Robert's abandoning dramatic poetry for state craft, he remarks: "The Muses have lost him, but the Commonwealth gains by it; the corruption of a poet is the generation of a statesman."
Before, however, these literary hostilities took place, Dryden had concluded the poem of "Annus Mirabilis," on which he had been employed at Charlton, and published it with an almost blasphemous dedication to the City of London, and a critical letter to Sir R. Howard. This is certainly the best of his earliest poems, and produced for him far more fame as a poet than any which had preceded it. He thought highly of the subject, and expressed himself with some confidence on the manner in which he had treated it. He writes to Sir Robert: "I have chosen the most heroic subject which any poet could desire; I have taken upon me to describe the motives, the beginning, progress and successes of a most just and necessary war; in it the care, management and presence of a King; the conduct and valour of a royal admiral, and of two incomparable generals; the invincible courage of our captains and seamen, and their glorious victories, the result of all. After this," he adds, "I have in the fire the most deplorable but withal the greatest argument that can be imagined, the destruction being so swift, so sudden, so vast and miserable as nothing can parallel in story." He next boasts, though with some slight misgivings, of his accuracy in the use he had made of naval terms. It is difficult to see what can have induced him against all rules of criticism, to have introduced technicalities into poetry; Johnson has censured them; and Scott has agreed with him in condemning "the dialect of the dockyard." In speaking of his execution of the work, Dryden says: "And I am well satisfied, as they are incomparably the best subject I ever had, so also, that this I have written of them is much better than what I have performed on any other." Towards the conclusion, he defends himself against an accusation which had been brought against the lines he had written to the Duchess of York in the previous year. "I know," he writes, "I addressed them to a lady, and accordingly I affected the softness of expression, and the smoothness of measure rather than the height of thought, and in what I did endeavour, it is no vanity to say I have succeeded. I detest arrogance; but there is some difference betwixt that and a just defence." The fault of the measure in which "The Annus Mirabilis" is written, is that it breaks the sense. Though well tuned to Elegy in the hands of Gray, it is ill suited for a continuous narrative poem. Dr. Johnson has made one or two quotations to praise. Mr. Macaulay has done so to criticise and condemn. There are only two stanzas to which we would invite attention. The first has a pathos and simplicity not to be found elsewhere in the poem, which is rather to be admired for its strength and fire, than its sweetness.
"The careful husband had been long away,
Whom his chaste wife and little children mourn,
Who on their fingers learn to tell the day
On which their father promised to return."
The other is in a higher strain.
"Till now, alone the mighty nations strove,
The rest at gaze, without the lists did stand,
And thundering France, placed like a painted Jove,
Kept idle thunder in his lifted hand."
In 1667, "The Maiden Queen," a tragi-comedy, was given by Dryden to the stage, and was a favourite with Charles II.
He next revived, with alterations, "The Wild Gallant," which was now more successful than at its first representation.
It was after this that he and his predecessor in the laurel, Sir W. Davenant, set about the alteration of "The Tempest." The addition which they made to the plot of Shakespeare is too well known to require any comment on it here. It appears that it was to Sir William's fertile fancy that we owe the counterpart of Shakespeare's Miranda in Antonio. Dryden tells us "that as he was a man of quick and piercing imagination, he soon found that somewhat might be added to the design of Shakespeare, of which neither Fletcher nor Suckling had ever thought. And, therefore, to put the last hand to it, he designed the counterpart of Shakespeare's plot, namely, that of a man who had never seen a woman; that by this means those two characters of Innocence and Love might the more illustrate and commend each other. This excellent contrivance he was pleased to communicate to me, and to desire my assistance in it. I confess that from the very first moment it so pleased me, that I never writ anything with more delight." He then proceeds to pay a tribute to the abilities of his coadjutor, which we have quoted in the Life of that Poet.
The remarks of Dryden which we have given above, speak plainly enough the taste of the age. It may be added, that at the end of the Preface, Dryden couples the name of Shakespeare and Sir W. Davenant almost as if equals. That with such an opinion of Shakespeare they were not likely to improve on him is probable enough, and Sir W. Scott has remarked with true severity, that "Miranda's simplicity is converted into indelicacy, and Dorinda talks the language of prostitution before she had even seen a man." It was brought out at the Duke's Theatre, and as the scenery was under the management of Sir W. Davenant, with a grandeur which we should now deem very simple, but which had at that time never before been witnessed on the stage. It was crowned with complete success.
His next dramatic composition was "Sir Martin Mar-all," an imitation of "L'Etourdi" of Molière. It was highly successful, owing much to the comic talents of Nokes the actor, of whose playing in this piece Cibber has left us some account.
Next followed "Evening Love, or the Mock Astrologer." It was to see this play that Pepys tells us, "my wife and Deb went, thinking to spy me there, but did not." Pepys himself went on the afternoons of the 20th and 22nd, and pronounces it "very smutty, and nothing so good as 'The Maiden Queen' and 'The Indian Emperor.'" Evelyn condemns it more strongly, "as a foolish plot and very profane." "It affected me," he says, "to see how much the stage was degenerated and polluted by the licentious times." Herringman, the printer and publisher with whom we have before said Dryden once lodged, informed Pepys that Dryden himself admitted that this was but a fifth-rate play. Poor as it is, it has not even the praise of originality, for it is chiefly borrowed from a play of Corneille, who borrowed his from Calderon.
