1808 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Dryden

Samuel Jackson Pratt, in Cabinet of Poetry (1808) 2:70-71.



JOHN DRYDEN "the great high priest of all the nine," was born at Aldwinckle in Northamptonshire, August 9, 1631. Being of a good family, which had long been seated at Canons Ashby in the same county, every attention was paid to his education; and he had the advantage of being brought up under Dr. Busby at Westminster school, where he distinguished himself by some very promising verses.

In 1650, he became a student of Trinity College, Cambridge, where he took a bachelor's degree, and occasionally produced fugitive poems, which gave him the reputation of a rising poet, formed for higher flights.

In 1663 he commenced dramatic writer, and composed in all twenty eight plays, of various merit. Few of them now retain possession of the stage; yet from the heterogeneous mass of which they are formed, much precious ore might be extracted. Like all his other writings, they bear evident proofs of genius. His prefaces are all valuable pieces of dramatic criticism; while his dedications shew that he penned them in the prospect of a fee, and sacrificed rather to Plutus than Apollo.

In 1681 appeared that celebrated political satire entitled Absalom and Achitophel, and next year his Religio Laici. Both these pieces have lost much of their original interest, as must ever be the case with temporary topics; but as the works of Dryden, they will never be wholly neglected.

So multifarious are his compositions, that we can neither attempt to enumerate or characterise them.

Had he written nothing but the Ode to St. Cecilia's Day, his name would have been immortal: "it exhibits," says Johnson, "the highest flight of fancy, and the exactest nicety of art."

On the death of Charles II. to whom he had been poet laureat, he wrote his Threnodia Augustalis; and probably with a political rather than a religious view, on the accession of James II. he professed himself a Catholic, and produced his Hind and Panther, as the first fruits of proselytism. It is almost needless to remark, that with the new convert, the Hind is the Church of Rome, and the Panther, or spotted beast, the Church of England.

On the revolution he lost the laurel; but the earl of Dorset, the Maecenas of that age, continued his pension from his own private fortune.

At the age of 66, Dryden translated Virgil, and for spirit, energy, and passion, comes nearest to the Mantuan bard, of any who have attempted him in our language.

Poets, from the natural enthusiasm of their dispositions, are frequently tinctured with superstition. Dryden was a believer in judicial astrology; and, if we may believe some of his biographers, cast the nativity of his sons with a remarkable degree of truth, though the belief must have distressed him.

He died May 1, 1701; and according to Congreve, who knew him well, his character was not only blameless, but extremely amiable. His reputation as a poet is established on a basis that cannot be shaken.