He next wrote "The Royal Martyr," which he dedicates to the Duke of Monmouth, in a preface in which he lauds the Duke's personal charms. "Youth, beauty, and courage (all which you possess in the height of their perfection), are the desirable gifts of Heaven; and Heaven is never prodigal of such treasures but to some uncommon purpose. So goodly a fabrick was never framed by an Almighty Architect for a vulgar guest. He shewed the value which he set upon your mind when he took care to have it so nobly and so beautifully lodged. To a graceful fashion and deportment of body you have joined a winning conversation, and an easy greatness derived to you from the best and best beloved of Princes. And with a great power of obliging, the world has observed in you a desire to oblige, even beyond your power. This, and all that I can say on so excellent and large a subject, is only History; in which Fiction has no part; I can employ nothing of poetry in it, any more than I do in that humble protestation which I make to continue ever your Grace's most obedient and most devoted servant."
Dryden having now by his plays, poems, and prose writings acquired much popularity, produced those two very remarkable dramas, the first and second parts of "The Conquest of Granada." He prefaced them by an essay on heroic plays, in which he defends the stilted and bombastic style of these dramas, and endeavours to support his view by parallels from Homer, and criticisms from Horace. He concludes with a confident allusion to his success. "But I have already swept the stakes; and with the common good-fortune of prosperous gamesters, can be content to sit quietly; to hear my fortune cursed by some, and my faults arraigned by others; and to suffer both without reply." When he wrote this, he did not know that "The Rehearsal" was in preparation.
He was now in the zenith of his fame. Among noble friends and patrons, he numbered the Duke of Ormond, Lord Rochester, the Duke of Newcastle, Lord Clifford, the Earl of Dorset and Sir Charles Sedley. It was at this time that he spent in noble society those convivial nights which he alludes to in the dedication of "The Assignation," when writing to Sir C. Sedley, and speaking of the Roman poets of the Augustine age, he says: "They imitated the best way of living, which was to pursue an innocent and inoffensive pleasure; that which one of the ancients called Eruditam Voluptatem. We have like them, our genial nights; where our discourse is neither too serious nor too light; but always pleasant, and for the most part instructive: the raillery neither too sharp upon the present, nor too censorious on the absent; and the cups only such as will raise the conversation of the night, without disturbing the business of the morrow." But his companions were not only among the great. He enjoyed the friendship of Cowley, Waller, Denham and Davenant. To Milton he was known but little, and Butler was the only wit of the day who was his enemy.
Fortune rains down all her favours on us at once, and so his income as well as his fame was at this time increased. When James Howell died, the office of royal historiographer became vacant, and it had not been filled up. It was now conferred on Dryden, together with the laureateship, which had not been bestowed since the death of Davenant. Dryden was appointed on the 18th of August, 1670. The salary of the two offices amounted to £200, with the annual butt of canary, and the grant bore a retrospect to the death of Davenant. The letters patent are to be seen in Scott's Life of the Poet. The office is said to be given "to John Dryden, Master of Arts, in consideration of his many acceptable services theretofore done to his present Majesty, and from an observation of his learning and eminent abilities, and his great skill and elegant style both in verse and prose." Scott computes that in this time Dryden's income derived from these appointments, as well as theatrical and literary sources, must have averaged between £600 and £700 per annum, equal in those days to an income of three times that amount now.
Dryden was not long destined to enjoy his wealth or fame uninterruptedly. His income was very soon somewhat curtailed by the burning down of the theatre, and enemies were rising up stimulated to hatred by envy and jealousy.
George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, had long strenuously opposed the rhyming tragedies, and had, in fact, risked his personal safety by attempting to interrupt one of the dramas of the Hon. Edward Howard, a brother of Sir Robert. This gay and profligate nobleman gained the assistance of Butler, the author of "Hudibras," who, in Scott's words, "while himself starving, amused his misery by ridiculing his contemporaries,"—of Spratt, afterwards Bishop of Rochester, and of Martin Clifford, afterwards Master of the Charter-House. Their facetiæ were not meant at first to be levelled at Dryden personally; for Bilboa, the chief personage in this amusing farce, was first intended to represent Davenant and Sir Robert Howard. It was written in 1664, but not played till 1671; for the fire and plague for some time closed all the theatres, and Davenant's death obliged its author to remodel it, and put Dryden in his place.
The first night it was played, and a vehement opposition was attempted, Dryden and his friends, the Earl of Orrery, Sir Robert Howard, and others who had written in that style, were present, and clamorous enough against it. It was, however, in spite of all attempts to interrupt, triumphantly successful.
Parodies from almost every one of his plays must have tried Dryden's temper, but he bore it all with good-nature; and ultimately reaped an ample revenge when he elaborated the character of Zimri in his great political satire. After the effect produced by "The Rehearsal," Dryden did not immediately venture upon a heroic tragedy, but produced "Marriage-à-la-Mode," a tragi-comedy, which was highly successful. "The Assignation, or Love in a Nunnery," was his next dramatic composition, and most deservedly failed. "Amboyna," his next drama, was written to excite the feelings of the nation against the Dutch. Scott most justly says of it, that "the story is too disgusting to produce the legitimate feelings of pity and terror which a tragedy should excite: the black-hole of Calcutta would be as pleasing a subject. The character of the Hollanders, as there represented, is too grossly vicious and detestable to give the least pleasure. They are neither men, nor even devils, but a sort of lubbar-fiends, compounded of cruelty, avarice, and brutal debauchery; like Dutch swabbers possessed by demons."
Dryden next made a monstrous and ludicrous attempt to alter "Paradise Lost" into a five act drama, in rhyme. He has prefixed to it "an apology for heroic poetry and poetic licence," in which there is one passage which may to some slight extent make redemption for the audacity of the attempt. "I cannot," he writes, "without injury to the deceased author of 'Paradise Lost,' but acknowledge that this poem has received its entire foundation, part of the design, and many of the ornaments, from him. What I have borrowed will be so easily discerned from my own production, that I shall not need to point the reader to the places; and truly, I should be sorry for my own sake, that any one should take the pains to compare them together; the original being undoubtedly one of the greatest, most noble, and most sublime poems, that either this age or nation has produced."
This opera (for it is rather that than any other kind of play) stands in perhaps the same relation to "Paradise Lost" that the metrical versions of the Psalms do to the original, or a travestie of a Greek tragedy to the classic drama itself. Scott truly observes, that "Eve is somewhat of a coquette, even in the state of innocence, and the absurd expression, 'dissolved in hallelujahs,' provoked from a facetious critic a parody of 'anchovies dissolved in sauce.'" It is said that Dryden called on the aged poet, and asked his leave to make this monstrous alteration. He appears to have been either startled by this irreverent essay, or to have thought it expedient to abandon a style in which lesser wits bid fair to rival him; for his taste soon changed, and "Aurungzebe" was his last rhyming play.
It was at this time that his quarrel with Settle and Rochester took place. That jealous, fickle, and profligate nobleman at first patronized Dryden, then set up Settle, and afterwards Otway. Not content with having neglected Dryden, he took offence with him upon the false supposition that he had written all or the greater part of Lord Mulgrave's "Essay on Satire," in which Lord Rochester is attacked; and in a letter to a friend, he threatens the infamous revenge which he ultimately adopted. "You write me word," he says, "that I'm out of favour with a certain poet whom I have admired for the disproportion of him and his attributes. He is a rarity which I cannot but be fond of, as one would be of a hog that could fiddle, or a singing owl. If he falls on me at the blunt, which is his very good weapon in wit, I shall forgive him, if you please; and leave the repartee to Black Will with a cudgel." Accordingly, as Dryden was returning from Will's Coffee-house to his own house in Gerard Street, through Rose Street, Covent Garden, he was attacked and severely beaten by some dastardly ruffians who were doubtless the employés of Rochester. A reward of £50 was offered in the "London Gazette" for the discovery of his cowardly assailants, but to no purpose.
It was soon after the production of "Aurungzebe," that Dryden contemplated undertaking an epic poem, and hesitated in his choice of a subject between the story of King Arthur and Edward the Black Prince. He was wearied with wasting his powers on the stage, and he was anxious to build up some enduring monument of his genius by industry congenial to his taste. But this was impossible while he had to supply the wants of life by his pen. In his dedication of "Aurungzebe" to the Earl of Mulgrave, he complains that he wants patronage to help him in the effort. He informs him that the "unsettledness of his condition" had hitherto prevented his making the attempt. "As," he writes, "I am no successor to Homer in his wit, so neither do I desire to be in his poverty. I can make no rhapsodies, nor go a begging at the Grecian doors, while I sing the praises of their ancestors. The times of Virgil please me better, because he had an Augustus for his Patron; and to draw the allegory nearer you, I am sure I shall not want a Mæcenas with him. 'Tis for your Lordship to stir up that remembrance in his Majesty, which his many avocations of business have caused him, I fear, to lay aside." But the patronage was not granted to him, and the subject which he would most probably have selected, was seized on and marred by Sir Richard Blackmore.
Since Dryden wrote "Aurungzebe," three years had elapsed, in which he had paid especial attention to the subject of versification, and made preparation for the work on English Prosody which he then contemplated writing. He, during this period, made Shakespeare his constant study, and this worked a most salutary change in his æsthetical and critical views. Notwithstanding, however, this revolution in his taste, he again set about what he had before attempted, an alteration of Shakespeare; but upon this occasion without a coadjutor, and with greater success. "All for Love, or the World well Lost," is an adaptation of "Antony and Cleopatra," and in some respects Dryden has improved it as an acting play. Sir W. Scott admits that, "in discarding a number of uninteresting characters, the plan of Dryden's play must unequivocally be preferred to that of Shakespeare in point of coherence, unity, and simplicity." But Sir Walter goes a step farther, in which we cannot follow him, and institutes a comparison, favourable to Dryden, between the two descriptions of the voyage of Cleopatra down the Cydnus.
But while Dryden had abandoned rhyme, and accepted Shakespeare as a model and an exemplar, his taste in comedy had not proportionately improved.
In the same year in which "All for Love" was played with the highest success, he wrote a comedy entitled "Limberham, or the Kind Keeper," which is his most stupid and most objectionable play. His object was, it appears, to attack "the crying sin of keeping." But the satire was unfortunately as gross or grosser than the vices it sought to denounce—the remedy was worse than the disease; and "Limberham," after having been scarcely tolerated for three nights, was driven off the stage. It certainly deserved no better fate, for it is one tissue of obscenity from first to last. Every man is an adulterer, every woman an adulteress, the whole plot turns on the grossest immorality, and the scenes are laid in places which it is not decent to name; there is not a grace of sentiment, or a pulse of love to disguise or elevate the indecent intrigues. It is full of contretemps, surprises and escapes; there are a few smart and laughable witticisms, but not the slightest success in the delineation of character. Dryden endeavours to defend it in the following plausible way: "The crime for which it suffered was that which is objected against the Satires of Juvenal and the Epigrams of Catullus, that it expressed too much of the vice which it decryed. Your Lordship knows what answer was returned by the elder of those Poets, whom I last mentioned, to his accusers:
"'Castum esse decet pium Poetam
Ipsum; versiculos nihil necesse est
Qui tum denique habent salem ac leporem
Si sint molliculi, et parum pudici.'"
There is, however, a vast distinction, to which self-love blinded Dryden, between the healthy and earnest coarseness of Juvenal or the wit of Catullus, and the profane pruriency of this tiresome comedy. Dryden was not daunted by the failure of this piece; but with the assistance of Lee, soon after produced "Œdipus," and soon after alone fitted "Troilus and Cressida," which, as Scott remarks, was left by Shakespeare in a "state of strange imperfection," for the stage.
Soon after this he gave to the world his best comedy—"The Spanish Friar." It is his last dramatic composition, except "The Duke of Guise" and "The Masque of Albion and Albanius," which he produced before the Revolution; and it was meant to have a strong political influence. Dryden himself ascribed it to Lord Haughton, as a Protestant play to a Protestant patron. It was consequently the work to which, after Dryden's conversion to the Roman Catholic religion, contemptuous allusions were, by his enemies, constantly made. It is difficult to estimate what effect it produced at Court, except that we know that it so offended the Duke of York that, after his accession, he never permitted it to be played. To the King himself it may have been obnoxious, but at that time he had given power into the hands of the Protestant party, and Dryden had almost grown callous to Court favour, as he had neither been encouraged in his projected epic, nor even received his official salary of late. Lord Mulgrave also had fallen into disgrace, and the protégé had suffered with the patron. Dryden's income was therefore, at this period, far narrower than when we before spoke of it; for we have seen what plays he had written during a long interval, in which he had occupied himself solely with dramatic composition, and it is stated—we think with accuracy—that he never received more than a hundred pounds for any one play.
He was destined, however, for a time to leave the stage, and mixed up with the political passions of the day to add to our literature those satirical poems by which he has immortalized his name, and which will, to the latest posterity, vindicate his genius, though his dramas be neglected and forgotten. Every reader will remember that just at this period of the poet's life there raged most fiercely the contest between the supporters of the Duke of York and the followers of Monmouth and Shaftesbury. It was an age of squibs, and all the rhyming talent, though it was only such as was possessed by Shadwell, Settle, and the like, was on the Whig side. Dryden, as Laureate, was expected to come to the rescue; and though he had of late been neglected by the Court, he was conciliated by kind words and fair promises. He was not wanting on the occasion, and in November, 1681, appeared the greatest satire in our language—"Absalom and Achitophel." Neither the plan or style of the poem were entirely new, but it is so vastly superior to the lucubrations which may have suggested it, that it does not require the praise of novelty to enhance its merits.
After the criticisms of Addison, Johnson, Sir W. Scott, and so many others, it is needless to enter into any discussion of its merits. A depreciatory and unfair criticism from a writer of eminence should perhaps here be quoted. No less a man than Schlegel, in his Lectures on Dramatic Poetry, makes the extraordinary assertion, that Dryden, "from his influence in fixing the laws of versification and poetical language, especially in rhyme, has acquired a reputation altogether disproportionate to his true merit." He ventures also to doubt "whether his translations of the Latin Poets are not manneristical paraphrases, and whether his political allegories (now that party-interest is dead) can be read without the greatest weariness."
It would appear from this, that even German industry cannot avail to save a man who attempts a vast subject in his teaching, from being occasionally shallow and unjust. If his charge against the translations have something of truth in it, this depreciation of the satirical writings of Dryden becomes absurd, when it is remembered that no English classic is more read by all educated men; and that although a foreigner may find some difficulty in diverting himself with a poetical discussion of past English politics, or in comprehending satire clothed in allegory, the history of those times is too full of momentous interest to us, to permit our neglect of such a work as "Absalom and Achitophel," even supposing we were not attracted to it by the charms of wit and sarcasm expressed in a rich and melodious versification.
Whatever be now the verdict of German critics, the poem at the time answered the purpose for which it was intended with triumphant success. Dryden was soon again called on to succour the Court with his pen. The Whigs celebrated the release of Shaftesbury from the Tower by striking a medal with the rising sun upon it and the word "Lætamur." The King himself, upon this occasion, suggested the subject and the method of treatment to Dryden. "If I was a poet," said his Majesty, "and I think I am poor enough to be one, I would write a poem on such a subject;" and he went on to plan "the medal," and Dryden wrote it according to the royal instructions and received a hundred broad pieces as his reward.
These two poems, as might have been expected, provoked numerous violent satires and libels full of furious indignation from the other party. They are as endless as the titles are eccentric and abusive. One reverend controversialist having informed his readers, with much show of learning, that Achitophel in the original meant the brother of a fool, Dryden, who never missed an opportunity of showing his dislike to priests, said of him: "I half suspect he went no farther for his learning than the Index of Hebrew names and etymologies which is printed at the end of some of our English Bibles. If Achitophel signify the brother of a fool, the author of that poem will pass with his readers for the next of kin; and perhaps it is the relation that makes the kindness. Whatever the verses are, buy them, I pray you, out of pity; for I hear the conventicle is shut up, and the brother of Achitophel out of service."
Dryden had waged hostilities with Settle. He was now brought into collision with Shadwell, with whom he had before been on seemingly good terms, in spite of some diversity of tastes. "MacFlecnoe," the bitterest personal invective that has ever been penned, was the result of this quarrel.
We shall say more of this contest in the life of that poet. Dryden spared him neither in verse or prose. On Shadwell's publishing "Reflections on the Pretended Parallel in the Play called 'The Duke of Guise,'" Dryden speaks of him thus: "Og may write against the King if he pleases, so long as he drinks for him, and his writings will never do the Government so much harm, as his drinking does it good; for true subjects will not be much perverted by his libels; but the wine-duties rise considerably by his claret. He has often called me an atheist in print; I would believe more charitably of him, and that he only goes the broad way, because the other is too narrow for him."
It was at this time that Dryden wrote his biographical preface to the translation of Plutarch's Lives, which then appeared, and translated at the King's request Maimbourg's "History of the League." He was also employed in writing "Albion and Albanius," to celebrate Charles's victory over the Whigs. When that monarch died, and James II. ascended the throne, Dryden immediately wrote his "Threnodia Augustalis," in which he profusely panegyrized the late King and his successor. The death of Charles II. was lamented in almost as many poems as had hailed his restoration. On the melancholy event, verses Latin and English were copiously poured forth. Afra Behn among others, vented a Pindaric Ode. Dryden, who on other occasions has shown that the Poetry of Sorrow was not beyond his reach, failed lamentably when he bewailed the death of a Prince whom, while he hints that he had been a niggard patron, he yet overwhelms with epithets of praise. There has been a highly edifying controversy about the correctness of the use of the word "Augustalis." Doctors have disagreed, and we cannot decide, but the poem is as uninteresting as the dispute. It is a prosaic, frigid, and bombastic attempt to give a circumstantial account of the King's death. A perusal of it is intolerable after reading the perfect prose description of Mr. Macaulay. The best passage is that in which he describes Charles's patronage of the poets:
"The officious Muses came along,
A gay, harmonious quire, like angels, ever young."
But there is a lurking sarcasm in the lines
"Though little was their hire, and light their gain,
Yet somewhat to their share he threw,
Fed from his hand, they sung and flew
Like birds of Paradise, that lived on morning dew."
In contrast to these, we must quote one couplet more, which contains a very choice conceit:
"Ere a Prince is to perfection brought
He cost Omnipotence a second thought."
Before we read this, we had imagined that a vast number of kings had been made by "Nature's journeymen." Dryden also finished "Albion and Albanius," with slight alterations, one addition being the apotheosis of the late King. It is an opera; and the music was composed by Monsieur Grabut, a Frenchman, who, in consequence of the rage which then existed for everything French, was preferred to Purcell. Its sixth representation was interrupted by the arrival of the news of the landing of Monmouth in the West; the audience immediately dispersed, and the play, which involved the theatre in a heavy loss for the expenses of dresses and scenery, was never revived.
It was soon after this that Dryden made that change of faith to which we have before alluded, and which has been so lengthily discussed by almost all his biographers. It is an excellent opportunity for advocacy, and nothing is easier than to take a side. At the time he was, of course, welcomed as a sincere convert by his own party, and hooted at and called hard names by his opponents. His conversion, or perversion, Dr. Johnson and Sir W. Scott have, probably from political bias and a charitable sympathy with a man of genius, sought to palliate. Mr. Macaulay has, on the other hand, taken, we think, a more correct but severer view. It becomes, of course, a question of motive, and one, therefore, which it is simply impossible to settle. As Dr. Johnson, in speaking of it, observes: "Inquiries into the heart are not for man—we must now leave him to his Judge."
The circumstances under which he made the change are, as we have before said, most suspicious. James had turned a deaf ear to the sonorous panegyric in the "Threnodia Augustalis," with which Dryden had welcomed his accession. His return for it had been neglect, and to neglect he had added insult and injury, for with a niggard and sordid parsimony he had robbed him of the Tierce of Canary, granted in the letters patent. James did not care for poets at all, and a Protestant poet could sing nothing that could please him. So bigotted was he to his own creed, that mere political partizanship, however earnest or able, would not suffice. Nothing, therefore, remained for Dryden but to turn Papist; and he accordingly did so. This is the view expressed in language clearer and more forcible in Mr. Macaulay's "History of England."
By others, it is asserted that Dryden, at this particular time, was induced to read the controversy between the rival Churches, and that he was sincerely convinced by the Romish disputants, that his making this change at a moment when it was to his advantage, was a matter of accident rather than of design. Dr. Johnson states the case for Dryden with exquisite clearness and plausibility. "That conversion will always be suspected that apparently concurs with interest. He that never finds his error till it hinders his progress towards wealth or honour, will not be thought to love Truth only for herself. Yet it may easily happen that information may come at a commodious time; and as truth and interest are not, by any fatal necessity, at variance, that one may by accident introduce the other. When opinions are struggling into popularity, the arguments by which they are opposed or defended become more known; and he that changes his profession would perhaps have changed it before, with the like opportunities of instruction. This was the then state of Popery. Every artifice was used to show it in its fairest form; and it must be owned to be a religion of external appearance sufficiently attractive."
As has been observed, the most prominent characteristic of the man was his aversion to priests of all religions. The moment he broke away from the fetters of his early connection with Puritanism, he seems to have disliked that system, as a man who is a free-thinker must do. When he joined the communion of the Church of Rome, he vented his dislike to the class upon such as Milbourne and others who attacked him. Indeed, when, at Pepys' suggestion, he versified the good Parson of Chaucer, it would seem that Dryden's contempt for the clergy of that day had some fair foundation; for Pepys, in a gossipping letter, in which he invites the poet to come and "partake of a cold chicken and a salad," thanks him for the exquisite paraphrase of Chaucer, "hoping," he adds, "from this your copy of the good Parson, some amends made me for the hourly offence I bear with from the sight of so many lewd originals."
From the earnestness and the beauty of the lines in which, in "The Hind and Panther," he has assigned the reason for his change of creed, we might be induced to believe that, like many men of late years, with intellects subtle and refined, and a conscientiousness morbidly sensitive, he had sought refuge from doubts and difficulties in the bosom of the Church which so boldly asserts its claim to infallibility; but we are bound to remember the character of the man, the character of the age in which he lived, the then intimate connection between religious and political parties, the advantages which he gained by taking that step, and lastly the suspicious vehemence with which the new convert became a violent controversialist. To quote against him some lines of his coadjutor Tate, from the second part of "Absalom and Achitophel:"
"For renegadoes, who ne'er turn by halves,
Are bound in conscience to be double knaves;
So this Prose-Prophet took most monstrous pains,
To let his masters see he earn'd his gains."
So Dryden, in addition to "The Hind and Panther," which is one of the most beautiful pieces of reasoning in verse in any language, translated the life of St. Francis Xavier, and rushed into controversies with Stillingfleet, in which he was, of course, worsted.
His industrious advocacy of newly-adopted opinions was soon cut short by the flight of his Papist patron, King James, and the triumph of Protestantism in the accession of William and Mary. The laurel was stripped from his brow, and placed on that of his antagonist, Shadwell. We find him, therefore, again poor, and though not friendless, with many powerful enemies, and once more compelled to have recourse to the stage, which he so hated, to compensate the loss of income inflicted on him by "the glorious Revolution." In the preface to "Don Sebastian," the play which he now wrote, and which was not, as he tells us, "huddled up in haste," but carefully elaborated, he describes himself as "an author whose misfortunes have once more brought him on the stage," and adds: "While I continue in these bad circumstances (and truly I see very little probability of coming out), I must still be obliged to write; and if I may still hope for the same kind usage, I shall the less repent of that hard necessity."
"Don Sebastian," perhaps, take it all in all, is his best drama. It was not at first very successful; but after some alterations and curtailments, became an established favourite.
"Amphitryon" was next played with great applause, the opera of "King Arthur" followed; "Cleomenes" was "coldly received;" and his last play, "Love Triumphant," was, like his first, a failure. And so he made his exit from the boards.
We now find him a veteran littérateur, helped by the bounty of some generous friends and patrons, employing his two sons, Congreve, Creech, Tate and others, to translate under his direction; and meanwhile, political and religious hostility to him softening by time, exercising a dictatorship over the literary republic. As our space has precluded us from giving more than incidental criticisms of some of his works, so it will not permit us to chronicle with precision the events of the last seven or eight years of his life. We must ask our readers to picture to themselves John Dryden as pre-eminently the first poet and greatest literary man of his era, spending his morning at his house in Gerard Street editing miscellanies for Tonson, translating Virgil, paraphrasing Chaucer and Bocaccio; and spending his afternoon at his club, where his chair was reserved for him by the fireside in winter, in summer in the balcony, and where, to a faithful band of admirers and disciples, he laid down the law on all questions of contemporaneous criticism. We should think of him in all the relations of life: as a husband, not as loving as he should have been, making long sojourns in the country while his wife was in town, and telling Lady Elizabeth, when she wished herself a book that she might enjoy more of his company, that he would prefer her being an almanack, that he might change her once a year. As a father, we find him writing to Busby about his boys at Westminster, remonstrating most respectfully with the flogging head-master about the treatment which one of the lads had received, writing a preface to the comedy of his son John, and corresponding most affectionately with them all.
His friends consisted of those persons of rank and fortune at whose country seats he translated an "Æneid," or wrote a preface, and of those literary associates and satellites who gathered round him at the Club. Here at Will's Coffee-house it was, that if he gave a rising young man a pinch from his snuff-box, the patronized aspirant was deemed to have taken a degree in literature and wit. Here it was that Southerne and Congreve spoke to him with confidence and familiarity, while Sir Henry Shere, Moyle, Motteaux, Walsh and Dennis did honour to him with a more distant deference. It was here that Pope, with boyish enthusiasm, gazed full of reverent admiration on the poet, who was at once his exemplar and his idol. It was probably here that Dryden, after he had read some of the bombastic and obscure Pindaric Odes, which the youthful genius had sent to him, told Swift, with great candour, what Swift never forgave, that he would never be a poet.
His relations to his publisher Tonson are worth a brief notice. Sometimes we find Dryden thanking him for his presents of fruit and wine, and writing to him about his snuff and sherry as Byron did to Murray about his toothpowder. Then again he is quarrelling with Tonson, writing to him to accuse him of meanness and rapacity, abusing Tonson himself, and, among others, one Richard Bentley, who, as Dryden writes to Tonson, "has cursed our Virgil so heartily," and launching anathemas against the whole tribe of publishers. "Upon trial," he says, "I find all your trade are sharpers, and you not more than others; therefore, I have not wholly left you." There is also the rather well-known anecdote of our poet begging Lord Bolingbroke, who was calling on him to outstay Tonson: "I have not completed the sheet which I promised him," said Dryden to his Lordship, "and if you leave me unprotected, I shall suffer all the rudeness to which his resentment can prompt his tongue."
"It was probably," says Scott, "during the course of these bickerings with his publisher, that Dryden, incensed at some refusal of accommodation on the part of Tonson, sent him three well-known coarse and forcible satirical lines, descriptive of his personal appearance:
"'With leering looks, bull faced, and freckled fair,
With two left legs, and Judas colour'd hair,
And frowzy pores, that taint the ambient air.'
"'Tell the dog,' said the poet to the messenger, 'that he who wrote these can write more.' But Tonson, perfectly satisfied with this single triplet, hastened to comply with the author's request, without requiring any further specimen of his poetical powers."
During these few years, though he was between the age of fifty and sixty, Dryden's intellect appears to have been in its greatest vigour. His was not that precocious genius which displays a promising blossom, and yields no fruit. One of his smallest successors has said of him in a couplet not, for Eusden, unusually limping:
"Great Dryden did not early great appear,
Eaintly distinguished in his thirtieth year;"
and his sun having shone brightly in its meridian, set also in lustre. The account he gives of his faculties a few years before his death is interesting. In one of his letters he writes: "By the mercy of God I am already come within twenty years of his number (speaking of an old gentleman of fourscore and eight), a cripple in my limbs, but what decay is in my mind my readers must determine. I think myself as vigorous as ever in the faculties of my soul, excepting only my memory, which is not impaired to any great degree; and if I lose not more of it, I have no great reason to complain. What judgment I had increases rather than diminishes; and thoughts, such as they are, come crowding in so fast upon me, that my only difficulty is to choose or reject, to run them into verse, or to give them the other harmony of prose. I have so long studied and practised both, that they are grown into a habit, and become familiar to me."
In a letter to Mrs. Stewart, a painter and poetess of great personal attractions, after indulging in some very gallant observations, he gives a less confident account of his powers. He writes: "Madam, old men are not so insensible to beauty as it may be you young ladies think. For your part, I must needs acknowledge that your fair eyes had made me your slave before I received your fair presents. * * I am still dragging on, always a poet, and never a good one. I pass my time with Ovid, and sometimes with our old poet Chaucer, translating such stories as best please my fancy; and intend besides them to add some of my own, so that it is not impossible, but ere the summer be passed, I may come down to you with a volume in my hand, like a dog out of the water with a duck in his mouth."
All readers of his life will rejoice to find that if formerly what Mr. Hallam calls Dryden's "coarseness of mind" had induced him to make even Juvenal more gross, in the latest years of his life he repented of this, and endeavoured to make some amends for the fault. In his preface to the "Fables," after discussing the merits of Ovid, Bocaccio, Chaucer, and others, he makes an especial boast of having avoided Dan Chaucer's improprieties, and adds: "But I will no more offend against good manners. I am sensible, as I ought to be, of the scandal I have given by my loose writings; and make what reparation I am able, by this public acknowledgment."
It was at this period that he produced "Alexander's Feast," justly called by Mr. Macaulay the noblest ode in the language. We are sorry to find Mr. Hallam speaking of it in the following terms: "Few lines are highly poetical, and some sink to the level of a drinking song. It has the defects, as well as the merits, of that poetry which is written for musical entertainment." It was very differently esteemed in Dryden's day, and we hope Mr. Hallam is in a minority now. Dryden himself writes to Tonson: "I am glad to hear from all hands that my Ode is esteemed the best of all my poetry by all the town. I thought so myself when I writ it; but being old, I mistrusted my own judgment." He went, it is said, on one occasion, even farther than this; for, on a young Templar venturing at Will's Coffee-House to speak of its merit and success, Dryden replied: "You are right, young gentleman: a nobler ode never was produced, nor ever will." Here Sir Walter Scott, with wonted generosity and kindness of heart, remarks: "This singularly strong expression cannot be placed to the score of vanity. It was an inward consciousness of merit, which burst forth, probably almost involuntarily, and, I fear, must be admitted as prophetic." Take it as a whole, we cannot in ours, or perhaps in any literature, find its equal. We shall in Gray and Collins seek it in vain. The odes which in merit most nearly approach it are Coleridge's "On the Departed Year," and that sublime and magnificent poem of Wordsworth, "Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Childhood." But they are so unlike, that it is impossible to compare them. Some inaccurate stories have been told of Dryden's finishing it at a sitting; and it is said that Lord Bolingbroke (then Mr. St. John) found him in the morning, trembling with agitation after the long vigil, and exhausted by the intellectual agony with which he had produced this splendid lyric. The probable state of the case, as his biographers have agreed, is, that while the fine frenzy of imagination was on him, he penned the rough draft, and that it cost him more days to correct, than it did hours to compose. There is every reason to believe that Dryden, especially at this period, wrote with marvellous rapidity. It is the more likely, inasmuch as he was certainly "one of those writers in whom the period of imagination does not precede, but follow the period of observation and reflection." Mr. Hallam, so cold and severe a critic on the ode we are speaking of, admits that Dryden had "rapidity of conception and readiness of expression. He never loiters about a single thought or image, never labours about the turn of a phrase. The impression upon our minds that he wrote with exceeding ease is irresistible, and I do not know that we have any evidence to repel it."
No wonder if his long practice in the heroic couplet had now made it his most natural utterance. In it he had written numerous tragedies, prologues, epilogues, satires, and didactic poems. No wonder that he translated Virgil in a far shorter time than Pope paraphrased Homer. It is to be regretted that Dryden did not seize on the Greek, and leave the Latin epic to his more refined and polished follower. In a letter he says of this very point: "My thoughts at present are fixed on Homer, and by my translation of the first 'Iliad,' I find him a poet more according to my genius than Virgil, and consequently hope I may do more justice to his more fiery way of writing, which as it is liable to some faults, so is it capable of more beauties, than the exactness and sobriety of Virgil."
But however vigorous were his mental powers, his bodily frame was now too much shattered for him to continue so vast an undertaking as an English version of Homer. He was also now busy with the "Fables," and was waging war with Blackmore, Milbourne and Collier. If ever literary veteran died in harness, it was the lot of Dryden to do so. Within twenty days of his decease, he wrote a prologue and epilogue to Fletcher's comedy of "The Pilgrim," at that time revised by Vanbrugh, and played at the Drury Lane Theatre.
Though he had long suffered from chronic diseases, it was not directly from one of these that he died. A slight wound in the foot, neglected, became a gangrene. Amputation was advised; but Dryden would not consent, and mortification, as had been by the surgeon predicted, taking place, he died at three in the morning, on Wednesday, May 1st, 1700. Preserving his faculties almost to the very moment of his departure, he took an affectionate farewell of his friends and family, and died with calmness and resignation, a member of the Roman Catholic Church.
His friends were preparing a private funeral, when Lord Jeffries, Charles Montague, and other men of rank and fortune insisted upon his remains being honoured by public interment. The body was embalmed at Physicians' Hall, and lay in state there for twelve days, after which a Latin oration was pronounced over it by Dr. Garth. It was then carried with much pomp and ceremony to Westminster Abbey, and laid between the graves of Chaucer and Cowley.
The reader must have gathered from this short memoir our view of the character of Dryden. But we may in a few words repeat it. The first fact of his nature is, that he was a man of great genius. The next, that he was a man of good heart. There is nothing deep or lofty in his moral being to command our reverence. We sorrow over his difficulties and trials, and rejoice in his prosperity, because we feel that his intellect and industry deserved success, and know that he was doomed to many of the sufferings which genius has so often endured. It is but fair also to remember that many of his faults were the faults of his age—that he was not more violent against antagonists than they against him, not more licentious in his writings than many of his contemporaries—and that the exaggerated flattery in his dedications was the fashion of the day. It is important also to remember the view which he himself took of this subject. In writing to the Earl of Rochester, he says: "Because I deal not in satire, I have sent your Lordship a prologue and epilogue which I made for our players when they went down to Oxford. I hear they have succeeded, and by the event your Lordship will judge how easy 'tis to pass anything upon a University, and how gross flattery the learned will endure."
Dr. Johnson did not suppose that Dryden ever laughed in his sleeve at the fine things he said to nobles as well as to learned bodies. He remarks: "Of this kind of meanness he never seems to decline the practice, or lament the necessity: he considers the great as entitled to encomiastick homage, and brings praise rather as a tribute than a gift, more delighted with the fertility of his invention than mortified by the prostitution of his judgment. It is indeed not certain, that on these occasions his judgment much rebelled against his interest. There are minds which easily sink into submission, that look on grandeur with undistinguishing reverence, and discover no defect where there is elevation of rank, and affluence of riches."
If Dryden unmercifully attacked some of his contemporaries, and called hard names, we must remember that courteous controversy was not then in fashion, and that he did not escape his share of rancorous abuse. Indeed, he was fully repaid in scurrility, though the wit was mostly on his side of the question. And Dryden manifested much fun and good humour in his attacks on his most vehement enemies. We might instance some of his sarcasms against Shadwell, and we might add such a remark as the following on Shaftesbury: "I have not so much as an uncharitable wish against 'Achitophel,' but am content to be accused of a good-natured error, and to hope with Origen that the devil himself may at last be saved." It is strange to observe what a similarity there is between the calumnies which he and Pope provoked by their satiric vein. They were both arraigned as unsound in politics and religion, as mere versifiers, and accused of tricking their subscribers with bad translations of the two epics. They were both called apes, asses, frogs, cowards, knaves and fools.
The mention of Pope's name suggests a few brief observations on the points of comparison and contrast in their several writings. As far as their morality is concerned, if it be the duty of the satirist to attack vice and expose folly in the main, to make the bad his enemies rather than his enemies bad, we must assign to Pope a higher place than we can to Dryden. If, also, wit, irony, ridicule, be rather than indignant invective and earnest declamation the proper voice of satire, then too, on this ground, must we give to Pope the pre-eminence. Take almost any passages from their writings, and we shall find that such are their distinguishing characteristics as satirists. The satire of Pope, is a burnished Damascus blade. It glitters while it wounds, but the wound is incurable. Whereas that of Dryden is a huge mace, wielded with the strength of a giant, and sometimes raised to kill a dwarf.
In attempting to estimate the character and career of this Poet, must we not admit that there is neither in the tone or the other anything sublime or noble to stir our enthusiasm or excite our love? We cannot dwell on his memory as we do on that of Shakespeare and of some of Shakespeare's contemporaries. We cannot look back on him with the mingled exultation and sorrow which moves our hearts when we think of the blind prophet who uttered thoughts too pure and holy for a generation which knew him not, and in the midst of which he moved a stranger and a pilgrim.
On the page of the annals of letters the name of Dryden will stand as one of our greatest literary men—bold, brilliant, versatile, comprehensive—as one who aided our language in its development, and has given dignity, grace, and harmony to our versification. He was not one of those master spirits who enrich by their genius the thought of the world, and are "the unacknowledged legislators of mankind." Still less to the satirist and dramatist of the Restoration, was
"That sublimer inspiration given,
Which glows in Shakespeare's or in Milton's page,
The pomp and prodigality of Heaven."
- Life of Ben Jonson.
- Pope, in writing to Wycherley, speaks of Dryden thus—:"I was not so happy as to know him: 'Virgilium tantum vidi.' Had I been born early enough, I must have known and loved him; for I have been assured, not only by yourself, but by Mr. Congreve and Sir W. Trumbull, that his personal qualities were as amiable as his poetical, notwithstanding the many libellous misrepresentations of them, against which the former of these gentlemen has told me he will one day vindicate him. I suppose these injuries were begun by the violence of party, but it is no doubt they were continued by envy at his success and fame: and those scribblers who attacked him in his latter times, were only gnats in a summer's evening, which are never very troublesome but in the finest and most glorious season; for his fire, like the sun's, shined clearest towards its setting." In strange contrast to this, Gray, in one of his letters, writes:—"Dryden was as disgraceful to the office (of Laureate) from his character, as the poorest scribbler could have been from his verses."
- The father of Lord Chief Justice Marlay. See Scott and Malone.
- A false and ludicrous story about Dryden's funeral will be found in all Lives of the Poet. It is too well known to be related in so brief a sketch as this.